Author’s Notes: This is set in the ATF universe, fifteen years after the inception of the Magnificent Team Seven. There is some indication of homosexuality, but it’s superficial and brief. This is, after all, a gen fic and focuses on seven men, ten years after they’ve ceased to be a team. This is also a deathfic, but it’s none of the Seven, it’s just a way to add angst to the story.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Pami Kae, Nora and Jan, who I am beginning to consider my very own Three Musketeers, chasing down all the stuff that I get wrong. Anything still lurking, I have no one to blame but myself.
Chris Larabee stood looking out across the night from the window of his home, watching the moonlight playing on the Potomac River. Quantico, Virginia... about as far from Denver, Colorado as he could be, both in location and in lifestyle. Although he’d been here for years, it still wasn’t what he thought of as HOME, although there were some very compelling reasons to be here. He raised the glass to his lips, sipping the wine that had replaced his usual bourbon several years ago.
So much had changed in the last ten years. Since his team, the Magnificent Seven, had been dissolved. He sighed. It hadn’t been because of death or destruction, but because of politics and budget cuts. Judge Travis had fought for them. They had fought for the team. He had fought for his men. In the end, though, there was nothing any of them could do. After five years of making a name for themselves, the seven men found themselves taking different positions within the bureau. It wasn’t the same, though, and there came a time when they chose different paths, sometimes even saying good-bye to being a daily part of their little family. Some remained close, others drifted across the country.
He had ended up at the FBI, in Quantico, Virginia, where he had been in charge of expanding the BAU. He worked closely with Aaron Hotchner, often assisting with that team’s excellent record in solving the crimes committed by serial killers across the nation.
A year after coming to Virginia he had met Elizabeth Hartley, who became Mrs. Elizabeth Hartley-Larabee a year after that. Later she quit her job as a teacher to stay home with their twin daughters, Violet and Lily. The twins were now six, and had been joined by Wilmington Tanner Larabee when they were four. They had begun by calling their son W. T., but by the time he was six months old, he was irrevocably known as “Dub”. Then, three months ago, their family was expanded by the arrival of Ivy Rose.
He smiled as, with that thought, he heard their newest family member beginning her nightly call for attention. He padded quickly through the house, reaching the door just as the crying began. Stepping across the room he lifted her from her crib, where she quickly settled against him, snuffling against the soft material of his tee shirt. “All right, little girl, let’s get you fed.”
A few minutes later they were in the kitchen, and he was just testing the baby’s bottle. Pressing the soft nipple against her lips, he smiled as she opened her mouth and took the bottle. With a parent’s smile he said, “You’re a chow hound, do you know that?”
Ivy continued taking the bottle as he scuffed back through the house. First he went to the bedroom the twins shared. Opening the door, he found them sound asleep in their beds; Lily was snuggled deep in her blankets, only the top of her head showing. On the other side of the room, Violet was laying on her back, sprawled out across her mattress, snoring softly. He shook his head, bent down and, one handed, flipped the blanket back over his daughter; the child who reminded him most of his first child. God, it was hard to believe that Adam would have been turning twenty this year, and here he was with an infant!
The next door opened to reveal the chaos that was their son’s bedroom. Stepping gingerly, only too well aware of how often his bare foot was attacked by the hard edge of one of the boy’s toys, he reached the half sized juvenile bed where Dub lay. The little boy was curled beneath the blankets, his rump in the air and his thumb in his mouth. Smiling, Chris shook his head and reached down to ruffle the boy’s thick, blond hair.
Ivy was finished when they returned to the nursery. He set the bottle aside and finished the nightly ritual. Getting a healthy, bubbly burp from her, he then changed her diaper and settled his youngest, already drifting off to sleep, back in her crib. Spreading her blanket over her, he stroked her downy head and whispered, “Good night, Peanut.”
The children all checked on, he headed back through the house for a final check through. He would be leaving for Colorado in the morning and, as usual, had been restless all night. But, while he hated the idea of leaving his family even for a few days, he was incredibly excited to be seeing his friends again. It would be the first time they had all been together in seven years.
“Seven,” he mused, “appropriate.”
A short time later he climbed into bed, spooning against his sleeping wife. She murmured something but didn’t come fully awake. Kissing the back of her neck gently, he wrapped his arm around her and allowed the rhythm of her deep breathing to lull him to sleep.
Vin Tanner yawned and stretched, allowing himself to slowly wake. Ever since he and Moxie had met, he had known that he again had someone to watch his back. Moxie had replaced the family that had drifted away. Had replaced Chris. Okay, not really, he knew that. He and Larabee had stuck together longer than the others. He had tried to make a go of it in Virginia, but it just hadn’t worked. He couldn’t find a place to fit in other than at Larabee’s side. And then, when Chris and Beth had gotten together, even that was uncomfortable. So, just after the birth of the twins, he had decided it was time to head off and seek his own life. He and Chris had argued; the blond insisting that he’d come to feel at home. He knew the truth though, there was no place for him. So, after making a few calls to get a new life started, he had sold or given away anything he couldn’t carry on his Harley. He left a few very special mementoes with the Larabees, and rode off. He had gone back to bounty hunting.
Six months after beginning this new chapter in his life, he ran into Moxie. Literally. They had careened into one another while trying to catch Mitch Winehart, a low-life thug wanted for questioning in a series of murders. After they had agreed to take the scum-bag in together and split the bounty, they had shared dinner and drinks. They’d been together ever since.
Tossing the covers aside, Tanner slipped out of bed and padded into the bathroom. The early morning sun streaming in through the skylight, gilded a variety of scars over his lean, chiseled, tanned body. Bounty hunting did not come without its price.
A hot shower later he returned from the bathroom, a towel draped low around his hips, deft hands swiftly twisting his long, chestnut hair into a single braid. He smiled when he saw that the other man was awake now, watching him. “Mornin’.”
“Morning. How soon do you leave?”
God, Tanner loved his partner’s thick, New England accent, although with that accent and his Texas drawl, they’d had trouble understanding one another in the beginning. Checking the bedside clock, he calculated travel time, and said, “In a couple hours I reckon.”
“Yes... dear,” Tanner teased. “You sound like an old mother hen, Mox.”
“Not now, I just had a shower.”
“Yeah? Well, you can always take another,” The reclining man leered at the striking figure standing in the middle of the room.
“You’re a slut.” He smiled, staring with open hunger at the leith, tanned blond. Sean was first generation American, his parents having come to the states from Ireland just before he was born.
“Thought that’s what you liked about me,” Sean “Moxie” Malone pouted.
Tossing his brush at the other man, Vin said with a grin, “You know what I like about you. C’mon, get dressed and let’s go to Gran’ma Joy’s for breakfast.”
As the tall man made his way into the living room, he smiled and called out to the two children playing there, “Hey, you little monsters!”
JD Dunne entered the room from the other side, cradling an infant in one arm, “About time you showed up.”
“Hey, now, don’t be givin’ me grief. I got here as quick as I could,” He pointed the cane he held at his old friend.
“Don’t play the cripple card, it’s been three years and it doesn’t work any more.”
Wilmington hooted with laughter, balanced once again with the hardwood cane, and continued to the couch. Dropping to the cushions there, he said, “You heard from anyone else yet?”
Nodding, Dunne said, “Nathan just checked in. He expects they’ll be here around lunch time.”
“Girls going to be able to come?”
JD simply shook his head no, before he continued, “Josiah’s in a meeting, but it should be getting out in about an hour. He’ll pick Nettie up from Springtown Village, then he’ll be on his way. Haven’t heard from the others, though.”
“Okay, well, I figure no news is good news. Chris’ flight’s due in at 1:30, and Vin was supposed to leave Boulder this morning. I wish we knew if Ezra got the message or not.” As he spoke, he reached out, waiting for JD to place the infant in his arms. When he received the sleeping bundle, he said, softly, “She sure is a beauty.”
“Yeah...” Dunne agreed. In a choked voice, he said, “She looks just like her Mama.”
Tears sparkling in deep blue eyes, Buck said, “She does, Kid, that she does that.”
“Da?” The older boy playing nearby interrupted the conversation, “Bubby took my blocks!”
With a sigh, JD shook his head and allowed a small smile. “Tanner, give Wells back his toys.”
“Da! I wants ‘a play wif ‘em!” The younger child complained loudly, even as he toddled over and handed the two blocks to his older brother.
“You can play with them when your brother’s through with them. You know the rules.” JD stepped over and picked up his three year old son, Tanner Wilmington Dunne. “Why don’t you boys start picking up? We’re having company soon, and we don’t want anyone to step on anything, right?”
“Can we play in our bedroom?” Five year old Wells Christopher asked.
“Sure,” JD placed his son on the floor, patted his bottom, and returned to where his old friend was sitting, holding his youngest. While the children dutifully cleaned up their toys, he settled in an old rocking chair that had been lovingly restored just before Wells had been born. He brushed a hand reverently over the stained wood. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this, Buck.”
Hearing the pain in the younger man’s voice, Wilmington said, “You’re gonna do this with the help of your friends. Your family. Chris told you a long time ago that you have a home here at the ranch, for the rest of your life. Theirs, too. And me and Josiah are only a phone call away.”
“It’s not fair. She wanted a daughter so bad. And she never even got to meet her.”
“JD, don’t do this to yourself. Nobody could have foreseen any of this.”
“I was supposed to keep her safe.”
“Kid, it was a aortic aneurism, there wasn’t anything to keep her safe from.” He felt helpless, knowing that he couldn’t do anything more for his friend. At thirty-two years old, Casey Wells had gone into labor at the end of a healthy pregnancy. Suddenly and horribly an undetected aneurism on her heart had ruptured, and she had died just as her daughter was being born. That was just eight days ago. The pain was overwhelming for all of them, who felt as if they had lost a little sister. None of them could fathom, other than possibly Chris, just how far worse Casey’s death was for JD. His children had lost their mother, and he had lost the love of his life; his soul mate.
But he still had Wells, Tanner and now, Catherine Annette Dunne. And, no matter how far away they were, he still had six friends who would always be there for him.
“Josiah! I was beginning to worry that you weren’t coming.” Nettie Wells looked up from where she was watching television to greet the gray-haired man as he entered the airy day room.
“Sorry, Nettie, our meeting ran a little long.” As the Director of Damon’s Place - a group of homes for troubled and addicted youth - he had a very busy schedule, no matter that he was at an age where most men were retiring.
“Well, did you fix the world?”
With a deep laugh as he grasped the grips of her wheelchair and moved her forward he said, “Not in the least, but hopefully we made a corner of it a little better.”
“Well, maybe tomorrow,” she teased. “How’s the weather out there? Do I need a wrap?”
“We’ll pick one up from your room. You look very nice today, by the way.”
She smoothed the dark green skirt and traced the design with one, trembling finger. “It was the last thing that... that my Casey bought me.”
Gently rubbing one trembling shoulder, Sanchez said, “She had wonderful taste.”
“Yes... yes she did.” Nettie didn’t try to stop the tears that fell.
“We’ll be starting our decent in approximately five minutes. Please make certain that your seat is upright and your tray table is...” Nathan tuned out the rest of the comment and turned to smile at his wife.
“I still feel naked without Naomi and Reann.” Raine sighed as she shifted in her seat.
With a chuckle, Nathan said, “I miss them, too, but... you know... chicken pox.”
“Besides, you still have me and Nathaniel here,” Ethan Jackson scolded his parents with a grin as he leaned over the back of his seat. The seven year old and his nine year old brother were seated just in front of Nathan and Raine.
“Sit down, you goob,” Jackson teased his son.
“Yes, sweetheart, of course we have the pleasure of you and your brother’s company,” Raine said with a smile. “Now, sit your butt down.”
With a chuckle, the energetic Jackson child turned around and settled in for the final stage of the flight. His brother slouched beside him, absorbed in the book he’d been reading since take-off. Nathaniel was such a nerd.
Chris stared out the window as the plane began it’s landing at the Denver Airport. He smiled at the sight of familiar mountains, wistfully wishing that some things in his life hadn’t changed. He missed the Team, first and foremost. But he missed the ranch nearly as much. He missed the friends he had left behind... some more than others. He missed riding into the mountains on horseback, climbing past the snow line and feeling the crisp chill of the air on his face. Virginia was nice, and he would never give up this second chance at a family. He adored Beth, and she put up with him with an amazing grace. He had shared the losses of his past with her long before he asked her to marry him. He didn’t want her to say yes without knowing exactly what she was saying yes to.
She didn’t get too upset when he slipped and called her Sarah, and that was happening less and less often. He kept a few pictures of Sarah and Adam up at their place; only hanging them after Beth had threatened to hang pictures of her ex-boyfriend if he didn’t. She was teasing, and he knew it. While Sarah had been the love of his life, Bryant Kirby had been trouble. He had been abusive and, even after Beth broke it off with him, he caused her problems. That had been how they had met, when she had come in to the Bureau offices to offer information on a case he was working. It had turned out that Bryant had been the “unsub” they were looking for, and Beth’s testimony had been integral in putting the man behind bars for the rest of his miserable life.
And Chris had known that he had found the second love of his life. It had taken Beth a little longer but, for once, he was patient. After she had come to realize that he was as far from the man she had helped him arrest as anyone could be, she began to respond to his offers for drinks, dinner, movies, and eventually a weekend away.
Larabee smiled as he remembered how she had looked that morning, when he left. She was dressed in a simple tee shirt and yoga pants, her blond hair pulled back in a messy ponytail but she looked amazing, the roundness of what was left of her pregnant belly made her even more so to him. She was cradling Ivy Rose in one arm and was stroking a teary Dub’s tangled hair with the other, offering comfort to the two year old as his daddy left. At the same time, she made him feel like he was the only other person in the room, and he almost canceled his trip. He didn’t, though, this was too important.
As the people around him began to shuffle about, preparing to leave the plane, Chris shifted his lean body out of his seat and stretched to ease a cramp in his shoulder. Managing to get into the aisle, he quickly retrieved his carry on and got in line to depart the plane.
A short time later, he was crossing the airport in quick, long strides. He had made arrangements to rent a car, and was looking for the rental office. Just then, he heard a shrill whistle that brought quiet to the area for a few seconds. Looking around, he saw Vin Tanner standing nearby, leaning against a pillar. Grinning, he shifted his course and headed for the other man.
Not caring about the people teaming around them, the two men embraced in a tight, love filled hug. They muttered greetings to one another and, after a few seconds, pulled away from the hug slightly. Chris looked at the man he had long considered a brother, and said, “Sure is good to see you, Pard.”
“You, too, Cowboy,” Vin replied. Neither of them mentioned the barely restrained tears in either pair of eyes.
“I rented a car...” Larabee began.
“I figured as much. Jist wanted a minute t’ see you without the rest of the boys around. Can’t believe I ain’t laid eyes on that ugly mug ‘a yours for near five years now.”
“Yeah? Well, time hasn’t made you any prettier, either. Except for maybe this...” the blond reached out and flipped the thick, chestnut braid back. “You not makin’ enough money for a barber?”
“See, this is why I wanted t’ see y’ alone. Figured you’d make some sort ‘a play for me or somethin’.” Vin paused and chuckled at the perturbed look on his friend’s face before he added, “Moxie likes it long... gives ‘im somethin’ t’ --”
“TMI, Vin!” Chris barked, causing both men to laugh heartily.
“Yeah, okay. C’mon, I’ll take ya over to the rental place on my bike.”
Being together brought back a lot of memories. Both men were glad for the chance to be together without the others for a few minutes. While the entire group was far closer than most families, Chris and Vin had a relationship far deeper. There were times that Chris still felt they shared that connection, and there were times he simply knew it when Vin was sick or hurt. He wasn’t sure that Tanner even knew he checked up on him, he would contact Sean, who seemed to take it all in stride. The last few times, he’d even been expecting a call.
He was terrified that, one day, Sean would tell him that Vin was dead.
“Hey? You hear me?”
Turning to where Vin stood, straddling a Harley, looking at him with a mix of amusement and concern, he asked, “Sorry, what?”
“I said get’cher ass on the bitch seat... bitch.”
Rolling his eyes, Larabee did just that, and they were quickly heading across the parking garage to where the rental company had an office. Vin stayed long enough to make sure that Chris was assured a car before he promised the blond he’d meet him at the Ranch.
“Oh, Buck... I don’t know if I’m ready for this...” JD looked more like a scared child than a widower and father of three.
“JD, it’s just the boys. They love you... loved Casey... all you need to do is let ‘em know if they’re crowdin’ you and they’ll back off.”
Chuffing a laugh, Dunne said, “Yeah, right. That never happened in the past.”
“Yeah, well, if they don’t, I’ll club ‘em one.” Wilmington held up his cane, threateningly.
“Do you actually think that makes you look scary?” JD asked, shaking his head. Then his attention turned back to the drive, where a relatively new SUV was moving cautiously toward the house. Josiah had finally given up the Suburban a few years ago, when it was clear that the rusty beast was no longer road worthy. He treated the new vehicle with the same, absent mindedness as he had the old one most of the time. The only reason he was showing some caution now was because he was transporting Nettie Wells.
“Hey, I can be real scary... when I wanna,” Buck practically whined his response, which was made even less believable by the fact that Wells was leaning against his good leg.
“Uh huh,” JD responded as he stepped out on the porch. They had put up a ramp not long after Nettie had suffered a stroke that left her unable to walk more than a step or two. He and Casey had planned to move Nettie in with them, when it became clear that she would no longer be able to live alone. She steadfastly refused, though, arguing that the last thing a growing family needed was the added burden of a disabled old woman. That had been exactly how she had put it, and no amount of tears shed by her niece could change the woman’s mind. They had finally settled on putting her in one of the best assisted living facilities in the area, and they had visited as often as possible. Now, he and the children would be continuing that tradition.
JD waited at the top, partly to assure himself that his son wasn’t going to barrel down the ramp when he saw either his Aunt Nettie or his Uncle Josiah had arrived. He waited until the SUV was parked nearby, and Josiah was getting Nettie’s wheelchair out of the back before coming down to join them.
After they settled the unspoken matriarch of their group in her wheelchair, she looked up at JD and asked, “Where’s Catherine?”
“Hi to you, too,” JD teased. “She’s napping. I promise to turn her over to you as soon as she wakes up.”
“You’d better,” she teased as she leaned up so she could touch his cheek. Then, when he responded by leaning down, she kissed it as well. Looking up at him, she asked quietly, “How’re you holding up, sweetheart?”
A few tears threatened to roll down pale cheeks as Dunne said, “I still don’t feel like any of it’s real.”
Patting his arm, Nettie replied, “I know, I feel the same way. If Heaven needed a Wells up there... well, I’d have been happy to trade places.”
“I just... I wish...” They stood there, silently, simply looking at one another.
Finally, clearing his throat, Josiah said, “Why don’t we go inside?” When the others nodded, he began pushing the wheelchair toward the ramp.
“Nettie! Nettie! Aunt Nettie!” Wells giggled and clapped as his Great Aunt was wheeled up the ramp and on into the house. He led the way toward the big, open living space, calling out “Tan! Aunt Nettie!”
“Am Tee!” Tanner squealed as the group entered the room. His toddler tongue wasn’t yet able to pronounce “Aunt Nettie”; Am Tee was as close as he could come.
“Hello, sweetheart!” Nettie called out and, very quickly, both of her tiny great nephews were sitting in her lap. She promised to tell JD if they became too much for her, but nobody believed that she would.
“I’m gonna go check on the roast Gloria Potter brought over earlier,” JD said as he slipped away from the group.
“I’ve got dessert out in the car, I’ll bring it in.” Josiah said with a smile.
“Brickhouse Bakery?” Buck asked, blue eyes twinkling. Ever since Emma Dubonnet had opened the Bakery near where Josiah’s office was, the older man seemed to buy a lot more baked goods.
“Yep,” Sanchez replied with a big, toothy grin. “Made especially for me by the lovely Ms. Dubonnet.”
A short time later, the group was settled in. Nettie was reading to Wells and Tanner. Josiah and Buck were watching the telecast of a game with the sound off, while they discussed local politics and some of the irritation they both felt with things they were hearing about the ATF office. JD came out of the master bedroom, Catherine freshly changed and fed, nestled in his arms, when they heard a car pulling up outside. He moved toward the front door, wondering which of their friends had arrived now. Peering outside, he saw a nondescript sedan, just parking next to Josiah’s SUV. He came out onto the porch just as Nathan stretched his big frame from behind the wheel. Raine exited from the other side of the car, and their two sons climbed out of the back.
“Hey!” JD called as way of greeting. “How was the trip?”
“Long!” Nathan and Raine said simultaneously, causing everyone to laugh.
“You’re the first of the out-of-towners to arrive. Imagine Chris’ll be here in a bit, and --” They all turned at the sound of a motorcycle coming up the drive. Vin Tanner appeared a minute later, astride his bike. The fringe on his buckskin jacket waved in the wind but, otherwise, he was still. Driving the bike up, and parking it beside the four wheeled vehicles, he pulled off his helmet and dismounted.
“Uncle Vin!” Ethan called out, dashing over to his adopted uncle. “Can you take me for a ride?”
“Slow down there, pard, I just got here!” Vin replied with a wide smile. “We’ll discuss it later... with your parents.”
The young boy’s posture slumped, and he cast a baleful look back at his parents, but he didn’t say anything. He could see the answer in their faces.
“Come on in,” JD said, leading the way back into the house. The little troupe followed close behind, the boys chattering about vaguely remembered visits to this place. When they entered the main room, both groups stopped for a few seconds, seeming to drink in the sight of the others they had missed for so long.
No one was shocked that the two people gravitated toward one another like a set of magnets. Wells and Tanner had slipped from their aunt’s lap to greet the other newcomers, while allowing Vin to kneel in front of the woman’s chair. He took both her hands in his and said, in a choked voice, “I’m so, so sorry, Nettie.”
She patted his hand and said gently, “Nothing for it, son. None of us can tell the future. I’m just so happy to see you here, now!”
He stretched up and wrapped his arms around her. He hadn’t seen her since shortly after her stroke, and he was shocked at how much older she looked today. But he could still see the woman who had become a surrogate mother for him so many years ago. The woman who could make him feel safe and secure, or cut him to ribbons with a few words; whichever he needed, she had come to provide.
Nearby, Raine had slipped Catherine out of JD’s arms and was busily cooing over the little girl. “Oh, JD, she’s just beautiful!”
JD did his best to ignore the tears in Raine’s voice, and struggled once more to keep his own at bay, as he said, “I know, she looks just like her mama.”
Clasping a big hand on the smaller man’s shoulder, Nathan asked quietly, “How’re you holdin’ up?”
“Uh... fine.” JD brushed off the question, instead focusing on the two boys standing nearby. “Man, Nathanial, you’re almost as tall as me!”
Smiling shyly, the older boy said, “Yeah, Dad says I’ll be ready for sports next year. Finally.”
“Nathanial,” Raine said quietly. It had been a source of argument between parents and children, but Nathan and Raine, having the final say, didn’t want their children in sports until they were older than many of their friends were when they started.
Nodding, the chastised boy said with a smile, “Whatever I want. I’m thinking track, like Dad did.”
“Awesome. Ethan, what about you?” JD turned toward the younger of the Jackson sons. He grinned when he found that Ethan was perched on the end of the couch, talking to Wells about some of the action figures both boys collected. Wells was showing the older boy his latest acquisition.
“Ethan? JD asked you a question,” Nathan said in a firm voice.
“Sorry Uncle JD. Me and Wells was talking --”
“That’s okay, I know how it can be. I was just wondering if you’re going to be getting into any sports this coming school year?”
“No, sir. I’ve got another year before I’m old enough.”
Stifling a grin when he saw Raine and Nathan‘s twin looks in response to the words, JD said only, “Well, it’ll come soon enough. I’m glad that you and Wells are into the same things though,” adding softly, “I think he could use a friend right about now.”
Ethan wasn’t certain just what the comment was about, but the adults all seemed to agree, so he nodded his head.
“Friends are a godsend,” Josiah added to the conversation.
“That’s the truth, and it sure stood us in good stead a time or two.” Came a voice from the doorway. Everyone turned to see Chris Larabee standing there, tall and blond. Gone were the days of mostly black clothes. Today he was wearing a pair of weathered blue jeans and a red, button down shirt.
“Chris! You ol’ dog!” Buck pulled himself up from the chair he’d been sitting on, and limped over to where the other man stood. They embraced warmly, before stepping back so that they could actually see one another. “You look like Virginia agrees with you.”
“Some things in Virginia agree with me,” Chris replied with a wink. Slapping his oldest friend on the arm, he asked, “How’s the leg?”
With a shrug, Wilmington said, “Good as it’s gonna get, the doc says. It mostly gives me problems in bad weather.”
“Or, when there’s a pretty lady nearby to offer him sympathy,” JD chided. “Good to see you, Chris.”
Stepping past Buck, Chris strode over and quickly wrapped JD in a hug. “Good to see you, too, Kid.”
Taken aback at the uncharacteristic display, JD could only stand there for several seconds. He found himself relaxing into that embrace, feeling a security that had been missing for far too long. He realized that Buck had been right earlier; the thing he needed right now was the strength of his six friends to buoy him up.
The adults sat around the big, dining room table, while the four boys sat together in the kitchen, but within earshot of their parents. Everyone chatted amicably while they ate, and as it always did, the conversation turned to recalling memories of days gone by. Laughter filled the room, as each man tried to outdo the other, retelling crazier and crazier adventures.
“And Ezra was just standing there,” Buck was wheezing with laughter as he told this latest tale, “with spaghetti sauce dripping off this Armani jacket he was wearing! Hell, there was most of a vat of the stuff coverin’ him, after the Marianis threw it at him! Anyway, he looked over at Chris and, casual as you please, asked “Mr. Larabee, exactly how much may one charge to the Team clothing account?” But Chris was too busy laughin’ to answer him.”
“Yes, well, as it turned out, I never was reimbursed for that loss.” Came a smooth voice from the dining room door. Everyone turned to find Ezra Standish standing there, somewhat rumpled from travel.
“Ezra!” Buck called out, as JD, Josiah and Vin came over to greet the man with love and affection. Chris leaned back, grinning with just a tinge of relief that, finally, they were all together once again.
Greeting his friends, Ezra took special care to take JD’s arm, green eyes locking with the other man’s brown. “I am so sorry for my tardiness, JD, I was in Australia, and it took some time to secure transportation.”
“Australia? Damn, Ezra! I’m just very, very glad to see you. It means a lot... to all of us... for you to make that trip.” JD said, his voice hitching with emotion.
“Nonsense, I would be no place else. I... I am so very sorry, my friend. She was a lovely young woman.”
That seemed to be the comment that broke through the tenuous wall the young widower had built around himself. Without thought, he grabbed hold of the other man, sobbing uncontrollably for some time. On his part, Ezra simply stood fast, arms embracing the other man while the pain, grief and loss poured forth.
Buck came to stand near the two men, a sad smile making his mustache twitch as he looked over JD’s head and into Ezra’s eyes. Without a word, he put an arm around JD and, with Ezra’s help, led the brunet from the room.
“Praise all that’s holy,” Josiah said softly, “That’s the first time he’s actually broken down. Buck and I have taken turns out here with him, and he’s been fighting to keep it all inside.”
“I do believe that he was waiting until he had all of his brothers here before he felt safe enough to truly let go,” Nettie said, wiping away her own tears. She smiled as Vin, sitting next to her, squeezed her hand.
From where he sat on the back deck, Chris looked up at the sound of someone coming to join him. He smiled as Buck made his way out, easing himself into one of the other Adirondack chairs. “Everyone tucked in?”
“Yep. Kids are asleep, so’s JD. Thank God he finally let go, I’m not sure how he’d make it tomorrow if he hadn’t. Josiah took Nettie back home, Nathan and his family are gonna stay with him. Vin went out for a little while. He said to tell you your old bones need the bed more’n he does, so take the guest room.”
“Still the smart ass. Ezra?”
“Went to a hotel. I think that... welcome home... took more out of him than he’s gonna let on.”
“I can imagine, especially after flying from Australia. Australia? Damn, no wonder nobody’s heard from him.”
“Gonna have to see what’s goin’ on there. I was wonderin’ where you took off to. Figured it’d be out here.”
With a nod, Chris said, “I’ve missed this view. I’ve missed the peace and quiet out here.”
“Sounds like Virginia might not be all you thought it would be?” Wilmington verbally nudged his friend when nothing more was forthcoming.
“Ah, hell. This is always gonna be home, Buck. Virginia’s fine, but... if it weren’t for Beth and the kids, I’d have left there a long time ago.”
“You thinkin’ about moving back out here?”
Chris shook his head. “Don’t know. I like the job, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile out there. There’s even talk of...”
“Of making me Department Chief.” Chris finished softly, almost embarrassed at the statement.
Buck whistled low. “Damn, Stud! I’m not surprised, but, wow!”
“So, if it’s offered?”
Nodding distractedly, Larabee said, “it’ll mean I’ll be home at a decent hour, a nine to five job. Beth could use more backup now that we’ve got four little demons.”
“I can understand that! I’ll tell you what, just bein’ Uncle Buck again is tiring.”
“Well, nobody does it better.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have much else going on in my life.” He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but it was clear that the big man still struggled with his “disabled” status.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine, never better,” Buck said calmly.
“Bullshit. Truth, Buck.”
“Truth? Well, the truth is I’m fifty-five years old, and there’s not a helluva lot I can do any more. I can’t work, hate just sitting around on my ass... it sucks, Chris.”
With a nod, Larabee remembered coming out right after Buck had been injured. The big man had been working private security, his years in the military and law enforcement making him very sought after in the field. He had been investigating a series of break-ins at one of the malls, when he had surprised the men right in the middle of a heist. After a brief struggle, the men had gotten the better of him and threw him from the third story of the building they were in. It had taken over a year for the big man to reach a point where he was considered as healed as he ever could be. His right leg, however, had been shattered in the fall and he might always experience some problems with memory and balance, related to the severe skull fracture he had suffered. Chris remembered how long it had been before his old friend was even able to speak in entire sentences again.
“You can always come out and stay with me and Beth,” Larabee offered, not for the first time, “be Uncle Buck out there.”
Shaking his head, Wilmington said, “Thanks, but don’t think so, especially now. JD’s gonna need help for some time to come, reckon I can come in handy there.”
“Nobody better as back up, Uncle Buck,” Chris agreed with a smile. The two men grew quiet then, simply enjoying their time together.
The others thought he was asleep, but he had only dozed a short time before waking once more. He sat on the side of the bed, staring into the little basinet. Catherine Annette lay, little arms stretched above her head, sleeping peacefully. He still couldn’t quite believe that they had a daughter. Each time she’d been pregnant, Casey would wish for a daughter. She couldn’t have loved their sons more, but there was also that tiniest of longing that dimmed when they found out they were having sons.
And now... now Casey would never know the daughter they had so anxiously awaited and planned for. And Catherine would never know the woman who had wanted her for so long.
“I’ll never be far away,” came a quiet voice. JD looked up, quickly recognizing the figure of his wife just beyond the other side of the baby’s bed.
“Oh, JD, does it matter how? I’ve been right here all along. I couldn’t leave you... the boys... our little Kitty Cat.”
“Oh, Babe, I miss you so... so much...”
“I know, but you don’t have to. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see me. I’ll be right here. Sweetheart, I can never, ever truly leave you and our kids. I will --”
Jerking, the young man turned to find himself being watched by his old fried. “Yeah?”
“Just checkin’ on you... heard talking.” Buck said softly.
Looking back, confused as to why the other man didn’t see his wife, he was shocked when the air on the other side of the cradle was empty. “Casey?”
“JD? What’d goin’ on?”
Heaving a deep sigh, Dunne shook his head, “Sorry, I... guess I was dreaming.”
“I thought you might follow me here. Still quite the hunter, aren’t you?” Ezra looked up from his glass, smiling at the man standing across the table from him.
“Ain’t much trackin’ when you know your prey,” Vin replied. “Mind if I join you?”
With a deep sigh, Ezra said, “Yes, but that’s never stopped you... any of you... before.”
Dropping into the leather seat, Tanner grinned. “Awww, sounds like you missed us.”
“There have been moments, yes. But do I miss the meddlesome, emotion-wrought angst and lack of personal boundaries?” He paused before smiling so that his gold tooth caught the light. “As a matter of fact... yes. What is it you want, Vin?”
“Just wanted to make sure you’re doin’ okay. Reckon it wasn’t the homecomin’ you were expectin’. On top ‘a flyin’ from Australia... well, it could leave a feller feelin’ a bit peaked.”
“Oh... peaked doesn’t begin to describe it. But I thank you for your concern.”
The waitress came by and Ezra ordered a bottle and two glasses. Vin leaned back in his seat, looking the other man over. Standish had put on a little weight, but it was easy to see that he was still in shape. There was a fairly fresh scar along his chin, just beneath his jaw, and there was a scattering of white hair along his temples. Tanner remarked on that last fact.
“Yes, well, I’m told it lends a rather distinguished aspect to my profile. I see you’re not bothered by such affect.”
Running a hand through the front of his hair, Vin said, “Good genes, I reckon. So... Australia? Nobody in the States left to run a con on?”
With a chuckle, Standish said, “Oh, I’m sure I left a few pockets unpicked. To be honest, I went there for a holiday, and... well, shall I simply say that I fell in love?”
That brought the other man forward in his seat. “Love? She pretty?”
“Oh, she’s beautiful. Wild and free... sleek and sophisticated... completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced before.” He shook his head. “I fell in love with the country, Mr. Tanner. The country.”
Laughing hardily, Vin raised his glass. “Well, hell then. To the country!”
Nathan looked up from where he sat at the kitchen table, as Josiah entered the house through the back door. With a sleepy smile, he said, “you get Nettie delivered safe and sound?”
“Safe, yes. Sound? I’m not so certain.”
“She’s takin’ it pretty rough.” It wasn’t really a question, they had all seen just how distraught Nettie had been during the day.
“Yes. I believe that what’s she’s experiencing is a sort of survivor’s guilt. She’s eighty-five years old, experienced a major stroke four years ago, and she’s still with us.”
“And Casey isn’t.”
Nodding, the older man poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down across the table from his former teammate. “She’s said it several times over the last few days. Why would God take a perfectly healthy young wife and mother from her family, and leave an “old woman” to linger in a nursing home.”
“But Casey wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t detected, is all.”
“I know that, you know that... pretty much everyone knows that, my friend. But Nettie, and JD, they’re still looking for a reason; looking for someone to blame.”
Nathan nodded his agreement and the two old friends grew quiet for a few minutes. Finally, he broke the silence with, “I put the boys up in the loft. Raine and I will take the spare room. She’s in the living room, talking to her sister back home. Spring’s watching the girls for us.”
“Nonsense, the guest room only has a full-size bed, and I’ve already moved enough things in there for myself so I won’t need to disturb you. You two will take my bedroom, the sheets are clean and everything.”
“Boy, you went all out, didn’t you?” Nathan grinned.
“Well, sure, since Raine’s with you.”
“If you’re sure, then. Hate to put you out.”
“Nonsense. Besides, I’m not sure if I’ve got it in me to get you off the bed when you wake up like a pretzel.”
The kitchen vibrated with the deep sounds of bass voices laughing. Just then Raine entered the room. “I always worry when I hear the two of you laughing like that.” She settled beside her husband on the old, wooden bench that served as seating along the side of the table.
Putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders, Nathan asked, “the girls okay?”
“Itchy and cranky, but generally in good shape,” Raine replied with a smile. “Personally, if it weren’t for the reason, I’d be quite happy to be here and away from our little divas right about now.”
“Amen,” Nathan agreed. “Especially Reann. I love the girl, but everything’s a drama!” He grinned at the thought of their five year old.
“Sounds like you two have your hands full at home," Josiah said. “So, how are things going down in Louisiana, otherwise?”
“Good. Stressful, but it’s a good stress.” The Jacksons had been down there for nearly eight years, both of them now licensed as Nurse Practitioners. They had opened and were running a clinic in one of the most economically depressed areas in an economically depressed state. Along with three of Raine’s siblings; Spring, Autumn and Storm, they brought medical care to those who lived on the streets, or in homeless shelters. They lived poor, and they seemed to be thriving in doing so.
“You deliver a worthwhile service to many of the lord’s lost sheep, both of you are saints.” Sanchez announced.
“Don’t know about that, but I know that we love what we’re doing. They say if you love what you do, you never work a day. That’s how I feel about it,” Nathan remarked.
“Well, all I know is that I am a very tired woman right now,” Raine announced. “I’d like to take a hot shower and to crawl into bed, if you boys don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” Josiah assured her, telling her of the change in sleeping arrangements as well. He stood as she did, Nathan blushing as he followed suit. Raine just grinned at their manners, kissed her husband on the cheek, and left the room.
After they were alone, Sanchez suggested, “Would you like something a little stronger in your coffee, brother? It’ll help with the jet lag.”
“I thought you’d never offer.” Jackson replied, grinning.
The chapel was filled with mourners, JD and the others sitting at the side, in the family room. After a long debate on it, JD had brought his boys to the chapel earlier to say their good-byes. It had been enough to break any man’s heart. While Tanner wasn’t quite certain what was going on; why mommy wouldn’t wake, Wells had understood enough to know that he would never see his mom again. The little boy had shrieked in despair, begging Casey to wake up and play. JD had remained stoic, holding his oldest and whispering words of comfort in his ear. Finally, Gloria Potter had come in, tempting Wells away with a promise to go to the park. By that time Tanner was sobbing as well, only feeling the pain that seemed to fill the very air in the room; but still not really understanding.
After Gloria left, all three children in tow, and her own children helping shepherd them, JD very quietly dropped to his knees, a single, keening cry erupting from his very soul. Chris and Buck were beside him in a heartbeat, helping him to his feet and guiding him to a nearby chair. He continued to sob, but it was nearly soundless and nearly overwhelming to those around him.
Josiah officiated the service, his deep voice offering the gathering comfort and a promise of again meeting the young woman on another plane. Mary and Raine brought their own comfort as they sang several hymns in duet. Finally, the congregation began to file out, paying their respects to JD and his guardians, then paying their respects at Casey’s casket.
After the others had exited, Buck and Chris flanked JD as he made his own way to the casket. He stood for long moments, simply staring at the beautiful young woman who had been a part of his life for so long. He lay his head on her breast, sobbing as he spoke to her. “I’m so sorry, Case. This shouldn’t happen... not like this. It’s not fair. We were supposed to grow old together... to watch our kids and our grandkids grow. We were supposed to...” he found he couldn’t go on, and began to sob once more.
Chris moved up beside his young friend and gently began to rub a hand across his shoulders. “JD, she loved you... loves you. She’ll be watching over you and the kids. She’ll watch over the grandkids. You’ve got to believe that, son.”
Slowly, Dunne straightened, nodding as he wiped futilely at still falling tears. “I... I do. I know. I just... I wish... oh, God!”
Chris enveloped the grieving man in a hug, Buck coming to join from the other side. For several minutes they simply stood there. While two of them were also remembering another funeral; another gut-wrenching loss, the third could only see and feel the pain of the here and now.
The gathering at the Saloon was more subdued than it usually was. Inez had closed for the day, offering the restaurant’s services in feeding the mourners. As they had so many years ago, seven men found themselves seated together at one table. Raine sat at another table nearby, along with Nettie, Gloria and Mary, acting as chaperones for the Dunnes, the Jacksons, and the few other children who had accompanied their parents to the gathering.
Vin and Ezra, seated on either side of JD, had been quietly making certain that the grief-stricken man’s glass remained filled. Chris and Buck had relinquished their own places beside Dunne, and were sitting across the table, discussing a variety of banal topics. Josiah and Nathan were likewise chatting about nothing in particular.
Inez, along with her wait-staff, made the rounds from one table to the next, making certain that everyone had their fill. The televisions placed around the room were playing slide shows of Casey, JD, Nettie and the boys. Both their boys, and the “boys” who had all traveled back to be there for their friend, while Casey’s favorite songs played over the sound system.
As the evening came and passed, the crowd began to thin out. By nightfall, only those closest to the Dunne family were still there. Inez had guided Nettie, Tanner and Catherine back into her office, where they could enjoy some peace and quiet. Wells, however, had insisted on staying with his father, curling up in JD’s lap and listening to the adults talking. The adults, in turn, curbed their natural tone, making that conversation suitable for young ears.
“JD,” Vin asked after a time, “I’m just gonna say it. What can we do for you? What can we help with? You name it, and I, for one, will make certain it happens. I’m sure the other boys’ll do the same.”
As the others nodded in agreement with Tanner’s words, JD only smiled sadly at the offer, saying, “The only thing anyone can do for me right now, is the only thing that can’t happen, Vin, but I appreciate the offer. It’s gonna take time, but we’ll get through it.”
Rubbing a hand along the widower’s back, Ezra said, “Of course you will, JD. None of us could ever doubt that. You’ve proven to be a most intelligent, inquisitive, caring and genuine man time and again, and I count myself lucky to have made your acquaintance. However, don’t ever feel that you need go through this... or anything... alone. You only need call us.”
JD buried his face in Wells’ thick, black hair, his shoulders trembling as he struggled through his emotions once more. When he rose to face them, hazel eyes swimming with tears, he said, “I appreciate that more than I can say, I really do.”
“Y’ know, I can take some time off from huntin’,” Vin offered. “Could stick around a bit and help y’ with the ranch. I’d love t’ ride somethin’ that don’t burn oil, again.”
“What about your business?” JD asked.
With a shrug, Tanner said, “Moxie can handle it. Been kind’a slow lately, anyway.”
“But won’t you... uh... miss him?” Although some of them had struggled with the knowledge, Vin had let them all know about his sexuality, as well as his relationship with Malone.
Chuckling, the Texan said, “Ain’t the first time we been apart. Can’t imagine that this’ll be the last, either. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into making it a workin’ ranch, JD. I’d like to help make sure it gets there.”
Nodding, Dunne said, “OK, I would appreciate the help. Thanks, Vin.”
Chris spoke next. “I can’t stay... don’t have that luxury. But if there’s anything I can do... pay for repairs, add to the stock, or whatever, just let me know. And things stay the same, as far as I’m concerned. Consider the place home.”
“Da?” Wells frowned up at his father when he heard that comment. “was we gonna have to leave the ranch?”
“Never, Wells,” Chris reassured the child, even as his father shook his head adamantly. “I just didn’t want your da to forget that.”
“Oh... okay.” Satisfied, the little boy curled back up in his father’s lap, watching the men around him.
“Well, I’ll be around, you know that,” Buck promised. “In fact... if you want... I thought I could move out there for now... stay in the little suite you set up for Nettie.”
“Appreciate that, Buck.”
“Just don’t stick me with the 3:00 am feedings.”
“Well, da-- darn!” JD smiled, though it was quick and faint. At least it gave his friends a glimmer of hope that the youngest member of their group was still in there, somewhere.
“And I’m only a phone call away,” Josiah added to the conversation. “But, just so you know, Nettie and I have made some plans to go away next weekend.” When they were all staring at him, mouths open, he explained, “We’re taking a few of the boys on a retreat, as a reward for their behavior. Nettie’s asked to accompany us.The retreat is handicap accessible, we have nursing staff that will help her out with anything she may need, so there shouldn’t be any problems.”
“Uh, sure, that’d be great. She needs to get away for a couple days. Sure, it’s okay.”
Josiah grinned, “She didn’t ask your permission, son.” Again the group shared a laugh, JD joining in as well.
“Gentlemen,” Inez spoke as she joined them at the table, “I regret that we need to close. We’ll be opening back up to the public in a few hours, so we need to clean up.”
It was Ezra who rose and approached the young bar manager. Taking her hand, he brushed a kiss across her knuckles. Rising once more to look at her, he said, “I want to take this opportunity to thank you for everything you’ve done today, Inez.”
“Yeah, everyone’s gone above and beyond,” Vin agreed, offering her a crooked grin that still sent a little thrill through her, despite the fact that she knew his orientation.
“Believe me, it has been my honor.” Looking at JD, she said, “I wanted to do something to help out. Although we didn’t know one another well, Casey was very dear to me.”
With tears once more in his eyes, JD said in a choked voice, “Thank you Inez. She would have been very pleased.”
Rising from where she sat nearby, Raine said, “I’ll go get Nettie and the babies.”
“Boys, time for us to head out,” Nathan nudged a dozing Ethan and tugged at the ever present book in Nathaniel’s hands.
“Okay, Dad,” the boys said in unison.
“I’ll take Nettie home,” Josiah announced, “we can talk a little more about our trip.”
The rest of the group rose and began to move toward the door. Soon they were all in their vehicles, heading toward various destinations. While Buck drove the SUV with JD and the children in the back, Josiah drove off with Nettie in the passenger seat and Nathan, Raine and the boys headed back toward Josiah’s home.
Chris, Vin and Ezra stood in the nearly empty parking lot. Standish had been very quiet, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. Taking the initiative, Larabee said, “Everything okay, Ezra?”
Seeming to be distracted, the former undercover agent didn’t respond at first. Then, slowly processing the question, he said, “What? Oh, yes. While the occasion for our visit is extremely sad, my own life is... as they say... comin’ up roses.”
“That’s good. You wanna come join us out at the Ranch?”
“No, thank you. I believe I’ll retire to my room at the Little Virginia,” he said, naming the hotel where he was staying. “I trust we’ll be getting together bright and early in the morning?”
“Depends on how much him and Buck drink t’night,” Vin drawled. He was leaning against the fender of Larabee’s rental, having left the bike back at the ranch. “Me, I’m headin’ for bed soon’s we get ho- out there.”
Chris smiled. “It’s still home, isn’t it?”
Nodding, Vin had to admit that, no matter where he lived, Larabee’s ranch had felt like HOME from the very first time he’d visited. “Well, reckon I can call it home for a time, seein’ as I’m gonna be a ranch hand for a bit.”
“Gentlemen, I feel the pull of Morpheus, so I believe I shall say good night, and I’ll see you all in the morning.”
With nods, waves and farewells, the last three members of the group, drove away.
JD woke as he heard the sounds of Catherine waking. He rolled slowly out of bed, moving toward the cradle. As he did, he became aware that they weren’t alone. He looked up to see Casey standing beside the cradle as well. “Hey, Case,” She smiled, but didn’t reply. It was only then that he realized that she shouldn’t be there at all. He stood, staring at the apparition of his dead wife.
“It’s okay, JD, you’re not crazy. Well, not for this, anyway.”
Despite the circumstances, he couldn’t help rolling his eyes at the comment. “Yeah, except you’re... you’re gone, Casey.”
“I told you, I’ll never be far.”
“God, I don’t think I can do this, Case. I don’t think I can face the rest of my life without you.”
“JD, honey, that’s what I’m saying. I’ll always be here, you’re never alone.”
Their conversation was cut short when Catherine began to cry. With a pain-filled look at his wife, he picked the infant up, cooing to her quietly. When he straightened back up, he found that, once again, it was just him and his daughter.
The ranch house was bursting with chatter before noon the next day. Chris and Buck had put together a brunch from some of the goodies the neighbors had provided, and Nathan and Raine had brought out a large platter of fresh fruit. Ethan and Wells had eaten and then disappeared into the boys room to play, begrudgingly allowing Tanner to accompany them.
Vin couldn’t help but peer out the nearby window for what seemed to be the thousandth time. “He ought’a be here.”
“It’s not noon, yet,” Chris argued. “He probably hasn’t even gotten out of bed, especially with the time difference between here and Australia.”
“He’s been actin’ off ever since he got here,” Vin pointed out. “I can’t help but think there’s somethin’ goin’ on.”
“I have to agree with Chris,” Buck entered the conversation. “Man’s wore out from the last few days. He’ll be here later on, I’d bet on it.”
The subject seemed to be tabled. The group went back to discussing plans for the ranch, as well as how each of the men planned to help out.
“So, how many head do you have right now?” Nathan asked the younger man.
“Uh... just bought a little filly a few months back. Figure on mating her with Maxim, think we can get some great stock from them. When Delphine foals, That’ll put us at an even dozen. Got a couple I’d like to break pretty soon; think by next summer we’ll be ready to sell them, and start turning a profit.”
“Well, I ain’t as good as Larabee at breakin’ ‘em, but I’ll be glad to do what I can to help you,” Vin entered the conversation, although it was clear that he was still concerned about Ezra.
Managing a smile, JD asked, “He’s right there. Chris, you sure you don’t wanna stick around... help out?”
“I would, but I think Beth would probably strangle me as soon as I got back to Virginia.”
“She and the kids could always come out here.” JD was finding it harder and harder to think about the time in the very near future, where so many of his friends would be leaving once more.
Chris laughed, “Sure, I can see that right now, asking her to fly across country with four kids. Definitely grounds for divorce.”
“Yeah. Besides, Chris’s movin’ up back there,” Buck explained, sharing what Larabee had told him out on the deck.
With an appreciative whistle, Vin said, “Damn, Cowboy, pretty impressive.”
Tipping a glass of tea in salute, Josiah said, “Do we call you sir, now?”
“Why? You never did before,” Larabee said with a snort.
“I can’t see anyone else being better at wrangling a team than you are, Chris,” Nathan added his thoughts.
“Well,” Chris said with a sigh, “I just wish I could find a team as good as you boys. As long as I’ve been out there, I haven’t found anyone who could hold a candle to a single one of you.”
The group was silent for a long moment, the men uncomfortable with the compliment until Buck broke in with, “Well, hell, I could’a told you that!”
Vin cursed as he disconnected the unsuccessful call he had made. Again. Despite the other men’s reassurance, he couldn’t help but worry about the missing Standish. He looked up from where he was leaning against the deck railing, meeting Larabee’s eyes. “Think I’m gonna take a ride.”
“Want company?” The blond asked. He had to admit that, after several more hours without a word from the other man, he was beginning to worry as well.
“Nah, I’ll just go lookin’. I’ll call y’ if there’s a problem.”
With a nod, Chris said, “Watch your back.”
“I’m sorry, I show no one by that name in the register,” the desk clerk explained, looking up from the computer screen.
“What about the other names I gave you?”
“I’m sorry, nothing.” the clerk said in a biting tone, at the end of his patience with all of the questions the long haired man had asked.
Ignoring the attitude, Vin turned and started back for the entry, retrieving his cell as he did. When his call was answered, he said, “Chris, need you boys to call around, see if Ezra’s been in an accident or somethin’, he ain’t registered here a’tall. I’m gonna check some of his old hang outs, see if I can find ‘im.”
“Shit,” Larabee’s voice came through the speaker. “Okay. I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful, just in case.”
“Yep.” He disconnected the call, climbed onto his Harley, and started off for the nearest restaurant that he remembered the other man frequenting.
By midnight, they had exhausted even the vaguest of leads. JD had worked his magic on the computer, while Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan had visited every hospital, morgue, clinic and former snitch that they knew of in the Denver area. Ezra Standish was no where to be found.
Raine and Nettie had stayed behind at the ranch, both caring for the children, and freeing JD up to concentrate on his electronic search, as well as act as a central contact source for the other men.
“Hey, sweetie,” Raine greeted her eldest child.
“Is Dad gonna be okay?”
She managed a smile, by no means certain herself. Sitting and waiting for the phone to ring was far too familiar. She had been so relieved when, after she had announced that she was pregnant with Nathaniel, Nathan had walked away from guns and violence, and devoted himself to the healing arts. Now? All of those nightmares were back, with a vengeance. However, to her son, she said only, “Yeah, he’ll be fine. If your Uncle Ezra’s the same man he used to be, they’ll find him at a poker table somewhere, gambling away whatever fortune he has now. They’ll all be fine.” Dear God, let them be fine.
“It’s just... you look sort’a worried.”
Brushing a hand over her son’s head, she said, “Oh, I’m a little worried, but not about something happening. I’m worried because your Aunt is stuck back in Louisiana taking care of your sisters.”
That did it, Nathaniel chuckled, “Yeah, Raeann will have her crazy by the time we get back home. And Naomi is probably almost as bad.”
“They are a caution, that’s for sure,” Raine replied with a smile.
“Well, maybe you should have stopped at one kid!”
Swatting the boy on the shoulder, his mother said, “Boy, you get on outta here, before I ship that one kid off to military school!”
Looking up, she saw Nettie sitting in the doorway. “Hey, Nettie, what can I do?”
“I’m afraid Catherine’s wet, and I’m just not able to --”
Cutting the older woman off, Raine replied, “Say no more, I’ll go take care of her.”
Raine was quickly in the master bedroom, which was currently filled with the sounds of a crying infant. Picking the baby up, she said softly, “Hey, little girl, I hear you need a change of wardrobe.” Taking the baby to the changing table, she quickly replaced the diaper and her sleeper, before lifting the baby back into her arms. Humming softly, she headed back for the kitchen, the youngest Dunne snuggled in her arms.
The sun was just brightening the sky outside, but inside the mood was dark. The men had spent most of the night trying to figure out just where Ezra Standish had gone. One or another would slip off for a short nap, before rejoining the others and going over what few clues. They were once again working like a well oiled machine. Calling in long overdue favors, they had gotten an APB out on the man. There was no hint anywhere as to just what had happened to Ezra.
“I know, sweetheart, and I’m so sorry. I swear, as soon as we find him... and I strangle him for putting us through this... I’ll be on my way home. Kiss the kids for me... yeah, I love you, too.... yeah, I’ll keep you updated. You do know that you’re an amazing woman... right?” Chris smiled as he hung up the phone, looking up to see both Vin and Buck regarding him from across the room. “What?”
“Oh, nothin’, pard, nothin’,” Buck exclaimed, even as he and Vin dissolved into a fit of laughter.
“You’d better tell me, or...” Chris trailed off, a perplexed look on his face.
“Uh oh,” Tanner nudged the bigger man beside him, “reckon he figured out he can’t threaten us with nothin’ any more.”
“Yep, looks like.”
“Don’t you two have clues to search for?”
“Reckon,” Vin sauntered from the room, a broad smile on his face. Buck trailed just a step behind, grinning.
“I’ve got something!” JD stepped out of the study, hope in his expression. “I think I know where to start looking for Ezra!”
“Well, don’t keep us guessin’,” Buck said, “What’d you find?”
“His cell pinged off a tower near the north edge of town, just five minutes ago.”
Chris stood and headed for the door, “Let’s go.”
Nathan stopped long enough to kiss his wife on the cheek and offer up an apology that she brushed away quickly, saying only, “You go find him and, if he’s safe, bring him to me so I can kick his butt.”
With a deep chuckle, the big man followed the others out the door. He stopped long enough to gather up JD, who was promising Wells and Tanner that he’d be back. Looking at the fear in the children’s faces, which was reflected in their father’s, Nathan understood immediately. Although this could be nothing, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that this trip could leave the Dunne children without a father as well as a mother. “JD, would you mind staying back with Raine? I know she’s tough, but with all five of these little yahoos... well, I don’t wanna come back to divorce papers.”
Dunne looked torn for only a minute, but nodded, relief growing across his pale features. “Yeah, I can imagine. Let the boys know... I’ll keep in touch from here...”
“Got’cha on speed dial,” Nathan held up his cell, grinning as he hurried from the door.
Raine had picked up on JD’s fears, and knew exactly what her husband was doing, but she said in a tone of relief, “Thanks, JD. I know you want to help find Ezra, but the thought of being alone with all these kids...”
Dunne smiled. He wasn’t fooled by the ploy, but loved his friends for offering an out. While he did want to help in finding the absent member of their brotherhood, he couldn’t bear leaving the kids alone right now. “It’s okay, I can keep an eye out for other indicators of where Ezra might be. Charges on his card, another phone call... it’s easier to keep on top of that stuff from here.”
That was what Nathan told the others, as well, leaving out the fear and hesitation on Dunne’s part. The others readily agreed with this change of plans, however. Josiah plugged his phone into the base in his SUV, calling JD as he started the vehicle. Vin pulled up beside him on his bike. While Sanchez and Dunne connected, Tanner and Larabee connected as well.
Team Seven was on the move.
They had been looking for nearly two hours, without much success; although there were two more “pings” from Standish’s phone. They recognized the area they were traveling through, known as the LoDo district that Purgatorio was part of. Vin tapped the mike on his phone, saying “Larabee, I got an idea.”
“Well, share it with the rest of the class, Tanner.”
“Where I’m thinkin’, Y’all ain’t gonna fit in there, anyway, best I go it alone. Meet me--”
“We’re not splitting up!” Larabee barked into the phone, getting the attention of all of the other men in the vehicle.
“I love you too, Cowboy, but reckon we established that you ain’t in charge any more. Meet me over on Bleeker in fifteen. I ain’t there, head East and keep a look out for me.” With that, he hit the bike’s throttle and sped away from the others.
“God damn it!” Larabee cursed, punching the dashboard hard enough to leave a dent. Still cursing under his breath, he squeezed his eyes closed and rubbed at the migraine that was blooming behind his eyes. “You know? I haven’t had a fucking migraine in years. I’m around him a couple days, and... FUCK!”
“Chris, calm down. Look, he’s gonna be fine, the boy might have a hero complex, but he’s not suicidal. Give him a little time to see if he can find Ezra.” Buck did his best to sooth the other man’s frayed nerves.
The only response the blond could come up with was a nearly feral growl.
He sat astride his bike at the edge of the alley, looking at the dilapidated buildings that were housed behind an equally dilapidated fence. Looks were deceiving, however; there was a lot more to the scene than rotting boards and rats. A very successful shipping company was run behind those walls. Drugs, guns, people, all of them were warehoused there, before being sold off to the highest bidder. Even now, nearly dawn, there was quite a bit of activity going on in the pre-dawn shadows.
It was one of the few black marks on Team Seven’s record. They had never been able to shut the operation down; had never been able to connect any of it to the James Corporation. Evan James, aided by his nephew, Lucas, had stayed one step ahead of Team Seven, as well as any other legal agency in the area. James had deep pockets, and had managed to bribe and buy his freedom on more than one occasion.
They had been investigating one of his operations when the fools in the power seats had disbanded them. Ezra, himself, had spent over a month undercover, trying to get close to the main players; Evan and Lucas James and their crony, Guy Royal. He had been livid when things had been closed down.
What if he’d never stopped?
Vin cursed when he saw a very familiar silhouette in one of the windows, thumbing through a sheaf of papers. “Australia, my ass. Ezra, what the hell are you doin’?” And why hadn’t he seen fit to let them in on what was happening? Since it seemed that Standish was in no trouble, Tanner started his bike, turned it around, and went to join the others.
The group had just met up when Josiah’s phone alerted them of a call from JD. Putting the call on speaker, the former profiler said, “What’ve you got, son?”
Sounding very relieved, Dunne said softly, “I’ve found him.”
Ezra Standish slipped inside the door of his rented apartment, leaving the light off. Just as he turned to close the door, his senses went on high alert. He wasn’t alone in his rented rooms.
“Quite a step down from the townhouse, don’cha think?” a voice drawled softly.
“It... serves its purposes,” Standish replied, not yet turning. “How did you find me?”
“You’re using the same aliases you used to. Wasn’t hard for JD to find the trail, ‘Dave’,” Chris Larabee’s voice held a hard edge. He reached out and turned on a small table lamp, illuminating the fact that JD was the only one not there at the moment, although the computer whiz had been responsible for finding the apartment they had waited in.
“What’s going on, Ezra?” This from Josiah.
“I’m not at liberty to divulge that,” the dapper man replied, knowing that it wouldn’t be enough to appease his friends.
“How long?” Chris asked.
“Quite long. Since shortly after we were... retired.”
“Who are you working with?” Nathan asked next.
“That, I can’t tell you. Let’s just say they have the backing to do whatever’s necessary to take down people like Evan James, by whatever means necessary.”
“Are you safe? I mean, you just sort’a disappeared,” Buck’s voice was deep with concern.
“I am sorry about that, but it was necessary. I was seen by someone who had James ear, leaving the Saloon after Casey’s wake, and was rather soundly questioned about it. I was forced to eliminate all of you from my presence... for the safety of us all.”
The other men nodded, understanding that Ezra had only had the safety of himself and the rest of them in mind. Looking hard at the other man, Chris echoed Buck’s question. “Are you safe?”
“Yes. It would seem that the person in question... well, they met with a bit of an accident just an hour or so ago.”
The implications of that statement caused more than one of those gathered some pause to reflect. After several long moments of silence, Vin asked, “So, were y’ ever even in Australia?”
“Yes, that much was true, and the reason for my tardiness getting here. I... or I should say, David Whitney... was sent down there by James to oversee a... shipment. I’m afraid that’s all I can divulge at this time. And it is a very, very beautiful country. I’m hoping that I’ll be returning soon. For now, however, I need to do everything I can to make certain that they see me as a team player. It has been quite wonderful seeing all of you, but I hope you’ll understand that this must be the last time.”
“For now,” Chris said with a somber look. “You ever need a place to hide out... you know where I am.”
“That goes for all of us,” Nathan added. “You’re still part of our family, even if you did decide to... go rogue.”
Laughter erupted, the men enjoying the feel of the old days that it brought with it. Looking at each of his friends, Ezra said, “I hold that very close to my heart, gentlemen. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you all, and the memories of our time together has very often been a balm during bitter times.”
“Damn, you sound like a Jane Austin novel,” Buck interjected, bringing the laughter back.
“When the hell did you ever read a Jane Austin novel?” Chris asked, leading to more laughter.
A short time later, they took every precaution leaving the apartment. Vin went so far as to go to the roof, leap to the next building, and go out the back way there. Josiah was the first to leave directly, Buck right behind him. They climbed into the SUV and headed away from the gathering. A short time later, Nathan came out, having called a cab, going in another direction. Finally, Chris left out the back door of the building, slipping down the alley to where Vin waited on his bike. Ezra watched, in the darkness, from the window of his apartment, feeling the absence of the men who had been his family more keenly than he had in a very long time.
Well, Cowboy, look like it’s time t’ say adios,” Vin said as he leaned against Chris’ rental car.
“Reckon so. Gotta say I’m a little jealous of the fact that you’re going to be staying here for awhile.”
“Hell, y’ know all y’ gotta do --”
“Is uproot my family and move them to the other side of the country. That’s a big “all”, Pard.”
“Look, I’m gonna rely on you and Buck to let me know what JD needs for around here. I’m serious, I want to see him succeed, and I’ll be more than happy to foot the bill for some of the things around here. Lets me live under the delusion that I’m a rancher.”
With a salute, Tanner said, “You got it, boss.”
Grinning, the blond said, “Always the smart ass. Okay, guess I’d better get out of here or I’ll miss my plane. I miss my plane... well, there’s gonna be hell to pay when I land.” They had all gathered one last time that morning for breakfast, with the exception of Ezra, enjoying the camaraderie and affection that had been a hallmark of the Team. Nathan and Raine, along with their two boys, had left soon after, heading for the airport themselves. Buck was inside, entertaining his nephews, while Josiah had gone into work. JD was gone as well, having gone to town to see to some legal issues that needed addressed now that he was a single parent.
“Have a safe flight, Chris,” Vin held out his hand. Larabee took it, sliding his hand up to the other man’s forearm; feeling Tanner’s hand clasp around his own.
In an emotional voice, the blond said, “Watch your back.”
Tanner mounted his bike; he was heading back to Boulder for a few days. He needed to pick up a few things, and tie up a few loose ends... and see Moxie... before he returned to help out at the ranch. Chris watched him heading down the lane before turning back to take a final look at the house. He threw up a hand in a wave to Buck, who was standing there, leaning on his cane. The big man returned the gesture before going back to check on the boys.
Larabee sighed. He loved his new life, his family and his job. But this would always be home, and these people would always be his brothers.
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