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.

Part 4 (continued)

Chris pushed people out of his way.  He exited the saloon, the bell over the door clanged wildly. Larabee looked right, then left. The streetlight cast a dark shadow, barely distinguishable against the black, glittery pavement slick with a misting rain.  Vin was walking towards his Jeep, head bent down.  The tall shadow separated them. Chris called out, "Wait!"

Tanner stopped, but did not turn around, allowing Larabee time to catch up. Chris jogged towards him. The leader could see the sharp angle of the sharpshooter's cheekbones, the light highlighted one part of his face, immersing the other side in darkness.  Vin's eyes were downcast.

There was a silence between them that stretched into a few minutes.  Chris could feel his hair becoming damp, and the coldness seeping in through his black windbreaker. As the time elapsed, Chris became angry until he finally had to break the unnerving quietness that usually was comfortable between the two. "I thought you had a f***in better head on your shoulders." Larabee said, talking to Tanner's back.

Slowly, Vin turned around.  He straightened his hunched shoulders, and lifted his chin. "What the hell did you want me to do?" The sharpshooter growled.  "Let Ezra take the sh**?" Tanner did not wait for a response. "Or maybe I shoulda said, 'No, I ain't doing it,' and blown our cover. At least I wouldn't broken no laws." Vin turned as if to walk away.

Larabee placed a restricting hand on Vin's shoulder, so that he couldn't leave. "How the hell do I justify letting one of my agents get away with snorting coke?"

Roughly, Tanner swatted the hand off. "One f***in line, Chris! What would you have done?"

Even though it was raw outside, Larabee could feel the heat growing in the conversation. "I  don't know." Chris replied, letting his hand fall to his side.  He did not want to make any motion towards Vin.  How could the leader explain that  it was different for him. Chris was older and had already lived one life with a wife and child, he knew what it felt like to be complete.  The others on the team had not had that opportunity. Larabee could take any risk.  He wanted the others to survive, so that they could grow old and have a family one day. Larabee didn't know if he would ever be as happy as he once was with Sarah. Yet, he could die tomorrow and it would be fine cause he, during one part of his life, had everything. Instead of explaining, Chris shook his head. He wasn't willing to share this facet of his life with anyone.

"Well, I don't need another f***in guilt trip!  I gotta enough sh**  to carry around." Vin pointed his finger and forcibly poked it into Larabee's shoulder. He then pulled his hand away and wrapped his arms around his torso.  With an angered filled voice Tanner continued. "I didn't ask you to risk your career. I was willing to go down for what I did. You had to f*** it all up and play the damn hero-and take care of me."

Absently, Chris rubbed the spot on his chest where Vin had struck him.  It didn't hurt, but it made him feel as though Tanner had taken advantage of him. All the stuff-risking his career, that Chris had been put through only to be sh** on.  A little f***ing gratitude would be nice for a change.  Larabee lashed out, giving the sharpshooter a shove. "I wouldn't have to take care of you if you weren't so f***in reckless!"

Vin faltered backwards, placing his right leg back so that he wouldn't fall.  Tanner lunged forward, grabbing a fist full of Chris's windbreaker. The sharpshooter brought his fist back, and then blinked.

Chris saw a moment of startling clarity enter Vin's eyes. Tanner let his hand drop to his side, and uncurled his fingers methodically from Larabee's jacket.  The sharpshooter took a step away and turned his back.  Chris could see the fog escaping from Vin's mouth as he took deep, ragged breaths.

Larabee closed his eyes in disbelief at how close they had come to violence.  Over the echoing sounds of the city he heard the dejected whisper. "Do you want me to quit?" Vin turned and faced Chris, droplets of fine rain traced the sharpshooter's face. "It'll make it easier on the both of us."

The dark clad leader savagely wiped the rain from his face, feeling aggravated with his lack of control. "NO GODDAMMIT!" Chris bent his head low and ran a hand through his hair until he let it rest on his neck.  "I wish this had never happened." He sighed, deflating all the tension in his body.

Larabee didn't know how long they stood in silence.  Time was measured by a flickering streetlight that didn't have the strength to stay lit. Finally, Vin nodded, as if he understood the machinations of the world. "I can't go back and undo it, Chris.  I don't know if I would undo it if I could." That said, Tanner shrugged his shoulders and began to walk off into the night.

The light above decided to hold steady, illuminating that Chris was about to let one of his team, one of his friends walk away. It was one thing to have someone die on you and it was something else entirely to push a person away. Larabee felt it was a great temptation- it would save him from emotions, much like his black clothing did on the outside. His deliberate wearing of black was to tell others he did not want to get involved; all the color had been sucked out of his world. "My gut knows you're right." Chris said, raising his voice slightly so it would carry over the 10 feet of distance.  "That's why I'm standing by you." Larabee noticed that Tanner had stopped. "Just give a chance for my gut to tell my head."

The shadowed form before him didn't turn, but Larabee noted the slight tilt of the head - as if aiming an ear in the direction of the roundabout apology. A second or two passed, then, slowly Vin let himself face the other man. With a deliberate casualness, Tanner made his way back to Chris. But there was no hesitation as he offered an outstretched arm to his friend. "Glad you came to your senses."

Chris clasped the forearm, and noticed the clouds moving against the inky night sky.  Just like the clouds, he thought, the leader needed to move past this incident. As the dark puffy, streaks drifted over, a sliver of the haunting moon could be seen.

"Mule-headed cowboy," Vin muttered with a grin.

Larabee smirked in return.  Chris was actually more like the moon going through its phases, until one day he too would be whole and solid.  This man and the five others inside the saloon were a planetary force to be reckoned with and they wanted him to breathe, live and feel.

Chris could feel Tanner's grip, the cold and the rain.  He had let go of the numbness that had been the leader's defense mechanism since this whole mess with Vin had started.
He was able to have some feeling seep into his body. The team was giving him time to return to the land of the living, and was willing to put up with his over-protectiveness. They just asked Chris to stand by them.  He had pushed Vin's patience to almost the breaking point. Chris shook his head at his own thoughts, let go of the handshake and gave Tanner a pat on the back to try to tell the man wordlessly, 'Thanks for putting up with my sh**.'  The leader then pointed to the saloon.

Tanner shook his head and stuffed his hands into his jean pockets. "Damn Chris, the kid's lookin' at me like I kilt his dog and Nathan is waiting for me to drop dead." Vin roughly pushed his wet hair away from his face then returned his hand back to the pocket. "If I'm just going back in there so's they can dump more sh** on me, thanks, but I'll pass. You'll have my resignation in the morning."

Chris turned and started to walk to J. Watson's. He called back, "Tanner if you don't follow me inside I will fire you." Larabee smiled as he heard the soft footsteps hesitantly behind him.

Chris stepped in front of the team's table.  They were sitting there, uncommunicative and sullen. JD was slouched down in his chair and sat up when he noticed the leader's presence. Ezra glanced at Chris and then turned slightly to give a nod to Vin, who was a few steps away.  Buck gave his friend a smirk, Josiah drank his beer and Nathan toyed with a straw wrapper.

"You all made a descision this morning." Larabee announced referring to earlier in the day. He had made it so easy for them.  All they needed to do was accept and keep quiet. "Did I f***ing twist your arm?" The team did not respond, which riled Chris; they were reflecting exactly how he had been earlier. Larabee knew that he had no problem with Buck, Josiah and Ezra, but they had to hear this as well as Nathan and JD.  Chris slammed his hand on the table causing the glasses to jump. "You all f***ing think I wouldn't do the same for you."

"No, Chris, we don't think that," JD sputtered.

Larabee pretended not to hear him because he just wanted to finish without interruption. "Hell, I've been shot saving each one of your asses." Chris sat down in the seat at the head of the table and poured himself a beer, allowing time for the others to accept the truth.

Buck chuckled, breaking the seriousness Larabee had tried to project. "Chris, you only got grazed taking that bullet for me."

At first there was a gruff laugh from Josiah, which spread to Ezra, then Nathan and finally to JD. Buck stood up in the midst of the joviality and gestured to Tanner still waiting on the outskirts.

"Vin you gonna sit down? Otherwise, Inez will put you on her sh** list for blocking traffic." Wilmington gestured to the long-legged waitress holding a tray of nachos, trying to figure a way to deliver the food to the table and get around Vin, who seemed to be fixed in place.

The sharpshooter shrugged and came over, taking the seat by Buck.  The waitress winked at Tanner causing him to blush and look away. She also replaced the peanuts.

"Actually, I do believe that you have that position shored up, Buck." Ezra drawled, relaxing back into his chair. "I'm willing to wager on it."

The southerner's comment brought another round of laughter, and Buck decided to retaliate by tossing peanuts at Standish. Josiah, caught in the middle of the attack, covered his drink with a large hand and shook his head.

"Don't know why I put up with all of you." Chris said, catching Sanchez's eye.

"Seems like lapses in judgement have been the theme lately wouldn't you say?" Ezra said, directing his green eyes at Larabee, while deflecting the salty ammunition. Chris gave Standish a withering stare, which the undercover agent waved off. Larabee hated when the smug undercover agent was right-God knew he would never live it down.

It was Nathan's reaction of shifting uncomfortably in his chair that got Chris's attention. Jackson was never one to fidget. Larabee hadn't forgotten about the medic's lapse concerning the FBI. But, Larabee wasn't going to let it eat at him, not with the upcoming case. Truthfully though, a part of Chris felt good to know that Jackson was still feeling guilty. Just like Vin, he would never be that foolish again, or at least not in the near future.

Larabee looked at the two men.  Vin was still uncomfortable, although Buck kept nudging him to join in the peanut fight. Nathan was thoughtful and sipped at his beer. Chris knew they would settle things themselves at the right time.  Larabee didn't miss how JD was already extending an olive branch.

Dunne seemed to be contemplating, then he looked up and caught Tanner's eye. "Your friend James seems like a good guy," the young agent said sheepishly.

The sharpshooter gave a quick nod and spoke to JD, and soon it was like a rift had never existed between the two. Chris took a long draw on his beer and watch the team's antics like an admiring observer. Damn, he was watching too many beer commercials.

Vin had woken up at his usual time, to greet the sun as it rose.  He was planning on working out at home before taking a shower, but today he was feeling like he wanted to have some space, instead of using the heavy bag in his cramped apartment.

After a rough beginning last night, Tanner had eventually felt everything was back to normal with the boys.  Except with Nathan, thought the sharpshooter as he maneuvered through the desolate streets of Denver with his Jeep and duffel bag in the seat beside him. Vin would have to fix it with Nate, somehow. As Tanner drummed the steering wheel, he figured he'd start eating healthy foods like fruit and granola, in front of the medic.  The convenience store would miss him and his daily purchase of Yodels, Snowballs and Twinkies.  It would be a sacrifice, but Jackson was worth it.  As Vin pulled into the garage and made his way to the Federal Building's gym in the basement he smiled as he remembered what Ezra had said about Nathan when the undercover agent had first joined after a stressful day and a few drinks.

"Agent Jackson worries that I am Judas amongst the Apostles."  Ezra had waived his hand. "Excuse me, I forgot that Josiah is the only person allowed religious comparisons."  Standish then continued in a lower voice so only Vin could here.  "There are men who can accept a man, then there are others who see a man and what he should be."  Ezra's southern drawl had become thick as he finished. "I thank Agent Jackson for his concern, however I shall never live up to his expectations."

"Me neither, Ez." Vin said, out loud to the empty gym as he turned on the lights; the fluorescent bulbs sputtered until they found their groove. Groove, Vin thought, the coke fiasco had put him out of sync with Jackson.

"Ahh, it's gonna be rough for a while, Tanner but you'll manage."  Vin sighed as he pulled off his cowboy boots and socks, placing them against the wall.  No one would be here for awhile.  If he was lucky, Chris would stop by, and they would do a few rounds in the ring before starting the day.

Tanner took his sparring gloves out of his gym bag.  He had slept in sweats and a t-shirt and therefore didn't bother changing. In addition he preferred working out in his bare feet like he did when he practiced his katas. It was relaxing to feel the connection with the ground.  It kept him centered and focussed. Before Vin had left his apartment he packed a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt to slip into before he headed up to the eleventh floor.

Tanner began to circle the speed bag, concentrating on keeping the momentum going in a repetitive manner.  First, he kept his right jab up and then worked on his left, switching in the second it took for the little red bag to jump back before it was propelled forward.

Tanner gave the bag one strong hit, and stood there watching the bag jostle back and forth as he caught his breath.  The sharpshooter sensed someone in the room with him. "Hey, cow . . ." Vin said as he turned, startled to find James standing there watching him.  "Hey Jimmy, what brings you here?" Tanner asked as walked over to the heavy bag to continue his workout.

"Couldn't sleep."  Kotsu drew himself away from the shadow that the door was providing. "Probably cause of the jetlag."  James unbuttoned his gray suit jacket. "I remembered you were an early bird, and thought we'd have some time to talk over a cup of coffee." The FBI agent gestured with a nod to the ring.  "But, on the other hand, want to spar?"

Vin chuckled. Tanner had become accustomed to sparring with Chris and some other ATF agents. He hadn't sparred with Jimmy in years, and it had always been a challenge then, the sharpshooter wondered if he was prepared.  "Wouldn't wanta get your clothes all wrinkled."

James had already slipped out of his jacket and was tugging off his shirt. "Tanner, I know I'm better than you." Came the muffled replied until the shirt was pulled off.  "I figured you may want a few pointers." James smiled as he kicked off his shoes.

Tanner walked to the ring and ducked under the ropes. "Hell, Jimmy, you're just askin' for a beatin'." Vin taunted, as he began shifting his weight back and forth to loosen up.

Kotsu, clad in his suit pants, grabbed a set of gloves and joined Tanner in the ring. He began to shake his arms and legs out to warm up in preparation.

In the beginning they threw a few front kicks and straight punches to set the distance-how far they would have to punch or kick to hit their opponent. Both of them had a slight sheen to their faces as they began to exert energy.  Vin decided to go on the offensive and sweep Jimmy's leg.  Tanner must have telegraphed his intentions, because Kotsu picked up his leg and Vin landed awkwardly forward.

Jimmy took the opportunity of Vin being off-balance and delivered a spinning crescent kick to Tanner's torso.  He followed it up with a jumping, front kick off the front foot that propelled Vin into the ropes. The sharpshooter shoved the FBI agent away.  Kotsu nodded and stepped back.

'Stupid, stupid, stupid.' Vin said to himself.  He shouldn't have been so foolish to try the sweep. Tanner heard someone clearing his throat behind him. The sharpshooter turned to see Chris shaking his head. Tanner nodded and hit his head with his glove hand to show he was trying to knock some sense into himself.  Vin gave the ATF leader a questioning look, which Larabee understood. Chris pointed to the video camera.

"Great, security's sending an audience." Tanner growled as he stepped away from the red cable he had been resting against.

"Damn," Kotsu said.  Vin thought the FBI agent was agreeing with him.  Tanner hated to be crowded. Jimmy winked, "Sorry, you're gonna lose in front of all your friends."

The sharpshooter grinned at his friend's cockiness. The match wasn't over yet. "Come on," Vin gestured with his hands for Kotsu to come forward.  Tanner could at least be thankful that Ezra wasn't an early riser and wouldn't be at the gym taking bets.  Nothing was worse than having a friend bet against you.

Vin started with a basic combination of inside kick, to round house kick to back fist that pushed Jimmy back into the center of the ring. Kotsu followed up with a ridge hand and a few upper cuts.  Tanner kept his elbows in to protect his torso, and was able to duck and deflect some of the blows while returning with some shots.  The sharpshooter, though, had a sinking sense that Jimmy was holding back.

Every once in awhile his eye caught another familiar face; he noticed that Josiah, Nathan, Buck and JD had filed in by Larabee, watching by the doorway.

"Go Vin!" The sharpshooter heard JD yell out, which buoyed Tanner's tenacity to find Kotsu's weak points. However, Dunne himself had provided the opening the sharpshooter needed.  Jimmy seemed distracted by the young agent, and slightly dropped his hands away from his head.  Tanner took the chance, leaned back and sent a wheel kick to the side of Jimmy's head. Kotsu staggered sideways, and Vin decided to try the sweep again, this time hooking Jimmy's front foot out from under him, which caused him to fall back.

Tanner couldn't hide the grin that broke his face when he heard Buck yell out, "Woohoo!"
Jimmy was staying down; Vin went near his friend, about to offer a hand up, when he felt Kotsu's foot go into his stomach.  Suddenly, Tanner was tossed over Jimmy's head.

Vin tucked in, so he ended up in a somersault, but he still landed flat on his back, knocking the wind out of him. From the distance, he saw Chris's brows knit in anger.  Tanner lifted a hand to say he was okay.  Vin had agreed to the spar Kotsu, and he had forgotten the first rule, a fight is never finished until someone has given up, and Jimmy had not cried, 'uncle.'

The sharpshooter felt one of his arms being lifted so that his chest came off the mat.  Jimmy put one foot under Vin's chest and his left leg over the ATF agent's neck. Tanner felt the sharp pain in his right arm as Kotsu gained leverage and began to lean back so that Vin's arm was hyper-extended.

Tanner began to think of countermoves, and tried to shift his hips and legs to force Jimmy off, but every time he tried, the leg around his neck squeezed tighter causing him to see spots.  Damn, this was a good hold.  Vin tried not to think of the burning sensation in his arm.   He tried to work with his other hand and wind it under the FBI agent's restraining leg.

Through a dimming haze Vin heard Nathan yell out. "That's enough," Jackson slapped the floor of the ring to get everyone's attention. "Stubborn fool's not going to tap out."

With a grunt Jimmy released the hold and gave Tanner a tap on the shoulder.  "Good job," the FBI agent said as he cleared the way for Jackson to kneel beside Vin.

"I'm fine, Nathan." The sharpshooter said as he got up slowly and rotated his arm.  He might have had Kotsu if Vin had more time, Tanner thought wryly.  Vin continued to stretch the soreness out of his arm. The longhaired agent began to notice that the medic was not his usual doctoring self.  "You probably think I needed the wind knocked out of me."  Tanner whispered so only Nathan could hear.  Vin figured now was as good a time as any to make peace with Jackson.

"You probably wish that it was me you were hitting out there." Nathan sighed, looking at the mat, instead of facing the sharpshooter.

"Yeah, you know that part when I had him on the ropes," Vin smirked. "I was thinking of you." Tanner put his hand out so that Nathan could assist him.

Jackson gripped Vin's arm, and pulled him up. Tanner swayed slightly, and Nate put a steadying hand on the sharpshooter's elbow. "You saved my life-and I owe you for that."

"Hell, you've been there for me too many times to count."  Vin put his hand on Jackson's elbow, not because of the lightheadedness, but out of a symbol of friendship.

Nathan nodded and smiled, happy his apology was accepted.  The medic gave Vin a pat on the back as they joined the rest of the team.  Tanner was glad at the warmness behind the touch and that he didn't have to resort to sacrificing his junk food habit.

James was sitting on a bench. Josiah had brought him a towel, which Kotsu hung around his neck as he slipped on his shoes and socks.

"He okay?"  Chris asked, trying to judge if the sharpshooter was showing any signs of the abuse he had taken in the ring.

"I'm fine."  Vin gave Jimmy a nod to show there were no hard feelings.  Kotsu put his hand up to give Tanner a high-five.

 The FBI agent pulled his shirt on. "I thought you would have all learned by now that Tanner is tougher than he looks." Kotsu brushed his thick black hair away from his face.

The team laughed but, not a hearty chuckle. It was more like a warning, which was music to Vin's ears.  He was part of the fold, and they would circle their wagons around him to protect him.  In that moment he felt that the cocaine incident was behind him.  It would never come to light.

Tanner tossed Buck one of his gloves as he began to peel them off so that Wilmington would place them in his bag. "Actually we kinda think he's made of Teflon, the way he deflects those bullets." The mustached agent began to play around with the glove and mock hit JD in the nose. Dunne threw some fake jabs at Wilmington's gut.

"Deflects?" Nathan threw his hands up, exasperated.  "His medical history is a book."

Buck dropped the glove in the duffel bag and caught the other glove that was tossed at him. "Aww, Nate, can Vin help it if he has injury magnetism?"

This time the laughing was sincere.  Tanner didn't mind it was at his expense.  He would gladly take any of those bullets again if it meant he saved the lives of one of his friends.

Ezra cleared his throat and leaned against the door jam, waiting for the others to calm down. "I heard I missed a fine gambling opportunity."
"Vin and James," JD explained pointing to the two former combatants.  "James ended up winning," Dunne added solemnly, showing loyalty to his friend.

Tanner gave the young agent a nod.  JD returned with a wide grin.  Vin felt a prickle up his spine and noted that  Jimmy was looking intensely at Dunne.  No one had picked up on it except for Vin and once  Kotsu  noticed that the sharpshooter was staring at him, he stopped and slid on his suit jacket.

"Why must you ruin my day straight off?" Standish dusted the fictitious lint from his suit sleeve. "Remember Vin, I am your promoter."

"Since when?" Chris asked, crooking his eyebrow at the southerner. Vin wanted to laugh at Larabee's playful suspiciousness.

Standish fidgeted with his shirt cuff, which had nothing to do with his fastidiousness.  The undercover agent would move restlessly when he was reminded that he had gained a reputation of taking advantage of others. Most people, like Vin, knew it was a false rep.

Tanner was about to make some joking comment when Jimmy interrupted. "Ikeda call?" Kotsu asked, as he stood up, neatly dressed.

"Yes, he wants to arrange a preliminary meeting." Ezra replied full of seriousness.

Strongmen don't die on the tatami

Penthouse Suite
Loew's Giorgio Hotel
Denver, CO

James relaxed for a moment on the white sofa in the penthouse of the Loew's Giorgio  Hotel.  It was only the best for the Yamaguchi Gumi clan, which had taken over the luxurious top floor of the prestigious hotel. His boss, Saizo Kishimoto, would be arriving in Denver shortly  with some other senior bosses and some soldiers. James would return to his position as fuku-honbucho, an assistant.

His morning at the Federal building had been bittersweet.  It would be the last time he would freely enter the ATF offices and be recognized as an agent working for the United States government.  James had been undercover so long he started to forget he was an American citizen.  He had been undercover three years and his thoughts were no longer in English, instead he heard Japanese.   In fact, like some Japanese, he had the attitude that they were superior to U.S.

His liaison, Agent Mike Sullivan, would be irate if he heard that James did not consider himself a true blue American.  Kotsu stretched his medium sized frame. On the other hand Jimmy did not care about  Mike Sullivan. The fellow FBI agent assumed that they were friends. Sullivan didn't understand they were co-workers, Mike would never know the sh**  James was going through.

Thinking of friendship made Kotsu have to quell the feelings of jealously, which had grown when he had seen Vin Tanner interact with Team Seven. James had figured Vin was dead by now. The FBI agent had been surprised to learn he was with the ATF and that the man didn't seem as screwed up as he used to be. Vin had always been a loner, a quiet one.  Over the course of a few assignments together Tanner believed he had found a kindred spirit in Kotsu.  The snippets of the ATF agent's life that Jimmy knew about would have sent many men to commit suicide sooner rather than later.  But Tanner proved that point that looks could be deceiving.

James reached for the chilled sake.  Kotsu felt that being alone made him stronger man-he had only his mission to concentrate on.  He had no one left to think about. Not that strong though, he had been startled by the young ATF agent JD. James felt the chill enter his hand from the cold carafe he was still holding. He shook his head and began to pour himself a liberal amount of the clear liquid.

 The sake reminded Kotsu of the sakazuki, the ritual ceremony that joined a man to the Yakuza. The initiation had been performed before a Shinto altar.  James had found that amusing to find The Dark Society or Yami Shakai wanted to add religious significance to the ceremony.  The initiation itself consisted of the sharing of sake between Yoshinori Watanabe, the head of the clan and Kotsu.  The amounts of sake in the cups had been carefully measured to signify that it was an elder-younger relationship versus father-son or brother-brother. The FBI agent had promised to live under the code of the Bushido-humility, duty, and loyalty to one's lord.

It had taken 18 months for James to come to the attention of Saizo, his boss. At first the FBI suggested Jimmy start as a jiyage; but Kotsu didn't think he had the larcenous heart that was needed to be one of those in the business of persuading owners by any means to sell their property. So instead, he became a sokaiya-a sort of spy-he was after all keeping in the same line of work.

It had taken a magazine article in one of Japan's many innuendo-laden business publications to manifest a job opportunity with the Yakuza.  James really didn't care on which side of the rumor/fact line the information he had about the vice-president of a major corporation having an affair with a 16-year-old rested.  It showed the right people he could get information. And that's all that mattered.

The ringer in the room buzzed and ceased James's reminiscing. Kotsu cleared away his glass and adjusted the red, heart-shaped, anatheum flowers that had been placed in a black vase on the coffee table.  Jimmy opened the front entrance to the hotel suite.  The first ones to enter were the 2 bodyguards followed by a few shatei, senior bosses and wakashi, junior leaders.  James gave a nod to each of them and bowed when his boss Saizo Kishimoto came in.

Kishimoto was a short, stocky man which spiky, grayish hair.  He projected strength not just by his demeanor. It was the fact the top part of his pinky finger was missing. To a member of the Yakuza it signified that Saizo had been punished for an infraction.  In the Yubitsume, he had ceremonially cut his finger and handed it to the clan leader for atonement.  It should have projected weakness, but it didn't.  In an age where a missing little finger could affect one's golf swing, it was viewed as an incredible sacrifice.  The younger members were in awe of Kishimoto.

"I know that we profit from our activities in the United States, but this country . . ." Saizo said, shaking his head.  "Kozooshoku," he mumbled under his breath and laughed. "All that waiting to get clearance into this country."

Kotsu chuckled at his boss's insult.  He was saying that the United States was structurally corrupt.  Sullivan had made sure that there was an ample amount of red tape.  Even bribes would be useless thus giving the FBI time to prepare a sting operation. "They also do not have any sobaya." James was referring to the lack of noodle shops in the Denver area, which did not have a large Asian population.

One of the junior bosses had poured Saizo a glass of sake. "We are doing business with some gaijin?"

Kishimoto crooked up a soft black eyebrow, he was suspicious of dealing with non-Asians.

"They are not gurentai- I hope?" The junior boss added, nodding to his superior to show that he believed all foreigners to be juvenile deliquents. "Some young ones trying to make a name for themselves."

James chuckled at the joke. He didn't like the junior bosses, who were always trying to climb up the Yakuza ladder of authority. They tended to be meddlesome and wanted to push business in the U.S.  Not just amphetamines for drugs, but also by investing in American corporations to launder money. "No, Ikeda assured me these gaijin can be trusted." Kotsu felt funny using the term for foreigner.  He was a foreigner in his own country, he was a foreigner among these men even though they thought he was Japanese born and raised.  Jimmy felt like a foreigner in his own skin lately.

"Good, good," Saizo said and sat down on the couch, unbuttoning the top button of his shirt.

"The initial meeting is tomorrow."  He explained as the rest of the group of bosses shared a glass of sake before discussing business.

"Very well Kotsu, I am sure you handled all the arrangements." Saizo said without a second thought, knowing his advisor was able to handle the arrangements.

The undercover FBI had the Yakuza boss's implicit trust. Yes, James thought, everything was going according to plan.

Part 5

Surveillance Van outside
MORI Japanese Restaurant
Denver, CO

"What if I cut my hair?" JD said, as he tucked his chin length hair behind his ears, the motion interfered with the headset he was wearing to listen to the conversation in the restaurant. He wouldn't miss much in the second to take off the set and place it back on; Vin and Ezra were inside with Ikeda and the rest of Yakuza, including James.

"Give it up, JD." Buck replied from the front seat.  The binoculars he was holding shook as he chuckled.

The young agent tapped his sneaker against the floor of the van. "Lifts! I can put lifts in my shoes." People had told him it was his height that made him look so young, so maybe if he could gain an inch.

Sometimes he hated being cooped up in the van or at the computer.  It seemed like Ezra and the others were always doing the exciting stuff.  The adrenaline rush from yelling "ATF" as JD hastily entered into a building only lasted so long, going undercover would be an ultimate high. In light of the recent going-ons, the young agent thought he shouldn't mention his thoughts out loud.  He should especially avoid using the word 'high.' Everything was better now, and everyone's attention was focussed on the case but JD didn't want to pick at a just healed scab and he didn't want to remind himself that he had acted like an idiot.

Josiah shook his head, and laughed as he kept an eye on the grainy picture provided by the small video camera that JD had set up in a plant earlier in Mori's. The young agent had to place it in the foliage because the team did not want to make the owner aware in case he was involved in some level with the Yakuza. "Brother, I'm sure one of these days you'll get your chance."

Chris sighed, listening intently to the conversation in the restaurant, but still aware of the discussion in the van. "With all the guns in schools I'm sure I'm gonna be needing you."

Dunne snorted, not at Larabee but what he had just over heard.

"Don't be too happy about it, JD." Nathan added when he heard JD's muffled laugh. He was also sitting in the front seat next to Buck keeping an eye on Mori's. "Guns in schools don't make our lives easier."

Dunne shook his head. "Oh no, it's not that, Vin just said 'no' to sushi." The sharpshooter had the justifiable reputation of being a human garbage disposal.  He liked all types of food, and made JD look like he was a picky eater. The young agent's mother always blessed his appetite.  JD wondered what she would say about Vin.

Wilmington put his binoculars down and stepped into the rear of the van, next to his roommate. "That boy said no to food? I don't believe it!" Buck picked up the spare headset and pressed it against his ear in hopes he would hear Tanner. "JD make me a copy of that tape."

Dunne nodded, and gave his roommate the thumbs up, until he saw Chris glaring at him. "That's not a good idea, Buck." JD said solemnly at which Wilmington winked. There was always some prank happening in the office with Vin as the mastermind behind it.  Buck and JD just liked to have some ammunition for future use. Secretly, though it was what the young agent most enjoyed about team-the sense of fraternity.  Dunne loved going to work and loved hanging out with his co-workers.  It had all almost been threatened.

"Everything is going well on my end." Josiah reclined back in his chair and pointed to the screen of images. "Relaxed body language." There on the video was Ikeda, Ezra and Vin and two men from the pictures the FBI had shown the team.  On the other side of the low table was James sitting next to Saizo and two other men, bodyguards flanked the entrance and two more were loitering outside.

"Are you trying to jinx us Josiah?" Buck commented from the front as he sat in the passenger side of the van. "And me without my lucky chicken." He placed the strap of the binocular over his head and somehow ended up hitting his nose with the binocular lens. "Oww."

"I was enjoying a little injury free moment." Nathan said under his breath.  He glanced at the mustached agent and since there was no blood went back to staring at Mori's.

Chris sighed and JD shrugged his shoulders and tried to surpress a smile. Larabee was serious especially with two men inside, undercover. But, so far there was no sign of trouble.

"What's gaijin?" JD said, puzzled at the strange term.  "Saizo keeps saying it."

"Foreigners," Chris replied without looking at Dunne.  Instead he scrutinized the video feed, checking to make sure his agents were fine.  JD figured he was still spooked by the last meeting Ezra and Vin had with Ikeda.

"Our gaijin seem to be trusted by Ikeda and the others." Josiah said as he moved out of the way so that Chris would have an unobstructed view.

"Yep," JD nodded. "'Cause Ezra just said something in Japanese." Dunne reminded himself that if he stood a better chance to go undercover if he'd learn a foreign language.  He had excelled in Latin in high school, too bad it was not a spoken language.  Maybe he could have Casey give him private Spanish lessons.  It would be a great excuse to use to spend more time with her.  Hell, with his luck he'd end up having to go under in a high school and learn Spanish by picking it up as an elective. JD tapped the console in front of him.  He was still young, and as Josiah had often told him he had to work on his patience.

"Think they'll make plans for the actual exchange?" Buck said as he momentarily placed the binoculars down and rubbed his eyes. The meeting seemed to be breaking up after 2 hours.  JD couldn't wait until it wrapped up. His butt had fallen asleep and he was hungry.  Chris had banned everything except water in the surveillance van after Dunne had spilled a Mountain Dew on the computer. JD still winced at the sticky memory.

"Doesn’t sound like it." Larabee replied, writing out some notes and questions that he would ask Vin and Ezra later in the conference room.

"Think Vin's friend will get word to us so we can make plans ahead of time?" JD asked as he took his headset off and held one of the earphones against his right ear. The young agent liked James; he seemed to be cool.  He had that air of mystery that Vin, Ezra and Chris had about them.  Dunne knew they had been involved in some sort of sh**, but Buck had warned him never to ask about it.  JD decided he needed to cultivate some mystery around himself that would make him look older.

On the television screen the occupants of the restaurant bowed to each other and shook hands. "We'll see." Chris replied.

Shinde mo ienai
Translation: I'll die before I tell you what really went on.

Denver, Colorado

It had been gnawing at Vin for days. Even now as Vin drove to work, he was still pondering. Tanner saw something in the glint of Jimmy's eyes at Mori's restaurant.  It was just a flicker and the sharpshooter had taken the moment to study it.  That's why he had waved off the passed sushi.

JD and Buck had harassed him about saying no to food.  They had gone so far as to make a video using the as a background the words, 'Just Say No!' Then the next picture was of a piece of sushi with an 'X' through it.  In the background could be heard the waiter at Mori's asking Vin,


And Vin responding, "No."

The tape was screened in the conference room.  At first there was a pause and the team looked at Vin, nervous that he would be upset at the roommates for poking fun at cocaine incident.

JD shifted nervously in his chair. "I told you so." He mumbled to Buck.

Tanner saw Wilmington gulp, and figured he better let them off the hook. . .in a minute or so. "You two have way too much time on your hands." Vin announced in a low voice, not looking at the two troublemakers sensing they were sweating.

"I . . ." JD squeaked.

Chris cleared his throat, and glared at the twosome. "I have some paperwork with the names Agent Wilmington and Dunne on it."

Buck nodded, accepting the punishment.

At that point the sharpshooter smiled then started to laugh.  The others joined him.  The video had been funny, but Dunne and Wilmington's reaction were priceless.

Vin lowered the radio so that he could think. The tunes were interrupting his thought process. The streets were still deserted so at the next stop light Tanner executed a U-turn with the Jeep. He pulled his cellphone out of his suede jacket pocket and pressed the number 2.  The phone speedily dialed the numbers and he got the Chris's voice mailbox.

"I'll be in later." Tanner said as he maneuvered the steering wheel.  "I'm checking on a snitch." Vin added the excuse.  They had just received the preliminaries on another case.  The sharpshooter wanted it to seem as though he was doing some research instead of letting Larabee know he was planning on tailing James.

Tanner pulled his rumpled, soiled baseball cap from the glove compartment, and tucked his hair up as he stopped at a red light.  In a few minutes he was sitting on a bench outside of the hotel, with a newspaper propped in front of him.

James had told them that the Yakuza contingent was planning on a busy schedule while they were in Colorado.  Vin knew that with a little patience they would eventually emerge from the Giorgio Hotel and hopefully Tanner would get some questions answered.

He stayed on the hard wooden seat for an hour before the emergence of James and some other men that Vin recognized as Saizo and some junior bosses.  Kotsu's head was bent in conversation with his boss, only a hair's breath away.  It seemed so intimate in a way.

Damn, Vin hoped he wasn't right as he roughly turned the page of the newspaper. Jimmy a traitor?

Tanner watched as the FBI agent escorted Saizo to an awaiting vehicle. As the twosome stood by the limousine, Kotsu looked up and saw Vin.  He frowned slightly, but quickly hid the emotion.  In a few minutes the Yakuza senior boss was in the car with the others and Jimmy was waving them off.

Vin didn't look back and made his way to the adjacent park, across from the hotel.  There he walked a distance in the park and waited, leaning against a tree.  He watched as the ducks whimsically played in a pond across the way until he heard the approaching footsteps.

"You gonna tell me what's going on?" Tanner said to Jimmy, as the FBI agent walked past the sharpshooter and also directed his attention to the pond.

James stood ramrod straight. "It's better you don't know."

Vin stepped away from the tree, clenching his fists angry he was getting entangled in something he knew nothing about. "You have my friends involved in this."

Kotsu placed his arms on his hips. "Please, you really believe that any of us isn't expendable?" Jimmy shook his head. "Tsk, tsk, you should know better not to get close to anyone."

"You don't f***in' know me or my friends." Vin raised his voice to a harsh whisper, facing Kotsu. "What the hell are you up to? You double dealing?"

James turned, squinted and laughed.  He stared at Vin a minute longer before continuing. "Look, I know what you did."

Tanner stopped pacing, berating himself for not becoming suspicious sooner.  Vin remembered the man he had met as an eighteen- year- old enlistee.  What happened in ten years that had changed Kotsu so much? But Vin needed another question answered first. "What I did?" He finally asked.

James looked around, making sure he was not followed or being spied upon.  Then he backed up a few paces so he was in line with Tanner but not looking at him. "I reviewed the videotape and I know Ikeda's ways." Kotsu mimicked Ikeda's high pitch voice. "Don't you want a taste of the merchandise?"

Vin didn't want to react but he heard the growl rolling in his throat.  James must have heard the animal sound.

"I figured as much and I figured that your 'friends' are involved in one huge cover-up." Kotsu stared at Vin looking for more of a reaction.

Tanner looked away, trying to keep his face a void of emotion but he felt the muscles in his cheek twitch as he ground his teeth.

"Some rumors here and there and your team's careers go down the tubes." He paused for a second to let that thought sink in. "So, Tanner, we'll forget this meeting and I'll forget what I know." James gestured with his hand to show he was wiping the slate clean.

Vin reached out and squeezed the FBI agent's arm.  He could feel the bicep under his hand beneath the silky suit. "That'll be easy since I don't know what the f*** is happening, Kotsu."

Jimmy looked down at the hand gripping his arm.  Then he stared at Vin, who released the arm and gave James a shove.  Kotsu adjusted his suit sleeve. "Have Ezra stay close to you, and you both should be okay." The FBI agent said as he walked away. He then turned around. "Don't worry about Ikeda either."

Tanner wanted to run after Kotsu and beat him to a pulp.  Instead Vin had to settle at leaning his head against the gritty tree bark. The sharpshooter could attack Kotsu, but that would bring about too many questions from the Bureau and James knew about the cocaine. That stupid coke refused to be swept under the rug, now because of it Tanner was being blackmailed into silence. He and his friends were involved in some dark conspiracy with Jimmy, and Vin had to decide how to warn his friends.

ATF Offices

11th Floor
Federal Building
Denver, CO

Ezra typed hesitantly, filling in the boxes on the computer form.  Standish didn't mind reports where he wrote freely, but having to stay in boxes always grated on the undercover agent and hampered his manipulation of the English language.

Standish pecked away until Vin came in, and quietly took a seat in the guest chair in front of Ezra's desk.  Tanner was silent, but the southerner sensed the heaviness in the air.

The undercover agent cleared his throat. "Agent Tanner I would love to play, 'Guess what the ATF agent is thinking', but I am unable to presently as I am doing my expense report." With a flourish Ezra pressed the 'enter' key. "The accountants do not believe that a Kiton is necessary."

Tanner seemed to slouch even more in the garish, wooden chair.  Ezra wondered how that was possible in the uncomfortable chair that Standish suspected was originally in a 1950's interrogation room. He was starting to believe that Vin had had a lack of skeletal structure.  Those thoughts were interrupted by the sharpshooter's question. "Is it?"

Ezra lifted an eyebrow, forgetting the previous conversation. The southerner smiled as he remembered the beautiful, tailored suit.  "Why, if I wish to attract a better level of criminal then yes, a ten thousand dollar suit commands respect."

The sharpshooter whistled between his teeth. "Hell, Ez, a 10 grand suit should walk, talk and do your job all by itself."

Standish hit the print key and listened to the distinct humming of the laser printer. "Am I getting a preview of what our leader will say when I ask him to sign off on this?" Even Ezra had noticed that Chris and Vin seemed on some occasions to read each other's thoughts.

Vin shrugged his shoulders in response.

The southerner folded his hands, and stared at the longhaired agent.  He still had yet to discover why Vin was in his office. The sharpshooter should have been ecstatic seeing as the whole team was covering up his cocaine incident. "Are you going to tell me why you are languishing in my office? I do become tired of reading minds and body language." Ezra smiled as he added, "I've meant to ask you if you get tired of it to?"

"Sometimes," Tanner closed his eyes for a moment. "Especially when I figure out that my friend is up to no good." Vin said in a low drawl.

Ezra looked around to make sure no one was listening in on their conversation. The rest of the team seemed distracted with their work, and in addition the cacophony of fax machines and telephones muffled their dialogue.  "Agent Kotsu?"

The sharpshooter did not look up; he tapped his fingertips together in contemplation. "I thought something wasn't right, and well, something is going to happen at the exchange."

Ezra recalled their conversation in the car, when they were driving to Kojay's.  Standish sighed. "Must you always be cryptic?"

Vin snorted. "Sorry, all Jimmy told me is that you should stick close." Tanner fidgeted in his chair as Ezra asked the most important question.

Standish rubbed his eyes, on these days he really wished he had gone into the financial services industry. "Have you told Chris yet?"

Vin shook his head. The longhaired agent paled slightly under the fluorescent lights. "First the coke and now this-and Kotsu knows about the coke too."

The southerner understood the sharpshooter's feelings.  Just as one situation was resolved, another one was rearing its head. Ezra's stomach also churned at the thought that someone outside of the seven knew about the cover-up.  Plainly, Standish didn't like this playing field; they now had to trust another individual to keep quiet.  They needed to talk to Chris. The undercover agent stood up. "Let's go see our leader." He picked up the form from the printer.  "Maybe I can slip this in while he's distracted."

Vin smirked and followed Ezra, as usual without knocking the two entered the leader's office.  Tanner sat down, while Standish stood. He needed to be present in the office and stand witness at what turn his life would take.

Chris had the phone in his hand as if he was supposed to make a call.  Slowly, he placed the phone back in its cradle.

Nervously, the sharpshooter cleared his throat. "Figurin' you ought to know that Kotsu is blackmailing me. . .all of us."  Vin glanced away for a moment before continuing. "He knows about the coke, and I know that there is something wrong with the whole operation."

Ezra watched as Larabee tightly squeezed his eyes shut and ran his hand through his blonde hair.  Standish knew the thoughts going through Chris's mind.  They were the same ones that had assailed him moments ago. In a way it was like seeing your life pass before your eyes.

"Will he keep quiet?" Larabee said as he stood up and took in the view from his window.

"Yeah, as long as he knows he has us over a barrel." Vin replied as he came forward on his chair and rested his head against his hands. "Said something about taking care of Ikeda too. I got no idea what that means."

Ezra stepped forward so that he was in between both men.  In those moments of silence Standish knew everything could come to an end.  The southerner felt the fear permeate throughout the office. One man was about to destroy seven.

Vin broke the silence, standing he stated, "I'm sorry about all this." The longhaired agent looked down.  "Chris, I need to resign."

The undercover agent placed his hand upon Tanner's shoulder. "Vin, don't be hasty." Standish wanted to at least go down with a fight.  He didn't like being the mark in a con, and he didn't want Kotsu to win either.

"I am going to agree with Ezra, cowboy." Chris gave the undercover agent a nod.  Larabee took his seat once more.   "At least we know we have to be careful."

"Extra diligent." The southerner added as he pushed the sharpshooter back into his chair. Standish was glad that he didn't need to convince Larabee, as he had to do in the saloon.  Ezra was trying to see if he could beat the odds and only be glared by the leader on a weekly basis instead of daily basis.

Alas, the Larabee glare was directed at him again. "Don't push it, Ezra."

Standish had forgotten that Chris hated to be reminded that sometimes the undercover agent and the leader agreed. The southerner folded his expense report and placed it in his suit pocket.  Perhaps now was not the time.

"We'll get through this." Larabee again picked up the phone and punched two numbers.  "Buck, get everyone in my office."

Within a minute JD, Buck, Nathan and Josiah, holding a mug of coffee, were gathered in the office.  Ezra listened as Chris explained the situation. One by one each of the men extended a caring tendril to Vin who was seated rigidly.  Standish watched as Josiah squeezed the sharpshooter's shoulder.  Buck ruffled Tanner's long hair and commented, "Hell, Junior."  Nathan gave Vin a nod and JD sat next to Tanner on the arm of the chair.

The southerner observed it all, enjoying the protectiveness of the group as they closed ranks.  Somehow even though technically the odds where against Team Seven, Ezra thought they may be able to pull a miracle.  The undercover agent admonished himself-realists did not believe in miracles. Truly, he had to curtail his time with Josiah.

 "We need to try to figure out what is going on with Kotsu." Larabee said pointedly as each man.  "I want to know * everything * about him."

Ezra began to think of people at the Bureau that owed him some favors.  Surely, someone had fond memories of his time with the FBI.

In moments the team filed out on a mission to save the their friends.  Vin paused a moment and held out his hand to Chris, who grasped the forearm.  "Thanks," Tanner drawled.

Carefully, Standish watched the scene and slipped the form onto Larabee's desk.  He backed out quietly, and was halfway to his desk when he heard the roar.


Chris's howl though came second to the cellphone that was ringing with urgency.  Standish ducked into Buck's office area, nodding at Wilmington to keep silent.  The undercover agent took a deep breath and finally hit the OK button on the phone.

"Simpson," Ezra said into the phone.  "Yes, Mister Ikeda. It was an intriguing meeting. Are you perhaps calling me with good news?" Standish closed his eyes, hoping that they would have more time to dig up some information on Kotsu before the exchange. "Tomorrow…" The southerner said trying to quell the surprise in his voice. "Excellent…for the agreed upon price?"

Buck roughly scribbled out 'TOMORROW?'  on a post –it note and held it up for the undercover agent.  Ezra nodded and Wilmington pressed down the ends of his mustache in thought.

"Yes, very fair. . . .My associate and I will be there."  Standish concluded as he closed the phone and pushed down the antenna.

Wilmington had crumpled the note and held his closed hand against his forehead. "Sh**, sh**, sh**, Ez.  This ain't good."

"I agree wholeheartedly, Agent Wilmington."  Ezra said as he recovered from the unexpected call. He eyed the office that he had just left.   Standish adjusted his suit. "I will inform Agents Larabee and Tanner."

"And I'll tell everyone else." Buck said, and then added with a grumble. "I hate to be the messenger."

Ezra could see through the slightly ajar door that Vin was still in Chris's office. Literally, there would be only a few calm moments before the storm.  Wilmington was right, the messenger was not an enviable position.

Without knocking Standish entered. Larabee held up the form the undercover agent had sneaked into the inbox tray.  Scowling, Chris said, "Ezra, ten grand for a suit? You've got to be kidding me." The leader crumpled up the paper and threw it in the trash.

Standish blinked at his hard work being discarded.  He resolved that one day he would get the custom made Kiton suit.  Then he remembered why he had come to Chris's office. "Well actually that is the least of our problems." Ezra gave a side-glance to Vin, who was leaning against a set of file cabinets. "I received a phone call.  The exchange has been arranged for tomorrow." The words hung in the air for a moment before the sharpshooter attacked the file cabinet with an elbow.

The clanging sound resonated for a minute. "Damn!"

Larabee remained frozen for a moment, his blonde brows knit together in thought.  The noise brought a reaction. "Keep it together, Vin."

Tanner nodded and rubbed his elbow.  Ezra watched as the sharpshooter's Adam's apple danced in his throat as he swallowed his feelings. Standish swallowed in empathy.

Earlier in the morning the southerner had embraced the day, looking forward to time spent in the office.  Who would have known by the conclusion of that morning Standish would be wondering if he would be alive tomorrow?

Chris turned to Ezra who had stayed silent after he had delivered the news. "I want everyone in the conference room, now."

The undercover agent nodded.  He left the office and went to find his associates. He shuddered as he saw them gathered together by Nathan's desk. Seeing them together made Ezra think that as much as Ezra believed he was in control-he truly wasn't. There were too many variables in life. The cocaine incident and Kotsu illustrated that fact.  Agent Standish was scared to the core.

Wash blood with blood
Yakuza saying

Warehouse District
Denver, CO

Again Vin found himself in another warehouse, this time Ikeda was on his side of the table and Kotsu; his one time friend was on the other side with the Yakuza. Tanner rubbed the back of his neck yet again in an attempt to mat down the hairs that had prickled with the knowledge that something was going to happen.

It didn't help either that the sharpshooter hadn't gotten enough sleep. The team had gone home at midnight to get some rest.  After tossing and turning for a few hours, Vin had decided to head into work.  At the same time he pulled the Jeep into his space, Larabee pulled in right behind him. In silence they went upstairs and spent the time with a cup of strong coffee and the rising sun.

"Chris, I have a bad feeling about this." The sharpshooter said as he swirled the remnants of the thick black liquid in his mug.

"We're all in this together, cowboy."  Larabee had replied.  The sentiment should have been comforting to Vin along with the knowledge that this time JD was able to wire the warehouse for sound and video. But Tanner still felt uncomfortable because Jimmy, as a FBI agent, knew also they were being watched.

Kotsu was on the other side of the table enjoying some sake, which had been shared by all the men present in symbol of the deal coming to fruition.  Ezra was by Vin's side talking in low tones to Ikeda.

"I trust that a substantial deposit has been made into my Swiss bank account?" Standish was saying into Ikeda's ear.

The Asian man smiled and patted the southerner on the back.  "Don't worry.  The Yakuza can be trusted.  We are very rich men now."

Ezra smiled back and turned to Vin, whispering, "I think we can leave soon."

Tanner nodded, hoping that perhaps they could leave the warehouse unscathed and Jimmy had made some idle threat to scare Vin away from looking into Kotsu's activities. Vin could almost lull himself into believing that until he eyed the exits.  He had to quell the feeling of being trapped as he saw Ikeda's men blocked all doors. It had been decided that weapons would not be allowed, although in the distance there were crates of weapons, none of them loaded.

Suddenly, as if in slow motion the man guarding the weapons fell to the ground.  Vin was momentarily bewildered, his mind had wrapped around the thought that the weapons were not loaded and yet the man had fallen from a gunshot, which was blossoming, red on his chest.

Roughly, the sharpshooter grabbed a portion of Ezra's suit and dragged him down to the cement ground.  Vin had remembered that Jimmy had warned him to keep Standish close.  They crashed to the ground and watched as one by one the Yakuza and Ikeda's men were struck down.  The victims tried to run, they yelled, shooting in the rafters to an unseen, silent assassin.  It was all to no avail, as they each fell mercilessly to the whispering bullets.

Tanner could hear his own harsh breathing echoed in Ezra.  They were forced to play the part of helpless witnesses, a role neither was accustomed to playing. Standish pointed to Jimmy across the way who was crouched in the corner.  Slowly, they began to crawl to Kotsu, unsure if the silence meant they were safe or if they would be the next casualties. Finally Vin heard words of salvation.

"ATF!" Chris yelled as he stormed in the door on the east side.

Buck came in from the opposite side, Glock raised. "God help us."

Tanner could only imagine how gruesome the site was.  He had felt the blood seeping in his clothes as he crawled on the ground.  The warehouse was tainted with blood and fallen bodies.

"Ezra, Vin, you all right?" Josiah boomed as the others filed in, securing the scene.

"We seem to be in one piece."   Standish commented, as he got to his knees and looked disgustingly at his stained jacket and pants.

The sharpshooter didn't respond, instead he kept glaring at Kotsu, who was appraising the site before him.  "Did you get the shooter?" Jimmy asked as he stepped nonchalantly over the body of Saizo.

The team had dispersed looking for the shooter.  Dunne and Jackson stayed in the area.  Nathan was checking to see if any of the Yakuza or Ikeda's men were still alive.

JD shook his head, and kept his gun raised at the FBI agent. "We lost video and came in when we heard the yelling."

It was the smug smile that Jimmy gave that set Vin off.  Tanner had no doubt that Kotsu had arranged for the death of these men and risked the lives of Team 7 in the process. "Son-of –a –bitch!" The sharpshooter yelled as he heaved himself off the floor and propelled himself at his former friend.

Warehouse 321
Denver, CO

Buck headed up the stairs of the warehouse with Josiah following behind him.  Chris had taken the steps on the opposite end of the warehouse.  Warily, they climbed the steps looking for the shooter.

Wilmington looked down to the massacre below, bodies had fallen haphazardly and blood pooled around the victims.  The mustached agent gave a quick glance to his roommate to make sure he was fine.  However, it was the scuffle between Vin and Kotsu, which got Buck's attention.

Wilmington gestured with his finger for Josiah to look down; from across the way he made eye contact with Chris.  Larabee quickly glanced downward and shook his head.  Buck flashed a smile.  It was good to see Junior riled and his friend, James, deserved to be on the opposite end of Tanner's temper.   The ladies man only hoped that Vin could win this match, and that Buck could find the shooter so he could go back down and watch the fight.

Hell, Buck thought, he wanted to get some licks in himself.  Tanner had a hell of a time of it lately, what with Chris, his best friend and boss actually considering firing the sharpshooter.  Wilmington had been placed in the unaccustomed position of defending Tanner's actions to Larabee.  General weirdness continued when Vin revealed that his friend was up to no good.  Buck didn't like people who put the team in danger.

The mustached agent snapped his head up, he could have sworn he heard something.  He placed his hand out so that Sanchez would stop and listen.  All Wilmington heard though were punches and kicks being thrown below echoing through the expansive warehouse.

Chris had made it to the second level and was weaving in and out of the rafters, hunting.  Buck and Josiah reached the same level.  Sanchez gestured he was going left to search.  Wilmington heard his boots crunch over the dust and debris that littered the wood floor. But, he also heard another sound.  Buck whistled to get Chris's attention and motioned that he was going to check out an area by the windows.  There were planks of wood leaning against the wall, providing a hiding space for someone. Larabee followed a few feet behind, covering Wilmington.

"This is the ATF," the mustached agent stated. "Come on out of there." Buck noted the movement between the slats of gray wood. Wilmington quickly dove for cover as a shot was fired going wide and landing in rafter above.  Chris began shooting, as did Josiah, who came in running at the sound of gunfire.  The assassin continued to return fire even though he was outgunned and the planks of wood protecting him were splintering under the assault.  Over the hail of bullets Buck heard a roar of a scream as the shooter finally revealed himself.

Dressed in black from head to toe with a sniper rifle against his shoulder he began firing haphazardly at the ATF agents.  Wilmington and the others returned fire, watching as bullets hit the black clad sniper.  The assassin continued to fire his remaining rounds and then turned, ignoring Buck, Chris and Josiah and fired at the window.

"No!" Wilmington yelled, knowing the guy was going to jump out the window with the answers to some major questions. The sniper was dying anyway but perhaps they could have gotten a deathbed confession.

"Damn it!"  Larabee said, as he charged forward-too late as the sniper stepped out to his death.

The three ATF agents looked out the jagged window.

"Are you guys all right?" Nathan yelled as he ran up the stairs.

"We're fine, Nate." Buck replied as he stepped away from the window getting his full at seeing the crumpled, wasted body below.

"Then your assistance is needed downstairs." Ezra said, coming up the flight of stairs that Chris had used.

"And you left JD down there to add to the trouble?"  Wilmington made his way to the staircase quickly.  The kid was a magnet for trouble and with Vin and James in volatile moods . . .

Denver, Colorado

"Go, go, I'll watch Vin's back." JD yelled over the gunfire that had erupted.  Tanner and Kotsu were oblivious to the noise as they battled.

Dunne couldn't believe it when the sharpshooter threw himself on top of Kotsu and began punching.  At first James hadn't defended himself against the attack and soon his nose was broken and bleeding.  The sensation must have prompted the FBI agent to react because right after he pushed Vin off and began to fight back.

JD stood mesmerized by the primal combatants, as were Nathan and Ezra.  Jackson had stopped checking on the bodies to watch.

Dunne had never seen fighting at such a fever's pitch.  James began using his elbows, slicing through the air with uppercuts followed by a spinning backfist to Vin's head.

Tanner deflected the blow, but was caught by an unexpected hook kick that got him in the kidney.  Vin stumbled slightly.

Ezra stepped forward, but stopped when he heard the gunfire. JD looked up to the second floor where the rest of the team had gone.  The young agent looked back at Vin and then glanced at the second floor forlornly. In a minute they came to a decision and JD stayed behind.

"Stay put," Standish ordered as he and Nathan headed upstairs to check on Josiah, Chris and Buck.

So JD focussed on watching Tanner, hoping he wasn't going to get killed and that the others were fine. Vin threw a low sidekick to Kotsu's knee causing the man to howl in pain.  James tried in retaliation to sweep the sharpshooter's foot but Vin avoided the sweep and sent a backfist to Kotsu's jaw.

The fight did not stay contained; the two former friends used the warehouse floor.  James threw one of the metal chairs at Vin, which he was able to dodge.  However Tanner then found himself being attacked by an unexpected wheel kick followed by a jumping front kick off the front foot.  Tanner landed hard on the floor.

JD wanted to help.  He still had his gun drawn.  Dunne could see Vin's lip was cut and blood was streaming down his neck.  The young agent gulped, he didn't want to stand by and let his friend get beaten. There was also the unsaid rule about shooting someone in the back.  Luckily, he didn't have to make any decision as another hand came over his gun hand.

"Let him finish it." Buck said, giving Dunne a reassuring pat on the back. JD was relieved as the rest of the team came down the stairs no worse for the wear.  Chris came running forward as he saw Kotsu lifting another gray, folding chair ready to strike Vin who was still on the ground.

JD watched as Buck spun around and faced the scowling leader.  Wilmington stretched out his arms to block Larabee.  "It's Junior's fight, Chris."

Larabee looked ready to pummel his old friend. JD's attention was quickly diverted to Kotsu who was yelling, as he was about to bring the chair crashing down.  Finally, Vin came out of his daze and rolled out of the way.  The chair clanged against the concrete floor and the sharpshooter, while still down, kicked out at James's leg.

Kotsu bent down to stop the aching in his knee, this gave Vin enough time to get up and send a roundhouse kick to the back of the FBI agent's head. Floundering from the blow, James fell face first on the concrete.

JD could hear Vin's haggard breathing; the team stepped forward closing the few feet of space they had allowed the two men.  Roughly, Vin turned Kotsu over and shot out a y-strike to James's throat.

The team heard the gargling noises the FBI agent was making as he was trying to speak.  Tanner eased up on the tension he was putting on James's neck.  In one breath the mystery was solved.

"They killed my brother.  They all killed my brother."

ATF Offices
Federal Building
Denver, Colorado

Tanner had released the y-strike on Kotsu's throat out of surprise.  "Since when do you have a brother?"  The sharpshooter had asked, knowing that James had never mentioned having a brother in the past. Vin would have remembered his friend having family.  The reason why he had become friendly with the FBI agent was because he believed they had similar backgrounds.

Jimmy didn't have a chance to answer as the FBI agents followed by the local police stormed into the warehouse.

"Larabee, we want to take that man into custody."  Agent Sullivan strode in, barking his order to Chris as he pointed at Jimmy.

The other agents and police had spread out, taking in the scene.  Someone yelled out, "Get the coroner in here."

When Agent Sullivan reached the eight men, his eyes opened wide at Kotsu lying on the ground, beaten. "What the hell happened here?" The agent assisted James to his feet, then signaled for a young man wearing an FBI windbreaker. "Have this man taken care of," Sullivan told the agent. "Then read him his rights and take him to headquarters." The young agent nodded, and escorted Kotsu away.

Jimmy turned and winked at Vin.  The sharpshooter began to step forward. Tanner was reeling. He wanted to send Kotsu to hell and back again.  They still had no answers and James was walking away. Tanner felt anxious.  The sharpshooter had no idea what James would tell the FBI- maybe about the cocaine? Did the Fibbies know about James's brother?  What would he say about the dead Yakuza? Vin felt the leader's hand on his shoulder squeezing his already sore body.

"So what the hell happened here, Larabee?" Sullivan asked again, suspiciously looking over the team.

Chris didn't answer right away.  Vin felt the hand on his shoulder drop and he turned to face Larabee.  The leader looked at the sharpshooter's appearance "Nathan, will you check him out." Chris said, shaking his head.

Tanner wanted to protest, he stepped his feet apart as if saying  he was standing his ground.  Larabee also was not to be deterred and pointed to Nathan.  "Move."

Vin did not want to comply, but he also knew that in his present state of mind he would be ineffective.  Chris was alert enough to walk the fine line of knowing how much information to reveal or not to reveal.  Shuffling, Tanner walked over to Jackson.  He paused a moment as he looked down and saw Ikeda's body.  Vin couldn't say he was sorry to see the bastard dead.  He had caused enough trouble.  Carefully, Tanner stepped over the body, afraid the Asian man would awaken from his dark slumber and force him to take another line of coke. The sharpshooter shivered at having to make that decision again.

Vin walked into Nathan's capable hands, grateful the medic had made peace with what the longhaired agent had done.  Tanner wondered if the incident would ever be far from his thoughts with Kotsu, a liability, running around.  The sharpshooter was not paying attention to the medic's ministrations.  He knew he wasn't hurt badly, just a little battered.  Vin continued to listen to Chris and Agent Sullivan.  Buck, JD, Ezra and Josiah moved in closer to Larabee in a show of protection.

"Larabee?" Mike Sullivan said impatiently. "I want some answers."

The leader replied  in a low voice filled with controlled anger. "That man," Chris gestured to Kotsu who was being escorted out the building, "has your answers. My team is leaving."

Sullivan's face flamed bright red and he began to sputter. "We may have questions for you."

The FBI agents and local police stopped working and gave the team a wide berth as they left.  Vin watched as Buck hung back for a minute so he would be the last one to exit the warehouse.  With a wink to Tanner, Wilmington yelled, "Elvis has left the building!"

They headed back to the office, and to the conference room. Nathan stopped by his desk to pick up the medical kit he kept there.  Jackson proceeded to disinfect the open cut over Vin's eye and the cut on his lip.  Instead of the metallic taste of blood lingering in Tanner's mouth he tasted a mixture of peroxide and antibiotic ointment.

"Can you breathe okay?"  Jackson asked, as he looked at his handiwork.

"I didn't break any ribs, Nate." Vin gingerly licked his lips. The others were discussing the case.  JD was running his laptop to see what he could bring up on James Kotsu. "And I'm not going to the hospital."

Nathan raised his brows and placed a hand on Tanner's lower back.

Vin hissed and flinched away.

"I saw the shot to the kidney, Vin." Jackson said, handing the sharpshooter two ibuprofen and a glass of water.  "If you start urinating blood you need to get to a hospital."

Ezra, who was sitting across the table laughed.  Tanner didn't know what was funny. Standish looked  a mess with the blood stained suit. "You realize that Agent Tanner's usual process is to be close to death before he goes to a hospital."

"Shut up, Ezra. I'm fine." Vin winced as the cut on his lip opened again.

Buck interrupted the exchange as he pointed to the glass conference door. "Lucy, we have a lot of esplainin' to do."

"No more Nick at night, Buck." JD mumbled as he closed his computer.  Travis was coming into the conference room.

"Finally,' Ezra muttered, as he brushed at some dried blood, "the esteemed Judge Travis can see my level of disrepair and sign off on a new suit."

"Boys," Travis said as he entered the room. " I heard about the blood bath today."  The Judge pointedly stared at Standish's crimson covered attire.

"We had nothing to do with that, Judge."  Chris replied from his chair at the head of the table. The table was calm, patiently waiting for Travis.

Travis waved his hand. "I know.  The FBI's inside man said some rival Yakuza clan hired an assassin."  The Judge looked over each man. "You were mighty lucky to make it out of there." Travis left, leaving a stunned group.

"I think we all need a drink."  Buck stood up and the others followed him out, heading to the saloon.

J. Watson's (The Saloon)
Denver, Colorado

Chris sat sipping his beer as did the others, trying to wash away the dissatisfaction from the bust.  The conversation had ebbed and flowed reflecting the quietness of the bar early in the evening on a weeknight. JD was trying out loud to make sense of it all.

"Will we ever know what happened?"

Larabee had watched as Tanner fidgeted and kept his eyes downcast. Even against the cushion of the booth Chris could tell that Vin was uncomfortable. Bruises were already developing on his face and knuckles, by the morning there would probably be a  colorful pattern tattooed on his body by Jimmy's kicks and punches.

"Damn, Chris, you know that he set it up." Buck's mustache twitched as he spoke. "He told us it had something to do with his brother."

"He told me he had no family." Vin said as he licked the scab that had knitted over his lip.

Josiah relaxed back into the booth. "I think, Brothers, it is time to move on." Sanchez topped off his half-empty mug of beer. "We all have our demons. It's on his conscience. We all have enough on ours." Chris saw Vin flinch at the remark.  Larabee knew the sharpshooter was thinking about the cocaine, but the leader knew that the large agent was talking in generalities. Sanchez finished his comments. "We got out of the situation-obviously he lied and it all ends."

Nathan cleared his throat. "You can't when the snake keeps coming back to bite you."

Ezra groaned, his eyes following Nathan's line of sight. "Dear Lord, won't the man go away. I have to throw away an Zanella suit because of him."

Chris almost smiled, not because he was happy to see Kotsu sauntering into the saloon with a coat over his arm, but he saw the damage Vin had inflicted.  James walked stiffly; his nose was taped, eyes showing the telltale bruising of a broken nose. Purple bruising could be seen above the collar of his shirt.

The FBI agent coughed as he made it to the table. "Just wanted to give my regards." Kotsu relaxed against the booth, shifting his coat to his other arm.

"Lovely, you may leave now." Ezra answered.  He had changed at the office before they left for the saloon.  Nathan practically had to tear the soiled suit from his hands. It was ruined and had to be disposed. At that moment Chris almost had felt sorry for Standish and considered approving a new fancy suit for the Southerner.

"Actually, I feel like I owe you something." Kotsu touched the white tape that secured his nose.

"I owe you a hell of a lot more than that." Vin stood up, but Chris tugged at his shirt and pulled him down.

Thankfully, Buck diffused the situation. "No, you want to gloat." Wilmington said  to James, then leaned into JD.  "It's a  bad guy thing."

"I was involved in a win-win situation." Kotsu began to explain. "Even when you became a variable in the whole equation," James gestured to Vin, "I was able to use –well, it all equals win."

Tanner looked into his beer mug.  Chris knew he was wondering if the cocaine incident would always come back to haunt him.  Unfortunately, Larabee did not have an answer.  It would never be brought up among the 6 men, but Kotsu was not one of them.

"What about your brother?" Dunne asked, filled with curiosity.  Chris glared at the young agent-he would have to talk with JD later about tact and keeping quiet.

"I had a younger brother, looked like you in fact." James smiled at the young agent. "When my parents died I was put under foster care. My aunt didn't think she could handle two boys, Neil, my brother, went to live with her."  Kotsu cleared his throat.  "A common story, but then I got a letter from Neil.  I left the army and took a job with the FBI."  Again the FBI agent's eyes fell on JD.  Dunne fidgeted at being stared.  "My kid brother thought it would be cool to follow in my footsteps so he joined the DEA."

"This is a touching story." Buck added wryly.

Kotsu's mouth formed a hard line. "He got killed in an amphetamines deal with the Yakuza up in Seattle.  Hell, I was the last to find out-the f***ing FBI hid it from me."  James gingerly touched his nose, and looked up as if fighting to control his emotions.

Josiah sighed. "So you got your revenge."

Revenge was something that Chris understood first hand.  It had consumed him, as he tried to seek out his wife and son's murderers.  It was always there, but luckily he had friends to stop him from crossing the line.  Kotsu didn't have that and the FBI bureaucrats made it worse. Larabee let his mind wander for a moment- the team had many near misses and sometimes the thought of losing one of the members had caused them to exact revenge.  The leader looked at all his men.  They had never killed anyone in cold blood.  The bad guys had always defended themselves and put up a fight.  That was the difference.

"And it all worked out for you."  Chris said in a low voice, not looking at the FBI agent.

James chuckled. "The FBI, CIA, hell, I gave them a gift.  These guys are untouchable-They have connections to the White House. No one is going to question my version of events.  I did everyone a favor-including your team." Kotsu smiled at Tanner.

"So won't the Yakuza nail your ass to the wall?" Vin asked, his blue eyes squinting at his one time friend.

"Thanks for asking, Tanner." James slipped slowly into his coat. "I'm heading to Japan now.  I'll be a hero for escaping the clutches of the American legal system. I'll move up the ranks and do a little more damage." Kotsu was struggling with the sleeves so he opted to hang the coat over his shoulders.  "Gentlemen, it was a pleasure doing business with you."

"Sir, you have overstayed your welcome."  Ezra replied wryly.

"Son-of-a bitch gets to walk away and I can't do anything about it cause I walked us all into the whole mess." Vin said, holding the beer mug shakily in his hand.

Chris watched as James left the saloon for his flight. Larabee could only hope they would never see the man again.  "He's a murderer and you had nothing to do with that, Vin." The leader said, snapping his attention back to the sharpshooter.  Tanner was going to have put the incident in a box and lock it in his conscience.

Chris sensed that Ezra was still feeling protective of Vin as he raised a glass and announced,  "A toast," the southerner continued, "To the past staying dead."

Larabee wondered at the strength of the team and the times ahead of them.  Would there be other times when he'd be involved in a cover-up? Would eventually the rug all the mistakes and wrongdoings had been swept under become so threadbare and worn that he would not recognize the unraveling of the team?

He looked at each of his men. If something like this happened again to Vin then the leader knew the sharpshooter would resign and live a lonely and solitary life.  The longhaired agent already was feeling guilty about placing the team in jeopardy.

Ezra of course wouldn't let that happen though. Standish was starting to grow satisfied with the little fish like Ikeda instead of the Yakuza.

JD had become a little older and wiser, and realized that although bravado, machismo and cockiness permeated the group, Team 7 were still humans and mortals like everyone else.

In the future Larabee had no doubt that Nathan wouldn't be so judgmental.  The medic would respect individualism and the experiences of others.

Josiah and Buck had become the group's staunch defenders.  They had shown Chris what was worth fighting for.

Chris thought about where he fit in –as leader and decision-maker.  He was the one that made tomorrow happen. He who had feared each day without a beloved wife and son, made it possible for this team to continue and if he had to take a few secrets to his grave then so be it. His conscience was fully accepting. Larabee raised his glass to complete Standish's toast. " If something doesn't kill you it only makes you stronger."

The team nodded in mutual understanding Buck winked at the sharpshooter.

"Chris, you don't have to worry, Junior and the rest of us aren't going to end up screwed up like that f*** up."

Josiah concluded the toast, pointing his glass toward the door. "And to the day of reckoning for others."


Without sunlight there is an absence of shadows.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Kobe, Japan

Yoshinori Watanabe, the oyabun of the Yamaguchi clan was calmly seated in his chair at the head of the kitchen table in Kyoto.  He had received the news from the United States.  He had been head of the clan for 35 years now, longer than anyone.  He had remained in power because of one truth: He knew everything.

Watanabe cracked his knuckles.  He hated to lose all those clan members, but they were gaining too much power and were posing a threat. He let Kotsu deal with them.  Yoshinori had already set in motion how he was going to deal with James Kotsu, FBI agent. In 24 hours he would be a distant memory.

Revenge came in all forms and it worked in the shadows.