Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, & Nathan, additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT team members. Special appearance: Old West Seven.
Rating: FMR, het, violence, and profanity included. Special warning: Strong language and torture scenes included.
Disclaimer: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em, but if I did I would run away with 'em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had 'em first and do not want to give 'em away. I play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are only for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.
Summary, Purgatory Part 1: Descent into Hell: Evil dissenters cast Vin and Buck into Purgatory. Help comes from unexpected sources to rescue them.
The MCAT AU, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), are stories are full of mystery, action, humor, and anguish, sprinkled with a touch of fantasy. Also het; all seven are or will be involved in committed relationships. Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. The second series concludes in #7 'Winds of Change'. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven
Thank you: To our betas, we thank y'all, ~ Wendy, for keeping MCAT on track ~ Sarai, for catching all those rogue commas, ~Raquel, for keeping us straight with our Spanish. Ladies of Muse 7, y'all are great, and we appreciate your feedback. Bountyhunter'slady, the collage you created is awesome. All of your collages amaze me, and I appreciate the art you have contributed to the MCAT Series.
Tannertexaslady Notes: ~ To my granddaughter, Kari, for your encouragement and critique, I love you. Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised, speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. The character of 'Raven' first appeared in MCAT Series # 1 ~ Turbulent Transitions, # 7 Reconciliations. 'Cowboy' and 'Tracker' first appeared in MCAT Series #2 ~Strength & Solidarity, #1 Shades of Gray.
* A glossary of Law Enforcement terms used in this series is located @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html
Emails: email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
Previous reconnaissance permitted one man, dressed in black, to move stealthily through the shadows of the night. It took less than ten seconds to pick the lock on the front door. On a silent count of three, he quietly entered the darkened living area of the secluded ranch style home. Moving toward the back of the house, he entered the master bedroom, and found his target.
Something caused Mike Cole to wake suddenly, and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Finding a stranger standing beside his bed was unnerving. "Who the hell are you?"
"The last person you'll ever see." A moment later, a soft whish from a Beretta 92 ended his life. Gore splattered on the wall above the headboard, while red liquid oozed onto the bed sheets.
Following specific orders, the assassin walked to the closet, removing a neatly pressed uniform. He then grabbed a logbook and keys from the nightstand, before exiting the room. Within five minutes, he was driving Cole's vehicle, and headed to a rendezvous with his squadron.
Tanner Home, 0130 Hours
He woke when Kelli left their bed to check on Trey, who was apparently having a restless night, judging from the sounds coming through the intercom. While he waited for his wife to return, he threw the covers aside, and padded into the bathroom to take care of business. Buck was picking him up at three-thirty, and Vin reckoned if he wanted time to give his woman a proper good-bye, going back to sleep was not an option. It would be six days before she joined him in Texas, and that was just too long.
Kelli reentered their room and the first thing she noticed was their empty bed. Quietly she walked to the bathroom door and peeked inside to see her husband standing naked by the shower door. She took a moment to enjoy the vision of his tanned body, taut muscles, and sexy ass as he reached in to turn on the water.
Without turning around, he asked, "Enjoyin' the view?"
"As a matter of fact, yes I am." She stepped inside, walked over, wrapped her arms around his waist, and laid her head against his back. "Kids are all fine." She stroked her hand across his hard, flat stomach. "Are you plannin' on a solo shower?"
Closing his eyes, he grinned. "Was you know Buck will be knockin' on our door soon."
Disappointed by his lack of enthusiasm, she huffed, "Fine," dropped her arms, and turned to leave, but he was quicker.
In a flash, Vin had her in his arms, her body pressed against his. "Aw, Baby, you know me better than that." A searing kiss sent them both into another dimension, as their burgeoning need, and the ache in their hearts for their imminent separation, intensified with every touch.
It was much later before they hurried around to pack his bag. "When you make a list for what to bring in your suitcase, make sure you don't forget Blaze's red thong. I plan to show her how a Texan makes love under a Lone Star moon."
Vin laughed when Kelli stuck out her tongue. He picked up his valise, and threw his arm around his wife. After setting his bag by the back door, together they went to the kids' rooms for him to see them before he left. Taking a moment to stand at each child's bedroom door, he took a mental picture of his children, as they slept peacefully unaware, to carry with him on his trip. Then he and Kelli walked into the kitchen where she started the coffee, while he went over his notes for the conference.
She set a hot cup in front of him. "Are you sure you don't want to eat somethin' before you leave?"
"Naw," he took a sip and shook his head; "Buck and I will grab breakfast at the hotel when we check in."
A short rap at the door alerted them to the time. Kelli looked at the clock. "Must be Buck, Lord, it's almost three."
Vin chuckled. "Time flies when we're havin' fun," he yelled, "Come on in Bucklin."
Buck entered, and shook his head, throwing droplets of water in the air. "Damn, it's starting to drizzle."
"Good thing we're headed south then." Vin stood, took his cup to the sink, and rinsed it. "I plan on sleepin' on the plane, so it can rain all it wants."
"Let's get a move on. The sooner we leave, the sooner we get back home."
Kelli stood, walked over to her Texan, and kissed him. "You take care, I'll see you Saturday."
He pulled her against him; his muscled arm swept her close for a kiss that stole her breath.
"Okay, you two," Buck grinned, "Keep that up and we'll never get out of here."
They both reluctantly came up for air; Vin kissed her on the forehead and let her go. "Love you, Baby." He picked up his bag and headed toward the door. "What are you waitin' for Buck? Let's get a move on."
"Damn, why didn't I think of that?" Buck opened the door, sweeping his hand in front of him. "After you, Captain."
"Smart ass," Vin mumbled as he walked out.
MCAT Field, Monday, 0355 Hours
Wilmington used his card ID at the gate, and pulled into the nearly empty parking lot. The light drizzle had turned into a heavy rain and he wanted to park as close to the plane as possible.
Seeing the ugly weather and thinking about how wet they would be by the time he and Vin crossed the tarmac, Buck frowned. "Our pilot is probably inside, already nice and dry."
"He can be in their bein' fanned by six naked women for all I care, as long as he keeps the plane straight enough for me to get some shut eye."
"You wore yourself out saying goodbye huh?"
"You didn't?" Vin smirked, opened the passenger door, grabbed his bag, and then made a run for the jet. Buck was right on his heels, both making it to the open door at the same time.
Tanner entered the quiet cabin first, threw his bag in the luggage bin, and made for his favorite chair up front. He may complain about being gone from home, but at least they traveled in style. The Lear 60 was built for the comfort of its passengers, and Vin planned to be comfortable.
Buck opted for a window seat, and after tossing his bag in to join Tanner's, he headed that way. The sound of the door shutting behind him made him turn to greet their pilot. "Hey Mike, I didn't see .who the hell are you?"
The unidentified man held a gun mere inches from Buck's forehead. "Who I am, is not important, Agent Wilmington." He held out his other hand. "Your weapons please, and don't try anything stupid or your friend will die."
Vin heard Buck's voice change tone and turned to see what was going on. "Buck " He stopped when he felt the pressures of the hard steel of a gun muzzle at his back.
"Relax Agent Tanner, throw your weapons on the seat, then perhaps you and your friend may live to see takeoff."
Tanner complied, and slowly laid his gun on the empty seat. "Where's Mike?"
"Your pilot was unable to be here, so I volunteered to take his place." He watched as Vin laid his service weapon down, shook his head, and sighed. "Your back-up gun, too."
Reading the man's thoughts, Vin realized Mike was dead, and he and Buck were in deep shit. Reluctantly he unstrapped his other weapon, and threw it on the chair. He glanced at Buck, and then said to their captors, "Y'all know our names, how about sharin' yours."
"I'm your new travel agent, and there's been a slight change of plans." He raised his gun and hit Tanner on the back of the head.
Vin crumpled to the floor, and before Buck could aid him, he was blindsided. Wilmington slumped to the floor, unconscious, at the feet of his assailant.
The new pilot looked to his associate. "You and the others tie them into their seats, while I prepare for takeoff. I want to be out of Colorado airspace before those two are awake."
Buck's rise to consciousness was dotted with sparkles of light that sent needle-like spears of pain through his head and to the back of his eyes. Fighting his nausea, he glanced across to see Tanner watching him. Despite the fact the hair at the back of his head was matted with blood, Vin was very much awake, and a bolt of awareness entered Buck's mind. With the slightest of nods, he knew what they needed and when.
Vin was relieved to see Buck look at him. They knew how each other thought, Buck would know what they needed to do, but just to be sure, Vin focused on his collective thoughts as he stared into Buck's eyes. He relaxed the tiniest bit when a nod told him message received.
For an infinite amount of time, the two men sized up their opponents. The men being armed was an issue, but not an impossible one. When the plane landed, they would have to move fast. The plane swayed slightly as if caught in turbulence, and then settled. Buck and Vin were not to know, how that small shudder would soon rock their families to their very core.
MCAT office, Monday, 0800 Hours
Chris was not in the best of moods. He woke in the early predawn hours, and had not been able to go back to sleep. Although he had nothing specific to go on, he felt there was something he should know, or do, but for the life of him, he did not understand what it could be. Watching his agents arrive, he could tell just what kind of weekend each had by their expressions. Most were in far better spirits than he was. It did not help his disposition at all when he noted that Braswell was watching them, too. Vin had told him the man was not a threat to MCAT, but he still irritated him nonetheless.
Kelli rushed in a few minutes after eight. Chris knew she hated to be late and made a point of asking her why, "Everything all right?"
Setting her bag on her desk, she gave him an exasperated look. "Sorry I'm late. I had to go into the school and see the nurse because Jason has to take Motrin during the day for pain because of his broken arm. Do you know how many waivers I had to sign just so I could leave the bottle with her to give to him?" she sighed. "You'd think he was on morphine or somethin'."
Chris allowed her to vent and nodded, before he asked what he really wanted to know. "Did Vin and Buck get off okay?"
"Yeah, they left our place around three." She studied his face, looking for any telltale sign that would indicate she should be worried. "You only curious or do you know somethin' I should "
"No " he placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently, "I just like to keep track of my brothers. Is anything wrong with that?"
"Guess not, but if you did ."
"I'd tell you." Chris smiled. "Now get busy, we have a unit meeting at 0830 hours." He waited until she sat at her desk, before he walked off, only to have Kenneth Braswell stop him before he reached his office.
"Excuse me, Commander Larabee. I saw Agent Standish arrive earlier. Isn't he supposed to be in El Paso?"
Trying to be at least civil, Chris took a deep breath and counted to ten before he answered. "Not that it's any of your concern, but yes he was. Captain Tanner went in his place. Now, if you'll excuse me I have a unit to run."
Larabee walked off, leaving Braswell standing alone. Kenneth Braswell wasted no time hurrying to his office. He had a very important phone call to make.
MCAT War Room, 0830 Hours
Orrin Travis was directing the meeting today. He was a stickler for starting on time and once everyone sat down, he began. "First off, thank you, Commander Larabee, for allowing me to interrupt your schedule to address this unit. I want to personally pass on the commendations our MCAT teams received for their joint effort in taking down Dante Perón's organization in Colorado and Texas. We were so successful, that Homeland Security has requested our consultation for their own mission to deter the illegal trafficking across our borders. As you all probably know, Captain Tanner and Special Agent Wilmington are in El Paso this morning to meet with that Task force, and will be helping them organize during the upcoming week."
The agents sat back, prepared for a long speech from Director Travis.
Travis continued, "I cannot tell you how proud I am to be the Director of MCAT "
Gunny barged into the room. "Excuse me I need to speak with Commander Larabee, now."
Chris stood, walked over to Gunny, took her by the arm, and after nodding to Travis, headed back out the door with his administrative assistance in tow. Once outside the war room, he stopped. "What the hell is important enough to interrupt Director Travis?"
"I received a phone call from the senior member of the Homeland Security Task force asking about Captain Tanner and Agent Wilmington. Evidently they missed their 0800 meeting, and when I checked, I discovered they never made it to their hotel, and the airport has no record of the MCAT jet arriving."
*Damn, I should have checked on them sooner,* Chris chastised himself for not listening to his gut. Then he made a conscious effort to push back all emotional response, and began thinking like an MCAT agent. "Get the air traffic controller from Denver on the line, alert him about our missing jet. I want a copy of the flight plan Mike filed. Then contact the State police in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, find out if there are any reports of a plane going down ."
Gunny gasped. "You don't think ?"
"Right now I don't know what to think." Chris softened the tone of his voice. "Just get started, I'll inform the others, and then we'll all get to work on finding them."
"Yes sir." Gunny took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and mentally prepared herself for the job at hand.
Convinced she was all right, Chris watched her walk off, and then closed his eyes for a moment. Jumping into command mode was easy with Gunny. Now came the hard part. He had to go in there and tell teammates, friends, family, and one spouse that Vin and Buck were missing. It fell on his shoulders to stay calm, and keep them all focused enough to help find his missing brothers.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and walked inside. Rounding the table, he stopped behind Kelli, and interrupted Travis. "Sir, we have a situation developing that needs MCAT's immediate attention." A hush fell over the room. Laying his hands on his daughter's shoulders, he continued, "Evidently our jet never reached El Paso, and we have to work on the assumption that something happened to it between here and there."
"No!" Tears sprang to her eyes, and Kelli tried to jump up, but Chris held her in her seat. Allowing a few moments for the initial shock to subside he waited as the others reacted.
"Heavenly Father, bless and protect our brothers this day."
"It's a mistake "JD glanced at his other brothers, who all wore the same look of disbelief he did. "Right? It has to be, Buck and Vin aren't ."
"NO! There are a number of possibilities; none means that the worst has happened. We need to stay away from negative thoughts, and get to the job of finding them." Chris kept pressure on Kelli's shoulders. "I'm sure Vin, Buck, and Mike are safely sitting somewhere waiting for us to find 'em. Let's get to it."
Orrin realized that Chris needed a moment with his daughter, and he immediately started issuing orders to both teams. While Larabee escorted Kelli from the room, the rest of the agents began making phone calls, set up a case board at the front of the room, coordinated with Gunny, and supported one another throughout it all.
Chris took Kelli to Vin's office, and sat down with her on the couch. "I know this is not easy for you, but we don't have any reason to think the worst."
She pulled away from him and stood, turning to him in anger. "You knew this mornin' somethin' was wrong! Damnit, why didn't you act on it? What if ?" She could not voice her worst fear.
"Kel, listen to me," he stood and drew her close, wrapping his arms around her, "we're not going there. Right now, the only thing we know for sure is that the jet didn't make it to El Paso. Now if you want to go home, I'll have Raphael take you. Or you can stay, if, and only if you think you can get your emotions under control until we know more."
Clearing her throat, and taking a deep breath, Kelli stepped back. "I can do my job. When, or if I need to be home with our children, I'll go. Until then, I want to know what's happenin'."
Chris watched as an invisible shade dropped over her emotions. This was something he knew she was capable of, but never got used to seeing. He nodded. "Okay, let's get back in there and help find them.
*Now would be a good time for you to talk to me, partner. Where the hell are you?*
By the time the plane banked in preparation for landing, Buck and Vin were mentally ready for anything. Their captors had been well prepared, considering minute details, like closing the window blinds. Neither Tanner nor Wilmington had any idea of how long they'd been flying, or where they were now. A Lear 60's cruising speed was around 525 mph, and with no need to refuel for at least 2615nm, they could be anywhere from Anchorage Alaska to Bogotá, Colombia.
Clearly, flight protocol was not an issue either, as their now six armed guards stood watch over them until they touched down. Rising on the given order, the two men moved as one, elbows swinging hard into crunching cartilage and bone. They were fighting for their lives, and for a few moments, they had the upper hand. Vin succeeded in taking hold of a gun, wrestling with its owner for possession. Arms shaking with the strain, Tanner angled the gun under his adversary's jaw and fired.
Buck plowed head first into the man directly ahead of him, taking another two with him. Guns skittered across the plush carpet as the three rolled to the floor. Buck's long legs kicked out hard and successfully, his reflexes fast as he maneuvered into a sitting position and used his bound hands as a club. In a split second, Buck reached out across the floor to grab a loose gun, screaming out in agony as pilot Jake Wilder appeared to put his boot down full force on one of Buck's outstretched hands, unaffected by the audible snapping of delicate bones.
The third of the three men Buck had taken down was now on his feet. He punched Vin hard in the kidneys, snatched up the pain wracked Texan by the hair and slammed him face down into a headrest. Vin's nose exploded as his senses reeled and his energy evaporated. Gagging on the blood trickling down his throat, two men dragged Vin out of the plane, his legs scarcely able to carry him. He was barely aware of an equally distraught Wilmington just ahead of him as they guided him to an unmarked van and pushed him inside.
Buck's whole body ached and shook with the agony coursing through him. He knew Vin was just behind, but was in no position to assist him in any way. Tossed viciously into a windowless van, Buck howled out in anguish as he landed on his injured hand. As the doors slammed closed and the vehicle pulled off, the pair curled in on themselves, eventually passing out.
MCAT Office, 1000 Hours
For the past hour, the war room had been a flurry of activity. Reports coming in, calls to New Mexico and Texas law enforcement officials made back and forth, and computers working overtime to find any shred of information the agents considered useful.
Chris, frustrated that he could not connect with Tanner, stood with his arms crossed, staring at the case board. "What have we confirmed?"
Ezra looked up, his pain showing clearly in his eyes. "Mike didn't file a flight plan, but Denver International replayed their tapes, and picked up a blip around 0430 which they believe could have been our jet."
"I calculated time, probable speed, distance, and fuel." JD read off his notes. "By now, the jet would have to have landed somewhere, or they'd be out of fuel I can't pick up a GPS signal from it either."
"Texas has no reports of anything out of the ordinary in their skies this morning." Nathan trembled as he sighed. He was afraid to look at any of his brothers; if he did, he knew he could not hold back his emotions.
"I'm waiting on a call back from New Mexico ." Josiah stopped to answer his phone.
Running out of viable explanations for no communication with their pilot, or any indication of the whereabouts of the plane, everyone in the room held their breath.
''Is that confirmed?" Josiah slowly nodded his head and sighed deeply. "Thanks, we'd appreciate any other information yes I understand." Hanging up the receiver, he turned to the waiting agents in the room. With a hitch in his voice, he repeated what The NM State police just told him. "At 0500 just outside of Las Cruces close to the Robledo Mountains, several reports were called in by citizens who witnessed an explosion .believed to be made by a mid size jet crashing into the mountainside. Search and rescue units are in the area, but ."
"NO!" JD almost spun a full circle looking at the men he considered brothers. "No no way call 'em back " he pushed past Josiah. "Forget it, I will "
"JD " Chris's voice was raw, his tone, soft, stopping the young tech in his tracks. The pair made eye contact.
Dunne shook his head, barely aware of a hand on his shoulder, liquid hazel eyes wide with fear. "No," he whispered.
Never breaking eye contact, Chris tried to swallow the boulder lodged in his throat as the misery surrounding him penetrated his soul. *What now?*
The silence that greeted his thoughts was...terrifying.
Chris struggled with his feelings. The information they had that told him Vin, Buck, and Mike, were probably dead, seemed almost incontrovertible. Yet his heart and gut screamed at him not to listen to the cold, hard, facts. Just accepting was not one of the Larabee traits he excelled in, and judging from the way Kelli rushed out of the room, neither did she. He needed to talk to his daughter, and then decide how to tell Inez about the crash.
Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD huddled together by the door. Chris joined them. "Travis and Bravo team will monitor things here. I'm going to talk to Kelli, and try to convince her to go home. I also need to see Inez." He looked at JD. "I know her aunt is at the house with her, but I'd like for you to go with me. I think your presence might help her."
JD nodded, and quietly asked, "What do we tell her?"
"The truth about what we know. We'll see how she takes it, and then do what's needed to help her through this."
"Mallory and I can take Kelli home and stay with her if you want."
"Thanks. Cait and I will come over as soon as we can." Chris turned to Ezra and Nathan. "You two, go tell your wives. It's best they don't hear about this on the news. JD, give me a few minutes. After I get Kelli situated, we'll leave."
It was easy to find her. Kelli was back at her desk, scanning the computer for more reports. Chris stood and watched her for a moment, before moving beside her. "Kel, I want you to go home."
"And do what? Sit around, cry, scream, and rant?"
"Honey, you should be with the kids right now. If there's any news we'll know."
"Vin's not dead."
The strength of her words both surprised and pleased him. "I'm not giving up on him, but I know he'd expect me to make sure you and the kids are together."
Kelli chewed on her bottom lip and considered his words. "No matter what it looks like, I know Vin is out there somewhere and in trouble. I want your word that you'll help me find him."
"You know I'd walk into hell for him, or Buck, or any of my brothers." He placed his finger on her chin, forcing her to look at him. "I'd fight Satan, himself, for my daughter." He gazed directly into her eyes. "I will bring Vin home."
She nodded. "I'll go then, but don't expect me to quit on Vin. I made that mistake when Ice took me and Trey, I won't do it again ever."
Chris swallowed hard, he remembered what her misplaced feeling of failure and guilt did to her then, and he was not going to let her walk down that road alone. "Mallory and Josiah will go with you. Cait and I will be over after JD and I talk to Inez."
Josiah and Mallory were there before Chris walked away.
Returning to JD, Chris's heart lurched again to see the despair in the younger man's face. Buck and JD, much like he, and Vin had become as two halves, each half struggling when the other was hurting. But missing that was a whole other ballgame. Chris's feelings for Buck went way back as did JD's for Vin. They were two young men whose passion for fun and adventure connected them as kindred spirits, intensified by friendly rivalry that still went on to this day. He watched JD approach him.
"We're not telling her he's dead 'cause he's not."
"Agreed." Chris reached out and squeezed the back of JD's neck. "I need you to stay strong for me, JD."
Despite the emotion in the younger man's eyes, JD's jaw squared, resolutely. "I'm ready to lay my life on the line to find them is that strong enough for you?"
His own emotion cutting off his reply, Chris nodded. "Let's go."
The trip to Buck's was quiet. Chris glanced across. "Talk to me, JD " He was a little surprised when the young man's hand covered his on the steering wheel.
"Can you stop for a minute?"
Chris signaled and pulled over. He turned toward the younger man. "What is it?"
He struggled for a few moments, but finally JD made eye contact and spoke. "This bonding brotherhood thing of ours it's for real, right?"
Chris nodded. "As real as us sitting here now."
"Good good 'cause I gotta tell you, all this freaky shit in my head kinda had me wondering if I could cope with it but as time goes on, I'm kinda getting to like it. I know it's not as intense as what you and Vin have by any means, but " he searched for the right words, finally placing a hand over his own heart. "Here something in here is telling me Buck and Vin are still out there. I'm scared, yeah terrified, actually, but nothing will convince me they're gone. I need to know if what I'm feeling is real or am I just forcing it because I don't want to believe they're dead?"
Chris's heart soared. He offered a tight smile. "Does it help if I told you I feel the exact same way? That I know Kelli's of the same mind, too . and yeah I'm scared shitless."
JD sighed with relief. "Yeah yeah it does help, thanks. Sorry, I really needed to say that out loud."
Chris prepared to set off. "I'm glad you did. Are you ready, now?"
JD shook his head. "No, but let's do it."
Wilmington Home 1130 Hours
Inez smiled warmly as she welcomed the two men into her home. Aunt Isabella nodded to them from the kitchen. "Hola, JD Christopher."
"Ma'am," they acknowledged, their focus moving back to Inez. The beautiful Hispanic woman's face paled when she looked at their expressions. She clutched at JD's arm, her voice a whisper.
Chris's gaze dropped momentarily as he caught the despair in hers. JD's eyes were filling, but he stared straight at her. This woman had been there for him more times than he could count. She was a sister of his heart, and he loved her dearly. "We should sit down."
"No! Tell me," she pleaded.
JD looked to Chris. He was willing to say it, but his respect for Chris caused him to defer to him.
"We received word that the plane Buck and Vin were on never reached El Paso. There have been sightings of a crash or explosion near Las Cruces "
Inez gasped; one hand flew to her mouth as the other gripped JD tighter. "Madre de Dios no por favor no!" Fat tears spilled from her eyes.
Chris was struggling, but he knew he had to continue. "We're waiting on more information, and for now they, and their pilot, are listed as missing." He squeezed Inez's arm. "We're not giving up on them trust me."
She nodded, absently, her eyes moving to JD as Isabella joined them. One look at Inez and the young man knew he was done for. Allowing his emotions to break through, the pair clung to each other.
"I promise you, we're not gonna give up looking for them until we bring them home," he breathed, glancing at Chris. "Are we?"
"No, we're not," Chris replied, placing a hand on each of their backs as he considered just exactly what 'bringing them home' might truly mean. They stayed that way for several long moments. Chris sighed, softly. "Inez, do you need someone here do you want ?"
Dunne answered for her. "I'm gonna stay a while. I'll find my own way home, don't worry."
Larabee nodded, moving his hand to the back of JD's head and bending to kiss Inez's. "I'll be with Kelli if you need me, and check in with you later." With a nod to Isabella, Chris left, his heart clenching at the heaving, muffled sobs from Inez.
Once in his truck, he sat holding the wheel for some time, while all that had happened washed over him. He suddenly threw his head back and yelled, "Damnit, talk to me Tanner!"
Standish Home, 1130 Hours
Barbara greeted Ezra at the door. The despair in his voice on the phone when he called to say he was on his way home haunted her, and she had worried for his safe return, relieved as he approached her. Staring into clouded green eyes, she gripped his arms.
"What is it?"
"Let's go inside my love, and I will explain."
Several minutes later, Barbara's tears matched those of her husband. "You don't believe they're dead, do you?"
"None of us are considering that as a possibility, no but "
Brushing away his tears, she placed her hands either side of his face. "But what?"
"It should have been me on that plane, Barbara. Vin read me, knew of my desire to remain close to you. My selfishness may have caused the death of one of my brothers." He broke down completely. Barbara took him in her arms, stroking his hair.
"Vin would be angry at you for thinking this way. No one could have foreseen this, my love, you, nor are any of your brothers responsible. Be strong, Ezra they need you now more than ever before."
Standish moved to gaze into his wife's eyes. "I appreciate what you say, and I promise to endeavor to work through this." He brushed his lips to hers. "I love you. Please hold me."
Relaxing back on the sofa, she held him close until he his tear subsided. Barbara wept silently for him, the family, and their lost lambs.
Rain stared at her husband. When Nathan had told her the news, she had cried, realizing as they held on to one another that he was crying, too. Now he was staring out of the bedroom window, detached, and filled with misery. She had to reach him, keep him strong. Rain had no doubt the men of Alpha Team would be going after their brothers, and one thing she would ensure before that happened, was that Nathan would be in the right frame of mind for such an undertaking.
Moving behind him, she laid her head against his back, her arms embracing him. "Courage, my darling."
Nathan wrapped his hands around hers. "I'm trying, babe I'm trying."
MCAT Office, 1130 Hours
Rafael reviewed the case board, studying every detail about the missing men and plane. "When I know I'm going out, I always keep a copy of my flight plan at home just in case."
Justin nodded. "You think Mike would too?"
"Yeah, knowing him, hell, he'd write it in triplicate. Of course, we'd probably have to break into his house to find it."
The two men exchanged a grin. Finally, they had something to do besides sit around and wait for sporadic reports from New Mexico.
"Let's do it." Justin pulled his keys from his pocket. "I'm driving."
The ranch house was eerily quiet as the two agents easily picked the lock and entered. Frowning at the idea Mike had jetted off without implementing extra security for his home. Withdrawing their weapons from their holsters, the two men quickly, efficiently, but cautiously checked out the house.
Justin and Rafael carefully made their way down the hallway toward the master bedroom. Even before they reached it, they smelled the coppery stench of blood and other human matter. Both men had to work to keep from retching, each taking shallow breaths, as they crept the last couple of feet forward. Although, their senses were telling them that something was seriously wrong, it still didn't prepare them for the gruesome visual they discovered when they entered it a few moments later.
"Madre del amor hermoso!"
Rafael checked out the closets and drawers, using a Kleenex to prevent destroying fingerprints. Justin looked over Mike's naked, lifeless body, the dead man's eyes unseeing as his head lay in a dried mess of gore and brains.
"His uniform's missing, and I've yet to locate a flight log." Rafael kept searching, but he was certain it was gone, too.
Justin nodded. "I'm gonna call Chris." Dialing Larabee's number on his cell, he took as deep a breath as the foul stench of death would allow him.
"Chris, I'm at Mike's never mind about that now you need to get over here Vin and Buck's disappearance is looking less like an accident by the minute."
Tanner Home, 1230 Hours
After sending Josiah and Mallory to their house, Chris and Cait settled in to wait at the Tanner home for any news. Watching Kelli, across the room with the twins, broke Chris's heart. "Vin should be here."
Cait squeezed his hand. "He will be soon." Her biggest concern however, was for the man next to her. It seemed that he took on the self- appointed role of having to be the strong one for the family during a crisis. At some point, she realized he would need a soft place to fall, and she planned to be there when it happened.
Max set two cups of coffee in front of them. "It's just not right. Haven't those two been through enough the past couple of years?"
"Thanks. You know what they say, Max. What doesn't break us makes us stronger." Cait nodded toward Kelli. "She and Vin are both survivors. In fact, it's evident to me that every member of the Wild Bunch has an extraordinary ability to face whatever life throws at them without breaking."
"I agree." Max looked at Chris. "Walter and I plan to be here for the duration, so if you need us just yell."
"I will." He placed a hand on Max's arm when she turned to leave. "Thank you for being here for Kel and the children."
Max nodded. "We love them as much as you do." She hurried off before her emotions showed.
"What happens now, Chris?"
He shrugged a shoulder. "We wait until search and rescue workers find the wreckage, and pray they find Vin, Buck, and Mike alive."
The phone rang and Kelli grabbed it first. "Yeah he's here hold on" She took the portable and walked it over to Chris. "Justin needs to talk to you."
Chris took it and waited, but she didn't move. He sighed; if it was more bad news he guessed she'd know anyway. "Larabee you're where? What are you doing there? Okay I'm on my way."
"Justin is at Mike's house. He said I needed to see something."
Kelli nodded. "I'm going with you." She held up her hand. "Jason and Andi won't be home until almost four. Max can handle the boys, and the last time I checked I was still an MCAT agent."
"I'll stay, in case Max needs any help." Cait looked at Chris. "This affects her life, too. You two should go together." While she did feel Kelli needed to be involved, she also knew Chris would stay calmer with his daughter with him.
Chris glanced from Cait to Kelli, the two most important women in his life, and realized he was not going to win if he argued. "All right, but you're going as an agent. Regardless of what you two women think, I'm still in charge."
Mike Cole's House, 1315 Hours
Justin met them at the front door. "Sir, Bones, and forensics are en route, but I thought you'd want to see this before they arrive.
"Lead on, Captain." Not knowing what to expect, Chris followed next, making Kelli wait outside with Raphael.
"This way, Sir." Retracing his footsteps from before, Justin took Chris to the bedroom, allowing him to go in first.
"Jesus " Any doubts he had about what happened to Vin and Buck vanished, replaced by a growing firestorm of anger in his gut, as he took in the carnage before him.
"He obviously didn't have time to put up a fight." Justin handed Chris a clean handkerchief to cover his nose. "Mike's uniform is missing, along with his flight log."
Chris faced his Captain. "I don't want to know how you and Rafael got in here. As far as the report goes exigent circumstances made entry necessary."
"That's exactly what we thought."
Rafael came to the door. "The ME is here with forensics."
"Send them in. The sooner they get started, the sooner we find the bastard responsible."
Chris returned outside and informed Kelli that Mike was dead. While he waited for Bones to finish is initial examination on the body, he mentally covered the various reasons someone would go to this length to get their hands on the MCAT jet and two of his agents. None of the ones he could come up with made this situation look any better for Vin or Buck.
MCAT Office, 1400 Hours
"Do any of you know why Chris called us back in?" Nathan looked at Ezra, JD, and Josiah.
"All he told me was 'get your ass back to the office a.s.a.p.'," JD sighed, "From the tone he used, I doubt we're here to receive good news."
"I gathered as much from his abrupt manner." Ezra hoped he was wrong.
"I checked on the way in. The search party hasn't found anything yet." Josiah knew what their information pointed to, but he just did not believe they could lose two brothers and not 'feel the loss' when it happened especially after just learning about their special connection to one another.
Chris was a man with a mission. He marched into the war room, pulled out a new case board, scrawled the name Michael Cole across the top, and then turned to address Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD. "The only thing we work on is finding this man's killer. When we do, we find out what happened to Vin and Buck."
"Mike's dead?" JD shook his head, already reeling from news of the apparent crash; this was too much to take in.
"Then who the hell was piloting the plane?" Nathan felt like he'd received another punch to his gut.
"If Mike was murdered, then this is more than an unfortunate accident." Josiah tried to begin piecing things together. "Are you thinking Vin and Buck were targeted?"
Ezra closed his eyes, again chastising himself for not going as planned. "No one but us knew Vin would be on that jet. If anyone was a target it would have been Buck or me."
Kelli walked over and stood next to Ezra. Laying her hand on his arm, she softly said, "Vin would be the first to tell you that when one of y'all is threatened, you all are." She waited until she saw him nod before she let go.
Chris noted her action and was glad to see Ezra respond. "Forensics' should have more for us soon, but Bones' put the time of death around midnight, give or take an hour. This has all the markings of a professional hit. Whoever murdered Mike, took his uniform and his flight log. We'll work on the premise that our assassin was the one who flew Vin and Buck out of here, until we find evidence that says differently. Bravo team is still on site, so we should have an update within the hour." He glanced at each one. "I know search and rescue in New Mexico has not found evidence of a crash yet, and I'm beginning to believe they aren't going to."
JD was the first one to act. "I'll run a search for any known professional who holds a pilot's license, and search for all airports big enough for a Lear 60 to land. If our jet touched down anywhere in the U.S., CASSIE and I will find it."
"I'll start a profile, and use the forensic report to build on." Josiah sat at the table and began writing.
Nathan walked over to Chris and took the marker from his hand. "I'll catalog our findings and add them to the case board."
"My laptop has information on all of my past .associates maybe I can find one who happens to be a pilot." Ezra rushed off to his computer.
Chris nodded, he felt better than he did an hour ago. At least now, they had something to work with. "Kel, you, and I are going to go through old case files. Maybe we can find our unknown pilot that way."
"You want me to set up in here or your office?"
He looked around, not missing the fact that all his brothers chose to work within sight of one another. "We'll work in here."
A new surge of energy flowed in the war room. Forensic reports were starting to come in, and the case board had much more than Mike's name on it. Alpha team, with the exception of Langley worked obsessively to find a paid assassin who could fly a plane. The sense of connection Chris, Josiah, JD, Ezra, and Nathan felt growing among them intensified as they worked wordlessly side by side. They were convinced their two missing brothers were still alive, and each vowed to do whatever was necessary to bring them home.
Orrin Travis stood at the door and silently watched Alpha team as they plowed through evidence and files. These men were not just agents; he had known most of them for years. Even before MCAT, the reputation of Team Seven was legendary, their work since was equally impressive. He admired, respected, and cared about each one of them. More than that, he understood their need to find their own, which made what he was about to do even harder.
Clearing his throat to make his presence known, he walked into the room. "Chris, I need a few moments of your time please." The two men stepped into the hallway for a semblance of privacy. "I have spent the past hour on the phone with the National Security Office, updated them on our latest information, and listened to what they have to say. While I do not agree with their decision, I have no choice, but to follow their directives. A hijacked government plane, resulting in the kidnapping of two Federal Agents, makes this a matter of national defense. Homeland Security is taking over the investigation. They ordered me to turn over any information regarding Mike Cole's murder, the theft of our plane, and our two missing Federal Agents. My orders, and yours, are clear. MCAT is not to be any further involved on any level of this investigation."
"Like hell! Those two missing Federal Agents are my men and my responsibility to find! Not only are they my agents, they are my family, and no Washington sonofabitch is going to tell me to just drop everything, and then trust them to find Vin and Buck!"
Orrin took a deep breath. "Chris, I don't like any of this, but our order is to stand down. We either cooperate or risk closing MCAT permanently. What we do is too important to let that happen."
"Then I suggest you get that legal eagle of yours to find a way around it, because I'm not gonna cooperate!"
"Braswell's gone, he told me this morning he was going back to Washington."
"Then find another way!"
"As Assistant Deputy Director, your first responsibility is to the unit. You have no choice any more than I do."
"Yeah, I do." Chris unclipped his badge, removed his service weapon, ripped off his ID card, and shoved all three at Travis. "I quit!"
By this time, Chris's shouting had drawn the rest of the team to the doorway. The moment he unclipped his badge, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, JD, and Kelli followed suit, leaving Travis standing alone with an armful of weapons, badges, and identification cards.
Silence fell over the bullpen, as the members of Alpha team cleared their personal belongings from their desks, and walked out the door.
They gathered in the parking lot, awaiting Chris's direction.
"Talk to all your active resources, and determine what we have to work with. I'll contact New Mexico, and get an update on their search. JD, find out what information we can still get to. We'll meet at my house tomorrow morning, at 0900 Hours, regroup, and reassess our options."
Tanner Home, 2030 Hours
Kelli had spent the evening with Jason and Andi. Both children understood their daddy and uncle were missing, but neither waivered with their faith that they would be coming home. Andi moved their pillows into her parents' room, and planned for her and her brother to sleep there every night until her father returned.
Closing the storybook, Kelli glanced at Jason, who was barely awake, and Andi who had passed out about halfway through the fairytale. "You all right, Jason?" She adjusted the soft cast on his arm.
He yawned, and then nodded. "Mom, do you suppose Dad's sleeping now?"
"I hope so. He might not be as comfortable as we are, but I'd bet he's thinkin' about us, the same way we're thinkin' about him."
"Then I'm gonna send him a goodnight kiss in my thoughts."
"You do that." She leaned over and kissed her son's forehead. "This one will be from Daddy," she kissed him again, "and that one is from me."
A few minutes later, he was asleep. Kelli slipped off the bed and walked over to her dresser. There she opened her jewelry box and took out the hawk pendent that Vin made for her. Clutching it tightly, she left the room, stood in the hallway, finally allowing herself to breakdown. Eventually, she ran out of tears, clasped the pendent around her neck, forced herself to move, and returned to Vin's home office. When she had dumped her personal items from work there earlier, she noticed an envelope addressed to Kelli Tanner. It was strange because most people at work always used Coulter on her correspondence, instead of her married name. Slipping out the note from inside, she studied it for a long time before making a decision.
Picking up the phone receiver, she dialed the number on the note and waited for an answer.
"Hello," a male voice came on the line.
"This is Kelli Tanner; I'm tryin' to reach Kenneth Braswell."
"I've been expecting your call, Missus Tanner. I have information I believe you might be interested in knowing."
Freezing water brought Vin to awareness. It took him only seconds to realize that his wrists were bound above him, suspending him in air, his feet were barely touching the ground, and he was naked. A slap to his face brought him fully around.
"Comfortable, Mr. Tanner?"
"Just peachy, thanks " His raspy reply earned him another slap. He watched through swollen eyes as a vaguely familiar man sauntered around him.
"You should know," the man began, "I have been hired because I am the best at what I do and I have been told my options are limitless." He leaned in. "Welcome to Purgatory."
Vin smiled. "You make me feel so special, I'm flattered."
"Oh, believe me my associates consider all seven members of your team very special to us, and I have no doubt they will soon be looking for you which is exactly as we intended. You and Wilmington are the bait I do so love fishing with live bait." He took a cigarette from a packet, but did not place it to his lips, just held it in his fingers. "I intend to make your time with me very memorable."
The man oozed confidence. Vin considered 'ooze' an appropriate word for the slime ball. Ignoring the taunt and the burn in his shoulders and wrists, Tanner tracked his every move, trying not to react to the object he picked up.
"You see, the trick is," he continued, "to know just how much pain to administer...to discover " he raised his arm and brought a riding crop down hard across Vin's back. " my guest's pain threshold." He lashed out repeatedly, waiting for his victim to cry out. It took a sweat-soaked Texan fifteen lashes before he made his first sound. The man smiled.
"Impressive Wilmington crumbled on twelve." He touched the crop to Vin's exposed manhood. "Of course, once or twice I may have been a little remiss and aimed lower than I intended."
Struggling to raise his head, Vin looked at the man through wayward strands of soaked hair. "Go fuck yourself."
The man's smile widened. "And there's the other thing I should tell you. We have your wife. Pretty little redhead," he chuckled. The man's eyes flashed at his captive's reaction.
"You touch her I swear; I'll rip you apart with my bare hands."
"Interesting threat, considering your current situation," he leaned in again. "Especially as I, and several of my associates, have already had the pleasure. He dodged Vin's weak, but furious attempts at kicking him.
"Yes I must compliment you on your taste . Taking her has been one of the highlights of my day and has caused me to ponder how long might it take before a woman dies from such continuous attentions?"
"You're dead you mother fucker DEAD!" Vin howled out in anguish.
Jake Wilder laughed, lit his cigarette, and headed out of the door.
Shivering, cold, and in pain, Vin could no longer stay conscious, a plea leaving his lips in a breathless sigh before the darkness settled.
"Chris help ."
Tuesday, Day 2
Buck shuddered awake. He thought he had heard Vin cry out. It was dark and he was tied in crucifix style against what felt like the frame of bunk beds. Also naked, something covered his head. It might have been blocking out any natural light that existed in this damn hellhole, but it hadn't blocked out the pain administered earlier. His injured hand almost numb now, he tried not to think about the beating his legs, arms, and abdomen had taken. He had struggled in silence through each fiery strike, but a cruel blow to a delicate area had finally produced the cry of pain his tormentor had been waiting for. Not knowing where and how Vin was, made his heart ache, but the one thing that had almost caused him to come undone, was the very thing now weighing heavily on his heart and mind.
>> Wilder smiled with satisfaction as Wilmington pissed himself with the pain from the blow to his nether region. Jake enjoyed his work. There was nothing more satisfying than seeing strong men and women hurt and humiliated, to then be put through the wringer from emotional persecution. Waiting for the right moment, he leaned in.
"Consider this while you are here, who is laying with the Hispanic beauty you took for your wife? I have it on good authority she is as much of a spitfire between the sheets as she is in a quarrel. I look forward to visiting with her." He laughed cruelly as Buck cursed and de-fathered him all in one sentence. He moved to whisper in his ear. "But first, I await the arrival of your friends, especially the young one you seem so close to. I will enjoy breaking him before slicing his body into hundreds of pieces while you watch his every scream." <<
Buck cried. He should not be here. He was the pre-ordained guardian of his family. The thought of any of his brothers or family touched by this lunatic made his heart feel as if it was shattering into a thousand pieces. To have to watch JD being tortured to death before his very eyes, would surely kill him, but he silently vowed, before that could happen, and as long as he had breath in his body, this man would die.
Wilmington Home, 0830 Hours
Having made sweet tea, Isabella sat in the chair in the living room, looking back at Inez and the young man holding her hand. Both were crying, but each seemed comforted by the closeness. She hadn't been with the family long, but already knew how close these people were, had watched Buck interact with JD and been touched by the love the men clearly had for one another.
She quickly learned Inez was very much involved in that affection, often scolding the pair like naughty boys, while clearly reveling in their theatrics. Isabella knew, from almost the first day, this was a place she could be happy. This is where she belonged.
JD excused himself to use the bathroom, so Isabella moved to kneel before her niece. Taking the shaking hands in hers, she spoke, softly.
"Mi Niña, talk to me."
"I cannot my heart is full. Isabella I am lost."
"I know it is hard for you this day, but your heart is telling you your man is alive, no?"
"Si, I believe with all my heart, Buck will return to me."
"Then hold onto that, Mi sobrina, and it will keep you strong." They both turned as JD entered the room.
"Sorry I didn't mean to interrupt "
Isabella stood, approached the young tech, and embraced him. "Let it out, el pequeño."
Permission given, JD cried, hard, while the kindly woman held him close. She would help keep them strong, she knew now; it was why God had sent her here.
Larabee 7, Tuesday, 0900 Hours
Chris watched as each one of his brothers arrived. From their appearance, he surmised that they did not have any better night than he did. He swore he heard Vin calling to him, but he could not be sure. Since their memory return, Vin's mental senses were working on overload, and thought communications between them had been problematical. If they only had more time, he was positive they could work it out, and he prayed they would still have that time. According to the officials in New Mexico, they now doubted that any plane went down yesterday morning, but they would continue to search through today to be certain.
An elbow to his arm drew his attention. "What?"
Josiah sighed. "I asked if you wanted more coffee."
"Sorry, my mind wandered, and no, I've had too much already."
"Understandable, under the circumstances, but I'm confident today will bring us better news."
"Everyone except Kelli is here, but we can start without her. I'll fill her in on anything she misses." Chris tried to concentrate, and turned to address his anxious brothers, "The good news first. When I talked to the man in charge of the search party in New Mexico, he told me he's convinced there was no plane crash. They'll keep looking through today, but I believe we can all agree that whatever happened to that jet, it didn't crash. So, give me more good news."
Ezra shook his head. "I wish I could, but after contacting my most reliable sources no one knows anything about our missing brothers, or about a contract put out on Mike Cole's life."
"Same here," Nathan shifted uncomfortably in his chair, "If anyone in Denver is connected to this nobody I talked to has heard even a whisper about it."
"I checked this morning our link to CASSIE is cut off, and apparently we can't use our security clearance cards to access any government system either." JD glanced around the room. "Since I designed CASSIE myself, I can duplicate parts of her components, but without that access I can't legally get us the information we need. Not that I'd let that stop me, but it will take me at least a week to get us in."
"Vin and Buck may not have a week!" Nathan stood up and began pacing. "What good does it do us to have this this circle thing if we don't know enough about it to help them? I thought we were supposed to have this great connection we don't have even the slightest idea where the hell they are!"
Though he had not been willing to admit it, Ezra felt the same way. "I feel bad enough that Vin took my place, and I wasn't going to be the first to say it but Nathan's right. We're sitting here in the dark with no resources accessible, no leads to follow, and apparently no help coming from our dear departed ancestors." He blew out his breath. "To quote our Buck we're up a shit creek without a paddle."
Josiah leaned forward. "If we lose our faith, we lose Vin and Buck. We need to pull together "
"Pull together and do what!" JD yelled. "Wait for some other government agency to decide if we're looking at a terrorist act and maybe prioritize finding them. It could be a personal grudge, then what will they do . ask us for information? How long can we wait for a lead to drop in our laps? Or, wait for some dead guys to pop up and guide us "
"That's enough." Chris bit his lip. "I know things don't look good right now, but we will find Vin and Buck and we will bring them both home." He understood they were all tired, worried, frustrated, and their emotions were overwrought, but now they needed to focus.
"The question is will they be alive or carried home in body bags?" Nathan shot back.
Kelli stood in the doorway and listened to the men before she interrupted, hearing Nathan's remark though pushed her button. "Maybe you're givin' up on them, but I'm sure the hell not!
"No one is giving up!" Chris scanned the faces of his brothers, took a deep breath, and softened his tone. "No one we will find a way, we always have, and this time is no different. All this is just venting emotions are running high and "
"I know all about emotions, but right now I don't have time for them!" She shut up, and mentally counted to ten before going on. "I've spent all mornin' at the bank arrangin' a loan, and mortgaging our cabin, and house so I could hire a K & R expert to help bring them back."
"You hired a Kidnapping and Ransom expert?" Chris was surprised that she even knew about K &R companies, and partly because she did not come to him for advice. "You received a demand for money and didn't think to tell us? Talk it over at least?"
"No, I didn't get a ransom note, and I didn't know I needed your permission." It was obvious her father thought she was holding out information. She guessed she have to tell him all of it. "Kenneth Braswell left me a message yesterday, told me Raven was waitin' for me to contact him I spoke with him, and by the way, he is workin' to find Vin and Buck, too. He told me his sources confirmed that they were now out of the country. Then he gave me the name and phone number of a man that he thought could be of assistance. I made the call and when I talked to him I decided it wouldn't hurt to have his help and hired him."
"Raven connected to Braswell. Why doesn't that surprise me? I should have known he'd be in this mix somewhere." Chris shook his head. "Kel honey, I know you're not thinking straight right now, but those men are trouble with a capital tee, and they're taking advantage of you. Furthermore, if you needed money you should have come to me, not mortgage the damn house."
"You mortgaged your home without consulting me?" Ezra was almost speechless. "As your family attorney, and financial consultant, I must protest."
"I suppose he told you he knows where Vin and Buck are too. Right? Like he knows and we don't." Nathan scoffed
"Brothers, need I remind all of you, whatever you think of the man's methods or questionable associations, he did help Vin when he asked for it, and did what he could to protect him."
"Thank you Josiah, those were my thoughts, too." Kelli faced the other four men in the room. "I don't know Raven well enough to trust or not trust him, but I do know Vin does, and that's good enough for me. Dad, I'm not a poor emotionally distraught female desperate to grab at straws. Ezra, yes, I mortgaged the damn house without askin' you first. Nathan, all he could say for certain is they're bein' held somewhere in South America. I don't know where the man gets his information, and frankly, I don't care if it comes from a blasted Ouija Board if it helps us find Vin and Buck. "
Chris's full attention focused on Kelli's last statement. "South America? Damn, why didn't I think about the possible connection? All eight of our Shadow Ops were staged down there."
"Who the hell did we piss off enough for them to go after Vin and Buck?" JD asked of no one in particular, and then sat down to do some figuring.
Things began to click for Ezra, too. "Our last mission someone " Mindful of the sensitive nature of their missions, he stopped and looked at Kelli. "I supposed we shouldn't be discussing any of this right now."
"We don't work for MCAT anymore, Ezra. At this point, it's not going to hurt anyone for her to know." Chris snapped his fingers. "I still have all our original handwritten reports. Maybe we can find something in them that will offer us a lead." He started for his office to get them, but a knock at the door had him changing direction, give Sanchez directions as he went, "Josiah, my desk, bottom drawer, right hand side."
While Josiah went for the reports, Chris answered the door, and came face to face with a U.S. Marshal. "How the hell did you get past the gate?"
"Actually, when I flashed my badge, and showed your man this writ," he handed it to Chris, "it was easy. Now don't reprimand him for not warning you. There are three more of us down there, and they made sure he didn't have a chance to call you."
Chris unfolded the writ and began cursing a blue streak. "Damn, interfering sonofabitch!'"
The Marshal tipped his hat to Larabee. "I guess you understand what this means. If you need one of us, we're stationed at your front gate. Have a good day, Commander uh Mister Larabee."
The sound of the door slamming vibrated throughout the house. Chris was thoroughly pissed, and normally anyone with any common sense would have steered out of his path. However, things were far from normal right now.
Ezra reached for the writ and practically snatched it from Chris's hand, ignoring the low growl that emitted from Larabee's throat. Reading over it, he too, started cursing, in three different languages. "Travis can't do this. It's it's un-American!"
"Chris?" Nathan looked expectantly at him for an explanation.
Forcing himself to rein in his temper, he attempted to answer in a civil tone. "Considering our knowledge about MCAT, and Homeland security procedures, Travis most likely convinced the Attorney General that it's in our best interest, and theirs, for us to be restricted to our personal property while their investigation is continuing. Should any of us need to leave the ranch, for whatever reason, we will be escorted by a U.S. Marshal." He held up his hand to stop a wave of questions. "Citing the need to protect national security as a reason yes, he can do this."
"In other words, he wants to make certain we don't step on any toes with our own investigation." Nathan grimaced. "Can't we have just one thing go right for a change?"
Too preoccupied with his figures, JD had not been paying much attention to what was going on. He jumped up from his chair, and yelled, "Yes! Taking into account the amount of fuel the MCAT jet carries, and it's nautical range capability, I can tell you within three hundred miles or so where it had to land." He looked up and grinned. "Columbia they had to land near Bogotá, Columbia. I can take this to my computer and narrow it down even more by creating a probability chart based on percentages and commonly known facts about the terrain. Then we'll have a good idea of where to start our search for Buck and Vin."
Chris nodded, relieved to see their 'crisis of faith' over. "There's your answer Nate. Now we just have to improvise a bit. Ezra, call one of your lawyer friends and find out how we can get around this damn writ. JD, use my computer and figure your heart out. Nathan, let the rest of the family know about the restriction to the ranch before one of our women tangle with the Marshals. Josiah, you start going over those op reports word by word, and find us a connection. Kel, I want a word with you in the kitchen please."
Leaving with confidence that his brothers were already doing what they do best, Chris pushed open the kitchen door, and then waited for Kelli to enter ahead of him. He pulled out the table chair for her to sit, poured two cups of coffee, passed one to her, and then joined her. "From the beginning what possessed you to go to Raven?"
"I know you don't particularly like him, and Vin had some issues about how he handled Bubba and Karl's .punishment. Despite the fact that he may not agree with the man's methods, loss of trust was never the issue. The bottom-line after thinkin' long and hard about it I asked myself 'what would Vin do', and I had my answer."
"Understood." Chris studied her, looking for any signs of emotional distress. What he saw was a determined young woman holding herself together better than he expected under the circumstances." The money is for ?"
Sighing, she started to explain. "I followed up with the man Raven told me to contact "
Thinking back to his one encounter with the man, he was curious. "Wait a minute you said you talked to Raven. You actually know what he looks like?"
"No I used the encrypted code on Vin's computer that he always used to contact him." After Chris nodded, she continued. "Anyway, I did some research. Mister Hawks has a good reputation, he's dealt with personal, political, and military kidnappin's all over the world. His successful recovery rate is ninety-nine percent. He said to start pullin' together as much cash as possible because there could be a ransom demand forthcomin', or if a rescue were attempted, it would be expensive to finance. I know Inez doesn't have the extra resources to raise a lot of cash, but I do. After I made my decision, I sat up most of last night goin' over our finances." She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to him. "This amount is accessible right now if we need more Wyatt Tanner told me to just say the word and he'd have it for me, and I'm confident Matt would make me a loan if I asked him."
"Kel, that's a lot of money and I'll be honest, it may be needed and we can certainly take some from Larabee 7 if necessary but to clean out both yours and Vin's trusts, mortgage your home and the cabin."
She placed her hand over his. "Dad, the house, the cabin, the money . they mean nothin' to me without Vin. The children need their father .I need " A momentary lapse of control allowed a few tears to escape and slide down her cheeks. "He is part of me; I need him as much as I need air to breath, if "
Chris squeezed her hand. "He is coming back to us. They both are." He reached with his other hand to brush her tears away. "I understand why you did this, and I appreciate that Inez doesn't have to worry about coming up with money if needed. However this Hawks guy .I'll handle."
Kelli nodded. "All right, he's due in here tomorrow mornin'. You'll have to pay him his fee, and he wants to meet the family." She picked her bag up, took out an envelope full of cash, and passed it over. "His retainer is thirty thousand, it's all there. If when he's successful, he gets another twenty."
He shook his head in disbelief, and then half grinned with relief that she wasn't mugged walking out of the bank carrying that much cash. "Fine, I'll pay the man, but he works for us."
Tracker leaned against the counter, and grinned. *Yep, she does the Tanner name proud, and keeps this Larabee on his toes.*
*Very funny,* Cowboy answered from far away. *They're on the right track now, but they'll both need you soon, so stay close. We're gonna go to work down here*
*I ain't goin' anywhere.*
Chris sent Kelli home, promising to call her later, and then returned to the den. He moved over close to Ezra and asked, "If we had to, how much cash we can squeeze out of Larabee 7?"
"Off the top of my head, I'd say two or three hundred thousand quickly. More, if we're willing to sell off some stock, and grazing leases. A move I would certainly sanction if it helps return us back to seven. Since discovering my family, I have learned that some things are more valuable than financial security, and landownership, I'm confident the others will feel the same." He smiled, thinking about his mother's reaction, had she heard him say that.
Handing him the slip of paper Kelli gave him, he said, "This is what my daughter's been up to all morning. Just in case, free up what we can add to it." He stared out the window for a few seconds. Before he said, "Take a verbal vote from the others first to make it fair. It's their money, too."
"Consider it done, but I already know their answers will mirror mine."
Tanner Home, 1300 Hours
Kelli laid Bren down in the crib next to his sleeping sibling. Her mind was crammed full of questions, and very few answers. She had a responsibility to their children, but if Vin never returned, how could she ever explain that part of their mother was gone too. Thankfully, they were blessed with extraordinary kids. Jason and Andi's faith in their parents was unshakeable. She gave Vin credit for that. He was the loving, compassionate, firm when he needed to be father that she knew he would be. They felt safe and secure because he worked to make them feel that way just as his gentle ways broke through the walls she had build around her heart before she met him.
Lightly brushing Trey's hair with her fingertips, she whispered, "I promise, I'll do everythin' in my power to make certain your Daddy comes home."
*Your children know you will, and so do I.*
Whirling around, she came face to face with Tracker, who looked and sounded so much like her Vin it took her breath away. "You are here."
Placing a finger to his lips, he nodded for her to move to the other room. *Don't want to wake the babies.*
Once in the next room, she closed the door, and turned on the intercom in case Bren or Trey did wake. "Shouldn't you be with Vin?'
*I'm where I'm supposed to be. Vin well he's not alone *
"Is he all right? Is he hurt? Where ." She suddenly stopped. "I know. It's against the rules, right? You can't tell me because it would upset the order of the universe, and there'd be hell to pay."
* At least you remembered some of what I told you, and you're right. I can't tell you what you want to know, but I can help you and Chris cope 'til we reach trail's end."
Her anger rose quickly, and then fell just as swiftly. Tracker had seen her through some of the darkest days of her life, and true to his word, he stayed until he turned her and Trey over to Vin. "Then I'll say thank you, but " She walked over closer, making sure he would have no doubt about where she stood.
Tracker waited, anticipating her words. He knew her well enough by now to know she wasn't through.
"You'd better be ready to break a few of your damn rules if it means savin' Vin's life. When he's home, then he and I will deal with the consequences together."
Larabee Home, 1800 Hours
Not that he blamed them for staying the entire day; it was slow going without CASSIE, and all the newest technology available to assist them. They were all frustrated by having to work at a slower pace when two lives were depending on them, but Chris had finally convinced all but JD to go home. He told them all to spend some time with their families, and then get a good night's rest so they would be mentally prepared for the next day. Approaching the younger man from behind, Chris placed his hands on JD's shoulders.
"Go home, kid."
Turning from the computer, JD rubbed his eyes and nodded. "I am just wanted to get to a point I can advance from tomorrow." He looked into Chris's eyes, noting the strained features.
"Spit it out, JD."
Dunne sighed softly. "I'm scared, Chris. Every minute we're here, they could be down there having God knows what done to them. We have a chopper on site here Josiah's a pilot we could be out of here in hours "
Larabee couldn't help releasing a small smile while waiting for their resident 'boy wonder' to do the math.
JD bowed his head. "Yeah, I know this is no Marvel comic strip we need money and resources "
"Not to mention being shot out of the sky before we got out of the compound National security they'd shoot first and ask questions later!"
Dunne sighed heavier, biting his lip to control his emotions. He looked up at Chris. "I hate feeling so useless while they might be suffering I just can't bear it. I hardly slept last night, but when I did, I kept waking up cold and afraid of the dark until I got my bearings again. Do you think it means something?"
Realizing it might be best not to admit to the same sensations Chris shrugged. "I wish I knew." He smiled and squeezed JD's shoulder. "We're gonna find 'em, kid, alive. Now go, I'll see you in the morning."
Nodding, JD grabbed his keys and jacket and headed out. Watching the young man leave, Chris moved to his desk, his fingers brushing over a framed photo of the seven of them on one of their fishing expeditions. "You two stay strong and hold on. I just promised the kid we're bringing you home alive don't make me a liar."
Clutching the picture, he sat, made himself comfortable, and began a narration, hoping that somewhere, somehow, Buck and Vin could hear him. "We're workin' on our own now, which gives us the freedom to break a few rules. Only it's going to take some time .You'd both be proud of your families, Inez, Kelli, and all the kids are doing well, considering. Vin, you wouldn't believe what Kel did ."
Vin tried to control his breathing, his Adam's apple bobbing continuously as his need to swallow constantly caused it to move along his outstretched throat. He was sitting now, still naked, hands tied behind him and attached to a chair. A rope looped around the Texan's throat to secure his neck, which arched back, and stretched to the limit. If it weren't for the blindfold, he would have been staring at the filthy ceiling. The pain in his neck was excruciating, but the agony of struggling to take a proper swallow was terrifying enough to overcome it. Equal weight bore down on his thighs; a voice spoke close to his face.
"Comfortable, Tanner?" Wilder laughed. "I have need of somewhere to put a few cumbersome items. I hope you don't mind."
In seconds, another heavier weight one replaced the first one. Vin gasped as something cold and heavy straddled his lap.
"I think I can get a few more on there."
By the third addition, Vin was trying not to panic as the discomfort in his neck and throat vied with the intense pain of the load pressing his thighs into the chair.
"G God "
"There's no God here, Vin " Jake tugged at the matted hair hanging loosely down due to the angle of his head, a snipping noise accompanying the tug. "It's so easy to pick up lice in conditions such as this so taking away your hair is simply doing you a favor you see?"
Vin didn't want to see, he was too busy trying not to choke to death. His mind swirled with the evil thoughts emitting from this man, the visions crowding in his head allowed no room to send even a small plea for help to Chris. For the first time since their capture, he feared he might die.
"Did I say you could sleep, Wilmington?" A sharp clapping sound bolted through the air.
Buck's still hooded head wobbled wearily up after the heavy slap. He hadn't even realized he'd fallen asleep.
"Guess it's my job to keep you alert." Wilder clicked on a tape machine in the corner of the room, the sound of a baby crying loudly, pitifully, and looping repeatedly. With a satisfied smirk, Jake left.
Buck's heart constricted and thudded in his chest. It sounded like Bella or JJ 'oh, God was his family okay? Was this one of their babies'? He was so tired, but he had to get out. Still attached to the bunk beds, he strained to break free of his bonds.
"Stop this do you hear me you Mother Fucker? STOP THIS!" Wrists and ankles now bloody from his efforts and the biting ropes, Buck ceased his struggles, sinking further into despair as the continuous wailing tore him apart and his exhaustion began draining away any hope of escape or survival.
Larabee 7, Wednesday, 0800 Hours
Ezra and JD were the first to arrive, both anxious to move this investigation forward by any means possible. Before Ezra had even had time to draw breath, JD had logged on to the computer. He smiled as he watched his youngest brother tapping furiously away. Only to frown just minutes later at the frustrated cursing accompanying even faster typing. Finally, a whoop drew the southerner closer.
The young tech spun around in the chair. "Bastards think they can outthink me, huh? I've been hacking since I was ten, when I first got past the firewalls in Boston Central Library."
"And to what end has this skill been of use?"
"All Larabee Seven accounts have been frozen. Our individual accounts are fine, but there's no doubt they're being monitored and not by the bank. Last night I wrote a program, but I needed to link here to see if it works and activate it."
"Do go on."
"It took some doing, but I've created a dummy account complete with identical funds, switched out the L7 account to an offshore bank while simultaneously 'dropping' in the dummy account. To all intents and purposes, it will look like our main funds are untouched "
"While in truth, we have full access to the new and fully funded offshore account. My brother, you are a genius."
JD shrugged. "I just don't know how long it will hold it might be completely foolproof it might not. I guess time will tell."
"Therefore we must be astute and prompt in our endeavors to allocate any necessary monies."
"In a nutshell, yeah." The adrenaline rush over, JD's pallor went down a shade or two. Ezra put a hand on his shoulder.
"Did you work on this all night?"
"Pretty much, yeah, then took the kids over to Reins and came here." He looked up at Ezra. "Sleep's not been coming real easy, anyway. I keep thinking about "
"I know what you mean," Ezra said, softly, acknowledging the arrival of Josiah and Nathan, followed by Chris and a tray of coffees.
"How's it going?" Chris asked, noting the sad returned looks. JD actually looked down at the question. Chris sighed, knowing exactly what each man was feeling. "Yeah, me too. JD, have you spoken to Inez?"
"Going over later," he answered, finally looking up.
"Good." Chris addressed them all. "I wanted us to touch base before this 'hot shot' gets here."
"Well," Ezra began, sipping his coffee, "Our own resident computer hot shot has liberated the Larabee Seven account so it might be prudent to access and remove necessary funds as early as possible."
All four turned to JD. "How ?" Chris raised a hand. "Never mind, I don't wanna know." He grinned. "Good work."
"It's a start," JD said, softly.
Receiving a call from the gatehouse, informing him Brodie Hawks was on his way up, Chris sighed. "Damn I hoped we'd have more time."
"I won't lie, this man makes me nervous," Nathan admitted. "We can do this, why call him in?"
"It may take some of the pressure off us to concentrate on what we do best," Josiah offered. "I'm at least willing to hear him out."
"How do we know we can really trust him?" JD asked.
"We don't, but someone Vin trusts does. I'm gonna lay down some ground rules before we get into anything, but for now, let's just play it by ear."
"Then can we go get 'em?"
"Yeah, kid," Chris nodded. "Then we go get 'em."
Chris walked onto the front porch, and leaned against the railing to wait for his not so welcome visitor. He planned to have a 'talk' with this man, before he met with the rest of the Wild Bunch. Kelli may have hired him, and Raven might endorse him, but he would know Chris had the final say on what happens and doesn't. Expecting a younger man more like the hotshot lawyer Kenneth Braswell, he was surprised when a Chevy truck pulled in, and a rough looking cowboy, who seemed vaguely familiar, stepped out.
Brodie Hawks sized up the man standing on the porch as he walked to the first step. It was obvious Larabee was not pleased about his presence, but he reckoned he had to get over it. He may be Tanner's best friend, a man with an outstanding reputation as a law enforcement officer, and related to the woman who hired him, but he would not be running roughshod over him.
Removing his Stetson, Brodie fanned his face. "Kinda warm today."
"Nice welcomin' committee."
"Not my idea."
Brodie grinned. "You must've pissed off the right people."
"I tried." Chris sighed, they could stand here all afternoon and do this, but it wasn't helping their situation. "You might as well come inside. You and I need to talk." Without a word, Chris abruptly turned and walked inside, not caring if Hawks followed.
"Yep, we do."
It might be early, but Chris figured at this point, time was irrelevant, and headed for his private bar. "Drink?"
"Whisky, straight up."
He poured two shots, setting one on the bar, sliding it across to Brodie. "You ought to know upfront, I don't want you here."
Brodie downed his drink, set it down, and grinned. "Then, I reckon it's a good thing you didn't hire me."
Chris slammed his empty glass down. "Let's get a few things straight. You're here because of my daughter. She's already in pain you hurt her in any way you answer to me. You will tell me everything you already know and if I catch you holding back information, you're out of here. I'll have final approval on any actions taken concerning Vin and Buck. I don't give a damn about Raven or what he thinks, and last but not least ." His searing glare met Hawks eyes. " . never forget that you work for us."
Returning an unwavering gaze as intense as Larabee's, his eyes turned ice blue. "Transmission received; however, I have a few rules of my own. Missus Tanner hired me to help bring your two men safely home, and that's what I intend to do. You know your men, I know my job, and I'm damn good at it. Whatever it takes to get them out, you'd best be ready to do it, or I will. Now, we can do that together, or not, but I don't quit until the job's finished, with or without your cooperation or blessin's. Your choice, Larabee. We gonna do this the easy or hard way?"
For a split second, Chris considered throwing the man out on his ass. Then his sense of reason returned. Like it or not, Hawks had accesses to information they needed. If push came to shove, he would enjoy kicking his ass later as much now. "My team is set up in the den."
Brodie appreciated how hard it was for Larabee to allow him into his territory, and under other circumstances, he would enjoy butting heads with him. This was not the time for it though, bringing those men home was his first priority. Doing it without having his life blow up in the process, that was going to be the tricky part. "I have the most recent intel reports from Raven in my truck. His information is reliable, and somethin' your team can start workin' on."
Chris watched him as he went out to his truck. He didn't buy that good ole' cowboy bullshit for a second. His confident stance and authoritative manner belied that, as did his use of military jargon in his speech patterns. Hawks was a man used to taking charge, and giving orders, a walking contradiction to the man he wanted Larabee to perceive. It might take a while to figure him out, but Chris was determined. He had the strong feeling that he had met this man before, yet could not put his finger on where or when so far.
Once in the den, Hawks felt as if he'd walked into the lion's cage at the zoo. The looks Ezra, Nathan, JD, and Josiah shot his way were those of wary predators, sizing up their next meal. He did not let their obvious distrust bother him; instead, he smiled and said "Howdy."
Chris made a brief introduction. "This is Brodie Hawks; he's going to show us what he has, and then we'll decide if he stays." He nodded at each of his men as he said their name. "JD is our technical expert, Josiah, profiler, Nathan, team medic, and Ezra .our man to go to, if you need information."
Wasting little time, Hawks cleared the coffee table, laying down his maps and notes. "Your jet landed here," he pointed to a small airport on the map near Bogotá, "as of an hour ago, it was still settin' on the tarmac. From there your men were transported by van, to a place near these mountains. After that, they had to make the rest of the way in by foot. The trail went cold, but accordin' to the topographical map of the area; there are only three likely places they could be held." He circled those spots on the map. "It's also probable they are movin' them often, rotatin' from one to another to avoid a quick rescue attempt."
JD pulled out his own maps and nodded. "I figured somewhere within fifty miles of that location."
"That's good work on your part, JD." Brodie laid another map over the first one.
"Your team launched several missions in this area. There are three different cartels associated with various rebel militias operatin' there. Y'all managed to disrupt their business dealin' and cost them a helluva a lot of money. Raven is convinced they pooled together and hired a team of mercenaries to destroy your unit. Stealin' your jet and kidnappin' your two men is only a means to an end for them."
"So what the hell do they want?" Nathan blew out his breath.
Chris did wonder how Hawks became so knowledgeable about their ops. Still, in spite of his reservations about the man, he could see how the facts were starting to fall into place, and had no illusions about how this scenario would end. "They want us all dead, but first we have to suffer enough to satisfy them we've paid dearly for interfering in their business. They'll do something to lure us into a trap, one they believe will eventually lead to our deaths, but they won't kill Vin or Buck until we're there to witness their execution."
"Then let's go give them a surprise of our own. We could " JD stopped as he thought about their circumstances, " damn we can't do anything with the Marshals at the gate."
"Even if we could get past the Marshals, it would take detailed planning to pull off a rescue like that." Ezra mused a moment. "It would be costly, and we'd have to have some kind of staging area to work from. If we miscalculate on our first attempt, they'll kill Vin and Buck and clear out."
"We'd have to be certain they're alive, before we go in and pinpoint their location. There wouldn't be any room for errors." Nathan joined in, the energy in the room giving him hope that they had a chance to recover Vin and Buck alive.
Brodie watched the exchange and nodded, they were as good as he expected, and they were on the right track. However, there were other things to understand, and take into consideration. "Goin' in is the logical conclusion, but we've got to keep in mind there are more than a few wild cards in this deck. We should prepare for any of them. The mercs they hired enjoy inflictin' pain, they will do everythin' they can to make your men, and their families suffer. That's why they were hired. I believe they'll do somethin' reprehensible to try and draw y'all out, and they probably have someone watchin' your ranch." He chuckled. "Actually having y'all under 'house arrest', works to our advantage. They'll figure they can see every move you make by keepin' tabs on the Marshals."
Caught up in their new developments, Nathan paused. "You gave us information. What is it you need Mister Hawks?"
"I need to meet the families, learn their strengths, and weaknesses. The men behind this are ruthless and capable of just about anythin'. The families, especially the women, need to understand things could get ugly, because they should be prepared. Tanner and Wilmington have both experienced survival and resistance trainin', but they may still bring home 'issues' that will need tendin'. I won't lie to them, but it's important to know how much of the truth they can handle."
Chris realized there was no decision to make. Brodie was already a part of whatever happened from here on out. "Inez and Kelli are both strong women, with a large family that supports them. We'll be honest, and let them know what to expect, but leave the details you gave us out of it. The women planned lunch for everyone at Vin's house, you'll meet them then."
While the rest of the team plotted and planned alternatives, Josiah did what he did best, he profiled Brodie Hawks. Ironically, he and Chris shared many of the same traits. Both commanded attention when they spoke, both were definitely Alpha male personalities, extremely intelligent, and they had the right instincts when it came to getting what they wanted. However, it was the individual mannerisms, and methodology Hawks used that intrigued him, striking Josiah as very similar to Vin Tanner's.
Tanner Home, 1000 Hours
Barbara, Rain, and Mallory were here to help Max prepare a lunch buffet for everyone. It seemed strange to have the family gathered in the middle of the week; however, Chris wanted the entire family to meet today and know what was going on to find Vin and Buck.
"How does it feel to not be working?" Rain passed a platter to Mallory.
"I needed a vacation anyway, and after the way Travis treated Chris, handing in my resignation was easy."
Barbara reached for a knife to slice tomatoes. "While I was getting dressed this morning, a thought occurred to me. I know Kelli and Mallory are used to what goes on at MCAT, but this is the first time since I've been in the family we'll all be a part of what's going on."
"You're right," Rain turned on the oven, "usually all we see is how our husbands are affected by their work."
Mallory looked through the opening to the living area. "I wonder how Cait is doing with Inez and Kelli."
Cait sat next to Inez on the couch. Chris had requested that she keep an eye on both Inez and Kelli, to watch for any signs of stress overload. As a psychologist, she was used to dealing with families in crisis, but most did not have to cope with nearly as much as the Wild Bunch did on a regular basis. Inez appeared to be weathering this storm well. She was quieter than usual, but when she did speak, anyone could recognize the strength behind her words. She and Kelli did have a private conversation, and clearly, both women were in the right state of mind to endure whatever transpired in the days to come. Still, Cait was glad Inez's aunt was close because she apparently was able to offer her niece the comfort she needed when the rest of the family was not around.
Kelli, on the other hand was harder to read. In that respect, she was more like her father than he was willing to admit. Cait observed that she tended to separate herself from the others by sitting in a single chair, or moving if too many well-meaning family members got too close. Cait was worried that there was a firestorm of emotions and anger simmering just below the surface of Kelli's outwardly calm demeanor. Eventually those feelings had to erupt; she just hoped she and Chris did not hit that point at the same time.
*You need to get out there, your Mister Hawks will be here soon.*
Kelli pulled a clean shirt over Bren's head. "He's not my Mister Hawks. He's just the man I hired to help."
Tracker sighed, he hated being evasive with her, but she had to discover the truth on her own. He reckoned it wouldn't hurt though to give her a slight nudge. *Trust your instincts, there's more goin' on here than you realize yet.*
"Don't you start on me with that riddle stuff again. I'm still tryin' to work out the last one you sent me." She finished dressing Bren, picked him up, and held him close. As much as she put on that Tracker annoyed her, it was comforting for her to have him around. "You'll be here when everyone leaves, right?"
*Count on it.*
She nodded, and exited the room with Bren.
The first person she ran into was her father, who smiled when he saw her. "I was coming to check on you."
"Things go all right with Hawks?"
"He'll do for now." Chris lifted the baby from her arms and settled him against his chest. "Trey has Cait wrapped around his little finger."
Kelli smiled. "He inherited his father's Tanner charm."
They walked down the hallway to the living room. "It's time for you to meet your Mister Hawks?"
She started to protest that he wasn't her Hawks, when she saw him. The first thing she noticed was his eyes. To say they were just blue would be an understatement. Glancing to her son, she saw the same color and clarity in his. Reeling from the feeling of familiarity emitting from this man, Tracker's riddle came back to her in a rush.
> > Commit to memory the significance of the combined destinies between Tanners and Larabees, even if they had other identities. He designated her as a guide to the one she had known before, but would not remember or recognize. One who would come into her life, seeking the truth, after the question of family ties had been resolved. < <
In an instant, Kelli knew with certainty that whoever Brodie Hawks was, somehow he was connected to that riddle and her Vin.
Concerned about the sudden change that came over her, Chris halted his introduction, all his attention on his daughter. "Kel, honey, you looked like you've seen a ghost. Are you all right?"
"Yeah I uh " She pulled herself together quickly. "I'm sorry, my mind drifted." She extended her hand. "Good to meet you Mister Hawks."
Accepting her handshake, he smiled. "Call me Brodie. I expect we're going to be spendin' a fair amount of time together Missus "
"Kelli is fine. I do hope my father helped to get you settled. I'm anxious to hear what you have to say."
"We didn't get to the settling part just yet." Chris just realized the man had to stay somewhere, but had not given it much thought.
"There's plenty of room, he can bunk here." Kelli offered.
Brodie glanced between the two Larabees. It did not take a genius to read Chris's face; he did not want him staying with his daughter. Deciding it might not be in his best interest either, he declined. "I appreciate the offer, but I should stay closer to command. That would be at your father's house."
"Now that we have sleeping arrangements settled," Chris handed Bren back to Kelli, "I'm going to introduce Brodie to Inez, and then we'll eat."
Before he stepped away, Brodie ran his hand over the top of Bren's head. "You have a handsome son."
"Thank you. Actually, we have three boys, and an equally beautiful daughter. They're countin' on their daddy comin' home soon."
Brodie knew better, but he dared to meet her eyes. "That's why I'm here to help make that happen."
The day had been long, emotional, and frustrating on many levels. Chris had told them all at lunch that over the next few days, events would be happening fast, and could change at a moment's notice. She was confident about their abilities, but had many other questions that remained unanswered. Kelli waited until Max and Walter retired for the night, and the children were asleep, before she sought out her resident ghost.
After pouring a glass of wine, she roamed about her silent house, finally deciding to settle in the double recliner in the living area. Curled up with her favorite throw, she sighed. She sensed that Tracker had been close to her all day. Now was the time for a serious discussion. "It wasn't a coincidence that he chose to use the name Hawks was it?"
*No * Tracker appeared, sitting in the chair opposite her.
"Who is he?"
*I can't tell you his name, but we both know you've already figured most of it out.*
"So he is " she did not get the chance to finish.
* Let's just say he's a man lookin' at his past, who's not real pleased about the choices he made.*
Kelli nodded, that was as close to a confirmation as she reckoned she was going to get. "When Vin finds out, he'll be furious." Kelli took another sip from her glass. "Yet, accordin' to that damn riddle thing you're expectin' me to help that man." She shook her head. "My loyalties lie with my husband."
Tracker smiled. She had not said if Vin found out, but when. *I know. That's why you will help the truth to come out. First, Chris needs to make his discovery, and then you'll know what to do.*
Larabee Home, 2315 Hours
Chris felt good about the progress they had made today. His team had left a while ago, but Hawks was still in the den working on his laptop. Tired and ready for bed, Larabee almost did not stop to say anything, but his curiosity was stronger than his need for sleep.
Standing at the doorway, he saw Hawks writing coordinates, and making notes. "New information?"
Brodie looked up, and nodded. "I believe we can narrow the possibilities down to two locations. Yesterday a flash flood hit the third one we considered, and it's now sittin' under fifteen feet of water. I also secured us a place to stage operations from once we're ready. By mornin', I'll have all the details down in writin' for you." Dismissing Chris from his thoughts, he returned to his work.
Bristling from the curt tone, Chris turned and mumbled, "Irritating bastard."
Hearing the muttered grumbling, and without thinking, Hawks grinned and said, "'Night Lieutenant," immediately regretting his slip-up.
Chris halted as words from the past flooded his mind .
>>Lieutenant Larabee, I hear that you have been looking for me Your reputation has preceded you Lieutenant . That, Lieutenant Larabee, is a folder that outlines the highlights of your life The only name you need to know is Raven <<
"Raven, you Sonofabitch!" Larabee spun on his heels and stared the man in the eye.
Hawks matched his gaze, and dropped his Texas accent. "Now you know."
Chris swallowed hard as he forced his rising anger down into his boots. "Yeah, now I know...and you can get the hell of of my house!"
"We need one another, Larabee, and your men need both of us."
Reluctantly, Chris had to acknowledge the truth of that statement. "When this is over, I'm going to take pleasure in kicking your ass. Until then you'd better call on every resource you have access to for us to find Vin and Buck."
"Already doing that."
Chris turned to leave. "And that's the only reason you're still sitting there in one piece."
Hawks watched him leave. An awkward development but one he could live with. He just hoped Larabee could, too.
South America, Day Three
Finally untied, Vin savored the bottled water he had at last been allowed. He shivered as he huddled in a corner. Without food for several days, Vin was aware he had dropped several pounds, and wondered whether his and Buck's captors planned to starve them to death. He was getting used to being naked, though a good steak and a shower would sure feel good right about now.
His thoughts turned to family. With his head continuously swimming with an array of jumbled thoughts, he couldn't get through to Chris, and it felt like part of him was missing. Closing his eyes, Kelli's features came into view and he attempted to draw on his memories to take him away from this hellhole. >> He focused on the feel of her heated skin against his, warming him, offering him comfort, and the promise of things to come as she moved against him slowly and sensually. He could feel her breath on his cheek, her lips on his, her hands moving I love you '<<
Vin's eyes jerked open just before two men pulled him to his feet and dragged him to where he had been suspended from his wrists.
"No NO! Get off me you fuckers NO!" He doubled over from a blow to his gut; the ropes appeared, to tie him again.
Wilder leaned in. "We need some shots of your pretty face but I need to make some adjustments first." Taking a step back, Jake removed his jacket and began pounding his fists into the suspended Texan. Ribs, gut, face Vin felt every blow. He was sure his nose was broken, but the man hit it once again for good measure. Panting, Wilder stared at the broken, bruised, and bloody captive, pleased with his handiwork. He looked at one of his men.
Raising Vin's chin off his chest by fisting what hair remained on his head; he held up an American newspaper dated for that day next to Tanner's battered face and took several pictures. Satisfied with the result, Jake ripped off the bloody wedding ring from his finger, laughing as he left. "Thank you Mr. Tanner that will do nicely."
Now alone, Vin's head dropped again and he succumbed to the welcoming call of pain-free oblivion.
Buck's mind attempted to get lost in his memories of home, thinking of Inez, their children, and their home.
The brunet jerked awake, awareness of his dire surroundings assaulting his tired mind. Still half asleep, dragged to the bunk beds, and shackled, he desperately fought back.
Securing the bonds tightly, Wilder grinned. "Smile."
Before he could register his predicament, he pounded Buck relentlessly, his lips splitting, his nose pouring blood as eyes and cheeks swelled, and ribs bruised from the assault. Like with Vin, a man forced his sagging head upright for the offending pictures to be shot, before Jake removed Buck's bloodstained watch and wedding ring.
"Much obliged," Wilder spat out before leaving the big man to pass out from the pain of his beating.
Outside the locked rooms, Jake ordered immediate delivery of the items. Phase two of his plan was complete.
Larabee 7, Thursday, 0730 Hours
Chris spent a restless night attempting to come to terms with the thought of Raven sleeping under his roof. In all honesty, he did not know the man well enough to hate him; he just found his attitude damned annoying and too what? *Ruthless .paranoid .jaded methodical regimented focused strong-minded bold watch it Larabee, or you'll make him a poster boy for Special Forces. He does have a talent for making things happen, have to give him that much, and for his own reasons he cares about Vin's welfare. That's a plus, too. If only he didn't act so damn superior.*
Larabee slammed his cup down on the counter. One thing he did know, Hawks or Raven or whoever he was, used Kelli to get on the ranch. She needed to be aware of just who this man was, and stay the hell away from him. He glanced at his watch. Until this was over, Chris insisted that Walter or one of the ranch security agents escort the Larabee 7 children to and from school. Walter should be leaving with the kids just about now, which made it the best time to talk to his daughter.
Josiah entered the kitchen, and ran into Chris, who apparently was on his way out. "Ezra and JD are already working. Nathan is dropping his kids at Reins and will be here in five."
"I need to see Kel, and should be back shortly." He moved to go around Josiah.
Placing his hand on Chris's arm, he shook his head. "She and Mal are in the den, talking with Hawks." Josiah could feel the anger radiating from his brother. "You want to talk about it?"
Chris stepped back, turned, and stared out the window. It was almost a full minute before he said a word. "At MCAT, it's easier to separate Commander Larabee from father, brother, family, or friend. This situation is different. We're not working a sanctioned mission, hell, not even an unofficially authorized Shadow Op. This is personal, and I don't want Kel involved, period."
Sanchez nodded. "It doesn't help that you don't trust Brodie Hawks does it?"
"Hawks?" Chris scoffed. "He's not Brodie Hawks he's Raven, and no I don't trust the man further than I can throw him." He looked at Josiah. "That doesn't surprise you?"
"Not really. In a way, it makes sense. For reasons, you and I know nothing about however; he has a stake in what happens in Vin's life and the things that are important to him. Buck, you, the team as well as Kel and the children are all part of that. Maybe we'll find out why, maybe not, but no matter what methods he used to get involved with us, he wants what we do to get Vin and Buck out of the hell they're in."
"That's the only reason I haven't thrown his ass off the ranch."
"I don't want Kelli around him, or her taking any part in this rescue."
"Okay," Josiah nodded, "you want her to sit at home, and wait for us to plan, and execute a rescue without her involvement. I'm certain that being the patient, docile, homebody that she is, she'll just calmly accept your unilateral decision without argument."
"Not likely, but it won't matter I can make a long list of reasons she should stay here."
"Such as ?"
"She has no military experience, and this mission should be executed as a military op."
"Neither does Ezra or JD, but .go on."
"If this goes bad the children would be left with no parent."
"Well that leaves you and JD out for the same reason." Josiah resisted the urge to smile, knowing Chris would eventually figure out his real agenda.
Chris shot Josiah a gaze meant to chill, but it didn't faze him. "She's too emotionally involved."
Sanchez did not bother to hide his smile this time. "As opposed to you, me, Ezra, Nathan, and JD, right?"
"Damnit, this kind of mission is not suited for a woman, who is also my daughter." Chris said it and it sounded hollow even to his own ears. "Shit, I guess I'm not the enlightened male I figured I was."
"She and Mallory are well trained, experienced Federal Agents; both risk their lives in the line of duty. The same as we do. There has to be a way they can help. Talk to her Chris, tell her about Raven if you want, let her know how you feel, give her some options, and then let her decide."
Chris stared at Josiah for a moment. "I really hate it when you profile me. You make me think rationally, and right now that sucks."
Josiah threw his arm around Chris's shoulders. "Let's go see how Hawks' plan is unfolding."
Brodie was reviewing maps with Ezra, Nathan, JD, and Kelli when they walked into the room. Hawks met Larabee's gaze and waited to see if he was going to reveal his identity. When Chris nodded, he acknowledged and continued. "Phase one involves Panamá. We travel separately to Panamá City to avoid attracting unwanted attention, and then we rendezvous at a rental south of Yaviza," he pushed a pin into the map. "Raven has a Panamá crew, personally trained by him, waiting for us. They've acquired a bird that will carry crew plus nine, to fly us over Darién Gap and into Columbia. Any weapons we'll need will be waiting for us."
"JD has our L7 funds available in an off shore account, but will it be enough to finance that kind of operation?" Ezra was mentally calculating the cost.
"Our money is accessible if we need more." Kelli glanced at her dad. "I made certain it was distributed into several accounts. The government has no reason to flag it, and Mallory has the information about how to get to it."
Mallory nodded. "I'll be on a secure frequency and can arrange whatever the team needs by computer."
"We'll use what we need, but Raven is supplyin' a large part of the resources." Brodie informed them, and moved on to the rescue operation "By the time we're there, we should have a confirmed fix on Tanner and Wilmington's location. Our extraction team will consist of seven men. We fly in as close as possible, and then make our way on foot to the site. One of my men will cover us with an M60 machine gun, while Ezra and Nathan go for Tanner. Josiah and JD do the same for Wilmington. Larabee and I will cover y'all on the ground. Our bird will fly into the LZ to haul our asses out and back across the border. My pilot, Clay Waters, and Kelli will be there waiting with a plane, and the paperwork to get all of us out of the country and back into U. S. airspace.
Chris studied the area around Darién Gap, where Hawks positioned the plane. "If memory serves me correctly, The Darién Gap is subject to the presence and activities of three Columbian Rebel groups. All three are known to have committed human rights violations and suspected of being responsible for over fifty kidnappings, and at least ten murders of U.S. Citizens for either political or financial gain."
"Which is why Coulter and Waters will be armed, their job is to make certain our transport out of that hellhole is secure." Hawks deliberately stared at Larabee. "If you have any better suggestions "
"No, it sounds good. Just one problem I can see."
"We have to get past the Marshals watching each of our homes, and off the ranch first."
Brodie nodded. "Workin' on it."
They had been at it all morning. Covering every possible scenario, they could collectively imagine. Chris called a break for lunch. "Nathan, you and Ezra go home, and spend a couple of hours with your wives. Josiah, you and Mal take time to have lunch with Adam. JD "
JD held up his hand. "I promised Inez I'd have lunch with her."
Chris did not bother telling Raven anything, but did turn to Kelli. "I know you rode over with Mallory, I'll drive you over to your house, and you can have lunch with the twins.
"Sure, as long as you join us."
On the drive to the Tanner home, Chris kept sneaking glances at Kelli. Maybe talking to her was a good idea, but he did not have the slightest idea where to start.
"You're being obvious," she looked over to him, "just spit it out, Dad"
"I don't want you to go on this rescue mission .and before you go all Larabee on me, hear me out." He pulled up in front of her house, turned off the ignition, and sighed, not willing to admit he was acting as chauvinistic as Vin had on occasion. He decided to make her mad enough to stay home instead. "I could give you a lot of impractical reasons, but the bottom line I want you to stay away from Brodie Hawks. He used you to get access to the ranch, never even mentioned his fee, and I don't trust him." Reaching into his jacket pocket, he handed her the envelope with the money. "He's not who you think he is."
Kelli's eyebrows arched into a testy frown. "If you know who he is, then you know why I need to stay close to him."
"You know he's not Brodie Hawks?"
"It didn't take long for me to figure him out. Besides, Tracker stopped just short of confirmin' my suspicions."
"Tracker? You've talked to him?"
"Of course haven't you?"
Chris shook his head; this was not going the way he expected. "No, I haven't talked to him, but I suppose it makes sense that he's hanging around." He made a mental note to seek that spirit out soon.
"He said when you determined who Brodie was; I'd know what to do and he's right. Tracker knew two years ago, this would come out, and tried to prepare me, but I didn't understand then. Now I do... I need to be there when Vin finds out who that man is, for both their sake's."
"Honey, I hate to break it to you, but Vin would know immediately that Hawks is Raven."
"Raven? Hawks is Raven?" Kelli bit at her lip, while she pondered this new information. "When Vin discovers that the man he trusted with his life has been lying to him all these years, I guarantee all hell will break loose."
Blowing out his breath in a rush of hot air, Chris gripped the steering wheel. "All right, I'm obviously missing a piece in this conversation. Hawks is Raven Vin recognizes Raven and you're telling me he'll be upset because ?"
Kelli reached over and clasped his arm. "I'll tell you, but I want your promise that you'll leave it alone, and won't interfere." She waited until he at least nodded, which she reckoned was probably the best she could hope for under the circumstances. "Hawks may be Raven, but he's also James Wyatt Tanner Vin's long lost father."
Chris closed his eyes, replaying in his mind his exchanges with Hawks. The signs were right in front of him all along, but he had missed them. Suddenly a lot of things about Raven made perfect sense. He also realized that with Vin's evolving mental ability, Raven's other identity was not likely to stay a secret.
Wilmington Home, 1200 Hours
Despite deciding to have lunch with Inez, JD sat at the table when he finished, scribbling notes for later. He paused as he felt a weight on his back and delicate arms embrace him, leaning back into the hug for a few moments before gently taking the arms around him and turning to meet Inez's gaze.
"Are you okay?" He shook his head. "Stupid question, sorry."
Inez smiled, touching his face. "No, it wasn't, and yes, I am doing better." She held out her hand. "Would you walk with me, I need air."
"Sure." The pair walked out onto the porch and a little way into the yard, Inez linking her arm through JD's as they did so. "What is it?" JD asked.
Stopping, the Mexican beauty faced him. "I know you and the others will bring mi amor and Vin home."
JD nodded. "Believe it. We're not coming back without them."
"I do but be mindful, you and the others must come back also all of you."
Smiling, the young agent nodded. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
Inez kissed his cheek. "You all are my life; I would be lost without any one of you. But you, pequeño, are my family. You have always been so. I just needed you to know before you leave I believe you and your brothers will return our lost lambs to us." She paused for a moment as she struggled with her emotions. "I love you, John Dunne take that with you and bring my beloved and Vin back to where they belong. I am unsure I can go on without my man."
JD swallowed, his hand taking hers. "Inez, you're one of the strongest women I've ever met. Hold onto that because it'll help until we get back here as we should be all seven." He frowned. "What?"
"I want to come."
"No please don't ask that of me or the others. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you."
Inez smiled. "You didn't argue because I am a woman just in fear of being without me should something go wrong. Gracias."
He squeezed her hand. "Let me talk to Chris and the guys. Maybe we can arrange for you to meet up with us when we get back across the border."
Throwing her arms around him, she breathed another Gracias in his ear. Pushing back a little, she held both his hands. "If I cannot, I will accept the decision, but thank you for allowing me the request."
"Ah hell, I'm no different to Buck. He can hardly refuse you anything, either."
Turning back toward the house, she squeezed the hand holding hers as they walked. "Thank you, that's useful to know."
Shaking his head, JD chuckled. "Damn, you're good." He sobered. "We're gonna do this trust me."
She nodded. "I know, and I do."
Larabee 7, 1300 Hours
Chris tapped idly on the intercom. A call from the front gate alerting him to a delivery had his gut in a knot. Moving away, he paced a minute, and then went to the door to wait. The Fed-x man jumped from his truck, met Larabee on the porch, and handed over the parcel.
"There you go, sir."
With a curt nod, Chris closed the door and took the offending package to the den, sat it on the table, and stared at the label addressed to Inez Wilmington, and Kelli Tanner in care of Chris Larabee. It didn't take a genius to work out the package was not sent locally, but it had not been posted from South America either, which was probably why the Feds didn't try to stop it.
Brodie stood next to him. "No use trying to trace it, just get 'em over here and we'll open it."
Chris nodded and picked up the phone. "Kelli, honey, could you come over please just you, yeah. Thanks." He hung up and dialed a second number. "JD, I need everyone back here a.s.a.p., and bring Inez with you."
Taking a deep breath, his eyes never straying from the package, Chris called the rest of the team, told them to bring their wives, and then waited.
Kelli's mind was in turmoil, her father's call preying on her thoughts. While she felt sure that if the worst had happened, Chris would visit her in person to tell her, the tone of his voice scared her. She had been valiantly blocking the images of Buck and her Vin in pain, beaten senseless or worse that haunted her day and night, but it was getting harder each minute. The sooner they moved on to South America, the more she would be able to keep her focus.
Pulling up outside her father's home, her nerve almost left her when she saw Chris come out to meet her. "Come on in, honey, we're just waiting on the others."
Comforted by the strong arm around her shoulders, she hesitantly asked, "Dad?" her blue eyes bore into his green orbs searching for the truth.
"I'm not sure myself, yet," he said, truthfully. "Just call it gut instinct."
"That doesn't help."
Inez stared at the young man driving. JD had given nothing away, but she knew him well and could see he was in pain. "What do you know?" she asked, quietly.
JD glanced at her. "Nothing, I swear. It's just aww, I don't know, but I won't lie I'm a little nervous right now." He flicked her another look. "Okay I'm really scared. I wish I could say more, but Chris didn't elaborate." He felt her squeeze his arm. It didn't help, but it was nice.
Ezra did not feel good about the call. Chris was not known for over-reacting, so for him to call them to the ranch, it was important, and right now, the way things had been progressing, discovering Buck and Vin had been released and were on their way home was probably last on his good news, bad news list.
Like his brothers, all he wanted was to get out there and bring Buck and Vin back, and wondered if this new development would speed their plans up or stop them in their tracks.
Nathan had considered every injury possible. Knowing their trip would be arduous prevented him from carrying as much equipment as he would have liked, but putting his basic kit together had been an unusual experience, as if he was being guided, and it had filled him with an overwhelming confidence he had not experienced before. He just hoped it wasn't simply fanciful imagination, but somehow, he knew it wasn't.
Josiah was on his third prayer since the call. This one was for Kelli, Inez, Chris, and JD because, while all of them were suffering and struggling, those four were uppermost in his mind. Not only for the close bonds they had exhibited over the years, but for the fact that no matter how strong, they were all showing signs of stress, way above what he would have liked to see and yet, were concealing it very well.
His first prayer had been for Buck and Vin maybe a fourth wouldn't hurt.
Chris's Den, 1320 Hours
Once they were all gathered, Chris placed the package on the desk. "Now that you all know why you're here, I guess I should open it."
Keenly aware of the nervous gathering, he took the scissors and snipped at the tape. Once the outer wrapping was gone, he paused for a moment before cutting open the first of two large padded envelopes within, tilting it up to spill the contents onto the desk. The intake of breaths almost sucked the oxygen out of the room.
Kelli swallowed several times before she picked up Vin's wedding ring. Someone had wiped it clean, and then wrapped it in tissue, which showed traces of blood. Closing her eyes for a moment, she could visualize Vin the day of their wedding, and relived the moment she slipped the ring on his finger. Now clutching it to her chest, her other hand absently toyed with her hawk pendent. She knew exactly where this precious ring was going, no matter what Chris said.
The other item in the envelope was a lock of her husband's long, beautiful, chestnut-colored hair, tied by a red ribbon. Vin chose to keep his hair long to represent his freedom to make his own choices, and she loved every strand of it. A solitary tear slipped down her cheek, which she quickly brushed away.
Snipping the second envelope revealed Buck's watch, stained with blood, and his wedding ring. With a shaking hand, Inez reached out and grasped them, cradling both to her breast. As she raised them to touch her cheek to them, she cried, softly at first to build into deep heart wrenching sobs. With Chris choking down the bile rising in his throat, and while momentarily focused on his daughter's reactions, JD moved in to comfort the distraught Mexican woman, his own tears dangerously close to flowing. He looked up sharply when Josiah's voice cut through the misery.
"Dear God in Heaven." The profiler had removed two photographs from the envelope. The first was of Vin naked, his face and body battered, while suspended from somewhere above him. He appeared unconscious; the newspaper next to his bruised and bloody face showed yesterday's date.
Chris gently touched its edge. "They cut off his hair." Considering Vin's injuries, that statement should have sounded ludicrous, but it reverberated around the room like a gunshot.
JD was now studying Buck's picture, unaware Ezra and Nathan had joined him while he agonized over the blood, bruises, and cuts to a face he barely recognized. His finger traced Buck's battered, suspended body, stopping just short of the exposed and seemingly bruised genitals. "Oh God, Buck "
Placing the photo on the desk, he backed away, his whole body going hot and cold as he listened and watched Inez and Kelli's reactions to what he and the others had just seen. Touching his hand to the small of his back, he felt the gun there, not his service weapon, but his own. Turning, he exited the ranch house.
Still reeling from the sight of the distressing pictures, the group at Larabee's was slowly calming down. Frowning at the ringing phone, Chris picked up. "Larabee Walter?"
"I know we've been kinda redundant here while these yahoos have been watching the gate, but would you mind telling me why JD's running hell for leather toward them?"
Chris scanned the room while processing the information. "JD's what?" Chris suddenly clicked and replaced the handset. "Shit!"
Larabee looked at them, already going for his keys. "JD's heading for the gate."
Brodie stayed with the women, while seemingly as one, four men exited, jumped into Chris' truck, and went after him.
Surrounded by Cait, Rain, Barbara, and Mallory, Kelli moved closer to Inez. "How are you doin'?"
"Not good," she sniffed, her gaze never leaving Buck's photo; his watch and ring remained tightly clutched in her hand.
"Soon," Kelli promised. "They have an idea to get off the ranch and everythin' else is fallin' into place. We have to keep our faith in God, our husbands, and their brothers. I also know those five will move heaven and earth to bring Buck and Vin home."
Nodding, Inez moved closer, and the two embraced, drawing strength from the unspoken bond of sisterhood that the Wild Bunch women shared.
Marshal John Clark had not been happy to draw this assignment. He considered babysitting a bunch of ex-agents beneath him, so he was almost grateful to see one of those said agents, running .hmm
Running in his direction. He stood in front of the gate to welcome the unwanted visitor.
"Stop right there, son!"
Bending over and resting his hands on his knees a moment to catch his breath, JD looked up at the Marshal, straightening as he spoke. "Let me out."
"Can't do that. Go home."
JD swallowed and drew as tall as his five-foot eight-inch frame would allow. "Last chance... step aside." He was vaguely aware of a vehicle pulling up and doors opening, behind him.
Flicking a gaze to the arriving four men, the Marshal, now standing with three of his men at his back, cocked his rifle. "I said, go home."
Three more cocked guns pointed his way when JD drew his gun
"Whoa, whoa hold on, just hold it."
Hearing Chris's voice, JD half-turned, his body vibrated with anger. "They're stopping us from getting out of here and helping Vin and Buck. Now you all can stand around and let them if you want, but I've had it with this shit."
"JD." Chris's tone was full commander mode, in spite of the fact that he was scared shitless that the officers seemed ready to blow a hole in their youngest. The combined events of the past hour made him feel the weight of command for the first time since they walked out of MCAT
"I can handle this, Chris," JD assured, turning back to the four-armed men in front of him. "I mean it Marshal, move."
"You gonna shoot us all boy?"
Dunne shrugged. "No, just you." Suddenly he was moving backwards, cursing a blue streak at Josiah for interfering.
"Excuse the boy, he meant no disrespect." Sanchez attempted to sooth the situation. "He's just going a little stir crazy."
Disarming their weapons, the Marshal stared at JD, his heart briefly going out to him, to all of them. They were proud men with exemplary records and reputations. "No offense taken." He turned away and hoped it would be enough.
Chris had a thousand things he wanted to yell at JD, but one look at the distraught features stopped him. All five gathered in close, JD finally allowing the tension to drain from his rigid body.
"I'm not sorry."
"No need to be," Chris decided. "Soon, kid we'll be gone soon."
"Right now isn't soon enough," JD hissed. The others nodded their agreement as each man placed a hand on a brother.
Chris agreed. "I know."
Back at the house, Chris stood in the middle of the den, and looked around. "They want us, then damnit they're gonna get us. Come hell or high water, tomorrow we move."
South America, Day Four ~ Phase three
Buck wasn't expecting to leave the room he'd been in for God only knew how long and enter another. However, the moment they hauled him in there, and he and Vin laid eyes on one another, was electric. A silent message of encouragement passed between them as Buck joined Vin, both now suspended by their wrists.
Wilder walked around the pair, his hand brushing their butts as he did so, enjoying the way they clenched and straightened to his touch. As he teased the agents, another man hooked up a small TV/ DVD player in a corner. Admittedly, he enjoyed inflicting pain, hell it was one of his addictions, but more than that, he loved to play with the minds of his victims. This plot was one of his best, if he did say so himself.
"I got the impression you did not believe me about your wives. Understandable information like that could easily drive a man in isolation insane. So " he turned to face them. " an associate and I decided to end your speculation." He smiled, broadly. "You both have excellent tastes I commend you. I will miss my sessions with these fine ladies."
Buck and Vin glanced at each other, and then turned to the TV screen as it flickered to life. The video was dark, and grainy, but they could see two women, one with red hair, one with black, lying on beds, on their backs. Both were blindfolded and gagged, their ankles and wrists tied together. The tape showed Wilder, and an unknown man as they entered the room, and dragged the two women to the edge of the bed.
On screen, Jake turned to the camera, "I'll make it memorable for you both, Tanner," he smiled.
The other man slapped the raven-haired woman's backside. "I'm gonna enjoy this, Wilmington."
Buck and Vin were frantic, straining unsuccessfully at their bonds to get closer to the horrifying images. This was not a live feed, so their hearts were already breaking with the knowledge whatever was about to transpire was already over.
"You masochistic bastard!" Vin hissed the venom in his voice chilling, despite his shackles.
Forcing back the tears that formed in their swollen eyes, they watched the horror unfold. In graphic detail, Tanner and Wilmington helplessly watched both men assaulted the women, while they unsuccessfully attempted to resist.
"Sonofabitch!" Buck struggled to kick at the man.
Wilder stood to one side of the captives. He savored every curse and tear shed as they watched their wives brutally raped on the video. "Alarming, isn't it? That there was nothing you could do to save them. How small you must feel now how worthless to know you could do nothing. Remember these moments, for it will be how you see your friends before we finally put you out of your misery."
"Please stop "
Tanner and Wilmington cried out, their pleas almost simultaneous, both distraught and disturbed from hearing the muffled weeping from the women, as the men finished their vicious assaults with a blow to each woman's face. Forced to watch the rapes was bad enough, but what happened next was the moment that caused both men to become broken shells.
While they watched Wilder dress, the other man took out a gun. In two swift movements, he shoved it under the women's chins and as they screamed through their gags, fired on one, then the other. As Buck and Vin watched the tops of the women's heads explode and spill their gory contents just as the tape went blank. They each let out a raw, protracted howl of despair, before their sobbing bodies went limp, from utter heartbreak. Jake moved forward to disconnect the TV. He was elated; the tastes of success in finally breaking these men's spirits. Gesturing for an aide to remove the equipment, Jake left the battered agents together, tied, beaten, and broken.
Larabee 7, Friday, 0600 Hours
Their rescue team had worked late into the night double-checking information, reviewing their plans, and making final preparations for their departure. All felt an urgency that was not there before, and somehow they sensed that Vin and Buck were at, or at least near, a breaking point. Finally, Chris called a halt to it all, and sent everyone home. Today, phase two commenced. He was still not comfortable with Kelli's role in their plans, but he grudgingly agreed her presence was probably required when the shit hit the fan with Raven. He drew the line with Inez though; as soon as the two women could leave the ranch, he was having Caitlyn accompany her to San Antonio. If everything went right, the medical center near Lackland Air Force base was where they would head with Vin and Buck, once they made it safely to the plane.
Beyond his personal concerns, he now understood that the timing of Vin and Buck's capture, Raven's unexpected appearance, his difficulty communicating with Vin, and MCAT's precarious position in a new administration, all coincided, and were intertwined with their memory recall. Their combined destiny as brothers was in play, and like it or not he had no control over the outcome.
*Congratulations, Chris, you worked it out, and didn't kill anyone in the process.*
"Guess you've been waiting for this."
*Hell, I reckoned you'd figure it out in due course. If you hadn't I would've nudged it along somehow.*
Chris stared into Tracker's eyes, and saw Vin's gaze and Raven's. The resemblance was too striking to be coincidence, and he had never made the connection. "I must be slipping."
*Naw, that's just how it works. You see what you need to only when the timin's right not before.*
*He and Romeo,* Tracker grinned every time he called his Buck by that name, *are with your Vin and Buck. I'm stickin' with you and Kel. If you need me, I won't be far.*
"Buck and Vin "
* .are strong men. Hold your faith close, and trust your legacy.* Tracker vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
Brodie walked in a second later. "Mallory is set-up, and everything is in place. I've confirmed that your temporary ID's, passports, plane tickets, and cash are at the designated location. Once you and your men are out of here, pick up your documents, split up, and I'll meet you in Panamá."
It amazed Chris how quickly, the Texas cowboy disappeared, and the Covert Ops Commander took over. "I take it you're leaving now."
"Affirmative. For now you're rid of me, Lieutenant Larabee." Hawks hoisted his duffel bag over his shoulder. "Once your men are liberated, you won't have to worry about me at all."
"I hope so, but I'm not counting on it." Chris tried to push back the various possibilities that might occur once Vin realized who Raven was. "See you in Panamá."
Walking out to his truck, Brodie glanced toward the Tanner Home. His mind drifted back thirty plus years to the image of a two-year old boy with garnet hair, and the sweetest smile in all of Texas, waving good-bye. For a moment, he considered stopping by on his way out for a chance to see Vin's children again. A nagging voice in the back of his mind that he figured was his conscience, reminded him, *You burned that bridge long ago, no sense thinking about what could have been.* Shaking his head, he decided it was best to move on, once Vin was safe, he could resume his self-imposed life of exile.
Standish Home, 0600 Hours
Enjoying their last private moments, Barbara snuggled close. It still amazed her that they had found one another. To the world, they both gave the appearance of being self-assured and successful, but underneath the surface there were still two lonely souls looking for a place to belong. Ezra completed her in a way she never thought possible, and now she was carrying his child. "I love you," she whispered softly.
Raising his head, he gazed into her eyes and saw the truth of her declaration. Though reluctant to end this special moment, he was aware that their time together was running short. "That, darling, is what I'll carry in my heart while I'm gone."
"We'll be here when you return. Just don't make me and our baby wait too long."
Ezra lay with his head resting on Barbara's chest, listening to the beat of her heart. "Dear lord, I wish this was over, and they were home already. I still feel I should be "
Barbara shushed him, with a tender touch. "Vin and Buck will come home, and no one..." she forced him to look at her " no one blames you for their capture. I won't allow you to either."
Nodding, he felt his heart fill with emotion. Only God knew how much he loved and needed this woman in his life. Ezra knew that even if he had a hundred years, he would still be searching for a way to convince her that his need of her was greater than hers was for him. "Thank you, love."
As he dressed his children, JD savored every touch, giggle, smile, and chatter, holding each child close as often as he could. Finally ready to head for Reins, he took them over to the bed and lay down, chuckling as the girls lay on top of him while he cuddled JJ to his side.
"Daddy has to go away for a few days, but you'll be okay with Rain and Barbara okay?"
"You get us candy?"
"Sure, baby, I'll get you candy. Promise you'll be good?"
"How about a Dunne special?"
With a squeal, the girls tried tickling him, squealing louder as JD won the battle, and tickled them and JJ until they were helpless with laughter. He kissed each child, tenderly. "Ready?"
He choked back the tears that always threatened when he had to leave. By the time he left them at the daycare, JD's head was moving into 'agent mode'. He had just one more thing to do.
Tanner Home, 0720 Hours
Knowing Vin was hurt, and so far from home, was an anguish that tore deep into Kelli's soul. Saying good-bye to their children, who expected her to return with him, was a different, but equally unpleasant hell. On her knees, she wrapped her arms around Andi and Jason. "I know y'all are goin' to listen to Max and Walter while I'm gone, and I promise I'll be back as soon as I can."
"With dad, right?" Jason leaned back to gaze into her eyes, looking for affirmation of the only answer he deemed acceptable.
"That's the plan."
"Can we still sleep in your bed?" Andi's eyes darted from her mother to Jason. "We'll take care of it 'till you and daddy come home."
"Yep." Kelli playfully swatted them both on their backside. "Now, Walter's ready to take y'all to school. Grab your backpacks and scoot."
Standing, she watched them as they left, and noticed her father for the first time. "Hi. Guess you snuck up on me."
"Wasn't difficult, you were preoccupied." He waited until she closed the door, before asking, "You sure about this?"
"I already said good-bye to the twins and Max." Kelli lifted the saddlebags she had set on the floor, yelled to Max, "I'm leavin' now," and turned back to Chris. Tilting her head toward the back entrance, she smiled. "Walk with me to the barn?"
A running monologue, spun from her nervous energy, started once they were out the door. "Max and Barbara both have my POA, in case anythin' happens with the kids. If they need medical attention, or if Jason has to go back to have his cast checked before we return, they're covered. I'll ride toward the cabin, detour about three miles in, and then cross over to Southern Breeze property. I should be there in less than an hour, and Matt is expectin' me. He's already arranged to use his private plane to fly me to Dallas. There I'll pick up the new identity and the cash, Hawks uh Raven arranged for me, walk across the terminal, and buy a ticket for Panamá City."
Chris knew the plan, but he let her talk it through. "I doubt anyone will be the wiser, but " he stopped walking to face her, " if by some chance you run into anything unexpected abort. I need to know you're safe."
Reaching up to touch his face, Kelli felt her emotions shift. Comforting the children was a given, but she neglected to realize her father needed some reassurance, too. He had enough to worry about already, and she was not going to add to it. "I won't take any unnecessary risks, I promise, but that's a two way street. You don't do anythin' to put yourself at risk either, I plan to see you in Yaviza tomorrow mornin'."
"Deal." He took her hand, kissed the palm of it, and then abruptly turned toward the barn. "Times wasting girl, let's move."
Chris insisted on saddling Dancer for her, and then led the mare out, before handing Kelli the reins. "Take care, Honey."
Not trusting her emotions to stay put, he had to make do with a curt nod, before she mounted her horse. Chris stood there watching until she and Dancer disappeared over the horizon. *Tracker, you had damn well better make sure my daughter stays safe.*
Chris couldn't see him, but he received Tracker's message. *Quit worryin'. Takin' care of Larabees is my specialty. Besides, I'm kinda partial to that one, and my great- grandson would kill me all over again if I let harm come to her.*
Satisfied with his answer, Larabee had one more stop to make before he said his good-bye to Caitlyn.
Wilmington Home, 0830 Hours
Having said goodbye to his babies, JD had made his way to Inez and Buck's home. While Isabella and Inez made coffee and breakfast, JD made his way into the den. He smiled at the photos of the Wilmington children, and his brothers. He stopped at the ones of the team, and him and Buck. Hands trembling, he reached out for the one of them in their old home, just after JD's twenty-second birthday. Lord, they'd gotten drunk that night all seven of them. Next morning it took him, Buck, Vin, and Chris five hours to get the place cleaned up.
He smiled. *Great times.*
A picture of Buck holding JJ made him equally sad and happy. Sad that Buck had held his son more times than JJ's own mother, and happy that he still had Buck in his life to help him guide his kids through the minefield that was childhood.
"Won't be long before we have some new photos up here."
JD turned at the voice, smiling thinly. "Hey, Chris."
"You okay, kid?"
"Sure just mentally preparing." He turned to face his hero. "Seeing Buck like this helps thinking of him you know and Vin "
Chris nodded. "Yeah, I know. I'm just going over to Cait's, wanted to see Inez before I leave."
"Me too wanted to see Inez before I leave, I mean," he said, quickly explaining. The woman in question entered the room.
"Are you staying for breakfast, Chris?"
Larabee approached her and held her close. "No. I just wanted to say goodbye and tell you, that you have my word, we'll be back with both of them."
She pushed back to look at him, glancing at JD. "This I know. God's speed to you all, and may he watch over each of you through this arduous journey."
Hugging her one last time, Chris nodded and turned to leave.
"You bet, boss."
Inez turned to JD and pulled him to her. "I'm not really hungry," he whispered.
"Nor I, mi pequeño." They stood simply holding each other, and stayed that way for a good long while.
"Walk with me?" Taking Chris's hand, Cait guided him away from the busy daycare center and down to the stables. They walked in silence, but it was a comforting one, their fingers entwined as they made their way through the grounds. Once inside, Cait took Chris to a stall far from the main area, a stall kept for any horse that needed short-term isolation and a place only visited once a day for fresh hay to be put down, a job that had already been completed.
She pressed him back against a wooden wall, her gaze intense as she looked at him. "Forgive me if this is out of place, but with you going away I needed to be with you. Am I asking too much?" She leaned in as she spoke, her breath tickling his lips. It was more than Chris could bear. Desperate to escape the misery for just a little while, he pulled her to him and hungrily placed his lips on hers, their kiss deepening as all the strain and sadness of the past few days was momentarily replaced with a desire to show this woman how much he loved and needed her...and he did just that.
Chris sighed, his forehead resting against hers. "I love you, Cait, with all my heart."
"You have mine, Cowboy, now and always. I'll see you all seven of you, in San Antonio." She smiled. "And when you do you and I will be spending a long while together so don't get too worn out."
Her words made him reluctant to move. He growled, "Damn, I have to go."
She kissed him sensually. "I know," she breathed. They lay together for a minute more before headeing back to the main house.
When they arrived, Nathan was there, saying one more good-bye to his wife. Rain, along with Barbara, was taking charge of the Dunne children, and once Inez left for Texas, the Wilmington kids as well. The only exception was Caleb, who was staying with Jason until his parents' returned.
Arms around his wife, Nathan kissed her soundly. "Girl, you take care now, I'll be back soon."
Tracing the outline of his face with her finger, she nodded. "I'll be waiting."
Chris hated to interrupt, but a glance at his watch told him they did not have much time. "Nate, you ready?"
Nathan found it difficult to tear his eyes away from his beautiful wife's face. However, he felt the pull of his brothers' calling to him. He kissed Rain's forehead, smiled, and said, "Yeah, let's do it."
Cait slipped her arm around Rain's shoulders. The two women watched their men climb into Chris's truck, and then drive away as they whispered a prayer for their safe return.
Larabee Home, 1200 Hours
Chris made one more check around the house. Mallory was at her home with the encrypted laptop. Josiah and Ezra had made their way over to JD's. Kel was already out and on her way to Dallas, and once he and Nathan slipped over to the Dunne home, all would be in place.
"All right, Nate, you and I will go out the back, and cross along the creek bed to get to the Dunne property."
"You said you were leaving a message for Travis?"
"Yep, but he won't be receiving it until we are out of the country." Picking up his jacket, Chris moved to the back door, looked out, and then said, "All clear let's roll."
Entry Gate, Dunne Property, 1400 hours
Troy Gibbs was to put it mildly built like a brick shithouse, and frankly seemed a little out of place driving a semi, but his very appearance and demeanor made him almost unapproachable. He glared at the Marshal, who scanned his documents.
"Sometime today would be good, dude. I got me a trip back to the depot and two more deliveries before I get to go home and chill out."
"We're gonna have to check out the back."
"Are you jerkin' my chain?" Gibbs sighed. "Fine!" Climbing from the cab, and dropping the back, the Marshal peered in. "A truck this big for just one bed?"
Troy rolled his eyes. "I've had other deliveries, y'know! Now, can I get this to the " he checked his paperwork. " Dunne residence, before I end up parkin' up an' usin' it for the night?"
The Marshal waved him on. "Sure, just have to check you when you leave."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, man." Turning over the big engine, Gibbs pulled away. "ETA eight minutes," he said into a concealed mic.
"Copy that," Chris's voice answered.
Five men, who behaved more like caged lions, paced JD's home. They chose this location as it was furthest from the Larabee 7 gate, and they welcomed the imminent arrival of their ride out of here. JD and Chris greeted Gibbs.
"We're clear, but need to move. You all set?"
Troy grinned at least it seemed like a grin. "Let's do it." After the three manhandled the bed out, and into Nettie's empty room, Gibbs jumped into the semi and lifted its false floor. Once all five men were in, he secured it, scattered a few empty boxes and newspapers across the floor, sealed the back door, and pulled out.
The small area was cramped quarters, and pitch black, but the five agents were too excited to be finally getting closer to action, to be bothered. Each man was acutely aware of how the others were feeling and as they approached the gate, five hands sought the arm of a brother as they each squeezed out their support. Their hearts pounded as they waited to see if the plan worked.
Gibbs opened the back for the Marshal to check, amazingly, not reacting when he jumped in and paced the interior. "What?" he deadpanned.
The five agents held their breath as the heavy footprints sounded just above their heads. JD cursed as a shudder went through him, and the hand on his arm squeezed tighter. Yeah, he was nervous, but his fear was of not getting out of there to leave for South America, not the consequences of discovery. They listened as the boots moved toward the rear. The Marshal jumped down.
"'Bout freakin' time." Gibbs growled out.
"Just doing my job, sir." The marshal touched his hat. "Thanks for your cooperation. Have a good day."
"Yeah, whatever," Troy mumbled as he jumped back in the cab and pulled off. It was a good hour's drive before the semi pulled over, and five stiff, but elated agents climbed out to meet their new transport. Chris shook Gibbs' hand.
"Good luck." Gibbs handed Chris an envelope with additional instructions, offered a curt nod, got in the truck, and pulled away.
Finding the key to the waiting 4x4 tucked in a wheel arch, the five men jumped in, sorted out their new ID's and passports, and headed for a small airfield outside of Denver. Ezra and Nathan would depart from there, while Chris drove further east toward another airfield, where a plane waited for him, JD, and Josiah.
On the way, Chris stopped at a local post office. "Be back in a minute." He pulled a letter from his jacket pocket, went inside, and overnighted it to Orrin Travis. By the time Orrin realized they were gone, it would be too late to stop them, but he expected Travis to pull the Marshall detail from the ranch, allowing Cait and Inez to leave undetected.
Returning to the truck, he climbed inside. "Okay, boys, next stop Panamá."
South America, Day Five
*Gotta tell you, son, I've, seen some bad things in my time, but if this don't beat all.*
Buck stirred from his shackled agony. These dreams he was having were getting more annoying by the minute. Now he was talking to himself, not that he recalled saying anything.
"Yeah, well you should see it from this side." Buck shook his head, regretting the movement instantly while inwardly berating himself for answering himself back. His 'voice' got closer.
*The kid woulda been mighty proud of the spirit in that answer, pard both of 'em, yours an' mine, considering what you've been through.*
Buck followed the voice to come face to face with his Old West counterpart. He spoke in earnest. "Well, 'pard', if you care about them at all, you get back there and watch out for my family. And, knowing he's likely breaking his neck to find me, and Vin, especially the little smartass that follows me 'round like a lovesick pup 'cause I'm useless to 'em, stuck here, and going crazy to boot."
Romeo smiled *JD loves you too, boy, but then, y'already know that.* Romeo shifted to gain eye contact. * Everyone's fine, Buck and I do mean 'everyone'. This ass is just messing with you...you understand me? Hold on, they're coming for you.*
Buck stared at his ancestor for the longest time, tears spilling as realization set in. He nodded, slipping into old habits as he forced the images of the assault to the back of his mind, and focused on the new information.
"Anytime today would be just peachy thanks." Silence reigned for some time while Buck fought his demons. Romeo watched him, his heart aching with a need to do so much more. He wondered if he could get Buck to focus on trying to reach JD...maybe just to give him a diversion. He suddenly realized Buck was watching him.
"So you're here to cheer me up? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I'm a piss-poor audience right now."
*I'm here for lots of reasons,* Romeo said, softly. *One of which is to help you reach out with a nice new gift you've been bestowed * he shook his head. *Damn Ezra an' his fancy words.*
Buck frowned. "If you're telling me I can do that weird shit Chris and Vin do I ain't buying it pard."
Romeo smiled. *Nah, it ain't that strong but the kid felt something, he believed you were still breathing long before it became official. Now I'm gonna try an' help you reach out to him just a little more 'cause soon, he's gonna need that faith in you...they got tough times ahead.*
Buck's eyes flashed. "It's always good to be needed, stud, and God knows I need to believe that right now. "He took a deep breath before asking, "Inez and Kelli?"
*...Are alive and well.*
Nodding, Buck shifted slightly. "Then let's do it."
Still suspended by his wrists, and barely able to lift his head, Tanner roused to the feeling he was being watched. Through swollen eyes, he saw a vision it had to be, nothing here seemed real right now.
*Hang in there, son, you have family who know you're alive and are coming for you.*
Vin huffed out a weak laugh. "Tell 'em to get a move on, would you?" His expression hardened. "I got me some business to tend to."
Cowboy leaned in as close as he could. *Trust me. They've jumped every hurdle put in front of 'em so far and there's been a few but they're coming. Now, what I need you to do is focus that new God-given talent of yours, and start guiding 'em in.*
Vin cleared his throat and spat out the blood-filled sputum. "I've tried It's not workin'. Even before this mess I was strugglin', an' now I can't even get to where I was before this Code shit kicked in." He swallowed. "And right now...I don't give a fuck."
*So you're just giving up, huh?* Vin's glare brought a small grin to Cowboy's face. *That's more like it, Tanner. I'm gonna help you through the crap and to focus on that, okay?*
Vin tried rolling his neck, grimacing with the pain that speared through his shoulders. His demeanour altered with a look of utter despair. "I'll see if I can fit you in between bein' whipped an' watchin' my wife bein' raped an' tortured, then seein' her head blown off."
*'Cause you believe that to be so, right?* Cowboy asked with more than hint of sarcasm in his voice.
The sarcasm was welcome because it told Vin what he already believed, but had been afraid to allow himself to begin to think. He closed his eyes in silent prayer, unashamed of the tear that fell. "Right," he replied, equally sarcastically. He was in a world of pain, but this injection of hope was infinitely better than thinking on the other possibility. "Let's get to it then, Cowboy."
Cowboy nodded his approval. *You'll do, son you'll do.*
Central America, Yaviza, Panamá, Saturday, 0500 Hours
Located thirty miles from the Colombian border, Yaviza was famous for lawlessness and a magnet for fugitives, poachers, and bootleggers. The first impression Kelli got of the trading outpost as she stepped off the cramped commuter was of a town of contrabandistas, barefoot prostitutes, and even at this early hour, drunken men fighting in the streets with machetes and broken bottles.
"Pasaporte," demanded the sour-faced officer at the cuartel. Taking it from her hands, he asked, Americano? Then he wrote her name in his registry of visitors.
"Perdoneme por favor." 'Raven' pushed his way through, grabbing Kelli by the arm. He nodded at the officer. "Gracias ella viene conmigo "
The man waved them on. " todo esta en orden, puede irse..."
While Raven marched her to his jeep, she jerked away from his hold. "I could have managed without you layin' claim to me, and I can walk all by myself, thank you."
He released her, and kept moving. "Suit yourself."
"The others?" Kelli asked as she climbed into the passenger seat.
"They'll be here in a few hours, and my men will find them." He shifted into drive, not wanting to speculate on the reason why he felt he needed to meet her plane. It was definitely not something he would normally do, under any circumstance, preferring to keep a low profile. Stealing a brief glance at the woman seated next to him, he quietly sighed. For a fleeting moment, he wondered what they would be discussing if he had made a different turn with his life choices. Dragging his thoughts back to the here and now, he shifted again. "It'll take about thirty minutes to get to our base; you might want to grab a catnap."
Surprisingly feeling safe in 'Raven's' presence, Kelli leaned back and closed her eyes. Tracker had refused to tell her why James Tanner abandoned his family, and she sensed that the spirit did not approve of his subsequent actions. For her, why was not important now, her concern was for how finding out would affect Vin. Still, if she was, according to Tracker, supposed to guide this man, she needed to know it would be good for her husband. Maybe by the time they arrived at base, she would have some kind of plan.
"We're here." 'Raven' nudged Kelli's shoulder. "Welcome to the outskirts of Darién Gap, a refuge for outlaws, guerilla groups, and rogue MCAT agents."
Roused from the gentle shaking, it took a second to orient herself. His endeavor at humor earned him a frown. She looked around at what he called base. It was a small house with a wooden frame, not appearing very sturdy, and in need of a paint job. She guessed it did not matter because if all went according to plan, they would not be here long.
Stepping out of the jeep, she stretched, while 'Raven' hauled some gear into the house. She walked up to the porch, and waited until he came back. Timing her statement, as he moved past her, she said, "You know, Vin told me about you."
He stopped and turned back to face her. "Did he?"
She nodded. "He said that while he didn't approve of your methods, you were an honorable man, and he trusted you with his life more than once. What he didn't tell me was .that you were also a coward."
His eyebrows furrowed into a frown. "You think I'm a coward?"
"What would you call a man who abandons his wife and child, walks away from his name and heritage, and then lets his family believe he's dead?"
"What makes you believe I'm that man?"
She dug into her pocket, pulled out a picture of Vin with their twins, and passed it to him. "The eyes are a window to the soul. Look at theirs, and Vin's, and then look in the mirror."
'Raven' fingered the picture. He had known all along that it was possible to be exposed if he got this close, but he had to take that chance for Vin. He did not want him to have to choose between loving his family or certain death for them. "You gonna tell him?"
"No, but you should."
Quiet for a moment, he almost said nothing, but figured that she would wait for an answer until hell froze over if he didn't. "I don't belong in his life I lost that privilege years ago."
Kelli shook her head, and frowned. "You say that, yet here you are riskin' everythin' you've spent years tryin' to hide, to rescue your son." She started to turn and go in the house, and then paused. "Reckon you need to ask yourself why?"
Watching while she went inside, he glanced again at the photo in his hand, before slipping it into his shirt pocket. To be honest, he did know why. Admitting it, however, would not solve the issue, and it was way too late for an explanation, or second-guessing. Kelli knew his identity, which meant Chris probably did too. It was only a matter of time before his son found out, and it was best for all concerned if Raven, Brodie Hawks, and James Tanner, simply disappeared after Vin and Buck were safely on their way to Texas.
Before that happened, he had a few loose ends to take care of .
MCAT Office, 0800 Hours
Suzanne signed for the letter, and immediately took it into her boss's office. "I believe you've been waiting for this." She handed over the envelope, and then closed the door on her way out.
Orrin looked at the postmark and smiled. Chris did exactly what he expected him to do, and if he knew Larabee, he had executed his plan to perfection. He ripped the end of the envelope and slid the contents into his hand. The note was brief and on point.
Call off your dogs. Our packages should arrive in San Antonio within seventy-two hours. NO connection traced to MCAT. Will end mission at Lackland, and need medical on stand-by.
Travis immediately pressed the intercom. "Suzanne, get me the Commander of Lackland Air Force base on the line. Then call the MCAT SAC in San Antonio, I have a special assignment for his unit." While he waited, he sat back, and breathed a sigh of relief. He had known that once Chris got over his anger, he would understand what he needed to do. The State Department would drag out their negotiations with Columbia forever. His two agents did not have that long. As Director, he had to cooperate with the new administration to protect MCAT, and his men. Vin and Buck's only chance of survival was for Larabee and his team to go in as a Shadow operation and bring them out, without involving MCAT or any other official government agency, in order to avoid creating an international incident. Risky for Alpha Team because the enemy knew who they were, and wanted them dead, but the alternative, Tanner and Wilmington dead, was not acceptable.
Yaviza, Panamá, 0800 Hours
Ezra brushed the sleeve of his jacket, with a look of disgust. "Whoever heard of allowing a chicken on a damn plane?"
Nathan nudged him in the back. "Move along, show the man your papers, and let's find our transport out of here."
A man bumped into Nathan, discreetly slipping a set of keys into his hand. "Excúseme por favor." He nodded toward a very old ford pickup truck parked a few feet away, and whispered, "Mapa bajo el asiento," before he stumbled off down the street.
Ezra turned around. "What?"
Shrugging a shoulder, Nathan held up the keys. "I think he said there's a map under the seat."
Ezra looked in the direction Nathan pointed. There sat an American made truck that was at least thirty years old, dirty, and the bed packed with crates of live chickens. "Dear Lord, we have arrived in Purgatory."
The springs in the passenger seat poked through the cloth, and Chris cursed every time Josiah failed to dodge a hole in the road. "Damnit, to hell!"
"Sorry about that."
JD sat in the back seat of the old car, wishing he had his bike here instead. "You think Raven did this on purpose, or is he trying to cut costs on transportation?"
"According to the map, we're almost "Josiah saw Ezra standing by an old truck, "correction, we are here."
"Thank God. One more pothole and I would've put this damn car out of its misery." Chris wasted little time exiting the vehicle and approached Standish. While he expected his brothers to arrive safely, his concern was for his daughter, knowing that she had the Larabee talent for finding trouble without looking very hard. "Everyone accounted for?"
Ezra had no doubt about Chris's question. "Kel was already here when we arrived."
"Checkin' up on me, Dad?" Kelli stepped off the porch, met him, and rewarded her anxious father with a hug. "I got in at 0500, Raven met my plane, and I even had time for a nap before Ezra and Nathan arrived. Raven had to leave for a while, but come on inside and I'll show you around."
Chris was secretly pleased that Raven at least thought about what could happen to a lone woman in a place like Yaviza. "Lead on."
"I hope it looks better on the inside than it does from out here." JD grumbled as he followed Chris.
"Don't count on it." Ezra patted him on the back. "Welcome to hell."
Base operation, 1400 Hours
Raven returned with more information, and was ready to share. Gathering around a makeshift table, Larabee's team looked on as he laid out more maps.
"I hope this means we move tomorrow morning. It's past time to get Buck and Vin out." JD was obviously tired of waiting, and anxious for the action to get started.
Chris laid his hand on JD's back. "You need to be patient just a little longer, kid."
Meeting Larabee's gaze, 'Brodie' made a decision. "Before we move into the final phase of this mission, I think you should all know that I'm not Brodie Hawks." He waited to see what kind of reaction his bold statement garnered, pleased that Chris halted any outburst from is men with one hand motion. "I believe you're all familiar with the name Raven I am Raven. My objective is the same as yours, but my methods of obtaining that goal are shall we say more open than what you are used to dealing with. That said, you should all be aware of what I've set into motion."
"If it helps Vin and Buck, then it doesn't matter what method you use." Nathan glanced to his brothers, and saw that they agreed.
Larabee cleared his throat. "Since it appears to be the right time for true confessions, I have one. You all know that I have on occasion, let my temper rule my actions."
"No shit," JD smirked. Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra suppressed their smiles.
Glaring at his brothers, Chris continued. "Orrin knows that too. Once I cooled off, I realized that he deliberately provoked me, and the rest of you, to resign .It was important for everyone, especially the Columbian government to believe that Alpha Team had been neutralized, and would not be interfering in any State Department negotiations. Bottom line Travis knew we would find a way to go in and attempt a rescue. By cutting us loose, he gave us free rein to handle it any way necessary. Maybe I should have said something sooner, but it would not change the fact that getting Buck and Vin out was our priority."
Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Ezra exchanged glances, communicating with one another without words. Finally, Sanchez said, "We've always trusted your judgment, and nothing's happened to change that."
Chris nodded, and shifted his gaze to Raven. "By now Travis has a letter in hand that I sent him yesterday. He'll clear our reentry into the U.S.; and Lackland is expecting us within seventy-two hours. Medical personnel will be on stand-bye. I need to know what else you've done that I might have to explain."
Raven observed Chris and his team. It was easy to see why they were successful. Their loyalty to one another was commendable. "Not much that can be connected to you." Lowering his eyes, he placed all his attention on the map. "Vin and Buck are here." He pointed to an area west of Bogotá. "The valley leading into Nevado del Ruiz, lies about 129 kilometers west of Bogotá, and is part of the Andes mountain range. We're coming in from the north, which means the chopper will drop us approximately ten miles away, and we'll have to go in on foot, but ." He turned the map. "As we speak 'your team' is busy liberating the MCAT jet at an airfield south of there. They'll create enough of a ruckus to make the men holding your agents believe y'all are coming in from that direction. Thinking they have what they want, which is Alpha team, in their sites; I hope they'll send at least half their unit to 'greet' you."
"Divide and conquer." Josiah nodded. "It makes sense."
"That's the idea, but I warn you. Jake Wilder, the man in charge, is experienced, sadistic, and well informed. He enjoys this game, and is not to be underestimated." Raven looked up and stared at Chris. "If he believes he is in danger of being caught, he'll cut his losses and clear out."
"You mean he'll move Vin and Buck again?" JD asked.
"He means he'll kill them, and live to fight another day." Chris said, without breaking eye contact with Raven. "If we rush this, we could be signing their death warrants."
Raven noticed when Kelli paled, but if he had not been watching, he was not sure he would have seen any reaction from her at all. "That's why we won't move tomorrow, unless we have confirmation of their exact location. We need to convince him your team is in country, and south of his location. When we hit it has to be quick, clean, and unexpected."
"How do you plan to convince them, other than having a bogus Alpha team on the loose?" Ezra considered the various possibilities.
"When Wilder's employers begin to expire under questionable circumstances, he should be convinced, and challenged."
"You know who hired him?" Kelli held her breath, and waited for his answer.
"I do, and I promise you, they're all walking dead men " His features took on a hard, lethal expression, " they just don't know it yet." As quickly as his facial appearance hardened, he relaxed. "Information at this point is fluid. We'll cover precise details before we go in."
Enrico Estelorado lived in one of the nearby villages used by his guerilla group as a staging area for their raids. Investigating his surroundings, he traveled farther than he had anticipated, and noticed in a small clearing through the dense undergrowth, some buildings. Unable to contain his curiosity, and eager to build his reputation as a ruthless rebel, he moved closer.
Discovering a tiny break at the base of one of the fences, it took him some time to cut a hole big enough to squeeze his small, but sinewy frame through. Crawling along the ground, he checked that his handgun and knife were in place before making a dash to a small outer building. He ducked back as a short, dark-haired figure headed into the outhouse.
"Americano," he breathed, his heart started pounding as the adrenaline rose. This would be an excellent addition for his résumé. Stealthily, he moved closer.
The humid conditions had seen everyone consuming lots of bottled water. Having just eaten, JD's bladder was finally filling instead of his body just sopping up every bit of moisture available, so he made his way out to the latrines. All finished, he walked back outside, gazing around at the compound for a moment. He nodded to a man in front of him, recovering just in time to see a flash of a blade coming his way. Instinctively, JD grabbed the man's wrists and a fierce scuffle ensued, the pair falling to the ground and rolling around as they battled for possession of the knife JD grunted the very, very big knife.
"Cerdo Americano!" The man spat out as he rolled on top of the straining tech.
JD wondered why on earth he was thinking this guy could use a breath mint at a point when a knife blade was just inches from ripping out his throat. "Get the hell off me " And why didn't his words have the same venomous affect as the other guy's had on him? It was unnerving to see his assailant grinning inanely. JD yelped as he briefly pushed the knife sideways and felt it scrape his arm, only to have it hovering over his throat again in seconds.
A shadow fell over them, and before JD realized what was happening, large hands attached to thick arms had the man in a headlock, the assailant's eyes going wide and bulbous before a loud 'crack' rendered the man's neck aslant and limp, and the knife dropped onto JD's chest from slack fingers.
"Aaaahh..." Scrambling backwards across the ground as blood oozed from the corner of the mouth of the dead man's angled features, JD stared in a mix of shock and horror as Raven tossed the man into the nearby brush. Then he extended his hand to help the young man to his feet, picking up the knife that was now on the ground as he did so. Raven could feel JD trembling, unsure if it was shock or the intense battle he had just endured. He averted the younger man's stare away from the sightless corpse back to him, both his powerful hands on JD's arms.
"It was either you or him, kid."
JD nodded. "I know, I know," he said, breathlessly. "I'm sorry I never thought "
"That's what I'm here for," he winked.
"Does does this mean Wilder knows we're here?"
Raven looked around, then back at JD. "I'm guessing not, but time will tell." He examined the slash to JD's fatigues. "This isn't bad, but out here, it needs tending. Come on."
Relaxing a little after their light meal, Chris, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra noted the pair's arrival and JD's pale, sweaty features, and a wicked slash tin his fatigues.. The former jumped to his feet. "What happened?"
Offering a plotted explanation, Raven handed JD off to a concerned Nathan. "We need to stay alert. No one goes anywhere alone, not even to the latrines."
They all nodded. Chris answered, glancing at JD, "Agreed."
Raven leaned in. "He's okay, just a bit shook up." He grinned at Larabee's look. "Okay, it was close but I was there in time to prevent any harm coming to the kid. I know you have men here that aren't from a military background, so I've been watching." He paused. "These guerillas are tricky bastards. We got caught napping; it won't happen again, I'll put extra men on the perimeter fences, and check for damage he got in somehow no one will again."
Chris nodded and watched him go. Damnit, if the bastard wasn't growing on him just a little bit. He looked across at JD, Nathan tending his minor wound. With a wink of assurance, he turned his head to gaze out of a window. *You two stay strong, Vin we're here.*
Chris walked out onto the covered porch to stand next to Raven. "Looks like rain."
"Probably hit soon."
The two stood in silence for a few minutes, before Raven commented, "Your daughter called me a coward today."
"Did she?" Chris smiled under the cover of darkness. "Kelli usually says what she thinks; especially when she believes she's protecting Vin."
"I had my reasons."
Larabee did not even try to pretend that he did not know what Raven referenced. "Still think they were the right ones?"
Raven tossed the remains of his coffee onto the ground. "Doesn't matter what I think now."
Chris nodded. "Vin is a good man, a loyal friend, a fantastic father, and a gentle, loving husband. Most of what he's become is of his own doing." He paused a moment, then faced the man he preferred to call Raven. "He's also someone who lives by his own code of honor, and you don't want him on your bad side. Hurt him, and he'll probably forgive you eventually, but I'd tear you apart. Hurt his family You might as well kiss your ass good-by because he won't stop inflicting pain until you're dead or gone."
"I've seen him in action a time or two." Raven shifted his footing. "He's a better man than I am, and contrary to what you may think, I have no desire to add any pain to his life. That's why, once you have your men on that plane, I'm leaving with my chopper crew. Raven will cease to exist, and Vin will never hear from me again."
"Guess that's best all around."
"No guessing to it. My daddy always told me; if it ain't broke don't try to fix it. Vin is a son any father would be proud to claim, he has a wife who loves him, four beautiful children, a damn fine band of brothers who care, about him, and the kind of life many men would kill for a chance to have." Blue eyes met green. "He deserves every bit of it, and I don't plan to screw it up for him."
Chris received Raven's message loud and clear. "Then I reckon I won't have to kick your ass after all."
Raven went inside, but Chris decided to stay out for a while. The rain started with big fat drops, and increased rapidly to a steady downpour. He heard footsteps behind him, but was not alarmed; he recognized the soft footfalls of his daughter in the dark. Reaching around her, he pulled her in for a hug. "How are you holding up, honey?"
Kelli welcomed the comfort he offered. "I talked with Jason and Andi a few minutes ago. Hearing their voices helped, but I'll feel a lot better once we have Vin and Buck on a plane out of here."
Chris nodded. He knew they would all feel better when this was over. He rubbed her back. "Your guardian spirit still around?"
"Yeah, he's around." She released a soft chuckle. "Tracker can annoy the hell out of me, but I'm really glad he's stayed. It may sound silly, but talkin' with him makes me feel connected to Vin even more."
"Not silly at all." Chris held her, and thought about his own missing connection. "I wish oh damn ." Releasing her, he dropped to one knee and appeared to be in excruciating pain.
"Dad!" Kelli screamed for help and the others came running. Josiah and Nathan tried to get to Chris, while Ezra and JD pulled Kelli back.
Nathan knelt down and reached for Chris's arm to check his pulse, afraid he might be having a heart attack.
Chris jerked back, "Not me it's not me its Vin."
Central Columbia, Day 6
Wilder barely contained his grin when Buck and Vin jolted awake when he dumped cold water over their heads. "I'm glad you were able to relax, I have a new toy to play with. My men have successfully intercepted two more members of your team. I have them in the room next to this one, primed and ready for my expertise." He leaned toward Buck. "I hadn't realized how small young John is I fear he may not last as long as you did."
"No NO!" Buck tried to rally, but the pain in his wrists and arms when he moved were pure agony.
Wilder laughed, moving to Vin. "Larabee though I feel he may prove quite an adversary."
"You're a fuckin' liar," Vin rasped out through a parched throat and swollen lips.
"Believe what you will, but at least you will have the pleasure of experiencing what they soon will be subjected to. The water that woke you both will help me reach you." He jabbed a metal rod into Vin's side, pleased with the raw scream and spasms it produced before doing the same to Buck. As the pair twitched and groaned. He held out the rod for them to see.
"This is a Picana, a delightful little tool that delivers electrical shocks. Water makes it more conducive to distribute maximum pain." He laughed. "But then, you already know this." He jabbed at Vin again. "Beg for mercy, Tanner."
As Vin's agony subsided and his body ceased twitching, Tanner stared defiantly at his tormentor. "Eat shit an' die." His eyes closed on hearing Buck's screams.
"Then beg for your friends."
"No " Buck whispered, almost unconscious. He reeled at the blow to his face.
"No sleeping, perro asqueroso," he smiled. "My grandmother was Mexican; she taught me many excellent words and phrases."
"Los insultos de basura como tú, no significan nada." Buck hissed back.
Wilder was not overly happy to find these men seemed to have rallied since their last encounter, but he knew exactly how to change that. He laughed before delivering another bolt of pain to both of them. "Your amigos should like this, too."
While considering how much more they could take, he turned sharply as one of his men came in and handed him a note. 'So, Los Magnificos have arrived'. He considered the re-take of the MCAT jet, deciding it was of no consequence. What was more important, was that 'they' were here phase four was complete. Dispensing one more jolt of pain to each prisoner, he walked from the room to leave the two agents twitching in agony, and in more pain than any man should ever have to endure.
Walking into his operations room, Wilder studied the white board filled with the images of his targets. Larabee, Dunne, Sanchez, Standish, Jackson, names that had become synonymous with tough, professional, unique, immortal. He laughed at his last analogy, no one was immortal, but he understood the sentiment. They had a remarkable reputation for surviving the most impossible odds. The incident his man Gaunt referred to, a testament to that.
One of his original employers had not only seen it up front and personal, but his demise had occurred in spite of his efforts to defeat them. Bottom line; never underestimate the so-called 'Magnificent Seven'. That is something he would never do. The death of one of his 'bosses' was unfortunate, but since he had already been paid, not important. Their re-taking of the MCAT jet smacked of predictability, but he considered it their way of sending him a message. 'We're coming for you, mother fucker.'
"I'm waiting for you Larabee."
Staring at the board, he called one of his trusted aides to him. "Philippe, I want you to send out a welcoming party for our impending guests." He pointed to a map. "They were last reported here, so I would suggest we send a group of our best soldiers to this pass. Larabee and his men will have to travel through it once their transport has dropped them off, but warn those you choose, inflict pain on resistance, but no one must die. These men are mine, and mine alone."
Jackson 'Jake' Wilder was a man that most people who knew of him, feared. An unashamed mercenary, he would go wherever, whenever, if the money was right. His father was an American, his mother, born in Mexico. His only loyalty was to currency, the fact that he enjoyed his job, a bonus.
His specialties Coercion and torture he was damn good at. The uglier it got, the better he liked it. He had broken men who claimed to be unbreakable, his methods cruel and unrelenting in his dedication to duty. His favorite job was the ultimate challenge; to break a man and obtain the required information before killing him. He truly got off on it.
This job assignment offered him a unique challenge. He could barely believe his luck when he received it, and had done something he had never needed to do before confirm it. He was used to using his skills for extracting information, and indeed, his expertise was required on this occasion, but not for intel. This time his skill would lure in the men his employers were eager to obliterate. In short, he had free rein to play.
Murdering the pilot had been a cakewalk, taking the two agents, a mere formality, but on meeting them up close and personal, he knew breaking them would be an exceptional challenge. He lined up his most evil toys, and methods to ensure success. Also, he had the luxury of a little bought time. The explosive device released through the toilet flushing mechanism of the MCAT jet he hoped would send rescuers off on a wild goose chase, worked. A temporary detour, but it had been enough to get the agents under cover and brutalized before anyone realized the deception. Of course, he had also hoped the incident had caused a massive amount of anguish for the families and agents back in the US.
As he glanced through the dossier, he had compiled on each agent, his mind traveled back to the day his latest victims arrived at the compound.
>> "Separate them, and strip them naked before they are shackled." He watched as his men dragged the unconscious agents that hung loosely between them, into their new temporary 'homes'. His head jerked up. "Wait, I will strip them myself."
He stood before Wilmington's prone body. His history professed him to be a lover of the fairer sex until his marriage to Inez Estephania Recillos. There was nothing sexual in Wilder's actions, just a love for his work as his hands removed Buck's clothing, stripping him of his identity, piece by piece. He smiled to himself as he removed the final item and Buck's ample genitals were exposed. A lover, yes he knew exactly how to break this man physically and mentally.
If possible, he took even longer to strip Vin, wanting him to experience the humiliation of losing his dignity. Like Wilmington, he was a fine specimen of a man, fit, healthy, and well endowed, but Wilder had a different agenda for Tanner. He toyed with the soft, blood matted tresses way too long for a man working for a government agency, yet here Tanner was, long hair and a prime example of the male species. While reading his dossier, it became clear to Jake that Tanner was a man of deep, but often untapped emotions, a free spirit, and a rebel of sorts. He felt sure the lengthy hair, was a statement to that fact, and he now knew which direction his initial acts would take. <<
Charles Gaunt was an interesting find. Wilder had overheard him bragging in a bar in Panama about taking out an MCAT office with a missile, back in Denver. Curiosity piqued, Jake soon learned that the office belonged to the very same MCAT team he intended to eliminate. The money he offered bought his services for this job. The man's loose tongue bothered him, but once Charles 'Ghost' Gaunt had served his purpose, he would also be eradicated. All thirty men serving with him were expendable; they just didn't know that yet. Except for two loyal cohorts he took with him everywhere, Jake Wilder never left witnesses, his reputation depended on it.
He entered the room where his prisoners were suspended, backhanding each to rouse them. "I have someone I want you to meet."
"Sorry, my dance card's all filled up." Vin could not reach his tormentor, but his glare shot daggers at him.
"Very good Tanner. Perhaps I could dampen your dancing urges a bit." Quickly drawing his knife, he slashed at the souls of Vin's feet, drawing blood. "Oh dear how clumsy of me."
Forcing himself not to grimace, Vin kicked at him. "Fuck you."
Motioning to the man behind him to move forward, Wilder grinned. "Charles 'Ghost' Gaunt meet Agents Wilmington and Tanner. Two of the men you failed to kill when you launched a rocket into their MCAT office."
Buck reacted immediately. "You did that, you sonofabitch?"
"Yeah, but it looks as if Wilder here gets to finish the job."
Vin vividly remembered the horrors of that day. "Then I reckon we have to kill you too, before we leave."
Gaunt laughed. "Considering your situation, I don't think I'm too worried about it."
"Tsk tsk you shouldn't laugh. Show a little respect. These men recently became widowers. Their lovely wives both met with untimely deaths." He grinned at the futile effort Tanner made to get at him.
Wilder continued, with not so much as a blink of the eye. "Do you want to know what kind of men they are, Charles?" In his hands was an open folder, from which he read, "Wilmington, Bucklin 'Buck' Everett, Special Reserve, and former U.S. Navy Seal. He's decorated, popular, experienced in munitions, surveillance, and explosives. He retired from the military to follow a career in Law Enforcement. Again, decorated and one of seven considered to be an elite band of men who went on to become MCAT Alpha team." Jake looked up. "Tell me, how does such a man feel to be tied like a hog and whipped like a horse?"
Buck sneered. "Give it time, buddy and you'll know about the last part, anyhow. Honor is something you'll never achieve." His head whipped to the side from a fierce blow, and he licked at his split lip, grateful for the moisture. "Touched a nerve, Jerkass?"
Buck arched and convulsed as Wilder rammed the Picana against his skin for far longer than advisable, his neck outstretched as every vein and sinew bulged.
"Stop it!" Vin howled, terrified that Buck would have a heart attack. His brother's body went limp when Jake removed the prod, and then calmly went back to the folder to continue reading.
"Vincent Jamison Tanner, ex-Army Ranger, ex-bounty hunter, ex-US Marshal, ex- ATF, and soon to be ex-MCAT Agent." He laughed. "Appears that you're all washed up, Tanner. Even if you escaped me, by the time I'm finished with you, you won't be able to hold a sniper rifle, much less shoot one." He moved closer. "You think you're so fucking tough but all I see is a naked man with little hair, no family, and no future." He walked away, tossing his final comment over his shoulder. "I'll be back."
Vin laughed, despite feeling the opposite emotion. "I'll be waitin'."
Jake made a decision as he walked out of the room. With Alpha team within his grasp, his focus was changing; he needed to prepare for these five men. "Gaunt."
Charles approached him and waited for instructions.
"Leave their hands and feet shackled and secured to a wall ring, but send in food and water to our guests. I need to appease them for a short while, before they meet their violent deaths " he smiled. " after they watch their friends' demise."
Phase Five was upon them. Phase six would be a delicious conclusion.
*Boy Howdy, this guy'll sleep anywhere.*
Rising through the pain-filled fog, Buck huffed. "Piss off you overgrown school kid."
Romeo laughed. *Hey, whaddya know, he knows me.*
*Takes one to know one,* Cowboy teased.
Buck's head wobbled up to peer at Vin. "Descent into madness complete I can hear your guy, too."
"Reckon that's the plan," Vin replied, aware that Cowboy was watching every breath he took.
*Came t'see how you were holding up.*
"Being held up, as it happens," Buck chided. "Feel free to cut us loose any time."
*Good to see you still have a sense of humor,* Romeo snapped back. His demeanor softened. *Hold on, son, they're here.*
"Here? Where? Oh yeah I see 'em standing right over there next to Elvis."
*Okay, I don't know this Elvis person you speak of, but I didn't mean in the room your brothers are coming for both of you.*
"Then Wilder doesn't have them?" Vin felt a surge of awareness rush through him. "Wilder doesn't have them!" He attempted to reach past the jumbled thoughts in his head, but it was difficult. "Damnit, I want my old senses back." He tried again. *Chris, we're waitin', but you'd best hurry.*
Standing close to Vin, Cowboy whispered into his ear, *That's it, son, concentrate. Think of your family, your home, the love there it's all yours Vin.* Cowboy urged him on, pleased to see him try. Tanner closed his eyes; he could see glimpses of Chris, Kelli, and his children Then Buck yelled, and he quickly returned to his surroundings.
"Got him." Buck suddenly gasped. "JD?"
*What did you feel?* Romeo knew, but he asked anyway.
Glancing at Vin, Buck shook his head, lightly. "I I had an overwhelming image of him in fatigues and staring right at me but I wasn't there."
"Could you hear him?" Vin waited, while Buck sorted though this new experience.
"Yeah .yeah...I think he said 'hold on'."
*Good advice." Cowboy stood between them. *You've both been in Purgatory way too long but your time here is almost at an end.*
"There's a happy ever after?" Buck pushed.
*C'mon, pard, you know we can't tell you everything. Just have faith. Trust your legacy.* As Romeo finished, the lock on the door rattled, he and Cowboy faded from view.
Gaunt shuddered as he entered the room to carry out Wilder's instructions. "Spooky dump."
Unheard by him, an echoed laugh sounded. *You ain't seen nuthing yet!*
Base Operation, Panama, Saturday, 2130 Hours
Kelli squeezed Chris's hand. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm sure." He glanced toward Nathan. "Doctor Jackson over there gave me a clean bill of health." Pulling his hand from hers, he placed his arm around her shoulder. "Vin is still with us, honey. I feel it, and soon, you'll see him."
Raven rushed into the room. "Mallory just sent me the confirmation we've been waiting for. We have a location on Tanner and Wilmington."
JD jumped up. "Does this mean we're done waiting?"
"It means, we execute our plan tomorrow morning, before Wilder has an opportunity to move them." Raven began issuing orders. "Kelli, you need to get some sleep. You and Clay are leaving at 0200 to meet the pilot of our plane." He handed her a packet. "These are the ID's and travel docs necessary, plus your instructions. Don't open 'em until we alert you we're on our way. Larabee, you, and I need to coordinate a few details. The rest of you, get some rest. Equipment check at 0400 and our ride out of here will be on the ground by 0430." He went to the only table in the house and spread out their maps.
Josiah had something to say he figured his brothers needed to hear again. "Before you all crash for the night, remember Preacher's words....'Our brother's never go into battle alone'."
Nathan stood, "I need a clear head, so I'll try to catch a nap. Those boys are going to need me tomorrow." He patted Josiah on the back as he exited the room. "Thanks, I needed to hear that."
JD pulled out the picture of Buck he carried in his pocket and stared at it, concentrating so hard his head ached. *Hold on, Bro hold on.* He doubted that he would sleep, but he would at least try. Buck would need him tomorrow. "Me too." He nodded and headed for his cot
Ezra met Josiah's eyes, a silent thank you passed between them. He and Josiah then headed for their own cots.
Chris assisted Kelli to her feet. "Things are going to be hectic around here in the morning. If I don't get the chance to tell you then, I love you, and I want you to be careful."
"I love you too, Dad and I will." She hugged, and then kissed him on the cheek. "You just concentrate on getting Vin and Buck to that chopper, and away from that hell. I'll be waitin' for y'all with our ride home."
"Get some sleep." He watched as she walked out of the room. Then he turned to the window, looking out at the rain that continued to fall. *Vin, whatever it takes, you and Buck hang in there. I can't say goodbye to two of my best friends, and brothers...I also refuse to face my daughter, and tell her I broke my promise to her about bringing you home.*
As he started to walk away, he swore he heard Vin's voice.
*Chris, we're waitin', but you'd best hurry.*
Sunday, Day Seven, 0400 Hours
M16's, ammunition, grenades, claymores, and rucksacks lay on the wooden floor of their makeshift base. Chris and Raven, both Special Forces veterans, kept an eye on the preparations. Dressed in camouflage, Ezra, Josiah, JD, Nathan, and two of Raven's men loaded weapons, and double-checked their equipment. They packed the rucksacks, while they strapped on their vests, and hip pouches.
Chris answered a call from his encrypted phone, and nodded as he spoke. "Good. Stick to the schedule. We'll radio in when we're five minutes out." Ending the transmission, he announced, "Kelli and Clay are in possession of the Cessna and are on stand-by for takeoff." He turned to Nathan, and read the unspoken question in his eyes. "Yes, they have all the medical supplies and equipment you requested."
Nathan raised his head. "What if they land too soon?"
Raven shook his head. "Not gonna happen. My pilot knows if they do, either the drug runners, or the outlaw guerilla forces in the area will descend on that plane faster than greased lightning. That's why he won't attempt to land until we're almost on top of the LZ."
Larabee pulled out his copy of the map for review. "We'll rappel down into this flat area. Take immediate cover, and move toward the camp. Once there we recon the area, identify our targets, and split up. I'm Eagle one, Ezra, two, Nathan, three. You two will be responsible for getting to Tanner. We don't know their condition so you might have to carry him out."
Raven picked up. "We have confirmation of our preset diversionary assault from the south. A group of local rebels will set off a few explosions to draw their attention, on my command. Tomás, and Emilio, Gunner one and two," he nodded to his men, "will cover our entry from the backside movements with a M60 machine gun and rocket launcher. I'm Raven one, JD, two, and Josiah, three. Y'all's objectives are to reach Wilmington, and get him to the chopper."
Nathan tossed a set of clothing and a pair of soft-soled shoes to Josiah. "That's a chamois shirt and fleece lined sweat pants for Buck. I have the same for Vin. If they have open wounds, these materials won't aggravate their injuries."
"Full kit inspection in fifteen minutes, we'll be on that bird in thirty minutes." Raven stood at the window, gauging the weather and factoring in how it might affect their mission. Cursing the rain, he mumbled. "Damnit let up for at least a couple of hours."
Chris heard him. "You want to stand down?"
Raven shook his head. "Wilder's had them for a week and he's good at what he does. We know where he's holding them now, but that could change tomorrow. Vin and Buck are strong-minded men, well trained to resist coercion, but even strong men have their limits. If we wait any longer we'll lose 'em."
Losing either of them was not an acceptable outcome for Larabee or Raven. "Then, let's do it."
One last sweep of the house assured Raven that there was no evidence left to show they had even been there. Eight fully outfitted men in camo, traversed to the LZ to wait on the imminent arrival of the Blackhawk, which would take them another step closer to Vin and Buck.
The approaching hum of a whirring engine had them anxiously standing by for pickup. Within two minutes, the chopper dropped down, they climbed onboard, and were on their way. Flying through heavy rain and over the endless span of green extending into the cloud-covered peaks of the local mountain range they were silent. Each man reflected on what was to come, and worried about what they might find when they got there.
The pilot announced, "Drop zone, eta two minutes."
Chris shifted his pack, and glanced at his brothers. *Vin, tell Buck you two had better get ready, 'cause we're coming.* Laying his hand out with palm side up, he smiled. "We return as seven again."
JD was the first to add his hand, then, Ezra, Nathan, and finally Josiah, who said, "God speed, Brothers."
Raven nodded as Chris dropped the rope, and led the way down. His son belonged with these men and whatever the cost, he planned to make damn sure Vin made it all the way back.
Central Columbia, O600 Hours
Carrying seventy pounds of added weight did not slow down eight men with a mission. They approached Wilder's compound within an hour after the chopper dropped them on the north side of the valley. Creeping in low, under tropical foliage, Raven fisted his hand to halt the team's movement.
Heading east, Tomás set-up the M60 machine gun on a ridge that over looked the entire camp, while Emilio took a position on the west side with the handheld rocket launcher.
The rain had finally stopped and the sun was presently rising over the mountain. In the distance, a rooster crowed, and below armed soldiers began their morning routines.
Raven whispered into his headset. "Execute explosives . I repeat Execute explosives."
A minute later, a series of earth shattering blasts, some twenty miles away, broke the serenity of the new morning. The clanging of alarm bells roused everyone in the compound into action. Men came running, leaving their camp whores in their huts.
The soldier, which appeared to be a ranking officer yelled to his men, "¡Dispóneros a mudarnos, hacedlo rápido!" he told them to prepare, and hurried them along. "¡Venga, moveros moveros!"
Five minutes passed before twenty armed fighting men marched single file out the gate toward the south. That left the team with two guards outside the building to deal with, and dozen or more men moving on the other side of the camp.
Watching through binoculars, Chris grinned. "It worked. Now how about we take care of our business before they come back?"
Raven smiled. "Catch you on the flip side, Larabee." He moved out with JD and Josiah to the right
Chris, Ezra, and Nathan slid down the hill to the left and held position about thirty yards from the building where Vin and Buck were located.
"Eagle one in position."
"Copy that. Raven one in position player at your six 'o'clock, red bandana."
"Copy Raven one. I have a visual."
Chris watched as one of the remaining guards moved to sit on a rock below him. Passing his rifle to Nathan, Larabee pulled out his knife, and crawled on his belly to sneak up behind his target. Lunging when he was close enough, he encircled the man's neck with his arm, wrestled him to the ground, and slit his throat.
After Chris dragged the body into the bushes, Nathan threw him his rifle. Using his scope, Larabee scanned the area.
"Eagle one good to go."
Raven took out the other guard. "Raven one good to go." JD and Josiah move toward the building at his signal.
Chris hand signaled for Ezra and Nathan to enter, while he covered the outside.
It only took a minute, but it seemed more like ten years before the four men cut the outside lock, and went inside.
"Raven one; you have a player at five o'clock"
"What fucking player?" Raven jerked up the binoculars and observed an armed man coming in his direction. It was obvious the man was puzzled on finding a nearly empty camp. "Shit!"
¿" Dónde está everone?" Suddenly more cautious, the man slowed down. "¡hola!"
Emilio grabbed him, stuck a knife in his gut, and dragged him down the hill, but it was to no avail. The soldiers' rifle fired as he went down, alerting the rest of the compound.
"This is Raven one. What the fuck was that?"
"This is Eagle one "I don't fuckin' know!"
"Gunner two player is down."
Tomás took a bead on another soldier running towards the building. "Gunner one, target in sight What do you want me to do?"
Raven watched the rebel get closer to the door. If one of the team stepped out "Fuck it. Go loud!"
The rapid fire of the machine gun cut down three of the soldiers running across the camp. Then all hell broke loose.
Figuring the noise around them would mean anything loud they did would be lost; the four agents tested each door until they came upon a locked one. With a nod to Josiah, the profiler fired off the lock and JD led them inside. Elation at seeing Buck and Vin alive warred with the despairing view of their appalling physical condition. Splitting into pairs, they hurried to liberate their brethren from their wretched imprisonments.
As Nathan cut Vin's bonds, Ezra pulled out the clothing. "Put these on, brother," he smiled, blinking back the tears in his eyes.
Vin raised a hand and clutched at the clothes, his hand brushing Ezra's. "Good to see you," he whispered. His mind raced with a hundred questions, but for now, he would have to wait for the answers he craved.
"Can you walk?" Nathan asked, already mentally taking inventory of Tanner's injuries.
"Fuckin' watch me," Vin answered. "Get me up." He was unsteady on his feet, but with help, he managed to dress. He grimaced when he attempted to put on the shoes, the cuts on his soles hurt like hell.
Ezra knelt down to assist him. "Please allow me." He gently slipped the shoes on, and then stood. "We're good to go, now."
Vin nodded his appreciation, and looked over at Buck.
Now on his knees, JD whispered, "Buck."
The brunet stirred, gazing up at a familiar face. "That really you, boy?"
"You better believe it, bro." Tears flowed unashamedly as the tactile pair reached out to one another. Buck groaned when the ropes were cut, nodding his understanding when Josiah offered him the clothes.
"Are you able to stand?" Josiah asked.
"I'll fucking hurdle the walls if it gets me outta here." His voice was raspy, but JD and Josiah got the message. He leaned heavily on JD until he got his bearings, but neither man was ready to release the other just yet.
"We gotta go." Nathan gently reminded them, hearing the sporadic gunfire start up again.
Nathan wrapped his arm around Vin and allowed the Texan to use his strength when needed. JD stayed close to Buck, not caring if he was needed, he had his big brother back with him, living and breathing, with Vin right there beside them, and that was taking most of his focus right now. Ezra and Josiah took point, to assure their safe passage.
Cautiously they moved through the corridors, guns ready for anything they might encounter. Off to one side, Gaunt had already assessed the situation, remaining concealed in the hope he could escape the mayhem when it all died down. He didn't get this far by saving anyone else's ass.
Ezra took out two more men who rounded the corner with guns. He was about to fire on a well-dressed individual who appeared before them from a room off to one side, when a guttural noise emanated from Buck and Vin simultaneously.
Buck grabbed at JD's gun, cursing when his broken appendage refused to co-operate. Vin was more successful, Ezra's handgun was clutched in his palm, and did not tremor as he held it.
Wilder stared back at them. He had friends in high places; capture was of no consequence to him. "I commend Agent Larabee, he out maneuvered me." He watched Vin approach until the gun was in his face. He looked up at the battered man. "Cold blooded murder? You don't have the balls, Tanner."
Lowering the gun, Vin cocked it and fired into Wilder's genitals. "Neither do you, now."
Jake made a tiny squeaking noise, and the shocked expression on his face remained while he slowly slipped to the floor. In seconds, he was laying, writhing in an expanding pool of blood. For a moment, all six men stared at the spectacle of a man slowly bleeding to death, four coming to terms with their brothers' reactions, while two wished they could do so much more to the bastard.
"Cuffs," Vin demanded, Ezra obliged. Tanner secured the dying man's wrist to an old, but very solid pipe. "Wouldn't want you squirming out of here, would we?"
With a nod, the agents snapped from their reverie and resumed their escape.
"Hold up a minute." Vin spotted Gaunt cowering in the shadows. Raising the pistol, he hesitated briefly, flashes of the burning debris in the office, Ross's missing leg, and thoughts of his other teammates' pain, swirled in his head.
Josiah started to reach for Tanner's arm. "Vin, he's not armed."
Vin nodded. "I know." Deciding he would deal with his dubious motives later, he took aim at Gaunt's head, and pulled the trigger. "Now we can go."
Raven shouted into his headset. "Eagle and Raven, two and three grab your cargo and get out now!"
Chris and Raven left cover to begin firing at the half dozen soldiers, who materialized seemingly out of nowhere. Pushing open the building door, JD and Josiah slipped out with Buck.
Still firing, Raven backed up as he motioned for the three men to move down the pathway from the compound.
Both sides launched Rockets and explosions were erupting in every direction.
Chris screamed into his headset, "Eagle two, do you have our cargo?"
"This is eagle two, affirmative."
"Then move it!"
"Big bird big bird this is Raven one. We are option blue three... Request extraction .repeat we are good to go .proceed to LZ3."
Chris felt Vin's presence behind him. *Welcome to the party, brother.*
*Good to be here, but you'd better move your ass before it turns into a wake.*
*I'll be right behind you.*
Nathan cleared the way, while Ezra aided Vin down the path to the LZ, within a couple of minutes they caught up to JD, Buck, and Josiah.
Raven heard the turbo of the chopper coming in. "Come on in, you big beautiful bitch." He fired another round at the scattered soldiers' still pursuing them.
Chris heard it too. He knew they were almost home free, still, there were too many rebels coming down the hill after them for his comfort. Tomás and Emilio had retreated to join them, which left Larabee and Raven as the only defense between the persistent men who wanted to stop them and the waiting bird.
"Eagle one requests status report."
"Eagle two and three has cargo in tow, eta to LZ a minute fifteen."
"Raven two and three, cargo secure, eta to LZ a minute thirty."
"Gunner one, assisting a wounded Gunner two to LZ, eta one minute."
"Raven one, on your six, dropping claymores. Get your ass to the LZ." He stabbed three bombs into the ground as he moved, stringing a line from one to another. Once Larabee passed his position, he set them off, and ran to catch the others.
Chris got his first visual on Buck and Vin when they were fifty yards from the chopper. Relief began to wash over him until he saw a lone man rise from the bushes with something in his hand. He shouted a warning as he fired at the rebel. "Incoming! Incoming!"
"NO no! We're too goddamn close!" Everything seemed to move in slow motion. JD looked back, and then glanced toward a limping Buck. Realizing all six of them were in the blast zone, JD plowed into Buck, knocking him into Josiah and sending them both to the ground, yelling a warning to those ahead. "Run!"
Barely ahead of JD, Josiah and Buck, and knowing that running was not an option for Vin, Ezra did not hesitate for even a split second. Vin had been through enough, and no goddamn wild card was going to take him now. Slamming into Tanner, he took them both to the ground, covering his brother with his own body.
The grenade exploded, the concussion knocking Nathan to the ground just in front of Buck and Josiah's prone forms. Still on his feet, JD screamed out and dropped like a stone, writhing in pain before going still. Ezra felt shards of shrapnel pierce his back and legs, while he fought to keep a restless Tanner down.
Too far away to stop it, Chris ran toward them, Raven on his heels. With more rebels coming, there was no time to tend to wounds. Josiah hauled a frantic, struggling Buck to the chopper, handing him in to Tomás, who already had Emilio safely tucked inside.
After making certain they were in the clear, Chris scooped up JD and followed. With JD in his arms, he yelled at Buck, who was fighting with Josiah to get off the bird and back to the kid. "Stay where you are, I got him!"
Back on his feet, Nathan lifted Ezra off Vin, afraid to assess any damage until they were safely onboard. Torn between helping two brothers, his decision on which one needed him more became a moot point.
Raven appeared and shouted at Nathan. "Take him Jackson. I've got Vin." He then pulled his exhausted son up to a standing position, wrapped a strong arm around his waist, and half dragged him to the waiting chopper.
Barely inside, he ordered the pilot. "Get us the hell out of here." The bird lifted off, and climbed rapidly, leaving the rebels, and Purgatory far behind. Only one more hurdle to clear, and they were on their way home.
Mid- air over Central Columbia
The Blackhawk headed south, flying over the cloud-covered mountains, and rain soaked valleys below. Inside, Nathan felt overwhelmed for a moment. He had five patients, who he believed all needed his immediate attention. Emilio's wound was minor, though, and Tomás seemed to be handling the necessary treatments well. Nathan was pleased to see JD stirring. He had already washed his eyes with a boric acid solution to ease the mild flash burns and wash out flying grit from the proximity of the explosion. After an initial examination, the medic determined that both JD's and Ezra's wounds were not life threatening, but once they were on the plane would need further tending.
Josiah held Ezra still, while Buck waved off Nathan's help. "I can wait. Take care of the kid." He found a position closer to JD that caused him the least amount of pain and settled in to watch over him, his uninjured hand resting on the younger man's chest.
Vin convinced Jackson that he could wait, too, and then leaned his head back against the inside wall of the chopper. His mind was reeling and his body aching. All he wanted to do was go home, lock the door, and make up for lost time with his family. Seeing Raven and Chris together did surprise him, but he figured he would hear the whole story later. Then it struck him that there was a lot he had missed. "Where the hell are we?"
Chris had been silently observing Vin, taking note of the changes in his appearance. Vin with short hair, and wearing a week's worth of beard growth would take some getting used to. Even more disturbing were his haggard features, a visual testament of the untold horrors he and Buck had experienced. "Columbia. We should cross the border in about thirty minutes, and then land in Panama, switch over to a plane, and fly to San Antonio. Once you and Buck," he glanced at the others, "JD, and Ezra are medically cleared, then we'll all go home."
"Columbia," Vin whispered more to himself than Chris, as he sorted through some of his diverse thoughts. He finally nodded, and looked over to Raven. Since hauling his ass onto the chopper, he had made a point to ignore Vin's presence. "Reckon I owe you another thank you."
Raven shook his head. "You don't owe me a damn thing Tanner. Seeing y'all alive, and out of that hellhole is all the thanks I need." He shifted his gaze to Chris. "The plane is en route to our rendezvous point. They won't land though until we're five minutes out." Looking back to Vin, he saw the question in his eyes. "Our LZ is in Darién Gap. Guerilla forces regularly patrol that area, and it's a main corridor for drug running. Taking a Blackhawk and a Cessna 404 would be a major coup d'état for them. That's why we want to minimize the time on the ground for all of us. My men and I will drop y'all, and leave quickly."
Chris laid a hand on Vin's arm. "We're still twenty minutes out. Why don't you try to rest?"
The adrenalin letdown was starting to hit him. Vin leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and tried to make himself really believe he was on his way home.
*Believe it Vin we're going home.*
Tanner, eyes closed, nodding to the silent message.
On receiving word that the chopper was returning, Raven's pilot took off from the small airport and headed in the general direction of Darién Gap. A dangerous place to land, but a location guaranteed not to draw unwanted attention to the men flying across the border from Colombia; and the seven, who would be flying out to the United States. Kelli settled in and opened the packet Raven had handed her last night. She sorted through the expected ID's, travel papers, and a list of instructions, top of that list keep an eye out for guerilla patrols.
Beneath all that, she found a thick envelope addressed to her from Raven. Tearing it open, she flipped through assorted legal papers and found a letter. She started to read it, and realized that Raven did not write it, James Tanner did. It was full of details about a life he now had lived long enough to regret some of the choices he made, and why he felt he had no options when he made them. The words moved her to tears, the sentiment he expressed about Vin, her, and their children was poetic, and his request for forgiveness tugged at her heartstrings. He entrusted her with one request to wait until after he was dead and gone, before she shared what he had written with Vin.
Brushing the tears from her cheeks, she stared out the window. She finally understood why Tracker arranged for this man's path to cross with hers. Vin needed to know the truth, but there was one small problem. How could she help her husband, and still honor his father's request?
Tracker's voice floated through her head. *Trust that Fate will open a new pathway to the truth.*
Clay came down the aisle. "The pilot received a communication from Raven. The chopper is nine minutes out. Better buckle up, he's going to circle the LZ and take us down in four. As soon as we land, I'll open the door, so have your rifle handy."
Kelli nodded as she fastened her seatbelt. "I'm ready, and my gun is loaded." When he sat down in front of her, she returned the papers to the packet, stuffed them in her duffel bag, sat back, and smiled. Tracker's words gave her hope, and in less than ten minutes, Vin would be with her.
The landing was smooth and uneventful. Clay opened the door and they both jumped out to scan the area.
Clay used his binoculars to look down the hillside. "Shit, shit, shit!'
"There's a guerilla patrol two clicks out, and there's no way they missed seeing us land. At the rate they're moving, they'll be coming in here about the same time our Blackhawk arrives."
The closer they got to the LZ, the more energized the men on board the chopper became. A few more minutes, and they would be on their way home. The crackle of the radio drew Raven's attention. Flipping the button on his headset, he listened to the new message.
"Copy that standby." Raven looked at Chris. "We have a problem. A scouting party for one of the major guerilla groups in the area spotted the plane landing. My pilot wants to wave us off, but your agent threatened to shoot him if he did."
"Sonofabitch! Can't one fucking thing go our way for a change?"
Vin watched the exchanged and his senses kicked into overdrive. "There's seven of us here what agent is he talking about?"
Chris ignored the question. "Any chance we can land, make the transfer, and get that plane off the ground before they reach it?"
"Fucking doubtful," Raven answered. "If we go in we'd better be ready for a firefight. They'll try to avoid hitting the chopper or the Cessna because they're too valuable to them on the black market, but "
Larabee glanced at his men. "Damnit we've come this far, but with four wounded, and needing assistance to move. That only leaves you, me, and Tomás."
"Which agent," Vin yelled to get a response from Chris. His gut already told him who, but he needed the confirmation.
"Coulter is down there with Clay Waters. Their job was to cover our arrival." Chris finally admitted.
"Shit " Vin grabbed the nearest rifle. "I may not be able to move fast, but I can damn well still shoot."
Buck overheard the back and forth and said, "I can't shoot, but I can walk, Nathan can carry JD, and Josiah can help Ezra. Damnit, we just fought our way out of hell, we can't turn back now."
The radio crackled again. "Waiting for instruction Do we abort?"
Chris looked to Raven. "No turning back."
"This is Raven one we're coming in hot I repeat we're coming in hot." He realized this complicated his plan for leaving, but he couldn't walk away when his family was still at risk.
"Copy that Raven one we're holding position."
Quickly they organized a plan to move their wounded, and prepared to fight again.
Clay headed across the clearing and found a spot to lay cover for the chopper, while Kelli used the plane's wing as a shield. The hum of the chopper engine came closer, just as the twelve-man guerilla patrol crested the hill. The soldiers spread out, and aimed their weapons toward the plane.
"Rinda sus armas." One of them yelled from behind the tree line.
Kelli did not plan to surrender anything, much less her gun. "You're outnumbered, cut your losses, and live."
"Ah Americanos." He laughed. "Just where are these numbers you speak of?"
As if on cue, the Blackhawk loomed into view. A spray of bullets from the M60 scattered the militia. Obviously surprised by the unexpected threat, the soldiers began to shoot toward the big bird. Kelli and Clay opened fire at them to draw their attention away from the chopper, while it landed as close to the plane as possible.
Chris and Raven rolled out with their guns blazing and immediately found cover, while Josiah and Nathan waited for a break in the action to get JD and Ezra to the plane door. Tomás, with his M60, and Emilio, using an AK47 stayed onboard and continued firing nonstop at the soldiers.
With more guns added to the defense, the patrol moved more cautiously. Moving deeper into the foliage, their assault slowed down, giving Josiah and Nathan a chance to transfer JD and Ezra to the Cessna. Once they were onboard, Buck started his attempt to cross, but stumbled when his leg gave out on him.
Vin continued shooting as he moved off the chopper to assist his brother. Unfortunately, neither man was in any shape to hurry, which made them prime targets.
Counting on the M60 to protect him, Chris broke his cover and ran over to Vin and Buck, but he couldn't keep the two wounded men on their feet.
Assessing their situation, Raven made a quick decision, one he was certain would fuck up someone's life, but he sincerely hoped it was his, and not Vin's. Waving Clay onto the chopper, he signaled for them to take off, as he ran to help Chris, who took Buck and guided him onto the plane.
"Lean on me," Raven told Vin when he tried to get to Kelli's position. "Your wife will be fine, I promise you. She'll cover us, I'll cover her, and then we're out of here."
The sound of Kelli's rifle backed up his words, and with his energy spent, Vin grudgingly allowed Raven to drag him to the plane.
Kelli continued to fire as the Blackhawk lifted off. Before the patrol could regroup from the hammering they received from the M60; Chris had Buck safely onboard, and started back to help his daughter.
Raven stopped Larabee at the exit door as he handed Vin over to him. "I'll get her; tell the pilot we're ready for takeoff." He was gone before Chris had a chance to argue with him.
"Get your ass on that plane, girl. Your husband is waiting for you, and we're getting the hell out of here." Raven pushed her behind him, and fired in the general direction of the soldiers long enough for her to get on the plane. Once it started moving, he jumped on, pulling the door shut as they picked up speed, and the plane began to lift off the makeshift runway. A few moments passed, and they were airborne, leaving the guerilla patrol empty-handed.
For a long moment, no one moved, much less spoke, as realization settled over the group that they were all alive and truly heading back to U.S. soil. The plane interior, converted for medical treatment, had several stretcher beds ready and waiting for their occupants. Still semi-conscious and bleeding, JD was instantly placed on one; Nathan smiled as Chris assisted Buck to the bed next to the young agent and got him comfortable. Buck seemed to be talking to JD, but no one could hear his words no one but the object of his attention. Temporarily seated, Vin was just about to insist that Ezra get the other bed when he looked around, and met the piercing, liquid gaze of the beautiful blue eyes he adored.
"Vin " Despite wanting to squeeze him within an inch of his life, she was mindful of his condition, dropping to her knees before him, while gently raising her hand to rake her delicate fingers through his short hair, and trace the outline of his bruised and swollen cheek and jaw. As her hand reached his split and puffy lips, Vin closed his eyes and turned his head just enough to place a soft kiss into her palm.
No one was unaffected, save for JD who hadn't quite risen through the mire of a blow to the head. Raven watched with a lump in his throat that was threatening to cut off his air. Chris averted his gaze, unaware Josiah and Nathan could see the tears glistening in his eyes.
"Miss me?" Vin whispered.
"With every heartbeat," she replied, leaning into him. Closing her eyes, her tears fell as their lips met for a moment.
"I won't break," he said softly and embraced her, sighing softly as her arms encircled him, and her soft body melted into his. Their faces just an inch apart, she gazed at him. "I love you."
His pain briefly forgotten as his eyes locked with hers, he moved in to brush against her lips. "Love, you Tanner." Their kiss was soft, tender, and longer than Nathan would have liked, due to the need to start treatment, but his eyes turned away as Vin and Kelli had their desperately needed moment.
Activity to prepare another bed was underway, despite Ezra's insistence it was not necessary.
"I need to set up IVs," Nathan stated, expecting that to explain everything, "And you need to be on your stomach so I can dig that crap out of your back."
"Something to look forward to, then," Standish teased, looking toward Buck as the big man's voice rose from its whisper, "Easy easy, boy whoa, I gotcha."
With clarity returning, JD struggled to break through a heavy, pain-filled fog. He felt sure his eyes were open, but everything was gray with odd, dark shapes moving through it. Confused as to where he was and unable to recall why he was feeling like shit, he got agitated. A strong hand grabbed his, causing more panic until a voice broke through the mist. He turned his head slightly. "Buck?"
"The one and only. Quit thrashing, you'll do yourself a mischief."
JD knew he was facing the right direction. "Why why can't I see you?"
A new voice entered the conversation. "You will soon, you've suffered from a flash scorch, but the damage is minimal."
"Then then why can't I see Buck, Nathan?" JD was terrified, but hoped it wasn't showing.
"You will. Think of it like a giant camera flash, right up close. I'm no expert, but I checked your eyes, and there's nothing I can see that indicates it's permanent. Just take it easy."
Still clinging to Buck's hand, JD attempted to move his other arm, crying out in agony from pain in his shoulder. "Wh what ?"
Nathan tensed up, his nerves reappearing. "Keep still. Jesus, Buck's hurting too, you don't see him "
Chris moved closer and squeezed his arm. "Give him and yourself a break, Nathan, he can't see and his head's all over the place. You're doing great."
Nathan's eyes filled. "I didn't mean " He leaned in to JD. "I'm sorry, I'm scared too."
"Why?" JD asked. "You're the best."
The voice from the past in his head, and JD's simple declaration surged through Nathan in a wave of adrenalin, and he instantly went back to work.
Buck couldn't help grinning as JD yanked his hand free to reach out. Moving closer, he allowed the younger man to trace his features, touched deeply, as unseeing hazel eyes formed large tears.
"I don't know what to say," JD sobbed, softly.
"That's gotta be a first," Buck smiled, his own tears falling. "No need for words, boy. You came for me, and bled for me, and that says it all." Avoiding the bloody gash in the dark hair, Buck shuffled closer to rest his head against JD's. "Can I ask you something?"
"Did you miss me?" The grin on his face affected all who were watching.
Not having heard Vin and Kelli, JD did what JD did best. "Not really, but you still owe me fifty bucks, and I figured if I wanted it back I'd better come get you."
Buck's first laugh in over a week warmed everyone's souls; even Raven chuckled at the exchange.
"Fucking injured smartass, give me your hand back." As they clasped hands, they each released a sigh and relaxed back on their beds. Suddenly, JD's head jerked as he called out, his voice rising in alarm. "Vin?"
"Over here, kid," the Texan drawled, his arms still around Kelli's waist, their heads resting against one another.
"Oh, thank God." JD's head went back to its pillow.
"Finally, now I can get your IVs started and some treatment done, if that's okay with you fellas," Nathan teased.
"Anytime today would be good," Buck cracked back, only the intensity of the grip between him and JD indicating the depth of pain and emotion he was truly feeling.
Raven watched in fascination. "You guys are loco."
Josiah nodded as he helped Ezra to the new makeshift cot. "You're only just now figuring that out?"
An hour later, Nathan had painstakingly removed fragments of shrapnel from Ezra's lower back and legs, dressing the wounds until they arrived at the hospital, where he and the others would be x-rayed. JD's injuries would need surgery, there were fragments too embedded in his shoulder to remove safely in the air. His head already cleaned and bandaged, Nathan felt it was a necessary precaution to bandage JD's eyes as well, to help the healing process. With the IVs feeding him and Buck fluids, and a mild painkiller, both were asleep, their hands still clasped.
Ezra was also sleeping, as was Vin. Kelli sat next to him, her eyes noting every bruise, welt, and cut. Vin's injures had been assessed, IV started, temporarily tended to as much as possible, and his feet were cleaned, and dressed, looking bizarrely huge as they poked out from his sweats. She interlaced her fingers with his and relaxed into her vigil.
Chris watched, approvingly, looking at Nathan as he approached.
"I've done all I can. Buck's hand is broken, he'll need surgery it was done at least a week ago."
Chris's face went dark, listening intently as Nathan ran through Buck and Vin's list of injuries. One thing stood out that lifted his spirits, unless Nathan was way off which Chris refused to believe their return home looked like it would be reasonably soon. He called to the EMT as he was checking Emilio's dressing. "Nathan."
"You did great thanks."
The black man nodded and smiled, desperately wanting to share that he had felt empowered by an overwhelming presence that had boosted his confidence, and seemingly guided him through the ordeal, but he decided that could wait for another time. Right now, it was time to focus on getting into U.S. air space seeing his brothers fixed up then home.
Chris moved over to sit next to Raven. "Reckon you're plans to leave got blown all to hell."
"Yeah." He looked over to where Kelli was sitting next to Vin. "It was worth it though, just to see those two back together. I'm glad they had a chance to enjoy their moment. The next few weeks are gonna be hard on both of them, as well as the rest of y'all."
"It'll take time, for Vin and Buck to work through this. Hell, they don't even know what day it is yet." Chris followed Raven's gaze. "The one thing I know for certain those two are survivors, and they or Buck and Inez, won't be going it alone. The Wild Bunch is family, and family takes care of their own."
San Antonio, Texas, Sunday 1800 Hours
Inez paced the hotel room for the twentieth time. Chris had called hours ago to tell her that Buck was alive, and on his way to Texas, but since then, silence. Knowing her husband was alive, and seeing him, were two completely different things, and her nerves were hanging by a thread.
Cait understood that Inez's emotions were close to collapsing, but felt helpless to console her friend. "Honey, I'm sure we'll hear something soon. Why don't you try to rest?"
Shaking her head, she did stop pacing, but refused to rest. "Many times over the years that I have known him, my Buck was injured. Many times, I feared for his life. This is the first time however, that I am afraid for his mind. I feel his wounds may not all be physical."
Squeezing Inez's hand Cait searched for the right words, by trying to imagine how she would feel if it was Chris. "Whatever Buck faced, a little patience, a lot of love, and the support from our family will assure his recovery. Your love for one another is stronger than any evil that tried to destroy him."
Inez nodded, and hugged Cait. "Gracias, Amiga mía."
A knock at the door startled them both. Cait patted Inez's hand. "I'll see who it is." She waited to make certain Inez was all right, and then moved to see who their visitor was.
The moment the door opened, and Cait allowed the woman in the corridor inside Emma began talking. "Hello, I'm Emma Cain. My husband is the SAC for The MCAT San Antonio Unit. We just received word that the plane bringin' Alpha Team back is due to land at Lackland in twenty minutes. I'll escort ya'll to the hospital to meet them, but you need to pack, and check out first because you won't be comin' back here."
Cait's eyes narrowed. "Why not?'
"The Base Commander arranged quarters for y'all closer to the hospital."
Mid -Air over Texas
Nathan made a last check on his patients, before he woke them. He expected Vin and Buck to be exhausted, but was surprised that they had slept the entire trip. JD and Ezra on the other hand had been awake most of the time, keeping him busy.
"Buck, you need to wake up, brother." The medic gently laid his hand on Wilmington's uninjured arm. "We land in twenty minutes, and I have word that Inez is anxiously waiting to see you. We'll be landing in San Antonio, Texas shortly."
Groaning when he moved, and obviously a bit bemused, Buck whispered. "Texas? Don't Vin and I have a conference there?"
Confusion and memory lapses were not that unusual when someone experienced extreme stress. Nathan sighed, he had expected that once their adrenalin rushes wore off, both he and Vin would exhibit more symptoms from the duress they had suffered, and he was evidently right. "Concentrate on Inez, brother."
JD reached over and squeezed Buck's good hand, indicating to the medic that he would keep an eye on their brother. "Do what you need to Nate. Me and Buck are gonna talk a while."
Vin was already awake, and trying to take in as much as he could, without causing his head to explode in the process. Asleep sitting beside him, Kelli's head rested on his bed, she had not moved from his side since they boarded, and that was fine with him. He reached out to run his fingers through her red tresses. That was something he enjoyed doing at any time, but needed to do now to assure himself he was not dreaming all this. "Baby, wake up. We're fixin' to land."
The sound of his voice awakened her instantly. Raising her head, she met his gaze, and her heart skipped a beat. Vin had that affect on her, always had, and she figured he always would. "Hey we made it to Texas after all."
"Yeah," he whispered, "yeah, I reckon we did at that."
Chris started pulling all the duffel bags together, thankful they had the foresight to send them with Kelli before they departed. At least they would all have a clean change of clothes. Grabbing Kelli's bag she stopped him.
"I got it Dad." She took it from him. "Our travel papers are inside, and we'll probably need to show them to someone." Glancing over to Raven, she sighed, and bit at her lip. Somehow, she had to prevent the military from asking questions about their extra member of the team. She wanted his identity to come out eventually, but the timing needed to be right. Taking a quick glimpse Vin's way, she knew now was not that time.
Puzzled by the expressions crossing her face, Chris decided not to argue. "Then you better buckle in."
Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
Once on the ground, the door opened and two men stepped inside. One, Chris recognized as Sam Cain, the other curtly introduced himself. "Howard Trahan, Homeland security." He stiffly shook Larabee's hand. "I need to see your exit visas from Panama, and to save time your Director Travis, sent Captain Cain to identify and vouch for the personnel he recognizes."
Kelli handed over the paperwork, before he entered the cockpit to talk with the pilot. While Sam walked the length of the plane, he nodded to his fellow MCAT agents and spoke briefly to Buck and Vin. "Welcome home." Moving back toward the front, his eyes fell on Raven. "And you are?"
"He's with me." From behind him, Kelli's softly repeated the same claim Raven made about her in Yaviza. "Brodie Hawks he's my uncle on my mother's side."
Vin's head shot up, as did Chris's, however neither disputed her words.
Sam nodded. "If you're vouchin' for him, that's good enough for me. Nice to meet you, Mister Hawks, welcome to Texas." He turned to Chris. "Sorry to put y'all through this, but "
"I understand Captain. I figured Travis would want to keep this below the radar as much as he could."
"Yes sir. My agents and I will be your escorts, and the Military Hospital here is expectin' you. Unfortunately, y'all will be confined to this base. Y'all are not to have any outside contact until Travis clears it. I'll tell Trahan to get a move on it." He tipped his hat to Kelli. "Ma'am." He walked on to confer with Trahan.
Raven stared at Kelli. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"Me, too," she mumbled under her breath, grateful for the medical personnel coming onboard. For now, she did not have to explain to Vin why Raven was suddenly related to her.
Activity was frenetic as the medical team moved in to extract the injured agents, littering the area with gurneys and wheelchairs.
Chris, Josiah, and Nathan watched anxiously as a group of doctors assessed their team, their brothers. The doctor in charge smiled as he commended Nathan for his exemplary fieldwork, assured that his efforts had cut their preparation times by more than half. As Kelli and Hawks approached with coffees, they all stiffened when the doctor approached with several charts in his hands.
"Who holds the medical POA's for Tanner, Wilmington, Dunne, and Standish?"
Chris stepped forward. "I do."
"First off, let me say that it is fortunate, all these men had recently been out of the country. They were up to date with inoculations, which prevent us from worrying about any exposure to tropical diseases. Tanner will soon be transported to the suture room for the slashes on his soles, and a gash to the back of his head that we feel would benefit from a few stitches. He will need to stay off his feet for 7-10 days, and only allowed back on them when cleared by his doctor in Denver. Also, he will need electrolytes, fluids, antibiotics, painkillers, and a mix of glucose and vitamins for a few days to combat the severe dehydration and malnutrition. He'll be on a light diet to start with, moving up to solids before he's discharged. His broken and cracked ribs are already healing, and, though extremely painful, x-rays show no complications. He will need his nose realigned, and he has a hairline fracture to his right cheek "
Before the group could comprehend the damage, the doctor was talking again.
" As has Wilmington, only his fracture is to his left cheek. The nurses are prepping him for surgery to repair the damage to his hand. X-rays show the breaks non-complicated, though it is delicate surgery. His broken and bruised ribs are also starting to heal " he paused, glancing at Kelli, but deciding to continue. " his genitalia are badly bruised, though, his testes are undamaged in short, he should have no difficulty should he want to father children, though full penetration will be off the agenda for several weeks."
That statement caused an intake of breath.
"He too will be given the same IV cocktail and dietary restrictions as Tanner, but his ability to pass water painlessly will determine his discharge. In short, these men have undergone horrendous physical and likely mental abuse, their bodies are covered in welts, contusions, cuts and burns, and I will be recommending Psych counseling for both of them, and outpatient treatment on their return to Denver."
The Doctor was addressing Larabee, but he looked apologetically at Kelli as her tears flowed unashamedly. Chris placed an arm around her waist and pulled her close.
"Standish is in fine fettle considering the pain he must have experienced. His x-rays show he is clear of fragments; he is now in the suture room having the worse of his lacerations stitched, and I have ordered treatment with iodine dressings for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours. In addition, he has received a liter of blood, type specific. I see no complications providing he keeps his outpatient appointments and rests."
"We'll see to it," Nathan assured him.
"John?" Josiah looked almost repentant for jumping the gun.
The doctor smiled. "John Dunne is about to go to surgery. X-rays show a metal fragment buried in his shoulder, but apart from causing considerable blood loss, seems not to have done any major damage. He has one other fragment in his thigh, the remaining entry wounds are clear. He's so far received three liters of blood, type specific with more on standby during his surgery.
An ophthalmologist has examined his eyes, and while he stays here, the gauze dressings will remain to limit strain and light penetration, while the damaged tissue is healing," he smiled wider. "And I'm assured, it is healing. On his discharge, he will receive a course of antibiotic drops and will need a follow-up outpatient appointment. It may be helpful to use dark glasses in extreme light, for the short term. He will also need outpatient treatment on his return to Denver for his shoulder, head, and body lacerations. He and Ezra, like Vin and Buck, will need antibiotics, by IV at present, which we will switch to oral when they are discharged. Once John has given us his first bowel movement, he'll be clear to go, hopefully no later than 48 hours."
Despite the seriousness of the information, the group couldn't help smiling at how they imagined JD's reaction would be to the last statement.
"Is there anything you would like to ask me?"
Chris took a deep breath. "No, thanks doc, I think that's pretty comprehensive." He extended his hand, which the doctor shook. "Thanks, and thank your team, here, we appreciate your assistance."
The man smiled. "I know of your reputations, Commander, it's an honor to serve you."
Watching him go, the group felt the tiring affects from their very long day start to catch up with them, and yet there was still so much to do.
Chris pulled Kelli in for a proper hug as he tried to absorb all he had been told. He couldn't help a small smile. "Beaten, but not broken," he whispered, glancing between everyone. "Horrible wounds, tough times ahead but not one injury life, or career threatening." He knew the psychological issues would take time to resolve, but for the first time in over a week, Larabee felt in control and blessed.
Inez and Cait had arrived just as Buck's surgery was ending. In the recovery room, Inez sat between JD and Buck, each of her hands holding one of theirs. A slight movement from Buck's leg had her on her feet and leaning in.
"Mi amor?" She held her breath as Buck's dark lashes fluttered, slowly revealing slits of deep blue. "Buck "
Buck could sense JD was next to him, despite not being properly awake, but there was someone else. A soft voice beckoned to him, and he dragged himself up through the dense fog his mind was enveloped in, to finally take a peek.
"Inez?" His voice was no more than a raspy whisper, but it sounded like the loudest yell in the world to his wife.
"I am here, querido, vuélve, amor mio come back to me, my love."
"How could I stay away from someone as wonderful as you?" He reached up to brush away her tears. "My God, you're so beautiful."
Sobbing, Inez attempted a smile. "And you are as handsome as ever." She offered him some ice chips, waiting with his hand held against her heart while he absorbed the moisture. As he swallowed, their eyes met and she leaned in to offer him the softest kiss possible. Raising his good hand, he placed it at the back of her head, and gently pushed her in for a searing, deep kiss that he would have been proud of when fully fit, let alone just out of surgery and half beaten to death. Pulling back, Inez peppered his damaged face with delicate kisses, unable to resist the smile that had captured her heart, body, and soul, to enjoy another breathless exchange. A small voice caused them to break and grin, before looking around.
"Jeeze, get a room, some of us are trying to sleep, here." JD knew he was awake, he just couldn't see a damn thing. He didn't panic, the doctor had explained about his eyes before surgery, and he was considerably more optimistic than when on the plane. He had listened to Inez and Buck for a while, trying hard not to moisten his bandages with tears, but he was failing miserably. He was so happy for them both, his heart soaring to know Buck was right here and well enough to kiss his wife, while trying not to dwell on the fact he had no one to offer such comfort.
"Jealousy doesn't become you, little brother," Buck chuckled.
"Hey, I got my eye uh, my ear, on a nice little nurse that shared an intimate experience with me just before surgery."
Buck looked across, his eyes misting at the bandages over JD's eyes, head, and chest. "Oh no she didn't you're not "
"As a baboon's ass, yep."
Inez giggled a heady, girly giggle that came from having the love of her life alive and with her, and a young man she considered family, right next to them.
"Don't laugh, it's itching like hell, and I can hardly scratch down there with a lady present, can I?"
"'Appreciate that," Buck yawned, smiling as Inez moved to kiss JD on the head, avoiding the dressing over the sutured wound.
"Rest," she whispered. "JD "
JD moved his free hand to squeeze hers. There would be time for reflection when they were at home. He felt her hand move through his hair and was lulled back to sleep by its movement.
Turning back to Buck, Inez held onto his arm. "I can't begin to tell you how much I have dreamt of this moment. While you were gone, every fiber of my being ached for you, I am so sorry "
"Shhh darlin', we can talk about all that later, for now, just hold me, would you?"
Removing her shoes, she maneuvered Buck's bandaged hand enough to sit up in the bed next to him, resting his head on her breasts as she stroked his hair. "Sleep."
While Buck drifted off, Inez wept.
Ezra welcomed Chris and Josiah with a smile. Already assigned a room, and a guard, he was anxiously awaiting his injured brothers to join him. Exchanges were light, but eventually, Ezra went somber.
"I wonder would it be possible to speak with Barbara?"
Josiah stood, patted his arm, and said, before leaving, "I'll go and arrange that for you."
"How are our wounded brothers?"
"I'll be seeing Buck and JD soon; they just got out of surgery. Kel's with Vin while he's waiting to be transferred here." Chris examined the tubes leading to Standish's arm. "How are you?"
"Worse than I would like, better than I dared hope," Standish grinned.
"You did great, Ezra thank you."
"As I recall, you didn't do so bad yourself."
"I didn't get blasted by a grenade."
"A mere hazard of the job. How are JD's eyes?"
"Good," Chris smiled. "It'll take a day or two, but no permanent damage."
"And Buck's hand?"
"Same we we were lucky."
"Indeed," Ezra nodded, the two men's exchanged glances saying so much more. They looked up as Josiah returned with a cordless phone.
"This is a secure line." Gesturing to Chris, the two men left Ezra to his privacy.
Taking a deep breath, the southerner dialed. Chris had informed Barbara earlier about his injuries, now he needed to reassure her that he was all right. His smile widened when he heard her answer. "My love " He closed his eyes, and let her soft, concerned tones wash over him, while desperately looking forward to going home.
Kelli's hand never left Vin's, this was where she needed, and wanted to be. She didn't give a toss if she was in the way, as long as it didn't hinder Vin's treatment. They simply gazed at each other, no words exchanged, just soaking in the visions before them. They both looked up as Nathan entered.
"JD and Buck are out of surgery. Ezra's already in the room they'll be moving you to Vin. How are you doing?"
"Thanks to you, better."
The medic smiled. "Glad I could help." Chris came into the room and glanced at the pair. For the first time in a long while, Kelli stood to leave. She kissed Vin with a promise to return, hugged Chris as she passed, and then she and Nathan left the two men alone.
Larabee stared at the man in the bed, approaching slowly. They held each other's gaze for a few moments, before both reaching out for their familiar 'warriors grip'. The sigh between them said it all, Chris's hand moving up to cup the back of Vin's head. "No need to kiss me, but, I missed you, too."
Vin laughed softly, his first in a long time. His mental senses were not linking to others,' as they were before this all started, but he was content to reconnect with his best friend, and enjoy the companionable silence between them for a little while. When they parted, both men's eyes were shimmering.
"We'll talk soon," Chris promised.
Vin nodded. "Soon."
That night, in the quarters allocated for him, Chris lay awake in the bed, thinking about how far they had come. Their accommodations were close to the injured men, so, with everyone exhausted, they took to their beds. Cait and Inez were sharing another room. With all that was happening, Chris had barely spoken to his fiancé, and Travis was due to arrive tomorrow, so there was no telling when they would connect. He held his breath as his door opened, revealing a chink of light from the corridor, before closing again. His heart pounded as the soft padding and rustling of clothing came nearer, and an outline barely visible from the lights from the base, shining through his window, became more definite. More rustling, and then his bedcovers moved back and a warm, silky, naked body snuggled in next to him, before hot velvet lips pressed against his.
"I'm here for you," Cait breathed.
Chris stroked her hair, his exhaustion dictating his needs. "Would you hold me?"
"Until the end of time," she replied, pulling his head to her, as she carded her fingers through his hair, and listened to him slowly fall asleep, eventually joining him in a restless slumber.
Hospital, Room 112
Cowboy, Tracker, and Romeo observed their charges from a distance. The lights in the room were dim, and a nurse passed by them, unaware of their presences, as she left the room. Buck was restless in his sleep. Vin appeared to be fighting the pain medication, and was neither sound asleep or fully awake. Kelli watched every movement he made.
*Well, we got 'em this far.* Romeo glanced over to Cowboy. *What's next?*
*Our job is only half-way finished. Vin and Buck may be out of immediate peril, but they're not out of hell yet. This is only a short reprieve for them.*
*Couldn't we just nudge it along and spare them some pain?* Romeo knew the answer, but he hated to see what lay ahead for all of them come to pass.
Cowboy glared at Romeo. *You know we can't do that. Once things are set into motion, Fate works in her own way. We can only ease the landing a bit when they get bucked off, and encourage them to get back on and ride again. We can however choose when to give Fate a push.* He turned to look at Tracker. * I hope you're sure about the trail you laid for Vin and Kelli, it's gonna get very rough, before they hit level ground again.*
*I know the timin' is not good, but I didn't have many choices. That particular fence mendin' is long overdue, and only a Tanner-Larabee can pull it together. The twins are too little, so she's the only one connected to both, who can do it. Vin has Tanner blood runnin' in his veins, he'll survive. Kelli's a Larabee. You of all people should know Larabees don't quit. Hell, their stubbornness alone is enough to give you a headache and *
Romeo laughed, and Cowboy growled. *I get it. Reckon you, Romeo, and me have to make sure they all keep their heads above water.*
Tracker nodded. *I'm not goin' anywhere. When any of 'em need me, I'll be close.*
Romeo agreed. *I'm on for the ride.*
Four more voices joined in, *Correction, brothers. We'll all be riding close*.
Base Hospital, Monday, 0600 Hours
Carrying a tray of coffees, Chris rounded the corner of the hospital corridor, slowing his pace when he saw Raven stretched out in a chair across from Vin's room. Among the many issues Larabee had to deal with before Travis arrived, Raven's presence was the one he was uncertain how to explain. Revealing his true identity at this point was more than he thought Vin could deal with right now. On the other hand, telling Orrin that he was a deeply entrenched covert CIA operative was not an acceptable option either: it would end Raven's usefulness as an agent, and possibly endanger his life. The fallout from either choice could be devastating for all concerned.
Sitting in the empty chair alongside the man, Chris offered him a cup. "You here all night?"
Nodding his thanks for the coffee, Raven shifted in the chair. "Mostly," he tilted his head toward the door, "Kelli stayed, too."
Chris was not surprised, but he worried that she would push herself too hard. "I'm going to make her get some rest." He glanced at Raven. "I know your plans got shot to hell, but I appreciate you staying to help us."
Raven chuckled. "Damn, I bet that was hard for you to say Larabee."
Chris suddenly realized it was not hard at all. "Not really. You and I may have started out on the wrong foot, but," he grinned, " you've kinda grown on me. You care about the people I love, and you risked everything to keep them safe. I respect a man with strong convictions." He extended his free hand to Raven. "Pleased you were on our side."
His brows narrowed in surprised, but he took the truce offering and shook Chris's hand. "Reckon you're stuck with me for a while."
Shaking his head, Chris disagreed. "You're smart enough to have found a way out of here if you choose to, and not have to worry about exposure. Why didn't you?"
Staring at the closed door, he sighed. "I could have, but then your daughter would be in hot water up to her pretty little neck, for vouching for me. Those kids have enough to be concerned about right now. I'll take my chances."
"Even if Travis pushes it, and your life as you know it, comes crashing down around you?"
"I haven't always made good choices, nor done the right things, but this time the stakes are too high for me to screw it up."
Chris stared at the man he had until recently, believed to be a self-centered bastard, and saw altruistic compassion in his eyes. Maybe there was still an opportunity for all this not to blow up around him. "I'll handle Travis, and Raven's role in all this will disappear. For now, we'll stick with Uncle Brodie as for the other," he glanced at the hospital room door, " guess we'll find out what Fate has planned."
Old habits of mistrust reared their ugly heads, and Raven tried to read behind the apparent sincerity of the green eyes that stared at him. What he saw surprised him. Larabee meant what he said. "If you pry Kelli loose from Vin's side, I'll see that she gets to her quarters."
Standing up, Chris smiled. "You don't happen to have any dynamite on hand do you?"
A grin appeared, "Sorry, fresh out."
"Guess dad has to do this the hard way I'll get Vin to make her leave."
"Coward." Brodie laughed.
"Takes one to know one," Chris quipped as he headed toward the door, then stopped and turned around. "By the way welcome to the family Uncle Brodie."
Pushing open the door, Chris halted just inside, seeing all his brothers together again caused an indescribable feeling to tug at his heart. Nathan and Josiah were already on watch, and eagerly reached for the coffee he carried. Ezra remarkably, was awake at the crack of dawn, and JD appeared to be rousing as well. Buck rested comfortably. Vin, who seemed to be sleeping, belied that, as his hand softly stroked the back of Kelli's head. Sitting in a chair at his bedside, her upper body leaned against his bed; evidently, at some point during the night she had succumbed to exhaustion.
Struck by the difference in Vin's appearance, Chris started with him. "You look better this morning."
"Kel washed every inch of my body that wasn't bandaged, shaved my beard, and trimmed what's left of my hair." He attempted a smile. "Said she didn't want no nurse doin' her job."
Chris nodded. "Know you want her close, but make her go get some proper rest. She needs it, and we," he scanned the room, "all need to talk before Travis arrives."
Sighing as deeply as his broken ribs allowed, Vin said, "Reckon you're right. I need some questions answered, too." He gently shook his wife. "Wake up, baby."
"Not asleep," she murmured, "and I heard." She raised her head, meeting the gaze of the beautiful blue eyes that she had sorely missed. "I'll leave, but don't expect me to stay away long."
"I'd have to hunt you down if you did." Vin welcomed her tender kiss in return for his statement, reluctant to end it. His preference was not to let her out of his sight, but he needed to hear from Chris all that had happened while he was gone, certain that Kelli would try to downplay a lot of it.
Chris cleared his throat. "I promise y'all some time alone soon, but you think we could "
"All right already." Kelli snapped as she straightened. "I'm goin', okay." Trailing her finger along Vin's arm, she whispered to him. "Make him talk fast."
He winked at her. "Count on it." He kept the smile on his face, while she kissed her dad on the cheek, and then disappeared through the door. Once she was gone, he openly allowed himself to show his pain, grimaced, and then growled at Chris. "Let's get to it."
Outside the room, Kelli leaned her back against the wall, and allowed her tears to fall. Up until now, she had masked her emotions and her fears, afraid Vin would see them, and he had enough on his plate without having to deal with a weepy wife. Suddenly it was just all too much, Raven's letter, the long week of worry, and seeing what that vile creature had done to the gentle, caring man she loved, cut deep into her being. It was more than just the shearing of his hair; she loved his long chestnut mane, but it would grow back, and had nothing to do with who Vin Tanner was. The horrendous physical wounds inflicted on him would heal, too. What broke her heart were the dregs of mental anguish she saw in his eyes that he tried so desperately to hide.
Moved by the obvious depth of her emotions Raven's voice cracked as he asked, "Are you all right?"
Quickly brushing away her tears, she took a deep breath, and prepared to deny her hurt. When she looked up and into eyes that were replicas of Vin's, her resolved crumbled. "No."
Although Raven did not consider himself an expert at giving comfort, he felt the need at least to try. Gently taking her by the arm he steered her to a secluded alcove where she could cry all she wanted. Giving her a couple of minutes to gain control, he finally said, "I might be a terrible father, but I'm a damn good judge of men. I've trained enough of 'em, Vin included, to know there's not an ounce of quit in his entire body. Wilder didn't break him."
Launching a fresh round of tears, she shook her head. "I never believed he could, but he did cut into Vin's spirit deeply enough to leave scars on his beautiful soul." She looked up at him through glistening eyes. "How do I help him?"
In his line of work, he had killed men without so much as a second thought, and planned successful Black Op missions most said were impossible to implement. Combat Stress, danger, losing men in battle, and disloyalty, he knew how to handle. Mortal injuries, missing limbs, and bloody wounds, did not faze him, but the tearful plea by this woman to help the man she loved, disturbed him more than he was willing to admit. "There is no magic to 'fix' things, Kelli, but any man who has as much love and family in his life as Vin does is not to going stay down for long."
For some reason, Raven's words made her feel better, her crying toned down to an occasional sniffle. If love was all Vin needed, that she could do, and family . she reckoned that between his brothers and the Wild Bunch he had that covered, too. "Thanks, and for the record, I think you would have been a great father, if you'd given yourself the chance."
"No, a great father would not have heaped that damn letter on you because he couldn't face his son with the truth. I'm sorry, if it caused you any further distress on top of all this. When I wrote it, I never expected to see you or Vin again."
A small laugh escaped, and Kelli offered him a smile. "If you stick around the Wild Bunch long enough, you'll learn to always expect the unexpected."
Gratified to see her in better spirits, he asked, "How 'bout I buy you breakfast, and then you get some sleep?"
Realizing that she had neglected to eat since they returned, and suddenly very hungry, she accepted. "All right."
Hospital, Room 112
Arranging the chairs to place the four beds within a circle, Chris, Josiah and Nathan took seats. They all recognized this would be hard on Vin and Buck, and were ready to support them any way they could.
Chris started, "I guess the first thing you should know is that Mike's dead. He was murdered to obtain his uniform and flight log."
Vin knew, but he had hoped he was wrong; he and Buck reacted with soft curses. Ezra and JD sat despondently but impassively, the latter with a slight tilt to his head to catch any inflection he would normally be able to see.
"When... I mean how long were we gone?" Buck hated to admit that he had lost all track of time.
No one had thought to tell them, or expected they would not know. It appeared they had some adjusting to do to in their thinking too. Ezra filled the silence. "Today is Monday; this all started a week ago."
"A week? That's it?" Vin shook his head and whispered, more to himself than them, "a fuckin' week? Shit, it seems more like years."
Chris watched their reactions. "Should I go on or do you want to wait?"
"No we want to know." Buck looked over at Vin. "Right?"
Vin nodded. "Go on. Mike's dead and now?"
"Travis's hands were tied by Washington when they refused to allow MCAT to investigate Mike's death. The assignment went to Homeland Security instead, and the State Department wanted like hell to avoid an international incident. So we took the only option open to us we all quit MCAT, including Kelli and Mallory. You two are the only legitimate agents in this room."
"Are y'all crazy?"
Chris raised a hand. "Once it all simmered down, and I got past my anger, it eventually became clear to me that Travis provoked the confrontation, to allow us the freedom to plan a rescue mission. Staying as we were, would have tied us up, too. This all kicked off after we realized your plane hadn't crashed."
"You thought we'd crashed?" Buck asked, thinking about how Inez must have felt. "My God."
"There were confirmed sightings of an explosion over New Mexico. Authorities sent out a search party, and we had to wait to see if any wreckage was discovered."
Buck nodded, his expertise in explosives suddenly bringing something to mind. "Do you recall one point when we hit a sudden and short patch of turbulence, Vin?"
Tanner frowned, and then slowly nodded. "An ejected incendiary device?"
"That's what we reckoned, too," Chris agreed. "It was an attempt to throw everyone off the scent so they could get you over the border. It worked for a while."
"We never believed it though, did we guys? We just knew you were still alive " JD added in earnest. Buck smiled, slid off his bed, grabbed his rolling IV pole, and shuffled over to rest his good hand on the younger man's uninjured arm.
Chris continued. "We were cut off from CASSIE, all technology from MCAT, and government resources. Added to all that the AG decided that the kidnapping of two federal Agents, and the hijacking of a government plane made it an issue of National security. He had us practically placed under house arrest, and confined to L7. There were U.S. Marshals posted at the gates. They wanted to stop us from getting in the Feds' way. None of us could leave our property without an escort. Even all the Larabee 7 accounts were frozen, but, thanks to some fancy 'footwork' by our resident tech genius there, it was transferred, undetected, to an offshore account and helped finance a rescue." Recognizing JD's inability to see physical reactions, Chris leaned forward and patted their youngest blanketed foot, Buck adding a squeeze of his own to JD's arm. "At this point we had no idea where you both were."
"Without all the MCAT do dads, how did you find us?" Tiring, Buck eased down, and sat on the side of JD's bed.
Looking directly at Vin, Chris said, "Braswell sent a message to Kelli, which led her to hiring a K&R expert, Brodie Hawks." He hesitated a moment, then decided to plunge ahead. "Vin, you should know she liquidated a few assets, and mortgaged your properties to pay his fee and free up money for a possible ransom, but I'll let her explain the details to you." He turned to Buck. "Once he arrived, he was able to help us get a fix on your location, and craft a plan to get us in and out of South America. Which, by the way, appears to be where all this shit started. Our Shadow Ops evidently pissed off some very unscrupulous people."
Both Vin and Buck were trying hard to take in all the information. They were certain some of it would need explaining again later.
"Hawks was the dude on the plane?" Buck finally asked.
Larabee flicked a gaze at Tanner then the rest of the group. "Yeah but you also know him by another name Raven."
"That's Raven?" Buck hissed, his lack of trust for the man with that name, coming to the fore.
"Buck," JD said softly. "He did great. We wouldn't even be here now, if it wasn't for him."
"Buck," Chris redirected his attention. "Just know this we wouldn't have gotten this far without him. He set the whole thing up, even to getting us off the ranch."
None of that surprised Vin. He knew all too well what Raven was capable of, but he wanted to know. "How did y'all get past the Marshals?"
There were soft snickers all around as a rare light moment snuck in. "The false floor of a semi." Josiah chuckled at the memory.
"Holy shit! I'd loved to have seen you squeeze in there, Josiah." Buck's lips slightly curled.
It warmed their hearts to see a small smile from both men. Chris brought the discussion back to its harsh realities.
"Before we took off, pictures of you both, and some personal possessions of yours were delivered to the ranch. We'd always known you were both in grave danger, seeing those images, though well; we knew we were running out of time."
Silence descended; the type that seemed to suck the energy and oxygen right out of a room. Four men watched their traumatized brothers fighting their emotions as a barrage of horrific memories assaulted their exhausted minds, each man waiting patiently for one of them to speak.
The oppressive quiet was almost more than JD could take. He tilted his head left and right to catch a sound, his hearing boosted by his inability to see, picking up tiny noises from both men. He started absently tugging at the bandages over his eyes, while he waited for something anything. "Please say something I can't take this shit anymore "
Buck gently grasped at one of JD's hands to still him. "Knock it off," he whispered, the tightness of his throat projecting his fraught emotions.
JD swallowed. "You're hurting, both of you I can feel it I wish I could see you."
"Kid." They stilled on hearing Vin's soft plea. "You're right, it's tearin' us up. Still, Buck and I know y'all are here for us, but let's get through the physical hurts first, okay. One thing we got to look forward to in this God-forsaken place is seein' you lookin' back at us tomorrow another is getting' the hell outta here."
JD shuddered out a breath as Vin said the very thing the younger man needed to hear but was afraid to voice while Buck and Vin were so sick that he would see them, tomorrow. "Yeah," he whispered, offering a shy grin. "Sorry."
His cheek ached, but Vin smiled the best he could, hoping it would come through in his words. "Don't be, you said what you felt, nothin' wrong with that." He looked around at his brothers and the varied expressions of sorrow on their faces. "I think I speak for Buck when I tell y'all that we're just glad to be here. We're still seven strong; those bastards took nothin' from the seven of us." He hoped he sounded convincing, and the fact that, right now he believed the opposite of the latter part of that statement did not come through in his words. One look at Chris told him the man wasn't fooled for a moment.
"Amen," Josiah said, wholeheartedly agreeing with the sentiment.
"I know there's more you both want to know, but I think we've covered enough for now." Chris saw the tried lines on Buck and Vin's faces, and knew they were hurting. "Travis will be here later this afternoon and I'll deal with any fallout from all this. There's one thing I need from all of you, though." Assured he had their attention he said, "The only ones who know that Brodie Hawks is Raven are all of you and Kelli. I need his involvement left out of this. As far as anyone outside the family is concerned, he is Kelli's uncle, period."
A round of agrees met his statement.
Vin's eyes met Chris's. *We're not through with this.*
*For now we are, get some rest.* Chris knew Vin would have more questions, especially about his supposed new relative, but he could wait for those answers.
As the group dispersed, Buck rose awkwardly from JD's bed, giving the younger man a squeeze of the arm as he did so.
"I I know we josh around a lot and you see me as 'the kid' and all, but jeeze, this is hard when I can't look at you." He sighed. "I just wanted to remind you, if you need to talk I'm here for you anytime." He jerked when Buck's voice sounded closer than he realized.
"I know, kid. Thanks. And I will soon I promise."
As he heard Buck clamber back into bed, JD nodded. He was satisfied, for now.
Room 112, 1600 Hours
Orrin Travis knew he was walking a fine line between performing his sworn duty as Director, and protecting the men he had grown to care about a great deal over the years. Having read over the latest reports given him about Columbia, he decided that giving Larabee free rein, in retrospect, might have been a mistake.
Carrying a brief satchel, and taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door to his injured agents' hospital room. Ignoring Larabee's obvious attempt to stop him, he first went over to see Vin and Buck. "Captain Tanner, Agent Wilmington, it's good to see you both. Welcome back."
Vin ducked his head, and Buck mumbled a quiet thank you.
"I expect to receive a complete report from you two, but it can wait a while. Listen to your doctors, and if either of you need anything I can help with, don't hesitate to call me." His eyes shifted to Larabee. "Right now I have a bit of business to conclude."
"We can take this outside." Chris started for the door.
"We'll talk here." Orrin's words halted him, and once he had Larabee's attention again, he said, "As much as I would like to spare these men from hearing this, what I have to say must stay within these walls."
Chris's facial features pulled taunt. "Get it over with, then."
"I expected you to launch a rescue, and believe me I am pleased to see that it was successful, but what the hell were you thinking? Covert means staying under the radar, it means "
"I know what it means, Orrin. Your point is?"
Biting the inside of his lip, Travis paused a moment and then calmly said, "It means not making a splash across the front page of every newspaper in the world. Really, Chris was stealing the MCAT jet in broad daylight, right under the nose of Columbian authorities what you call covert?"
Shrugging his shoulder, he said. "It didn't belong to them."
"Eliminating a high ranking member of the government by assassination is keeping things quiet?"
"That man set us up on our last op, and damned near got us killed."
Orrin's voice raised an octave. "I suppose a very powerful and influential members of the elite upper-class dying under questionable circumstances, just after five American men were seen in the area, was nothing more than coincidence?"
"Upper-class my ass, both of them were no more than well dressed drug runners. They conspired with others, and hired mercs to eliminate my team, and " he pointed to Vin and Buck, "look at the results of what those bastards instigated!"
Travis stepped forward. "I do see, but that is no reason to be careless. My God, you put enough explosives in the hands of one of the resistance groups to overthrow the government of a foreign country!"
"A government that was gonna let Vin and Buck die, while they negotiated! Well, screw that Orrin. We brought 'em home alive, and MCAT or our government didn't have a damn thing to do with any of it!"
Nodding, Orrin rubbed the back of his neck. "That, Chris is the only reason the AG is willing to keep this quiet." Reaching into his bag, Travis pulled out several sheets of paper, handing them to Chris. "This is the official press release going out tomorrow morning."
Scanning it, Chris laughed. "According to this our agents were victims of a random kidnapping. The Columbian government offered full cooperation to the U.S. to aid in their recovery; they rescued Vin and Buck, and then handed them over, unharmed, to the U.S Embassy."
Glancing at the others, Orrin said, "All of you memorize that release. Nothing said in the room is ever to be repeated, and," he looked over the four injured men, "this gathering never happened. Once the doctors release everyone, you are to go home. Cain and his men will escort you out of here; the MCAT jet will be at your disposal. Then you're going to all take a long overdue, quiet, extended vacation, at least until any threat against Alpha team dies down. After that I expect my agents back at work."
"We quit remember?" Chris reminded him.
"No you took a leave to support your families during a time of personal crisis." He picked up his satchel, moved closer to Chris and said in a voice on he could hear. "I don't know how Kelli picked up an 'uncle' and I don't want to know how he's involved in all of this. Just make certain, no one else ever does." Turning, he nodded to the six men, who had remained silent. "Job well done." With those parting words, he walked out.
After the door closed behind the Director, Nathan took the papers from Chris and passed them around. Without even reading them, the men balled them, and took turns, tossing the releases into the garbage can.
Ezra glanced at his brothers and slowly grinned. "That went well."
Base Hospital, Room 112, Tuesday, 0100 Hours
Vin lay awake, the jumbled images in his mind preventing him from sleeping. His connection with Chris was strong again, but he was having problems picking up thoughts from those around him. Most of what he 'heard' did not make any sense. When he closed his eyes, he envisioned the anguish his family must have suffered through while he and Buck were gone. Then, when he least expected it, visions of Wilder and the torture he meted out flashed before him. He could even hear the crack of the whip as it lashed across his back.
"No ." Buck muttered as he tossed and turned in his sleep. "You bastard stop "
Tanner attempted to reach over and shake him, but their beds were too far apart.
"Jesus Inez .no leave her alone!"
"Buck," Vin leaned over the edge of his bed, and attempted to wake him without alerting the other men in the room. They would be sympathetic and try to help, but they hadn't been there, and Vin doubted they could ever totally comprehend the horrors Buck was reliving in his nightmares. "Bucklin, it's okay."
"Inez baby God, what have they done?" The sounds of weeping drifted across the space between them.
When he realized Buck was crying, Vin could not stand it any longer. "Fuck this." In spite of the heavy bandages on his feet, he eased off the side of his bed, and tried to stand. Pain shot up his leg, but he pushed it from his mind. Using the chair next to his bed to hold on to, he managed to cross the small area that separated them. Gently placing his hand on Wilmington's arm, he whispered close to his ear, "Buck wake up, pard."
Startled, his muscles tensed, then realizing it was Vin talking to him, Buck calmed down. "I saw it again that damn video keeps playing in my head over and over I can't turn it off."
Shaking from his exertive effort to reach Buck, Vin rested his forehead on Buck's shoulder. "I know I see it too."
Completely awake now, it registered with Buck that Vin was standing. "Damnit, you're not supposed to be on your feet."
Raising his head, he said, "The others wouldn't understand, but I do. You okay now?"
"Yeah this time, thanks." Buck changed his position so he could get a grip on Vin. "Let me help you back to your bed, before Nathan sees you and goes ballistic."
Ezra had started to go to Buck's side when he heard him, but when Vin stirred he waited, as did JD and Nathan to see what happened. All resisted the urge to jump up and assist, not wanting to intrude on something neither man was ready to share. They silently listened and then unashamedly wept for their two wounded warriors, who leaned on one another to cross the expanse between their beds. Locations aside, both were still a long way from home.
San Antonio, Tuesday, 0700 Hours
Chris pushed open the door and entered, expecting to see everyone awake. Immediately Nathan placed a finger to his lips. "Shhh..." He tilted his head toward Buck and Vin's side of the room. "They had a rough night, let 'em sleep."
Nodding his understanding, he quietly moved to sit between Ezra and JD's bed. "How are you two doing?"
JD reached out to touch Chris. "Doc said the bandages come off my eyes today. I'm more than ready;" he swallowed hard, "Buck needs me."
"You're probably the best medicine for Buck," He patted the hand on his shoulder, "but, don't rush him, son. Let him come along at his own pace."
Thoughts racing back to a few hours earlier, JD nodded. "Whenever he's ready to talk, I'll be there."
Ezra stared across the room. "How do you think they find the patience?"
Chris looked at him. "Who and for what?
"Our ancestors. They knew well before us what would transpire. Yet they had to stand silent, and wait. Not able to interfere, or warn any of us."
Shifting in his chair, Chris sighed. It was too early in the morning for this type of deep discussion. "You're probably asking the wrong man, Ezra. Josiah is the one who thinks about those kinds of questions. I only try to keep up from one new discovery to another."
Nathan joined them, sitting at the foot of Ezra's bed. "Inez and Kelli were here until 2100, and then Buck and Vin sent them to rest. Josiah stayed until about 0300, and then I made him go sleep in a proper bed. The doctor should be in any time now, so if you're going to stay a while, I think I'll try to catch some sleep."
Chris stood. "I'll walk you out." Whatever was going on here, he wanted to know the root of it.
Once outside the door, Nathan filled him in about the nightmare. "I guess we all are having some strong reactions."
"Go get some sleep. I'm here, and if anything changes, I'll let you know." Reentering the room, Chris wondered if all his brothers might need counseling to work though this. The doctor entered a few minutes later.
Accompanied by a nurse, the attending doctor moved from bed to bed. He smiled at Ezra, easing off the bandages and nodding his approval. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm quite well, thank you."
"Any additional pain?"
*Of the heart, yes.* He shook his head. "No, it remains the same as before, the pain medication is more than adequate."
"Good. It's all healing nicely. I think we'll continue with the antibiotics for another seven days, at which point you will be under the care of a more familiar physician who will review your condition then. Any questions?"
"No, but thank you for asking," Ezra smiled as the nurse re-dressed his wounds, chatting with him as she did so.
Noting JD was asleep, the doctor moved to Buck, which suited his purpose, as he needed to talk to the younger man about another matter, also. Chris stood in one corner, watching every move and reaction attentively as did Nathan and Josiah who were dotted around the room.
The first thing the attending doctor noticed was Buck's easy demeanor, belying the rigidity of the man's body as he examined Buck's injuries. Clearly, this man was deeply uncomfortable with being handled, whether it was just by a male or someone unfamiliar, would remain to be seen. He apologized as he raised the bedclothes and inspected Buck's genitals, now very aware the brunet was barely holding it together. Chatting briefly, while making notes, the doctor beckoned in Inez and an orderly with a wheelchair. The former had run a bath and was taking Buck to it, personally. With a grin to his wife, Buck moved into the chair, assisted by the attending nurse, but asked to wait until the doctor examined Vin and JD.
JD was awake now, and the nurse raised the head of the bed and got him comfortable, while the doctor moved on to Vin.
Chris's heart sank to see Tanner go on autopilot, blue eyes unfocused and unresponsive as the doctor unwrapped his bandaged feet and studied them. Vin answered every question despite the fact that it was obvious to the trained eye, and those who loved him, that he was not truly there.
"Stay off your feet, and resign yourself to using a wheelchair for a while. Your personal physician will determine for how long."
Pulling back, the resident addressed both men. "Your stools are almost healthy, and there's only a trace of blood in your urine. By tomorrow, that should also be clear. Keep drinking lots of water to aid your kidneys. Any pain when you leave here developing in your lower back or when you urinate, must be addressed immediately, understood?"
They both nodded, along with Chris, Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah.
Before the doctor arrived, the nurse had asked JD if he was comfortable and needed anything. Thanking her, he declined, more interested in what the doctor had to say about his brothers. She squeezed his hand supportively and waited with him. He sat quietly while the doctor examined his shoulder and thigh. Like Ezra's, the wounds hurt like hell, but the last thing he, also like Ezra, wanted, was for Vin or Buck to know. A wheelchair he could handle for a few days, and the rest would heal in time. He tilted his head as the doctor told him what to expect, regarding his eyes
"The ophthalmic surgeon will be here this afternoon to remove your bandages and see just how things have progressed. We feel confident all you'll need after that will be dark glasses, rest and, time."
"Now, we can do this here, or take you to the ophthalmology clinic just along the way."
"Yeah, the second one sounds good," he decided, not wanting to disturb Buck or Vin with the proceedings.
The squeak of a wheelchair and a hand on his arm told JD that Buck was next to him.
Wilmington glanced at Tanner, smiling at the nod he received "If it's all the same to you, doc we'd kinda like to be there when the wraps come off if JD doesn't mind."
Fairly sure the relief would be evident on his face, JD nodded. "That would be good, thanks."
"We'll do it here, then," the medic confirmed.
Buck squeezed JD's arm. "Now, if it's all the same to you, little brother, my beautiful wife is taking me for a long, hot soak in the tub."
"Later, then," JD chuckled, wondering whose hand had replaced Buck's, smiling at Josiah's soft words of encouragement.
"Just going to re-dress your wounds, okay?"
JD nodded. "Sure, thanks " he waited for her to give him a name.
"Talia," she answered. "What does JD stand for?"
"John Daniel," he smiled, not entirely sure he was actually smiling at her.
"I bet you have pretty eyes," she giggled. "I can't wait to see them later."
"Me too," he sighed.
Nathan had moved to sit on Vin's bed, the Texan now lying on top of the covers. During the examination, Nathan had been reintroduced to the now yellowing bruises on Vin's thighs. He couldn't help wondering what could have caused such extensive contusions as he gently squeezed the knee just below the ones on Tanner's left leg. There were so many layers to this tragedy, and Nathan was truly afraid for his family, especially Buck and Vin.
"They all appear to be progressing well." The doctor told them, nodded to his patients, and then he and Talia exited the room.
Buck smiled at Inez as they, as the orderly followed the doctor and nurse out. A nice hot bath was waiting for him and he planned to enjoy every moment of it.
Sighing as he sank, with the aid of Inez and the orderly, into the luxuriously warm water and keeping his broken hand free of the tub, Buck watched the male assistant leave. Taking a washcloth, Inez dipped it in the water and gently ran it across Buck's back and then over his hair. She choked back the emotion she felt when he sighed with contentment. It was so good to see him a little happier. Lathering the shampoo, she part washed and part massaged his scalp. After rinsing his hair, she ran the washcloth over his neck, shoulders, chest, and abdomen, the two not speaking, just simply enjoying the tactile closeness they had sorely missed. Without thinking, she moved the cloth down over Buck's bruised genitalia, alarmed as a strong hand grabbed her wrist and squeezed, hard.
"Did I say, there?"
"No, mi amor, but "
"I want to get out, now."
"Really? You seemed to be "
"Now, damnit!" Releasing her, Buck grabbed the washcloth and flung it across the room. Inez buzzed for assistance and, after gently patting him dry and helping him back into his pajamas, she wheeled him back to his room. The others were once more sleeping and quietly re-positioning the IV pole and getting him comfortable, the pretty Mexican smiled.
"Can I get you anything?"
"No thank you. I'm tired." With a grunt, Buck shimmied down in the bed and settled into sleep. Sitting next to his bed, Inez watched, shocked at the unexpected turn of events, eventually descending into heavy, soundless tears.
JD wondered how it could be that a person could look so forward to a moment, while dreading its arrival at the same time. Talia moved next to him.
"No, but let's do it, anyway."
"Would you close the blinds a little, please?" The ophthalmologist requested. Chris and Josiah obliged.
Despite everything, Buck and Vin watched in anticipation. They knew how much this meant to JD, to all of them, and they were silently rooting for their youngest. Moving a chair closer, Buck sat next to JD, smiling and taking his hand when the younger man reached out for him.
"Talia's going to take the dressings off, now. If it gets too much at any point, tell us and she'll stop. When the bandages are off, I'll do a few checks. If all is well, I have some dark glasses for you. It will likely take a few weeks before your eyesight returns to normal, so you should avoid bright lights until then." He nodded and the nurse began unraveling the bandage until all that remained was the gauze.
"Here we go," she whispered.
Buck gave a supportive squeeze, sensing the tension around him before he had even looked around at the others' postures. JD kept his eyes closed, not positive he was ready to look. He was startled when he felt cool fingers on his eyes. As the doctor examined the tissues, and lifted his right eyelid, he pulled away sharply when a small light assaulted him.
The medic brought JD's head back around and did the same with the left eyelid.
"Oww, Holy shit, doc, that smarts."
"Look at me, John."
Opening both eyes, JD squinted, pausing for a moment and causing all in the room to take a breath. "You're bald," he grinned.
"And you're a cheeky little shit, but I'll forgive you, this once," the ophthalmologist laughed.
Snickers resounded around the room. JD couldn't stop grinning. A pair of brown eyes looked at him.
"I knew you'd have pretty eyes."
He smiled at the nurse. "So have you."
"Can you believe this," Buck chuckled as he looked around, "got his sight back for all of ten seconds and he's hitting on his nurse." He turned sharply as JD raised a hand to cover his eyes and caught a sob.
Buck stood to put an arm around him. "Don't be we were all scared, too."
The doctor looked at Nathan. "His drops are in the refrigerator. He'll need two in each eye, four times a day, for a month."
"Here are some glasses for you, John. "Here are some glasses for you, John. Wear them whenever you're awake, but after a week, do a small test each day, and increase the time without them accordingly. Any problems, seek advice. Good luck son."
Putting the shades on, JD looked at the man. "Sir thank you."
"My pleasure." Shaking hands with several of them, he and the nurse left.
Chris ruffled JD's hair while Josiah and Nathan let some light back into the room. "Get some rest, kid. I don't know how you feel, but that wore me out."
They all laughed, but their relief was evident. Remembering Vin's words from the previous day, JD and Tanner stared at each other for a long time before nodding once and settling down to rest.
Vin felt as if the walls were closing in on him, and he needed to escape. When Kelli walked in, he insisted they go outside to visit. Not far from where his room was located, a set of double glass doors led to a garden alcove. Once outside Vin closed his eyes, savoring the feel of the light breeze on his face. The sun warmed his skin, and somewhere in the distance, he heard the soft tinkling sound of wind chimes. All those days locked up, he was not sure he would ever see the outside world again.
Parking the wheelchair beneath a large oak tree, Kelli moved in front of Vin and knelt down. He reached to lift the hawk pendent, which nestled between her breasts, from the inside of her blouse. It was a surprise to see his wedding ring attached to the chain. Rubbing the pendent with his thumb and forefinger, he remembered the day Wilder jerked the ring off his finger. He could still feel the brutal pounding to his ribs. That was also the day that Wilder broke his nose, and took those damn pictures. His thoughts lost in South America, it took him a moment to realize Kelli was talking to him.
"I pulled the pendant out the first day, while the search party was still lookin' for the plane. It made me feel closer to you. Then, when I got your ring, I knew where to put it. Reckon it's time for it to go back to where it belongs." She unclasped the chain to remove the ring.
What he wanted to do rip it away from her, and toss the ring now. Evil had touched it and he did not want it next to her skin or his again. "Get rid of it."
Stunned by his word, Kelli held the ring in her hand. "Excuse me, what did you say?"
"The ring, get rid of it. We'll buy a new one." Dropping the pendant back into her shirt, he took a deep breath. He did not know how to explain his aversion to seeing it, so he lied instead. "I've worn it since the day we were married, from your hand to mine. We don't know where it's been now or who else might have worn it before you got it back. I don't want that between us."
Trying hard to mask her disappointment, she stuck it in her jeans pocket and smiled. "All right, if it makes you feel better." She realized something more was bothering him, but for now, she was not going to push him. "I don't want anythin' between us either."
Then out of the blue, he changed the conversation completely. "Chris told me you mortgaged everythin'. How much money do we have left or are we broke?"
"What? No, we're not broke. Brodie never took his fee, and there was no ransom to pay, so we still have most of it."
"Good. Charter a plane to get us home. I don't want to use the MCAT jet."
She sighed. This little outing was not going well. "Matt offered the use of his, and Wyatt kept his on standby, in case we needed it. I suppose I could arrange an alternative, but you know sooner or later you'll have to get back on that jet."
Her casual mention of Matt, Brodie, and Wyatt irritated him. "Right now, I don't want to think about anythin' MCAT. I just wanna go home; a private plane can land at the ranch. You think you can handle that?"
Kelli sighed deeply, and bit her lip to keep from snapping back. Whatever burr was under Vin's saddle, she wasn't sure how to proceed. "Anythin' else?"
Without acknowledging her words, he asked instead, "Who saw the pictures?"
Pretending not to know which pictures he was talking about, was not an option. Kelli reached up to cup his cheek. "Vin, it doesn't matter now. You're here and alive, and just like we always have ..you and I together we can ."
Even to think that his wife and others in the family had seen the proof of his degradation provoked his frustration. Rougher than he intended, he grabbed her hand "It matters to me, Kel, and this happened to me not us Who saw them?"
Jerking her hand back, she stood and took a step away from the chair. "All of our family was there, so I reckon anyone who had the stomach for it, looked. Anythin' else you need to know?"
There it was. Almost everyone that he loved, cared for, and tried to protect knew he had failed as a man to protect himself. They all had seen him stripped of his dignity, beaten, and helplessly hanging like a piece of meat. He looked at Kelli and saw a brief flash of anger in her eyes. His heart sank. *She thinks I failed too.* Unable to stop himself, he glared at her, daring her to say what she was thinking. Suddenly the images in his head changed again and even knowing now that Wilder faked the video, he could only see him rutting over the woman he had called Kelli. An uncontrollable rage took hold inside him, one easier to take out on her, than face the demons his mind refused to release "Yeah, a few things. Like how did you get off the ranch? When did you find out Raven wasn't Hawks? Why did you go out of your way to cover his ass on the plane?"
Her words fuel by her growing anger, she answered curtly, "I rode Dancer to the Southern Breeze, Matt flew me to Dallas, and from there I caught a plane to Panamá. Dad found out Hawks was Raven and told me. I vouched for Brodie because I owed him, without his help we might not have found y'all in time."
Vin huffed, "Matt again? He didn't waste any time sniffin' around did he? Hell, I was only gone a week." *Matt, Brodie, and Wyatt* "Are you sure you had enough men helpin' you? Or maybe you figured I wasn't comin' back and wanted to line up a replacement for me, just in case."
Kelli sucked in her breath. Rejecting his wedding ring, and cutting out their 'together we can do anything' vow, was bad enough. Granted he was having a hard time of it, but where did he come off acting jealous because people who cared for them both offered their help. "I think we're finished talkin'. I'll take you back to your room."
"I'm not a goddamn invalid! I can get my own self back."
"Fine, you do that!" Leaving him sitting alone, she turned and rushed inside, only to literally run into Chris.
"Hey, whoa." He grabbed her arms to steady her, and one look at her face told him something was seriously wrong. "Kel, where's Vin? Is he all right?"
With the tears she had forced back threatening to erupt, the last thing she wanted to do was tell Chris what Vin had said. He was a big boy and could damn well explain it himself. She pointed to the door. "Out there, you can decide if he's all right."
"Stay put, honey, I'll be back." Chris pushed through the double door, while Kelli spun around, and headed in the other direction.
Prepared to find Vin hurt or near death, Chris was surprised to see him sitting under the oak staring off in the distance. "You want to tell me what the hell is going on?"
"Leave it, Chris."
"Don't think I can do that." He stood in front of the wheelchair. "Talk to me, Vin. What happened out here to make Kel so damned upset?"
Vin flinched as if Chris had struck him with those words. "I reckon I got a little carried away, said a few things I shouldn't have said." He glanced at Larabee. "All right I said a lot of things I shouldn't have."
"Hell, with the stress you've both experienced over the past week, I supposed it was only a matter of time before one of you started an argument." He laid his hand on Vin's shoulder, quickly wishing he hadn't. Not only did he 'see' a replay of their fight. He was able to fleetingly view some of the horrors floating around in Vin's mind, before Tanner jerked away.
"God had nothin' to do with it, he wasn't there, and neither were you."
"Forget it Larabee. I know what I need to do. As soon as I'm healed I'm gonna hunt down the rest of the evil bastards responsible, and " he shot Chris an icy glare, "then send 'em straight to hell to join Wilder." Vin placed his hands on the wheels to turn the chair, and headed toward the double doors. Silently considering what he had set into motion, he wondered how the hell to fix the wounds he had certainly inflicted on his marriage.
Chris shook his head and followed, opening the doors, and then walking beside him as he maneuvered back to the hospital room. Vin returned to his bed, and then turned his back on Larabee. Meeting Josiah's anxious stare, Chris thought about the dark place Vin seemed to be heading. Gesturing for Sanchez to go outside with him, he turned and pushed open the door. Once in the hallway, they moved away from the room before Chris said. "We have to find a way to help Vin before he destroys his life."
Josiah sighed. "He's not alone. I've been watching Buck, and he's withdrawing from all of us before my eyes."
"You talk to that doctor. I want to get them both home a.s.a.p., we have good physicians in Denver, too, whatever they need; we'll make sure they get it. Besides, until I know the threat on our team is gone, I'd rather we all are on the ranch.
"All right, I'll see what I can do." He noted that Chris was leaving. "Where are you going?"
"Dad has a child who needs tending, and then I'm going to ask our resident expert on the 'evils of mankind' for some advice."
Kelli slammed things around in her room. On one hand, she was furious with the men responsible for the change in her husband; on the other, she was brokenhearted. She knew within her soul that Vin was not acting like himself, and with good reason, but still the hurt and her tears were real.
Chris heard her crying and did not knock. He simply opened her door, strode inside, and then ducked when a flying shoe barely missed his head. "Kel honey I won't ask if you're all right because I know you're not, but hear me out please before you throw anything else."
She whirled around to face him. "Sorry, I wasn't throwin' at you. I hell, I don't know what I'm doin'."
Pulling her close for a hug they both needed, Chris gave in to his own worries about Vin. "I expected some blowback from all that's happened, but not this quickly. I thought we could at least get both of them home first. Give 'em a sense of grounding with familiar surroundings."
"You know what he said?"
Chris rubbed her back and sighed. "Yeah, his mind may not be able to receive too well right now, but mine can. I 'saw' it all." He looked down at her, and met her tear-filled eyes. "Including the horrendous things he wouldn't share with you."
"I don't know how to help him. After the way he tried to push me away, I'm not sure he even wants me to try."
Raven's voice sounded close. Standing in the open doorway, he said. "I'd say I'm sorry for intruding, but I'm not." He stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. "Vin has lost control of his life; he's hurt, angry, and struggling to regain his sense of identity. He's fighting not to be a victim, and right now, he needs to lash out. In addition, he feels guilty for not stopping Wilder, for not preventing his family's pain, and he needs a target to take it all out on. Wilder's dead, and the other men who did survive have no names or faces he can associate with, so he strikes at those closest to him instead."
Chris nodded. "You saved me the trouble of hunting you down. I know you live and work in that world Vin and Buck were trapped in, and understand it better than we do. The training I received as a Seal is outdated. We never encountered the types of adversaries we see out there now. Back then, it was all black and white. We knew who the enemy was, and how to find him. Also, with the exception of a few months of missions in South America, most of our MCAT work has been domestic."
"You're right. It is my world, and it gets damn ugly. Some of the men responsible for hiring the hit on Alpha Team have been elusive. Until they are out of commission, it's still possible they will make another attempt on your team. I have the connections to find them, and to know if they plan to come at y'all again... I also understand where Vin and Buck's heads are, and what it will take to bring them all the way back."
"Which is?" Kelli asked.
"Kelli, you have to ignore what Vin says when his moods swing. It's important that you keep things as normal as possible for him, and let him make decisions. Talk about home, the children, your future. It will take time, but eventually your love will get through the barriers he's trying to throw in front of you." He turned to Chris. "You and the rest of the family will be who Vin and Buck look to for comfort and stability while their target for all that inner rage rattles the hell out of them."
"Their target?" Chris knew he could help with the comfort and stability factor, but allowing Vin and Buck to actually go after a those bastards was not on his to-do list. "If you're talking about the men who hired Wilder and his crew of psychotics, no way will I let Buck or Vin near them."
"You don't have to. They'll have an objective closer to home to contend with, one who has acquired a very special set of skills over a thirty year career."
As realization set in, Chris smiled. "Someone who will provoke them enough to release their anger, I like that idea."
"Who?" Kelli glanced between Chris and Raven looking for an answer.
Raven answered, "Me."
Chris had talked with Raven for hours last night. Together, they decided that their plan was the best way, for now, to help Buck and Vin. He was confident that Raven could use Buck's past mistrust of his background, and Vin's territorial attitude to keep their anger focused on him, at least temporarily. Raven was an expert in his field, and he had a personal interest in helping them get through the memories of the torment they endured.
Of course, Chris had also listened to all of Kelli's arguments against their idea, but had a feeling she was not done quite yet. He knocked on her door, and smiled when she opened it. "Morning, Honey," he leaned down to kiss her cheek, "you sleep well?"
"Not really. Dad, I still think there has to be another way."
"Kel, I briefed the others on what we want to do, so they'll help. Besides, we have nothing to lose by trying, and everything to gain."
She picked up her packed duffel bag. "Right, and if Vin suddenly regains his ability to read thoughts, he'll find out Raven is really James Tanner."
"My connection to Vin is solid now. I'll stay close and if I see that his mental ability is getting stronger, then I'll put a halt to all this." He touched her cheek. "You'll just have to trust me."
Kelli sighed, that was the one argument he kept stone walling her with, and the one she could not refute. "I do."
"All right, you ready then?" Chris placed his hand on the door.
"As I'll ever be, I reckon." She took a deep breath, and followed him into the hallway.
Wednesday, base Hospital, 0800 Hours
Ezra, JD, and Josiah were the only ones talking, each attempting to bring Vin or Buck into their conversation, but so far, they had not succeeded.
JD gestured to Josiah. "Damn uh, Josiah can I have a bottle?"
"A bottle of what, son?" Even though the younger man had dark glasses on, Josiah knew JD had rolled his eyes.
"Soda " JD pulled a face. "Josiah! I need you know one of those cardboard do-dahs."
"Oh," Josiah chuckled. "That sort of bottle." Retrieving one from the cupboard next to the entrance, he returned to JD's bedside, took his hand, and placed the container into it, quickly realizing JD could now see. "Hah, sorry, force of habit."
Dunne grinned. "No problem." Slipping the bottle under the bedcovers, he suddenly noted everyone, including Buck and Vin, were looking his way.
"Oh great, I have to take a leak and I got me an audience."
"Not much entertainment 'round here," Buck mumbled.
Desperate to keep the banter flowing, Ezra chipped in, "Why so coy? I for one have been a spectator at many of yours, Buck's and Vin's 'highest pee' contests at the Standish Tavern." He noted a small smirk from Vin.
"That's different," JD protested, starting to feel the urgency.
"How so?" Josiah probed.
"Well, for one I'm usually inebriated at the time and two it doesn't make a noise like a hose in a box."
All but Ezra and JD were chuckling softly, now, the former smirking. "And how do you propose we allow you this private moment while confined to our beds?"
Having caught on, but no less desperate to go, JD shrugged. "Dunno sing, maybe?"
"Yes, I can see that helping let me think." Ezra began to sing. "Drip, drip, drop little April showers "
"Oh, har, har, Standish," JD huffed.
"Oh, what about 'Cool clear water '" Josiah crooned.
JD looked toward a smiling Buck. "Can you believe this?" He turned back to Ezra and Josiah. "How can I put this not helping!" The young tech sighed. Looking at his brothers while waiting for inspiration to strike, a song popped in his head.
"Oh, if you need a friend I'm sailing right behind "
Josiah and Ezra grinned, softly joining in. "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind like a bridge over tro-u-bled water I will ease your mind "
The poignancy of the words caused all five to swallow hard, unspoken messages received loud and clear by each man as they gazed at each other in silence. JD sighed again, this time in relief.
"That did it thanks." He grinned, shyly, offering the container to Josiah.
Vin pushed his breakfast tray away, and turned over. "If he asks for anythin' bigger than that I'm outta here."
They all knew it was far from being okay, but for that small moment, five men had reconnected.
"Morning boys," Chris said with a smile. It pleased him to see at least Ezra, JD, and Josiah talking, and seemingly in high spirits. "Judging from the racket in here I guess you're all feeling better today." He walked in, followed by Kelli. Larabee was ready for most anything this morning; he only hoped that any blow-ups resulting from his intended provocations were small ones.
JD was the first to pass on good news. "Hey Chris, did you hear? Nathan stopped by. He talked to the doc, and he's springing all of us this afternoon."
"Yep, I heard. We're working on transport now."
Ezra noticed Kelli behind Chris. "Morning Kel, I trust you had a good night."
"I did thanks." She walked over and dropped her duffel bag next to Vin's bedside. He watched every move she made through hooded eyes, not sure what to expect after yesterday. Leaning over the bed, she kissed him, and then snatched a piece of toast from his abandoned breakfast tray to munch on. "I had a long talk with Jason and Andi last night. They're both excited about Daddy comin' home, and unless I misinterpreted their giggles, they have somethin' big planned for your homecomin'."
A simple nod was his only response.
Buck picked up on Chris's statement. "I thought Travis said we'd use the MCAT jet. What's to work on?"
"Brodie and I were talking about that. We agreed it might be better to use the Cessna again, since it's already set-up for our medical needs." Chris watched for reactions from either Buck or Vin when he mentioned Brodie, and was not disappointed.
"Brodie huh? I thought he was the infamous Raven. When the hell did we start consulting with someone we know nothing about?" Buck had never liked Raven's connection to Vin, nor trusted the man. "What do we really know about him anyway? Other than the facts that he has several identities, breaks all ethical rules to get what he wants, and he's wary of anyone he doesn't order around."
Noting Vin's interest, Chris answered. "Being paranoid, keeping secrets, and getting results any way possible, is all part of his job, Buck."
"What exactly is his job?" Buck looked from one brother to another. "Do we know?"
Vin finally entered the conversation, mainly to make certain that his brothers had no illusions about Raven. "He's what you'd call a preclusion expert. His specialty is preventin' things from happenin' that most of our good citizens never know are a threat. More often than not, he crosses ethical lines to accomplish that, and the skills he's acquired make him a fuckin' nightmare for anyone on his bad side." He glanced at Kelli. "He can be a dangerous man, one most people would not invite to dinner if they knew what he was capable of doin'."
JD jumped in. "Well, all I need to know is that he helped us find you guys, and he saved my ass when it counted. I like him."
Buck stared at JD a moment. The hero worship he saw in Dunne's eyes for 'Raven', grated on him. "Oh, you like him, well that's all right then," he snapped. "Kid, Vin knows him better than you do. Maybe you ought to take notes."
"Correct me if I am mistaken, but didn't he supervise your military training, Vin?" Ezra asked, and then waited for Tanner to answer.
Vin reluctantly admitted, "Yeah, he trained me maybe too well." His thoughts flashed back to Gaunt. The man deserved to die yes, but killing unarmed men was something he figured he had left behind him when he quit the Rangers.
"I guess it don't matter how we get home as long as we get there." Buck turned his head to stare out the window.
"I second that, Bro. I miss my kids." JD did his best to keep Buck from drifting away. "You know what we need to do? We need a picnic day. We'll have all the family together, let the kids run and just sit back and enjoy."
*Yeah, right, a freaking picnic.* Buck wanted to ask if any of his brothers, besides Vin, even had a clue about what he needed, but instead, he only mumbled, "Sure kid, whatever."
Chris decided this way was not working too well. "Kel, did Brodie say if he was staying with you and Vin or with me?"
"No, but I told you before, we have plenty of room." She moved closer to Vin and laid her hand on his. "I'm the one who caused him to be stuck as 'Uncle Brodie', so I reckon it's only fair that we put him up, once we get back to the ranch."
"He's stayin'?" Vin glanced from Kelli to Chris "Why?"
Chris gave his prepared explanation. "Orrin doesn't want his part in this made public, and I surmise Raven's people aren't too happy about it either. It makes sense for him to lay low with the rest of us until we're certain this is over." He watched as the muscles tightened in Vin's face. "Like it or not Raven has the connections to find out."
Buck raised his head to ask. "What do you mean over? You think those bastards aren't finished yet?"
Vin thought for a moment. "Guess it makes sense. Wilder and his crew were only hired hands." He looked at Chris. "Whoever paid 'em probably aren't too happy about the way things turned out and you're right about Raven. He would know first if they plan another attempt on Alpha team, but " he glared at Kelli, "he ain't stayin' with us."
Chris suppressed a grin. "No problem, Vin. Brodie and I get along; he can stay with me again, if he wants."
"If that is not acceptable, he is welcome to stay with Barbara and me." Ezra added. "He's really interesting to converse with once you get to know him."
JD said, "Shoot, I've got an extra room, too. I wouldn't mind him bunking at my place."
"Nor would I," Josiah spoke up. He had been silently observing Vin and Buck's reactions, and concluded that if nothing else, the mention of Raven had their full attention. At least for the time being, they were not thinking about their pains, and depression.
"All of you are nuts. I wouldn't want him around my kids." Buck laid his head back on the pillow.
"Greetings, brothers, I bring more news, and women." Nathan announced, as he entered with Inez and Cait.
Setting their bags by the door, Inez moved over to Buck's bed, and took his hand in hers. Cait walked over to Chris, kissed him on the cheek, and then waited for Nathan to continue.
Adding his own bag to the others, he turned and grinned. "Your release papers are being prepared as we speak. The doctor here is including your treatment files for us to pass on to Gilford and Landers at Denver Memorial. I'll set-up your appointments, and make certain there's no interruption in any treatments. He did however have one condition on your early release." He stood in the middle of the room, and made sure they were all listening. "To make the transition, and the journey smoother, Nurse Talia Romero will accompany us on the trip home, and then oversee the changeover to your regular doctors. She'll be staying with Rain and me until the appointments are met, and then return here after the official handover."
Despite his demeanor, Buck couldn't help himself. "Hey kid, nurse 'pretty eyes' gets to hold your hand all the way home." He grinned at JD's blush.
Chris nodded approvingly as he gave Cait a squeeze. This was just what he needed to hear and he had no doubt the others did, too.
Despite being dressed, and ready two hours ago, hospitals did not move that fast, and the men had to wait. Ezra played solitaire with a deck of cards, finally running out of ideas to make conversation. Josiah and Nathan leaned against the windowsill, both worried about their brothers' mental health. JD was out of ideas, and lost in thought about a cute little nurse named Talia.
Chris drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, obviously losing his patience. Cait grabbed his hand and whispered to him, "Easy there Cowboy. Keep this up and you'll be a basket case before we reach Denver."
"Well, look at them. Buck hasn't said two words to Inez in an hour, and Vin sure as hell don't look excited about going home."
She did look, and understood Chris's frustration. "Give them time, Chris. They're strong men, who just need to remember that." She patted his hand. "Kel appears to be holding up under the stress, too. Stop worrying."
"I'll stop when I know this is all behind us." He stood and turned when the door opened, hoping it would be the doctor with the discharge papers.
Brodie walked in instead. "Hey Chris."
"Hawks." He shook his hand in full view of Vin and Buck. "Where do we stand?"
"Our plane is fueled and on stand-by. According to Captain Cain, his team is ready to escort y'all safely aboard." He glanced around the room, noticing the glare from Wilmington and the indifferent look Vin cast his way. "The catch is the discharge papers haven't made it down to this floor, and we have to wait on base clearance to take off. We're looking at another two hours, minimum."
"Damn, I'm beginning to think there's a conspiracy to keep us from reaching Colorado." He held up his hand. "I know patience and amenability."
Kelli laughed. "Not exactly your strong suits, Dad."
Brodie turned toward her, and grinned. "Not yours either, Missy. I seem to recall that you're the one, who threatened to shoot my pilot."
"He wasn't cooperatin' and needed an incentive."
"You nagged me until I agreed, against your father's wishes I might add, that you could go to Panama."
"I don't nag, my father is overprotective, you knew I could help in Panama, and I did."
"Yes, but instead of retreating gracefully and using that pretty little head of yours, I had to push your ass on the plane to get you to cease fire."
"I was goin'."
"Not fast enough, for my peace of mind."
Chris watched Vin as Kelli and Brodie traded quips, and saw a spark in his eyes that until now had been missing. "Okay, you two, cease, and desist." He smiled and shook his head. "You see Cait, what I have to put up with." He glanced at his watch. "I guess we have time for everyone to eat before we leave."
"I'd be happy to escort these lovely ladies to the base lunch room." Brodie offered.
Chris realized that he had probably pushed Vin, and judging from the scowl on his face, Buck, far enough for the time being. "I think I'd feel better if we had extra trays brought in instead. I want us all together."
Vin latched on to Kelli's hand. "Good idea, no sense in temptin' Fate now." He had known Raven as a trainer, mentor, military man, and covert operator. He was now seeing him away from all that, and suddenly the paranoid, badass he was familiar with disappeared. In his place was Brodie Hawks, a man with an easy way about him, a personality that some might call charming, and someone who most of his brothers, and his wife obviously accepted. It was going to take him a while to sort through the many layers of the man he had considered a trusted associate, and now could only see as competition.
*He stays with us once we're home.*
*Thought you didn't want him.*
*I've learned to keep my friends close, and my enemies closer. Until I figure out which one he is now, I'll keep watch on him.*
*All right with me. It's your call.*
Once the transfer began, it was orderly and swift. Captain Cain and his team stayed with them until they were all onboard. Since this trip would be much shorter than their original flight, reclining seats replaced the beds, and no one chose to sleep. They were all anxious to return home. Nathan, of course, kept a close eye on his patients' medical needs, while Josiah watched for any signs of mental trauma that might rear its ugly head without warning.
Though Ezra had talked with Barbara during his hospital stay, he was looking forward to holding his beautiful wife. Six days was not a long time, but he relished observing the changes each day brought with her pregnancy. Time was moving too fast for him, in a few months, they would be welcoming their son or daughter into the world, and he did not want to miss a moment of the experience.
Buck sat opposite Standish, and his curiosity peaked when Ezra laughed to himself. "Wanna share?"
Ducking his head to hide his embarrassment, Ezra decided to answer honestly. "I was thinking about Barbara, and our impending arrival. I still have to pinch myself occasionally to ensure that it's not a dream. In a few brief months, I, Ezra Prescott Standish, will be holding my offspring. Me, a father, it's a scary thought."
A sharp pang of guilt hit Buck. He was so busy thinking about what Wilder did, he had not given much thought to his children. Would they see him as different as he felt? Shaking his head to clear those feelings he said, "You'll be a great father Ezra."
Surprised by the conviction he heard in those words, Ezra smiled. "Thank you, I needed to hear that."
Inez sat next to her husband, and was pleased when he took her hand, and squeezed it. For a moment she saw her Buck again, not the man she had seen the past few days. Maybe going home was all he needed.
Talia made sure her charges were all comfortable and seated herself next to JD. "We have a couple of hours in the air Mister Dunne. I expect you to tell me all about Colorado," she smiled, "and you."
JD smiled. It had been a long time since he had a woman other than Casey interested in him. Talking to Talia, however, was easy. It appeared that the ride home would be a pleasant one.
Chris sat, with Cait beside him, where he could see all his brothers. He worried about them all, but his main interest at the moment was Buck and Vin. Settling in for the trip, he half-closed his eyes, but still could view the exchange when Brodie took the only seat remaining the one facing Vin.
Vin was silent during take-off, but once they were airborne, he leaned closer to Kelli. "Baby, would you go to the back and get me a bottle of water?"
"Sure." She unbuckled her seat belt and headed toward the rear of the plane, leaving Vin and Brodie alone.
Taking the opportunity, Vin set his sights on Hawks. "When we get to the ranch, you're stayin' with us. I have your encryption program on my computer, and I want you to help me find the rest of the bastards that hired Wilder."
Brodie nodded. "I planned to keep looking for them anyway, but access to your computer will make it easier." He decided that Vin did not need to know that there was no way in hell he would let him go after them.
"A few ground rules. One, don't fuck with my head; I'll work through what I need to in my own time. Two, you don't interfere with my children. Three," he leveled a steely glare at Raven, "touch my wife and I'll kill you."
Hawks was surprised, but did not show it. He could not fault Vin's reasoning, and in his place, he would feel the same way. Still, he had trained Tanner not to show his weaknesses to a potential adversary, something he never had a problem doing, even as a green eighteen-year- old kid. Now, however he did not even try to hide his jealousy, and if it was with anyone else, it could cost him dearly. As his trainer, he was not happy, but as his father, he was proud of Vin for taking a stand. "Transmission received and understood."
Chris heard the exchange and smiled. Vin now had a new focus, and the memories of Wilder, and his cruelty would take second place to protecting what was his. For better or worse, Alpha Team was on their way home.
Six men sat around a table in the backroom of a small cantina. Their mood was solemn as Carlos Chavez addressed them.
"Our partners in California, Florida, and Washington are displeased. We were entrusted with this assignment, and we have failed miserably. Wilder is dead, as are Martininguez, Dolorosa, and Poco. I have managed to elude them, but it is only a matter of time before they come after me. Our associates are convinced they will then be next." His fist slammed down on the table, causing the other five to startle. "And still those cerdos asquerosos Americanos live." He looked at his explosives expert for more information.
Ray Montoya stood. "I have a contact in Denver. With some careful planning, I feel sure we can annihilate them on their own territory." He sneered. "It is something I have dreamt of doing since they took down Perón. Allow me this mission."
"If you fail, we are dead."
"This I know. I will not fail you."
Chavez nodded. "Make it so." He stared at the others. "This time the battle was lost, but we have more to come. Go home and prepare for war."
Flight Home from Texas
Nurse Talia Louisa Romero gazed out at the vista below, glancing and smiling occasionally at the sleeping weight on her shoulder. One by one, the people on the plane had succumbed to sleep, the only ones awake being herself, the man called Hawks, and the medic. It was obvious they were all exhausted, even those who were awake, and it caused her to reflect on the horrors and hardships they had encountered.
When the senior nursing officer had asked for a volunteer to accompany the group and conclude the handover, she had been first in line. During the groups' time at the base, she was the one who interacted with them the most, and relished the idea of seeing them safely home.
Turning to the dark head resting on her shoulder, she leaned over to brush hair from his, momentarily, uncovered eyes. While in the hospital, and already taken with his easy manner and boyish grin, she could hardly wait to see what was hidden beneath the gauze and bandages. She had not been disappointed. Even surrounded by puffy red tissue, the hazel orbs that looked back at her had an iridescent sparkle that had her hooked from the moment their eyes met. Despite knowing their time together was short, she intended to enjoy every moment of it. She watched someone approach Nathan and then saw him rise, to wake each person.
"Ten minutes, guys."
Talia smiled and nodded she would help. "Hey, handsome time to wake up."
Way too comfortable to move, JD ignored the call, only opening his eyes when a soft touch moved his head. He hissed as the light hurt his rapidly closing eyes.
"Here, put these on."
"Thanks." Gratefully he took the dark glasses.
"Won't be a minute."
Feeling stiff and sore, JD glanced around the cabin, grinning as his eye caught Buck looking his way. As they all roused, and despite their pains, the group appeared relieved to be home. He watched Talia check buckles to make certain they weren't affecting injuries, to then retake her seat next to him, and belt herself in. She grasped his hand tightly.
"I hate landings."
JD squeezed back. He didn't mind them, but he wasn't about to let her hand go anytime soon.
Inez leaned into Buck. "Somos de casa, mi amor." She bit back a soft moan as Buck moved in and offered her their first deep kiss.
"Good to be home," he sighed, stroking her cheek with the back of his good hand. They held their gaze for a long moment, but then, in an instant, the tenderness was gone and he looked away as the darkness returned to his deep blue orbs. Inez fought the tears that threatened, resolving instead to wait patiently until the day he was ready to take her in his arms once more.
Cait moved from the warmth of Chris's embrace as she stretched to wake herself fully. Their eyes met and she smiled at him. "Willard said on the phone last night, he'd be available later if you'd like me to stay over," she whispered, huskily.
Chris's pupils dilated. "I'd like that very much." Their last coupling was before the rescue mission, their time in Texas too fraught and exhausting for anything more than closeness. Tonight, he would remind this beautiful woman why he wanted her to be his wife and lover. Tonight would be a night for reconnecting.
Kelli smiled as she noticed Vin staring at her. "You okay?"
Tanner nodded. "Was just thinkin', I haven't told you I love you, today."
"I'm glad you told me," she smiled, "but I never doubted it."
His eyes shimmered before the light in them disappeared. "As long as you know."
She watched as he again withdrew. *I'm not givin' up, Tanner get used to it.* "I love you too, baby."
There was an excited air among the passengers of the Cessna as the mountains near home came into view. For Vin and Buck, it was hard to imagine actually being this close, since several times over the past week they believed they would never see home again. Chris, Josiah, Ezra, JD, and Nathan were elated that their mission was successful, and seven brothers, not five, would be departing the plane once they landed. Kelli, Inez, Cait, and Brodie were more apprehensive about what the next few weeks would bring, but they knew this was a major step forward. The relief they all felt when they touched down was palpable. They all knew things were far from right, but simply moving into a new phase lifted their spirits.
Barbara waited to take her man home, while Mallory was anxious to see Josiah. Rain was prepared to help Nathan with his patients, and curious to meet the nurse who would be staying with them. True to keeping with Wild Bunch tradition, they had it all worked out. Walter was responsible for Chris, Vin, Cait, and Kelli.
Nathan approached JD. "Wait here for your chair. You'll be coming home with Rain and me for now "
Both men turned to Buck. "No offense, Nathan, but JD's with us."
Inez nodded. "I called yesterday to have Aunt Isabella arrange to make our home wheelchair accessible."
Nathan was torn. He didn't want to address the obvious problem with that statement in front of JD. Buck needed careful looking after, especially spiritually, as did JD, though his needs more physical than mental, but Nathan knew saying so could offend one brother and hurt the other, so he simply nodded. "No problem, I'll be visiting, anyway."
"Buck " JD began.
"Hush boy," Buck winked, "decision's made."
Walter had brought the Navigator, which allowed room for Vin, Kelli, Chris, and Cait as well as Vin's chair. "Chris, your truck is parked at Vin's. We figured you'd want to see Grace and Cody as soon as possible."
"Thanks Walter, but we'll see Vin settled first."
Ezra was concerned that Barbara was so distressed. As she drove them home, he squeezed her knee. "Would you like to talk about it?"
"I'm sorry," she sniffed, "I've been so worried, especially knowing you were injured, but seeing Buck and Vin so and Vin and JD in wheelchairs "
Barbara did so, breaking down the moment she put on the parking brake. Despite his discomfort, Ezra turned to soothe her. Minutes later, she had calmed. "I'm sorry, my love." Looking at him, she was shocked to see his own tears. "I've upset you."
"No," Ezra assured. "I have wanted to do this for some days, now. Seeing Buck and Vin so mistreated battered, naked and wallowing in filth. Then to almost lose them again, not to mention myself and JD's injuries which, for the most part we have kept close to our chests for fear of distressing them further. My darling, crying hardly covers how I feel about all that has happened." He took her one hand as his other rested on her swelling belly. "But, just seeing your beautiful face today and feeling this miracle we have created growing inside you, has most definitely been a comfort."
Smiling, she placed her hand on top of his. "Welcome home, Ezra." Turning back to the wheel, she set off. "As soon as we're home, you're going to bed." Her eyes twinkled as she glanced at him. "Sadly, not for the purpose I would dearly love it to be but that, my love, will come as soon as your strength returns."
Standish grinned. "I can hardly wait."
"I'll make it worth it."
"Oh, sweetheart, of that, I have no doubt."
Buck hated that Inez had to assist him through his own door, but gritted his teeth as he struggled to his favorite chair.
"I thought it might be easier for the children to see you here, but as soon as they've visited bed."
Buck nodded, tiredly, smiling as Isabella, pushing JD, stopped at the doorway to the main room.
"I have prepared the room I use for JD's stay and made up a bed in the den for me, for now." She rested a hand on JD's head. "As his little ones are still at daycare, and will not be here for a while, I am putting him to bed."
Buck grinned when he heard, as Isabella wheeled him to his room, JD's insistence that going to bed wasn't necessary.
"Tea?" Inez asked.
"That'd be good, thanks." Buck smiled. He watched her sashay away, relieved at a small stirring in his loins, to then be mentally assaulted by images of Inez, tied down and being brutally raped as she cried, 'Buck Buck '
He snapped back to reality as he stared at the beautiful brown eyes gazing at him with concern, recoiling slightly as delicate fingers brushed away his tears. Leaning in, she kissed him. Their salty kiss deepening as, just for a moment, the pair became tactile. As her hand traveled down his chest, Buck's own hand covered it and he pulled back.
"I'll take that tea, now."
Trying not to show her disappointment at losing the contact, Inez stood, nodding. "Si, claro."
Caleb ran to the big room when Inez nodded to him. "Dad!"
"Hey son." Buck gladly accepted the hug Caleb offered. "You beat your sisters in here, I see."
"Yep, Mama said since I'm the oldest I could come first. Sarah and Maria are right behind me."
In a few minutes, Buck found himself surrounded by children. On one hand, he loved it, but soon, he felt smothered, and looked to Inez for help.
Reading that look, she shooed the older children off to watch television, put Tannis in the playpen, and handed Isabella over to her Aunt. "You look tired, husband; as soon as we eat perhaps you should rest."
Nodding his head, Buck said. "Yeah, maybe tomorrow I'll feel up to taking 'em all on."
With Buck and JD safely home, Rain's eyes glistened as she watched her husband cuddle their children, and then talk her through all that had happened. While he talked, he packed a kit for his visits to his injured brothers. Returning to the lounge, she smiled as Talia stood.
"Thank you for allowing me to stay the night," she smiled. "After I hand over the documents tomorrow, I'll be heading back to Texas."
"Could you do me a favor, tomorrow?" Nathan based his question on a hunch. His reasoning centered on the attachment his youngest brother had developed for this pretty, civilian nurse.
"While Buck and Vin are visiting orthopedics, JD will need to go to ophthalmology. Would you accompany him?"
Talia smiled. "I'd be happy to."
Rain gave him a sideways glance. She had expected to accompany JD there, after Nathan's initial reviewing of tomorrow's events. The wink she received assured her they would be talking, later.
Chris aided Vin into the wheelchair, and then pushed him up the temporary ramp Walter added at the front door after Kelli's call. The only thing holding Andi and Jason back was Max's warning to at least allow their parents to come in the door before they descended on them. Andi hopped on one foot, her excitement evident.
The moment Vin appeared she forgot all about any warnings. "Daddy!" she pulled her hand from Jason's and ran across the room. Closer to the chair she hesitated briefly, not certain how to get to him.
Vin solved her problem when he picked her up and sat her on his lap. "Hi, Sugar."
"We missed you. Me and Jason stayed with Mama so she wouldn't cry so much, and whiles she was gone to get you we took care of y'all's bed." She took a breath, touched his face, and continued. "Does it hurt daddy? Mama said you cut your hair I like it better the other way and you know what Jason helped Walter tend the horses and I got to help and Peso let me brush him. I think he missed you like we did. We was good, just ask Max we helped take care of Trey and Bren .they were into everything and you know what else ."
"Gee Andi, give dad a break. I want to see him too."
Wrapping his arm around Jason, Vin pulled him closer. "Hey Pard, I missed you too. Thanks for takin' care of Mom, Andi and the twins for me."
Chris and Brodie stood back to watch Vin's reunion with his oldest children. Although for different reason, both men were visibly affected by the scene playing out in front of them. Kelli reacted first, gently lifting Andi from her father's lap. "Honey, we have plenty of time to talk with daddy, since he's goin' to be home with us for a while. You want to help bring the twins to see him?"
Andi nodded. "Missed you too, Mama." She kissed Kelli on the cheek. The moment her mama set her down, and her feet touched the floor, she was off and running.
Cait stepped forward. "You stay here, Kel. I'll go with her to get the boys."
Jason hugged his father's neck. "Welcome home, Dad."
Vin winked at him. "Thanks son, I love you." He touched the soft cast on his son's arm. "Healin' okay?"
"Yep, and I love you too. Reckon I'd better go help them, Bren and Trey can be a handful." He nodded to Brodie, hugged his Mom, and Uncle Chris, and then headed toward the nursery.
Max had waited for the kids to wind down, and now it was her turn. She leaned down and kissed Vin on the cheek. "Welcome home. I hope you brought your appetite, because I'm making all your favorites for tonight."
"Yes, ma'am. After a week of starvin', and three days of what the hospital called food, I'm ready for your home cookin'."
Max bit her lip to keep from crying. "Then I'd best get to it." She nodded to the others, and hurried off to the kitchen.
Walter patted Vin on the shoulder. "I'll set these bags in y'all's room and then go help Max." He turned to Brodie. "Mister Hawks, when you're ready I'll show you where you'll be stayin'."
Brodie acknowledged him. "Thanks." He turned his attention to Vin. "You have quite a welcoming committee there."
Vin hurt, but in a good way. Pleased to be home, he smiled. "You've only seen half of it."
Chris grinned. "Vin, you better find a place to light, before the twins descend on you."
They moved further into the den, and with a little help, Vin was soon comfortable in the recliner by the fireplace.
Kelli covered him with a comforter. "You sure you're okay for the next assault wave?"
"Hell, after what I've been through, this is a piece of cake." He grabbed her hand and pulled her down next to him, whispering for only her to hear, "I have pain pills, and right now I need y'all close."
Brodie and Chris sat to enjoy the show when Cait walked in with Bren and Trey in her arms. Jason followed, and Andi directed them, chatting a mile a minute. Once the babies saw Vin, they couldn't hold still. For the following twenty minutes, excited children surrounded him. As much as he enjoyed listening to their chatter, it all soon took a toll on the healing Texan.
Watching her husband closely, Kelli finally called a halt to the reunion. "Daddy needs to rest a bit before supper."
Chris picked up Bren. "Cait and I will take the babies over to my house for an hour or so. I want to see Cody and Grace, and then we'll all come back for dinner." They took the twins and left with them, while Jason dragged Andi off to the playroom.
Brodie stood. "I think I'll find Walter, and have him show me my quarters." He stopped in front of Vin on his way out. "Later you can acquaint me with your computer."
Vin nodded, and then waited until it was just him and Kelli. "Think I'll take a nap here. You might as well go unpack, and keep the kids' occupied."
Kelli understood his words as a clear 'leave me alone' message. Thinking she might have some time alone with him, she was disappointed, but decided that for now, she would let him have it his way. "All right, I'll wake you for supper then."
Watching her leave, Vin sighed. Arriving home should have made him feel a helluva lot better than it did. He leaned back and tried to sort through the questions swimming through his mudded brain. Why was he avoiding being alone with his wife? Could he trust Raven? Why did he see Wilder every time he closed his eyes? When would he feel in control of his life again, and how did he lose control in the first place? Finally, he asked himself the question he feared the most What if he never found his way back?
When Kelli walked into their bedroom, the first thing she noticed was that it had been rearranged. Obviously, it was Max and Walter's handiwork. They had made it easier for Vin to move around in the wheelchair, and after inspecting their bathroom, she found they had considered Vin's pride, too. He would be able to take care of necessities without asking for assistance. She made a mental note to thank them for their efforts.
Quickly unpacking the few items that needed to be put away, she stopped when she picked up the packet Raven had given her. It would be so easy to leave it for Vin to find, but that would be taking the coward's way out and simply not acceptable. Instead, she opened one of her dresser drawers and placed it beneath her folded clothes. It could stay there until she figured out another way to get Brodie and Vin reconciled.
*I reckoned you'd do the right thing.*
Startled, Kelli whirled around to find Tracker standing behind her. "Don't do that! My nerves are not in the best shape as it is."
*Sorry, but I still ain't wearin no bells. Just wanted you to know you're not havin' to do this alone."
"Yeah, well. Do you really think havin' four generations of Tanners under one roof is such a hot idea?"
*You can't include Jason, Trey, and Bren, they're too little to cause much trouble, so there only three generation for you to worry about, 'cause I'm not leavin'. Resolvin' this is way overdue. I reckon you're gonna have to put up with all us Tanners for a while.*
Kelli glared at him. "Did anyone ever tell you that your timin' sucks?"
*Guess you just did.*
"When are you goin' to talk to Vin or Brodie?"
*Vin's not ready to hear from me, and James * he corrected her, * I can't talk to unless or until he accepts being a Tanner again.*
"Great. I suppose you expect me to make that happen without it all blowin' up around me."
*I'm countin' on just that. I'll be close by when you need me.* He vanished, leaving her with several unanswered questions.
The reunion continued when JD's children arrived. It was a noisy but happy event, Buck's kids also going to visit uncle JD, just as JD's girls had gone to check out Uncle Buck. Nathan, Rain, Josiah, and Mallory had all dropped in during the evening. As had Chris and Cait on their way to Vin's for supper. Now, both injured men were in bed. Isabella smiled at a slumbering JD. His pain meds were strong, and had not taken long to work. The children also safely tucked in, she snapped off his lamp and closed the door. Passing Buck and Inez's room, she could hear them talking softly, before moving on to her temporary bedroom.
"No matter what I love you, hold onto that."
Her body tingling, Inez waited for the accompanying embrace, crying softly as Buck turned carefully onto his side facing away from her and fell asleep.
She lay there feeling more alone than when he had been in South America and for the first time since their reunion, she began to fear for their relationship and his sanity.
Supper was more subdued than earlier. Afterwards Vin showed Brodie his office, and left him working on his computer. Chris and Cait went home with their kids, after helping Kelli put the Tanner children down for the night. Max and Walter reluctantly departed, only after Kelli promised to call if she needed them. Finally, she and Vin were alone in their room.
Kelli slipped on a nightgown, one of Vin's favorites for her to wear. Then she waited until he finished in the bathroom and returned. "Now, it's my turn. I want to tend to some of those wounds."
"They can wait for doc to look at 'em." He pulled off his shirt and lifted himself onto the bed. He pulled the cover over him, turned his back to her, and said. "It was a long trip for both of us, get some sleep."
She was not going to let him dismiss her again. "Look, Tanner. I know you're hurtin', but I am not goin' to let you shut me out, anymore than you'd let me do that to you. If you think for a moment that after everythin' we've been through, I'll stand quietly by, while you slip away from me, you are sadly mistaken! Now, we can do this one of two ways, we can fight about it, or you can start behavin' like my husband. Your call."
Vin smiled, it was reassuring to know that some things did not change. He turned over to face his wife, not at all surprised to see her standing by the bedside with her hands on her hips. Even angry, she was beautiful, and in that instant, he realized that he was counting on her tenacity to help him through this. Pulling back her side of the covers, he drawled, "You gonna stand there all night or haul your sweet ass in here with me."
Not giving him an opportunity to change his mind, Kelli wasted no time snuggling next to him. She smiled when his arm encircled her waist, and he patted her butt. "Love you, Texas."
"Love you too, Tanner." Laying her head on his shoulder, they both contently drifted off to sleep.
Visions of a couple in the throes of passion assaulted his dreams .then the man suddenly started hitting her, first an open-handed slap, then with his fist. Finally, he pulled his gun, crammed it beneath her chin, and
"NO!" Vin screamed. Drenched in sweat and trembling, he was vaguely aware of a soft hand touching his face.
"Vin it's only a nightmare Tanner, listen to me ." Kelli's gentle tone finally reached him.
Swallowing hard, Vin shook his head. The light was on, and his worried wife was talking to him. "I'm awake what time is it?"
Kelli glanced at the bedside clock. "It four-fifteen Vin tell me "
"No it's " he reached out and took a stand of her hair, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. He whispered, "You're really here." Then he remembered he saw Kelli in his nightmare, making love to another man she seemed to enjoy it and the man wasn't Jake Wilder . Suddenly his voice turned hard. "I'm fine. Go back to sleep."
"Damnit, Kel. Leave it just fuckin' leave it!" He turned his back to her, and this time she let him.
Tanner Home, Thursday
Kelli poured herself a cup of coffee and walked out to the porch. She loved to watch the sunrise this time of year; it rose directly over the meadow where she and Vin were married. Their anniversary was next month, and she wondered where they would be by that time. After Vin's nightmare, she knew she had lost any ground she had gained with him. He shut down completely, and he was not letting her in to whatever horrors he was reliving.
"Mind if I join you?" Brodie stood at the door, reluctant to intrude, but curious to know more about the woman his son loved.
Wiping away her tears, she shook her head. "No, come on out. Vin had a rough night and is still sleepin'."
He leaned back against the railing. "I know most of the facts of yours and Vin's lives." Seeing her surprise, he explained. "Sorry, but it's what I do. I collect information. I learn people's weaknesses, and their strengths. In my business, the more you know, the better your chances are of surviving. What I don't know, and truthfully, until now, never cared to, is about the emotions that go with those cold facts."
Maybe because they both wanted what was best for Vin, Brodie was one of a handful of people Kelli felt comfortable talking to about her husband. "What is it you're askin' me?"
"You and Vin."
Nodding, Kelli smiled. "When I came to Colorado, the last thing I expected to find was love, and a family, but Vin he tore through all the barriers I spent a lifetime buildin' around my heart. His dogged determination took 'em down one by one, and suddenly there he was right in front of me with nothin' between my soul and his lookin' into his eyes was like comin' home to a place I'd never been. Vin and I were married less than six weeks after we met," She pointed to the meadow, "right out there, at sunrise. He told me that together, we could do anythin', and we have until now."
"You're not giving up already?"
"No I'll never give up, but " She shook her head. "I'm not sure how to reach him. Vin is the rock in our partnership. His gentle persistence and endless patience is what keeps us goin'. Me well let's just say patience is not my strong point. I've always angered more quickly than him. Usually I hide behind my armor when things get too tough, and keep my emotions at arm's length." Kelli laughed. "Only now he's the one who angers quickly, and is hidin' his emotions."
"I've seen him sit motionless for hours, waiting for just the right conditions to take a shot." Brodie took a sip of coffee. "I've also seen him strike so swiftly and silently that the enemy didn't even know he was there until it was too late." He glanced at her and smiled. "He could raise hell with the best, and he never lacked attention from the ladies, but he didn't allow any of 'em close enough to see the real Vin Tanner. Deep down, I always believed he was destined to live a solitary life. If you had told me then that he would end up happily married with a houseful of kids, I would have said you were nuts but I see the way his eyes light up when you walk in a room, and how gentle he is with his children. He's not that far from you Kelli, but he needs time to sort through his feelings about what happened."
"So, you're saying just stand back and wait?"
"I'm saying be who you are that's what he's counting on, even if he doesn't know it yet."
Kelli nodded, it sounded a lot easier than trying to be something she wasn't. "What about you? Was there anyone special after ?"
"No," Brodie answered quickly. "Don't get me wrong. I'm no saint. I've had many brief encounters, but that's all they were. I never allowed any woman close to me after Rebecca."
"Except you made a point to stay in or around Vin's life."
"Only in the shadows."
"Until now you've risked exposin' what you spent a lifetime hidin' don't you think you both deserve to be free of the past?"
Brodie took a deep breath. "We'll see first things first though. Let's get that boy back where he belongs, and then," he shrugged, "who knows?"
"Mom, Andi hid my book bag." Jason yelled from inside.
Kelli shrugged. "Duty calls. Are you ready for a dose of Tanner mornin' chaos?"
Brodie gave her a bewildered look. "Reckon I'll observe first, and let you know."
They moved inside and within minutes, the chaos was in full swing. Max arrived and began making breakfast. The twins woke, demanding attention. While Kelli went to get them, Andi and Jason continued to quibble with one another, and the dog lay in the middle of the floor so everyone had to step over him to move around the kitchen.
Bren ran into the room, and circled the table, followed by his mother, who was carrying Trey. "Bren Jamison Tanner, you stop right there." Kelli yelled just as he prepared to make a leap for the dog. Quickly setting Trey in his high chair, she rescued their shepherd from her giggling son. The rest of the kids dissolved into laughter, and the noise level skyrocketed, before the arguing began again.
"You're gonna wake dad, Andi, hush." Big brother Jason ordered.
"You're not the boss of me." She folded her arms and glared at him.
"Okay you two, be nice." Kelli opened the refrigerator and reached for the milk.
"He started it."
The sound of a shrill whistle from the doorway halted their battle of wills. The twins ceased their chatter immediately, and silence reigned. Once, Vin effectively had their attention, he quietly said, "Let's keep it down to a dull roar."
Brodie, who had been leaning against the counter watching the morning madness, grinned. He glanced at Vin, raised his cup, and said. "Impressive."
Vin barely acknowledged Brodie's presence. "I've had plenty of practice."
"Morning, Dad." Jason threw his sister a smug look. "Told ya you'd wake him."
"Did not," Andi retorted, and looked at her father, his stern glare stopped any further argument. "Morning, Daddy." She then busied herself with eating her breakfast.
Kelli poured, and then handed Vin his coffee. "Thanks, at least now I can hear myself think." She kissed him, and was relieved when he did not rebuff her actions. "Now, maybe we can get them out the door on time."
Breakfast finished, Walter hustled the two oldest into the truck to take them to school. Max cleared the dishes, and took the twins for their morning bath. Kelli gave up trying to get Vin to talk. "I'm gonna go and feed the horses."
Brodie asked, "You need any help?"
Vin stared at him, and shook his head. "She can do it. You and I need to talk."
With breakfast over, and the big kids all off to school, Inez answered the door. "Morning, Nathan, Talia."
"Morning," he said as he stepped inside, Talia following. "I came to start my rounds, and thought I'd introduce our young Talia to one of your delicious breakfast tacos, while I'm here."
Inez laughed. "You know me too well. I have plenty, help yourself."
Buck sat at the table and looked up at Nathan through veiled eyes. "Guess you're here to poke and prod some more."
Passing a taco to Talia, Nathan nodded, "Yep, but not before I eat." He grabbed a second one for himself. "Where's JD?"
"Right here." He wheeled into the kitchen and grinned when he saw Talia. "Morning."
Neither Buck nor Nathan missed the coy glances between their young brother and the nurse.
JD and Talia kept up the conversation, while Nathan ate and watched Buck. Once he was finished, he asked them to step into the bedroom, so he could examine them both. Satisfied that their physical wounds were healing, he walked with them back to the kitchen, and then issued his instructions.
"JD, you have an appointment with the ophthalmologist this morning. Talia," he glanced at her and smiled, "is going to take you, and while you're there she'll sort out the medical records with Gilford and Landers." He turned to Buck, who fussed the entire time Nathan examined him. "Your appointment is with Landers tomorrow at 1000 hours. Inez can take you if you want, or I can drive you over."
"Inez needs to be with the babies. You can drive me." Buck did not miss seeing the hurt expression on his wife's face, and tried to ignore the stab of guilt he felt. He just needed time away from her and the kids because as much as he loved them he felt smothered by their attention.
"All right." Nathan worried about Buck's withdrawal, but maybe after he saw the doctor he would feel differently. "I'm on my way to see Ezra, and then Vin." He patted Buck on the shoulder as he walked toward the door. "I'll stop by later." He nodded to Talia. "You take care of our boy there. Let me know if you need anything."
"Don't worry; he's in safe hands with me." Talia smiled at JD, and held up the keys to Rain's car. "Missus Jackson loaned me the use of her vehicle. You ready?"
"Yeah sure." JD cast a worried look toward Buck. "You okay, bro?"
"Of course I am. You go on." Buck carried his coffee, and walked onto the porch to watch them leave. He heard Inez come up behind him.
"Cariño," she hesitated, "would you like me to run you a bath?"
Throwing the remainder of his coffee on the ground, he handed her his cup, and shook his head. "No think I'm gonna take a walk."
Cradling the cup in her hand, Inez held back her tears when Buck turned, and walked off without even saying goodbye.
"Is it just ophthalmology you're visiting, today?" Talia asked.
"No, I have to see Landers, too. I'm hoping to get outta this damn chair, today." He smiled. "Thanks for doing this," JD replied.
"No problem. I have to hand over the patient files, anyway." Seeing his face drop, she quickly added, "But even if I hadn't been, I would still have wanted to." She was relieved to see him smile. "Do you live far from Buck?"
"Not really. It's gonna be odd going home again, haven't been there much, lately."
"You have lovely kids. Is your wife away?"
Looking down and fiddling with his hands, JD shared something he hadn't really said aloud since he first announced it. "We, uh we're divorcing."
Talia turned, sharply. She hadn't expected that. Was it wrong for her heart to skip a beat? "Well, no matter why it's her loss." She watched him pale a little. "I'm sorry, that was presumptuous of me, and I know just 'cause someone's drop-dead gorgeous doesn't make him perfect, but, I'm a good judge of character, and you " she grinned, whispering the last word, "are perfect."
THUD! JD's heart was beating out a rhythm on his ribcage. Twice in just a few days, he was lost for words. His head was spinning. So much had happened in a week. The last thing he expected was to find, at a time like this, not only a gorgeous girl, but one who actually liked him. Thoughts and feelings vied for attention as he tried to ignore the recently neglected brain in his pants and put things in perspective. This was way too fast.
"So are you." 'Jesus, Holy crap, did he just say that out loud?' She giggled. Damn, he liked her giggle, too.
"When are you hoping to go home?"
"Well," JD sighed. "I'm kinda screwed with three kids, one arm and a limp, but I think Buck and Inez need some alone time, so I'm gonna head home over the weekend. We'll be okay. I have good kids, and they're in daycare all day, we'll be fine."
Talia's brain was working overtime. An opportunity was right there for the taking. She really liked him but the question was would this be fair to either of them?
Vin stared at Brodie, unsure about how he felt about the man. Over the years since they first met, Hawks or Raven had never given him a reason not trust him. He had seen Raven take women, and then leave them without a second thought. It never mattered to Vin, he had done the same. Back then it was no big deal, there was no one he met he wanted to hang onto. It was different now. He had Kelli, a life he loved, and a family. Reason told him Raven would not betray him, yet, he could not get past the image from his nightmare Raven and Kelli. Was it fear that brought it on or a vision of something to come?
"Whatever's stuck in your craw, you might as well spit it out." Brodie stared back at Tanner.
"Why did you reveal who you were to Chris and Kelli?"
*Loaded question, Son.* Brodie hesitated, and then decided to answer on the assumption he meant Raven. "Anonymity makes my work easier," he shrugged, "but Chris figured it out, and he told Kelli. It didn't change what I was doing. They're the ones who had to decide if it made a difference."
His slight hesitation before answering did not slip past Vin. "I've never known you to mix business with " he searched for the right words, " personal associations. You and Chris appear to be friendly, Ezra, JD, Nathan, and Josiah, too. You called my wife 'Missy', which is a name, only close family members use. You talk more openly with her than I've ever known you to do with anyone." Vin shook his head. "A man's gotta wonder why?"
"Reckon so." Brodie sighed. "The truth is I've been in this business a long time, and suddenly I've realized that I need to take a look at the world waiting for me when I retire. Kelli is easy to talk with, and I enjoy her company. Yes, I noticed she's a beautiful young woman, but she's your wife, and the mother of your children. Those reasons alone make her off limits."
Before Vin had time to think about Brodie's candid admission, Chris walked in, leaving the rest of this discussion for another time.
Chris felt the simmering tension in the room, but refrained from asking what it concerned. "Glad you're both here. I talked to Travis this morning; he's reconnecting CASSIE for us. In addition, he didn't say from where, but he's heard rumors about more threats to Alpha Team. He thinks we might have a problem heading our way."
Brodie nodded. "I touched base with a few of my associates last night. They're hearing the same thing. Nothing specific, but the chatter is increasing. I think we should take extra security precautions, until we know more."
"More about what?" Buck entered from the doorway.
"Rumors, Bucklin. Apparently, we might get a second chance to kill the bastards who paid for our little vacation in paradise." Vin answered. "Personally, I'd like to give them all a taste of what we experienced."
"Count me in. I've had time to think of several painful ways for them to die."
Chris heard them, but had a difficult time recognizing the brothers he knew and loved. They both believed in justice, and a righteous kill was something none of them had a problem with, hell at one time or another they all went after a bad guy for vengeance over a wrongdoing. A quick kill and it was over, and even then, they did not take it lightly. Larabee knew that he had never heard them speak with such animation about the prospect of torturing another human being. It just wasn't their style. It spoke volumes about their current emotional and mental state of mind, and gave him only a glimpse into the horrible hell they lived through. He exchange glances with Brodie. "If you two expect to come back to work anytime soon, you know counseling is mandatory."
"Not me. All I need is to get out of this damn chair, and back on my feet." Vin cast his eyes to Chris. "No shrink is gonna fuck with my mind."
"Same here. Hell, we didn't do anything wrong. If anyone needs their head shrunk it's the sonsofbitches who hired Wilder." Buck felt his anger growing just saying that man's name.
"Buck Wilmington. What the hell are you doing here?" Nathan stood at the door with his hand on his hips. "Inez told me you went for a walk. She didn't say it was all the way over here."
"You worry too much Nate. I'm fine, or I would be if everyone left me alone." Buck turned his head toward Vin. "Came to warn you, Nathan was headed your way. Guess you know now."
"I'm doing all right, too." Vin insisted.
Nathan sighed. Wounds were a lot easier to fix than putting up with two stubborn men. "Well Mister All Right, you see Doctor Gilford tomorrow morning at 1030 hours. You gonna find your own way or ride with me and Buck?"
Vin thought about it, glanced at Hawks, and then decided. He was not about to leave his wife here alone with Brodie. "Kel will take me."
"Fine." Nathan turned to Chris. "JD is there now, and Barbara will take Ezra later today. She has an ultrasound scheduled, and he wants to be with her."
Chris nodded. "Understandable." He looked at the little group around him. "Brodie, you see what you can find out from your associates. Vin, you make that appointment, Buck, I'll drive you home. We can't do a damn thing until we know who we're facing, so no arguments."
"Unless he plans to bite my head off, I'll drive Buck home." Nathan waited for Buck to respond.
Buck felt bad for making it sound like he did not appreciate Nathan's concern. "I won't bite off your head, and I'm sorry if I sounded ungrateful." He stood. "I am kinda tired. That walk was longer than I figured."
Buck left with Nathan, Brodie headed to the computer, which left Vin and Chris alone.
Trying to lighten the mood Chris grinned. "Guess you need to practice some of that patience stuff you're always preaching to me about."
"Sorry, I'm fresh out. Whatever patience I had, I left in South America."
"Vin, it would help to talk about it."
Blowing out his breath, Vin shook his head. "Nothin' to talk about. I'm kinda tired, too. Make yourself at home, I'm gonna go rest a while." He wheeled himself out of the room and left Chris to wonder what it was going to take to get the old Vin back.
Denver Memorial Hospital
"Your eyes are looking good, JD. I'll give you more drops, but these should be your last."
JD smiled with relief at the ophthalmologist. "That's great, thanks. When can I stop wearing the shades?"
"Well, your reaction to light has improved, but there's still some scarring there. Take it day-by-day, increasing the time without them in increments. But definitely no bright sunlight until the course of antibiotic drops is finished."
Nodding, Dunne agreed and wheeled himself out.
Handing JD the documents she was about to handover, Talia wheeled JD to see Landers. "Everything okay?"
"Perfect," JD grinned. "Well, almost. No complications." He grinned when he spotted Landers, extending his hand to shake the younger man's.
"Good to see you, JD, very good indeed."
Dunne pointed to Talia. "This is Nurse Romero."
"Ah, yes, I understand you have something for me?"
"Yes sir." As JD handed her the folders from his lap, she passed them to the doctor. "My job is done." The finality in her words saddened both her and JD.
"Thank you. While JD is undressing," he pointed him toward a booth, "Perhaps we can go over the case files for a moment?"
Five minutes later, Landers found JD sitting on the examination bed in his Speedos and tee, his shirt hanging due to being unable to maneuver it around his sling. "How did you get up there unassisted?"
"Determination," he puffed, wiping the sweat from his brow. Landers examined his thigh wound first, and then checked his head sutures before moving onto his shoulder.
"All good. The shoulder will have to stay in the strap, for now, I'll re-dress your thigh and, if we can get you balancing on an elbow crutch, you'll be good to go."
"Really?" JD beamed. "Awesome, thanks."
"I am, however, going to recommend some counseling before I see you again or at least directly after "
"Aw, doc, I'm fine honestly."
He smiled. "I'm sure you are, nevertheless, I'll be talking to Chris. Now, let's get you that crutch."
Talia stood, beaming as JD limped out of the examination room toward her, on a crutch. She was just about to congratulate him, when he stumbled and she caught him. Their eyes met as their faces were a mere inch apart.
"You okay?" she eventually breathed.
"Yeah, sorry not quite past my learner's permit, yet." He winced, realizing he had jarred his shoulder.
"Come on; let's get you back to Buck's."
As he nodded and they headed for the car, she knew what she had to do; she just hoped it was the right thing.
Buck retired early, much to Inez's disappointment. He had barely bothered with the children, save for cuddling with first Bella, then JJ. He seemed able to handle the babies far better than he could the older children. Then he had popped his pain meds and shuffled off to bed while she and Isabella bathed the kids, and put them to bed.
Inez had briefly heard him and JD talking, but it hadn't been for long. JD had come out to put his babies to bed, and then retire himself. Getting about on a crutch was clearly more tiring than he had anticipated.
At first, she thought she heard moaning; quickly realizing it was a high pitched wailing. Entering the master bedroom, Inez was shocked to see Buck huddled in a sitting position on the bed, rocking. As she drew closer, it was obvious he was asleep, his words making sense as she saw the wet patch in the bed.
"I did that he hurt me so bad but men like me don't do this oh God someone help us oh God please, someone help us "
She turned when a noise at the door alerted her to JD's presence. Like her, he was crying, clearly pained by Buck's heart wrenching pleas.
Defiance on his face, Buck stared at the man who lashed out at him over and over again. Suddenly an excruciating pain to his genitals caused him to cry out as a mix of blood and urine ran down the insides of his legs. Wilder was laughing, taunting ' you dirty bastard, Wilmington you pissed yourself real men don't piss themselves.'
"Help, me, please don't leave me like this "
Without words, Inez and JD eased the naked man from the soiled sheets. As Isabella joined them, Inez motioned for JD to take Buck, handing him fresh pajamas, while she and Isabella changed the bedding. Buck stared at JD in confusion.
"Kid why why are you in my bedroom? Are you okay?"
Struggling without his crutch, but determined, JD nodded. "I'm fine, bro. You spilled water in the bed. C'mon, you can shower, and then put on some dry clothes."
Obediently Buck consented. In the shower, he knew exactly what had happened, but decided not to say, eventually, wearily climbing back into bed. Inez was now in there, also. Buck kissed her cheek, rolled over and went back to sleep, leaving her at a loss as to what to do for him and heartsick to know he was pushing her away.
JD checked on his kids, barely making it into bed from the pain of pushing himself too hard. Popping a pain pill, he lay in the bed, his thoughts for Buck, as he softly wept.
Buck was slowly drifting to sleep, staring into the darkness as he saw an image of himself hanging tied, naked, bleeding and defiled.
Nathan drove, throwing a sideways glance at Buck, who had not said a word since they left the hospital, and just stared out the window. Unable to stand the silence any longer, he said, "The news was good, Buck. Doctor Landers confirmed that there was no permanent damage, and within a few weeks you'll be good as new."
"Uh huh," Buck mumbled, his mind obviously somewhere else.
Sighing deeply, Nathan tried to reach Wilmington. "Look, I can't even imagine what you and Vin went through, but don't you think it's time to talk it over let it go."
"You're right, Nate. You can't imagine. Hell, I was there and it's damn hard for me to accept it was real. I don't want to think about it, much less talk about it. Wilder was a psychopath, and I hope to God that you, or any of our brothers, ever have to experience what we did."
"Buck, sooner or later you need to "
"NO! Not now, not ever, just drop the subject please."
The sorrowful plea in Buck's voice was more than Nathan could bear to hear. He nodded, and said softly," All right." Silence reigned for the remainder of their journey home.
After sending Nathan on his way, Buck stood in front of his house, attempting to muster enough courage to face Inez, Aunt Isabella, and JD. Disgracing himself in front of the bastard in Columbia was bad enough, but now the ones he loved most, also knew he was a miserable excuse for a man. No one would dare say it to his face, but there was no way to hide what had happened last night. Buck Wilmington, forty- two years-old, tough macho man, and former Navy Seal wet the damn bed. Whatever dignity he once possessed, he had lost in South America. The only redeeming aspect he could see was that with a little luck, his children would never know his shame.
Setting his shoulders straight, he took a deep breath, and climbed the steps to enter the house he was not sure was home anymore.
JD met him at the door. "Hey Buck. How'd it go with Landers?"
"Pretty much the way I expected." He glanced over JD's shoulder and saw Inez, but could not meet her eyes. "He said in a few weeks, I'll be healed."
Inez bit at her lip, hesitant to press him for more information. "Lunch is almost ready."
"Thanks, but I'm not hungry. It's been a long morning, and I'm tired. Think I'll just take a nap instead," Buck did not wait for her acknowledgement. He walked past her on his way to the bedroom, without stopping, oblivious to the pain he was causing her.
JD saw the unshed tears in Inez's eyes, and tried to think of something comforting to say. He wanted to tell her it would be okay. That Buck would be fine before they knew it and soon, this would only be a bad memory, but first, he had to convince himself.
*Y'know, the more you push 'em away, the more they'll fight back. They love you, son. Like they are to you, you're the center of their world, and they need you, just as you need them.*
"Tell me something I don't know, old man," Buck huffed at Romeo. "Then tell me how I can look them in the eye, when all they see is a coward."
*Ain't likely they see you that way. Inez sees a man who takes her in his arms and makes her feel loved cherished, needed, and desired. Those babies see you as the rock that's teaching 'em all about life, fun, love, an' security. JD sees a man who is a friend, brother, father an' mentor all rolled into one. It took me a while to accept such adoration or even recognize it, but boy howdy, it's there for you as it is for me. Such love ain't offered lightly, pard and ain't taken away, either, even when it's bein' pushed right back. Trust 'em they want to help, and they ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon.*
Buck's eyes closed as the truth washed over him and just for a moment, his heart began to thaw. Then, his eyes suddenly snapped open, and Romeo's heart ached to see the sorrow return. Buck climbed onto the bed, his words whispered before turning away from his counterpart. "I can't."
Chris read over the printouts Brodie had given him. He looked up and asked, "Are you sure about this?"
"As sure as I can be at this point, my information is sketchy, but what I do have is reliable." Brodie rubbed his face with his hands. "I wish I could tell you we had more time, but I think your enemies are getting desperate. This shit in South America has 'em scared, and scared men do the unexpected. They were too confident about their plans, certain that you, and your team would perish when y'all attempted to rescue Vin and Buck."
Josiah said what they were all thinking, "So now they feel they need to finish the job, before our wounded are back on their feet."
Chris tossed the papers on the table. "I'm certain that Ezra and JD will be close to a hundred percent within a couple of weeks, but Buck and Vin they both have a long way to go. They may think they're up to taking on these bastards, but," he looked from Josiah, to Nathan, and then Brodie, "we all know that with their pent-up anger driving them, they'd probably end up getting themselves killed."
"When I dropped Buck off at his place, I wanted to kill someone myself." Nathan clenched his fist, and hit the table. "He just stood there in front of his house staring, like a stranger seeing it for the first time. He refuses to talk about what he and Vin experienced. Only says none of us can understand. I'm not certain he thinks it was all real."
"I stopped by yesterday afternoon, but when we sat on the porch to talk, he only mumbled a few words, and then shut down on me." Josiah sighed. "Buck's withdrawing into himself more each day. He needs to talk to a professional, Chris; one more practiced with patients experiencing the aftermath from torture, than I am. He and Vin both should."
Brodie nodded. "Vin is not in a good place at all."
"He acts like it's no big deal, and won't talk about it." Josiah shook his head. "I'm worried about him."
"I hoped he'd draw on his family for support, but that boy is hell-bent on pushing anyone who cares for him away." Brodie glanced at Chris.
Chris met his eyes with a piercing gaze, "Even Kelli?"
"Especially Kelli," Brodie hesitated for a moment to say more, but he recognized a long time ago that these men were more than teammates to Vin, they were family, and they should know. "Hell, he thinks she and I are on the verge of having an affair right under his nose."
"No," Chris shook his head, "Vin would never believe that, he knows better."
Brodie disagreed. "The Vin who left here two weeks ago might not, but the one I see every day yeah, he would. We might have pushed him too far about protecting his territory."
Josiah explained. "It makes sense. Vin refuses to accept that the torture he went through is responsible for his feelings. To do that means he has to talk about it, and he won't or can't do it, yet. So he goes to a subject he can talk about." He looked directly at Chris. "We all know he has on occasion been a tad possessive where Kel is concerned."
Chris smiled, in spite of the serious nature of their discussion. "Ya think? Hell, Josiah, that's like saying water is wet."
"Exactly my point," Sanchez continued, "It's something he knows, and he's redirecting the feelings he doesn't want to address to a place he can be vocal about. The problem is that in his mind there is no line between the two separate subjects. He's allowing jealousy to replace the anguish he won't accept."
Chris stood and began to pace. "Jesus, what the hell did that maniac do to them down there? I mean I understand it was horrific, but Vin and Buck are too strong to break that quickly."
"Wilder's expertise was finding a man's weakest point and hammering away at it. He didn't break either of them physically, but he sure fucked with their minds. We redirected their anger for a short while, but it's going to take more than that to reach them." Brodie did understand, but it was damn hard to watch someone he cared for mentally deteriorate before his eyes.
Picking up the printout again, Chris stared at Brodie, and sighed. "How much time do you figure we have?"
Kelli cringed with every step Vin took. She knew he was hurting, but he stubbornly refused to take any pain medicine. She was surprised when Doctor Gilford agreed that Vin could try walking with crutches. Thankfully, the doctor had confirmed that the tendons were only nicked, not cut and there was no permanent damage. His right foot was actually in good shape, and in a few days, should not be a problem, but the slashes on his left sole were a long way from healed.
When he almost fell, she sucked in her breath. His ribs were better, but still fragile. "Vin , please don't push yourself too hard."
"Damnit, Kel. I know what I'm doing."
"Fine, I'll leave you alone." She walked out of the house and found a refuge on the porch, knowing she should stay, but she was too stressed out to argue with him. That's all they had done on the way home from the hospital, and now for the first time since they met, she was scared about their future.
Vin slammed the bedroom door behind him. He was damn tired of people telling him what he should, or shouldn't do. Taking care of himself was something he had always done, and just because he was a little injured did not mean he was weak or helpless. The sooner everyone realized that the better. Rustling noises behind him made Vin tense, and turn around.
Relaxing his stance, he took a deep breath, and steadied himself. "What the hell do you want?"
Tracker was leaning against the dresser. *It's not what I want, Vin It's what do you want?*
"Look, I'm getting' a headache, my feet hurt, and I'm in no mood for riddles. Say what you gotta say and then go away."
*Told you I'd be here whenever you needed me.*
"Yeah, so where were you when I was in South American hell?"
*Cowboy was with you, and I knew you were in good hands. I was with your family, takin' care of them for you, especially Chris and Kelli.*
"You too?" Vin huffed. "My wife has a way about attractin' men, doesn't she?"
Tracker shook his head. *You need to remember your heritage. There is a saying among the Indians, 'You move toward and become like that which you think about.' If we keep thinkin' about a bad thing, we will move in that direction. Our visions are very powerful, and they determine our direction, our lives.* He stepped forward to met Vin's eyes, * Your visions, Son, are leadin' you to a path you don't want to follow .I suggest you think hard on these words.*
Before he could answer, Tracker had vanished. His words, however, remained, leaving Vin a lot to think over. He lay on the bed and replayed the disagreement he and Kelli had today, and yesterday, and the day before that. She was right; he was being irrational and unreasonable. After a while, he decided that what he needed to do, was talk to his wife. She did not deserve his anger. The sooner they straightened things out between them, the faster they could get back on the right track again, the better off they would be. Grabbing his crutches, he slid off the bed, and went to look for her.
Brodie walked from Chris's back to the Tanner house. He wanted time to think. For close to thirty years he had done his job professionally, methodically, and without allowing emotion or personal feelings to get in his way. Keeping track of Vin's life was his only constant. It was easier to watch and protect from afar though, than to be here and bonding with his son's family. Like it or not, he cared a great deal for his daughter-in-law and the children *his grandchildren,* they had cracked the armor he placed around his heart so long ago. Then there was his son he had never stopped loving him, but he always thought it was better for Vin, not to be a part of his life. What if he had been wrong all these years?
Stopping in front of the house, Brodie made a decision. He had to find a way to tell his son the truth. Stepping onto the porch, he saw Kelli sitting alone, staring off into the distance, and it looked as if she had been crying. Brodie 'Raven' Hawks was going to break one of his cardinal rules. Damnit, he was going to get personally involved.
"Kelli, are you all right?"
Averting his eyes so he could not see her tears, she nodded. "Yeah, I just need somewhere to think."
"Lot of that going on today," Brodie said as he moved closer to her. "I've made a decision." He cut his eyes to look at her. "For the first time in a long while, I'm starting to care about more than my work. You and the children are responsible for that. So, I'm going to tell Vin the truth, and pray that he forgives me."
Jerking her head up, Kelli said, "No I mean... I agree he needs to know, but not now."
"I thought you wanted me to tell him."
"I do, but I can't bear seein' him try to deal with that while he already has so much to work through." She placed her hand on his shoulder. "Don't get me wrong, I hate keepin' anythin' a secret, especially from Vin, but we have to wait until he's stronger. Once he's back to bein' the old Vin, I'll even stand with you when you tell him, if you want."
"You're probably right, but " Brodie sighed, and decided to tell her where they stood, "hell, he already suspects that I'm lying to him. If he figures it out too soon the fallout could be devastating for everyone."
"I understand the risks, but we have to wait. Causin' him additional pain when he's strugglin' to get past what happened to him and Buck is not an acceptable option."
"The same goes for you, too." He wrapped his arm around her for a hug. "I don't want to see you hurt by all this, either."
Neither of them saw Vin back away from the doorway. He had heard enough to know that he was right. If Brodie 'Raven' Hawks and Kelli were not already lovers, they would be soon.
Vin spent most of the afternoon and evening alone in the bedroom. He had briefly emerged for supper, but avoided talking directly to his wife or Brodie, choosing to spend time with his children instead. For the last few hours he had thought about nothing else, except the partial conversation he overhead earlier. Most of his thoughts centered on Kelli, because like it or not Brodie was just a normal red-blooded male, who lusted after beautiful women. Even after spouting off to him with empty threats of violence, Vin could not blame him for wanting his wife. She was the one who could stop it, if she wanted to.
If his instincts were correct though, Kelli still loved him, and she had not crossed the line of infidelity, yet. If she wanted an affair, she would think long and hard about the consequences, before she acted on it. He also knew her well enough to know that if she did cross that line, she certainly would not conduct her extra-marital activities in their house, or risk exposing the children to any scandalous behavior. She was also not the type of woman, who would give up her family for a fling.
The thing he couldn't figure out was why she would even consider it. Their sex life was healthy, and by no means dull or boring. Whatever she wanted, he had always given freely, and without hesitation. They experimented with new ideas, and role-played their sexual fantasies. Maybe knowing the type of life Brodie led intrigued her, and she was curious. Maybe she was tired of one adversity after another interrupting their lives, and she wanted relief from the constant stress they seemed to attract. Lord knew they had certainly had a deluge of troubles thrown their way since they met. This thing in South America might have been the last straw
Regardless, he loved her, she was his wife, and he damn well intended to keep it that way. If she needed sex, then he would be the one providing it.
Half undressed and sitting on the edge of the bed, Vin turned when Kelli walked into the bedroom. The site of her stirred his passion, and he inhaled, deeply. She was his wife, the mother of his children, his lover. He needed to focus on that, and push his dark thoughts to one side.
As she passed Vin on her way to the dresser for a nightgown, he snagged her hand, and pulled her towards him. "Would you tug my jeans off?"
A quick flash of guilt hit him. Hell, she looked grateful that he was talking to her again; and she had answered with a quick, "Sure," and a beautiful smile, easing his jeans over his feet, before tossing them onto a chair. His habit of going commando left him fully exposed and he noticed that she looked longingly at his naked torso in the muted light. Without realizing it, she had moved closer, sighing when his arms came up, and around her waist.
Vin's mind melted into the warmth and contentment their lovemaking produced. Staring into her passion filled eyes, for a moment, he forgot his doubts, aches, and pains; while his energized body moved closer to woman, he loved.
Suddenly his thoughts turned dark again. *He loved 'he' loved? Who else had tasted her sweet pleasures?*
He looked down at the beauty in his arms. Locked into an unbreakable cycle, his mind battled with video images of another redhead's body jerking violently to brutal assault. As if filming the scene, he panned back to another view; he visualized Brodie, with Kelli. The shadowy images in his mind drove Vin deeper into his nightmare. Kelli barely penetrated his thoughts, while the vision of her and Brodie, naked and entwined, mixed with his image of the woman Wilder was raping.
Releasing her Vin hissed, "Do I measure up, Baby? Do I pleasure you enough? Does Brodie love you better?"
Barely able to comprehend his words, Kelli's eyes opened, her gaze was a mixture of shock and unfocused fervor. "Who? Oh God oh God "
Crazy with the pain of his words, Kelli was shocked when Vin started to walk away. "Stay just like that I'll go get Raven, and tell him I warmed you up for him." Leaving her stunned and brokenhearted, he limped to the bathroom. Vin steadied his shaky hands on the countertop while looking into the mirror, and had trouble recognizing the man he saw reflected there. *What have you done?*
Shivering, hurt, and confused, her tears fell, while Kelli gathered her clothes and hurriedly dressed. Vin's words had pierced her heart with more force than any bullet. When he emerged from the bathroom, she glared at him, knowing she needed to put space between them now, or things might never be right with them again. She snatched up her keys and said, "The kids are all yours tonight, I'm out of here."
"Kelli " Already regretting his words, he watched her go, jerking when she slammed the door. Considering what he had just set into motion, he wouldn't blame her if she never spoke to him again, but in the state she was in, he couldn't let her blindly run off, and maybe end up in an accident. Grabbing his crutches to go after her, he cursed his wounded feet that slowed him down. By the time he made it to the back door, she was gone.
Tracker's words of warning came back to him. *Your visions, Son, are leadin' you to a path you don't want to follow.*
Hoping that Tracker was still watching over Kelli, he sent him a message. *You were right and I didn't listen, but please don't allow her to pay the price for my mistakes.*
Chris woke to the sound of someone pounding at the back door. Slipping on a pair of sweats, he cautiously moved down the hallway without turning on the lights. Moving through the kitchen, he stood to the side of the door and listened for a moment.
"Dad, please "
The distressed plea from his daughter calling for him spurred Chris into action. He flipped the lock, and jerked the door open. The porch light illuminated her small frame. One look at her face, and he knew something bad had happened. The pain he saw in her eyes cut through him like a knife. "Kel what ?" Pulling her into his arms, he rubbed her back while she cried. Kicking the door shut, he simply stood there, and held her until her tears subsided enough for him to ask, "Honey what's wrong?"
Shaking her head, she only managed a few words. "I can't go home can I stay here tonight?"
"Of course," he answered, realizing he wasn't going to get much information from her in her current state. Walking her toward the guest room, he tried another avenue to get his answers.
*Vin, what's going on?*
*She's with me.*
*Thank God, I was afraid *
*What the hell happened?*
*I fucked up *
Kelli stumbled, and drew his attention back to her. *We'll talk tomorrow then, injured or not, you'd better have a damn good reason for me not to kick your ass.*
Tanner Home, Saturday morning
Breakfast was quieter than usual this morning. Jason and Andi ate in silence when he told them their mother had to leave early. Vin tried to keep the twins' food on their highchair tray, instead of the floor, and he was well aware that Max was ignoring him. When she showed up on her day off, he was surprised, but glad to have her help. He figured Chris had called her, but had no idea what reason he might have given for Kelli's absence.
Brodie walked in, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then walked out on the porch without saying a word to Vin.
"May I be excused?" Jason looked at his dad.
"Me, too," Andi turned her eyes toward Vin.
Vin nodded. "Sure, go on."
Max reached for Trey, and then lifted Bren. "I'll give them their baths, before I wash the dishes." She took the boys, and left the room.
Sitting there alone, Vin started feeling the effects of his sleepless night, but resting was impossible. His head hurt from all the mixed-up thoughts running through it, and the pain in his feet paled in comparison to the one in his soul. Reaching for his crutches, he maneuvered onto the porch.
Without turning to face him, Brodie said, "If you want me to leave, say so, and I'll go."
Vin leaned against the railing, and finally spoke to Brodie. "No point to it now. Reckon you're pleased to know I screwed up with my wife."
Turning around to face Vin, Brodie stared at him for a moment before answering. "You set your sites on the wrong target, Tanner. Kelli is not your enemy, and neither am I. Yesterday, I told you that I considered her off limits, but even if I didn't, she would never betray you. That girl loves you."
"Used to " Vin whispered, "used to love me."
Hawks easily read the regret on Vin's face, and understood where this was going. His anger was gone, but something far more dangerous was emerging. "Still does in fact she told me, right here on this porch, about how you reached her after tenaciously tearing down the walls of her emotional barriers, one by one... Said when she met you... it was like coming home to a place she'd never been she showed me where y'all were married, and when she talked about you her eyes shone with love. A man would have to be blind not to see it, Vin."
Vin turned his head, and silently stared at the meadow where they were married. Maybe he had misread the situation, because what Brodie was saying, was what he already knew to be true.
Brodie felt him retreating, and he decided to give Vin something to think about, or at least try to get a rise out of him. "Kelli thinks you're the rock in the family, and she's the weaker one in y'all's relationship. She says you have all the patience, and strength to hold y'all together." He shook his head. "I've watched her over the past couple of weeks, though. She found her strength with her determination not to give up on you. Instead of crying and wringing her hands, she relentlessly pushed forward to participate in finding you and Buck. She never wavered in her belief that we would find y'all alive. Since you've been home, you have pushed her away, argued, and now finally managed to find a way to make her leave .but she has not turned on you, or unleashed that famous Larabee temper she's reported to have. Why do you think she hasn't?"
"She should be furious with me."
"I agree. Instead of fighting the real demons riding your ass, you transferred all your pain to the one who loves you the most." Brodie felt he'd made his point, and had given Vin enough to think about, but threw him a challenge before he left him alone. "Don't you think it's time to realign your scope, and tackle what's really eating at you, before you destroy everything that matters to you?"
Vin listened to his footsteps as he walked off. He knew he needed to take charge of his life again. The problem was he was not sure he could. He couldn't even stop himself from deliberately humiliating the woman he had solemnly vowed to love, honor, cherish, and protect. What if it was already too late to repair the damage he had inflicted on their marriage? What if he could never trust himself to be in control again?
Chris stood and stared out the kitchen window. He had stayed with Kelli until she finally cried herself to sleep in the early morning hours. He supposed that in retrospect, he had been foolish to think once Vin and Buck were rescued, their lives would be okay again. Getting them out of that hellhole was the easy part, now he had to get them out of hell before the flames consumed them all. The pain and the hurt seemed to be multiplying, as if some dark evil had taken root and was growing.
"Morning Dad," Kelli said softly from the doorway.
Turning around he smiled at her. "I see you found the clothes Cait left for you." Chris reached for a cup, and poured her coffee. "She came by early and picked up Grace and Cody. I thought you and I might need some privacy to talk." He passed her the cup when she sat down at the table. "Are you hungry?"
"No, but thanks for the coffee, I needed it." Instead of meeting his eyes, she stared into the cup. "I reckon you have a lot of questions."
"I do, but you don't have to tell me a damn thing you don't want to. You also don't need to worry about the kids. I called Max earlier, and she's at your house. She'll stay as long as you need her to."
Kelli nodded. "I felt bad about leavin' the children, when I knew Vin wasn't up to chasin' after 'em, but " she raised her head to look at Chris, "I didn't couldn't "
Chris took her hand and held on tight. "Honey, I don't know what happened, and I'm not sure I need to know. You take whatever time you need to sort things out."
Shaking her head, she said, "After last night " her voice cracked, and she took a deep breath, "I'm not certain there's anythin' to sort out. Vin's in trouble, Dad, and I can't help him I'm not even sure we have a marriage left."
Tightening his hold on her hand, Chris closed his eyes for a moment. He had hoped this was all over something small, and would blow over quickly. The dejected tone of her voice, and her words told him otherwise. "Kel stay here today, and then after you've had time to think about it, you tell me what you want."
Tears she had been holding back filled her eyes. "What I want is to turn time back a couple of weeks back to before this whole nightmare started."
"I think that's what we all want, honey." Chris stood and pulled her to her feet. "You're exhausted. Go back to bed for a while. I need to make a run to the Wilmington's place. When I come back, I'll fix us some lunch and then we'll go from there." He took her nod as agreement, waited until he knew she was resting, and then left. He would see Buck, but he planned to take Vin on first.
Vin watched Chris drive up, and waited for him to come charging up the steps to confront him. He had been sitting on the porch all morning, expecting him. It did surprise him when Larabee ambled up the steps, and then sat down on the lounger next to him.
"Nice day, you been out here long?"
Vin nodded. "A good while I reckon. Max is avoidin' me, and keepin' the kids busy. Brodie's around somewhere he's not too happy with me either."
Chris could not help but noticed the haggard look on Vin's face. "I'm having the family together at my house tomorrow. I expect you to be there."
Shaking his head, Vin frowned. "I figured you came here to kick my ass, and you're talkin' about family get-togethers."
"Should I be kicking your ass?"
"Hell yes! I expected you a lot earlier. I'm surprised you didn't shoot over here last night as soon as Kelli told you what I did."
Watching for his reactions, Chris told him, "She didn't tell me, and I haven't asked. Frankly, she's in no condition to tell me much of anything. I was hoping you'd explain why my daughter is so distraught."
Every word Chris uttered cut into Vin's heart. He turned his head, closing his eyes in an effort to hold back the tears he felt building. After a few moments, he sniffed, and sighed deeply. "I broke a sacred trust between us .one I'm not sure I can mend."
Chris saw what Brodie had seen earlier. Vin was floundering with feelings of remorse, guilt, and shame, not only from whatever happened here at home, but also from the mental wounds Wilder inflicted. Tanner's spirit was losing hope, and he was on the verge of giving up completely. That was something Chris Larabee was not going to let him do. "You broke it you'll have to fix it, but first " he waited until Vin turned around to look at him, " first, you need to figure out why it happened. If you want to take back control of your life, you're going to have to fight for it."
Vin stared into the green eyes he had trusted for over a decade. He wanted to believe there was an end to all this, and that he could reclaim his life, but from his point of view, it did not seem possible. "How Chris?"
"It won't be quick, and it won't be easy, but you can start by letting us all back in. You have your brothers to stand with you, and a wife who needs you to try." He stood up. "Plan to be with us tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll talk to Kelli." Chris patiently waited for Vin to make his decision.
Finally, he nodded. "I'll be there and tell Kelli that I'll abide by whatever conditions she sets, but ask her to consider comin' home. I understand if she can't for us, but our kids need her to be here."
Vin's commitment was not said with hell-bent conviction, but it was a start, and Chris would take it. He informed Max about the plans for Sunday, asked her to gather a few things for Kelli, and then headed for Buck's house.
Frustrated at Buck's reluctance to leave the bedroom, Inez was relieved to see Chris at the door. "Come in," she smiled, "I'll let Buck and JD know you are here."
Nodding, Chris took a seat to wait.
"I heard. I'll tell Buck." Hearing Inez's call, JD had already grabbed his crutch, made his way out of his room, and into the hallway. His crutch moved easily across the hardwood floor as he headed to Buck's room.
Buck had been pacing for almost an hour. Bella was teething, and the sound of her crying drove him to his room. After listening for a while, the noise had transported him to another place and time.
Bound and hanging from his wrists, the baby's cries pierced Buck's heart. *Turn it off, damnit fucking turn it off * He stared as Wilder circled him, the weapon in his hand slapping against his thigh.
Tap tap tap tap
Buck's eyes darted left and right. Where did Wilder go? He couldn't see him, but he could hear him.
Tap tap tap tap
The door he was just outside the door. Buck grinned. He was going to kill him.
JD stopped outside Buck's room. He thought he heard something, so he knocked and entered to see if Buck would come out to see Chris. His crutch clattered to the floor and he gasped, as a strong hand pulled him inside. Before he could recover, the same hand bunched his shirt and slammed him back hard against the wall. JD saw stars, his startled, unfocused gaze now on the man he loved as a brother.
"B Buck? B Buck hey " Suddenly he could not breathe, when his body was slammed against the wall again. Buck's hand began squeezing JD's throat. The younger man choked, his voice was clipped and raspy, as his fingers struggled to pry the hand off him. "Buck "
Buck's smile grew as he watched Wilder gasp for air, pinning the man more firmly while his grip tightened around the throat in his grasp.
"This is too good for you, you evil mother fucker but it'll have to do. I'm gonna enjoy killing you, Wilder."
Despite black dots dancing before his eyes, JD punched Buck's arm in alarm. At first, reluctant to hurt him as his senses momentarily rallied, JD fought the urge to attack his injured best friend. Now, it was too late. His strength waned with the lack of oxygen. All he could make were choking sounds as teary eyes stared compassionately back at Buck. The man, who had shown him as much love as his own mother, was actually going to kill him.
'Oh, Buck '
"Die already, you lily-livered coward!" Buck's expression was manic, his grip, relentless as he hissed out his next words, "Die you sorry bastard, die."
Wondering what was keeping his brothers; Chris stood and slowly wandered toward the bedrooms, figuring they were still in them. Reaching Buck's room, the door was open. Larabee froze when he saw JD pinned to the wall, his eyes rolling from the death grip Buck had on his throat. Chris instinctively barked out an order, despite his whole body going cold from the spectacle. "Wilmington! Stand down!"
Buck shook his head. "You've got to be fucking kidding me. This sonofabitch has to die. He's never gonna hurt, Vin, me, or anyone else, ever again."
Chris knew Buck's capabilities, and his impressive strength when angry. Realizing JD was fast running out of time, he grabbed Buck's arm. "It's done, pard stand down."
Hearing the voice of his commander, he released JD's throat, the younger man sliding to the floor now that his support was gone. Having joined them, a shocked Inez hurried to JD, grateful to see he was already rousing. Chris made a noise in his throat and he and Inez swapped places.
"Buck?" she whispered, taking his arm.
"Hey, darlin'. When did Chris get here?"
"Come, mi amor, sit." Glancing at Chris, Inez guided her confused husband to the bed.
Crouching, Larabee eased his youngest brother to a sitting position, his other hand cupping JD's cheek. "Kid?"
Taking in air in great gulps, a shaking JD nodded. "I'm fine," he rasped out.
"Like hell you are, I'm calling Nathan."
"NO!" JD's hand left his throat and grabbed Chris's arm. "No please. He he thought I was Wilder he didn't mean it." JD recoiled slightly as Buck got off the bed and approached him.
"Kid? You okay? Did you fall off that damned crutch, again?"
Dunne nodded. "Yeah yeah. I'm a klutz right?" He rose, shakily to his feet. "I'm gonna go lie down."
A distressed Inez moved in to assist him, leaving Chris with Buck, the former not convinced JD didn't need medical attention, but letting it go for now. He'd check on JD later. Watching the pair leave, Buck spoke, "I worry about that kid, y'know he wants to go home, yet he can hardly get about with one good arm and a bad leg."
Chris's shimmering gaze roamed a face he had known most of his adult life. There was no way Buck would willingly hurt JD, hell, he'd die before seeing harm come to the kid. However, the big guy had not even acknowledged his actions.
Chris had been afraid for Buck and Vin in South America . and now, the fear was back but for very different reasons.
Buck finally took his meds and went to sleep. Satisfied that he was all right, for a while, Chris stopped at JD's room. He rapped on the open door. "Can I come in?"
"Sure," JD answered as he sat up on the edge of the bed.
Chris walked over and lifted JD's chin to look at his neck. The imprints from Buck's fingers were staring to show color. "You okay?"
"Hey, what are a few bruises between friends, huh?" JD attempted a smile, but it didn't reach his liquid eyes. "I was thinking about going home today, but after well, maybe I should stay."
It was not hard for Chris to read JD's thoughts. "Buck is far from all right, but he's not going to hurt Inez. His problem is with men specifically Wilder, but in his mind " Chris sighed. "I'd feel better if you did go home, we don't want to give Buck a target, and between Inez and Isabella, they can keep an eye on him. You can help me best by concentrating on JD for now. I need you healthy."
Even though he knew Larabee was making sense, JD still had some reservations about leaving. "Buck is so far from okay, Chris; I really hate to leave him."
"I understand. I'm worried about him and Vin, too. That's why I'm calling for a family get together at my house tomorrow. You, Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, and I are going to find a way to get them to listen to us about counseling. They both need more help than I think we can give them. I'm counting on your help."
JD felt better knowing Chris had a plan. "Definitely, and so you don't have to worry about a repeat episode of what happened earlier, I'll move back over to my house this afternoon."
"Good deal. Plan to be at my house before 1100 hours tomorrow." Chris patted his good shoulder. "I'm going to ask Nathan to check on you later."
JD grinned. "I figured as much." He watched Chris leave, and then began pulling his stuff together, trying not to focus on the other things he was worried about. Things he had chosen not to burden Chris with because God knew the man had enough to deal with already.
Still he could not help wondering how the hell he was going to manage three small children and himself with one arm, and a gimpy leg.
Inez found it strange that someone was knocking and waiting at her door; the Wild Bunch would usually knock and come right in. However, since Buck had returned, any visitors had been mindful of his delicate situation, not wanting to startle or upset him, and so, at least for the short term, had reverted to knocking and waiting. Her surprise when she answered the door was obvious.
"Talia I thought you would be on your way back to Texas, by now."
The nurse smiled. "That was the plan, yeah. I need your advice Missus Wilmington, may I talk to you?"
Inez smiled. "Of course, come in and honey, it's Inez." With Chris visiting with Buck and JD, Inez guided her into the kitchen and toward the table. "Coffee?"
"Mmm, lovely, thanks. You have a beautiful home."
The Mexican woman smiled. "Thank you, there is still much we would like to do, but we are very happy here." Sitting as she handed over the mug, she stared, curiously. "What is it you wish to ask me?"
Taking a sip of coffee, followed by a steadying breath, Talia spoke. "I can see you are all close, but you and Buck, in particular, seem closest to JD."
Inez nodded. "Si, we are all family, here, but JD has been like a little brother to me for many years."
"You may have noticed," she blushed, "I've kind of taken a shine to JD. It's not like me; I usually take a while before I feel like this about a guy, but, JD "
Smiling knowingly, Inez nodded. "Si, he does have that quality about him. So you like him?"
Talia nodded. "I do. When we were at the hospital, it occurred to me that he would probably require some help for a while. Forgive me, but I noticed no one came to visit him or called him in Texas, so I asked him if he was married."
"JD has had a difficult year, and he has come through it. I think he quite likes you, too, but I must warn you, we are all very mindful of how lonely he is, and anyone interested in him would be under severe scrutiny not just from the brothers, but the ladies, too."
"I understand, and that's why I came to you. My intentions, initially, are to use my expertise and help him with his injuries. Also, my parents are Catholic, I'm one of eight, and I'm used to having little ones around. I could help him with his children. If anything develops between us, it will come because it's meant to be."
"You intend staying at his home with him?"
"Do you think it's all right for me to offer?"
Inez placed her hand over Talia's. "I think it's not only right, but a most generous and sweet offer. You certainly have my blessing."
"Oh, thank you, that means a lot to me. May I see him?"
"Of course, but finish your coffee, Chris is with him at the moment.
Talia paled. "Oh Chris. I guess I should talk to him too, yeah?"
"That would be wise, though I will help."
The pretty nurse beamed. "Thank you."
Returning from JD's room, Chris smiled at the two ladies, now being joined by Isabella, as he approached. "Nurse Romero, I thought you were returning to Texas?"
"I was, Mister Larabee, but I have a proposal, and a favor to ask." She explained again her ideas, watching nervously as he mulled it over.
"This, I believe would be an excellent solution," Isabella noted. "I was going to stay with JD until he was getting about better, but after today "
Inez nodded, "It would help, Chris."
Larabee pursed his lips as he considered her offer. "Well, there's one thing I need to say before I decide " he paused, continuing with a small twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "We all prefer to be called by our first names around here."
Talia grinned, Chris returning it. This young nurse had been extremely kind and professional during their stay in Texas, and during her trip home with them it was clear that she and JD got along. He extended his hand. "If JD's agreeable welcome aboard."
JD zipped his bag and looked around his room. Isabella was packing up the children's things so he was fairly sure nothing had been forgotten, and Rain had agreed to bring them to his house from the daycare. Having swapped out his shirt for a turtleneck, he fumbled awkwardly with it as the material rubbed at his bruises. He sighed heavily as he pulled the bag strap over his good shoulder before trying to grapple with his crutch.
"Let me get that for you."
JD spun to see Talia standing in his doorway, smiling. "Uh shouldn't you be in Texas?" He watched her approach.
"Mm hmm but I believed I could be more useful here, so I called ahead and requested an indefinite leave of absence." She took his bag and gazed into his eyes. "Unless you don't need my help. Should I call back and cancel?"
JD's heart did a little flip. He grinned. "No, not unless me mentioning three kids under five makes you think again."
"A walk in the park for the middle child of eight," she grinned back. With a nod, the pair left the bedroom, JD pausing at Buck's door and peering inside to see the big man sound asleep. "Later, bro," he whispered, closing the door and continuing toward the kitchen.
He hugged Isabella, then Inez, clinging for a good long while.
"I'm just a phone call away," he whispered.
She nodded. "I know, gracias. Take care of yourself, and remember, I too, am only a call away."
Nodding, JD and Talia followed Chris out to his truck, said goodbye, and then started another journey for JD. Only this time he was going home.
Chris waited until JD and Talia were gone, then he pulled out his cell to call Josiah. "Call Nathan, and then both of you meet me at Ezra's, A.S.A.P.; we've reached a crisis point."
Barbara was at Cait's helping her plan a fun afternoon for the Larabee children to keep them busy. Finding that he had a few hours alone, Ezra decided to catch up on some paperwork in his study. When he entered the room, he felt a sudden chill, but decided it was probably associated with his healing injuries.
When the phone rang, he answered to learn from Chris that he, Josiah, and Nathan were on their way over. "My front door is unlocked, and I'm in the study, come on in when y'all arrive.
Fifteen minutes later, the four of them were together. Chris explained what had transpired with Buck, JD, Vin, and Kelli, over the preceding twelve hours. "We can't let either Buck or Vin destroy their lives because some bastard like Wilder got his kicks from torturing good men. That's why I want everyone gathered at my house tomorrow. We'll call it our regular get-together, but what we need to do is look for an opportunity to get Buck and Vin to listen about counseling."
Nathan nodded "I agree. It feels like I'm watching two runaway trains, running full throttle downhill. I know sooner or later they're gonna wreck, just not where and when."
Ezra leaned forward in his chair. "Whatever it takes to heal our brothers, I'm all for." He glanced at Sanchez and Jackson. "I believe I speak for Nathan and Josiah when I say, leave the details of tomorrow's gathering to us. You have your hands full, Chris, and certainly Inez and Kelli do too."
Josiah was already thinking ahead. "Vin nor Buck is Catholic, but Father Rafferty knows us, and they know how he helped JD. Rafferty is an experienced psychiatrist, an excellent counselor, and he has dealt with counseling POWs before, so he knows about how imprisonment and torture affects the mind. I can call him and tell him what we want to do, and then set-up an immediate session for them to see him."
"We'd have to all go together, just to make sure they follow through," Nathan warned them. "If they're at the point of crashing, we need to be there with them."
Chris nodded. "Josiah, make that call. Nathan, you prepare for any contingency tomorrow. Ezra, you get the ball rolling with the rest of the family. One way or another we're going to drag our brothers out of hell."
*You won't have to do it alone.* They all heard the voice, and in a matter of seconds, all seven of their Old West counterparts materialized. For Chris and Josiah, it was no surprise to see them. Even Ezra had met Cowboy and Tracker, but Nathan had only heard them. It was an awesome sight to see them all in various positions around the room. The air was electric, and they could feel the power of seven surging.
Chris smiled, Josiah grinned, Ezra stared at the one they called Gambler, and Nathan was speechless to actually see Healer.
Cowboy spoke for his seven. * It's not unusual for the dark side to test the strength and conviction of newly awakened sevens. We felt that you all needed to know we're here, staying until your seven are healed, and will help in any way we can. You all still have some rough waters to cross, but when you think it's getting too rough remember these words '.Have faith in one other. Believe in all you know, use all you have learned, and treat each battle as a stepping-stone to your next challenge'.*
When Chris arrived home, he found that Kelli was awake and already working in the kitchen. He walked over and put his arm around her shoulders. "I thought I told you that I would make our lunch."
Kelli shrugged. "I needed somethin' to keep me busy."
Chris reached into the cabinet to remove the soup bowls, and two salad plates. "Did you get any sleep?"
"Not really, my mind won't let my body rest." She ladled the soup into the bowls, and then Chris set them on the table. Kelli set the salad between them, while he poured two glasses of tea.
Satisfied that everything they would need was within reach, Chris told her, "Sit down and eat." He joined her, and for a while, he simply watched her as he ate, not wanting to begin a serious discussion yet.
Kelli tried, but ended up playing with her food more than eating it. Finally, she pushed her bowl away. "I reckon I wasn't hungry after all."
Leaning back in his chair, Chris decided he had put it off long enough. "I talked with Vin." He did not miss the pained expression that swept over her face. When she failed to comment, he continued, "He knows he crossed a line with you but you have to understand that the Vin we know is " he stopped not sure how much to say. "He's "
Raising her head, she met his eyes. "Dad, you don't have to dance around words with me. I know that Vin is not actin' like himself right now. I've seen the pain and torment in his eyes, and I understand that he needs to talk about what happened to him and Buck in South America. His anger, I accepted, his mood swings, I ignored hell, I could even deal with his wild accusations because they're only words but last night somethin' broke between us, and despite the reason, for it it cuts deep on both sides."
Until she mentioned his wild accusations, Chris thought that was what she and Vin fought about. That's why he refrained from touching Vin when he saw him; he did not want to 'see' that argument. Evidently, he was wrong, and it was worse than he believed. "Kel we all know Buck and Vin are crashing in fact that's the main reason I want the family together tomorrow we have to find a way to intervene, and force them into counseling." He saw a spark of interest in her eyes. "In spite of how much you're hurting, I believe you want Vin to get the help he needs. As your father, I want to help you, too. You should talk through how you feel, and then make some decisions. Vin said to tell you he'd abide by any conditions you set, but asked that you consider coming home at least for the children's sake."
"Of course I want Vin to get help." She stood up, crossed her arms in front of her, and started pacing around the table. "I still love him, Dad, and always will, but we've lost the intimacy between us that we worked so hard to build into our marriage...."
Chris realized that to help her and Vin, he would have to push her to tell him what happened. From personal experience, he knew that sometimes the best way to get information from a Larabee was to make them angry. "Is one argument worth losing your marriage over?"
Kelli shook her head. "This was way more than an argument, Dad."
"Okay, so Vin accused you of having an affair, is that so unforgivable?"
She stopped pacing to glare at him. "Why would you think he did that?"
"The subject came up yesterday when Brodie and I were talking. He told me Vin accused him of lusting after you, and practically said he thought you and Hawks were on the threshold of having an affair. I had trouble believing Vin would even think that, but in his current state of mind "
"You and Brodie discussed this?" Kelli was outraged. "Hell, I guess the old saying is right the wife is the last to know. Did it ever occur to either of you I should at least have had a little warnin' that Vin thought that? If I'd known I could have been prepared for his anger, instead of being blindsided when "
Chris saw an opening, and took it. "When what? When he blew up and accused you or " He hated to say it, but she needed to confront the situation head on." was it more than accusing did he curse and call you crude names, or maybe he was angry enough to hit you."
Finally, he had struck the right button. "No! I wish he had though because that I could deal with a helluva lot easier than bein' made to feel like a two-dollar whore! Vin took somethin' beautiful that belonged to us, and . Whether he intended to or not, his actions were the same as if he'd taken a knife, plunged it into the essence of who we are, and then twisted it. Instead of sharin' our love it was somethin' dirty, ugly, and cheap!" By now, Kelli was crying uncontrollably again.
Chris jumped up and grabbed her, pulling her into his arms. Her tears pierced his heart, but her words explained everything. Vin's obvious regret and his broken spirit, her disheartened state, and the hurt, and humiliation he saw in her eyes. "Honey, I'm so sorry I had to put you through this, but you needed to get it out in the open. No matter how bad you're feeling now, it's not a death sentence for your marriage. It won't be easy, but I'm positive you and Vin will find a way to get past this." For her sake, he tried to sound convincing, while silently he cursed the man responsible for setting all this heartache into motion. Wilder had not only tortured Vin and Buck, casting them into a murky abyss, he was reaching beyond the grave to torment their families.
The first thing Talia did was to make JD take a nap. He was clearly exhausted and in some distress, so she wanted him to rest. She wasn't expecting him to share with her anytime soon, but she hoped he would, one day. Clearly, whatever this family had gone through was traumatizing. The bed, delivered the day the team had escaped in the semi, was in Nettie's old room, and sat invitingly, just waiting for someone to make it up. Digging around, Talia found some linen and prepared for her stay. A call from the front of the house drew her toward the hallway, where Rain was waiting with JJ, Lilah, and Daisy. Offering to make coffee, Talia prepared to explain herself again, relieved, as they settled the children down, that evidently, Inez had already briefed Rain.
Rain placed the mail down on the kitchen worktop. "I found these in JD's mailbox."
"That brown one looks important," Talia noted as she and Rain enjoyed their coffees. Lilah and Daisy were watching a DVD, and JJ was bouncing happily in his highchair while Talia passed him bits of cookie. Rain nodded, but commented no further. "Nathan will pop in later to check on JD. He asked me to remind you, if he struggles with his breathing "
Talia nodded. "I understand. Don't worry, I've got his back."
"Thanks. Buck's like well, there's no one word to describe JD and Buck's relationship. This must be eating JD alive, even though he knows Buck didn't mean it." She sighed, sipping her coffee. "If Buck ever finds out what he did "
"Will they ever tell him?"
"They may have to. I guess that's for the counselor to decide."
"If they'll go. Even back in Texas, it was easy to see they were in denial."
Rain smiled. "You're very good at your job, aren't you?"
Talia blushed. "I do my best, but Doctor Jackson, if I could be half as proficient as your husband "
"It's Rain, and " she smiled. " Yeah, Nathan is a very special guy."
"You got that right," Talia agreed, grinning at JJ's cookie smushed face and wide smile.
Handing her a moist wipe from JJ's diaper bag, Rain watched the nurse interacting with a child she barely knew. 'Good choice, JD even if you don't know it, yet.'
With Nathan due to pay a visit, Talia thought she should wake JD, turning to see him entering the room. He looked so sad. Remembering something, she disappeared for a moment, to return, placing the mail Rain had picked up, in front of him.
"They were in your mailbox; Rain brought them in when she dropped off the children."
With a frown, and somewhat awkwardly, JD instantly went for the brown envelope. The young tech's heart was in his throat as he recognized the postmark, pulling out the letter, to, only seconds later, toss it down on the table as he pulled off his dark glasses, and tossed them, too. He covered his eyes with his hand. Crouching before him, Talia squeezed his knee.
"What is it?"
Determined not to let a bad day get any worse, JD took a deep breath and squinted at her. "You remember I said I was in the middle of a divorce?"
"Well, at around the same time we were getting thrown around by a grenade and Vin and Buck were fighting for their lives in South America I became a free man."
Standing, Talia cuddled JD into her side, as her fingers carded through his thick dark hair. "I'm so sorry."
After a few moments, JD pulled back. "Thanks, but it's okay really. It's not like I wasn't expecting it just wasn't expecting it today." They both looked up as a knock at the door announced Nathan's arrival to check JD over after the incident at Buck's.
In JD's bedroom, Nathan examined and re-dressed JD's injuries while Talia continued pulling out the things for supper. He finished with a look at the younger man's throat, gently prodding the bruises. "Sore?"
JD winced, nodding.
"You're leg's looking good, but you've aggravated your shoulder. Nothing serious, just watch it, okay?" He watched JD nod again. Nathan frowned at how subdued he was. "Come on, kid, chin up. We need to stay positive."
"I know and I will, I promise."
Not wishing to push, Nathan squeezed JD's good shoulder, smiling as Talia knocked to enter. "How are you getting to Chris's tomorrow?"
"I hadn't thought about it," JD answered, honestly, his eyes flicking to Talia. "What time are you and Rain going over?"
"Rain and the kids are going later, with Isabella and the Wilmington children, but I'm heading there around nine."
Understanding the dilemma, Talia smiled. "You go with Nathan, tomorrow; I'll bring the little ones, when you're ready for them."
"No, really, I couldn't ask you to do that "
"Nonsense, I'm happy to do that for you. Clearly you'll all need some personal time before the main event."
JD looked at Nathan for an endorsement. The black man nodded. "Buck and Vin are due to arrive around eleven. We sure could use some time to talk before that happens."
With a warm smile toward Talia, JD nodded. "Okay, thanks Nathan, I'll see you in the morning."
Chris welcomed Cait's presence. The events of the day were wearing his emotions down. Watching her lavish loving attention on Grace and Cody during dinner was a soothing balm for his soul. He missed Jesse, but they could not deny his request, when his friend, David, had invited him to join his family for a weekend camping trip. Since he would be home by noon tomorrow, there was no reason to say no. Still, he could not quit thinking about his other child. Kelli had stayed in the bedroom all afternoon, and he did not have a clue if their discussion at lunch had helped, or pushed her further into depression.
Watching him, Cait had no trouble reading what was on his mind. "She'll let you know when she's ready, honey. Give her time to work it out in her mind."
Encircling her waist with his hands, he sighed. "Time patience we're all waiting for the next disaster to strike." He shook his head. "I feel as if a bomb exploded around here, and the shockwaves are slowly destroying everything and everyone in their path."
"Keliiiii!" Grace yelled when she saw her coming down the hallway, and ran to her sister.
Dropping her bag, Kelli caught her, and lifted Grace into her arms. "Hey love." She kissed her on the cheek, and then, still holding her young sibling, she looked over to Cody, who was bouncing excitedly in his playpen. "You too, champ."
After visiting with them for a few minutes, and listening to Grace's chatter, Kelli told them she would see them tomorrow. She picked up her bag, and then approached her future mother-in-law. "Thanks for the loan of the clothes, Cait, I appreciate it."
"No problem, hon." Cait hugged her and whispered into her ear. "Anytime you need to talk, I'm available."
Kelli nodded, and then turned to Chris. "I thought about what you said and I've decided to go home and put dealin' with what happened on hold, at least until Vin is all right. He doesn't need more turmoil right now, and I'll do what I can to help him. After that, we'll see if we have enough left between us to move forward." She placed her hand on the back of his neck, stood on her toes, and kissed his cheek. Before letting him go, she whispered, "Thanks, Dad, I love you."
His voice hoarse with emotion, he answered, "Love you, too, and I'm here, honey, when you need me." He watched with mixed feelings as she walked out the door. On one hand, he was pleased that she was going home to stand with Vin on his journey back. On the other, he knew repressing her traumatized feelings to do so, would come at a cost one that he hoped would not break her to pay.
Vin had sent Max home earlier, assuring her he could handle supper for the children. Reluctantly she went, but only after telling him that she would be back early the next morning to check on them. It did surprise him when Brodie pitched in to help. Considering the rocky road they had traveled over the past few days, the two men easily fell into a good working pattern. In no time at all, supper was finished, and the kitchen cleaned.
Brodie noticed that Vin's limp was more pronounced, and it was obvious that he was tiring quickly. "Get off your feet, Tanner. I'll put on coffee, go read your kids a story or something."
Looking into the living room, Vin saw that Bren and Trey were content in their playpen, while Jason and Andi were keeping them entertained. "Reckon I'll do that," he hesitated a moment, "thanks for helpin', I appreciate it."
"No problem." Brodie found he wanted to say more, but held back. He had enjoyed sharing this time with Vin. Although when he thought about it, he always had. Now, especially after the turmoil that had gone on between them, it felt good to shift back to a more congenial alliance. "I'll bring you a cup when it's done."
Vin nodded, and limped into the living room. He realized now he had been wrong about Brodie, and a helluva lot of other things. God knew he was trying to claw his way back into his life, but so far, he was failing miserably. Chris told him he needed to fight for what he wanted, and he was probably right. There was only one thing wrong with his advice Vin was not convinced he had any fight left.
Kelli took a deep breath before she opened the door. She had faced many unpleasant situations in her life, but she always had her self-imposed emotional distance in place, and her armor to protect her. This time she was going in with her heart exposed and her armor destroyed. Truthfully, she was afraid their marriage had taken a mortal hit, but she loved Vin regardless, and wanted to see him complete again. For him, she would take the risk of leaving her emotions open to more pain.
Andi saw her first, jumped off the couch, and then ran to meet her. "Mama's home."
Jason followed at a more dignified pace, but the relief she saw in his eyes touched her heart. "Hi Mom, missed you." His hug was fierce, nonverbally telling Kelli just how worried he had been.
It took a while before she made her way over to the twins, who were also excited to see her. She carefully avoided making eye contact with either Vin or Brodie. Prolonging the inevitable, she listened to Andi's prattle, and Jason's correction of his sister's statements. She busied herself with the twins until they ran out of steam, and she had no choice but to acknowledge Vin and Brodie's presence in the room.
Brodie had watched Vin when Kelli walked in. The relief he saw in Tanner's eyes exceeded Jason's, and Vin had not taken his gaze off her all the time she talked with the children. Glancing at Kelli, Hawks did not miss the slight blush that crept up her neck when their eyes made brief contact. Although he hated to see either of them in pain, he hoped that Kelli's return could prompt a turning point in Vin's recovery.
Vin waited. When Kelli came in, he had felt an overwhelming wave of relief wash over him. Although even in his confused state of mind, he understood that her being here did not mean she forgave him. That was too much to expect, but she was safe and had not disappeared from his life completely. He felt a huge stab of guilt assault him, when she had briefly glanced at Brodie, averted her eyes, and blushed. During their time together, he had seen anger, sadness, fear, elation, and love in her beautiful eyes, but never shame. It saddened him to know he was the one responsible for making her feel that way. Now she had run out of options, and he knew she had to look his way.
Kelli finally met Vin's eyes. The remorse, pain, despair, and defeat she saw in them sent a sharp pain through her heart. God knew she loved him more than life, and in that moment she truly understood what heartbroken meant.
JD shuffled tiredly out of his room. The place was quiet and Talia was in the kitchen, cooking. For a moment, despite her being blonde and blue-eyed, to see her there took JD's breath. It had been a long time since a woman stood and cooked for him in his own kitchen and it sent a little stab of pain through his heart.
Talia turned, smiling. "Hey you look better. Hungry?"
"Throat's kinda sore," he rasped out.
"I'm making soup." Approaching him, she encouraged him to sit, offering a paper cup. "Here, some ice chips. Let them dissolve close to the back of your tongue; it'll help with the swelling. Coffee?"
"Later maybe," he answered, smiling at her as she handed him the cup. "Kids?"
"All tucked in and out for the night," she grinned, joining him in the lounge. "I told them daddy was tired, and would see them in the morning. The girls gave you kisses they're so adorable I guess you never felt them."
"Not a thing, damn, I feel bad I missed their bed time and JJ's." He looked down as Talia took his hand.
"Stop beating yourself up, you're still recovering the girls understand more than you realize, trust me." They gazed at each other for a long moment. Talia jumped to her feet. "Soup!"
Nodding, JD held the cool cup to his bruised throat as he sucked on the cooling chips and watched Talia happily preparing supper. His thoughts, while wondering how he got so lucky, trailed to Vin and especially Buck after what had happened, earlier. He hoped the gathering tomorrow went well. This had moved beyond anything the Wild Bunch could handle alone. They just hoped they could convince Buck and Vin. He had a thought about taking Talia with him introducing her to Barbara and making her feel a part of all this. Technically, she was, she had seen them at their worst, injury-wise. He'd check with Chris in the morning.
Responding to her prompt, JD limped over to the dining table, smiling at the food and the fact she had muted the light enough for him to remove his dark glasses.
"Tuck in," she smiled, sitting next to him.
"Thank you for everything. I don't know how I'd have coped, without you."
She squeezed his hand. "I have no doubt you would have, JD but I'm just glad I could help you out. Just tell me if there's anything in particular, you need, or want and I'll get it. I'm here for as long as you want and need me."
As he watched her eat, JD's heart clenched at her last statement her last very loaded statement. Right now, the word 'indefinitely' came to mind and it scared and thrilled him all at the same time.
Having cleared the kitchen, Talia pulled JD to his feet. "Come on, you need to go to bed."
JD frowned. "It's way too early."
"Your nurse is telling you it's time to rest are you going to argue with her?" Talia's eyes twinkled with humor.
"I guess my nurse knows best," he grinned, recognizing just how weary he was. He tried to relax as she helped him undress, leaving him in his tee and Speedos. "Thanks."
"You look like you need a hug would you like one?"
Absently touching his throat, JD nodded. "That'd be neat thanks." Taking the water and pain pill she had brought him, JD watched as she moved around to his good side, kicked off her sneakers, and lay down on the bed, her arms open.
"Come here, then."
More amused than surprised, JD shuffled over and, as her arm came around him, he snuggled down against her. The rhythmic stroking of his hair had him asleep in less than ten minutes, ten minutes after that, she was asleep, too.
Wilmington Home, 2030 Hours
The Wilmingtons had eaten dinner together as a family; Buck had been wonderful with Inez, and especially the children, up until it was their bedtime. Isabella had now also retired to bed and left Inez and Buck sitting in the main room, her reading, him channel surfing. Closing her book, she stood and joined him on the sofa. Taking his good hand in hers, she smiled, despite feeling anything other than happy.
"How are you?"
"Good," Buck answered, his gaze on the TV.
"Can we talk?"
"I thought we were."
"Si, but maybe you could look at me?"
Buck huffed and half turned. "Okay, you got my attention. What?"
"Must you always snap at me, mi cariño?"
"Darlin', I'm doing my best, okay? You know I love you. I just need to work a few things out."
"I miss you I miss us."
"Oh Okay, now I understand what you're saying." Taking his hand from hers, he leaned in and kissed her, the suddenness of it catching her off-guard enough to return the kiss. His hand rested on her knee, and then traced the inside of her thigh, before reaching under her skirt and into her panties. He halted when her hand held his.
"Buck," she gasped. "I just need you to hold me. You don't have to "
The brunet moved his hand and stood, his eyes flaring with emotion. "What? Is that pity, I see? I can't stand to attention on demand, and suddenly you're feeling sorry for me?"
Also rising to her feet, Inez adjusted her clothes and shook her head, "No no, please. Madre de Dios, Buck, there must surely be more to us than sex. I am worried about you, but I do not pity you. I want to help, hold you close, and be there for you." She took his hand. "Buck, I love you let me...."
He snatched his hand away, his gaze softened briefly as he raised his fingers to touch her face. Any hope of piercing his barricades faded though, as she watched his eyes fill and he turned to leave. His words were barely audible, "You can't."
Once she was out of earshot, Inez broke down, her sobs penetrating Buck's very soul as he leaned against the wall just outside the room and listened. His heart heavy, he pushed himself up and retired to the bedroom. He was beyond help, he knew that and now Inez did, too.
Following the sound that had awoken her, Isabella padded down the hall to Buck and Inez's private bathroom. She peeked inside.
"Mi sobrina querida, ¿Qué pasó?" She kneeled down to embrace the distraught woman sitting on the tiled floor. "Tell me what's wrong?"
Inez collapsed sobbing, on her aunt's shoulder, unable to speak for some time. Taking some toilet tissue from Isabella, she finally answered. "I've lost him, mi tía, I've lost the man who has my heart."
"You cannot think this to be true, Inez. Buck is the same man, but with many demons. He cannot fight them alone, he needs you."
"I have no intention of giving up, but I don't think I'm as strong as I once believed."
Touching her niece's face, Isabella smiled. "Who has always had the upper hand in this marriage?"
Dabbing at her face, Inez's eyes twinkled. "Buck would say him but," she smiled. "I fear he has delusions."
Isabella laughed softly. "I believe this is so, too. Once you have restored equilibrium to your relationship, it will again thrive. When the time is right, you will know. Have faith and courage, mi niña. I am here for you."
The pair stood, and embraced. "Gracias. I really needed to hear that, right now. Buck is in such a bad place, and I fear for him."
"No man is lost until as one with the earth. Buck has proven he is a survivor, and right now, you are the rock he has within his grasp. That second hand is reaching out, Inez be prepared to take hold."
"Si, mi tía, I am, but just for a moment..."
Together they left the bathroom and headed for the kitchen for some chamomile tea to help them relax. They needed to rest, to prepare for what was to come.
Chris was grateful Cait had stayed. He really felt the need for physical closeness, right now, but was Chris 'badass' Larabee meant to show such a weakness. Was he weak to be so needy at a time when he was outwardly trying to be strong? He was only a man a man whose daughter was in the type of pain no kiss or band-aid could put right. Whose best and oldest friends were so far removed from the men he knew, he feared they might never return. Whose remaining brothers were suffering not only physical, but also mental pain, which was becoming more and more difficult to contain now that physical and verbal attacks had been forthcoming. He slid into bed next to her and spooned, his arms embracing her as he held her tightly.
"God, you feel so good." He inhaled, the scent of her warm skin, perfume and hair, calming him.
"I know what you mean," she whispered. They lay quietly, both dozing for a while before turning to face each other. "You're worried about tomorrow, aren't you?"
Chris sighed. "Mmmm, having seen Kelli's anguish, and JD's bruises, we can't take no for an answer. Tomorrow could blow up in our faces."
"Then we'll have to make sure we keep the children away from you when you decide to kick off."
"Yeah, I agree, thanks." He kissed her, not intending to initiate anything, but his need for tactility and reassurance made the kiss a little more sensual than he intended. They simple held one another, each lending strength to the other.
Chris now had his closeness he hoped his strength for what was to come wasn't far behind.
Tanner Home, 2150 Hours
After the children were asleep, Kelli went out to her truck to retrieve her bag. Actually, she used the excuse as a stalling tactic. So far, she had not been back in their bedroom, the memory of her humiliation too fresh. Over the course of the past three hours, she and Vin had also avoided talking directly to one another. Nonetheless, she was going to tough it out one way or another force herself to get back into the bed where they had consummated their love, and conceived their children. Before that could occur though, she and he husband had to come to an understanding.
Walking into the dim lit room, the first thing she noticed was the empty bed. For a moment, she thought she was alone, and then she saw Vin's silhouette illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the window. She said the first thing that came to her mind. "You shouldn't be standin' on your feet."
Vin turned around. He had made a point of staying fully dressed, figuring it would be easier for her to come close to him that way. "I will, but I wanted us to talk first face to face."
Instead of answering, she set her bag on the floor, and then pushed the two chairs in front of the window to where they faced each other. Then she sat in the one opposite Vin's position. She waited until he sat down in the other chair. "I'm not ready to discuss what happened last night."
"Kel..." Vin started, but then sighed. Remembering his pledge to let her set the perimeters between them, he nodded. "I told Chris I'd abide by whatever conditions you set."
Kelli relaxed a bit. Knowing that they were not going to rehash last night's painful experience made what she had to say easier. "I honestly don't know where we go from here. Obviously, we can't pretend nothin' happened, but maybe we can shelve talkin' about it, or makin' any decisions, until we both can see things more clearly."
Vin agreed, knowing he was certainly not thinking clearly these days. What he wanted though, was to keep her close, and maybe find a way to let her know how sorry he was that he hurt her. If she needed time, he was willing to wait, and if she needed space away from him, then he would give her that option, too. "That's probably best. I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable either, so if you want I'll move into the nursery with the twins, and use the day bed for a while."
His offer was sincere, but the look in his eyes told her it was not what he wanted to do. Did she really want to put even more distance between them? After thinking about it, she told him, "I'd rather you not if we find it too difficult to sleep in the same bed then "
He finished her sentence. " then I'll be the one to move to another room." Vin met her eyes. "I won't push you Kel, and no matter what you believe right now, or how this all turns out know that I love you always have and always will."
Biting her lip to keep from losing control of her emotions, she nodded. "We probably should try to get some sleep. Tomorrow is gonna be a long day."
They had a couple of awkward moments, between changing into nightwear, and settling into bed. Kelli stayed close to the edge on her side, and Vin did the same on his. Only a small space separated them, but it felt like a million miles.
The man took out his gun. In two swift movements, he shoved it under the women's chins and, as they screamed through their gags, fired on one, then the other. Vin could see the tops of the women's heads explode and spill their gory contents just as the screen went blank. Then it started over again, and kept repeating. Forcing him to watch as the bastard murdered his wife and he was helpless to stop it from happening.
"NO! God, No!" Vin yelled, "Kelli no!" He tossed and turned violently in the bed, unable to escape from whatever demons were chasing him through his nightmare. Suddenly throwing the covers back, Vin jumped out of bed, and then screamed in pain from the wounds on his feet, immediately falling to his knees.
Kelli followed him to the floor wanting desperately to stop the torture Vin was reliving. Cradling him in her arms, she held him tightly against her. Rubbing his back, she tried to calm him by rocking back and forth and talking softly. She had no idea how long they stayed that way, but holding him, she realized that her love for her husband was stronger than her feelings of hurt and humiliation over one awful night between them. They could work past one dark period in their relationship in time, but he was hurting now, and her place was here with him.
Taking a deep shuddering breath, he finally raised his head, and looked at her through a fog of confusion, and tear filled eyes. "I lost you .I saw you die couldn't stop it over and over I failed .couldn't even save you from me!"
"Shhh you did save me Vin . you saved me from my nightmares you saved me from the hell of bein' buried in that tomb you saved me from havin' to live a life without knowin' love you didn't fail me and I'm not going to let you slip away from me you hear me Tanner?" She helped him back into the bed, stripped off his sweat soaked pajamas, gave him a pain pill, tended to his feet, and then curled up beside her husband, holding him close for the rest of the night. His demons might want him to stay in hell, but they couldn't have him tonight without a fight she wanted him more. Tomorrow his brothers would continue the battle .
The eastern sky exploded with hues of purples, pinks, oranges, and gold. Chris stood on his deck, coffee in hand, and watched the brilliant sunrise over the distant mountains. This had always been his favorite time of the day *Vin's too.* He missed his Texan friend, especially on mornings such as this Chris always called him the healer of troubled souls now it was Vin who hurt, and it was his soul that was troubled. Then there was Buck, his oldest friend he was the heart that kept his band of brothers alive and watched over them all yet he was one who needed watching over now. Lord, they were both still so far away, and steadily drifting farther Someway, somehow, the family had to reach them today, and begin reeling them back home.
"Good morning, my love." Kissing Buck on the lips, Inez rolled out of bed to start her day. "Don't be too long," she called as she entered the bathroom, "We have to be at Chris's by eleven."
"Couldn't I just stay here?" Buck mumbled from under the covers. "I'm kinda tired."
She popped her head around the door to answer him. "No, getting out will do you good. Get dressed, breakfast will be "
"No breakfast," Buck insisted, burrowing deeper and missing her deep sigh. He wasn't lying; he really was tired and a little unsettled. His dreams had been strange unnerving. One in particular, waking him, and preventing him from sleeping for some time as he tried to figure it out. He was killing Wilder strangling the man and it felt good. Then JD's face came into his view his expression one of pain and sadness. It made no sense, and eventually Buck had dismissed it. Still it remained an unsettling vision, but Buck was fast learning how to file them deep within his mind.
Inez dropped in a little later with a breakfast tray, only to return to find all but the coffee untouched. She laid out his clothes for him before silently removing it, her deep emotion quickly swallowed as she left the room and the children asked to see their dad.
"Of course, but remember he is still unwell and a little weary, this morning." Watching them quietly file into the bedroom, she hoped their visit would lift his spirits because she was fast running out of ideas.
The children having been in to see him, for a short time, Buck felt a little more relaxed. He had enjoyed their company, but now, as he again sat alone in the master bedroom, still half dressed and feeling as if he'd tied more than one on last night, Buck sighed. Not even Inez, earlier emerging damp and naked from the bathroom, or JD's phone call a few minutes ago, could lift his spirits; though one thought occurred to him briefly that JD sounded like he had a cold but he soon dismissed it on his next trip to the bathroom.
Passing water had become an issue when seeing the yellowing bruises on a part of his anatomy, he had never considered off limits from any woman until he and Inez became lovers. Now, he couldn't even bear to look at himself there, much less handle it or be touched in any way. Wilder had taken away his manhood, his sexual prowess, his confidence, and despite knowing his wife and family loved him, Buck wasn't sure it was enough anymore.
Back sitting on the bed, he grunted at Inez's third check-in. They were due to leave soon, and still, he wasn't dressed. Why couldn't his wife understand? While a large piece of him wanted to be a part of today's proceedings, the other, smaller, more dominant piece, wanted nothing more than to curl up under the bedclothes and shut the world out. Buck hung his head. He knew he was on a path to destruction, he also knew he couldn't give a damn.
He stood and stared at himself in the mirror. Before him was a man he barely recognized. Gone was the sparkle in his deep blue eyes, replaced by a haunted look of despair and loneliness. He raised his shirt to stare at his body. The burns were all but gone, his bruises yellow, now. He touched his ribs, recognizing they were showing due to weight loss. Closing his eyes, his hand traveled south maybe if he could just
Buck dropped his shirt, Hurrying back into the bathroom as bile hit his throat, and he gagged. Done hurling, he took a drink of water, avoiding the mirror over the washbasin. It was official, he was truly worthless, and a shadow of the man he had always aspired to be no wonder Inez wanted more than he could offer her right now and JD had a new hero to look up to. No matter how much they loved him, Inez needed to be with a man who could satisfy her, and JD would never be able to mix hero worship with pity so Buck decided there and then, why fight it? No matter how much it hurt to see a man like Raven looked up to by men he would die for, Buck was ready to accept the new order. He deserved no more, no point in dwelling on it.
When Buck finally emerged from the bedroom in a blue shirt and jeans, Inez approached him with a smile. "You look so handsome," she whispered. Buck gave her a genuine grin.
"And you look good enough to eat, darlin'." He glanced around. "Where are the kids?"
"Rain came over and she and Isabella have gone on to Chris's. Are you ready, mi Amor?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," he muttered. He had never uttered a truer phrase.
The first thing Vin realized as he awoke was that he was naked, and the second, he was alone in their bed. Then he remembered .Damn, fucking nightmares he tried to concentrate he had to remember what had he done now to scare Kelli away.
Resigned to the fact he had screwed up again, he eased out of bed, grabbed his crutches, and headed toward the bathroom. After taking care of business, he stopped and looked in the mirror. The bruises were fading, and the swelling was gone, but he was not the man he was only a short time ago. It was not just the short hair . he had changed .or was he just broken? Regardless, he was ready to admit defeat he could not do much of anything right anymore and the people he loved were paying for his screw-up's. Six feet under and three thousand miles away Wilder had finally won.
Slipping into sweats, he went to look for his wife if she was still here, and could bear looking at him. It seemed strange that the house was so quiet on a weekend morning. Relieved to find her, Vin stood in the kitchen doorway, silently observing her, while she stared out the window. The woman who came home last night had been in a fragile condition. He had seen the uncertainty in her eyes, and understood his presence made her uncomfortable. He loved her more than life, but he'd been unable to control himself from lashing out at her now, apparently, he had found another way to hurt her.
Not certain what to expect, he stepped into the room to test the waters. "Where's our 'Tanner Chaos' this morning?"
"Max and Gunny came over early, and picked up Andi and the twins for the day. Walter and Brodie took Jason over to dad's to help the men set up for today's barbeque." Reaching into the cabinet for a cup, she finally turned to look his way. "Coffee's hot."
The shame he had seen in her eyes the night before was gone, but the shadows of fear that replaced them, worried him. "Are you all right?"
"I'm okay just concerned." Resisting the urge to run over and help him, Kelli waited, and let Vin maneuver his way to the chair. She then poured a cup of coffee and carried it to him.
"What you mean is I scared the hell out of you."
Setting the cup down on the table, she reached out and touched his cheek. "You didn't scare me Tanner. I was scared for you, there's a difference."
Gazing into her eyes, he saw her concern, and the very thing he was afraid he had destroyed. He recalled brief flashes from the night before she had been with him, offering him her solace, and . yes, her love He knew he did not deserve it, but he would seize on the moment. Taking hold of her wrist, he wrapped his hand around it and squeezed gently. His voice filled with unspoken emotion. "I'm glad you stayed."
Kelli fought her own emotions, and tried not to let him see the tears she felt coming. Softly saying, "Me, too." She was confident they could work past this rocky period in their relationship providing Vin did not quit trying to regain control of his life, before they had the chance. After seeing the desperation in his eyes last night, however, she feared that his giving up was a very real possibility
"I know I told Chris I'd come today, but I've done enough damage with my screwed up thinkin' already. Who knows what the hell I might do next." He kept his gaze on his wife. "Don't trust myself about doin' much of anythin' right lately, but you should go."
"We're goin'." She stared into Vin's eyes. "You might not trust yourself, but I have enough faith in you for both of us. So move your butt, Tanner, I want to change the dressin' on your feet before we go. While we're at it, you could probably stand havin' a bath."
He'd failed his wife, and Chris. The entire Wild Bunch knew he'd failed to fight Wilder they'd seen the proof but looking into Kelli's eyes, he knew he had to at least try for her he owed her that much. Slowly he nodded his head, and let her lead him. Stopping in the doorway to their room, he turned to her. "I never wanted to hurt you Kel, you have to believe me."
Vin saw her nod, and vowed that before he caused her, or his family any more pain he'd find a way to get out of their life.
Chris broke away from his conversation with Josiah, to meet Vin and Kelli as they arrived. He hugged his daughter, before he turned to Vin. "The kids are having a ball with their picnic, our food is close to ready, and the drinks are cold."
Holding his wife's hand, Vin had walked onto Chris's deck, the same as he'd done thousands of times over the years, but today was the first time he dreaded to face his best friend. He watched as Chris greeted his daughter. Saw the silent appraisal he gave her, assuring himself she was all right, before Larabee decided if he wanted to welcome him. Not that he blamed him he'd failed to keep his promise failed to take care of his own leaving Chris to console her, when she needed a loving husband.
Kelli took the offered beer from Chris. "How did you come up with the idea of a 'special picnic' for the kids?"
Refusing a bottle for himself, Vin knew the answer. Easy, keep them away for the out of control man who is supposed to be such a great father. Hell, I can't even pretend with them anymore.
Ezra was busy showing off the latest ultrasound picture of his and Barbara's baby. He approached Vin. "I understand now how you felt when you showed me the first photos of your sons."
Vin could only nod. Pictures everyone here saw the damn pictures Wilder took of him and Buck. He shuddered as he recalled every humiliating click and flash. Now all they saw was the pathetic man, who couldn't even raise a hand to stop that manic. They had all seen his shame.
The stroll up the drive to Chris's was pleasant, Buck and Inez ambled hand in hand toward the ranch house. Inez looked beautiful in her cream off-the-shoulder dress that accentuated her tiny waist, curvy hips and full breasts. On any other day Buck would have made them late by taking her in his arms, and then ravished her with hungry kisses, Inez giggling and half-protesting as he did so. However, today, it was as much as he could do to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other while Inez talked about anything and everything she could think of. They waved as they approached the porch.
"Hey there, good timing," Chris grinned. "The grill's good and hot, and the beers and Cokes are cold."
Noting everyone else had arrived, Buck ruffled JD's hair as he passed, choosing to sit in the farthest corner of the deck. He watched the interactions, curious as he watched JD get up and approach the nurse from Texas and his kids as they pulled up in JD's truck. A short conversation and the pretty young woman was moving around the group, JD blushing and protesting at the banter not that Buck could hear it, he was more focused on watching Vin, though he wasn't sure why. A noise sharply drew his attention, but in a way that almost stopped his heart. He stood. That noise something what was it? He could feel himself go clammy and cold, his heart beating wildly.
Oh, God someone help us
Without comprehending his intention, Vin moved closer to Buck, to stand with him against .against what he didn't know, but it was the only way he could endure the scrutiny he was feeling. Everyone was watching waiting for him to screw up again. Please I don't want to hurt anyone else. He could sense Buck's growing anxiety, matching it easily, as his eyes darted between all that was happening around him.
Ezra, still proudly showing his baby's picture around, eventually moved to Buck. "We don't know yet if it's a girl or boy, but isn't this amazing?"
Buck nodded. What was amazing was to see those small faces of his adoring children look up to him in wonder and awe. Now, what could he offer them? A father, who was less than a man, one who let a piece of shit beat him, take his manhood, and not even attempt to fight back? His head turned. There was that sound again God make it stop.
Inez, Kelli, and Cait were discussing the upcoming wedding plans. "I think an outdoor wedding would be beautiful." Inez told Cait and then turned to Kelli. "Yours was."
Vin tracked his gaze from Inez to his wife as he recalled the vows he had written for their special day. 'You are my chosen mate Kel, my anchor, and the part of my life which completes me. Your heart beats with the same rhythm as mine and I feel your spirit within me. I need you beside me in this life and the next as much as I have need of air to breath. All that I have is yours, as well as my love, my life, and my protection'. His eyes moved over his wife .I failed on keeping those vows I couldn't even protect her from me. He felt his apprehension rising, but was helpless to stop it
Buck kept watch, his eyes wide as his fears grew. 'He' was here he could feel the presence of evil but this time Buck was not going to let the bastard win. He moved closer to Vin. They had to stay together they had to make a stand.
Rarely without a camera in hand, JD snapped pictures of all that was going on around them. Seeing the normally serious man they had come to know as Raven, grinning at the children's aborted attempts of beating some of the women at softball, the young tech aimed the camera his way. "Hey! Smile, Brodie." He laughed when Hawks strode meaningfully over and playfully wrestled the camera away from him.
Brodie grinned as he held the camera up high from JD's grasping reach. "Sorry, kid. You took my picture and now I have to kill you."
Kill you kill you Wilder had murdered Inez and Kelli he said he had JD and Chris in another room was that real? Did that happen? But Buck had just heard it with his own ears 'and now I have to kill you '
Still grinning, Brodie snapped away at a protesting JD. "Oh, right I can have my photo taken, but you can't, huh?"
That noise Buck's mind was screaming out its torment this was it Wilder was ready to finish the job "Noooooooo!"
When he yelled, he saw Vin pick up an abandoned softball bat, and moving to stand back to back with Buck, Tanner came up swinging.
In the next instance, the place erupted in cautious activity. Hearing and seeing the dilemma, Cait, Barbara, Mallory, Isabella, Walter, Max, and Gunny, ushered the children out of the area before the kids even knew anything was wrong. Rain and Talia stayed out of the way, but close, to see if their professional medical training would be required. Due to proximity and uncertainty as to whether Vin and Buck even understood where they were, much less what was happening to them, Brodie, stepped in front of JD, just as Chris, Josiah, and Nathan moved in to complete the line to protect their injured brothers, Kelli and Inez.
In complete shock, JD, Ezra and the women stood just behind them, all deeply affected as they saw the two adversaries wild-eyed, and cursing an unseen enemy, the bat swinging in vicious arcs at a foe that was advancing, in their eyes, only.
Despite outnumbering the pair physically, Brodie, Chris, and Josiah moved cautiously. Nathan dropped back to observe with the others, unable to comprehend the chaos, while subconsciously admitting he was more comfortable with dealing with the physical hurts as opposed to the mental ones. Unashamed of their tears, JD and Ezra were right on the shoulders of the men on the front line, while Inez and Kelli focused their heartbroken attentions on their husbands, mentally assessing them while ready to step in at a moment's notice.
Despite soothing words, and warning looks to JD, Ezra, Kelli, and Inez to stay back, there was already an unspoken agreement; these two would have to be physically restrained.
With an expertise worthy of the greatest swordsman, Vin wielded his 'club' with precision and strength, making it impossible for Wilder and his cronies to get anywhere near them. Any movement drew his attention, any words lost, as his mind and body were back in the South American hellhole that was threatening to become their tomb. All he focused on was that Buck was at his back, and injured. That the men before him were trying to hurt them, likely kill them, and Vin was not prepared to take any more of their sadistic, inhuman, brutal shit.
Buck was just as focused. He had been beaten to within an inch of his life and had seen Vin abused in the same way. His mind was aware this man was ready to kill them, while threatening their wives and closest brothers with similar, if not worse fates while they looked on, helplessly. His terror was that he seemed to recall Wilder hurting two women already, and despite his injuries, Buck's fists were flailing in support of Tanner. This evil man and his sycophants would not see him and Vin go down this time without a fight.
"Come on, you bastards what are you waiting for? If you're so fucking brave come and get us," Vin howled.
"Don't like it when the odds are more in our favor, do you? You sick mother fuckers!" An image of Wilder, choking in his grasp had Buck laughing. "You're going down, Wilder no one hurts my family and lives to tell the tale."
"Buck " JD clamped a hand over his mouth, his cry out there, even before he realized it was forthcoming. The reaction was electric, Buck turning to the voice, his anxiety increasing, as the call, in his mind, became one of intense pain.
"Leave him alone leave my family alone!" Buck screamed out, his body on the verge of fight, not flight.
"Kelli Chris!" Vin's swings increased as his anxiety level hit overdrive, aware he had met flesh, but uncertainty prominent as he and Buck were suddenly wrestled down.
With an anxious look to Larabee, Hawks raised his hand, and somehow painfully caught the bat in its downward swing, giving Chris and Josiah the opportunity to take the pair down, following them in, instantly. In a brief mass of tangled limbs, profanities flew as the two downed men attempted to fight for theirs, and their families' lives, while the three men embroiled in the confusion tried not to hurt them any more than was possible. The five watching clung to each other, knowing their moment was imminent, and praying this hell could be resolved while keeping their brothers' sanity intact.
Chris had told Nathan to prepare for any contingency, and at his request, Rain had prepared two, low dosage, tranquilizer shots just in case. He had not believed for a second that he would need them, but was now glad he had them. Moving in he administered the first shot of haloperidol into the muscle part of Vin's thigh, the second to Buck's. He stood up and waited for the sedative to take effect.
Kelli grabbed his arm. "What did you give them?"
Rain gently touched her shoulder. "It's a sedative, Kel. It should take effect quickly, and wear off in three to six hours. I supervised the dosage and it won't hurt either of them." She glanced at her husband. Realizing from the stricken look on his face how difficult it was for him to follow through with something he did not think he would ever need to do, she said, "You did fine, honey."
Nathan nodded, and deferred to his doctor wife. "We should be able to move them inside within a few minutes. You'll probably need to monitor them for a while, and check for further injuries."
Within a few minutes, Buck and Vin were subdued. Chris, Josiah, and Brodie relaxed their hold on them, and then helped the two men to their feet, assisting them inside the house. They took both men to the guest room, laying them on separate twin beds. Rain and Talia moved in to assess their patients as soon as they were down.
Inez and Kelli tried to follow, but Chris stopped them. "Let Doctor Jackson look them over first." He thought for a moment he might have another fight on his hands, but Brodie moved in to take Kelli aside, and when Inez started to cry, JD offered her a shoulder.
Kelli glared at the man standing in front of her. "You said to give Vin time, to be patient, to let him work things through. That he wasn't that far away from me! Keep things normal and love would be enough." She pointed toward the house. "Look where he is now! Nothing has been normal since he came home." Tears followed her anger. "I can't stand seein' him hurt like this."
"I know " Brodie pulled her to him and held her. "Kel, torture take a man's identity from him, makes him second guess things he should know, and each man handles it differently. I thought Vin would open up and start talking about his pain. I was wrong." He shifted his gaze to Chris. "I hope you have a good man lined up."
"We do." Chris hated for it to come down this way, but now Vin and Buck would have no room to argue against counseling. "Their first appointment is tomorrow morning, and the boys and I are going with them." He reached for Kelli. "Honey, Brodie should have his hand looked at, and I promise you can see Vin soon."
Rain made her assessment of both men, and left Talia to watch them while she talked to Chris. She found him in the den, surrounded by family. "Fortunately, aside from some new bruises and a few more aches and pains, both Vin and Buck appear to be physically all right. They should be awake in a couple of hours. I understand you have a counseling session scheduled for tomorrow."
Josiah answered, "We do, and we plan for them to be there."
"Then I recommend they both take a heavy sedative before they retire for the night. If we can keep them calm, and reduce the risks of more nightmares, we can hopefully avoid a repeat of what happened earlier."
Chris agreed. "I also want at least one of us with each of them tonight."
Inez was anxious. "Rain, can I see Buck?"
"You and Kelli may both go on in to see them, just know they're going to be out for a while. After you're satisfied your husbands are okay, I suggest you go home, take care of your children, and let Chris talk to them before they come home." Rain saw the argument coming, and help up her hand. "I know. You want to be with them, but there is nothing either of you can do right now. Take care of yourselves because this is not going to be resolved overnight." She smiled. "We don't need any more patients around here."
Inez and Kelli reluctantly acknowledged the wisdom of Rain's words. Kelli said, "We'll go, but if anything changes "
"You'll both know." Chris waited until the women left the room and then glanced at Ezra. "You're leaving too Standish. I have enough downed brothers and I need you and JD healthy."
JD protested. "I should stay to keep an eye on Buck."
"Chris is right, JD." Rain told him, "You need to rest and heal. Buck is not going anywhere for a while, and I'm sure Talia can keep an eye on you."
Josiah and Nathan exchanged looks. "Chris, Nathan, and I will stay with Buck tonight. If he's sedated, I don't think he can get past the two of us."
"Brodie and I will stay with Vin. Rain, thank you for taking care of Buck and Vin."
"No problem. I'll leave the meds with Nathan. He can explain what I want you to give Vin." She kissed her husband. "I'm going to collect our children and go to the house."
"Ezra, JD you two go home. I need you both fully rested for tomorrow."
Once they all scattered, Chris leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment. He knew that whatever demons were haunting Buck and Vin, it was going to be a while before they were ready to talk about it. He prayed it would be soon enough to save his best friends from themselves.
After leaving Chris's, the ride back to the Dunne home had been difficult. Talia watched JD interact with his children as they chattered from the back of the truck, but in between, said nothing. With her help, JD bathed them and put them to bed, Talia insisted on reading to them while he went to his room to relax. It was there she found him a half an hour later, sitting on the edge of his bed and shaking uncontrollably as tears streaked his cheeks. Kneeling before him, she took his hand.
"What can I do?"
Turning from her concerned gaze, JD shook his head. "Nothing not a fucking thing." He looked back at her. "Sorry. It's just I've never been so afraid for my family in all the time I've known them. This is pain we can't reach it's cruel, and unrelenting, and for the first time ever, I'm not sure Buck and Vin will get through this."
Talia brushed her fingers through his hair. "Yes, they will. It's early days, believe me. I've seen men just like them come through the base, to be back on active duty within a year. Once they go to counseling "
JD huffed. "The guy we're seeing tomorrow is awesome, but I just don't know if he can help this time."
Talia rose to join him on the bed. "It may take time, but they'll come through, you'll see. How are you getting there, do you need me to drive you?"
"Nah, we're taking two trucks, I think. Either way, I'm good " he smiled and touched her face, " but I appreciate the offer."
"I'm here for you whatever you need, just let me know." Seeing he was tiring, she tugged at his shirt. "Come on, let me help you undress. I'll give you a massage, it'll ease the tension."
Liking that idea, JD nodded. Five minutes later, he was in his boxers, face down on the bed, Talia straddling his legs and butt as she kneeled over him. Her fingers gently kneaded the knots out of his good shoulder and back.
"It feels good, thanks," JD mumbled, drowsily.
Talia grinned. "Shut up and sleep," she whispered. Five minutes later, he was out of it. With a soft sigh, she moved to lie next to him, watching his face intently as he slept. Ever so delicately, she leaned in and brushed her lips against his, getting up and covering him with a blanket directly after. Leaving his room, Talia found herself quietly looking forward to tomorrow, allowing herself the luxury of hoping that, for her, things were definitely looking up.
Two hours later both Vin and Buck were awake, and in spite of their' break' with reality, still denying their need for help. Neither was in the right state of mind to discuss what transpired.
Chris laid down the law to them about their morning session with Father Rafferty. He decided it best not to even try to analyze the events of the day. Father Rafferty would better handle that. "No more arguments and no more stalling. I don't care if you sit there and twiddle your thumbs; you both will be at that session tomorrow."
Nodding, Buck relented, too tired to argue. "I'll do it, but I think after letting it all out today it's unnecessary."
"That may be, Buck, but Josiah and Nathan are going to take you home, make sure you take the sleeping sedative Rain prescribed, and stay with you tonight."
Buck stood up, shrugged, and said, "Whatever. Can we go now?"
Larabee signaled to Josiah. He and Nathan then walked out with Buck, with plans to stay close until tomorrow's session.
Vin was more argumentative, about Chris's plan. He was afraid he might slip up again, and hurt Kel or God forbid one of the children. "I should stay away from everyone Instead of this counselin' crap, I should go away until I can get my head straight...I won't take the chance of this shit happenin' again."
"Sorry Vin. You don't get to decide this one." Chris told him, "Brodie and I will be at your house tonight. Between the two of us, I think we can handle one scrawny ass Texan."
"Fine, but if things go bad, don't say I didn't warn y'all this time."
Brodie laid his sore, but thankfully, undamaged hand on Vin's shoulder. "I have just one condition the bat stays here."
Inez had put the children to bed, and waited with Isabella for the men to bring Buck home. When they arrived, he went straight to the bedroom without saying a word. Josiah followed, just to keep an eye on him.
Leaving Nathan to explain, "Buck's tired, and he's not pleased about going to counseling. I'm giving him a strong sleeping pill, and Josiah and I will stay with him." He placed his hand on Inez's shoulder. "It might be best if you weren't with him tonight."
Isabella took charge. "Inez will stay with me tonight. You just make certain Buck gets to that session tomorrow." She wrapped her arm around her niece's waist, and walked her out of the room.
Buck tried to talk Josiah and Nathan into leaving. "I'll be fine, and I don't need a pill to sleep."
"Humor me, Buck." Nathan held out the sedative and a glass of water.
Sighing deeply, he grabbed the glass, popped the pill into his mouth, and swallowed. "See," he opened his mouth for inspection, "all gone." Ignoring his two uninvited guest, he stripped, climbed into bed, and turned his back to them. Secretly he prayed he would not have another embarrassing nightmare tonight. It was bad enough JD, Inez and Isabella knew his shame. He did not think he could handle it if he disgraced himself in front of Josiah and Nathan, too.
Kelli had the kid's down for the night, and had paced the length of the kitchen a dozen times, stopping only to look out the window every other turn. When she heard the truck, she opened the door to meet Vin as he walked in, followed by Brodie and Chris. The first thing she did was to visually inspect her husband for new injuries, and then cupped his cheek. "Are you all right?"
"Don't know about all right, but I'm no worse off than I was I reckon." He reached for her hand. "We need to talk."
Kelli took a deep breath. "Okay," she glanced at Chris and Brodie, "we can go to our room. I'm sure Dad and Brodie can find anythin' they need."
"No," he answered more harshly that he intended, and then softened his tone. "We'll talk here and they stay." He led her to the table and pulled out a chair for her, and then sat in the one adjacent to it. "If I had my way Kel, I'd leave for a while, but my watchdogs," he tossed a glare toward Chris and Brodie, who were trying to stay discretely out of the way, "think I need to go to counselin'."
"If you leave, I'd have to hunt you down."
He read the determination in her eyes and sighed. "You'd probably try." He lifted his hand and brushed her hair back. "I've hurt you enough Kel and I won't take the chance I might do it again. I didn't trust myself before, but after today " he shook his head, "I'm not willin' to take the risk. I'm sleepin' downstairs in the room next to Brodie's " he placed two fingers to her lips to stop her protest. "It's the only way I'll stay in the house."
"Vin, I'll stay in the twin's room tonight you don't "
He stopped her, and said, "Not just for the night, baby. I told you if we couldn't sleep in the same bed that I'd be the one movin' out. Tomorrow, I'll move some of my stuff down there . If I can't get past this nightmare then I'll have to leave permanently."
Kelli sat back and stared at Vin. While she understood he was going through an extraordinary time, and she had witnessed the crisis earlier, she felt a wave of anger rising. "There's an awful lot of 'I's' in what you're sayin' Tanner. What happened to 'we'? "
Vin shook his head. "This is my problem Kel, not ours."
"So you've been tellin' me." She stood; suddenly the stress, rejection, humiliation, fear, and worry, was all too much for her. "You decided not to take your weddin' ring back. You decided to shut me out. You decided you couldn't trust me anymore, and now, you've decided this is your problem and to handle it your way. Hell, it took me a while, but I reckon I finally got your message." Twisting her wedding ring off her finger, she tossed it on the table in front of him. "You don't need 'us' for a damn thing."
Vin watched as she stormed out of the room, and then picked up the ring, fisting his hand around it. He had accomplished what he wanted, and he was counting on her anger to keep her at arm's length from him for a while, but it still hurt. Feeling the heat from Chris and Brodie's glares, he raised his eyes to meet theirs. "It's better this way."
Cowboy shook his head, and glared at Tracker. *Appears our boy forgot the talk you two had about Tanner men and their stubbornness. He's pushing his woman away the same way all you Tanner men seem to have a talent for doing.*
Tracker studied on the scene they had just witnessed. *Reckon I might have had my timin' off on this one. I forgot how much Larabee blood Kelli carries, and I put a lot on her.*
*Obviously, Vin didn't forget about her temper.*
*Yeah, well, I know Larabee's are short on patience, and a mite on the stubborn side themselves, I just figured she wouldn't cut loose so soon.*
The scowl Cowboy sent him could have burned fire. *You broke 'em now you have to fix 'em. You also need to mend that 'fence' yourself. Kelli is not going to be able to deal with, you, her Vin, your James, and save her marriage all at the same time. Fate put those two together, and she's not gonna be happy if you have a hand with undoing her work.*
*I'll fix it,* Tracker sighed, *but I might have to bend a couple of 'rules' to do it.*
*Do whatever it takes. We have too much trouble coming already, for you to leave it for long.*
Chris and Brodie assisted Vin down the stairs to his 'new room'. Chris sidestepped to allow Tanner to get past the last step. "You know, Vin, you should have picked a room you didn't have to use the stairs to get to."
"I won't be on crutches that long, and besides if I go ballistic again " he glanced at Raven. "'Uncle Brodie' makes a better target than Kel."
Brodie grinned. "In your dreams, Tanner. I may have a few years on you, but I can still take you down with one hand tied behind my back."
"That's why I chose this room I'm countin' on you stoppin' me before I have a chance to hurt Kel or one of the kids."
Sobering at the thought, Brodie exchanged a look with Chris, while Vin settled onto the bed.
Vin propped up his pillow, opened a bottle of water, and asked, "Okay, which one of you has the damn pill that Rain wants me to take?"
Chris reached into his pocket, snapped the pill from its packet, and handed it to Vin. "Rain says this will knock you out quickly and you'll be out for the night."
Popping it into his mouth, Vin took a long swallow of water and then recapped the bottle. "There's no backdoor out of here, and I don't need no damn babysitter, so y'all can leave. Brodie's room is next door, and he'll hear me if I decide to sprint out of here durin' the night, so get some sleep Chris." He pulled the comforter up, and then added, "Turn the light off on your way out."
Brodie's snapped off the light, and then he and Chris moved into the hallway, and away from the door. "I'll take first watch, Larabee."
Chris nodded. "I want to check in on Kel, and gather a few things Vin will need in the morning, anyway."
Turning to glance toward the bedroom door, Brodie sighed. "I'm a pragmatic man, and men like me don't have the luxury of showing emotion. I've made certain that Vin had the best training, and the leadership he needed when he joined the Army to help him become a strong man. I've kept track of his life, and protected him, even at times when he didn't know it. All the while managing not to get too close, but being here and seeing the pain he's in, and the trauma he's experiencing while he fights the people who love him " he shook his head, " After all the years of emotional distance I'm feeling something stronger than just wanting to see him safe it's .hell, I don't know what it is."
Chris smiled. He knew what it was he felt it with Adam, Grace, and Cody. He had also felt that same thing instantaneously for Kelli, when she came into his life. "It's called a father's love miles or years don't matter. Your heart just knows." He placed a hand on his shoulder. "Maybe yours is saying it's time for you to stop fighting it."
A soft moan from inside the room had Brodie easing the door open. He stared at the restless man now asleep in the bed, a mirror image of himself when he was younger. Hawks' throat constricted, his vision blurred as the reality of what he was facing penetrated his soul. To become a true father would change him for life, alter the person he had to become to ensure his family's safety, and be the best at what he did. He felt Chris pat him on the back, as he left, to utter soft words of support to Kelli, who Hawks was certain, must have been hovering close by.
Before he realized it, Brodie was in the room and squatting down next to the bed. He gazed at his son's features and suddenly, it all became clear. Reaching out, he placed his large hand on Vin's head, just content to stay there for a few moments. As one solitary tear streaked his cheek, Raven aka Brodie Hawks, aka James Tanner leaned in toward his slumbering child.
"As God is my witness, I will do right by you, son. Being here, with you, has made me reevaluate my life. When you're well, we'll talk and, if you can forgive me, I vow to be the father you deserve." He swallowed. "I love you Vin always have, always will. I just hope you can find it within you to love me too. No rush " he brushed back the short damp hair. " I've had thirty plus years to adjust I'll give you all the time you need." As he rose, his lips brushed the softest of kisses into Vin's hair before leaving.
He had walked into that room as Brodie 'Raven' Hawks, but was leaving as James Wyatt Tanner.
Chris stood alone in the Tanner kitchen, drained the last of the coffee from his cup, and set it in the sink. Was it really, only two weeks ago that Vin and Buck had left on that fateful trip to Texas? So many things had transpired since then that it was difficult to believe such a short time had passed. Yet, here they were. He had two brothers, who had their lives altered in a way no one could have imagined. Four more, who were devastated by the assault on Vin and Buck, and two families that were struggling to cope with the fallout.
Brodie walked in, read the concern on Larabee's face, and said, "It's all one helluva mess isn't it?"
"You could say that." Chris watched him toss a folder on the counter. "If that's more bad news, I'm not sure I want to hear it."
"Those are the latest threat assessments from my sources." Brodie poured himself a cup of coffee. "It appears several new players have moved into the Denver area over the last couple of days. Mostly, they're badass bastards, who will do just about anything for the right price. I'm running down all the leads I can follow, but evidently, someone out there is assembling a new hit squad."
"Just what we don't need on top of everything else." Chris ran his hands over his face and sighed. "With trying to reach Vin and Buck, while JD and Ezra still healing; plus the mental toll this is taking on Josiah, and Nathan, we're in no shape for a fight not even a small one."
"Not to mention the cracks I'm seeing in the Larabee armor." Brodie casually made his observation.
Chris nodded. "Yeah, I'm worried about my brothers, my daughter, and all the Wild Bunch families." He studied Hawk's face. "You seem to be getting a little emotionally involved yourself."
Brodie smiled. "Go figure. I've spent my life making a point not to, but being this close to Vin his family hanging around with your bunch, it all kinda changes my perspective." He shook his head. "Kelli told me once to expect the unexpected where y'all are concerned. I reckon she wasn't exaggerating."
"Family has a way of making a man reevaluate a lot of things."
Taking a sip of coffee, Brodie considered sharing an idea he had. Finally, he decided to lay out what he was thinking. "I don't want to encroach on your territory, but I'd like to bring some of my men in, to help. They're trained to fight, know how to be discreet, and they'll blend in with the regular hands you have on the ranch, or your security people. You won't even know they're here, unless we need them."
Raven was not the type of man who asked permission, he just did what he wanted. The fact that he was asking told Chris he cared more than he was willing to admit. Larabee nodded. "Normally, I'd say no. That we handle our own problems, but these are not normal circumstances, and I'd appreciate the backup. Work it out with Walter, I'll tell him to expect you."
"Consider it done. Is there anything else I can do?"
"Yes. While we're gone today, I'd like you to keep a close watch on Kelli for me. All she'd say to me last night was that she wanted Vin to get help, but she was stepping back to give him room to find his answers. I hate to see her withdraw while she's waiting on him."
"Tell you what; I'll watch over yours, while you push my hardhead son to getting his head on straight."
"Fair enough. Guess I'll roll Vin out of bed, and remind him that his session is not going away."
As breakfast ended, JD kissed and rubbed noses with each of his three children, squawking and causing the girls to squeal with laughter as JJ decided sucking his daddy's nose was preferable to rubbing it. Talia giggled at the activity as she prepared to take the children to daycare. While JD went into his bedroom to collect a few items, and get his jacket, Talia put JJ in his playpen, instructed the girls to put their coats on, and followed him in; entering just after he snapped closed his gun safe.
JD nodded as his hand came from around his back and he grabbed his keys. "I guess. Are you leaving, now?"
"Mmm thought it best before you head out." She stood in front of him. "Good luck."
"Thanks, I think we'll need it." Hazel eyes locked with pale blue and a warm feeling rose from JD's toes to the roots of his hair. He watched as Talia leaned in and kissed him softly on the lips.
Pulling back, she smiled. "For luck."
"Uh might need a little more ," he stammered, his gaze never leaving hers.
"Oh like this?" As she placed her hands either side of his face, her next kiss was more sensual and considerably longer and deeper. Breathlessly, they parted.
"Good uh, yeah good, thanks." JD grinned, wider than he had in a long time, relieved to see the pretty nurse reciprocate. "Here later?" Damn, now he'd lost the ability to string together a coherent sentence.
"I'll be here later," she nodded.
Watching Talia and the children leave, JD suddenly felt a wave of guilt hit him while he waited for his ride. He had no right to feel this good while all this shit was going on. He sobered. His needs must wait; they had to concentrate on issues that were more important today.
Inez had breakfast on the table for her husband, and poured his coffee as he walked in the kitchen. "Good morning, husband, I made your favorites for you "
Buck took the cup, glanced over to the table, and then shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
Josiah sat down, took a bite of huevos rancheros, and grinned. "Great Inez, you outdid yourself this morning."
Nathan joined him, grabbed a warm tortilla from the platter, and dug into his eggs. "Rain's tried your recipe, but after all these years, she still can't duplicate the taste of your cooking."
Slamming his cup down on the counter, Buck huffed, "I thought Chris insisted on me going to some almighty important meeting today. If you two are through sucking up to my wife, maybe we can get the hell out of here and get it over with."
Inez quietly laid her dishtowel down, and walked out of the room without saying a word, while Josiah and Nathan glared at Buck.
Pushing his plate back, Josiah stood. "We're picking up JD before we go to Vin's house. Ezra will meet us there."
"Fine, let's go." Buck stormed out the door. Josiah and Nathan followed him at a slower pace. Both prayed that what was set into motion today would help bring their brothers back to them.
Ezra had a restless night. His mind kept replaying the dreadful scene with Buck and Vin yesterday. He had felt helpless, and his heart broke to see them that way. Trying to imagine the hell they must have endured at Wilder's hand only made sleep more impossible.
Chris watched the play of emotions on Ezra's face, and asked, "You all right?"
He shook his head. "I won't be all right until Vin and Buck are I don't believe any of us will." He glanced at the door again. "Does Vin need help with the stairs?"
"Brodie will make sure he gets up 'em without breaking his neck." Chris moved closer to stand beside Standish. "We think trouble might be coming sooner than we'd like. I already warned JD, Nathan, and Josiah. Stay on alert, and keep your weapon with you at all times."
"I never leave home without it."
"Good. Of course, Buck and Vin are the exceptions. Right now I don't trust either of them with a gun in their hands."
Ezra looked surprised. "You don't think ?"
Chris shook his head. "I don't know what to think, but I'm not taking the chance they might hurt one of the family or themselves."
Josiah blew the horn on his truck, just as Brodie and Vin came into the room.
"Guess everyone's here time to go." Chris started for the door and noticed Vin looking toward the other part of the house. "She's not here, Vin. Kelli took off on Dancer right after the kids' went to school. Max took the twins to her house for the day."
Vin nodded. It was just as well he had no idea what to say to his wife this morning. He wanted to get this bullshit counseling session over with, so he could concentrate on getting his head right again. Then he would have to work to win Kelli's trust back.
St. James Catholic Church
Albert Rafferty was a priest, who also happened to be a psychiatrist. While it might seem to be a strange combination, he found that healing troubled souls was not so different from healing troubled minds. Both were necessary to make a person whole, and both needed care and understanding. His upcoming session would be a bit unusual, but knowing the dynamics of the seven men who called themselves brothers it made sense. Josiah had told him enough to understand that in order to help Buck and Vin, he first had to gain their confidence. Initially seeing them along with the men that they considered family should make that an easier task. However, he did have Sanchez warn the other four that it could become a contentious situation, especially in the early stages.
Glancing at the clock, he finished arranging the chairs in a circle, opened the door, and motioned for the seven men to enter.
"Welcome gentleman. Please select a chair and be seated."
Chris took the seat next to Father Rafferty, while Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and JD filled the next chairs. That left two open seats, side by side. Buck pulled one out, and placed it slightly outside the circle, and Vin did the same with the other. It was clear they felt it was 'us' against them.
JD started to ask Buck to move closer, but Father Rafferty interceded before he had the chance. "It's important that we all feel comfortable. Would anyone else prefer a different configuration?"
"I'm fine here," Chris said. The others followed his lead and said they were fine, too. Buck and Vin remained silent.
Rafferty nodded. "I've had the pleasure of meeting all of you before," he glanced at JD, offering the tiniest of smiles, "Some I know better than others. What I would like to do today is find out more about the rest of you. Who would like to share something about themselves with me or each other we might not know?"
Josiah started. "Well, you and I have known one another for close to twenty years, but I don't think I ever told you that at one time I considered entering the priesthood."
Nathan nodded and smiled. "You never told me either, but it doesn't surprise me."
"The boys know, but I don't remember telling you that I'm getting married in June." Chris joined in, all the while watching Buck and Vin.
"Congratulations," the Priest said with a smile.
Ezra was next. "Since we last saw you, my wife, and I discovered we are having a new addition to the Standish family. Our first child is due September first."
Rafferty nodded. "My, it seems a lot is going on, congratulations."
JD glanced over to Buck, and then announced. "My divorce is now final. I got the decree in the mail last Saturday. I thought it would be a bad thing, but I met a lady recently, who doesn't make it seem so hard to take."
"It's good that you are moving on with your life, JD. I'm pleased to hear that." Rafferty look toward Vin. "Is there anything you'd care to share?"
Vin shrugged. "Not particularly. I'm only here because my personal watchdogs forced me to come." He glared in Larabee's direction. "I think we're wastin' your time."
The priest chuckled. "Well, you see, you did tell me something I didn't know." He shifted his gaze to Wilmington. "What about you, Buck? Is there anything I need to know about why you're here?"
"Look, Padre I know how this works. You act like a friend, and hope I'll start spilling my guts. The truth is I have nothing to spill. Everyone here knows what happened, and that yesterday, it all came to a head, and erupted. It's done, finished end of story."
"So you believe your memories of being tortured are all put to rest?" Rafferty was careful how he worded his next question. "There is absolutely nothing that is left unresolved?"
Buck glanced at Vin, and back to the Priest. "Nothing we can't handle."
"You were exposed to some violent acts of cruelty, I understand. You have no thoughts or feelings on that, Buck?"
"I see, then it truly is resolved no anger, no memory problems, no behavioral issues you'd like to talk about?"
"Behavioral issues?" Buck spat. "The bastard torturing us in South America was the one with issues. I can't imagine what possesses another human being to behave like that toward his fellow man, much less behave like it myself stop clutching at straws and drop it."
Everyone but Vin and Buck noticed JD's leg jiggling, a sure sign he was anxious about something. Before Chris could send a warning glance, JD grabbed his crutch and stood.
"For God's sakes listen, Buck. We just want to see you and Vin get the help you need to get through this."
Buck stood also, Chris preparing to intervene, but Albert's raised hand stayed him.
"What are you an expert on my state of mind now huh? You're with me a few days and you think you know where my mind is?"
JD nodded. "Yeah I do. Inez, me, Isabella we've seen you drift away to a place in your mind only you see, some place bad. I'm afraid, Buck. I'm afraid you might drift away and never come back. Please, let Father Rafferty and us help you." He glanced at Vin, only to see intense pain in the Texan's eyes before he turned his head down, so JD turned back to Buck. "Both of you."
"I don't need that kind of support," the brunet hissed. "I'm not you." Buck ignored the hurt in JD's eyes. "I'm in control; I just need time, not a head shrink. I can work this out by myself." He stared at the younger man, stepping closer. "Look at you back five minutes and you get a cold." He sneered. "Oh, I noticed the croaky voice and the turtle necks. Put your own house in order before you interfere in mine."
The others looked around at each other as Buck grabbed the front of JD's sweater. Vin's brows narrowed.
"You can't break me I am in control I always have been. I'm as strong a man as I ever was, and no one can say otherwise." He tightened his grip. "What do I have to do to prove my point?"
Calmly and slowly raising his hand, and ignoring the gasps from those who hadn't seen the marks, JD pulled down the neck of his sweater, tears falling as he looked Buck in the eye. "You made a pretty good point once before, bro. Maybe this time you'll get to finish the job."
Vin groaned and rested his head in his hands. Buck stared at the bruising for a long while, his hand moved to JD's shoulder.
"Who did this?"
JD glanced at Rafferty, who nodded to go ahead. "You."
That one word hit Buck like a sledgehammer, images of him with a hand at Wilder's throat assaulting his mind. He shook his head. "No no, I could never not to you " He ran shaking fingers through his hair. "Wilder he was " Buck played out the scene in his head as if he was reliving it. He pointed toward the door he was seeing. "Wilder was coming I was ready for him. I took him and squeezed his throat " As he spoke, he once again had JD's throat, but he didn't squeeze and JD halted any concern, his focus one hundred percent on Buck.
"And then?" JD prompted, soon realizing, as Buck's gaze softened, he was no longer seeing Wilder's image. "Oh God "
Vin struggled to his feet, and was next to them, his blue eyes filled with concern and compassion, as he looked first at JD, and then laid his hand on Buck's shoulder.
"I killed Wilder, pard back in that hellhole. He's dead, Buck and he's not comin' back." Vin looked at Chris, then the others, his eyes telling them all, he was ready to accept that maybe he couldn't handle it all on his own. He knew only too well how the anger he and Buck were holding onto was destroying both them, and their families.
Buck's howl of dismay shocked them all with its intensity as he took him and JD to the floor. "Oh God, boy what have I done? You Inez everyone what have I done?" He clung to JD, his sobs heart wrenching as JD clung right back, despite the agony shooting through his injured leg.
Standing, the rest of the brothers closed in, offering physical as well as mental support.
Vin reached out and squeezed Chris's arm, his own tears falling. *You still willin' to help me?*
Chris turned to Rafferty. "How did you know that would work?"
Rafferty spoke, his gaze never leaving the two men that needed his help. "Buck's denial was a cry for help, not a dismissal. JD was just a catalyst on the day, just as Buck's anguish was a catalyst for Vin. We have much to do." He checked his appointment book. "I'd like to have another session Wednesday and again on Friday, same time. Then follow up at least bi-weekly until they can talk comfortably about details."
"You got it." Larabee reached out his hand. "Thank you Father."
The seven men agreed to meet up at the Standish Tavern for food. Two vehicles made their way there, the occupants quiet as they traveled. In the lead vehicle, Chris glanced across at Vin. The Texan was silent and had closed down his mind. As if sensing Chris's question, Vin turned to him.
"No, I'm not okay, but I will be."
"Whatever you need "
"I know, thanks."
"If I may," Ezra interjected. "What was it that helped you see what we already knew? Was it Buck's breakdown?"
Vin shrugged. "I guess. When I saw what he'd done to JD, and then looked back on my time since we returned home ," he sighed. "Let's just say they're not memories I want to relive once I've resolved them."
"Of course," Ezra nodded. "Thank you for allowing me the question."
Tanner couldn't help grinning, and turned back to look at Standish. "You are most welcome," he said in his formal Captain Tanner voice, causing both his companions to smile.
Josiah tried wiggling his shoulders to ease the knot of tension there. Nathan noticed the move. "Shall I drive?"
"No, I'm fine, thanks, I'll be even better when we stop to eat." He glanced in his rear view mirror at Buck and JD. You couldn't put a piece of paper between them as they huddled together.
Buck looked to be asleep, so his voice surprised them all. "Could go for some chili fries, maybe a burrito."
JD smiled, nodding. "Sounds good." He hoped he could swallow okay; his diet had been quite soft since his throat injury.
Sitting up, Buck looked at him. "Jesus, kid I'm so sorry "
"No! Let it go, okay? I have. I only brought it up to well, you know. You weren't attacking me, Buck. I knew that then, just as I know it now."
Wilmington nodded. He wasn't okay with it, yet but knowing JD was, he knew he would be too, one day. "Thanks. Uh, about me saying I wasn't like you "
"Yeah that was a low blow " JD nudged Buck's arm before the brunet could take the comment in. "Can we stop this, now?"
Pausing for a moment Buck then had another thought to voice. "How am I ever gonna face Inez?"
"The same way you always have. You have nothing to reproach yourself for, brother," Josiah reminded. "We all knew this was going to be a rough ride." He signaled to pull into the Tavern's parking lot, waving to Chris, Vin, and Ezra as they got out of their truck. "Food!"
It had been wonderful to see Buck and Vin eating heartily well, heartily in comparison to what their appetites had been like since their rescue.
Patting Buck on the arm, Vin said, "I just wanted to say thanks to y'all for standin' by us reckon we haven't made it easy."
They all nodded at the two men, their expressions making it clear they understood.
"Maybe one day we can share some of it with you," Buck said quietly, glancing at JD, "but not just yet."
"No problem," Chris answered. "Just promise you'll tell us if it all gets too much for you."
"Deal," Buck and Vin chorused. The atmosphere between the seven was one of hope and recognition. This was far from over, but they were finally on the first rung of a very long ladder, which was more than anyone had dared hope for a few days ago.
The nearer the trucks got to home, the lighter the moods were. JD's open phone after calling Ezra, allowed the men in the first truck to join in Buck's and Nathan's gentle teasing about the lovely Talia and was she why JD seemed unable to stay awake, the younger man's protests and Buck's easy chuckle, like music to their ears.
Frowning at Chris's words, Josiah slowed to a stop just as Chris had done; the debris on the road now evident as they rounded the last curve before the ranch drive.
"Rockslide," Vin noted, opening his door.
"Stay put, Tanner, you too, Ezra, neither of you are in any fit state to move tree limbs and rocks."
"I beg to disagree," Standish protested, "I am perfectly capable of directing yourself, Josiah and Nathan, thank you."
Chuckling, Chris shook his head, turning to Josiah and Nathan as they approached. "Maybe I should call the ranch and get some help."
Josiah shrugged, and started to reach for his cell. "Well, it'll be quicker, but I think we can probably move enough to get by."
Buck and JD had ambled and limped toward the lead vehicle, joining Vin as all three took in the fresh air. "Unusual time of year for a slide," Buck pointed out.
Tanner's head snapped around. His gaze roamed the mountainside, just as Chris's did the same. Something caught his eye, moments before he yelled out. "Get down!"
The seven men were barely on the ground, before heavy gunfire bounced off the vehicles, and viciously scuffed up dirt and stones around them. No man was able to lift his head at first, for the ferocity of the attack. Vin and Buck cursed their lack of weapons, while they watched as the others' drew theirs. Five men fired back intermittently, when the bullets flying around them allowed an opportunity.
"Oww Holy shit!" JD hit the deck when something sharp caught him just below his right eye. He swiped at the trickle of blood, quickly realizing it wasn't bad. He watched in horror as Chris and Josiah suffered similar injuries. Unsure if they were the only ones, he took a breath and returned fire.
"Stay down, Buck that's an order!"
Any other time that remark would have cracked Buck up. Instead, he cursed at whatever it was that bounced off his head, and hunkered down lower.
"Draw their fire, I can run up and around 'em "
Chris glared at Vin, and snapped, "On what, your hands?"
"Shit " He stretched out his arm, and wiggled his fingers. "At least give me a freakin' gun!"
"Shut up and keep down!" Larabee yelled. His order was barely audible over the barrage of gunfire. He saw Nathan grab at his thigh, and Ezra bob dangerously up to get off a few rounds, while, from his kissing dirt position, he was unable to move or see if Buck and JD were okay. A small lull upped the tension. Then, Chris's voice broke the eerie silence as it seemingly echoed through the valley.
That same valley rocked to the sound of an explosion. The only sounds following it were those of heavily armed men in fatigues and ski masks moving over the shale and undergrowth leading down to the highway descending on the huddle of ravaged vehicles and prone bodies below.
Next: Purgatory: Part #2 - Deliverance From Evil