Absence of Shadows


Rating: M14

Disclaimer:  I  do not own or profit from the use of the Magnificent Seven characters. Thank you to MOG for the creation of the ATF.

Comments:  This story was inspired by Tiffany's fic Oblivion, the discussion I had with MOG concerning Oblivion, a Boston Globe article, Robert Whiting's Tokyo Underworld, and David Kaplan's extensive information. I would not be able to write this story if it wasn't for the assistance of MOG as my beta and friend.  Another round of thanks goes out to the patience of Shay and Kim for allowing me to bounce ideas off of them.  THeir opinions are highly valued. Lastly I wish to thank all who take the time out to write feedback (especially Darla and Teresa) it is greatly welcomed.

Archivist's Note:   This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to Blackraptor in September 2006.

On high narrow road
old traveler clears wide swath,
tiny scythe glinting.
Matsuo Basho

One Week Earlier
Coroner's Office
Seattle, Washington

The smooth body with its myriad of discoloration lay cold on the metallic table.  There were not many places where white skin shined through.  It made the body seem even younger than what Dr. Trundel deduced to be about twenty-two years of age.  There was no identification found on the young man's body.

He was short in stature, but broad in shoulder.  Probably had been working out, the coroner mused to himself.  The doctor brushed the dark, longish hair off the boy's brow and felt the cranium.  The John Doe before him had met an awful death. 'Blunt force trauma' always seemed, to Trundel, like such a mild term for the amount of violence used when describing an injury such as this -apparent repeated strikes of the victim's head against a hard surface. He would know more once he started the autopsy.

"I feel sorry for you, son."  He said to the dead body.  "Murder is not a happy death."  The doctor's one way conversation with the corpse ended with the shrill ring.  Trundel removed his latex gloves as he reached for the phone.

"Coroners," he stated, as he adjusted his reading glasses.

"Hey, Bob, don't touch that body we brought you."  The voice said on the line.

"Why Steve? What's up?"  The coroner said to the officer who had brought the body into the morgue.

"Works for the government.  They'll be here soon and handle things." Trundel stared at the body; surprised such a young man worked in law enforcement.

"Okay," the doctor answered and hung up the phone.  He went back to the body, and pulled the blue paper sheet over the naked form.

Now the night descends,
My hostelry is the shadow of a cherry tree.
My host; a flower.
Tairo no Tadanori

Warehouse District
Denver, Colorado

Vin stood, shifting his weight onto one leg. They had been there over an hour. Ezra was nearby weaving his spell, making a deal with a criminal, in the abandoned warehouse.  The DEA had asked Team 7 to take over the case involving drugs for guns.  They were busy and the ATF had the reputation of helping out, even though they had the least amount of manpower.  Katsimoto Ikeda, the dealer, or 'adversary,' as Standish liked to say, had brought 5 men for backup.

The 5 men dressed in full suits, the same as the sharpshooter and undercover agent. As soon as they met Tanner, they had sized him up. Vin returned the stare, and now they were each in their own corners.  Vin, with his arms crossed and one eye on Ezra.  The five bodyguards congregating together on the opposite side talking about Tanner and keeping watch over five crates of guns that Vin and Ezra had delivered.

It was always the same lately.  The bad guys were predictable. Vin could close his eyes and know exactly what Ezra was doing and how everything would go down. Chris and the rest of the team would move in yelling, "ATF," and another bust would be made.  Then it would be on to the next assignment.

Vin looked over to the table, which contained a suitcase of cocaine packets. Tanner studied the man making the deal.  He was a slight man of Japanese descent.  He didn't look threatening and seemed to have a smile on his face since he walked in.  Ezra had made the contact with him, and had told Team 7,

"He is an inconsequential peon. But as long as I've done the work we may as well add it to our arrest record."

Vin had to control a grin that almost erupted on his serious face.  He remembered Ezra's droll tone of voice. It was Tanner's own boredom being echoed.  They needed a vacation or an adrenaline rush.  Maybe they should go bungi jumping this weekend.  He'd have to ask Standish once they finished.

In the meantime, he studied Katsimoto Ikeda, while he pretending to clean the grime from under his fingernails. Ikeda didn't talk to his men, which meant they were probably familiar with the routine.  Except this time would be different. It would end in an arrest.

Vin took a few steps in, to be closer to Ezra, closing the six-foot gap to just three. He didn't know what to do with his hands.  He felt uncomfortable putting them in his pants pockets.  It was so much easier to wear a pair of jeans then a pinstriped wool suit, although Ezra would disagree.  It looked awkward when a man walked with his hands in his suit pockets.  Vin compromised and clasped his hands behind his back, pulling the shoulders of his suit jacket slightly.

"Mister Ikeda, it was a pleasure doing business with you."  Ezra extended his arm to close the case containing the cocaine.  His Piaget watch flashed on his wrist as his suit sleeve pulled up. He had already given the five crates of semi-automatics and assault weapons to the Asian man.  The cocaine had been tested for purity when they got there. The powdery drug was of excellent quality.

 By Ezra taking the case, the deal would be done and arrests could be made. Damn, Vin thought, then reports would have to done and it would be an afternoon of paperwork. Maybe before heading back to the office they could stop at Starbucks.

"Shall we celebrate?" The Asian man said as he took out a packet of cocaine that had previously been tested, stopping Ezra from closing the case.

Standish gave a peripherally glance to Tanner.  Vin knew the undercover agent was uncomfortable, as was the sharpshooter.  This bust had taken an unexpected turn. Tanner should have known never to get lulled into complacency. The sharpshooter had been daydreaming of excitement and a possible caffeine rush.  He was getting as bad as JD; allowing his mind to wander instead of paying attention to his job.  Vin could feel his heart beat faster in anticipation of the unknown.

"How so?" The Southerner drawled.

"Don't you want a taste of the merchandise?" Ikeda said as he handed the packet to one of his henchmen.

The bodyguard clutched it, went to the table, and with a razor blade made a few thin lines.  He looked over at his boss who gave him a nod.  Vin watched as the man bent his body so that his nose was up to the white, powdery drug. The bodyguard finished, stood up and wiped his nose.

"I have a weak heart." Ezra begged off. "I've already suffered one heart attack, would rather not try to see the Creator again any time soon. " Standish smiled.  Vin gave him a nod believing he had found a way out of a precarious situation.  Ezra again went to grab the large, black, leather case.

Ikeda gripped his arm and stopped him; his long hands seemed like claws. "Really, I must insist." He let go of Ezra's arm.  "I have quite the deal coming up and I'd like you to be a part of it."

"Deal?" Standish said with a smile trying to get the man to forget about the cocaine. "What kind of deal?"  Ezra slowly crept his arm to the case.

"First, we must achieve the desired wa . . .umm. . .harmony." The drug dealer said glancing at Ezra's hand.

The undercover agent pulled back his hand, and carefully adjusted his suit sleeve. "Ah, yes, of course." Standish answered, stumbling over his words.

Vin caught the undercover agent's eye.  They exchanged a look, which said, 'This lunatic started his day with a little coke that's why he's been smiling. We could lose our lives, this deal and maybe frying a bigger fish.'   Tanner glanced down and studied the gray, cement floor, slimed over from past use.  Gray, that is the color he worked in.  Life for him was never black or white except when it came to his friends.  Tanner spoke up.

"Ya need to have your head clear to talk business with Mr. Ikeda."   He walked to the table by the two men, his new shoes squeaking as he went.  He gave a quick bow to Ikeda and moved slowly to the lines of cocaine left by the bodyguard.  Vin didn't think the drug dealer would follow him.  The sharpshooter thought he would have a chance to somehow not ingest the vile drug.

Tanner was wrong again. Ikeda stood next to him,  smiling, almost as if he could read, and enjoyed, Vin's discomfort. The sharpshooter had kept his head bowed not meeting the green eyes he knew had followed him.  He cocked  his head up to catch the stare and closed his eyes giving Ezra a message that everything would be all right. The knot in his stomach was telling him otherwise. Standish gave the sharpshooter an imperceptible nod and moved slightly to the left, blocking the camera JD had set up earlier.

Vin took a deep breath and bit the inside of his lip as he stared at the neat white lines.  No one would know what he was about to do.  The team, waiting, hidden outside the building, would think Vin had pulled a fast one. After all, he was street smart.

The same streets where he had learned about drugs, this wouldn't be his first experience.  Back when he first came to Purgatorio- he was a green kid he didn't realize everyone gives you a sample so that you'd be hooked. But, Vin hadn't enjoyed the loss of control. Probably why he was usually the one ending up designated driver when the team cut loose with one of their 'binge nights'.

Vin clenched his hands trying to squelch the feeling of taking his Glock, shooting everyone and getting the hell out of the situation. One sniff, it would be done and it would be worth it.  The team would be able to take down bigger players, and get some drugs and guns off the street.

"Yeah, right," Tanner whispered out loud, seeing only gray in his mind.  The white lines were beckoning. Resigned, Vin bent down and saw only black.

Warehouse District
Denver, Colorado

Ezra, by taking that one step, had just involved himself in a conspiracy.  Ezra Standish, much-lauded ATF undercover agent, could not come up with a solution.  He thrived on unorthodox methods and being prepared for any scenario.

He hadn't thought his assignment through though.  IT was a DEA remnant.  He didn't give it his full attention.  Standish would never make that mistake again.  He would always be reminded of the thirty seconds it took for Vin to walk to the table and snort the cocaine.

Why had he let him go through with it? Why hadn't Ezra just turned the table over and gotten the hell out of there dragging Vin with him.  When had the job become this important?

He knew the answers.  Everything changed in Ezra's life when he met the seven men.  They formed a cohesive team, which got results.  This only strengthened Ezra's and, he knew, Vin's desire to put more criminals away.   So he watched his friend snort cocaine so that they could get the bigger player, the larger bust and walk away with their lives intact. Then he would be part of a cover-up; Vin could count on him.  This wasn't like his stint with the FBI where innuendo followed him and no one stood up for Standish.  This time, the undercover agent vowed, would be different.  No one would know.  Ezra was thankful they were not wearing wires.  According to JD, after nearly an hour of testing and repositioning, the equipment was prone to audible feedback in the warehouse
due to interference with nearby radio towers, and deemed unreliable.  Standish had the camera covered, the next step was to get the information about the upcoming negotiations and get out.  From there, Vin and Ezra would think of a plan.  Standish hoped Tanner would not show any side effects from the one line of coke.

When the sharpshooter finished he looked up at Ezra, meeting his gaze.  For a second all pretenses were dropped, and Standish could see the melancholy in the sharpshooter's face. The undercover agent wanted to offer some kind of physical contact - a touch of the shoulder, hell, even one of those irritating 'Buck punches on the arm' - *something* that would let Tanner know that things would be okay. Then in a moment the twisted grin was in place. They had to finish what they had put into motion.

"I'm fine," Vin said as he walked past Ikeda without a glance and took position beside Ezra.

Standish looked down at his watch; as if he was annoyed that time had been wasted.  He hit the button on the side of his watch that would signal the team not to come in.

"Can we finish our discussion?" Standish drolled to the Asian man.  Ezra wanted to wipe that damned smile off his face. Katsmutra Ikeda was proving to be a devious bastard; Ezra had not expected the jovial man to pull this kind of stunt.  It was another reminder of the undercover agent's guilt regarding his less than perfect handling of the case.

Ikeda signaled to his brawny bodyguards to commence carrying the weapons crates to a white van that had been pulled into the warehouse when the criminals had arrived.  "I have a deal- very profitable one with the Yakuza.  I need another player to provide weapons."

Standish heard Tanner whistle through his teeth.  Ezra smothered his loud exhale.  He hadn't had any dealings with the Yakuza; in fact, the FBI had a special department within the agency that specifically dealt with that particular Asian crime syndicate.

Ikeda turned his back and began to walk to the van.  He turned, and gestured that they walk with him.  Vin was looking up at the metal ceiling beams so intently that Standish had to give him a push forward. Tanner shook off the hand, and gave the undercover agent an imperceptible nod saying he was fine.  Standish closed the suitcase of cocaine and carried it with him.

Ikeda began speaking before they caught up to him.  "I allowed this initial deal to judge you Mr. Simpson.  I will be contacting you.  Take care."  The van door was opened and Ikeda stepped in.  Vin helped slide the door shut.  The bodyguard who had taken up position as the driver gestured for Standish and Tanner to leave first.

They went to the large entrance and slid the doors open.  Ezra helped push the plank door and it easily opened.  Standish could see sweat beading along Vin's hairline, and half hoped that Tanner would not fail with tradition and pull his long mane loose of the ponytail at his neck before they hooked back up with the rest of the team.

The sunlight outside was bright at one o'clock in the afternoon, and Standish pulled his Armani sunglasses from the inside of his Canali suit.  Vin shielded his eyes with his hand, and went straight to the Jag, parked across the alley.

Keeping in step with Tanner, Ezra silently held out his hand and felt the weight of the Jaguar's keys as his partner relinquished them. No, Vin was not going to be driving.
Standish opened the trunk of his black car and placed the suitcase under a blanket.  He got in the car, and not a word was spoken until the white van departed.  The southerner placed the key in the ignition, and turned the engine.

His eyes were locked forward. He had risked a quick sidelong glance at Tanner as the man settled himself into the passenger's seat of the car, but Standish knew the last thing Vin needed was to feel as if he were being scrutinized.

So Ezra stared ahead into the disgustingly beautiful brightness of the day, finally breaking the tense silence as they pulled away from the curb. "How are you feeling?"

Warehouse District
Denver, Colorado

In the front of the building mixed in with the vehicles of the warehouse workers was a non-descript, gray Dodge Cargo van.  Chris, JD and Nathan were inside monitoring the video screen.  Buck and Josiah were nearby acting like warehouse workers and moving boxes around in the warehouse next door.  Larabee saw the red button light up on the console, which met that bust was not going down.  The leader slammed his hand on the keyboard of the laptop. "What the f*** are they doing?"

JD swiveled in his chair and removed the small computer from Chris's grasp.  He carefully stroked the keys. The young agent was in charge of the  equipment and was always lecturing about the team's abusive behavior toward the various gadgets.

"What 'they' are we talking about?" Buck whispered, into his microphone.

Chris exhaled and stood up, only to discover he had to crouch down so his head did not hit the roof.  He sat back down again.  Nathan answered, relaying what they had seen on the screen.

"Something happened between Ikeda and Ezra.  The exchange kind of stalled, and now the bust is called off." Chris looked at the video screen and then back at medic.  Jackson was leaving part of the story out.

Puzzled, JD added the last bit. "It didn't help that Ezra blocked the camera."

Through his ear piece Larabee heard Buck's intake of breath and then the soft, "woohee."

"Seems as if our Brothers had to do a little improvising," Josiah's rich timbered voice said through his mike.

Chris smiled at Wilmington's cackled statement. "You're the one who said yes to the DEA, now Ez feels he has to outdo them and play cowboy with Vin along for the ride."

In the van, Chris heard faint chuckling that he silenced with a glare.  He wasn't happy with taking the assignment, but that was how the ATF worked. He also understood that Buck, Josiah and the others were trying to give Larabee some perspective and tell him there was no need to be pissed off by the situation.

 Larabee wasn't even bothered that the bust was cancelled.  It had happened before and he trusted Vin and Ezra's instincts.  This time though, when he saw that red light go on,  something in the back of Chris's mind was telling him the team was heading for trouble.  It was made worse when Standish stood in front of the camera.  Before that, Chris had found himself clenching his fists as he watched his two agents act strangely.  It was nothing he could pinpoint, it was just a gut reaction.

"They're leaving."  JD said, zooming in the camera so the van's occupants saw Ezra shaking hands with Ikeda.

"Buck and Josiah get back here."  Larabee announced to his men in the warehouse. Chris watched Vin and Ezra walk out into the sunlight.  He tapped his foot nervously, waiting for enough time to elapse so that he could call his two agents and find out what had happened.  He pulled out his cell phone and started dialing. It was answered on the second ring.

"What the hell is going on, Ezra?"  The darkly clad leader growled into the phone.  At the same time Buck and Josiah had arrived at the van.

"I can see Chris is using those management skills of his," Buck said as he removed the microphone and earpiece and handed them to JD.  Josiah followed suit.

Larabee wasn't paying attention to Wilmington's antics.  He was waiting for the undercover agent's reply, which he could not hear over the loud music that suddenly came blaring though the phone.

"Ezra!"  Chris yelled into the phone, losing any fragments of patience he had left. The tension, which had started in his lower back suddenly began to crawl up his spine.

'"Sorry, Agent Tanner hit the wrong button." Standish quickly explained. The undercover agent's Southern drawl became more pronounced as he slowly spoke into the phone. "We are now involved in a deal with the Yakuza."

Chris ran his hand down his face. "F***," he said under his breath. This case just got huge and technically was out of his jurisdiction.  He would have to think about how to proceed. "Shit," Larabee said a little louder.  The epithet got the attention of the others.  Buck mouthed, 'What's up?' to Chris.  The leader held up one finger, signaling the others to give him a minute and then he would explain. "We'll meet you back at the office." He said into the cell phone.

"Yes. . .aahh. . ." Ezra stuttered.  "We'll . . .ummm. . . be there shortly."

Chris rolled his eyes.  He didn't need this sh** from the undercover agent today. Larabee grinned and with minimal lip movement snarled, "This 'Ezra' time or normal time?"

Ezra replied with a nervous chuckle. "I see the rumors of your lack of humor are incorrect, Agent Larabee."

Chris shook his head and closed the phone. The tension had seemed to  settle firmly in his left shoulder and he rolled the offending region, trying to relieve the tightness. He wouldn’t feel better until he knew word for word what had happened in that warehouse with Ezra and Vin.

A side street
Denver, Colorado

Vin stared at the red spot on the top of his hand where Ezra had slapped him. He just wanted to put the radio on, and take his mind off of the cocaine coursing through his veins.

"Keep it together, Tanner," The sharpshooter hissed to himself.  Ezra was on the phone with Chris.  He saw Standish fidget in the leather seats of the Jaguar.  The undercover agent was trying to think for the both of them. Vin would have to trust him for now.  He couldn't think straight.  All he could hear was the fast beating of his heart echoing in his ears.

Tanner rested his hands for a second on the back of his neck before bringing them forward, covering  his face from the light coming through the windshield.  His hands were covered in sweat and shaking. Vin let them fall and pushed the button to lower the window.  He needed fresh air.  He tore the elastic from his hair, and felt the cold, sweaty strands jump across his face and neck.

Ezra closed his phone and placed it back in his suit pocket. "We have to go back to the office." Ezra sighed, both hands lightly on the steering wheel.   "Are you going to make it?" He pointed to Vin's right hand.

Tanner furrowed his brows and folded his hands together. He wanted to scream about his lack of control.   He was glad that Ezra wasn't talking to him about what had just happened.  There didn't seem to be enough room in his mind to go thinking about the warehouse right now.

Yet, a part of him felt confident and euphoric, giving him a feeling he could handle anything.  "I'll take it minute by minute, and then....I need a favor, Ez."

"Anything," Standish answered.  Vin knew he would agree.  The undercover agent was easy for Tanner to read,  even in his current drugged state.  Ezra was feeling guilty.  Vin couldn't deal with that now.  He would have to fix that later.

Tanner thought of the only person who could help him with this predicament. "You need to take me to Kojay." He had mentioned the Native American chief before to the six men in passing.  They didn't realize that Kojay was the one who helped Vin get some bearing in life after his stint with the army.  He ended up traveling around the United States. Vin met Chanu, Kojay's son at bar in a hellhole in New Mexico.  They got into some stupid fight. Chanu had been drinking too much due to the loss of his wife and unborn child.  The sharpshooter was itching for a fight.  They both ended up being taken to the reservation and there Tanner discovered his direction.

Kojay had been in Colorado staying with his daughter for a few months.  The Chief would know how to purge the drug from his system and to give Vin back his balance.

Ezra nodded, while driving he placed a hand behind Vin's seat, and pulled out a bottle of Evian water for the parched sharpshooter. "So our plan is to fool our friends and then disappear." The undercover agent said sarcastically.

Tanner struggled to open the bottle. The plastic safety cap was sealed tightly, and Vin couldn't seem to get a grip on the white top. "Piece of cake," Tanner said as he finally opened the water.

Federal Building
Denver, Colorado

Ezra and Vin were silent on the elevator up to the eleventh floor.  Standish took the few minutes to mentally curse the day, then pray that Tanner could get through the meeting so far they had made it through dropping the evidence off.  Neither man had a chance to go to their desks.  As the elevator door swished open, the secretary pointed to the conference room where the rest of the team had already gathered.

"We're on," Ezra said, as he pushed on the dark paneled door of the room.  Standish went to his seat next to Buck and across from Vin who sat next to Chris.

"Ezra, I thought you hated ugly?" Standish almost jumped when Wilmington broke the silence of the group.

The undercover agent was suspicious. "I do, why?" He said as he took out his mini, black leather, notebook and Montblanc pen from the inside of his suit pocket.

The mustached agent gave a whoop and patted Ezra on the back. "You've got us involved in some ugly sh**."

Ezra laughed and tried to relax. Out of the corner of his eye  he watched as the sharpshooter planted his hands on top of the conference table.  Vin sat rigidly in his chair and avoided eye contact with Chris. Tanner had explained in the car that as soon as he looked at Larabee-the man would know something was amiss.

Larabee started the meeting. "We put the time to good use and been trying to pool together what we know of the Yakuza."

Josiah began speaking next. "I know a little off the top of my head from spending time in Asia."  Sanchez swiveled his chair so he was facing the whole team. "Boryokudan are commonly called the Yakuza; originally they were the bakuto or gamblers." Sanchez rested his hand on his forehead as if to pull more knowledge from his mind.  "Yakuza comes from a card game called hanafuda, like blackjack.  Funny thing, it's the losing hand 8-9-3 or ya-ku-sa."

Ezra kept his pen poised over his notebook.  Slowly, he twisted the pen and put it down.  Standish found the information interesting from a historical perspective, but knew the team needed current information.  He interrupted the large agent. "The FBI has an Asian organized crime division," he announced, trying to recall some pertinent information from his Bureau days.  "They are involved in money laundering, extortion and from what I've heard they have obscene profit margins. The Yakuza also have significant political clout."

JD, sitting next to Buck was furiously taking notes.  "How come the FBI is involved?"

Ezra smiled, the young agent had asked a good question. "The FBI has maintained posts in American embassies known as legal attaché offices. These offices enable the FBI to receive a constant and prompt exchange of criminal data and other related information."

Buck reclined back in his chair and hissed, "Damn, those Fibbies are slimy." Wilmington gave the undercover agent a lazy smile. "No offense, Ez."

Ezra had half forgotten his days at the Bureau.  They had been filled with negativity; with the ATF he was respected and amongst friends. "None taken," Standish mumbled as he directed his attention to Tanner who was relentlessly tapping a Bic pen against his teeth.

The noise caught the attention of Chris, who was looking at the sharpshooter intently. "Anything to add Vin?"

"Umm…what do I know? What do I know?"  He cleared his throat as if trying to cover up that he just said his thoughts out loud. "There are these gangs called…" Vin tapped the blue pen against the table. Ezra glared at Vin, willing him to stop. " Bosozuku -- speed tribes in Japan." Tanner giggled at the name of the gang.  "They're delinquents, some of them end up being Yakuza." Ezra noticed the others were staring at Vin's mannerisms.  Tanner must have felt the scrutiny also as he mumbled, "There are also some tough Asian gangs in Purgatorio."

Chris cleared his throat and turned his attention away from Tanner. "So you guys know this is big.  This should be passed over to the FBI, but I 'd like to think the ATF can handle it." He looked at each of his men, Ezra noticed he skipped over Tanner. "Are we agreed?"

Standish looked at the other team members.  He wanted to leave the FBI out of this, that way there would be less people that could possibly uncover what had happened in the warehouse.  The team nodded in agreement.

"Hell, Chris, you know we don't like those other sh**ty acronyms."  Buck chuckled, smoothing the edges of his mustache.

"We need to keep it quiet.  I want to check with some Australian  friends. We'll talk about it tomorrow and see if Ikeda makes contact." Chris closed his folder, which signaled the end of the meeting.

Ezra let his shoulders slump in relief.  They had gotten through the meeting.  He almost thought they would get away until he heard Chris reach the door and say,

"Vin, in my office."

Standish sat back in his chair and met the blue eyes that were staring at him from across the table.

Part 2

On high narrow road
old traveler clears wide swath,
tiny scythe glinting.
Matsuo Basho

Chris's Office
Federal Building

Wordlessly, Vin stood up and placed his hands on the warm, dark, wooden table. It was solid and stable.  The sharpshooter took in a deep breath, filling his lungs up with the stale air of the office, hoping to clear his head before facing Larabee.  He gave Ezra a curt nod and strode out of the room and directly into Chris's office.

Vin closed the door softly.  Larabee watched him as Tanner hunched down in the seat in front of the team leader's desk.  He could feel Chris's green eyes baring down on him.  Finally, Vin looked up into the face of his friend.  Tanner noticed Chris's anger was flaring.  A growing redness  in his neck went to the top of his head.  His eyebrows were knitted together.

In a deathly quiet voice he asked, "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"

Vin took a moment and rubbed what he knew had to be bloodshot eyes.  "Nope." He sighed.  He figured since Chris knew what happened, Vin might as well be honest and not piss Larabee off with subterfuge.

Larabee seemed to deflate a little, but his face still held its crimson color. "Then what the hell did you think you were doing?" Frustrated, Chris wadded up a  piece of paper  and threw it across his desk. It lingered in the air before hitting the floor.

Tanner's eyes followed the paper until it hit the floor and blended into the beige colored carpeting. "I thought it was better me than Ezra." Vin swallowed the bile from his stomach as the guilt rose in him.  The sharpshooter wanted to avoid the confrontation with Chris.  He didn't want to hear the disappointment in his best friend's voice.

"Damn, Vin." Chris bowed his head and massaged the same shoulder that had been giving him trouble in the Larabee closed his eyes then looked back at the errant agent.  "It could have killed you."

Vin closed his eyes, feeling worse at having arisen Larabee's concern.  Tanner knew his heart could have went after the snort.  But at that moment he knew that was the least of his problems-Ikeda, information and blowing their cover. The sharpshooter didn't want to put Chris through any anxiety.  Vin gave a twisted grin. "It was a calculated risk."

The leader shook his head and got up from his chair.  He turned his back towards Tanner, and took in the view out his window. "You've been spending too much time with Ezra." Chris crossed his arms before continuing.  "I knew something was wrong.  Couldn't figure it out until you started talking a blue streak of nonsense back there.  Then it just hit me-the f***in cocaine."

He stared at Chris's back. Vin slid down on the chair and  let his neck rest uncomfortably on the top of the metal chair.  Softly he replied, "Yeah, hit me too." He had felt confident  in the warehouse that he could handle the fallout of his actions. It seemed now that everything was crumbling, and doubts were eating him as to if he followed the correct course of action. "What are you going to do?" Vin sighed as he gazed at the ceiling tiles.  "The others may suspect, but they'll follow your lead."

There was a long pause before Chris answered. "I'll do what's best."

Vin sat up.  He felt that was his cue to leave. The sharpshooter had some thinking to do and had to get the cocaine out of his system.  He stood up and took a step toward his friend. "I never said I was perfect, cowboy." Tanner waited for a response.  He turned and went to the door.  "I'm taking a personal day tomorrow." Vin said as he twisted the metal knob.

"Vin, I don't know if you're gonna have a job." The words cut through the silence of the office.

The sharpshooter rested his head against the doorframe in a moment of defeat.  He took in a breath to regain his composure as he opened the door. "You'll do what's best."

Tanner strode through the office, not looking into the faces of his teammates.  Roughly, he punched the elevator button.  It didn't light up, Vin was about to slam  his fist into the uncooperative button when he saw a manicured hand firmly push the disk.

"I gotta get outta here, Ez." Vin said, without looking at the undercover agent who was by his side.

Chris's Office
Federal Building

Buck watched the sharpshooter rush through the office, and then Ezra raced after him. Wilmington played with his keyboard watching as non-sensical words turned up on the computer screen.  The whole scene in the conference room had sealed it, while in the warehouse Vin had taken some cocaine and Ezra had tried to cover it up.

It didn't take much to figure out something was different about Tanner.  Then Buck started to think it through and came to his conclusion.  Wilmington maneuvered the mouse and clicked on the 'X' to close the program. He stretched as he got up from his chair. Buck entered Chris's office without knocking. Larabee had his head down scribbling notes roughly.

"Junior just left in a huff." Buck said as he took the seat recently vacated by Vin.  He began picking the grit from his fingernails as he continued. "Ez left with him."

"Not now Buck," the blond-haired man said without looking up.

The ladies' man was not going to let this go.  As usual, Chris was trying to hide his emotional turmoil.  That was worse than his angry explosions. Buck dragged the chair forward so it was closer to Larabee's desk. Buck leaned forward so he was only inches away from his friend. "I figured it out, Chris.  Other guys on our team probably have too." Then Wilmington leaned back and waited.

Larabee threw his pen haphazardly against the wall. "Sh**." Chris said in anger hoarse voice.

"It happens." Buck folded his arms across his chest. "He did it for good reasons." Wilmington knew Vin wouldn't just take cocaine for the heck of it.  The fact that Ezra was standing by the sharpshooter was also a good sign.  Buck didn't get hot and bothered about it.  He trusted Vin and Ezra's instincts.  If they felt Vin had to take the coke, than that was good enough for him.

"Buck, there aren't any good reasons." Chris glared at the congenial man in disbelief.

Wilmington leaned back in his seat. "He disappointed you? You thought he was lily white? He's a man, for Christ-sake." Buck couldn't understand why his friend was being so pig-headed.

"Whatever, I have some work to do." Larabee pulled another pen from the cheap mug that held some stray pencils and pens.

Buck didn't like being dismissed and couldn't believe he did not want to hash out what had happened. Vin had left in a huff.  Wilmington knew something was wrong and was not about to let it drop. He recognized when Chris was being obstinate and stubborn.  Damn him, Buck thought.  He was going to make Larabee face the problem.  "Who the hell are you Chris Larabee-the new drug czar. Think about it, all the sh** you did after you lost Sarah and Adam.  You sure it was all legal?"

Larabee didn't answer; he kept looking down at his desk blotter.  Buck had hit a nerve and kept going. "Hell, we smoked weed together, and if I remember- we liked it."  Buck recalled some lazy days that were not so long in the past. "You're also the guy who would do anything for the job." Wilmington had one more comment to make that he knew would get a reaction. "You're a lot like Vin."

"I'm a f***in ATF team leader." Chris suddenly stood up, breathing hard and fuming.

Buck stood up and smiled, happy he got some sort of reaction. "You got the f***ed part right." Wilmington carefully placed the chair he had pulled forward back into place. "Better think this through before you nail Tanner's ass to the wall." He turned one more time to face his friend, stretching out his hands as if he was weighing something. "Disappointment or regret? You gotta decide what you can live with."

Josiah met Buck as he was backing out of Chris's office.  Wilmington hadn't heard the large man come from behind him so Josiah was able to see Larabee's irate face before the door was closed.

"Damn Brother, what did you do?" Sanchez whistled, trying to recall the last time he had seen the leader ready to kill someone.

"Bringing some illumination, Brother." Buck grinned as he went back to his desk.

Josiah watched the lady's man walk away and then continued on his way to the break room for some coffee. Sanchez couldn't concentrate and figured some java would help.  He knew though as he poured the liquid it was just a momentary diversion. Grabbing another cup of coffee he headed into Chris's office.

He entered as usual without knocking and placed the stryofoam cup on the leader's desk.
Chris gave a slight grin, "Thanks Josiah."

Sanchez gave a nod. "I know you all think I'm a saint because I can quote Bible verses."

Larabee gave him a puzzled look and crooked up an eyebrow.

Josiah put his hand up to gesture to the leader not to interrupt him. "Just think you should know I was young once in the 60s. I did some experimenting the Timothy Leary way."

Chris put his head in his hands and began rubbing his temples. "This is not open for discussion." Larabee gritted out through clenched teeth.

Sanchez didn't acknowledge Chris's reaction. "So Brother, if I ever have a flashback in the office I'll know there will be some serious repercussions."

"Damn it! It's not the same." Larabee said, at Josiah's retreating form.

Sanchez felt better having said his peace. Josiah had witnessed Vin's unnatural jitteriness in the conference room.  He also saw how Ezra and the sharpshooter had become thick as thieves.  It was trouble.  The large agent knew exactly what the trouble was from too, even though he wasn't in van.  Somehow Tanner had taken the cocaine.

By Chris's demeanor, Josiah knew that the leader was not taking it well. He didn't want to add to the man's trouble but Josiah had to show he supported Vin.  The large agent liked his teammates and each one was worth fighting for even if he had disregarded the rules.

Because of the blatant act, Sanchez couldn’t admit to Chris he knew about Vin, nor could he have a discussion about the situation with Buck. Once the accusation was said out in the open, Tanner would be out.

Sanchez passed by Nathan's desk and gave him a wink as Jackson looked up.  The medic gave the large agent a wan smile.  In those dark eyes, Josiah could see that Nathan knew.

Nathan was trying to finish a report.  He had to start over after Ezra and Vin left.  Then Jackson lost his place when Buck went into Chris's office.  Finally, he had to delete a paragraph after Josiah winked at him.  As he kept pressing the delete key, he watched JD; smiling as he talked on the phone and tossing a koosh ball to Buck. Nathan wished he were as blissfully unaware as the young agent.

Instead, his medical training kept churning in his mind, forcing him to recognize the symptoms of drug use.  Damn it, Jackson thought as he eased up on his voracious pressing of the keyboard. When had things gotten so out of control for Vin to have taken drugs to find out a little information about it an organization the medic didn't think they were up to dealing with.

He knew these men well.  They believed they were indestructible or if they got hurt then Nathan would be there to help patch them up.  Taking cocaine though even once could do damage and Jackson couldn't even say anything about to the sharpshooter.  Nathan had to pretend he didn't know.

But, Nathan knew firsthand how things suddenly become uncontrollable.  In college he was taking classes, working full time and then in his spare time working at a clinic.  He knew he wanted to get involved with medicine.  Soon he was falling asleep in class and unable to function.  That was when his doctor 'friend' wrote him a prescription for amphetamines.  In the beginning Nathan did fine, using the stimulants to help him juggle his hectic schedule.  After a month of constant use though he was having trouble sleeping, then came the irritability. He felt stupid when he realized he was abusing drugs and immediately went cold turkey.

The memory though lingered and he was getting that overwhelming feeling he used to get in college.  He looked around at the familiar faces of his friends.  Nathan knew he couldn't help Vin, but he could help the team on this case. "We're in over our head," he mumbled to himself as he fingered through his Rolodex.

He dialed the number and waited for it to be picked up on the other end.

"Agent Perdy," was the reply through the receiver.

"Hey, Fred, Nathan Jackson." The FBI agent sounded surprised to hear from Nathan.  The medic knew Fred from his military days.  "You free for dinner? I need to pick your brain."

Nathan made arrangements to meet his friend at a small café. Vin thought he was justified in taking the cocaine and Nathan felt the same about asking Perdy for help, even though Chris did not want others involved.  Hopefully Fred would provide some assistance with the Yakuza.

Kobe, Japan

The office building was dark.  He sat at his desk overlooking Tokyo. The banners blaring garishly against the skyline, the bright lights reflected by his desk's lacquered finish. Other than that stream of jumbled colors, he sat in darkness.  In a crumpled bag was his purchase, looking out of sorts amongst the carefully placed objects. He placed his hand in the sack pulling out the red, roly –poly, fierce-faced, character with two blank eyes.  In Japan the Daruma doll was a popular gift for the New Year or at the start of a new endeavor.

He had a goal, which he aimed to reach.  He took a marker out from his desk drawer and carefully painted the pupil in one eye.  Once he was successful he would paint the other eye.  He would get his revenge and the other eye would be painted soon, he promised solemnly to the paper-mache figure he held in his hand.

He sees enough
who doth
his darkness see
Lord Herbert of Cherbury

Driving on Highway
North of Denver, Colorado

Ezra and Vin had driven in silence for over two hours.  They would be at their destination soon.  Tanner had called his Native American friend and told him he was coming by for a visit.  The sharpshooter was in the passenger seat with it reclining back, his arm haphazardly covering his eyes.  Standish was getting tired of the scenery; one tree looked the same as the others.  He saw Vin stirring and decided to start a conversation. He hadn't questioned the sharpshooter on what had gone on in Chris's office and Ezra was curious.

Standish cleared his throat. "How are you feeling?" He asked the stretching sharpshooter, who was still in the same suit he had started the day off in.

Tanner blinked a few times before answering. "At one point I felt I could conquer the world. Do anything." Vin said as he roughly rubbed his hand over his haggard features.

Standish kept his eyes on the highway, deftly merging in the traffic. "Ah, the rush,"  replied the southerner.  Ezra noticed there was a pause and using his peripheral vision, saw that the sharpshooter looked shocked.  "Please, Agent Tanner, I went to school with money and there is nothing money can't buy." Standish explained, thinking back to his boarding school days.  The kids there had more money than they knew what to do with, sent by guilty parents who didn't spend time with their children.  So Ezra experimented, thinking it would make him forget about feeling abandoned by his mother.  It didn't work.

Vin adjusted the passenger seat of the Jaguar so that he was sitting up. "Wish I had known that." Tanner smirked. "Same thing in Purgatorio.  Always someone willing to give you a hit and get you hooked."

Ezra nodded in understanding.  This was so different from their usual conversations filled with playful bantering and insults. He was surprised the usually intuitive agent thought so highly of Ezra.  He had been a kid once to after all, and a lonely one at that.  Standish thought about Vin momentarily and it became clear.  Ezra smiled, "You thought I was too smart to try drugs?"

Vin shrugged his shoulders "Guess so."

"Thanks, I think." Ezra chuckled at the audacity of the sharpshooter. Someday the undercover agent was going to have to point out to Vin that he too was intelligent. Tanner was a survivor of a tough childhood-surely that was proof of the sharpshooter's acumen.

Vin began tapping his fingers along the armrest. "Not as if we ever talked about if everyone lied on that questions on the federal agent questionnaire about illegal drug use."

"Oh, I'm sure our comrades have had their moments of stupidity." Off the top of his head he figured that Buck, Josiah and maybe Chris had experimented with drugs.  Something about those three made him believe they were not innocents.  Nathan and JD were only a distant maybe. "How would our fearless leader feel about these admissions?"

"Don't know." Vin sighed and then under his breath he added, "He'll do what's best."

Ezra momentarily took his attention from the road to see if he could read Tanner's reaction. "Very cryptic of you, Vin."

"I acted like an ass." The sharpshooter's voice grew louder in frustration. "I may not have a job in the morning." Vin turned his head and looked out the window.

"Damn," was all Ezra could think of replying.  Standish wondered what treatment he would have received if he had been caught.  Although being a co-conspirator surely would bring its own punishment.  Ezra didn't want to dwell on it.

"Take that turnoff," Vin pointed to an exit on the right.

Ezra had agreed to take him to his friend's house.  Tanner had said he would help purge the cocaine from his system.  Standish had acquiesced only because he knew a hospital visit was impossible.

Tanner continued to give directions until they reached a subdivision in a cul-de-sac made up of similar split-level houses. "That's it," Vin pointed to a house at the end, set slightly further back.

Ezra pulled the Jaguar into the driveway.  The occupants of the house must have seen him coming because before Standish exited the car he noticed a man by the screen door. He was an elderly man, but with the bearing of a man in his thirties with gray hair grazing his shoulders.  He wore faded blue jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a silver and leather belt around his waist.  He waved at Vin.

"That's your friend Kojay, I presume." Ezra asked.  He hadn't met any Native Americans in his travels and felt kind of nervous at meeting a Chief.

Vin nodded and led the way.  When they reached the front door Kojay stretched his arm out and placed it on Tanner's shoulder.  A minute passed before the Chief acknowledged Ezra's presence.  Kojay finally gave Standish a nod of welcome.

He playfully slapped Vin's cheek and then opened the door to his daughter's house. "Come in."

Looking for the moon
In a lonely autumn sky
-mountain castle lights,

CDC (Buck and JD's apartment)
Denver, Colorado

At the last minute Buck's date had cancelled, which was fine with Wilmington since there was an Avalanche was playing tonight.

"If ya can't have women, ya might as well have hockey."  Buck mumbled out loud.

JD had a date with Casey and wouldn't be home until later. Buck was glad the young agent was going out with the college student, that way he would not spend time dwelling on Vin and Ezra's actions.  Wilmington hoped the kid never figured out what had happened.  The young agent worshipped all of them.  In his eyes they could do no wrong.  The reality was they were all just men, and they couldn't stay up on a pedestal forever.

Buck filled a metal pot with water and placed it on the gas stove.  As the fire sputtered he reached up into the cabinets for a box of spaghetti and jar of Ragu. After shuffling past the macaroni and cheese and moving the margarita mix out of the way, Buck was able to find his dinner. Wilmington set the jar and box by the stove, and in the meantime turned on the television.

When he returned to the kitchen the water was at a rolling boil.  As he placed the pasta into the water, the door to the apartment opened.  JD came inside throwing his jacket on the couch.

"Cool, are you making dinner? Cause I'm starved."  Dunne exclaimed as he went to the refrigerator and pulled out two beers.  JD handed one to Buck.

Wilmington took a deep swig, and watched as Dunne grabbed two bowls and placed them on an empty corner of the kitchen table. "What happened to you and Casey?"

JD went to sit on the couch, remote control in hand. "She had an exam to study for, so I left."

The pasta was cooked, and Buck quickly drained it then added the jarred tomato sauce.  A couple of tosses and he split the pasta between the two bowls.  Grabbing 2 forks he brought them to the coffee table.

The game wouldn't be on for a few more minutes, so the roommates watched the end of a VIP repeat. Between forkfuls of pasta JD started talking.

"It was kinda weird today at work."

Buck wanted to groan. Wilmington figured that Chris would decide to keep the whole incident quiet, and that after the descision was made he could talk to the young agent. Of course, Buck thought, if Dunne never figured out what had happened in that warehouse then Wilmington could live without telling.  Buck didn't want to shatter JD with the knowledge that one of his heroes was human.  The ladies man grabbed the remote control and began to flick through the different stations. "Nah, not stranger than usual when you got a motley group like us."

Dunne picked up the empty plates and placed them in the sink, precariously perching the bowls on top of a  frying pan, pot and assorted pans. "I don't know. Vin was acting all funny."

"That boy never tells a joke, how can you say he's funny?" Buck chuckled, waiting for the game to start and therefore divert JD's attention.  "That doesn't mean I want to hear one of your jokes either."

Dunne tossed a sock at his friend, that Buck easily deflected.  JD joined his friend and sat heavily on the couch, with his foot he pulled the coffee table forward so he could rest his feet on the piece of furniture. "Then Ezra and him disappeared."

"Probably following some leads." Buck was relieved when he saw the players skating out to the rink. "Game's on."

JD took another drink from his beer. "Guess so, I feel like I'm missing something."

Wilmington noticed how JD's eyes began to follow the hockey players standing in lines as the Star Spangled Banner played. The young agent said he loved that part when the national anthem was played, it gave him a warm feeling of patriotism.

Buck smiled inwardly at the young man's idealism. "Nope, not a thing, just the start of the game." Buck was thankful he had dodged that bullet, and decided that he deserved another beer.  He would also have to mention to Ezra and Vin that they owed him, first of all, for covering their asses and secondly, for hiding this all from the kid.

Buck's  head was in the refrigerator when he heard JD say, "I don't believe it."

"Damn!" Wilmington said roughly grabbing a beer. "They couldn't have already scored!"  He hurried into the living room to find a pale JD. His feet firmly removed on the floor instead of relaxing on the coffee table.

"JD, what's wrong?" Wilmington crouched down worriedly, the kid looked as if he had seen a ghost.

Dunne pointed to the TV. "The sign, Buck, clear as day!"

Wilmington looked at the picture and watched as the teams skated around the rink.  Then it made sense, he saw the DARE banner advertising, 'Just Say No To Drugs!' mounted to the boards.  Buck put a hand to his forehead and sat down on the floor.

JD stood up and didn't even notice he had banged his knee against the coffee table. "The damn sign and I figured it out." Buck noticed his roommate mumbling to himself. "Should have known at the warehouse and then when he was acting all funny." Suddenly, Dunne sat back down and sighed. "Vin took cocaine, Buck."

Wilmington shook his head, inhaling deeply.  Buck waited for his roommate to finish his stream of thoughts.

"He doesn't even like pain killers." JD stood up again and went to the phone. "We need to tell Chris."

Wilmington stood up and pulled the phone from his friend's hand. "He already knows."

JD mouthed the words to himself in puzzlement. Then his brown eyes grew wide and he backed away from his roommate. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

Buck wanted to take a step closer to the young agent, but instead went to the forgotten beer he had left on the table. Wilmington kept his back turned as he said, "Cause Vin's going through enough without you badgering him." Though in all honesty, Buck's heart was screaming about how he wanted to spare his young friend the disillusionment of life.

"Going through enough?" JD exploded, yelling as he stood rooted into place. "He's a federal agent and he took drugs! That's wrong, Buck. He broke the law."

Buck cringed at the young agent's voice.  Wilmington carefully placed down his drink. "Kid, we're not the DEA."

"I AM NOT A KID!" JD came forward grabbed Buck's shoulder roughly and forced him to turn around.  "And we're law enforcement officials. We're supposed to have strong moral character."

Wilmington's anger began to rise at JD's assumptions. "Who told you that sh**?" Buck's gaze did not waiver from Dunne's face.  "And what's with 'this is wrong and that's wrong'?" Buck had to step away before he lost his control.  He placed his hand against the painted walls. "You think he didn't have his reasons?" Wilmington regained his composure. "Maybe he thought about not getting killed or breaking cover."  Buck turned around to face JD , who had gone silent. "Ever think about that?"

"I don't know." Dunne answered, deflating as his hostility began to disperse.  Buck sympathized for his roommate.  It was hard to learn that life was not always black or white. Sometimes it was just gray.

JD cleared his throat. Buck saw the lump that had formed in the young agent's neck. "He took drugs, Buck."

Wilmington took a step closer to his friend and peered underneath the bowed head. "You've never smoked pot? Never tried drugs?"

JD shook his head, and looked back down at his Reeboks.

Buck groaned. He sometimes forgot how young JD was, at his age Buck and Chris were enjoying wild days and nights, not hanging with ATF agents. "You can't be that naïve?"

JD snapped his head up and replied hotly. "There was never any time-school, taking care of my mom.  I had no social life."

Wilmington reached out and placed a hand on his roommate's shoulder. "Jeez,  JD, I never knew." Buck have his friend's shoulder a squeeze. "I didn't tell you because I didn't want you thinking less of Vin and the rest of us."  Wilmington continued, when the young agent didn't reply. "Hell, you got to understand. . .we're not superheroes."  Buck chuckled remembering a particular evening with Larabee. "Chris and me we got into our share of trouble."

Dunne shrugged Buck's hand of his shoulder.  Wilmington closed his eyes for a moment, that one act had wounded him. Deep down inside it made  him feel better that JD thought so highly of Buck and the rest of the team, and it was gone.

JD grabbed his jacket from the couch where he had tossed it earlier. "I'm numb as far as Vin's concerned." Dunne clutched the leather jacket tighter.  "I'm not thinking at all about him." Finally, he looked at Buck and Wilmington could see the hurt in his roommate's brown eyes. "Buck, I'll be fine."

"JD, wait." Buck yelled after JD's retreating form.  Instead Dunne softly closed the door. Wilmington sighed and with the remote control clicked off the television.  He picked up the phone and waited for the other side to pick.

When he heard the familiar voice Buck ran a hand through his hair as he stated, "Chris, JD knows."

5 Miriam Drive
Livermore, Colorado

"My son-in-law is away on business for a few days, and my daughter decided to join him." Kojay said as he led them through the house.  They passed the kitchen and Vin's stomach growled.  He was hungry.  It was a side effect from the cocaine.  But, the Chief did not stop instead he went through the back door in a screened in porch before descending down a set of stairs which led to the backyard.  Vin felt Ezra pulling on his jacket.

"What is that?"  Standish asked, pointing to a strange structure.

Vin followed Ezra's gaze to the fire pit, its flames crackling orange, and next to it was a sweat lodge. Tanner smiled, and went down the stairs explaining to Standish.

"Hell, Ez, it's a sweat lodge.  Can't believe he built one here."  Vin looked at the deceiving surroundings.  When they drove up he noticed that each house was similar and had about an acre of land.  There was a difference though in this house, the last in the cul-de-sac, its backyard bordered on conservation land. No wonder Kojay felt comfortable staying with his daughter.

The sharpshooter admired the sweat lodge too.  It was about 10 feet in diameter, the sturdy structure was probably made of aspen that had been stripped and then bent to form a bow shape.  Placed on top of that were blankets and finally a tarp being held down by rocks to protect it from the Colorado winds.

"Kojay must have started heating up the rocks when I called him." Vin watched as the older man shoveled in seven rocks into the opening of the lodge.  Five buckets of water were near the pit in case the fire got out of hand.

"Lucky, you." Ezra said, crossing his arms, looking warily at Kojay who had gestured for them to join him. "Vin, if you don't mind I'll think I'll pass on the experience." Standish raised his voice so the Chief could hear him. "There's a sauna at my gym."

The older man assessed the well-dressed man. "It's up to you, but you also need to regain some balance."

Standish balanced on one foot and removed some grass clippings, which had become adhered to his expensive leather shoe. "Sir, I have an excellent sense of equilibrium."

Kojay nodded and began to pull off his shirt. "Feel free to use the house then and get yourself something to eat." The Chief began to fan himself with a sprig a sage to start the purification process.

Tanner sighed as he stepped forward, ready to strip down to his boxers before entering the lodge.  He looked back at Standish's retreating form. "Hey, Ez, thanks." Vin said, thankful that the undercover agent had been a true friend today, attempting to cover up for Vin and then by taking him to Kojay.

Standish waved, acknowledging he had heard, and then muttered back.  "There better be something other than squirrel or possum in the refrigerator."

Vin grinned. He had told Ezra some stories about living with The People and living off the land.  He never guessed he had scared the undercover agent, but Standish did have a tendency to become nervous when he was out of his element, much like when Vin found himself in crowded places. Of course Ezra took a fit over a bag of Cheetos too.  He was not accustomed to junk food because of his 'refined palate'.

Tanner stripped down to his boxers, leaving his suit in a pile by the lodge.  He entered the structure and felt the soft fresh sage caressing his feet.  Kojay had already sat down and was beginning to drip water on the hot rocks piled in an oval pit.  The steam started to rise, whispering its way around the room until the moisture was thick in the air.  Already, Vin felt the sweat beading on his upper lip, he licked it off unconsciously.  The sharpshooter thought about the progression of his day from boredom, to a false high to hearing crickets clearly rustling in the leaves outside.

Tanner took a sip of water and listened to Kojay's chanting.  Vin knew the Chief did it to bring spirituality to the sweat lodge, but Tanner never felt comfortable with chanting.  It was a sense of letting go, and Vin always had to keep something back.  Even with the cocaine the sharpshooter did not give into all the reckless impulses that were trying to seduce him. Tanner tried to willfully relax to the tunes Kojay was making.

Vin looked up, and wondered who had made a hole in the ceiling of the lodge.  He could see an endless night.  So caught up was he in the bewitching sight that Tanner failed to notice the trips Kojay made to get more heated rocks.

Tanner knew that in the end the sun would rise and the night would end.  He kept that knowledge as an anchor so he wouldn't lose himself in the starry opulence. Yet, the stars twinkled and beckoned. He felt darkness around him, but if he reached out he could touch the effortless light.  Then Vin felt a peaceful energy, a calmness and a sense of freedom.

Kojay smiled as he chanted, hearing Vin's voice join in.

When they finished hours later, Tanner slipped back on his pants and shirt without buttoning it. The clothes stuck to his sweaty body.  Kojay made sure the fire was smothered and they went back to the house.  The screen door to the back entry squeaked and Vin heard a muffled, "Humph."

Tanner smiled as he saw Ezra uncomfortably stretched out on lawn furniture.  Vin bent down and whispered. "Ez, go back to sleep it's still dark outside."

In response Standish turned slightly with a, "Humn."

The undercover agent had been there all night keeping watch, making sure his friend was fine. Vin felt guilty at leaving him on the porch. "I think I should wake him up, he looks uncomfortable." Tanner said to Kojay.

The older man shrugged his shoulders. "Have him stay so the sun will greet him at dawn."

There were no blinds covering the windows so when the sun rose, it would shine directly on the undercover agent.  "I don't think they're on speaking terms." Vin drawled.  Ezra was sleeping like the dead, and Tanner knew he could sleep through anything. Standish would probably end up sleeping to noon.  So Vin tossed an afghan over the prone form and went inside.

They would be staying for the night, and in the afternoon after a good night's sleep and a meal they would make their way back to Denver to see if a calmness had come to the Federal Building.