Magnificent Seven ATF Universe

by Sami-j

Main Characters: Vin, Chris

Warnings: Some language. There is also a scene in which religious issues are discussed. If that's not your cup of tea, feel free to skip it.

Notes: Kudos again to MOG for creating the wonderful ATF universe and letting others play in it. This story takes place several months after the events of "Rocky Road" (though it can be read as a stand-alone). When a neighbor asks Vin Tanner for help after a drug dealer threatens his family, Vin has no idea that his efforts will put all of Team Seven in danger.

In his 25 years, Vin Tanner had been through a lot of tough times, survived experiences most people couldn't imagine. But being kidnapped was new.

Team Seven had finally closed a long, difficult case and Vin had finished up his share of the paperwork last night. Today, Saturday, was one of those rare days when he had nothing he had to do so he planned to do something he almost never did - sleep in. Except the phone rang just as the sun began to make an appearance on the horizon. At the end of the call was someone with a request that Vin couldn't refuse, so he'd thrown on some clothes and dragged himself downstairs to wait outside.

He hadn't expected a truck to come roaring up and screech to a stop almost on top of him, or an unexpectedly long arm to reach out and haul him inside, or the truck to take off with revving engine and squealing tires.

Vin yawned and shot a disgruntled look at the driver. JD Dunne stared out the front window, both hands clenched on the steering wheel, fairly radiating excitement. He'd flatly refused to give Vin any hint of why he had dragged his teammate off in Buck's truck.

In between yawns, Vin kept an eye on their surroundings. They left the highway after a ten minute drive and wound through the suburbs, firmly middle-class neighborhoods that Vin had never seen before. From time to time he glanced at JD but the younger man didn't seem to notice. JD's white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel never eased and he stared ahead like he was in a trance. Not a comforting thought.

They finally stopped in front of a house in yet another nicely middle-class neighborhood. Unlike the others on the street, this house was rundown with a neglected, overgrown yard. The place was in need of a coat of paint and repairs to the decrepit porch, among other things.

"Come on," JD said, grinning in excitement. An enthusiastic JD was nothing new but this was way more than that, and the sharpshooter didn't know what to expect. All he could do was mentally brace himself.

Vin followed him out of the truck and along the narrow, weed-infested walk way that led around to the back of the house. The closer he got the more neglected the place looked.

"Who lives here?"

"No one, well, the parents of a friend of mine, Rob Hendricks, bought it recently. No one's lived here for years and they got a deal by buying it as-is. The garage is filled with junk and Rob's been going through it, trying to clear stuff out." JD was walking quickly, almost bouncing with each step. "He ran across something he thought I might be interested in so he called me and I came over last night and - " he beamed at Vin. "You won't believe it."

"Won't believe what?"

"You'll see in a minute."

Vin sighed as he followed the younger man around the house and saw, at the end of a dilapidated driveway, an equally dilapidated garage. The garage door was raised and he could see stacks of boxes and miscellaneous trash inside. If the younger man had dragged Vin out of a sound sleep to help him clean up this mess –

"Back here." By now JD was practically levitating, he was so wound up. He wove around the boxes and piles of rubbish and stopped by the rear wall to grin at a large, dust-covered object. As Vin drew closer, he realized what he was looking at. The tires looked ancient and were flat as pancakes and it was impossible to make out the color through the layers of grime, but the shape was unmistakable. It was a motorcycle. An old one.

"You're not going to believe this!" JD exclaimed again.

Vin came up beside him and saw a laptop computer perched on top of a stack of water-stained boxes that leaned ominously. There was some kind of image on the screen but it was at the wrong angle for him to see what it was.

"What 'cha got there, JD?"

"Just a second." JD pulled his sleeve over his hand and used it to rub vigorously at the side of the gas tank.

The early morning sun wasn't as bright back here but it was light enough for Vin to see something beginning to appear through the dirt. Fancy script writing in large letters. He squinted in an effort to make them out. Written in gold paint, against a…a little more rubbing by JD revealed the deep red background, un-faded despite the years. I N D -

Vin was rarely surprised by life's twists and turns but when he realized what he was looking at, his legs suddenly felt a little shaky. "I'll be damned."

JD's smile stretched from ear to ear. "It's an Indian," he whispered reverently. He pointed at the laptop. "I looked it up. An Indian Scout, the 1928 model, I think. See here?"

Vin watched the younger man scrub away another patch of encrusted dirt. Below the large script letters were smaller block characters, also in gold paint, that spelled SCOUT. He knelt down and touched the grimy fender.

"I ain't never seen one 'a these in real life before."

"Neither have I." JD caressed the curve of the gas tank. "As soon as I knew what it was I called Rob and asked him how much his parents wanted for it, and they told him I should just take it. Otherwise it would be thrown out as junk." For a moment his excitement was replaced by horror at the thought.

"That would 'a been a pure shame," Vin agreed.

JD's grin returned. "Can you imagine how beautiful she'll be when she's restored?"

"Oh, yeah. But JD, where're ya gonna find parts for her? They must'a stopped making these years ago."

"Back in the 1940's," the younger man agreed. "I checked. That doesn't matter, though. I'm sure we'll be able to find everything we need." He gestured at the laptop again. "It'll just take some time and research."

"‘We'?" Vin repeated, keeping a straight face.

JD's grin widened. "I dare you to tell me you don't want to help bring her back to life."

Vin looked at the filthy, somehow forlorn relic of what had once been one of the most beautiful and responsive motorcycles of its time. He ran a gentle hand along the fender and met JD's eager, hopeful gaze.

"Let's get 'er in the truck."

"All right!"

* * * * * * *

One week later, Chris Larabee stood on his front porch, drinking a mug of coffee while contemplating murder.

Buck Wilmington left the small gathering by the barn and strode across the yard to his team leader. "Got any more of that?” he asked, gesturing at the mug.

"You want some, you get it,” Chris grumped.

Buck chuckled and disappeared into the house, reappearing a minute later with his own mug. He took a big swallow and sighed.

"Damn, that's good. Just what I needed.”

"Why in the hell are you and those yahoos – ” he gestured with his mug at the truck parked in front of his barn, around which two figures were busily working, "here at the crack of dawn?”

"Hey, at least it's dawn now. They rousted me out of bed over an hour ago. JD was practically having kittens, he was so upset, and Vin wasn't much better.”

"You should've shot 'em.”

"Believe me, I thought of it. But the paperwork would've been hell.”

Together, they watched the scene before them. Vin and JD were currently involved in maneuvering an oversized piece of junk out of the back of Buck's truck.

"Why are they being so careful about that piece of shit?”

Buck rolled his eyes. "According to them, it's one of those vintage – ” the last word contained a world of sarcasm – "motorcycles.”

"It's junk.”

"You and I know it but the kid and Junior – ” Buck shrugged eloquently.

"That's what they've been talking about all week?”


Chris shook his head in disbelief. "When JD said they were restoring a classic motorcycle I thought he meant…” he paused, groping for the right words. Buck supplied them.

"Something that wasn't a piece of shit.”


"Nope, that - ” Buck gestured with his mug, "is what they're all excited about.” He took another swallow of coffee before adding, "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?”


"If they're calling that ‘classic', what would they call junk?”

Chris shook his head again. "I'm afraid to guess.”


They continued to watch the scene unfold. Vin and JD had carried – carried, not dragged – the piece of junk to the edge of the truck bed and now they were involved in an animated discussion. From the porch, Chris and Buck only heard the occasional word but it was enough for them to realize the younger men were discussing the best way to get it down to the ground.

"I vote they just give it a good kick,” Buck mused. "That'll get it down fast enough. It's not like they could do any more damage to it.”

Chris grunted. "And you decided to bring it here because?”

A big sigh. "I had nothing to do with that. One of the residents in our complex came home a couple hours ago and saw some guys breaking into one of the garages. The cops showed up with lights and sirens, woke up everybody,” he rolled his eyes again, "including you know who. When JD found out what happened he pitched a fit. Before I knew what was going on, he called Vin who must've run every light between his place and ours to get there so fast. The two of 'em decided in about five seconds that it wasn't safe to keep that piece of – uh, vintage motorcycle in our garage anymore.” He waggled his eyebrows at his old friend. "They figured your ranch was a safer place for it while they work on it. Restoring it, JD keeps saying. Lucky you, huh?”

"And who thought I'd be okay with that?”

Buck gestured at the younger men and Chris swallowed more coffee to suppress his immediate response. He waited a minute, grateful for the caffeine coursing through his system, before passing judgment.

"Hell.” He rubbed his eyes irritably; it felt like they had sand in them. It was too damn early to deal with a hyper JD and, surprisingly, a sharpshooter who was almost as hyper.

At that moment Vin raised his head and their eyes met. Despite his weariness and annoyance, Chris felt a familiar warmth flooding through him, a warmth that now contained a touch of amusement.

Think you're pretty smart, Tanner? he mused

Vin winked. Smart enough, Cowboy.

Chris took a quick gulp of coffee to stifle laughter. Damn, sometimes this connection was downright spooky.

Working together, Vin and JD succeeded in gently muscling their prize off the truck and down to the ground. There was more talk before JD took the front and Vin the back so they could carry it into the barn.

"They've got to carry the damn thing?” Larabee demanded.

"I heard JD telling Vin he's ordered a bunch of parts,” Buck said, "but for now it's not going anywhere on its own. You can't even push it, the wheels are frozen or some such.”

Chris drained his mug and turned back toward the house. "What a piece of shit.”

"You already said that.”

"It's worth repeating.”

With the show over, they retreated to the kitchen. Chris poured another cup of coffee and sat down, rubbing his bristly chin. Buck sprawled in a chair across the table and stretched out his legs, then swallowed the last of the coffee in his mug.

"Good stuff,” he noted. He peered into its depths. "Could use another one.”

"No one's keeping you from making more.”

Buck laughed and pulled himself to his feet. "Guess I better. Those two bottomless pits are going to be coming in here sooner or later, and if I don't make a decent pot, you know that skinny Texan is going to make some of his black tar.”

Chris made a face. "I'm thinking more along the lines of breakfast.”

"Don't let me stop you.” Buck grinned hopefully.

Rising to his feet, Chris glanced out the window. "I just hope I have enough food.”

A half-hour later he dumped another skillet-full of scrambled eggs into a large bowl already half-full and stuck it back in the oven to keep warm, along with a stack of toast and a mess of bacon he'd fried up. From the refrigerator, Buck was just taking out a half-gallon of orange juice.

"Go tell those two if they don't come now, they won't get anything to eat,” Larabee ordered.

Sniffing hungrily, Buck headed for the door. "They get one warning then I'm grabbing a plate for me.”

While he waited, Chris drained his mug and considered another cup. How many had he had since he'd been rudely awakened by Buck's phone call? He didn't remember and after a few seconds of thought, decided he didn't care. Once again he filled his mug and drank deeply.

Five minutes later an explosion of noise burst through the door. Chris turned around to view his unexpected company and almost laughed. Vin and JD were streaked with grime and oil and he was willing to bet their clothes were lost causes, but neither man looked like they cared. Hair tousled, unshaven, wearing almost identical smiles of satisfaction, for an instant they appeared to be twins.

"Smells great in here!” JD said enthusiastically and reached out a grimy hand for the back of a chair.

"Don't even think of it,” Chris snapped. "Shower's that way. Go wash up or go home. Vin's got some extra clothes stashed in the spare room. You two can use those.”

JD disappeared but Vin lingered long enough to give the older man a reproachful look. Chris's lips twitched but he only gestured sharply down the hall. He heard a heavy sigh before the Texan turned and walked away.

Buck laughed. "I swear, sometimes the two of ‘em are just little kids.”

Chris threw him a look before going back to the stove. "Talk about pots and kettles.”

Forty minutes later the quartet around the table was sitting back in their chairs, enjoying full stomachs. Chris surveyed the table that had so recently been covered by plates of food. Now the plates were not only empty but they almost looked clean enough to put back in the cupboards without the need for washing.

He glanced around the table, reflecting that it had been a long time since so many people had been in his kitchen at the same time. Buck occasionally came by but he knew Chris treasured his privacy and usually honored that. Vin was the exception. He came over frequently, even staying the occasional night. But the Texan's quiet, undemanding presence was very different from this…people gathered around the table, sharing food and conversation and enjoying one another's company. Yes, it'd been a long time.

He felt eyes on him and looked up to meet Vin's blue gaze. The warmth in Chris's heart expanded, filling him as he hadn't felt in too long. Although he had become accustomed to Vin's presence in his life, he was surprised to realize that he welcomed the genial invasion of Buck and JD this morning. It felt right somehow, to have these men here.

If Chris had been asked beforehand, he would have found a way to avoid a crowd descending on his home. But no one had asked and, although he would never admit it, he felt a strange comfort to see his table surrounded with these men, every one of whom he trusted with his life.

Vin raised his mug of coffee. "Thanks for the breakfast, Cowboy. It really hit the spot.”

"Oh, yeah,” JD said quickly. "I'm really sorry we showed up with no warning. It's just – ”

"Chris gets it, kid,” Buck interrupted. "We all get it.” He sent a wink in Chris's direction.

"I couldn't think of any place that would be safer to store the Indian,” JD persisted.

"True enough,” Vin said with a slight smile. "Chris don't mind, not really. Do ya, Cowboy?”

"How many times have I told you not to call me Cowboy?” Chris growled.

Vin smirked; there was no other word to describe it. JD's grin slipped out despite his efforts and he tried to bury it in his coffee cup. Buck laughed out loud.

"I got an idea,” he said brightly. "We got over half the team here already. What say we call Josiah and Nathan and Ezra and have 'em come over? Chris has an awesome outdoor kitchen in the back. We could have a barbecue this afternoon.” His eyes turned to his old friend. "I know it's probably been awhile but you used to make some of the best barbecued ribs I ever ate.”

Chris's lips tightened. Buck was pushing it now, pushing him in a direction he wasn't ready to go. Having Vin and Buck and JD over for a couple hours in the morning was one thing. Having the entire team over for the day…that would be more people in his home since -

He cut off the thought but too late. Old, too-familiar pain speared his heart and he lowered his gaze so no one could see. He breathed shallowly, holding himself still while he waited for it to pass.

Then he felt something else, a feather-light mental touch, supportive, sharing his pain. He recognized where it was coming from; he had felt it often enough these past months, and though he didn't have the words, he was grateful for it.

Chris was distantly aware of Buck and JD carrying on an animated conversation. Thank god, they didn't notice. He raised his head slowly to meet blue eyes - silent, caring, not pitying but understanding.

He took a breath, then, as the pain began to ease, a deeper one.

"… say yes, don't you think, Big Dog?”

Chris realized he'd missed the beginning of whatever Buck had said. He didn't want to ask him to repeat himself. Maybe Vin sensed that because he said easily, "Providin' they're around, they'll probably all say yes.”

Okay, Buck was still hipped on a team barbecue. Chris gave him a long look before saying, "Go ahead and call them.” He blinked, startled by his words; he'd meant to refuse the suggestion. But with Vin sitting there, quietly expectant, he couldn't say no.

Larabee really hoped he didn't regret this.

* * * * * * *

Several hours later, Chris was sitting on the low wall behind his house, finishing up a plateful of ribs and corn and realizing he hadn't regretted agreeing to Buck's plan after all. Considering this was the first time he'd hosted a gathering at his home in several years, it had all gone surprisingly well.

Josiah paused in front of him, holding his nearly-empty plate. "I'm glad I was free when Buck called. I haven't had a meal this good in a long time. Thanks for the invite.”

Chris nodded, acutely aware of the pale blue eyes fixed on him. "Glad you could make it,” he said and was surprised he meant it.

"Me, too. If you don't mind, next time I'll take care of the ribs. I've got a secret sauce that'll blow your socks off.”

Next time?

Chris hesitated, and knew Josiah caught it. Vin came up behind the profiler, shoving a biscuit drenched in butter and honey into his mouth. Chris's lips quirked; the Texan should have broken it into two separate bites and now his cheeks bulged while he struggled to chew.

Vin caught his eye and his eyebrows bobbed up and down, a la Buck. Chris snorted, laughter escaping despite himself, the sound drawing everyone's attention.

"For crying out loud, Vin,” Nathan protested, "you're going to choke yourself.”

"Indeed,” Ezra drawled. "Considering you have previously emptied two full plates of food, I would not have expected you to remain so ravenous.”

"I believe brother Vin appreciates a good barbecue,” Josiah rumbled, grinning.

"Don't we all,” Buck mumbled around his own mouthful.

JD's only contribution was a loud sucking sound while he tried to chew a rib clean, which made everyone laugh.

The sharpshooter finally managed to swallow his over-sized mouthful, coughed, and drank the rest of his beer.

"Good stuff,” he managed when he could finally talk.

More chuckles drifted around the group and JD finally shoved his empty plate away and groaned. "Man, that was so good.”

"Can't believe you ate the whole thing, can you, kid?” Buck smirked.

JD snorted. "You're a fine one to talk.” He stretched, yawning. "I'm ready for a nap.”

"You don't want any dessert?” Nathan asked mildly.

Both Vin and JD sat up, and Buck immediately followed suit. He got out the question first. "What is it?”

"I thought some fruit would be nice,” returned the medic.

Faces fell and Chris tried not to laugh.

"Fruit?” JD repeated weakly.

"Very nutritious,” Nathan said with a broad smile. "And very tasty.”

"That is exceedingly thoughtful of you, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra put in dryly.

Chris wanted to shake his head when he looked at his undercover agent. He had somehow managed to avoid getting even a drop of barbecue sauce on his immaculate white shirt or deep red vest – the only one of them who'd managed that little feat. Only Standish.

Vin and JD exchanged looks. "'preciate the thought, Nate,” the Texan said, "but I'm really full.”

"Me, too,” said their youngest. "I don't think I can eat another bite.”

Nathan nodded. "Understandable. I won't cut any pie for you two.”

Vin's eyes narrowed even as JD's eyes widened. "Pie?” the sharpshooter demanded.

"I thought you said you brought fruit!” JD exclaimed.

"I did,” Nathan returned smugly. "It's in the pie. Peach pie. Rain made it.” He cocked an eyebrow at Josiah. "You got the vanilla ice cream, didn't you?”

The profiler grinned broadly. "It's inside, in the freezer.”

"Ya know,” Vin drawled, "I ain't as full as I thought.”

"Me neither!” JD returned with a grin as wide as Josiah's.

"I'm ready!” Buck said, rubbing his hands together.

Despite their shenanigans, dessert was quickly distributed and almost as quickly eaten.

"Homemade peach pie and ice cream,” Buck managed between bites. "It don't get much better than this.”

"Amen,” Josiah agreed.

Some lingering sense of self-control enabled Chris to limit himself to one helping, as did Ezra. The others continued to eat heartily until all the pie and ice cream was gone.

Chris watched his teammates in amusement. Josiah, Nate and Buck were big men and they looked relatively unaffected by the amount of food they'd ingested. Ezra had exhibited his usual inhuman self-control and avoided stuffing himself. But as far as the two youngest were concerned…Chris knew from experience that both Vin and JD could eat an amazing amount for their size. Today, though, he suspected the pair might have maxed out the abilities of their respective stomachs.

"Oh, man,” JD muttered, after cleaning his plate.

Vin scraped his fork over his own plate to catch the last flakes of crust and melted ice cream, which he stuck in his mouth, then licked his lips as he set the plate on the picnic table.

"Nate, thank Rain, would ya? That's the best pie I ate in a long time.”

Nathan smiled. "I'll be sure to tell her. She doesn't have much free time but when she does, baking is what she likes to do best. Says it relaxes her.”

"I concur with Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said. "The pie was exceptional. Please express my gratitude to your most talented lady.”

JD took a deep breath and grimaced. "Now I'm really ready for a nap.”

"Indeed – ” Ezra started but Chris cut him off.

"No one's going anywhere yet. I need volunteers for washing dishes.”

"But ya got a dishwasher,” Vin pointed out.

"And we used paper plates,” JD protested.

"There're still pots and pans and silverware and other odds and ends that can't be tossed in the trash,” Chris noted. "And the dishwasher isn't working; it needs a new part. JD, Vin, Ezra, thanks for volunteering. Get cracking.”

"I? Indulge in menial labor?” Ezra's obvious horror tickled Chris's funny bone and he had to fight to hold back a grin.

"You ate, now you get to clean up.”

"Why us?” Vin demanded.

It was hard to look down one's nose when one was sitting, but Chris had plenty of experience. "I was the host and cooked, Josiah helped cook and brought the ice cream, and Nathan brought the pie. As for Buck,” he looked at his old friend who was just finishing his plate and wearing a blissful expression, "he organized it all. All you three did was eat.” Now he smiled, an expression that held more menace than amusement. "Tag, you're it.”

Under Chris's lethal glare, the three youngest turned reluctantly to cleaning up the table and barbecue area before retreating to the kitchen for dish washing. It was a chore JD decided to lighten up by telling a series of atrocious jokes. After the third one, Chris retreated (no one would dare call it ‘fleeing') to the front porch and relative peace, quickly followed by the other senior members of the team.

He relaxed in the old rocker and looked out over the darkening landscape, while Josiah and Nathan took the other chairs and Buck perched on the railing with a sigh.

"How someone who's supposed to be so smart can think those… those things are funny is beyond me.” Buck shuddered.

"Our young brother Dunne has quite the imagination,” Josiah said with a chuckle. "It's unfortunate that imagination fails so dramatically in his jokes.”

A low rumble of laughter escaped Nathan. "Isn't there some kind of psychological training to help people stop unpleasant habits?”

"There is?” Buck said hopefully.

Still smiling, Josiah said, "You may be thinking of something along the lines of aversion therapy, but I don't believe that would be helpful in JD's situation.”

"Why not?” came simultaneously from Nathan and Buck.

"Because JD thinks he tells good jokes,” the profiler reminded them.

Amid a round of groans, Chris smiled to himself. Sitting in the deepening shadows as night drew on, he felt strangely satisfied. It wasn't just being physically full from a hearty barbecue, but something deeper and unexpected. After a few minutes of lazy contemplation, he realized that having his teammates here, relaxed and enjoying simply being together, seemed… it seemed ‘right' in a way he hadn't known for a long time.

The muffled voices coming from the kitchen rose sharply and Buck got to his feet. "Sounds like the children are getting outta hand. Must be past their bedtimes.”

Chris snorted and the others chuckled. Buck wiped his grin away and rose, pushing the door open and stomping inside. "Can't we have five minutes of peace without you juveniles causing trouble? What the hell are you up to now?”

The door closed slowly behind him so the trio on the porch were able to hear Vin's response.

"What's the matter, Buck? We disturbin' your naps?”

"Indeed,” came Ezra's voice. "It is undeniable that persons of Mr. Wilmington's maturity require more rest than younger individuals in their prime.”

"I'll give you – ” The rest of Buck's words were silenced by the closed door, but a few seconds later they heard a yelp of surprise or pain, followed by a burst of laughter.

Josiah laughed again. "I still need to go by the mission with tomorrow's supplies so I'm going to say good night and thank you, Chris, for a great afternoon and, as Ezra might say, a delicious repast.”

"Glad you enjoyed it,” Chris said, starting to rise.

The profiler waved him back. "Stay put. I remember where I parked. Night, Nathan.”

"Night, Josiah.”

Josiah opened the door and stuck his head inside. "Night, boys, and don't forget,” he called, "youngsters need sleep, too.”

There was a garbled response from several voices but Buck's overrode them. "See? There's a man with all kinds of advanced degrees and he knows I'm still a youngster!”

There was more laughter and JD said, "I don't think you're included.”

"Of course I am!”

"Gotta side with JD on this,” Vin said, "old man.”

"I too must agree with Mr. Dunne.” Naturally, Ezra had to put in his two cents, raising his voice to be heard over Buck's displeasure. "Speaking in simple chronological terms that even you, Mr. Wilmington, can understand – ”

"I'll understand the lot of you!” Buck bellowed and was immediately answered by jeers and catcalls.

Josiah pulled his head back and shut the door firmly. Grinning, he started down the steps. "You might want to wait a while before going inside, Chris,” he said. With a last wave he descended the porch steps and vanished around the corner.

Larabee shook his head. "Nathan, can I get you anything else? Coffee?”

"No, thanks. It's about time I got on my way.” He glanced at his watch, turning it so that it caught the porch light. "Rain's shift ends in a half-hour and I said I'd pick her up.” He yawned and stood. "Thanks for the invite. I'm sorry Rain couldn't make it.”

"Next time,” Chris said. Again, he felt a thread of surprise at his words, but overlaying that were his earlier feelings of warmth and satisfaction of a day well-spent. Yes, there would be a next time.

"Great. See you Monday morning.”

Fifteen minutes later, Ezra came out, adjusting his jacket and cuffs. "Your cutlery and assorted cooking utensils are now cleansed and back in their respective cabinets and/or drawers. I too must offer my appreciation for an excellent repast and my farewell for - ” he stopped and eyed his superior more closely. "Are you laughing, Mr. Larabee?”

It was difficult but Chris managed to swallow his amusement at hearing Standish unwittingly parroting Josiah's words.

"Nope, just clearing my throat.” He cleared it for the sake of truthfulness.

Ezra continued to study him suspiciously for a few seconds before saying, "Yes, well, I must be off. Thank you again, Mr. Larabee, for a most pleasant afternoon.”

"You're welcome.”

Just as Ezra's sleek Jaguar pulled out of the yard, the three remaining members of Team Seven spilled out of the house.

"Finished,” JD said happily.

"An' we didn't break nothin',” Vin added, deadpan.

Buck laughed. "That's cuz of my excellent supervision.”

Vin made a rude sound and JD snorted. "In your dreams, maybe.”

"If you want to squabble, do it somewhere else,” Chris warned.

Buck sniffed. "Fine, be that way. JD, if you want a ride home, me and my truck are leaving now.”

"Okay, okay. You coming, Vin?”

"Be there in a sec.”

Vin waited until his companions had left the porch before giving Larabee one of his rare, genuine smiles.

"They're right, ya know,” he said softly. "It was a good day.”

Chris heard all the things Vin wasn't saying. Of all his teammates, Vin understood best what today had cost Chris Larabee. That he had managed to break through years of isolation to permit this gathering was, Chris supposed, a good thing.

"Ya did good, Cowboy,” Vin added, as if he knew what the older man was thinking. Then again, maybe he did.

Chris shrugged. "You can stick around, you know. We just have to change the sheets on the bed in the spare room.”

"Thanks, but I left my jeep at Buck and JD's. 'sides, I didn't check the streets last night an' I don't want to miss another night.”

"Watch yourself.” Chris couldn't help the automatic warning.

"Always do.” Vin started down the steps. "Night, Cowboy.”

"Night, Texas.”

* * * * * * *

By the time the trio returned to Buck and JD's, a new idea was occupying their thoughts and conversation.

"You sure you don't want to stop by the Saloon with us, junior?” Buck said as Vin stepped out of the truck.

"Next time, Bucklin. Say hi to Inez.”

JD laughed and Buck huffed. "I'll do no such thing. She asks about you too much as it is.”

They waited until Vin got in his jeep before they drove off, waving at him as they disappeared down the street. For his part, Vin drove straight back to his apartment and parked the jeep in its usual spot in the abandoned lot behind the building. Ordinarily, it wasn't a good idea to leave one's vehicle unattended in this area. But between the decrepit condition of the jeep – outwardly at least – and the local knowledge that it belonged to Vin, he'd never had a problem.

Before heading out to check the streets, Vin decided to go up to his apartment and drop off his wallet and a few other items that he wouldn't need. Three flights of stairs later, he reached his floor and walked down the narrow hall to his apartment. He had almost reached his front door when he heard a step behind him. He turned swiftly but just as quickly as he tensed, he relaxed.

"Hola, Fernando,” he greeted. "ΏCσmo estαs?”

There weren't many overhead lights in the halls of this building and the few that existed weren't very bright. But there was enough light for Vin to see his friend's expression and his smile faded.

Fernando Reyes was standing just outside his apartment, which was two doors down from Vin's. His usual smile was absent and the worry in his expression was easily visible, despite the poor lighting.

"Vin…” he stopped, his mouth working.

Tanner came quickly back. "Somethin' wrong, amigo?”

Reyes took a deep breath, licked his lips and nodded. "Sν,” he whispered.

"Okay.” Vin put a hand on his shoulder and gently turned him toward his apartment. "Let's go inside an' talk.”

Although the floor plan of the Reyes' apartment was the same as Vin's, it felt different. The large rug covering the floor of the front room was old and worn but its broad stripes of red, white and green were still colorful and warm. Multi-colored pillows made sitting on both the old sofa and, especially, the rocking chair an adventure, while candles that picked up the colors of the rug had been placed around the room. An ancient but still beautiful shawl in colors of cream and gold, with a red border, was draped over the back of the sofa.

The only other piece of furniture in the small front room was an undersized dining table. Vin knew, because he'd helped Fernando get it from the used furniture store up into the apartment several months ago, that the table top was badly beat up. But a neatly darned tablecloth covered the damage and the table provided just enough room for the family to gather and eat.

Even in the midst of his concern, Vin couldn't help casting an appreciative look around the room. It wasn't just the colors that made the room feel warm and welcoming; it was the people who called the apartment home.

"Buenas noches, Vin,” a familiar voice said behind him and he turned around.

"Y tϊ, Sofia,” he said, smiling as she reached out her arms to him. He hugged her gently before drawing back. His forefinger gently traced a tear track that ran down her cheek. "What's wrong?” He looked over her head at Fernando. "How can I help?”

Some of the tension in Reyes' expression eased and he managed a small but genuine smile. "You offer without knowing what we might ask.”

"We're amigos,” Vin returned.

Unexpectedly, Sofia hugged him again before releasing him. "Sν,” she agreed and turned to her husband. "We should sit down,” she suggested.

Fernando cleared his throat. "Gabriel should be here.” He left the room and Sofia gave Vin a helpless look. Although he had no idea what was going on, Vin's worry was growing with each passing second.

"Sittin' sounds like a good idea,” he said. "It's been a long day.”

It wasn't a lie; it had been a long day. But Vin had done a good deal of sitting at the barbecue. More than anything else, he hoped his words would provide a brief distraction. For a second he thought it was working when she smiled, but as quickly as it appeared it faded away. Since she remained standing, so did he.

Voices caught Vin's attention and he looked down the short hall to see Fernando and his teenaged nephew, Gabriel, approaching, while speaking intently with each other. Although their conversation was in Spanish, Vin knew the language as well as he knew English. The Reyes' family also knew this so Vin didn't feel as if he was eavesdropping on a private conversation. But still he was confused. Fernando had hissed at his nephew to tell the truth and Gabriel had responded with a despondent – "It won't do any good.”

When they came out of the darkened hall into the light of the front room, Vin's confusion turned to dismay. He hadn't seen Gabriel in some time. The 16-year-old was normally slender but now he was frighteningly gaunt, and his shoulders slumped in a defeated fashion that Vin hadn't seen in months. He barely bit back a curse as he realized what must have happened to the youngster.

Fernando herded the teenager into the middle of a small room and gestured at the Texan. "Tell him.”

Gabriel didn't raise his head. "Why don't you?”

Reyes' naturally dark complexion flushed even darker and Sofia said hastily, "Cαmate, Fernando, por favor.”

"That's a good idea,” Vin said quietly. "Why don't we all settle down so we can talk.” Suiting action to words, he sat down in the rocker.

Sofia sat on the sofa and after an indecisive moment, Fernando exhaled loudly and settled down beside her. Only Gabriel remained standing, and his hunched posture reminded Vin of a treed animal.

"Come on, Gabe,” he said easily. "Ya look like ya need to take a load off.”

The boy's head came up and for the first time Vin met those sunken black eyes – and his heart sank at their expression of hopelessness.

"Come on,” he said again. "Here ya go.” As he spoke he rose and grabbed one of the kitchen chairs, spinning it around.

"Gabriel,” Fernando said. He only spoke the boy's name but suddenly Vin recognized what he should have seen before. Reyes wasn't just upset; he was scared.

Maybe Gabriel heard it too because his resistance seemed to crumble. He sat down in the chair beside Vin and buried his face in his hands. This close, Vin could see the faint tremors running through the too-thin body. How much was emotion and how much was because he needed another fix was impossible to know.

Vin watched him for a minute before turning his gaze back to Fernando and Sofia. Their eyes were focused on their nephew and he realized they weren't going to say anything. He leaned forward and patted the boy's knee.

"Gabe,” he said gently, "su tio y tia 're worried about ya.”

That brought the teenager's head up again and he looked from his aunt to his uncle. Vin's heart sank even further at the anger in Fernando's eyes but Sofia's expression was beseeching.

"Por favor, Gabriel,” she said. "For Magdalena's sake.”

Vin straightened with a jerk. "This has somethin' to do with Lena?” He looked at Sofia and saw the answer. Fighting to keep his alarm out of his voice, Vin focused on the teenager. "Gabriel, ya gotta tell us.”

"But if I do, they'll kill her!” The words burst out of the boy and he looked desperately around the room at the adults.

"No one's gonna hurt Magdalena,” Vin said firmly, resisting a sudden surge of fear. His eyes darted to the others. "She's here, right? She's okay?”

Sofia smiled. "Your little angel is well, Vin. She's sleeping.”

Vin could no more resist the sudden urge to see for himself then he could have stopped the earth from revolving. He strode quickly down the hall to stop in front of the bedroom, quietly opened the door and stepped inside.

The small bedroom was lit well enough to see by the moonlight streaming in through the window. A full-size bed took up most of the room but a crib had been wedged in at the foot. Vin moved, light-footed, to the crib and peered down.

Eighteen-month-old Magdalena lay on her back, tousled black curls framing tiny, perfect features. Vin's heart turned over at the sight, as it always did, and he ghosted a tender hand over the small head. She murmured, lips smacking, and he held his breath, fearing he'd awakened her. Instead she settled back down and Vin decided it was safe to pick up the blanket she'd kicked off and lovingly cover her again.

He could have stood there for a long time, watching her sleep, but a crisis still awaited him in the living room, a crisis that threatened his angel. Anger swelled in his heart and he backed silently out of the room, gently closing the door behind him before he returned to the front room.

Everyone was as he had left them, though Sofia had been watching for him. When he reappeared she smiled.

"You see? She is well.”

"I saw,” Vin said. Realizing he was standing over the teenager, he sat down beside him again. "Gabe, if someone's threatened our Lena, he needs to be stopped. Ya gotta tell me what ya know.”

Gabriel swallowed and looked pleadingly at the Texan. "I…it doesn't matter about me, but when he said that…about Magdalena…” he shuddered.

Vin forced himself to relax, even though that was the last thing he was feeling. "Gabe, ya matter, to your aunt and uncle, to me, and…” he smiled, "and to little Lena. Talk to me, son. Tell me, tell us,” he gestured at the others, "what we need to know t' keep the both of ya safe.”

"Not me.” Gabriel sniffed and wiped his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. "You.”

"Me?” Vin's eyebrows rose. "What're ya talking about?”

Gabriel's eyes met Tanner's before they fell. "I went, uh, out, and, uh…”

"For drugs?” Fernando interrupted, eyes flashing. "You're back on drugs?”

"Fernando, mi amigo,” Vin started. "This ain't – ”

"You would bring them here? To our home?” Fernando demanded furiously.

"No! I – ”

"Lower your voices,” Sofia said quickly. "You'll wake – ”

A wail from the bedroom stopped her and she jumped to her feet, giving the male members of her family a look of disgust. "You will keep your voices down!” she exclaimed, the anger coming through clearly despite her soft voice. "And Gabriel,” she added over her shoulder as he hurried away, "talk to Vin. Now.”

The last word cracked like a whip and both Fernando and Gabriel started. They all watched Sofia until she disappeared into the bedroom. Even as she was closing the door behind her, Vin could hear her gentle crooning beginning to lessen the baby's distress. Once the door was shut behind her, he turned back to Gabriel. Before he could say anything, Fernando spoke.

"I will tell you what Gabriel told us earlier tonight,” he said with an angry look at his nephew.

Vin looked between the man and the slumped figure of his nephew, wanting to keep him involved. "That okay, Gabe?” The boy didn't react so Vin looked back at Fernando. "Yeah?”

"He ran in while we were eating dinner,” Fernando said vehemently but keeping his voice down this time. "He said a man threatened Magdalena.”

Vin's heart skipped a beat. "What man?”

"Benny.” Fernando glared at Gabriel. "He claims that's the only name he knows.”

"Benny? Gabe, ya talkin' about Benny Watkins?”

The teen gave him a tormented look before lowering his eyes. It was good enough for Vin, whose thoughts began to race. Benny Watkins was a two-bit drug pusher who often hung around the neighborhood. Vin chased him off every time he spotted him. He considered Watkins to be a typical bottom-feeder, spreading pain and misery to line his own pocket. To threaten someone weaker, that was Watkins. To threaten to harm an innocent baby – no, the bastard didn't have the guts for that. Something else was had to be going on. Remembering what Gabriel had said only made him more confused. What did any of this have to do with Vin?

"Gabriel.” He put all the authority he had in his voice and was rewarded by the teenager looking up to meet his gaze. "When did ya go back to Benny?”

Gabe licked trembling lips. "Last – last month. He just showed up and…and he offered me a free sample, and then…” his voice trailed off.

Vin bit back a curse.. The kid had been clean for eight months…until a few weeks ago. What was wrong with Vin Tanner that one of his neighborhood kids had been in trouble and he'd missed it? But even stronger than guilt was a sudden flood of suspicion. Benny had come after Gabe, a former customer, with a "free sample”? Vin had never heard the bastard pulling that before. What the hell was going on?

With an effort, Tanner forced back his anger to focus on here and now. "So you've been gettin' the stuff from Benny,” he said, keeping his voice quiet and non-judgmental.

Gabriel nodded jerkily, his black eyes brimming.

"And ya went to see him today,” Vin continued, waiting until the boy nodded again before going on. "And he threatened Lena when ya saw him?”

"Yeah…I…I…” Gabriel stopped and looked pleadingly at him. "I told him I didn't want to…to do what he wanted. That's when he…” he stopped with a gulp.

Almost there, Vin thought. Over the boy's head, he saw the still-angry Fernando open his mouth. Tanner shook his head slightly and was glad the man saw it and closed his mouth.

"What does Benny want ya to do?” he said.

Gabriel's eyes slid away from his and Vin almost frowned at the furtive gesture.

"After…” the teenager's voice dropped until it was almost inaudible. "After he said…about Lena, I said I'd do it. What he wanted.”

"And what's that?” Vin said, gently but inexorably.

"He, uh…he told me I should call you next Wednesday and…he wants me to get you to come to a warehouse down in the district at nine o'clock that night. But I'm not supposed to let you know Benny's behind it.”

Vin blinked. So he hadn't misunderstood Gabe's earlier words. Somehow, this – whatever it was, involved him. Why in the hell would a two-bit drug dealer want Vin Tanner to show up –

He stopped the fruitless thought. He didn't know enough yet to draw any conclusions. Maybe Gabe knew more.

"Why does he want me there?”

"He didn't say. But when I said no, he said – ” he threw a tormented look at his uncle. "He said if I didn't do it, if I didn't get you there, he'd kill my family, starting with Magdalena.”

None of it made a bit of sense. Watkins didn't have the guts or the resources to act on his threat. And why Vin? On any given day the local cops were a bigger danger to the dealer.

"He say anythin' else, Gabe?”

Gabriel licked his lips again. "He said I'd better not say anything to anyone…” he glanced at his aunt and uncle and quickly away again,"…or go to the cops, that they couldn't protect us, and he'd know if I'd squealed. Then he said…you know, he threatened Lena, and left.”

Vin thought about all that the boy had said. The possible danger to him was unimportant compared with the threat against the Reyes' family. His first impulse was to track down the miserable Benny and turn him upside down until he spilled his guts. But there was too much Vin didn't understand right now.

First things first. He needed to get Fernando and his family away, to someplace safe. Although a few ideas were already churning in his mind, the thought of Sofia and Lena made him discard them. Besides safe, he wanted them to be comfortable.


"Yeah, Fernando?”

"What should we do? How do I protect my family?”

Vin blew out a breath. "We're gonna make sure your family's safe, amigo. I promise.”

"If you promise, then I know it will be so.”

The trust in the dark eyes twisted Vin's heart, and suddenly he knew what he was going to do. He was going to get this family to safety, and then he was going to be at that warehouse at nine o'clock Wednesday night to find out exactly what was going on so he could end the threat to them once and for all.

First things first, he reminded himself, and pulled out his phone. "Why don't ya go tell Sofia we're gonna be movin' ya from here? She'll probably wanna pack some stuff.”

Fernando nodded vigorously. "Sν.” He stood and paused by his nephew to put a hand on the thin shoulder. "Come, Gabriel.”

The teenager stood silently and followed his uncle out of the room. Vin hit the speed dial for number one on his phone and a few seconds later heard a familiar growl – "Larabee.”

"Chris, I need your help.”


Two hours later, Chris Larabee stood in the center of Team Seven's office, glaring at his stubborn sharpshooter.

"There is no way you're going to that damn warehouse on your own!”

"I have to!” Vin Tanner faced him defiantly, uncowed by his team leader's anger. "It's the only way to find out what's goin' on, to make sure Fernando's family is safe. Anyone else shows up, ya can bet Benny'll disappear and we won't know nothin'!”

The other members of Team Seven stood around the room, watching uneasily. Larabee's volatile temper was legendary and they had all learned to step back whenever it flared to allow the man time to calm down. Vin, however, had always seemed surprisingly immune to his team leader's temper. On more than one occasion he seemed to relish stirring up the older man, just to see him explode, then profess innocence when Chris turned on him.

This confrontation was different. There was no underlying amusement on either man's part. Both were angry and determined and the situation was escalating.

"What we need is information,” Larabee snarled, "and there's no way you're going to put yourself out there like some damn sacrifice until we figure out what in the hell is going on.”

"I know enough. The family's in danger an' it has somethin' t' do with me!” Vin blazed. "The quickest way to make 'em safe is for me to do what the message said. I can take care 'a myself.”

Chris's eyes narrowed. "Maybe, maybe not. We have no way of knowing what Watkins has planned. Hell, he may not even be there or he may intend to take you out as soon as you show up and then go after the family. That'd be the best way to be sure there's no trail to follow back to the killer.”

Tanner frowned; perhaps he hadn't considered that scenario. Before they could start up again, Josiah said, "Vin, do you have any idea why this Benny Watkins is so interested in you?”

Vin looked at the profiler with a troubled expression. "That's what don't make sense, ‘Siah. I seen Watkins around, chased him outta the neighborhood more ‘n once, but hell, he knows I'm ATF. No way he has the guts to come after me hisself.”

"It doesn't make sense,” Buck agreed, frowning himself. "A low-life like Watkins targeting a federal agent? I vote we haul his ass in and turn him inside-out until he tells us what the hell is really going on.”

It was a tempting thought but Chris shook his head. "Maybe later, but not yet. Vin's right. This doesn't make sense. There's more going on than we know.” He paused, thinking. "Who controls drugs in that part of the city?”

"Henry Sturgis.” The answer came simultaneously from Josiah and Buck and Buck added, "Sturgis is behind all the drugs and prostitution in that part of Denver. Watkins wouldn't dare try to sell so much as a dime bag without Sturgis's okay.” His eyebrows rose. "He could be the one giving the orders. No way Watkins would refuse him.”

"I don't know Sturgis,” Vin said flatly. "Why would he come after me?”

"We don't know that he's behind this,” Chris said, "but it is a possibility. You keep saying that Watkins doesn't have the guts or brains to be behind this; he's just a two-bit drug pusher. Sturgis would be the one he's getting the drugs from, so Sturgis would be able to control him, to pull his strings. And he's no lightweight like Watkins.” He fixed Tanner with a hard gaze. "But we're not going to jump ahead of ourselves. We need to we find out exactly what's going on.”

Vin bristled. "That'll take time. What about Fernando an' his family?”

"We can stash them in a safe house,” Nathan suggested.

Tanner frowned. "Maybe not.”

"What do you mean?” Chris demanded.

"Somethin' Gabe said. Watkins told 'im the cops couldn't protect his family, and he'd know if Gabe squealed on him.”

"Huh?” JD said in bewilderment. "Why wouldn't the police be able to protect someone from a two-bit drug dealer? And how would he know the kid even went to the cops?”

"Good question,” Larabee agreed. "He's probably just be blowing smoke. Vin can't see Watkins being a real threat to him or the Reyes' family. But if this is a genuine threat…” he shook his head. "If what Watkins said about the authorities not being able to protect the family is true, then there's got to be someone behind him. Someone a lot bigger, more powerful, orchestrating this whatever it is. Worst case scenario, it's someone who might have in an in with the DPD. Sturgis is an obvious choice, but right now we're guessing, which is why we're not going to risk hauling in Watkins right now.”

No one looked happy with their superior's words. Chris didn't blame them; he wasn't happy either.

"Using your worst-case scenario, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said, "if an unscrupulous individual has access to a member of the local law enforcement, there is no way to know how much confidential information may have been compromised.”

"Maybe including safe houses,” Nathan said bleakly.

"We're speculating,” Josiah noted, "with no proof. Denver P.D. is hardly going to launch an internal investigation without that.”

"For that matter, isn't it more likely that Watkins was just spouting crap, trying to scare Gabe?” Buck suggested.

Larabee shook his head again. "Maybe, but Watkins demanded that Gabriel Reyes get an ATF agent to a specific place at a specific time. And he was willing to threaten the boy's family to force the kid to do it.” His gaze turned back to Vin who was still standing tensely near the door. "I know this has been asked before but I need to ask one last time. Are you sure Watkins himself can't be behind this?”

Vin also shook his head. "No way, he doesn't got the guts an' no real reason I can think of t' come after a federal agent.”

"Chris,” Josiah said, "is there anyone at the DPD we could run this by?”

"No,” Vin said sharply. "Even though we don't know for sure who's pullin' Watkins' chain, someone is. And say whoever's behind Watkins has someone on the take in the DPD. Askin' questions could put Fernando's family in someone's crosshair.” He grimaced. "More 'n they already are.”

There were a lot of maybe's and supposing going on in the room. At the same time, Larabee had always been a strong believer in planning for the worst.

"Relax, Vin, we won't put the family in any more danger.” Chris looked at his team. "I'll talk to Travis, explain what's happened and what we're going to do, once we figure that out. If we come up with any evidence on crooked cops I'll let him pass it along to the police chief who can order an investigation.”

Standish looked from his superior to Vin Tanner, who seemed marginally relieved but was still frowning. "Regardless of whether our suspicions are correct, because Mr. Watkins made the statement we must consider the possibility he was speaking truly and act accordingly.”

A long silence followed this unwelcome thought, then Tanner said quietly, "Havin' a mole in the police department could come in handy for someone like Sturgis.”

Chris looked quickly at the sharpshooter. Vin was staring at nothing in particular, his intense blue eyes blank, without emotion. It was no surprise that Tanner had leaped so quickly to such a conclusion, not considering what had happened to his Ranger team.

Stifling a surge of uneasiness, Larabee decided it was time for a summary. "We can't do anything about the possibility of the DPD being compromised. For safety's sake, we'll leave them out of this. For now we have three issues. One is to find a safe place for Vin's friends to stay. The second is to decide whether Vin is going to that warehouse Wednesday night.” Tanner started to speak but Chris cut him off. "As I said, we're not involving the DPD in this. Apart from anything else, for some reason we don't yet know, an ATF agent is in the line of fire. It's our case. Period. Third, we need to find out why Watkins wants Tanner at that warehouse.”

"I told you – ” Vin started but Larabee didn't let him continue.

"If it's not Watkins, then we need to find out who's behind Watkins, who's giving orders, and from there maybe we can figure out why. Maybe Sturgis, maybe someone else. Learning who owns that warehouse may help with that.”

"Okay, forget the DPD,” Nathan acknowledged. "The ATF has some safe houses. And no one knows about them outside of the ATF. Let's put the family in one of them.”

"So even if the police department is really compromised, it won't matter,” JD said brightly, then his smile faded. "You don't think the ATF has also been…you know?”

The agents exchanged uneasy glances. After a long, tense minute Chris said, "I seriously doubt it, JD. The ATF runs periodic checks on all of its systems.” A faint smile appeared briefly. "As you all have reason to know.”

Eye-rolls around the room answered him, except for Vin who still looked unhappy. "But we don't know for sure the ATF ain't compromised. I think I should just take Fernando and his family somewhere safe.”

"No,” Larabee said immediately. "You're part of a team, Tanner, and you're not going to pull any lone-wolf shit.”

Vin bristled but Josiah spoke quickly before the Texan could. "To be absolutely safe, let's forget safe houses run by any law enforcement agency.”

Chris eyed him closely, recognizing that pensive expression. "You have an alternative in mind?”

"I have some friends in the Cistercian order who run the Monastery of Our Lady of Calvary in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just north of the New Mexico border. They have a small house on the grounds they allow visitors to use who want to escape from the world for a while.”

Nathan frowned. "We have no idea what's going on yet. Do we really want to risk more civilians?”

A smile flickered across Josiah's features. "Before he turned to a contemplative life, the abbot, Father Joseph, spent fifteen years as a Marine. Chris, if you're okay with the idea, I'll explain the situation to him before asking for his help. I believe he would be willing, but I also trust he'd tell me if he felt it was too dangerous for his monastery.” His smile turned oddly wistful. "He understands and embraces the concept of sanctuary.”

"So long as we could ensure the safety of any civilians, such a plan may prove successful,” Ezra said thoughtfully. "It would be something totally unexpected, something no nefarious individuals would expect.”

"How's the place set up?” Vin demanded.

The profiler's eyebrows rose. "What do you mean?”

"We need to know before we go ahead with the plan how defensible the place is.”

The big man frowned. "Vin, this is a monastery, not a fortress. It's not intended to – ”

"'Siah, if we're thinkin' a stashin' Fernando's family up there, we need to be sure we'd be able to protect 'em.”

"How would Chaney's people know where they were?” Nathan asked. "I mean, isn't that the whole idea of finding a place for them to hide apart from the usual safe houses?”

Vin shook his head, his lips tight. Watching him, Chris had the impression of a tiger in full protective mode.

"Josiah,” he intervened, "this is a monastery. Is there any kind of security?”

"I don't know,” Josiah returned, looking troubled, "but I doubt it. And as far as defensible, as I recall there's just one road onto the property.”

"One road in and out?” Vin shook his head. "That means if there's an attack, we'd be trapped.”

"Why are you so sure there's going to be an attack?” JD asked.

"I ain't. But it's better to be prepared for the worst, even if it don't happen.”

Chris nodded. That was one of the most basic principles in military training. For Vin, whose military training and experience was much more recent than the other veterans on the team, it was a fact of life. He was glad to see that Josiah was now nodding in understanding.

"I'll talk that through with Father Joseph. He'll need to be aware of the possibility. If he's willing to go ahead, I'll also ask for information about the setup of the property.”

Into the thoughtful silence that followed his words, they all heard the sound of a door opening down the hall. Vin turned quickly just as Fernando appeared. The man seemed unaware of the others as he caught Vin's arm.

"Vin, Gabriel is sick.”

The Texan swallowed a curse. "Withdrawal?”

"I don't know.”

Nathan was already moving, pausing by his desk just long enough to grab his indispensable backpack filled with medical supplies. "Let's go.”

"The rest of us should stay here.” Josiah's words stopped JD and Buck in mid-stride. He looked from hazel to blue eyes. "The last thing that boy needs is an audience to his torment.”

The profiler's words faded behind them as Vin, Nathan and Fernando strode quickly down the hall. Vin shoved the conference door open and his first sight was of Gabriel on the floor, his arms wrapped around himself and shivering violently. Sofia was kneeling beside him, tears in her eyes and her hands on his shoulders. Magdalena, Vin was thankful to see, was still sleeping peacefully in her cocoon of blankets in the corner.

Nathan dropped beside the prone figure, setting his backpack down and opening it almost in a single move.

A muffled groan escaped Gabriel's lips before he began retching uncontrollably. Nathan quickly turned him on his side.

"Easy now,” he soothed. He pulled out a thermometer, then put it back. Vin understood. Gabriel's teeth were chattering so badly there was no way a regular thermometer could be used. Instead the medic took out a temperature strip and laid it across the boy's forehead. After a minute he looked at it and then threw another look at his teammate.

"We need to get his temperature down.”

Tanner grimaced and Sofia wiped away the tears on her cheeks.

"C- c- can't,” the boy choked, trembling even more violently. Sweat poured off him and he gasped as if he couldn't get air.

Nathan pulled out two cold packs, shook them to activate them, and placed them on either side of the boy's neck, then dug into his first aid kit. "Help me get his shirt open,” he said as he pulled out a stethoscope.

From the corner of the room came a faint, fretful whimper. Sofia looked worriedly from Gabriel to her baby.

"Take care 'a Magdalena,” Vin said softly. "We'll take care 'a Gabe.”

She looked from her husband to Vin before rising and moving away. Vin unbuttoned Gabriel's shirt while Nathan stuck the earpieces of the stethoscope in his ears before placing the small, disc-shaped resonator on the boy's heaving chest. His frown deepened as he listened.

Tanner glanced at Sofia who was absorbed with her baby before speaking quietly. "Gabe's only been back on that shit for a month. Should his withdrawal be this bad?”

Nathan shook his head. "Regardless, his heartbeat is irregular and his respiration's impaired. We need to get him to a hospital.”

Fernando looked up, naked fear in his eyes. "But he will be all right?”

Vin reached out to grip his friend's arm. "Trust Nathan, amigo. He'll see Gabe gets the best care.”

Heedless of their conversation, Nathan said, "I need to get him stabilized. Vin, call 911 and then let Chris know what's going on.”

"Will do.” Vin gave Fernando's arm another pat before pulling out his cell phone. Despite his reassuring words to the other man, he'd seen the urgency in Nathan's eyes. As he punched in the numbers, he started to pray. He only hoped someone was listening.

* * * * * * *

Vin stepped outside, letting the door close silently behind him. He breathed in the chilly air, clearing his lungs of the smell of the hospital, and noticed with some surprise that the sun was coming up, sending streamers of gold and red and blue across the lightening sky.

He heard the door open behind him and knew immediately who it was. "It's morning?” Larabee muttered a half-hearted curse. "No wonder I'm tired.”

Under different, better, circumstances, Vin would have been tempted to tease his teammate and friend. Today, he couldn't. No surprise, Larabee sensed that.

"He's going to be all right,” Chris said quietly.

"For now,” Vin acknowledged. "He still has a rough road ahead'a him.”

"Josiah knows a place that specializes in teenagers with drug and alcohol problems,” Chris said. "It's supposed to be really good. If Gabriel's family is willing, Josiah will talk to the director. He's pretty sure he'll be able to persuade them to accept the kid into their program when he's well enough to leave the hospital.”

Vin shook his head. "That sounds good, but right now Gabe's a sittin' duck. So's the rest of the family.”

"We've got him registered under a fake name,” Chris reminded.

Staring at the slowly brightening sky, Vin said quietly, "I need to be at that warehouse Wednesday night, Chris.”

Larabee sighed deeply. "Why does Benny Watkins want you there?”


"You think someone is behind Watkins, orchestrating this whatever it is?”


"Who? Sturgis?”


"That's what I'm talking about, Tanner. There's too much we don't know. Right now, you'd be walking in blind. If a bomb is planted - ”

That made Vin look at the man standing beside him. "Probably not.”

"‘Probably' is the issue.”

"Damn it, Chris - ”

Larabee held up his hand. "We've got time to look into this. Let's see what we can find out in the next couple of days.”

"But – ”

"One step at a time.” He turned to face the Texan. "This mess isn't your fault, you know.”

Tanner flinched, looking away. He thought he'd been doing a better job hiding his feelings. Leave it to Chris to figure it out.

"No, I don't. I keep thinkin' 'a Gabe, clean for months. Then outta the blue, Benny Watkins shows up and offers him a ‘free' sample.” Fury made the last words almost inaudible. He took some deep breaths, fighting back the anger; he couldn't lose control now. "Why'd he do that? It don't make no sense.”

Chris shook his head. It didn't make sense, although there was one possibility that was on both of their minds, a possibility that he knew only increased Tanner's feelings of guilt.

"Vin, we don't – ”

"Yeah, we do, Chris. It's more'n likely Watkins went after Gabriel to get to me. That means – ”

"Damn it, Vin – ”

Tanner pushed on, ignoring him. "After all he went through to get clean, the poor kid gets hooked all over again, and then a few weeks later Benny tells him to get me to some damn warehouse or else.” He whirled furiously on his team leader. "Tell me all that ain't connected!”

Larabee hesitated, thinking about what he needed to say. As soon as they had heard the details, it had been obvious to him, to all of them, that Gabriel Reyes and his family were being used as pawns by – someone – who was after Vin Tanner. Someone who knew how close the Reyes family was to the ATF agent. An unknown enemy with such personal knowledge…that was even more troubling.

"I don't disagree with you, Vin, but you're not responsible for what some bastard is doing. And it's all the more reason not to rush ahead without learning as much as we can first. You know that as well as I do.”

It was Tanner's turn to sigh and he pushed his anger down again. He recognized the inflexible note that had entered his team leader's voice. "Yeah,” he agreed, mentally reserving whole-hearted cooperation. "But what about Fernando and his family? Ya really think the DPD safe houses 're compromised? And the ATF's?”

"I don‘t know, but we're going to take every exaggerated precaution we can think of, to make sure they're safe.”

"What's that mean?”

"I think we need to talk some more with Josiah about that monastery in the mountains.”

Vin nodded. Just thinking about a sanctioned safe house being known to the bad guys was chilling. He knew – regardless of Chris's reassurances – that the Reyes' family was in danger because of him. No way in hell would he put his friends at greater risk. If he had his druthers, he'd hide them in Fort Knox, supposedly the most secure military installation in the country. Failing that, keeping their security in the hands of his teammates was the best way to go.

Feeling Chris's eyes on him pulled him from his thoughts. He looked enquiringly at his team leader who said, "I need to talk to Travis, Josiah, too. And you need to talk to Fernando about his family being moved out of town.”

"No way Sofia'll be willin' to go anywhere without Gabe.”

Chris shook his head. "Then we better find out from the docs when the kid will be in good enough shape to leave. Unless, maybe, he should go straight from the hospital to the halfway house Josiah was talking about.”

Vin thought about Sofia, whose sweet, soft-spoken exterior hid an iron will. When it came to wanting to protect Gabe and Magdalena, a mama tiger had nothing on Sofia. "She's gonna need time to get comfortable with the idea. So's Gabe. We need to keep 'em together.”

"All right. You talk to them and the doctors, find out when Gabe can leave the hospital.” Larabee glanced at his watch. "I've got two hours before I can see Travis, so I'll talk to Josiah to get more details about that place in the mountains. And I need to find out what Ezra and JD have discovered about Watkins and Sturgis and who owns that damn warehouse.”

"Somebody's pullin' Benny's chain,” Vin said. "It's the only thing that makes sense.”

"Which is why we're also looking into Sturgis.” Larabee started to walk down the stairs toward the parking lot. "Let Buck know what's going on.”

"Will do.”

Vin went back inside. Ignoring the elevators, he hurried up the stairs to the third floor and strode swiftly past the nurses' station. When he turned the corner the first thing he saw was Buck outside the door of Gabe's room. He was sitting in a chair with his legs stretched out, arms folded, looking relaxed and half asleep. But Vin knew that look was deceptive.

Sure enough, as he approached, Buck immediately straightened, his head turning alertly even as his hand dropped to the weapon at his side. Seeing Vin, he relaxed again.

"Where's Chris?”

"Headed back to the office.”

"Is he going for Josiah's idea?”

"Looks like.” Vin glanced at the door. "Ya heard anything?”

"Nope.” Buck looked at it, too. "If they're talking in there, they're being quiet about it. Anything new?”

Vin brought him up to date before reaching for the door. Buck put a hand on his arm, stopping him. "I had an idea, sitting here. I'm gonna call a friend of mine at the DEA and see what he knows about the drug business here in Denver, especially Sturgis.”

Tanner considered. "Better 'n talkin' to the Denver P.D., at least until we know if…” he paused, hating to put the onus on a fellow agency. Buck nodded in understanding.

Vin pushed the door open. Inside, the family was spread out much as he had last seen them. Gabe was still asleep in the bed. Thanks to medication, his heart problem had resolved and the other symptoms had eased, and he was now resting comfortably, to all of their relief. On the cot that Vin had insisted be brought in, Magdalena was curled up under a blanket, sleeping peacefully. Sitting on the edge of the cot with one hand resting on the blanket, Sofia looked both tired and worried. Leaning against the wall next to the window, Fernando's eyes continually shifted from the outside view to his wife and daughter and nephew.

He and Sofia both looked up when the sharpshooter entered. Letting the door close softly behind him, Vin moved into the room. He stopped beside Sofia and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Ya know,” he said softly, "that cot's big enough for ya, too.”

She smiled wearily. "Maybe later.”

Vin squeezed her shoulder and turned to Fernando. His friend not only looked tired, but he looked as if he'd aged ten years overnight. For such a proud man who worked hard to take care of his family, all this had to be hitting him hard.

"Amigo,” he said. "How're ya doing?”

Fernando looked away briefly before meeting Tanner's gaze. "I am a gardener, Vin. I don't understand all this…” he gestured helplessly.

Just what Vin had feared. Though he knew Chris would not approve, he decided it was time for some truth. "I'm sorry, amigo.” His gaze turned to Sofia. "This is my fault.”

Surprise brightened the eyes of both Sofia and Fernando and Sofia spoke first. "How can any of this be your fault, Vin?”

Vin slumped against the wall. "Cuz ya'all 're bein' used to get at me.”

"What do you mean?” Fernando asked.

"There's a lot we don't know yet,” Tanner said, mentally frowning at this echo of Chris's words, "but, bottom line, somebody's interested in me. And they used Gabe, and threatenin' your family, to try to get to me.”

It was Fernando's turn to frown and Sofia covered her mouth, saying in a choked voice, "It was not bad enough before? Now you are in danger because of us.”

Vin dropped to his knees in front of her. He took her hand and spoke quickly. "No, it's cuz of me that all of ya are in danger, Sofia. But ya don't have to worry. We're gonna keep ya safe while we find out who's behind this and take 'em down.”

She looked back at him, mouth working, and the tears in her eyes broke his heart. "Please, Sofia, this ain't no one's fault but those bas- the bad guys. We're gonna make it right, I promise. Please, trust us.”

After a long, painful moment, she managed a watery smile and nodded. Fernando cleared his throat. When Vin glanced up at him the man also smiled, albeit weakly. "We trust you, mi amigo. We always have.” His smile grew into a soft laugh. "It was a great day for us when you moved into the building. First you saved Magdalena, and now you save all of us.”

Tanner felt his cheeks warm at Fernando's words. Instinctively he looked at the tiny form sleeping beside Sofia, while his thoughts flew back to that fateful day, only a few weeks after he'd joined Team Seven and moved into his apartment. He'd been walking down the hall when he heard a scream from the next apartment down. He'd instantly banged on the door, which fell open under his assault.

As he stepped inside his first sight was of a baby lying unmoving on the floor, with her frantic parents hovering over her, crying and trying to wake her.

The sight of the tiny perfect features, ghastly pale with the lips turning blue, kicked all of Vin's instincts into gear. He dropped to his knees, pushed the hysterical parents aside, caught up the baby and tried to blow a breath into her lungs. Feeling resistance, he turned her over one arm and slapped the tiny back. Once, twice, then he heard her choking gasp. A third slap, then a red jellybean fell out of her mouth before she coughed, coughed again, and began crying.

Sofia stood up beside the cot, the movement yanking him out of his memories. Apparently she had also been remembering, for she smiled. "You're not only Magdalena's guardian angel, but our whole family's.”

Before he could respond, Fernando turned to him. "Vin, what's happening?”

The sharpshooter understood exactly what his friend was asking. "Like I said, amigo, there's a lot we don't know right now. As soon as Gabe is up to it, we're gonna take ya some place no one but my team knows about. We're gonna keep ya'all safe while we track down who's behind this sh- ” he stopped abruptly and gave Sofia a sheepish smile. "I mean, who's behind all this. Once they're in jail, it should be safe to ya to go home.”

Fernando and Sofia locked eyes. Vin looked away, feeling uncomfortably as if he was intruding on a private moment. Finally, they both turned to him.

"We trust you, Vin,” Fernando said.

A flush of warmth traveled through Tanner at this unconditional vow, followed by a chill.

He trusted his team, but Fernando and Sofia trusted him.

Their lives were in his hands.


It had been a long, frustrating, but ultimately successful meeting with Travis. As he drove back to the hospital that afternoon, Chris reviewed the plan he had begun to put together. Now that he had Travis on board, however reluctantly, he was able to factor in some pieces he hadn't been sure would work before.

Though he would never say so out loud, his greatest concern was keeping Vin under control. Chris grimaced at the thought. ‘Under control' was a best case scenario, but not realistic. Tanner was a great teammate, always there to watch their backs, to act when necessary to keep them safe. There was no one Chris Larabee would rather have looking out for Team Seven.

On the flip side…It was obvious to anyone who knew the Texan that he was invested, heart and mind, in the Reyes' family. Which meant he would do whatever he felt he had to in order to protect them. Which also meant that Chris could not rely on his status as team leader to keep Vin from striking out on his own, if he thought he needed to.

Worse, on top of the sharpshooter's natural protective instincts and emotional connection with the family, Chris knew Vin was feeling guilty. Benny Watkins – most likely acting for someone else – wanted the ATF agent at a particular place at a particular time. In order to get Vin there, Watkins, or whoever was behind him, was using the Reyes' as some kind of pawn. And in order to use the family, Watkins had apparently deliberately stalked Gabriel Reyes to get him back on drugs and vulnerable to threats.

Larabee blew out a long breath and rubbed his face hard. The amount of planning that had gone into this plot was disturbing. His instincts were screaming that all this was only a part of whatever was going on. There was something major in the works. And he knew, regardless of their lack of information, the focus of whatever was going on was Vin Tanner.

Vin was determined to be at that warehouse. Chris knew, and hated the knowledge, that no amount of logic or reasoning was going to stop the younger man. In truth, unless they were able to find out *something* in the next few days, he figured that, in order to gain more information, he was going to have to let Tanner go. But there was no way in hell the Texan was going to that warehouse without the back-up of his team.

Chris gritted his teeth against rising frustration. If they didn't learn anything more, he would be allowing Vin to walk into a situation filled with unknowns. It was almost certainly a set-up. Was Vin going to walk into a storm of bullets when he arrived? Or was he going to be allowed into the warehouse in order to…to what? At this point there was no way to know, and the uncertainty was threatening to drive Chris nuts.

And underpinning all of the questions was the big one. Why?

He pulled into the hospital's parking lot and parked, turning off the ignition with a jerk. Obviously, he needed to have men both inside and outside of the warehouse when Vin showed up Wednesday night. Deciding who went where was just one problem. In a perfect world, Vin himself would be secreted somewhere inside, covering the team. But that wasn't going to work this time. All of the members of Team Seven were accomplished with weapons, but the Texan's skill with a rifle was second to none. Other than Vin, who could provide the best coverage?

"Damn it,” Chris muttered. Buck and Josiah were the best with hand guns, after Vin. And JD was improving steadily under Vin's tutelage. Nathan's expertise with throwing weapons had saved them more than once. Ezra was deadly with several different, short-range weapons. But when it came to rifles, Chris himself consistently outshot the others…always excepting Vin. And Chris couldn't hide himself in the warehouse for hours prior to the meet, not when he had so much else to plan and do.

He would need at least two men inside the warehouse ahead of time, he thought uncomfortably. Which cut down on the back-up support and surveillance he wanted outside. There was no way for seven men to cover all the bases, including having one of them staying with the Reyes' family for protection.

Under normal circumstances, he would have brought in another ATF team for additional support. That was what Travis argued for. But Tanner was already paranoid about a possible mole in the Denver P.D. and he didn't want any team except his own involved in the case. Larabee knew he'd need to go along with the sharpshooter's concern if he was going to maintain any kind of control over him. On the other hand, he wasn't certain he would be able to maintain control over the whole situation come Wednesday night.

Larabee rubbed his eyes in weariness and frustration. Restricting their plans to a single team was impossible. But…damn it, necessary. He needed to take a mental step back, try to look at the broader picture. Surely, there must be a better way. He had a smart, experienced team. They needed to get together for some serious brainstorming. Between the seven of them, he figured they'd be able to come up with a workable plan. It was essential that Chris kept this plan limited to his team if he was going to keep Vin Tanner from taking off on his own.

Chris stared out the front window of his truck, not really seeing anything. He knew what demons were really driving Vin. Tanner had lost almost his entire Ranger team because of a mole in military intelligence. Worst of all, that mole had managed to escape justice even after he had been identified.

There was no way in hell that Vin would take a chance of another mole bringing harm to the Reyes' family. Travis had scoffed at the idea of a mole in the ATF. Even though Chris himself thought the odds were slim, he knew Vin Tanner, and he knew if he acceded to Travis's suggestion to bring in another team, that act would likely be the straw that broke the Texan's back, sending him off on his own in some damn quixotic quest to rescue the Reyes' and bring the bad guys – whoever they were – to justice.

Larabee grimaced again. That damn Tanner, worrying him like this. He should be ashamed of himself.

*Not hardly, Cowboy.*

Chris started at the familiar voice in his head, then he grinned. *Stop eavesdropping on your superior.*

*Maybe I would if you was.*

The amusement in the words wrung a chuckle out of him. "I'm coming in,” he said out loud, pushing the truck door open and then heading for the side entrance of the hospital.

*We ain't goin' nowhere.*

When he reached the Reyes' room a few minutes later he paused to talk to Buck still sitting outside Gabriel's hospital room. "Nathan will be here to relieve you in an hour.”

Buck stretched. "Good to hear. And then where do I go?”

Chris studied his old friend. "Why don't you get a few hours of sleep while you can, then – ”

"No one else is sleeping, right?” Buck interrupted.

"Not right now,” Chris admitted in frustration. That was one of the biggest problems of limiting this case to only his team. Sleep was going to be in short supply for everyone, and too little sleep was dangerous because it could mean they weren't at the top of their game.

"I'll sleep later,” Buck said. "Where do you want me when I leave here?”

"Get back to the office. JD's looking into Watkins and Sturgis. You can help with that.”

Buck nodded. "I mentioned to Vin that I have a contact in the DEA who may be able to help. I'll see what I can find out.”

"You trust him?”

"Her.” Buck smirked briefly before turning serious again. "And yeah, I do.”


Chris turned away and pushed the door open. His first sight was of Vin, facing the door, one hand under his jacket. He stopped, waiting for the sharpshooter to remove his hand from his weapon. Vin gave him a barely perceptible nod and Larabee came in. A glance around the room showed that the family hadn't noticed the brief exchange and he was relieved. They were stressed enough; they didn't need to know how on edge those protecting them were.

"How're you doing?” He glanced between Sofia and Fernando, speaking softly in deference to the sleeping teenager and toddler. Larabee hoped he was hiding the sudden jump in his heart rate at the sight of the tiny, sleeping figure. He suddenly realized this was the closest he had been to a small child since… He could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead.

"Gabriel is better so we are, too,” Sofia said with an affectionate look toward the unmoving figure in the bed.

Thankful that his surge of emotion hadn't been noticeable, Chris looked at Vin who nodded. "The docs say Gabe's stabilized. They're gonna be startin' him on buprenorphine.”

Larabee did his best to ignore the sharpshooter's intent blue gaze, knowing that Tanner wasn't misled by his impassive exterior. At least he could trust Vin not to give him away. Trying to ignore his unruly emotions, Chris thought about the Texan's words.

Like many law enforcement personnel, he had more than a passing knowledge of the various treatments for addictive drugs. He recognized the name Tanner had mentioned and knew it was a popular medication for the use of opioid withdrawal – because of its ability to suppress symptoms, especially cravings – as well as a maintenance therapy. Even more important considering their current circumstances, Gabriel would not have to stay in the hospital for treatment. The medication could be taken at home or even while temporarily residing at a monastery in the mountains. Nathan could oversee Gabriel's use of the medication as well as keep an eye out for any potential problems.

Chris was glad to know that one barrier to getting the family out of town into an unorthodox, unofficial safe house had been removed. He couldn't wait to get an update from Josiah about the profiler's conversation with the leader or head or whatever he was called of the monastery.

"As soon as the doctors say that Gabriel is up to it,” he said, again looking between Sofia and Fernando, "we'll see about getting you someplace safe.”

The couple exchanged glances, then, simultaneously, turned to Vin who gave them a rare, full-on smile.

"It's gonna be okay, I promise.”

Watching their relieved return smiles, Chris knew they needed to ensure the family's safety, because he also knew, with absolute certainty, that Vin would die to keep his promise. And that was never going to happen, not while Chris Larabee still had breath left in his body.

A faint whimper came from the cot and Sofia immediately turned to calming the toddler. Chris's throat tightened until he had a hard time breathing, while at the same time all-too-familiar pain pierced his heart.

He had to get out of here before he lost control. There was no way Tanner could miss his increasing discomfort and, soon, even the Reyes would begin to notice.

Chris looked at the Texan, trying to keep his expression matter-of-fact. "I'm going to talk to Josiah and see what he's got.”

Vin returned his gaze, his blue eyes knowing and concerned. To Chris's relief, he said only, "Keep me in the loop?”

Larabee nodded, already heading for the door. "Will do.” He barely made it out of the room before he had to take a deep, calming breath.

"Chris?” Buck started to rise but Larabee waved him back.

"Nathan'll be here soon,” he managed before making his escape.

A few minutes later Chris was in his truck. Trying his best not to think about his reaction to little Magdalena, he pulled out his cell phone and punched in a speed dial number. A deep voice answered almost immediately.

"Hello, Chris.”

"Where are you, Josiah?”

"Back in the office.”

Larabee almost groaned. If he'd stayed put after talking to Travis…but no, he'd wanted to talk to Tanner face-to-face to get a read on the unpredictable sharpshooter. For the moment he was confident Tanner would stay with the Reyes' family, and that was good enough

"Is Nathan still there?”

"Yes, but he's getting ready to head to the hospital to take over for Buck.”

"All right. I'll be there in a half hour.”

As Chris drove out of the parking lot he thought again of the difficulty in juggling his teammates to ensure that all their bases were covered. At least for now it was working.

When he walked into the outer office of Team Seven a short while later, he found JD and Josiah working busily on their computers. Ezra was also sitting at his desk, although he was on the telephone. Chris stopped in his tracks and stared at the southerner who was speaking in fluent French. After a surprised minute, Larabee looked at the other two members of his team. JD was glued to his computer, oblivious to his surroundings, but Josiah met his bemused gaze with a smile.

"You should've heard him earlier. He was talking to someone in Russian.”

"Who – ”

Josiah shook his head. "No idea, but according to JD he's been on the phone all morning. Meanwhile, I think you're going to like what we've found out so far.”


JD's exclamation made both Chris and Josiah start. Their youngest agent looked up, smiling broadly.

"I found something.”

"Don't keep us in suspense,” Chris said dryly.

JD looked back to his monitor. "I think I found a connection between Watkins and Sturgis. Look at this report that was filed with the Organized Crime Unit last month.”

Chris stopped behind JD to look at his monitor, then glanced at the profiler. "Augie Newsom was seen meeting with Benny Watkins.”

Josiah smiled grimly. He didn't have to voice what they already knew. Newsom was a long-time "employee” of Henry Sturgis. Then his smile turned to a frown.

"Is it possible that Watkins was just getting more drugs from Sturgis?”

Larabee shook his head. "Unlikely. Newsom is one of Sturgis's leg-breakers. He's never been involved in the drug end.”

Ezra ended his telephone conversation and disconnected. Somehow he must have also paying attention to the conversation in the office for he said, "Newsom would not have made an appearance other than at the order of Henry Sturgis. It appears that our early supposition may prove to be accurate.”

"It's too soon to be certain,” Chris warned. "But it's a good lead. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Buck walked into the office on the heels of Larabee's words. "Nathan's at the hospital, so I…” his eyes narrowed as he looked at JD, picking up on his roommate's excitement. "What'd I miss?”

"Take a look,” JD said.

While the pair hovered over JD's computer, Chris turned to Josiah. "What did you hear from your friend at the monastery?”

"I had a long talk with Father Joseph and explained the situation.” Seeing Chris's eyes narrow, Josiah said quietly but firmly, "If we decide to move forward with this, he needs to know the monastery may become a target, even if we don't think it likely.”

Larabee nodded reluctantly. "And?”

"He said yes.”

"That simple?” Chris said in surprise.

"Periodically, Father Joseph takes the monks on camping trips higher up in the mountains for the sake of contemplation out in nature. He's going to arrange one of those trips when we tell him we're ready to move. So we'll be the only ones on the monastery grounds.”

Chris nodded again, this time in relief. The plan was simple and it removed his main objection to the unorthodox "safe house.” The extraneous civilians would be gone, out of danger, which meant Team Seven could focus its time and energy on protecting the Reyes' family.

"That could work,” he said thoughtfully.

"I agree,” Josiah said.

"Okay,” Larabee abruptly decided. "I want you to firm up plans for moving the family as soon as they can be moved.”

"Already on it.”

Chris walked back into his office and sat down. It was now Sunday afternoon and the message Gabriel Reyes had relayed from Wakins – or, quite possibly, from Sturgis – said for Vin to be at the warehouse Wednesday night. They had a lot to do and not much time to do it.


Late Tuesday evening Chris Larabee sat at his desk, reviewing all that had happened in the last two and a half days.

It had been a frantic period of activity with every one of Team Seven pulling double- sometimes triple-duty, dividing their time between checking with contacts, snitches, and anyone else who might have information, guarding the Reyes' family, and slaving over their computers, reviewing all their cases since Vin had joined the team in the hope of finding some kind of connection, trying to find any and all information they could on Watkins, Sturgis, the warehouse and who owned it. JD in particular could rarely be torn away from his computer and came up with several critical nuggets of information.

It had been an exhausting, nerve-stretching time, but the pieces had begun to come together, and with each piece of information, the picture was growing clearer.

The day after JD had uncovered the meeting between Sturgis' thug, Augie Newsom, and Benny Watkins, their relentless search uncovered another critical nugget. This time it was Josiah who uttered an exclamation of satisfaction.

"Here's another piece of the puzzle.”

Chris moved over to his desk. "What've you got?”

"I finally made it through the last of those dummy corporations. Henry Sturgis owns two warehouses in that area. And one of them…” he looked at his superior, smiling.

"Is the one Vin is supposed to go to Wednesday night,” Chris finished, not needing Josiah's nod to know he was right.

"All the evidence is pointing in the same direction,” the profiler noted.

Knowing Sturgis was almost certainly behind Watkins' threat to Gabriel Reyes had helped them to focus their search. Now, as Tuesday was about to turn into very early Wednesday meeting, Chris had gathered all of his team together - except for Nathan who had gone to replace Ezra in guarding the Reyes family - to review what they knew and to finalize their plans for tomorrow.

Chris pushed back his chair and stood, pausing to swallow a yawn. How in the hell could he be so tense when he was so damn tired? He knew he wasn't alone. Sleep had been in short supply the last few days for all the members of Team Seven. He could faintly hear Buck and JD talking in the outer office and as he rose he saw Vin saunter in. Josiah was on the phone, but when he saw his superior approaching he quickly finished his conversation and hung up.

Larabee paused when he reached Vin's desk. "Buck, close the door,” he ordered since the big man was the closest to the door leading out to the hall.

Slumped in his chair, outwardly relaxed, Vin watched and listened with half an ear, acutely aware of the passage of time. Tomorrow night he was supposed to go to the warehouse and he intended to be there come hell or high water or a furious team leader. He hoped the plan he and JD had put together would be okayed…he didn't want to get on Larabee's bad side, but if that was the only option, then so be it.

He watched Larabee sit down on the edge of a desk, seeing the tension around the green eyes and in the man's posture.

"JD,” Chris started without preamble, "you said you had something new?”

"Right.” JD smiled happily. "Benny Watkins was arrested four months ago on DeLong Avenue, which is only a block away from the Neptune Club, which happens to be owned by Henry Sturgis. Sturgis also has an office in the back of the club and he spends most of his time there.”

"What was he arrested for?” Josiah asked.

JD smirked. "He jaywalked in front of a police car. When the officer got out to give him a warning, Watkins ran, the officer caught him and discovered he was carrying a shitload of drugs.” He looked up from the monitor. "He's due to go on trial in a couple months but his lawyer's trying to get the case thrown out of court because of an unreasonable search.”

"Unreasonable my ass!” Buck said in disgust.

Vin shook his head. "That ain't the point. Watkins spends most of his time around Purgatory. What the hell was he doing on that side of the city, a block from Sturgis's joint, if not to do business with the bastard?”

Chris nodded slowly. "It's circumstantial but it's something, especially considering what else we've found. Anything else, JD?”

He shrugged. "The only other significant info was about the warehouse. Josiah already told you Sturgis owned it, right?”

As Larabee nodded, Buck spoke. "We were talking about someone pulling Watkins' string. With everything we've found, it has to be Sturgis.”

"So?” Vin said flatly. "Why'n hell is Sturgis interested in me?”

It was by no means the first time the question had been asked, but no one had yet come up with a reasonable answer. All their searching hadn't found any link between the sharpshooter and the drug dealer and it was hard to tell who was more frustrated about that lack – Chris or Vin.

Even though he already knew the answer, Larabee couldn't resist asking one more time. "Anyone find any kind of connection?”

Headshakes were his only answer and JD said unhappily. "Nothing.”

Josiah added, "I've gone through all of our cases since Vin joined the team. I wasn't able to find any link to Sturgis.”

"Well, hell.” Buck snorted. "We're back to square one.”

"That is not entirely accurate,” Ezra said. "We have learned that Henry Sturgis is almost certainly behind the threat to the Reyes' family and, almost certainly, the indirect threat to Mr. Tanner.”

"Yeah, but there's nothing linking that bastard to Vin,” Buck protested, "or to any of the rest of us.”

"Yet,” Standish cautioned. "We must continue our inquiries into Henry Sturgis's affairs.”

"Ya'll can keep doin' that,” Vin said, "But tomorrow night's comin' up fast and,” he added with a defiant look at Larabee, "I need to be at that damn warehouse.”

Chris's eyes narrowed. "We'll see. Let's hear this plan you've come up with. You said the team wouldn't have to be split up. How's that going to work?”

"JD and I came up with it,” Vin corrected. "Me an' JD can set things up so's we can keep watch without havin' to plant anyone inside.”

JD smiled, practically bouncing in his chair. Buck didn't look happy. "If you have any ideas about JD backing you when you go inside that warehouse – ”

"You think I couldn't back up Vin?” JD demanded, his smile disappearing.

"That's not what I meant,” Buck said hastily.

"Knock it off!” Chris snapped as it looked like JD was about to jump all over his roommate. The young agent subsided with a mutinous expression. Larabee looked back at the Texan. "So what's this plan you and JD have come up with?”

Vin explained in detail. By the time he finished JD was beaming, apparently having forgotten his annoyance with his roommate. Buck had become progressively more gloomy as he listened but Chris's warning looks kept him silent.

"I don't like the two of you going in without back-up,” Larabee said finally.

"There won't hardly be anyone around that early in the day,” Vin argued. "Better it's just me 'n JD. We can slip in an' out. The more 'a the team comes along, the more likely someone'll be spotted.”

"You or JD might be spotted!” Buck exclaimed.

The telephone rang on all of their desks, which meant it was the main number. Josiah reached out a long arm and grabbed the phone on his desk.

"Sanchez.” He listened for a long minute before smiling. "That's good to hear, Nathan.” When he hung up, he looked at Larabee. "Nathan was calling from the monastery's guest house. The Reyes' family is settling in. The move went smooth as silk.”

Sighs of relief went around the room.

Tanner leaned forward, giving Buck a long look. "Nobody 'll see us,” he said flatly. "I learned m' way 'round enemy territory a long time ago. I got the best chance infiltratin' the place. Worst comes to worst and it's crawlin' with Sturgis's people, we'll abort. But that ain't likely. When you're tryin' to set a trap, ya don't wanna be obvious about it.”

Chris listened while the rest of his teammates discussed the plan up one side and down the other. He had to admit it was well thought out, and if he had to choose who he would want to pull it off, he would choose Vin Tanner…and JD. JD's expertise would be essential for the technical part. But he hated the thought of two of his men in a dangerous situation without support.

Nonetheless, at the end of the discussion, he said, "I'll have to clear it with Travis, get the necessary warrants, but that shouldn't be a problem. You've got a go.” Seeing the satisfaction in Vin's expression he added, "And you better damn well be careful or I'll kick your sorry ass all the way back to Texas.”

Tanner merely smiled and Chris thought he bore a strong resemblance to a cat with its mouth full of feathers.


Six hours later the two youngest agents of Team Seven were on their way. Even without looking at his watch, Vin knew sunrise was approaching. The sky was still dark but he could see a hint of lightening off on the horizon. There was no one on the streets and, at the moment, not even another vehicle disturbed the darkness. It was perfect for his plan.

"How close do you intend to get?”

Vin glanced at his passenger. "We'll stop a few blocks short of the target and hike in.”

Despite the dim light, he could see JC's grin of anticipation. "Covert, right?”

"Right.” Vin glanced around but saw nothing that twinged his internal radar. They were getting close to the warehouse district and he wanted to be in and out before the sun was up.

"You think Watkins or Sturgis or whoever will be there this early?”

"Nope. But like I told Chris an' the others, Sturgis might want some of his people in place before tonight.” Tanner glanced at the younger agent. "And if he does…”

"No problem,” JD said confidently. He threw a quick look over his shoulder at the bag of equipment in the back seat. "Once I get everything set up, we'll be able to monitor everything going on inside and outside of that warehouse from several miles away.”

Vin smiled inwardly. It was a good plan, and its success would hinge on JD's expertise. He was glad Chris had recognized that and not been swayed by Buck's fussing, though he knew the others were as amused as he had been by JD going off on his roommate.

But fair was fair. It'd been JD brainstorming with Vin that had provided the initial bones of this plan that further discussion had fleshed out. Besides, JD Dunne was the best one of the team to set up the equipment and ensure everything was transmitting correctly. Which Tanner knew had been the final, most important point. It had been the thought of being able to monitor the going's-on at the warehouse while keeping his agents at a safe distance that finally won Chris over.

Vin glanced at his watch. Larabee had put them on a strict timeline. Doing some mental calculations confirmed he and JD would arrive at their destination before having to make their first check-in.

A deep sigh pulled him from his thoughts. "Somethin' wrong?”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw JD shrug. "Nothing that hasn‘t been wrong for awhile. I swear, Buck's wearing on my last nerve.”

Tanner suppressed a smile. "Yeah, if'n I was in your shoes, I'd feel the same way. But that's just Buck, ya know? He worries about ya.”

JD turned in his seat to face his companion. "Vin, I know I'm the youngest member of the team, but I went through the same training as all ATF agents. And before that I went through the police academy before joining the Boston P.D. where I worked as a police officer for a year. Okay, I haven't been in the military but damn it I'm no rookie. I'm as good a shot as Buck and, thanks to some of those moves you taught me, I took him down the last time we were working out.”

Vin chuckled at the memory. "Ya sure as hell did. I don't think I ever saw Buck so surprised as when he was lookin' up at ya from the mat.”

The younger man smiled, too, but the expression quickly changed to a frown. "I'm really tired of him treating me like I don't know what I'm doing, like I have to be protected every minute. Like I'm just the kid he keeps calling me.” The last sentence came out almost as a growl.

Vin could hear the frustration in his companion's voice. "Maybe ya should talk to Chris 'bout gettin' out in the field more.”

"I have.” JD sounded a little happier. "He said that was a good idea.” It was his turn to chuckle. "That probably had a lot to do with him agreeing for me to come with you this morning.”

"Hell, JD, I was just thinkin' about givin' the place a closer look. It was your idea about settin' up computer surveillance that got Chris's attention.” He gave the younger agent another glance. "That was a damn good idea, and no one else thought of it.”

"Thanks.” JD was silent for a minute before adding, "I bet Chris would've thought of it, though. Or Josiah.”

"Maybe, but who thought of it first?”

JD chuckled again and settled more comfortably in his seat. "Me.”

Tanner grinned at the satisfaction in that single word. "Here we go,” he said, slowing and pulling into a narrow alley. He turned off the ignition and sat still for a minute, listening.

"What – ”

His raised hand stopped JD. After a minute, Vin said, "Let's get out the gear.”

"Okay. Uh, is everything okay?”

"Don't hear nothin' I shouldn't.”

"So everything's okay,” JD muttered.

"Yep,” Vin said, deadpan, as he carefully removed the large canvas bag from the back seat.

"Here, I got it,” JD said, and the Texan handed over the bag. JD carefully removed the camera and laptop, gave them a quick look over, then pulled out the smaller pieces of surveillance equipment.

Vin picked up the empty backpack and unzipped it. He had his own ideas of how he'd pack this, but since JD was the team's tech expert, he figured the younger agent should have a say. "How d'ya want to do this?”

"We'll put the heavy stuff in first, lightest and most fragile on top,” JD instructed, eyes twinkling.

Tanner snorted at the obviousness of the suggestion. "Ain't it all fragile?” Which was exactly why JD insisted on not packing the backpack until they had reached their destination.

JD smile grew into a soft laugh. "Mostly, yes, but not the stand or frame.”

While JD packed up everything, Vin did their first check-in with the office. It took only a minute and when he finished, he lifted the bulging backpack and carefully shifted it onto his back while JD tossed the now empty bag back in the jeep and locked up. Tanner adjusted the straps so the pack rode more comfortably and gave a last look around.

"Let's move,” he said.

Because this was an area filled with warehouses, Vin wasn't expecting to find people around this early in the day. Then again, he'd learned a long time ago never to assume anything.

After more than two intense days of research Team Seven knew this area intimately. Tanner led the way, hugging the walls of the buildings, keeping to the shadows, moving with painful slowness while his eyes continually swept his surroundings, watching and listening for anything that didn't belong.

With his senses on high alert, he was very aware of JD behind him. The younger man was moving quietly, though an occasional scuffing sound made Vin wince even though he knew no one more than a few feet away would be able to hear it. He made a mental note to teach the agent how to walk more lightly, then set the thought aside to concentrate on his goal.

It took twenty minutes to go four short blocks, but by the time they reached the right warehouse, Vin was confident they were alone. At least on the outside. Inside the building was his next objective.

They passed the side door – too exposed for their use – and circled around to the back of the warehouse where Vin crouched down by the wall, gesturing to JD. "We'll set-up inside first, then figure out where you want to put the outside receiver.”

JD nodded and looked around, his gaze lingering on the roofline of the taller storehouse just to the south. "Maybe over there?” he suggested.

Vin followed his eyes. "We'll check it out after.”

JD nodded again and together they pulled the pack off Vin's back. Freed of the burden, the Texan moved to the window in the rear wall of the warehouse and gently tested it. Despite the age of the building, he could see that the frame was in good condition. He cautiously pushed upwards and after a minute of resistance, the window opened with only a few squeaks.

Taking a deep breath, Vin pulled himself upwards to peer inside. The pitch-dark interior was nothing more than he had expected. His main concern was whether the place was occupied by anyone with two legs.

At least no one was in immediate sight. He swung himself upwards and through the window, then held on to the frame so that he could drop lightly inside. The instant his boots touched the floor he pulled out his SIG 229 and then a small but powerful flashlight in his other hand. He hoped he wouldn't need it but it was a good thing to have, just in case. Keeping it off for now, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

After a few minutes, he began to make out the interior and started forward. In the distance, the front of the warehouse was wide open with no room to hide. The back third of the huge space was filled with boxes of every size, machine parts and miscellaneous other debris, large and small.

Looking at the large doors that made up the front entrance to the warehouse, Vin saw immediately that anyone coming through them would be a sitting duck for some unfriendly type inside to take out.

Make a note, Tanner, he thought. Avoid the front doors.

He took his time moving around the perimeter of the interior, hugging the wall, listening intently while he looked for anything out of place. Fifteen minutes later he was back at the rear window. Vin pitched his voice just loud enough so that it would carry through the open window.

"All clear.”

After a minute a formless shadow appeared in the window. Vin caught the backpack and pulled it inside. He quickly set it out of the way and watched as JD dragged himself up and through the window. Vin was ready to offer a hand but it wasn't needed.

As soon as JD was inside, Vin hefted the pack. "I got some ideas 'bout where to put your eyes, but you're gonna have to decide.”

JD peered through the dimness. "It's getting lighter,” he whispered.

"Time's passin',” Tanner agreed. "We gotta move.”

After a quick survey of the interior, JD approved Vin's suggestions. He carefully placed the tiny cameras, two in the front of the building and two in the rear and distributed the microphones around the interior. It took both of them to ensure that none of the devices were visible to the casual eye.

Once they returned to the rear window, JD pulled out his laptop. While he synchronized the cameras and microphones, Tanner kept watch, all too aware of the seconds passing.

"All set,” JD said finally in a low voice.

They climbed out the window, one after the other, then Vin carefully shut it until it appeared closed. Only a very close examination would reveal it was still open a crack. If the planted equipment confirmed it was safe to enter through the front of the warehouse – unlikely – he would. But more likely…he suspected this was going to be his way in tonight.

Outside, it was a lot easier to place the remaining cameras. The trick was to keep them hidden from view while simultaneously allowing Team Seven to be able to see what was going on outside the warehouse.

Lastly, Vin scaled the next warehouse over and set up the receivers. He waited until he heard the two clicks from his radio, indicating that JD was happy with the connection, before climbing back down. Dawn was breaking for real now, and Tanner wanted to get out of here.

Despite their desire for haste, Vin and JD made their slow, cautious way back to the jeep. Once they were settled inside, Vin watched while JD opened his laptop again and worked his magic. After a couple of minutes he looked at the sharpshooter, smiling.

"Take a look,” he offered, turning the laptop toward him. On the screen, Vin saw the interior of the warehouse – one view, a second view, a third view at the rear, then the fourth view also at the rear from a different angle. A couple more clicks revealed the exterior of the warehouse – front, both sides and rear. Finally, the last camera they had placed on the storehouse on the south side gave them a panoramic view of the area surrounding the warehouse and its nearest neighbors. Only the microphones had nothing to offer, but that made sense considering the warehouse was empty. A double-check by JD ensured they were working.

After studying all the views, Vin gave the younger agent an approving nod. "Great job, JD.”

JD beamed. "We can watch this up to three miles away, no problem.”

"Great job,” Tanner repeated. "Ya just made Chris a happy man.”

"Yeah?” JD looked even more delighted.

"Yeah.” That reminded Vin he needed to do their last check-in. When he finished, he gave his fellow agent a wink. "Let's go show 'im.”


Once Larabee had reviewed and approved the electronic surveillance of the warehouse, JD took one of the SUV's back to the warehouse district. Parked some distance away from their target, just within range of the surveillance equipment, the young agent kept an eye on the warehouse. From his position, he was able to transmit directly to Team Seven's office. There, they were able to monitor the feed JD was receiving, but for most of the day there was nothing to see. It was a boring, uneventful period that pleased Chris no end.

Now came the next part of the plan. He held a brief, impromptu meeting with his team, which included JD via computer. Nathan wasn't present because he was with the Reyes' family at the monastery's guest house, but he was able to participate via his cell phone.

"Unless something changes between now and tonight,” Larabee said, "there's no way in hell Tanner's walking into that warehouse through the front door.”

There were nods from everyone, including JD who was visible on the split screen of the monitor.

"Mr. Larabee, do you believe Henry Sturgis will have individuals in his employ within the structure, waiting for Mr. Tanner's arrival?” Ezra said.

Chris's lips thinned. "Bank on it.”

Josiah said, "But not out in the open, I'm betting.”

"Nope,” Vin agreed. "They'll be hidin' inside, waitin' for me to walk in.”

"But do they really think you'd be that stupid?” JD said, his voice coming through the computer perfectly clear. Then he gulped, looking guilty. "I mean, I know they think Gabriel's too scared to tell Vin what's really going on, but still, what cop would just walk into an obvious set-up like this?”

"That's a good point, kid,” Buck said.

More than one agent looked away to hide his amusement. Wilmington had been in the doghouse with JD all day. JD had indeed made a good point, but it was obvious to them all that Buck was still trying to pacify the younger agent.

"It is,” Chris agreed, "but ultimately it doesn't matter. Sturgis has gone to a lot of trouble to get Tanner to show up at that warehouse tonight. Whatever he's got planned, we can be sure it won't be for Vin's benefit.”

"So we prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Ezra said. "Although, there is still the other option.” Blank expressions made him sigh. "Perhaps it would be best for you not to appear at the warehouse, Mr. Tanner. Now that we have ascertained the involvement of Henry Sturgis, it is possible that additional research may uncover his true motives.”

"I have to,” Tanner retorted. "There's no way to know we'll figure anything out otherwise. We could end up just spinnin' our wheels and Fernando and his family'll still be in danger. I gotta show up.”

He spoke with unusual heat and Chris's lips tightened. He knew - they all knew – that if he decided, whatever the reason, not to go forward with the plan tonight, Vin would go forward on his own.

Before Chris's scowl at Vin's words could turn into words, Ezra said, "If Mr. Tanner intends to access that warehouse through the rear window once again, we will need ensure that no employee of Henry Sturgis will be inside in the vicinity of the window.”

"We'll need a diversion,” Josiah returned.

"Something that'll pull them all to the front,” Buck agreed, "something that'll distract them so they won't notice Vin when he comes through that window.”

"What something?” JD chimed in.

Josiah smiled. "I'm not sure, JD, but I know Chris and Vin and Buck were closeted in Chris's office earlier.” His pale blue eyes focused on each agent as he named them, then returned to Larabee. "Are you going to let us in on whatever you've planned?”

Chris looked at Tanner and everyone else followed his gaze. "It was your idea. You want to explain?”

The sharpshooter shrugged. "What's somethin' that happens all the time, an' when it does it gets everyone's attention?”

The question elicited frowns from his teammates who were not in the know. Vin waited. These men were smart and experienced; he wondered which of them would come up with the answer first. He saw his answer in the spark of amusement in Ezra's green eyes followed by a faint nod.

"But of course,” he drawled. "Such a common event would be extremely unlikely to raise the suspicions of any of those miscreants.”

Buck grinned just as JD exclaimed, "Yeah! Great idea, Vin!”

By now everyone was nodding in acknowledgment.

"It's quite ingenious,” Josiah observed.

"So long as you're all careful,” Nathan put in worriedly, speaking for the first time, and the familiar warning brought smiles to the rest of the team.

"And it took a lot of arguing to get Travis to agree to the expense,” Larabee said dryly.

"Go over to the wreckin' yard,” Vin suggested. "We only need one that's kind'a workin', the other we can just roll down the hill.” He smirked; there was no other word to describe his expression. "Ol' Bucklin's always braggin' 'bout his expertise with engines. Let's see if'n he can get one 'a the suckers runnin'.”

Buck scowled then grinned, rubbing his hands together. "Watch who you're calling old, junior. 'Sides, getting one running won't be a problem. But we're going to have to move fast. It'll take a while to get everything set up and we don't have a lot of time.”

"No, we don't,” Chris agreed. "Buck, you and Ezra get moving. Standish, let's see how good a deal you can get for us.”

"You may leave that to me, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra returned, looking pleased.

"Right.” Wilmington jumped to his feet and slapped Ezra's shoulder. "Let's go.”

The rest of the afternoon turned into a frantic scramble, but everything was in place by seven thirty that evening. By then they were all back in the office, running through their plan one last time when Josiah, who was sitting at JD's desk monitoring the surveillance equipment, spoke up.

"Chris,” the profiler called. "JD just signaled. A truck's pulling up behind the warehouse.”

In a flash Chris was at his side, quickly joined by his teammates. Josiah removed his ear phones, unplugged them from the computer and turned up the volume, at the same time shifting the laptop so the others could see the monitor.

From his remote location, JD had brought up the cameras in and around the warehouse. They watched an older dark blue SUV park behind the warehouse and three men climb out. Buck swore.

"The second guy is Pil Chavez,” he said, pointing at the short, shaven-headed thug. "Last I heard he was behind bars for attempted murder.”

The third man out of the truck was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Chavez, big and burly with unkempt hair and a short beard. He'd apparently been talking while in the truck so the hidden microphone only picked up his last words when he exited.

"…waste of time.”

The first man, also tall but thin, turned toward him. "You want to tell that to Mr. Chaney?”

For a second shock held the team silent, then Buck swore. "Chaney!”

"So that's it,” Chris coldly. "Sturgis is pulling Watkins' chain but Chaney must be pulling Sturgis's.”

No more needed to be said as all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. Francis Chaney was an international arms dealer who was going on trial in a few weeks for gun-running and first-degree murder…for which he would certainly be convicted unless the main witness, ATF Agent Vin Tanner, died before he could testify.

Even as understanding flooded through the room, they continued to listen intently. The trio's voices came more clearly when they entered the warehouse through the side door.

"You're lucky Axley isn't here yet,” the first man went on. "Shut up and check this place out.”

"Rich Axley,” Josiah breathed. "That confirms it.”

"Indeed,” Ezra said. He immediately sat down at his desk and began clicking keys on his computer.

Larabee gestured sharply for silence. "Show us the inside,” he ordered. Josiah clicked the keyboard for a few seconds, then two more scenes popped up beside the first one.

Watching, they could see the trio spread out, each taking a different part of the warehouse to explore. For a few minutes they worked in silence, only their footsteps and the occasional creak from the wooden floor making any noise.

Chris fervently hoped that Tanner and Dunne had done a good job in hiding the cameras and microphones. As the minutes passed without exclamations of surprise, his anxiety diminished, though his blood pressure didn't.

"Well?” said first man who appeared to be in charge.

"Looks good,” said Gomez, moving toward him.

"Fine in the back,” said the burly man, doing the same.

"Chris,” Buck said, pointing at the scene coming from the outside.

A truck, this one a nondescript brown, drove into view and parked beside the first vehicle. The trio already inside apparently didn't hear it arrive, too busy with their bickering.

"I still say this is a waste of time,” said the third man. "Why all the extra work? We're talking about cops. It's not like we have to worry about some kind of military campaign.”

Buck snorted softly and Josiah smiled, while Tanner's expression turned cold.

"Tanner's ATF,” the first man snapped. "They're not regular cops. Axley wants to be sure we cover all the bases.”

The threesome were so focused on their conversation, they were unaware of the figure coming through the side door into the warehouse. He passed squarely in front of one of the cameras and the team saw him clearly – tall, fair hair worn in a military cut, hard-eyed, an obvious bulge of a weapon on his right hip beneath his short jacket.

"Yeah, right,” the burly thug complained. "Send us to do the grunt work, as usual – ”

The disgruntled words were interrupted by the newcomer. "If you're not happy working with us, Johnson, I can arrange for your retirement. Permanently.”

Axley's voice was as cold as his expression, and it sent a chill through the ATF team listening.

All three of the thugs jumped, belatedly turning to face Francis Chaney's number-one man.

"No, no, Mr. Axley.” Johnson's complaining voice transformed in an instant, unable to hide underlying panic. "Mr. Sturgis explained everything and, uh, everything's good here, I'm good. It's just…uh…well…”

"If I hear you spout that shit again,” Axley said, "that'll be it. Clear?” His flat, unemotional tone was more convincing than any voiced threat, and all the more terrifying because of it.

"Sure, um…sure.” The panic was even greater.

"Tyler?” Axley said abruptly, head turning to the first man.

"We checked the place inside and out. It's good to go.”

"All right,” Axley said. "Get your hardware and head for the loft.”

"Right,” Tyler said as he moved away.

"Gomez, you set up in the front.”

"Yes'sir. I already found me a good hidey-hole.”

"Johnson,” Axley continued, "Stick with the back..”

"But…but there's no door in the back,” came a feeble protest. "How's anyone going to get inside?”

There was a beat of silence and Chris could literally feel tension filling that silence. He half-expected Axley to shoot the man, and was relieved when he spoke instead.

"You'll be able to watch the side door. And there's a window, you moron. I want you to keep an eye out.”

"Right, right, uh, I'm on it.”

More silence followed the nervous exclamation and the three men scattered. Axley turned away, but not before the team saw him pull out his phone and take a few steps away. "Sir, everything's in place.”

Chris tensed. There was only one person Axley would be calling "sir.” He leaned forward, wishing somehow he could hear the person on the other end of the call, undoubtedly Francis Chaney. Instead, Axley said, "Yes, sir. He won't leave here alive.”

At his desk, Ezra muttered something in a tone of satisfaction. For the moment Chris ignored him, his eyes meeting Vin's intense blue gaze. Intense and cold with a fire Larabee didn't often see. It had jolted him to hear Axley's casual, cold assessment; he couldn't imagine what the words did to Tanner. Whatever the Texan might be feeling, there was no sign of it on his expressionless features. Only his eyes gave him away, and Chris recognized what he was seeing – Tanner was preparing to go on the hunt.

We'll do this as a team, Vin, he mentally reminded the sharpshooter.

For a minute Tanner didn't respond, then he nodded curtly. Chris hoped it was agreement rather than merely acknowledgment.

There was no more dialogue from the warehouse. The team continued to watch as the trio settled into their various positions and Axley drove away. When his truck had disappeared from sight Buck was the first to speak, and his matter-of-fact tone didn't hide his tension.

"Well, now we know what's really going on.”

"And perhaps the reason why Benny Watkins said for Gabriel to tell Mr. Tanner to come to the warehouse tonight,” Standish said unexpectedly.

"What do you mean?” Chris demanded.

"I just interfaced with the Organized Crime division,” Ezra explained, looking away from his computer monitor. "They had been maintaining surveillance on several high-ranking members of Francis Chaney's criminal organization, including Mr. Axley. It seems he has been in South America for several days and only returned late last night.”

South America? It was something to look into later, but for now Chris suspected Ezra's suspicions were correct. In reality, it wasn't critical to know the reason behind Chaney's delay in setting up the trap for Tanner, but every piece of the puzzle helped.

"I wonder what Chaney has on Sturgis to get him to comply?” Josiah mused. "I mean, Sturgis is setting up a federal agent to be murdered, and using his own people. That's about as serious as it gets.”

"We'll look into possible connections later,” Larabee said curtly. "Now that we know there is a connection.” He looked at Vin who said with dangerous mildness, "It gives us more intel, but it don't change nothin'. I still gotta be there tonight.”

Looks were exchanged among the others as they recognized something going on between their team leader and the sharpshooter. Technically speaking, they didn't have to go through with their plan now that the most critical piece of information had been revealed. It was Francis Chaney who was really orchestrating this and they all knew why.

"We need to get our hands on those bastards waitin' for me,” Tanner said. "Get 'em to roll over on Sturgis, then we can haul him in an' – ”

"Get him to turn on Chaney,” JD said, again beaming at them from the monitor.

"That will most certainly be extremely difficult to achieve,” Standish noted. "An experienced attorney might be able to discredit the testimony of Mr. Sturgis's minions. Even if that is not achieved, how likely is it that Henry Sturgis would testify against Francis Chaney? That gentleman's reputation is certainly widely known.”

Silence followed Ezra's words. Law enforcement in several states, as well as Interpol in Europe, had been trying to nail Francis Chaney, a particularly ruthless international arms dealer, for several years, but the arms dealer had always managed to evade them. It wasn't until several months ago that the FBI and ATF had mounted a joint effort that involved sending Ezra and Vin undercover as potential buyers for Chaney's stolen arms, that they were finally able to nail him.

Chris had been hesitant about the plan, because at that time Vin had only been with the team a few months. But after long discussions with Standish, Tanner and Sanchez, he had reluctantly agreed.

What no one had expected was for Chaney's borderline paranoia to explode, leading him to kill one of his long-time associates, Harry Richards, under the misapprehension that the man had turned stool pigeon. Because of a series of coincidences, Vin Tanner had been on hand in his undercover role when Chaney met with Richards. Before anyone – even Vin – realized what was happening, Chaney pulled out a gun and coolly shot Richards to death. Only hours later Chaney had fallen for the FBI-ATF sting and been arrested for illegal arms dealing…and murder.

Buck frowned in thought. "Isn't Chaney's trial is supposed to start in a month or so?”

Before Larabee could respond, JD said quickly, "Less than that now. That's providing his lawyer doesn't get another continuance.”

"That's not likely,” Chris put in. "Judge Goldman advised Lansing last time that he wouldn't grant any more continuances short of a genuine, provable emergency.” He smiled coldly. "The judge is already upset with the defense's shenanigans. I can't see Lansing being stupid enough to push the judge any further.”

"The sooner that bastard's convicted, the better.” Vin spoke coldly, arms folded.

"You, Mr. Tanner, are the individual who will send Mr. Chaney to prison for the rest of his life, or perhaps even to face the death penalty.” Ezra's calm, measured tone only strengthened the impact of his words.

Vin's lips tightened and Chris turned to look at his sharpshooter. "You're the one who saw Chaney gun down Richards. You're the main witness for the prosecution.”

"Yeah, I already knew that,” Tanner returned flatly.

Rising temper reddened Larabee's complexion and Buck jumped in. "Seems like a damn complicated plan. Why so many middlemen? Why doesn't Chaney just have one of his thugs try to take out Vin?”

"Plausible deniability,” Ezra observed. When Buck frowned, Standish elaborated. "If a known associate of Mr. Chaney was discovered attempting to eliminate Mr. Tanner, suspicion would certainly fall on Mr. Chaney, as would law enforcement efforts to prove his complicity. The more removed our criminal kingpin is from an attack on Mr. Tanner, the more difficult it will be to uncover his involvement.”

On the monitor JD was nodding vigorously. "If we hadn't been digging so hard, we'd still be in the dark about what this is all about.”

"Francis Chaney is known to be ruthless as well as paranoid,” Ezra said coolly. "With Mr. Tanner deceased, it is certain that the members of the Reyes' family would not long survive. We are fortunate indeed to uncover this conspiracy in time to respond decisively.”

Larabee glanced at his sharpshooter, only to realize the Texan was off in a world of his own. "Vin?”

Vin was staring at nothing in particular, the muscles in his jaw flexing. "Gabe's been clean for months. Watkins got him hooked again just to use him to get to me.”

His voice was so soft it was hard to hear, but the undertone sent a chill through Chris. This wasn't the time or place to confront the Texan but he resolved to keep a close eye on him. Glancing at his watch, Chris stood.

"Buck, Ezra, you ready?”

The big man grinned. "Thanks to Ez, we got everything we need. We're all set.”

Ezra nodded. "Indeed. As soon as you give the word, Mr. Larabee, we will begin.”

"It should get their attention,” Buck added with a chuckle.

"Just make sure it pulls them to the front of the warehouse,” Chris reminded.

"Yeah.” Buck's grin faded and he gave their sharpshooter a worried look.

"Relax, Bucklin,” Vin said with a faint smile. "I got in plenty tougher places than an old warehouse.”

Despite his tension, Chris almost snorted. He had no doubt Vin was telling the truth, but it didn't lessen his worry. They had the operation planned down to the minute, but that didn't mean things couldn't change. The would-be assassins in the warehouse had only one goal, and how they would react when their ambush blew up in their faces was anyone's guess.

As if he had heard his team leader's thoughts, Vin turned his head and their eyes met. Chris felt the familiar warmth of their connection.

Piece 'a cake, Cowboy.

Chris snorted, drawing the other's attention.

"Big Dog?” Buck questioned.

Larabee ignored him. "Nathan, stay alert and keep us up to date.”

"We should be fine,” the medic said reassuringly, "but I'll be checking in regularly.” There was a click when he disconnected and Chris turned to his team.

"Everyone check their gear,” he ordered. A few minutes later, satisfied they were all on the same wave-length, he said, "Buck, Ezra, head out. Vin, Josiah, let's go. JD, we'll meet you at your position in a half-hour.”

"See you then,” JD said brightly.


Every nerve alert, Vin took his time in making a circuitous route through the warehouse district. The first part of the trip had been simple enough – there was still plenty of traffic around, both vehicular and pedestrian, and he sauntered along, doing his best to blend in while keeping an eye out. But as he drew closer to his target, he slipped behind the buildings and continued more discreetly. The setting sun and increasing darkness helped, although the decreasing population counter-acted the benefit.

He slowed even further as he came around the last building between him and the warehouse that was his goal. To his relief, the parking lot in back was empty and he settled down behind a row of dumpsters. Once he was in place, he put on the headset that linked him to the rest of his team, and sent the code to indicate he was in position.

Vin's hand rested on his SIG before he deliberately released it. He took a deep breath, then another as he settled into the patient mentality that he had originally learned as a homeless teenager surviving on the streets, then later honed as an Army Ranger. Ideally, the bad guys weren't expecting anything to happen for an hour, and he knew he needed to relax so he would be prepared when Larabee finally gave the signal.

Even though it was something he had done countless times before, today he was having trouble getting into the right mind-set…because he kept thinking about Gabriel and Magdalena, Fernando and Sofia.

Every time he thought about young Gabriel, who had fought so hard to overcome his addiction, only to be sucked in again by Benny Watkins' deliberate seduction, Vin could feel his temper rising. He hated predators. He always had, which was a large reason why he had become a bounty hunter…to hunt the bastards down and put them behind bars where they belonged.

Being an ATF agent gave him even greater scope to work, yet it also put greater restrictions on his efforts. Vin understood and – in principle – agreed with the importance of taking down criminals within the limits of the law. But chasing down perps who had no concern for the law and who were willing to do anything to evade capture…well, on more than one occasion Vin had been willing to stretch the point in order to take them down, even if he had to do some explaining to one Chris Larabee afterwards.

But this time felt different. Criminals attacking civilians was an unfortunate reality. But predators deliberately stalking innocents…Vin realized his hands were clenching and forced himself to relax, not that it helped him to relax inwardly.

On one occasion several months ago when Gabriel had been absent, Fernando had told Vin about his younger sister, Gabriel's mother, who had become hooked on drugs while still in high school and pregnant. Gabriel had been born addicted and his mother had died of an overdose when he was still a toddler. Fernando and Sofia had taken Gabriel in and raised him as their own, but he had always struggled. Gabriel was an innocent whom life had already wounded terribly. Watkins had only compounded the boy's suffering.

Then there was Magdalena, a true innocent whose only knowledge of life was of loving and protective parents. And Sofia, who had endured her share of suffering but still managed to maintain a loving and indomitable attitude. Fernando was a good and decent man who had resisted taking the easy path in life, whose primary concern was protecting his family, yet whose circumstances had forced him into menial jobs that didn‘t allow him to rise to his true capabilities or permit him to give his family all that he felt he should.

Even as Vin brought his wandering thoughts to heel, he felt his heart constrict. He had been a friend to the Reyes family for nearly a year, and without their knowledge he had also often acted as their protector. But now he realized he hadn‘t done enough.

Today, his most important action would be to remove the threat to the family. Whatever that required, he was going to damn well do it. Once that threat was removed…Vin decided he would talk to Josiah to see how he could aid them in moving out of Purgatory and into a better situation for the entire family.

In his mind's eye he suddenly saw Magdalena's tiny, perfect features, her sparkling eyes and beautiful smile. In stark contrast he saw Gabriel's twisted, anguished face when he was in the throes of withdrawal. Still later, in the hospital, with his symptoms being relieved by medication, those too-old dark eyes were filled with anguish and guilt and so much weight it bowed Vin down just seeing it.

Whatever it took, he thought again, he was going to free them of this threat.


Sitting in the SUV, Larabee paused in his final review of the plan to rub his eyes. As much as he preached to his team about the importance of a good night's sleep prior to a takedown, the unusual circumstances of this case had ensured they were all dangerously short on sleep. Maybe that was why, more than once in the last few days, he had caught himself in the grip of memories that, too often, turned to nightmares.

Early this morning, without realizing it, he had drifted into a doze in the few minutes between ending a phone call with Travis and returning to his team. Only a few minutes – but they were burned into his brain

High young laughter drifted across the yard. Grinning, Chris tossed the small figure into the air only to catch him when he came down, holding him in strong arms.

"Again, Daddy!”

"Chris! Adam! It's time for dinner.”

Sarah stood on the porch, her red hair gleaming in the fading sunlight, waving a dish towel at them. Chris dropped a kiss on the blonde hair before running a gentle hand over the small head.

"We're being summoned, partner. Time to head in.”

Three-year-old Adam pouted and twisted in his father's arms. "But I wanna play.”

Chris laughed. "Okay, just once more.”

Adam yelled in glee, his small hands already reaching upwards. "High, Daddy! Go high!”

"One, two, three…” As he counted, Chris swung the child in his arms. "…four!”

He tossed his son into the air, his arms outstretched to catch him again.

Instead, Adam kept flying upwards, drifting further and further out of reach.

Terrified, Chris lunged after him. "Adam!”

But his son was gone.

Larabee had jerked out of the waking dream-turned-nightmare, shaking and sweating and gasping for breath, just in time to hear Josiah calling that they were ready.

He winced away now from the memory, rubbing his hands vigorously over his face, while

blinking back the moisture in his eyes. Since his confession to Vin a few months ago, his nightmares had been largely, thankfully, quiescent. Which made their recent return even more painful.

Chris knew exactly why this was happening now. The nightmares had started again shortly after the first time he saw the tiny, precious bundle in Sofia Reyes' arms as she rocked her fretful toddler to sleep in the conference room of the Federal Building.

"Damn it,” he whispered, with a furtive swipe of his eyes.

Over the past three days, every one of his team had taken a turn guarding the Reyes. Everyone except Chris Larabee. Because they were all so busy, Chris doubted anyone had noticed this omission, or, if they had, they put it down to their team leader being busy with planning.

He shook his head at the forlorn thought. Even if most of his teammates hadn't noticed, he knew one who had. He was just thankful Vin hadn't said anything. Then again, Vin had been as busy, if not more so, as the rest of them.

No excuses, Larabee. Vin had noticed. Probably Buck had too. And Josiah. And no doubt Ezra… Hell, his entire team must have noticed, but they knew better than to say anything.

He shook his head again. He didn't have time for this shit.

Chris was grateful that he was alone at the moment. Thanks to the listening devices and cameras Vin and JD had installed, the team knew that Chaney's thugs had restricted their activities to the warehouse. But for security's sake, the team had parked several blocks away. No doubt their suspects intended to take advantage of the night, but Larabee and his team were also glad for the cloak of darkness.

He adjusted his head set. "Report,” he said softly.

"In position,” Josiah said.

"Ditto,” JD said.

"Ready,” Vin said in a near whisper.

There was a brief pause, then, "A couple more minutes,” Buck said, speaking for Ezra and himself.

Larabee checked his watch. Despite the lack of light, the digital read-out gleamed brightly – 8:22 p.m. The seconds ticked by, turned into one minute, then two.

"Ready to go,” Buck said quietly.

"Hold,” Larabee said curtly, with another look at his watch. Then he lowered his headset until it was under his collar – he wouldn't be able to hear as well but the fact he was wearing it wasn't immediately noticeable to any casual observers. Experimentation had proved he could still send and receive.

He slipped out of the SUV and began walking down the street. Just as the time on his digital watch turned to 8:25 p.m., he ordered, "Buck, Ezra, now.”

"Moving,” Buck reported.

Larabee continued walking along the sidewalk which sloped down toward the warehouses at the bottom of the hill. He didn't expect the wreck of a car that Buck and Ezra had located to be making any noise, since Buck hadn't been able to get the engine going. But with the angle of the hill, all he and Standish had to do was get it moving. Gravity would take care of the rest. Two blocks further down was where the excitement should kick in, just half a block from the warehouse they were watching.

If he hadn‘t been listening so hard, Chris probably wouldn't have heard anything. There was the faint swish of tires rolling along the paved road, then an elderly, nondescript gray sedan rolled past him, picking up speed as it traveled.

It was moments such as this that tested all of Chris Larabee's resolve. He may have approved the plan, but it would be Ezra and Buck, working together, who would bring it to fruition. Larabee had to hold back and trust his men to do their jobs.

He watched, tensing despite himself, trying not to increase his pace despite his sense of urgency.

The sedan continued to roll down the slope…

Reaching the end of the first block…

Rolling a little faster…

Half-way down the next block…

Almost to the end of the block –

Without warning a beat-up truck shot out from a side street…

It reached the intersection at the same time as the sedan.


Even though he had been expecting it, Chris couldn't help starting.

Now hurrying toward the accident scene would appear natural. Indeed, other people, drawn by the crash, were appearing from all directions, forming a loose amoeba-like mass around the two crunched vehicles.

As he drew closer, Chris let out a breath of relief. Ezra and Buck had timed it perfectly. The sedan had impacted the right rear-end of the truck. He only hoped that no one had noticed the sedan hadn't had a driver.

Buck came around the truck and Ezra had mysteriously materialized by the sedan, as if he had been driving. There were loud voices, arms waving, cursing, all destined to draw even more attention.

Once he was reassured his men were all right, Chris's attention turned to the warehouse only yards away, and suppressed a grim smile of satisfaction at the sight of three figures standing in the half-open door of the building, undoubtedly drawn by the crash and now watching, with grins and jeers, at the apparent near fight going on by the damaged vehicles.

Larabee pressed the mouthpiece a little closer and said, "Tanner, go.”


Even though Vin was behind the warehouse, unable to see anything, he was able to hear everything on his headset so he knew what was happening.

The crash! out front had him moving even before his team leader spoke. He gently opened the window and peered inside. His night-adapted eyes could make out the outlines of the various pieces of equipment stored in the back of the building. More importantly, he saw no sign of any human shapes.

When he heard his team leader's order, it was confirmation that their diversion had drawn the three would-be assassins to the front of the building. Tanner knew he only had a minute or two before the trio came back inside.

He grasped the sides of the window, pulling himself upward and then through the opening.

Landing lightly, he immediately pulled out his SIG even as he shoved the window closed with his free hand.

"Inside,” he whispered into his headset just before he began to move forward.

Thanks to JD's electronic surveillance, Vin knew where the threesome had positioned themselves in the warehouse. Two of them he was pretty sure he'd be able to take out with minimum problems. The third could be another matter.

The sound of footsteps approaching alerted Vin and he slunk behind a wall of boxes. He could hear faint grumbling as a large figure loomed up, then settled awkwardly behind a dissembled engine and untidy pile of old tractor tires. Only then did he pull out his weapon.

Tanner's eyebrows rose. The light was dim inside the building but he could see enough to tell him the thug was holding a submachine pistol. Talk about over-kill. There was Vin's first priority - to get his hands on that weapon. If the bastard fired it, the power could send bullets through the wall, hitting unwary civilians outside, not to mention his teammates.

Patience, Tanner. He needed to give the threesome time to settle down again before acting.

It was easy to hear them moving around and he almost shook his head in disgust. They weren't making any effort to be quiet; one of them even tripped over something with a loud thud and curses. They were damn sure of themselves, damn sure that their would-be victim wouldn't be arriving early.

"Knock it off,” came a soft, tinny voice and Vin started. He hadn't seen any of them wearing communication devices but they obviously had radios. All the more reason for him to move fast to neutralize the thugs before any warning escaped.

It took several minutes but finally silence returned to the warehouse. Vin counted to one hundred slowly, then gently toggled his receiver once, twice, alerting his team he was making his move.

Three swift strides took him up behind the closest thug. The side of Vin's hand caught him on the nerve just below his ear and he fell forward without a sound. He grabbed the slumping figure and lowered him to the ground, then took his radio and shoved it into a pocket.

Using the perp's belt and socks, Vin quickly tied and gagged him before hiding the submachine pistol a few feet away. Then, moving quickly but lightly, hugging the shadows and avoiding open areas, he made his way toward the front of the building.

He reached the mid-way point, marked by the ladder that led up to the second floor, and crouched low. The second would-be assassin was above him; Tanner had him pinpointed. But the third perp was on the opposite side of the warehouse, near the front entrance. Vin didn't dare try the ladder until he knew that one's position.

The silence was heavy, almost like a cloak, stifling the noises outside yet enhancing every sound inside.

Vin breathed deeply, slowly, keeping his pulse regular. He had been in similar spots a thousand times before during his years with the Rangers…

Waiting on the enemy.

Knowing a false move could be his last.

Knowing he had to take out the enemy before he was taken out…

and his team would be left vulnerable, exposed…

Tanner fiercely shut down the traitorous thoughts.

He would protect his team, whatever it took.

Movement by the wall on the opposite side of the warehouse caught his attention.

The third assassin.

Hidden in the shadows, situated against the wall, watching the large doors in the front several feet away.

Vin had been keeping track of the passing minutes and knew the second distraction was about to happen. He gripped the nearest rung of the ladder and got ready to move.

Then it happened – another crash! Not as loud as the first but still startling.

"What the hell?” came from above.

"Shut up and stay put,” was the terse order from the assailant watching the front. He took a suspicious step toward the doors, gun raised.

For a few critical seconds his back was to Tanner. Instantly Vin swarmed up the ladder, half climbing and half flinging himself upwards. Even as he reached the top of the ladder he rolled silently forward and slid neatly under the tarp covering miscellaneous pieces of equipment.

Not for the first time he thanked his earlier exploration of the building, because that exploration had shown him exactly what he would find on the second floor, and now he could make good use of the existing cover.

It was pitch black underneath the tarp. Even his dark-adapted eyes could find no hint of light.

The fabric enfolded him, almost swaddling him, and his heart beat uncomfortably fast despite his effort to control it. The feeling of falling into a black hole welled up, along with a growing sense of panic.

He tensed…was that thunder?

He knew, he remembered – no, he could feel… the hard, driving rain, unrelenting, pouring down.

Suddenly the smell of mud, thick and running, with a rancid undertone, surrounded him.

Oh, God!

Please, no!

But his plea came too late.

The nightmarish memory swept over him, pulling him deeper and deeper into it, surrounding him.

He couldn't breathe…

The weight in his arms was dragging him down even as the mud bubbled up around him, threatening to suffocate him, tasting even worse than it smelled…

But he wouldn't let go of the limp body in his arms…he would never let go…


The present danger seared through him, breaking into the past, and Vin clung to the thought of his teammates.

They needed him to back them up.

They needed him to fulfill his part of this mission…to protect them all.

Swallowing hard, forcing himself to take quiet, shallow breaths, he felt the memories beginning to lose their grip. Vin gave himself a mental shake, tightening his trip on his weapon until the sight poked painfully into his palm.

He welcomed the pain for it forced the memories further back, and he dared to take another, deeper breath.

Vin suddenly feared he was breathing too loudly and clamped his mouth shut, listening for the approach of the enemy.

One held breath, another, then another…only silence greeted his ears.

Damn it to hell, that had caught him by surprise.

How much time had that descent into the past cost him? Cost his team?

As he regained control, Vin realized it had only been a matter of seconds, not minutes.

Bad enough.

Now, Tanner. Focus on now.

With another shake of his head, the last of the memory dissipated. The continuing silence emboldened him to lift the edge of the tarp a bare inch. Dim light met his gaze…

And there, just as he expected, was the back view of a tall, slightly hunched figure leaning against the wall, peering down at the big front doors.

Vin crawled slowly out from under the tarp, his eyes never leaving that still figure.

Once clear of the tarp he took a quick survey that revealed nothing out of place, then moved carefully toward his target.

This was not the time for speed – no quick movement to catch the other man's eye – but slow, careful stalking.

He was two strides away when something made the enemy straighten and start to turn.

Tanner darted forward, stiffened fingers catching the assassin square in the throat –

Who fell back, mouth opening wide for a scream that never came.

Vin caught the falling weapon even as his forearm slammed the other across the throat…

Then he grabbed the slumping figure and lowered him silently to the floor. One more blow put the thug into unconsciousness.

Tanner gave the sawed-off shotgun a disgusted look before carefully unloading it and hiding it behind other debris. Then he took the radio off the unmoving figure and hid that as well. He was tempted to take another minute to tie up the thug, but they were running out of time. Besides, he was certain the man wouldn't be waking up any time soon.

After a last check of the unmoving form, he was satisfied. Two soft clicks on his headset told the rest of his team he was in position.

Vin settled down and peered over the edge. He could see the third and final killer still watching the front doors, unaware that his compatriots had been taken out. From this position, Vin could have blown the bastard away with his eyes closed, but that wasn't part of the plan.

Thinking of the threat to the Reyes' family made Tanner tighten his grip on his SIG. He reminded himself the real threat wasn't from these three thugs, but the man behind them, giving the orders. To get to him, Team Seven needed this trio alive and talking.

"This is the ATF!” Larabee's voice, magnified by a bullhorn, reverberated through the warehouse. "Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up!”

With a curse, the thug cracked open the doors, and fired. The burst of gunfire was frightening even though Vin had been expecting it. Outside, his teammates hadn't been aware of the firepower they were up against and he knew they were depending on him.

Answering gunfire sent the bastard – who Vin recognized as the one called Tyler – ducking backwards. At the moment he was fully focused on his outside assailants and Vin knew this was his chance.

He darted to the ladder and half jumped, half slid, down, his eyes never leaving his target. Tyler was stupid; he wasn't checking his back, and Vin crept toward him. Unlike Tyler, he knew all the gunfire outside was coming in high, his teammates protecting him and allowing him to move around.

Six long, fast strides brought Vin up behind Tyler…

He pressed the barrel of his SIG against the back of Tyler's neck.

"Freeze,” he said softly, menace underlining the word.

For a split second he felt resistance, then Tyler's shoulders slumped and he loosened his grip on the submachine gun. Vin yanked the weapon out of his hands, then set it out of the perp's reach.

"Face down, lace your fingers behind your head,” he ordered, watching narrowly as the thug reluctantly obeyed. Only then did Vin adjust his mouthpiece and said, "Situation contained.”

Thirty seconds later the doors were shoved open and his teammates poured in, weapons ready. Vin gestured behind him.

"Got one down in the rear. Second one's upstairs.”

Buck and JD headed for the ladder while Josiah and Nathan moved rapidly toward the back of the building. Buck was limping and Chris gave him a hard look.

"It's fine,” Buck growled and indeed as he walked, the limp lessened. Chris watched him for a minute before looking down at the unmoving Tyler with an expression of cold satisfaction.

"The other two alive?” he asked.

"Yep,” Vin returned.

Larabee smiled briefly, a grim expression. He picked up Tyler's submachine gun and looked it over, before nudging the thug with the barrel of the weapon.

"Stand up and put your hands on your head.”

Tyler obeyed, rising awkwardly to his feet while Tanner's weapon followed his every move. Once he was upright, Chris frisked him. Finding nothing, he pulled out his cuffs and handcuffed him. Even then Vin didn't lower his SIG. He wasn't relaxing until he could see all three suspects under control.

Larabee turned their suspect around to face him. "Attempted murder of a federal agent,” he said coldly. "And I'll bet this isn't your first arrest.”

"You don't – ” Tyler didn't get to finish.

"Ya gonna recommend the D.A. file charges under the three-strikes rule?” Vin asked hopefully.

Both agents saw Tyler pale even before Chris responded. "Sounds like a plan. What do you want to bet he doesn't have at least two prior felony convictions?”

Vin snorted. "Sucker bet.”

Tyler's pallor deepened but he remained silent. Although it would have been nice if he had immediately offered to tell everything he knew for a deal, neither Chris nor Vin expected it. This was going to take some time.

Hearing footsteps behind them, both agents turned around to see Nathan and Josiah escorting a still-groggy Johnson. Movement at the top of the ladder turned into Buck, half-leading and half-dragging their third perp, also groggy, down the stairs, with JD guiding him from above.

Larabee looked around with deep satisfaction. It had been a dicey operation, but it had been successful. With a little luck, he would be able to get the information his team needed to take the next step.

Ezra strode through the open doors, his weapon ready. Seeing everything under control, he relaxed.

"The damaged vehicles have been moved to the side of the street, our back-up should be arriving momentarily, as should the tow trucks,” he informed his team leader.

Larabee nodded. It was common practice for police officers to back them up but due to concerns about Francis Chaney possibly having a mole in the DPD, Chris had decided to keep their operation limited to the ATF. Hence only calling for back up after they had their suspects under arrest. Even Tanner, hyper vigilant over the possibility of a mole, unwillingly agreed that calling in another ATF team after the bust had gone down was necessary and least likely to create problems.

Tanner shifted beside him and Chris gave him a quick, sideways look. He didn't like the sharpshooter's expression as he gazed at the prisoners. He understood Vin's personal involvement in this case but there was a line that could not be crossed, not unless you wanted to throw away your badge and your career. Chris wasn't about to let his teammate do that.

As the rest of his team approached with their respective prisoners, Chris looked from Josiah to Buck. "You read them their rights?”

The agents nodded simultaneously and Chris gestured Ezra to take Tyler. "Him, too.” As Standish led the suspect away, he began, "You have the right to remain silent…” his voice faded as they left the warehouse and Larabee turned to Tanner.

"I want you and JD to remove the cameras and other equipment you placed around this building. Then the two of you can head back to the office and start your reports.”

Vin gave him a long look. "Ya think I'm gonna kill 'em if I stick around?”

Chris couldn't help smiling although there had been no amusement in the Texan's voice. "We won't get any information from them if they're dead.”

"I could get what we need without killin' 'em.”

Larabee's brief amusement died before the unnerving glint in those intense blue eyes. "We're going to do this by the book, Tanner. That way we can be sure no one will get off on a technicality.”

He hoped for some kind of acknowledgment, hell, a nod would be a step in the right direction. Instead Vin turned and walked away. Chris stifled a sigh before glaring at the remaining two suspects.

"Put them in separate vehicles.”

"Hey,” Chavez snarled, "We got rights. We get an attorney – ”

"Shut up,” Larabee snapped, the ice in his tone startling the thug into silence. He gestured with a sharp nod and his men pushed all three suspects outside. Chris took another look around the warehouse, seeing Vin and JD on opposite sides of the building, removing the surveillance equipment.

He was thankful everything had gone as planned because the alternative had been unthinkable. That said, they still had a long way to go before Chaney was permanently behind bars and the Reyes' family was able to go back to their normal lives.

"The last one,” JD said, his cheerful voice breaking through Chris's thoughts.

Larabee stopped by the door to study his two youngest agents. He was proud of both of them; they'd done a hell of a job and enabled Team Seven to get this first part of their plan done safely. If only…

He took another look at his sharpshooter and reminded himself that he needed to keep a close eye on the Texan.


Larrabee stormed through the halls of the federal building, barely paying attention to his surroundings. Not that it mattered. All those who happened to be in his way took one look at his flushed, furious features and hastened to get out of his way.

He wasn't in the mood to wait for the elevators so he used his security card to open the door to the stairwell and strode swiftly upstairs. The exercise helped. By the time he reached the seventh floor he had worked off some of his anger and entered the outer office of Team Seven at a slow burn, rather than his earlier fury.

Buck was standing at JD's desk, the two of them studying something on JD's computer. They looked up at Larabee's arrival and Buck's eyebrows rose.

"Still no luck?”

Chris gave him a blistering glare and stalked into his office, closing the door with a slam. Buck sighed and looked at his young teammate.

"I can't believe anyone can stand up to Chris's interrogation,” JD said in confusion.

Wilmington shook his head. "It's about fear, kid. If those three thugs have any brains, they're scared as hell of Chris. But they know, well, they're pretty sure, he won't kill them. They also know if they talk, Chaney will do his best to put them in their graves.”

"I was really hoping we could get some solid information from them,” JD said with a sigh.

Buck stared at the closed door. "We're not giving up yet. Josiah said last night that Johnson might be the weak link. And Chris is really leaning on Tyler. The bastard already has two felony convictions. This third one could put him away for good.” He shook his head. "My money's on Chris and Josiah. If they keep pressing the bastards, we may end up with something.”

"I hope so.” JD craned his neck to peer down the hall. "Where's Vin?”

Buck looked too. "Don't see him.” He frowned. "I'm guessing he's pacing around outside somewhere.”

JD scratched his head, his expression turning to worry. "This has been really hard on him.”

"Yeah. That's what happens when an agent gets personally involved in a case.”

"Hah!” JD scoffed. "Like that's never happened to you.”

Buck chuckled and swatted at the younger agent's head, who ducked too late. "Hey, how about a little respect for your elders?”

"Respect is supposed to be earned, not given cuz somebody's old.”

"I'll give you – ” Buck stopped his threat when Josiah walked in. "Hey 'Siah. Not going so good, huh?”

Josiah sat down at his desk. "They're all scared of Sturgis and, especially, Chaney. I'm still hopeful that Johnson can be persuaded. And if he does, that may be enough to crack Tyler.” He rubbed the back of his neck. "We're going to give them some time to stew and try again later. But it's going to take awhile.”

"I'm glad you're hopeful,” Buck said with another glance at the door to Larabee's office.

Josiah followed his gaze and smiled faintly. "Patience has never been one of Chris's gifts.”

"That's an understatement,” JD muttered, then reddened under the amused looks of the others. "I didn't mean to say that out loud.”

"It's all right, kid,” Buck said with a lightness that sounded forced. "It's just the truth.”

"It is,” Josiah agreed. "But this time it's not Chris I'm most concerned about.”

JD frowned. "No?”

"Vin,” Buck said flatly.

JD's expression cleared and Josiah nodded.

"Where is he?” Buck added.

"When we got back here he just got out of the truck and headed off,” Josiah said.

"Chris was okay with that?” JD demanded.

"He knows how hard Vin is taking this,” the profiler explained. "He's trying to give him some room.”

"I hope it helps,” Buck said worriedly.

Josiah nodded. "I do too. The last thing we – or Vin – need is for him to go off half-cocked.”

"Vin?” JD said, disbelieving. "I know he's worried about his friends, but I can't imagine him blowing up. Heck, I've never even seen him lose his temper.”

Buck and Josiah exchanged glances, and Josiah said, "We all have our limits, JD. And for someone with Vin's background and experience, if he were to lose control, the results could be…” He hesitated and Ezra, who had been working silently at his desk and apparently ignoring them, raised his head and spoke.

"Catastrophic,” he suggested.

JD's eyes widened and Buck ran a hand over his face. "Let's hope to god we don't get to that point.”

"You think we should let the D.A. know what's going on?” JD questioned. "Chaney's trial is supposed to start soon.”

"Chris and Travis have talked about it,” Josiah told them, "but they're holding off for now.” He rubbed his jaw before adding, "I just pray that we can resolve this sooner rather than later. If it goes on much longer…” he didn't bother finishing the sentence and Buck and JD exchanged worried looks.

Unaware of the conversation going on in the office, Vin Tanner strode swiftly down the street. This was the third time he had circled the block but the exercise had done little to lessen the tension that drove him.

He had been so focused on the confrontation Wednesday night with those who threatened the Reyes' family, he hadn't thought much beyond it, other than the possibility that they would come up with enough evidence to arrest Sturgis who would, hopefully, give them Chaney.

But none of that had materialized, and Vin was left feeling frustrated and furious. How dare those bastards threaten his friends in an effort to pull him into a trap intended to kill him so Chaney would go free?

Vin's hands tightened into fists when he thought about Fernando and his family. These were good, decent, hardworking people who had been doing their best despite the limitations of education, income and address. As for the danger to Gabriel and Magdalena… He swallowed a curse.

His fists brushed his sides as he walked and Vin was suddenly aware of the holster under his jacket, in which his SIG rested snugly. In his mind's eye he saw Francis Chaney standing in front of him. All it would take was squeezing the trigger, just once, and Chaney would not only cease to be a danger to the Reyes' family but his violent, decades-long reign of terror would come to a permanent end.

Without warning, the image of Chris Larabee pierced the fantasy. He stood directly in front of Tanner, his green eyes direct and unwavering.

The thought of Chris was like a cold shower, dowsing his frustration-born anger. The Texan knew what it would do to his friend if Vin took the law into his own hands. Chris had already lost so much, suffered so much. Vin couldn't deliberately cause him more pain. It was that realization, more than anything else, that kept him from the brink.

He took another, steadier breath and deliberately relaxed his hands. By now, Chaney had to know his ambush had failed. Maybe the bastard wasn't concerned about it coming back to him because he figured the would-be assassins wouldn't dare talk. But even if he was certain, he would be worried because the main problem still existed. Vin Tanner was alive, could still testify against him in the fast-approaching trial. At the least, the agent's testimony could send Chaney to prison for life. It was also possible that testimony could lead to the death penalty.

All of which meant that Fernando and his family were still targets. Or…was it possible that Chaney would tire of these indirect attempts on Vin and order a more direct attack?

Vin considered the idea but after a minute he discarded it. As much as he would love to face Chaney's henchmen head-on, he doubted it would happen. Chaney still had time to plan; he was not yet desperate enough to risk a direct confrontation.

No, it was the Reyes' family who were in most danger. Vin ached to be with them up at the monastery. Once there, he could ensure that anyone who wanted to get at the family would have to go through him, and that wouldn't happen.

He felt a sense of relief at the thought. Unless Chris had something new to suggest, Vin was going to ask to relieve Nathan up at the monastery.


The day was passing when Chris finished reviewing his notes. He wanted to be gone shortly, but he also wanted to be sure that all of his facts, and the facts brought to him by his team, were in order.

Their last visit with Johnson in lock-up had finally borne fruit. With two felony convictions under his belt, the threat of the three-strikes rules and life in prison without the possibility of parole had broken down his defenses and he'd spilled his guts. Then, as Josiah had suspected might happen, when faced with this fact, the second of the three would-be assassins, Tyler, had dropped his defiance and also proved willing to talk, after assurances that his cooperation would be related to the prosecutor.

The confessions of the pair had been enough to obtain warrants against several key players, most importantly Rich Axley, Henry Sturgis and Francis Chaney. Although the ATF didn't waste any time in attempting to serve the warrants, Chris had known even before the effort was made that it would be fruitless. The trio had had too much time to drop out of sight.

Such had proved to be the case. As annoyed as Larabee was that Axley had disappeared, he wasn't surprised. Chaney had probably sent his number one man into hiding as soon as the ambush of Tanner had failed.

As for Sturgis… The DPD had been keeping an eye on him and he, too, had vanished shortly after three men known to work for him had been arrested for the attempted murder of a federal agent. It was possible that Chaney had immediately eliminated the drug dealer, but unlikely. No, the most likely scenario was that Sturgis had engineered his own disappearance, purely for self-protection. Depending on whether law enforcement or Chaney found him first would determine if he would live or die.

Likewise, Chaney was in the wind. Again, Chris wasn't surprised but he was disappointed and angry.

One thing was certain. Chaney had to be getting very frustrated. Sturgis was who knew where, Tanner was still walking around, the Reyes' family had disappeared, and so had the arms dealer's best chance at a lever against the sharpshooter. And now Axley was gone somewhere, leaving Chaney without his chief lieutenant. Not to mention the trial was approaching fast.

Larabee was grimly amused by the thought of Chaney's mental state. Circumstances had to be ramping up the man's paranoia big time, only this time he had good reason for his paranoia. As pleasing as he found the idea, Chris didn't under-estimate the mobster. Chaney was going to be looking for the Reyes, his missing lever against Vin. Failing that he would want another lever, and in that event it was more than likely his eye would settle on the members of Team Seven. They were closest to Tanner, physically and emotionally. It made sense.

The problem with going after one of the Seven was obvious – each member of the team was smart, experienced, and alert for trouble. The other problem was that they were all federal agents. All hell would break loose if Chaney somehow managed to grab one of them. Worst case scenario – even if one of the team was kidnapped, there was no way Chaney would be able to use him against Tanner. Larabee's team would move heaven and earth to rescue their missing member, but there would be no exchange, no deals, no nothing. Any crook with two brain cells to rub together knew that.

Chaney had to know that, too. Obviously, he did know it because he'd chosen to target civilians, the Reyes' family, in an attempt to get at Tanner. But now that the family was out of his reach, Chaney's increasing desperation might make him decide to cross a line that ordinarily he wouldn't cross. The fact that his paranoia was probably dominating him these days only increased the likelihood he would try something that he wouldn't in better days.

It was because of this possibility that Chris had given orders after the Wednesday night bust that no member of his team was to go out in public alone. It was a hell of a way to live, but he wasn't taking any chances. The Reyes' family was covered, and that left the members of Team Seven as the most obvious link to Vin Tanner.

The sound of crackling paper pulled him out of his thoughts and he was disgusted to see he had crushed the pages of notes in his fist.

"Damn it,” he muttered, laying the crumpled sheets on the desk and trying to smooth them out. After a minute he gave it up and rubbed his tired eyes. He knew he needed to get some sleep. But they were short-handed this time and sleep was something that had been caught in snatches the past several days.

Though Chris didn't like thinking about it, he knew there was still another reason he had been avoiding sleep. He rubbed his face harder but the thought refused to disappear.

"Shit,” he said under his breath. He raised his head and rubbed the back of his neck, only to find himself looking at the pictures of his family on the shelf next to his desk. His eyes lingered on them…laughing, happy, beautiful. Alive.

He squeezed his eyes shut but an all too familiar longing suddenly swept over him, making it hard to breathe. It was a longing that filled every atom of his being, a longing that could never be fulfilled. Never again.

Chris tried to swallow but his tight throat made it impossible. "Sarah, Adam,” he whispered, the names almost strangling him as the heartbreakingly familiar pain filled his heart.

Dear God…he couldn't…couldn't…

He hung onto the arms of his chair, trying to breathe…trying not to pass out…



Oh, God.

Some unfathomable time later, the pain began to recede and he became aware of his surroundings again. Finally he was able to take a shaky breath, then another, stronger. More time passed before he was able to release his grip on the chair arms.

After a couple more minutes passed, he was relieved to realize the trembling had diminished and he took another deep breath before wiping his sweating features.

Okay, okay now.

Larabee gave a furtive swipe at his eyes and sniffed hard. Okay.

That had been a bad one.

It had been awhile since…since that had happened.

"Damn it,” he muttered. The recent dreams mixed with nightmares were triggering a hell of a lot of crap he normally kept buried deep down. Maybe the worst part about it all was that he knew why it was happening.

"Shit,” he muttered again, this time wearily. He was going in circles; he knew it but it kept happening.

This case.

More particularly, one member of this case.

Chris looked down at the closed file folder on his desk. It was filled with the usual stuff, background information and more recent information compiled by his team. There were also some pictures. Most of them were pictures of the relevant players in this case, but there were a few others, pictures of the members of the Reyes' family. Pictures that included the youngest member.

He closed his eyes again but that didn't prevent him from seeing that angelic little face surrounded by beautiful black curls, wearing the biggest smile while she cuddled in her mother's arms.

An innocent.

Another innocent that evil threatened.

Pain gripped him in the throat again, making breathing impossible.

He had failed to save the innocents he loved most.

Failed to save them from the evil that had actually been in pursuit of Chris Larabee, but which took them without hesitation when they got in the way.

But this time evil was deliberating targeting the innocent, using the innocent as a pawn to further its own agenda.

What kind of man, what kind of human being, would deliberately threaten a child? Not only threaten but attempt to carry out that threat?

Don't be stupid, Larabee. You've run into a lot of bottom feeders over the years. You know how far down a man could sink.

This was different, his heart insisted. The problem was that the man he was in pursuit of was someone who had forfeited his humanity. Someone who deserved –

"No,” he said aloud, trying to stop the direction of his thoughts. He was not a vigilante. He had sworn to uphold the law. If he abandoned that, then he was moving away from civilization toward the evil that opposed it.

No, he thought again, but this time it reverberated through his mind. He had come close once before to slipping into that darkness, but with Buck's help managed to draw back from the precipice.

In his mind's eye Adam was suddenly standing before him and he gasped. That innocent blue gaze and bright, happy smile stunned Chris with their intensity.




If Josiah was right, and Chris prayed he was, then Adam and Sarah were somewhere safe now, safer than when they had lived in this world, safer than when they had been part of his life. Safe and, he hoped with every atom of his being, happy. He could endure his grief and guilt and loneliness so long as he had that to hang on to.

Larabee realized his hands ached and looked down to see he was clutching the arms of the chair again. He hadn't been able to protect his innocents and they had died.

"Not again,” he swore aloud. He would do whatever he had to in order to protect the innocents under his care now. Not only Magdalena but her entire family.

He was suddenly thankful that Tanner was on his way to the monastery, maybe was already there by now, for he knew the Texan would have felt his acute distress, and the last thing the man needed was more fuel for his own emotions.

A knock on the door yanked him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see Josiah enter. "I've finished putting together what Johnson and Tyler told us,” he said, dropping the sheaf of pages on Larabee's desk. "I'd say we've gone about as far as we can now, at least until we find Axley or the others.”

Chris sat back in his chair. "Anxious to get up to the monastery?”

The profiler shrugged. "I'll feel better,” he admitted. His eyes shifted to the wall, although Chris was pretty sure he wasn't seeing it. "You'd think I'd be used to it after all these years, but even now the depths that a human being can sink to still surprise me sometimes.”

"Yeah?” Chris returned, hiding his surprise at how closely the big man's thoughts paralleled his own. For the first time he noticed the his teammate's appearance, the lines in his face worn deeper than usual, the pale blue eyes rimmed red by weariness. Josiah sat down in a chair and rubbed his hand over his face before looking at Larabee.

"Francis Chaney's career is filled with the bodies of those who got in his way, whether deliberately or accidentally. It's proof he's a man without morals, without regard for anything except his own corrupt desires. But to deliberately target a child in pursuit of his own unholy plan is beyond the pale.”

Josiah's breath was quickening and Chris could see his hand on the arm of the chair had turned into a fist. The profiler was getting up a head of steam and Chris searched for words to distract him. Josiah didn't lose his temper easily, but when he did the results could be…could be downright Old Testament disastrous.

"Chaney's a thug, a murderer,” he reminded. "He left civilization's boundaries behind him a long time ago. Once you've reached that stage, I imagine targeting a child is just another step along the way.” Larabee grimaced as he heard his words. He didn't ordinarily lean toward the philosophical, but Sanchez seemed to bring it out of him more often than not.

Josiah shook his head, his blue eyes beginning to spark. "Chaney's just a symptom of the problem. Look at history,” he said. "Evil has pursued innocence since the beginning of time.”

In reflex, Larabee almost said, "Why?” but he bit the word back. He was a law enforcement officer. His brief was to uphold the law. Esoteric questions weren't part of that brief.

Almost as if he could read his superior's mind, Josiah leaned slightly forward, his big frame tight with tension. "Haven't you ever wondered why?”

Chris spoke carefully, measuring his words. "My job is to uphold the law. Philosophical questions don't have much to do with that.”

"They can help us to understand,” Josiah disagreed. "An ordinary, decent human being can't grasp the depravity of someone like Francis Chaney. Only when you realize what he has chosen to become can you see how dangerous he truly is. Especially when innocence is involved.”

Larabee frowned. "What are you talking about?”

"Innocence is a mirror, Chris. When a person looks at an infant and sees that innocence, the normal, human reaction is to want to protect it. Innocence can bring out the best in us without even trying. But the opposite can happen when evil encounters innocence. The pretenses that evil surrounds itself with often cannot withstand the mirror of innocence, and evil finds that unendurable. The only way it can protect itself is to destroy that mirror.” The sparks in those pale blue eyes had turned into a flame and Chris almost flinched when the heat of that flame was turned on him. "Those who would deliberately, with malice, target the innocent, are truly agents of the devil,” the profiler added, emotion adding weight to his words.

In the midst of that flame-filled gaze something flickered, something unnamable, and Chris felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. He had to stop this now, before it became unstoppable.

"We will keep the family safe,” he said evenly, "and we will find Chaney and arrest him and put him behind bars. Where he won't be able to hurt anyone anymore.”

Josiah looked at him with an unreadable expression. "He and his underlings will face justice,” he said with a softness that was startling after his earlier intensity. Then he rose and, without another word, walked out, the door closing slowly behind him.

Chris looked after him, all too aware of the lingering chill. Normally, he could count on the big man to be a calming influence on the more volatile members of his team, but that clearly wasn't happening in this case.

The door opened without warning and Buck appeared. Larabee gave him an annoyed look. "I didn't hear a knock,” he snapped.

"Sorry,” Wilmington returned, not sounding sorry. "Everything okay? Josiah looks…upset.”

"He is,” Chris returned, then grimaced. He should've shut the man down. Now it was too late.

Sure enough, Buck shut the door behind him and took the chair Josiah had just vacated. "What about?”

"The case.”

Buck's eyebrows rose. "Something new come up?”

"No. What do you want?”

Instead of answering, Buck looked over his shoulder at the door, then back. "It's about the family, isn't it?”

Hell, his whole team was upside down over this case. "It doesn't matter,” he said sharply. "What do you want?”

Buck opened his mouth, then closed it again, looking troubled and Chris realized his old friend had something else on his mind. Knowing he was going to regret it, he still said, "What's wrong?”

Wilmington looked away and his eyes fell on the photos on the shelf beside Chris's desk. After a minute he met his old friend's gaze. "After all these years in law enforcement, you'd think nothing could shake me up anymore. But this does.”

Oh, hell. Larabee suddenly felt as if he was re-living his conversation with Josiah. "Buck – ”

"I know you've felt it, too, Big Dog. I've never been much for that religious stuff, but I keep thinking that anyone who'd deliberately harm a child deserves to burn in hell.”

Chris gritted his teeth. He didn't doubt that every man on his team felt the same way; hell, he felt the same way. But he was their superior and it was up to him to keep them on a level keel.

"We're going to go by the book because we don't want any of these bastards getting off on a technicality,” he said flatly. "Is that clear, Agent Wilmington?”

Buck's lips tightened but after a minute he nodded and Larabee knew that was the best he could hope for.

"JD and I are ready to head out, unless you have something else for us,” he said finally.

"Get going,” Chris said with a nod at the door. "Josiah and I have a few more things to do and then we'll be following you up there.”

Buck got to his feet, without his usual effervescence. He paused to give Chris a long look, then turned and left.

Larabee looked at the closed door for a minute before turning his attention to the file. Two things were very clear. He had to protect the Reyes' family. There was no alternative.

And he had to protect his team. It was always his top priority, but this time his task would be even more difficult than usual, for he had to protect his teammates not only from the enemy but from themselves.


Ordinarily, Vin enjoyed long drives. But today, after having driven over increasingly rugged terrain for several hours, he guided his jeep along a narrow highway ever higher into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, relieved to know he was almost at his destination. He kept a close eye on his surroundings, particularly the rear view mirror. On the drive from Denver he had deliberately chosen a circuitous route, always watching for anything or anyone that didn't belong.

With each uneventful mile that passed, he felt better. Knowing that the rest of the team would show up later in the day was even more reassuring. At this point, they could work on the case up at the monastery as easily as at the office, thanks to those modern inventions called telephones and computers. With all of Team Seven present, the safety of Magdalena and her family was practically guaranteed.

The mile marker he was watching for appeared and Vin slowed. Just around the next curve he saw the narrow gravel road going off at right angles from the main road. A small, unobtrusive sign nailed to a tree next to the road declared that the Monastery of Our Lady of Calvary was one mile ahead. He thought about removing the sign but discarded the idea. Nowadays, GPS made signs unnecessary. They just had to trust that the bad guys wouldn't find out about the monastery.

Vin slowed almost to a stop in order to take the sharp right turn, then accelerated again. He didn't dare go too fast, the road was too narrow and winding for speed. Trees grew close to the road and he lowered his window, inhaling the scent of air refreshed by recent rain, pine trees and the light fragrance of some flowering bushes that seemed to be leaning almost across the road.

He could almost feel his soul expanding, surrounded as he was by nature. Although there were towns at the foot of the mountains, the mountains themselves existed much as they had for uncounted years.

The Sangre de Cristos contained a number of the 14,000-foot peaks the state was famous for, and Vin was thankful that the monastery was only "part-way up the mountain,” according to Josiah. This altitude was apparently ideal for the monastery's principal industries of the manufacture of cheese and medicinal wine, both of which were nationally known and supported the monastery in its day-to-day living.

Vin smiled to himself. He'd never before thought about monasteries or how they supported themselves. If that old saying was true, every day you learn something new is a day you don't age, then maybe today wouldn't count in his overall length of life.

He chuckled at the thought and slowed again when he saw another sharp turn ahead. When he rounded the curve the forest fell away and he saw, some fifty yards straight ahead, a large wooden structure. It was clearly old, settled in the large clearing with an air of belonging. Josiah had told them a little about the monastery's history. It has been built in the mid-1850's, in a style called Carpenter's Gothic, by a group of Cistercian monks who were looking for a spiritual refuge. Vin knew nothing about architecture but as he drew closer he liked what he saw – the monastery had a high roof, steep slope and decorated gables. Another hundred yards or so behind it, and mostly hidden by the bulk of the monastery, he glimpsed another structure, a massive barn that looked like it had been built at the same time as the monastery itself.

Vin found himself oddly pleased by what he was looking at. The place wasn't fancy, but he liked it a lot better than the high-faluting churches popular in most cities.

Seeing Nathan's old brown and beige Explorer parked off to the side of the monastery, he pulled up beside it and parked. He got out, stretched, and froze when Nathan suddenly appeared around the corner of the building, weapon in hand. Seeing Tanner, he lowered his pistol.

"Good to see ya, too,” Vin said dryly.

The medic grinned. "You'd have been disappointed if you got any closer without me challenging you.”

"True,” the Texan admitted. "How's everythin'?”

"Fine. Come see for yourself. It's around this way.”

He led Vin around to the rear of the monastery and pointed. "The guest house is over there.”

It was a much smaller building, though the architecture was the same, set mid-way between the monastery and barn. The structure was painted a dark green, which had faded over the years. Situated on the edge of the clearing, it blended in with the surrounding trees.

When they reached it, Nathan paused to give the door a quick knock before he opened it. "All clear,” he called and entered.

Following, Vin couldn't see anything for the large figure in front. Not until they were inside and Nathan stepped aside did he realize they had entered directly into a kitchen. A small island was set squarely in the middle of the room, its butcher-block top scored by decades of use. The kitchen had probably last been updated a good twenty years ago, but despite its worn appearance it struck Vin as a warm, welcoming room.

More important than the room was the sight of Sofia sitting at the island, Magdalena on her lap. Seeing him, the toddler dropped the bottle she had been holding.

"Veen! Veen!” she crowed, waving excitedly at him.

Sofia clutched the child at the same time she grabbed for the falling bottle. Vin took two quick steps forward, catching the bottle in mid-air and putting it on the counter.

"Hey, there, angel,” he said, taking Magdalena in his arms. She giggled in delight and patted his cheeks with her tiny hands, a stream of incomprehensible sounds bubbling out. Every so often he would say something like, "Is that right?” or "Ya don't say!” or "Well, I'll be darned,” which responses seemed to satisfy her and encourage her to continue. Only when she began to calm down, did Vin sit on one of the chairs and pick up the bottle.

"Ya still hungry, little one?”

She reached eagerly for the bottle and he allowed her to take it. While she returned to her interrupted meal, Vin looked over her curly head at a smiling Sofia.

"How're ya doin'?”

"My family is safe,” she returned, "so I am well.”

"Fernando and Gabriel?”

"Sleeping.” Her smile turned wistful. "They are both in need of it.”

"An' they're gettin' it,” Vin said gently. "What about Sofia? Don't she need sleep?”

That won him a gentle laugh. "Ever since this one came along,” she ran a hand caressingly over the tousled black curls of her daughter who was drinking obliviously from her bottle, "I've learned to sleep when I can.”

"I've heard that can happen,” he said, smiling down at the precious little one in his lap.

"Si,” she started, only to be interrupted by a large yawn. Vin chuckled.

"Then again, seems like this is a good time to catch up on your sleepin'.”

Sofia looked at her daughter. "I don't think – ”

"Ya don't think me ‘n Nate here 're good babysitters?”

"No!” she said immediately. "I'm sure…” she stopped at the sight of the men's grins, then slapped Vin's arm. "You're teasing.”

"A little,” he admitted. Magdalena chose that minute to pull the nipple out of her mouth and give a musical little burp. The three adults looked at her with matching grins.

"Talented, ain't ya?” Vin said, bouncing her on his knee.

"Be careful,” Sofia warned, "she's just finished a bottle.”

"Oops,” Vin said apologetically, giving the little head a quick kiss. "Sorry, baby.”

Magdalena twisted around to look up at him with an enchanting smile. "Veen,” she said happily, snuggling against him. Vin's arm automatically curved around her more tightly, holding her close. Sofia stood.

"I'm not the only one who's ready for a nap,” she observed, holding her arms out.

"I've got her,” Vin said, getting to his feet. "Show me where ya want her.”

"The bedrooms are down the hall,” Nathan said, pointing at the doorway on the other side of the kitchen. "Fernando and Gabriel are in the first one.”

Sofia looked down at the half-asleep toddler in Vin's arms. "We'll take the bedroom next to it, let the men sleep.”

Nathan chuckled. "That's probably a good idea.” He led them through the door at the far side of the kitchen, and down the short hall. At the end was a small room that held a twin bed and a small dresser.

"There's an extra cot in the other room,” Nathan said. "I'll bring it in.”

"Don't bother,” Sofia returned, "There's enough room here for me and Magdalena.”

"Ya sure?” asked Vin, studying the narrow bed.

"I'm sure,” she said, gently taking her child from his arms and sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Okay.” Vin followed Nathan out of the room, pausing at the door. "Ya need anythin' someone'll be close by.”

She smiled her warm smile. "I know.”

He pulled the door half-closed, and quietly returned to the kitchen where he found Nathan making fresh coffee.

"Want some?” he offered.

Vin studied the coffee pot and the medic grinned. "No, it's not your black tar, but I like it.”

"I'll give it a try,” the sniper returned, suppressing a yawn of his own. Even weak, the coffee would contain some caffeine that he definitely needed. "Ya know the rest of the guys'll be here later today?”

Nathan nodded as he took another mug out of a cupboard and set it on the island. "Josiah texted me.”

Vin just sat down at the island. "I'm glad Chris and Josiah got Johnson and Tyler to talk, but a little surprised. Sturgis is bad enough but Chaney's got a hell of a nasty reputation.”

"True, but both Sturgis and Chaney are in the wind right now. Johnson had Chris and Josiah in his face. What would you've done?” Vin nodded grinning faintly, and Nathan continued. "Then I guess Tyler heard and he decided he wanted to cover his own ass after all. They both pointed a finger at Rich Axley, which supports our surveillance tapes, not to mention what Johnson had to say about Sturgis.”

"You heard anythin' the last couple hours? Axley or the others been found?”

"Not yet, but all law enforcement agencies have been alerted.”

Vin's momentary hope faded. "Even if Axley's arrested, ya know he ain't gonna give up Chaney. And Sturgis isn't likely to talk, that'd put him on Chaney's hit list for sure.”

"Now, now, don't be so negative. At first we didn't think Johnson or Tyler would talk.”

"Ain't the same. Axley's been Chaney's number one man for years. He's a hell of a lot tougher than Johnson or – ”

"One step at a time,” Nathan said, lifting the pot of coffee and filling the mug in front of Vin before doing the same for his own mug. "Careful, it's hot. ”

Vin picked up his mug and took a long swallow, then wrinkled his nose. "Hot, yeah, but damn, Nate, ya gotta put some coffee grounds in the water for it to be real coffee.”

Nathan shook his head. "I swear, your innards must be made of asbestos. I put plenty of coffee grounds in the water when I made it. I warned you before, it's not your black tar. Drink it or not, it's up to you, but if you drink it I don't want to hear any more complaining.”

There was a warning note in the big man's voice that Tanner took seriously. "Hmm,” he said, taking another sip and shaking his head. But this time he knew better than to say anything. "When's the last time ya patrolled?” he asked.

"About a half-hour before you got here.”

Vin put his mug down and rose. "Think I'll mosey around.” He looked in the direction of the bedrooms. "Gabe doin' okay?”

Nathan pursed his lips. "It's going to take some time but he's on the right track now. I'm making sure he gets his meds and that's helping.”

"Good,” Vin said softly. He continued to look toward the bedrooms and Nathan added, "Don't worry, I'll stay close.”

Tanner nodded and headed for the door. Once outside, he paused to look around, every sense alert. Birds sang cheerily, darting through the trees around the clearing and he was pleased by both their presence and their sound. Clearly the birds didn't see or hear anything amiss, which reassured him.

It was time to get the lay of the land but first he wanted to check out the barn. A few minutes' walk brought him to the huge structure. The massive doors were closed so he turned to the smaller door on the side meant for humans. The smell struck him first – fresh hay, animals, sweet feed…scents that spoke to old memories, both good and bad, but underlying all the memories was a sense of…rightness. These were smells that went back eons, for as long as humans had domesticated animals.

Vin looked around the huge space. The stalls were all empty. There were no cows or other animals here, though clearly they had been present until recently. He figured the monks had transferred the animals, maybe to other grazing, after receiving Josiah's warning about the potential for trouble.

Once he was reassured there was nothing to be found in the barn, he continued his patrol. As he moved clockwise around the clearing, Vin gazed searchingly through the forest that drew close. Under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed his surroundings. He was in his element here, in the midst of a forest surrounded by mountains. It was too early in the day for most of the forest's inhabitants to be about, but he knew they would start coming out after dusk. He only hoped no other, unwelcome, visitors would make an appearance.

Vin sighed deeply. He reminded himself that only his team knew about the monastery, so there was no possibility of a leak. There was no reason to think any of Chaney's people would show up, no way any of those bastards could know where the Reyes' family had been taken. This place had been created as a sanctuary, and such it was serving now, even if slightly different than the original creators had intended. He thought those old monks, if they'd known the team's plans, would've approved what they were doing.

The most immediate problem was that the thick forest made it impossible to see far. Josiah had mentioned that a half-hour's hike over the nearest ridge led to a large lake popular with local wildlife such as the magnificent elk that called these mountains home, as well as with smaller creatures. Bighorn sheep were also all over the mountains. And then there were the predators - coyote, lynx, grey wolf, mountain lion and black bear. City-dwellers might fear them, but Vin knew these creatures were an important part of the eco-system, essential to maintain its well-being. Understanding that, respecting the animals and keeping his distance, knowing they would do the same, all worked together to ensure a safe trek through the mountains.

In an ideal world, he would have made a wider circuit that would've led him more deeply into the surrounding forest. But he didn't dare do that now. Nathan wasn't expecting it and such an action would have left the medic alone to keep an eye on the family. Now that he was here, he wasn't about to get too far from the house.

Vin paused by a creek to watch the water leisurely meander along its banks, then studied the muddy ground. He could see paw prints of various small animals, but none of the big ones, which made sense. Wolves, mountain lions and the like would avoid this area because of the humans who lived here.

A gray jay flashed daringly close to him and he started, then chuckled. In the nearby branches he saw and heard bright-eyed chickadees. Despite the circumstances that had brought him to this place, he couldn't help but respond to this magnificent wilderness in which man was only a visitor. Well, he thought in amusement, except for a small enclave of Cistercian monks.

He stiffened when he picked up the sound of an approaching vehicle, and raced back to the monastery, stopping just behind the corner wall. Only then did he realize he was holding his SIG, and approved of his subconscious' action.

The engine growled closer and Vin thought he recognized it but he didn't lower his guard until the red GMC pickup, circa 1957, nosed around the last sharp turn before approaching the monastery. He relaxed but waited until he had a clear view of the two individuals inside the cab before coming out in the open.

Buck pulled up beside the other vehicles and parked, JD jumping out before the engine was turned off.

"Wow!” he exclaimed, turning around. "It's beautiful up here!” Seeing Vin approach he said, "Everything okay?”

"Fine,” Tanner said.

Buck climbed out of the other side of the cab and Vin's lips quirked at the sight of the other man's wincing.

"Feelin' a little stiff from that drive, Bucklin?”

JD turned around. "What?”

"Nothing,” Wilmington grunted, walking in a circle while trying not to limp.

"I think Bucklin's age is showin',” Vin said, unable to hide a smile.

"Watch your mouth, Junior,” Buck said with an evil look.

JD's eyes widened as he watched his roommate. "Buck, it wasn't that long of a drive.”

Buck straightened, his grimace disappearing. "I'm fine, kid.”

JD watched him closely before saying, "Is it your knee?”

Vin's amusement faded as he recalled the fall his teammate had suffered during the takedown of Sturgis's men yesterday. Apart from a limp that quickly dissipated, Buck had seemed okay.

"Damn it, Bucklin, why didn't ya say somethin' when it happened?”

"It wasn't a big deal, Junior.” Buck started forward, his gait normal again. "Just a few bruises.”

"Don't remember ya mentionin' that to Nate.”

JD shook his head and Buck glared between the two younger men. "Nothing worth telling.” He looked at the monastery. "Where's everybody?”

Clearly Buck had had enough of the subject. Pushing him would only lead to – as Wilmington would say – ugliness. Since the big man was moving okay, Vin let it go.

"In the guest house, 'round this way.”

As they strode toward the house, JD said, "I sure am hungry. There's food here, right?”

Vin grinned while Buck gave his youngest teammate a disbelieving look. "You ate two hamburgers and damn near all the fries we got on the way up here!”

"Yeah, well, I didn't have much breakfast this morning, so I'm still trying to catch up.” With the words, he grinned at the big man who narrowed his eyes. In an effort to sidetrack their usual bickering, Vin spoke.

"We got plenty a' food.”

JD's smile widened. "Great!” he exclaimed and Buck snorted.

They were almost at the side door of the kitchen when Vin stopped again and turned around, his hand dropping to his weapon. Seeing this, Buck and JD did the same.

"What is it?” Buck hissed.

"Another car comin'.”

By silent consent they all moved behind the protection of the building, watching the road intently. After a minute they could all hear the smooth hum of a high performance engine approaching and Buck half-smiled.

"Sounds like Ez's Jag.”

"It does,” Vin agreed, still holding his SIG.

A couple minutes later the black Jaguar came into view and they all relaxed.

"If we'd known Ezra would be right behind us, he could've come with us,” JD said. Buck scoffed.

"Yeah, I can just see him willing to scrunch into the truck with us instead of driving his fancy car.”

Vin chuckled. They waited while Standish parked his Jaguar beside their vehicles and then approached. Ezra stepped out and gave his surroundings a quick scan before turning to his teammates.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I trust by your relaxed demeanors that all is well?”

"If'n you mean everythin's status quo here, yep,” Vin drawled.

"We were just going to get something to eat,” JD said brightly. "You hungry?”

"Whether I am hungry depends upon the available cuisine,” Standish said with a sniff.

Wilmington snorted, threw an arm around the smaller man's shoulders, and propelled him forward. "Come on, Ez, I'm sure we can dig up a nice, big, greasy burger for you with lots of jalapeno peppers and onions, and, oh yeah, lots of melted cheese, mayo and ketchup and mustard and relish, and...”

"I would rather starve,” Ezra insisted before being shoved through into the guest house.

Behind him, Vin and JD exchanged grins. "This I've got to see,” JD proclaimed and hastened up the steps.

"I'm gonna finish lookin' around,” Vin called after him. Just as the door slammed shut he heard a stifled yelp. It sounded like Buck and he wondered what Standish had done to the ladies' man. Then again, some things were better learned about later, when tempers had cooled.

Still grinning, he resumed his patrol. He was aware of an extra lightness in his heart and knew it was because most of his team was present and safe, although Vin wouldn't be entirely satisfied until Josiah and Chris showed up. He shook his head at himself. For someone who had thought he was better off alone less than a year ago, he'd sure changed his tune.

Though he'd never say so out loud, Tanner knew that Chris had been the biggest reason for his change of heart, but all of the Seven had played a part. He couldn't imagine his life anymore without all of them being part of it. Better than almost anyone, Vin Tanner understood the risk he was taking by allowing them into his heart, but it had happened despite himself and, risks aside, he wouldn't have it any other way.

He glanced at the sky, noting the lowering sun. He hoped Chris and Josiah got here before night fell. Then Vin realized what he was thinking and shook his head in amusement. Damn but he was glad Larabee wasn't around to guess his thoughts, because the man would probably bust a gut laughing at his concern.

Fair was fair, he thought at his absent leader. Chris Larabee could give lessons to an over-protective hen when it came to worrying about his chicks.


The giant trees rising high in the sky blocked much of the light from the setting sun, leaving it almost dark enough to turn on his headlights. Chris glanced at his watch as he turned the wheel, slowing so as to avoid screeching tires when he took the turn. He had no doubt that one or more of his teammates was on lookout and he didn't want to raise their blood pressure unnecessarily.

He glanced briefly at his passenger. Josiah had been silent for almost the entire ride, immersed in the stack of reports and other information they had compiled over the past several days. Only the occasional rustle of paper had broken the quiet.

Ordinarily, the silence would have suited Chris Larabee just fine. But as so often had happened since this case began, long-suppressed thoughts had taken advantage of the quiet to raise up memories he had tried hard to distance himself from.

Too often, the thought of little Magdalena and her family tilted into forbidden territory. A memory of her snuggling in her mother's arms triggered a memory of baby Adam cuddled in Sarah's arms, her face alight with love and tenderness that so resembled Sofia's –

He winced away from the memory but it was too late. Dear god, he missed them. Missed them with a longing greater than any words, any adjectives in the English language, could express. Their loss had left him with an emptiness that seemed to be all that was left of his heart.

Suddenly the image of intense blue eyes pierced him and a familiar, warm drawl filled his thoughts.

Not true, Cowboy.

"Chris? You okay?”

Josiah's deep voice broke his focus, and Larabee blinked back into awareness. "I'm – ” he caught himself before Vin's usual response to such a question could cross his lips. He settled for "Yeah,” but realized by Josiah's twitching lips that the big man knew what it was a lie. Mercifully, he didn't challenge him.

Chris slowed further in order to take the sharp curve. Before them, the trees fell away, the landscape opened up and they saw the monastery.

"Everything looks quiet and peaceful,” Josiah said, a note of relief in his voice.

"Shit!” Chris hit the brakes as a figure appeared unexpectedly out of the woods.

The sudden stop sent both Larabee and Josiah lurching forward, only to be yanked back by their seatbelts.

"Sonofabitch!” Chris gasped, his surprise giving away to temper.

Vin Tanner had the unmitigated gall to give them a grin and lazy wave before lowering his weapon and taking a step back, disappearing again into the trees.

"I'm going to kill him!”

"Now, Chris,” Josiah soothed, "remember what Buck always says. The paper work would be hell.”

Larabee turned a scorching look on the profiler, before accelerating again. Seeing the other vehicles he pulled up next to Buck's and stopped. As they exited the truck, another figure appeared around the corner of the building.

"Gentlemen,” Ezra greeted.

Chris glanced around the quiet landscape. "Everything okay?”

"Indeed. Mr. Tanner is surveilling our surroundings even as we speak.”

"We know,” Josiah put in with a smile.

"Ah.” Standish's eyebrows rose. "He does have a habit of appearing quite unexpectedly.”

"He does,” Josiah agreed.

Chris glared at both of them and Ezra turned around to open the door, then gestured toward the others.

"After you,” he invited.

Larabee went first. He wasn't expecting trouble; even if he'd been covered by a weapon, Standish would have given some sign to warn them. Still, he entered with every sense alert, because you could never tell.

The kitchen that appeared in front of him was as ordinary as they came, and overdue for a remodel. Still, it was pleasant and utterly without threat. After a swift look around Chris relaxed. Feeling Josiah's large presence behind him, he stepped aside, just as Nathan came in through the opposite door.

"Good to see you,” he greeted quietly.

"Why're you whispering?” Josiah asked.

The medic nodded at the door way behind him. "The family's asleep.”

"Unfortunately, not all of us,” came a new, female voice. Sofia appeared, a fussing Magdalena in her arms. She looked around the room, smiling, then frowned slightly. "Where is Vin?”

"Outside,” Nathan said.

"Can any of us help?” Josiah asked.

Sofia dropped a kiss on the small, curly-haired head. "She's cutting a new tooth,” she explained, "and right now she's not happy about anything. I was hoping Vin could settle her down.”

Eyebrows on various faces rose at this and Larabee knew he wasn't the only one fighting a smile. Vin Tanner was one of the most dangerous men he'd ever met, and the thought of the sharpshooter being the go-to babysitter for a fussy toddler was almost more than he could stand.

"I shall locate Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said, moving to the back door, "and send him in.”

And replace him outside. Although Standish didn't give voice to this latter comment, every one of his teammates heard it. On the one hand, it made sense. They needed to keep a guard outside, regardless of how secure they thought this hideout was. Come night, there would be two guards.

But no one doubted Ezra's offer contained a strong element of self-protection. Every one of his teammates knew he would die, if necessary, to protect the family. They also knew he didn't want to be "volunteered” to help with Magdalena.

Larabee watched Standish disappear out the door before looking at Nathan. He wanted a sit rep but hesitated to ask with Sofia present.

"Everything's been quiet,” the medic said, probably guessing what his team leader had on his mind. "No surprises.”

Sofia looked between them. "Are you expecting…surprises?”

Chris shook his head. "No.”

"But it's always good to be certain,” Josiah put in, apparently thinking Larabee's response a little curt.

"What's the set up here?” Chris demanded.

Nathan gestured at the door behind him, through which Sofia had come. "Two bedrooms back there plus a half-bath.” Then he pointed at the doorway on his left. "That leads to the rest of the house, dining room – where Buck and JD are currently having a bite - living room, main bathroom, and a couple more bedrooms.”

"We can hear you just fine,” Buck's voice drifted from the next room, "so you better watch what you say. I – oh, hey, Vin.”

Larabee's eyebrows rose but before he could speak Vin suddenly appeared in the door under discussion. "Afternoon,” he said casually, but Chris didn't miss the mischievous gleam in his eyes. He swallowed a curse.

"Where'd you come from?”

"There's another door on the south side of this place.”

"Two ways of ingress,” Josiah noted.

Vin nodded. "Plus one window in the back bedroom,” he added, "and another big one in the living room that don't open, plus smaller windows in both front bedrooms.”

"Baths?” Chris asked.

"One window in each, both too small for anyone to get through.”

Larabee considered this information. Watching every possible way into the house was almost impossible. Their best plan was to keep at least one man patrolling outside during the day, two at night.

"Don't worry, Sofia,” Vin said. "We're just a bunch'a worry warts.”

His words drew Chris's attention to the woman still standing beside the island. She was watching the team with obvious concern but Vin's words made her smile. The Texan went over to her and took Magdalena into his arms.

"Hey there, little one, ya makin' trouble for yer mama?”

The frown on the tiny face turned into a smile followed by a bubbling chuckle. "Veeeeennnn,” she said.

"Leeennaaa,” the Texan drawled and the toddler's chuckle turned into a laugh. He snuggled her closer and gave her mother a gentle smile.

"You worry 'bout this'un an' we'll handle the rest.”

She laughed softly and gave Vin a one armed hug, while tickling her daughter. Over renewed laughter, she said, "Of that I have no doubt.”

"Are you hungry?” Nathan asked her. "We got sandwich makings.”

"Thank you, no. Please don't let that stop anyone if you're hungry.”

"Already on top of it, thanks,” came a cheerful voice from the dining room. Chris shook his head while the others grinned.

"As much as that boy eats,” Josiah noted, "it's amazing he's not as big as Buck.”

"Hey!” JD protested, the word slightly garbled as he obviously spoke through a mouthful of food.

"I resent that,” Buck called.

Nathan and Josiah laughed, while Chris and Vin exchanged grins. In the latter's arms, Magdalena yawned widely and rubbed her eyes with tiny fists. Sofia looked at her, her hands on her hips.

"So,” she said, "are you ready to try to sleep a little more?”

Magdalena rested her head against Vin's chest and looked like she was dozing off. Amid a soft laugh, Sofia took her daughter in her arms again.

"Thank you, Vin,” she said. "You're better than a pacifier.”

The sharpshooter grinned, ignoring the chuckles of his teammates. "Glad t' help.”

Sofia cuddled the tiny form close and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Hopefully, she should sleep well tonight.” She started toward the bedroom and stopped at the door, looking around the room. "So many handsome men,” she said, her smile widening. "My husband is fortunate that I take my marriage vows seriously.”

Her gaze paused on Chris. Without warning she winked at him, then walked demurely out of the kitchen, leaving behind startled silence.

Larabee looked after her in disbelief, then noticed his teammates staring at him apprehensively, obviously wondering how he would respond. All but Vin, who was leaning against the door jamb, shaking with suppressed laughter. That was enough to set off the others and Chris turned on his heel and stomped outside.

Once the door closed behind him, he took a deep breath of the chilly air, feeling strangely unsettled. It had been a long time since a woman had flirted with him, or at least since he'd noticed. Yet there had been a…an innocence to Sofia's words. Flirtatious, yet, but she obviously meant what she said about taking her vows seriously.

Chris realized he was feeling…he wasn't sure what he was feeling. Flattered? Yeah, but… For almost his entire adult life his love and loyalty had been to a single woman. The recognition now of another woman flirting with him, even if innocently, of his awareness of that flirting, left him feeling… disloyal.

Suddenly he saw Sarah in his mind's eye, watching him with hands on hips, laughing softly, beautiful green eyes dancing with laughter and love. Pain rose, swift and sharp, making him wince.

Only one woman had truly ever held his heart. The fact that she wasn't present didn't lessen his commitment to her.

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead, feeling the beginnings of a headache.

"Ya okay, Cowboy?”

Chris jumped. He'd been so preoccupied he hadn't realized he was no longer alone.

He turned to find Vin beside him. The Texan wasn't laughing anymore; his blue eyes were serious and focused on his friend.

"Yeah,” Chris said shortly. He knew the sharpshooter would have no trouble hearing the lack of sincerity in the word, but it was all he had. To his relief, Tanner only nodded and looked off at the mountains.

"Sure is pretty here,” Vin said softly.

Chris gladly accepted the change of subject and he followed the Texan's gaze. Here in the clearing that surrounded the house, the sky spread out above them, a vast panorama. The setting sun was creating a colorful masterpiece of colors swathing the sky, though somewhat dimmed by the decreasing light. Dark clouds were on the horizon. They looked like approaching rain, though still a ways off.

Something about the majestic wilderness reached out to him and he felt the turmoil in his heart beginning to settle. Thankfully, the beginnings of his headache was also receding. Maybe part of that had to do with the quiet figure beside him.

He didn't want to think about it or try to figure it out. It was enough to be here, next to a man who had found a way into Larabee's heart as no one had since his family. Yet despite the opportunity, Vin had never taken advantage of that unique relationship.

Chris recognized how fortunate he was. There were six other men in his life whom he trusted, who knew him as no outsider could, who accepted him as he was, supported him, believed in him, followed him. But his relationship with Vin was different. Vin knew things about him that no one else did, not even Buck, one of his oldest and closest friends. Yet knowing what he knew hadn't changed Tanner's view of or relationship with Chris.

Larabee took another deep breath of the crystal clear air and exhaled, knowing his secrets were safe with Vin. He would protect them and in so doing, would protect Chris Larabee as only he could.

Chris gave his companion a sideways look and he wasn't surprised to see Vin meet his gaze.

"Sofia meant what she said, ya know. I mean about being faithful to Fernando.”

So they were back to that. Chris almost rolled his eyes at Vin's "clarification.” "I figured as much.”

"But she obviously thinks yer a fine figure of a man,” Vin added, his tone just verging on a smirk.

"Watch your mouth,” Chris returned without heat, relieved to feel his sense of guilt fading. He actually appreciated the light-heartedness in the midst of what had been a tense several days.

He took another, longer look around. He caught a brief glimpse of Ezra some fifty feet away slipping through some trees before disappearing again and felt better at this reminder his team was on alert.

As happened so often, Vin seemed to read his mind. "Ya think the family's safe here?”

"We're the only ones who know they're here. I wouldn't even tell Travis.”

"Bet that didn't make him happy.”

"No, but he understood.” Chris turned to look at the guest house behind them. "I don't see any way Chaney could know about this place.”

"So why're we worryin' 'bout it?”

He gave the Texan a faint smile. "Because that's part of our job description.”

That got Chris an answering smile but he could still see the worry in Tanner's eyes.

"There's only one way in,” Larabee reminded, "and we've got that covered.”

"Only one road in,” Vin clarified. "But comin' on foot across country is somethin' else.”

Chris glanced around again. "It'd be a long walk. Other than the road, there's no place for vehicles to park. Not unless you're thinking of people coming over the ridge from the lake.”

Vin looked thoughtful. "That'd be more covert than coming from the highway, but a hell of a lot tougher.”

"Which is why we'll keep our guard up,” Chris noted. The sharpshooter still looked troubled. "What's going on, Vin? Do you know something I don't?”

"Nope.” Vin shook his head. "I'm just thinkin' a possibilities.”

That Larabee could understand. Better to be prepared for worst-case scenarios than not. Nodding, he made a decision. "I'm going to take a look around for myself. You start thinking about ways to deal with those possibilities.”


Vin turned back to the guest house and Chris strode off in the direction he had spotted Ezra. Pausing at the door, the Texan watched his friend disappear among the trees, just as a faint roll of thunder echoed above. Looking up, Vin saw the threatening mass of clouds growing and spreading, felt the strengthening wind caressing his cheek, and sighed. Looked like the storm was approaching sooner rather than later.


JD rinsed off his plate and put it in the dishwasher. Suddenly a large figure was beside him, jostling him aside.

"Here's a few more for you,” Buck said as he dropped his dishes and glass in the sink, followed by the jingle of cutlery.

"Hey.” JD shot him an annoyed look. "You dirtied 'em, you take care of 'em.”

"Fine. I'll take care of them later.” He yawned and stretched mightily, his long arms enabling him to almost touch the ceiling.

"Buck,” the younger man protested as his roommate turned away. Buck waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder while he strode out of the room.

"I'm going to take a nap,” he announced. "Considering I'll probably be on guard duty half the night.”

JD looked after him in exasperation, then felt other eyes on him. Glancing at the island, he saw both Josiah and Nathan looking at him with combined amusement and commiseration. He smiled sheepishly.

"I swear, sometimes Buck grates on my last nerve.”

Nathan chuckled and Josiah's smile deepened.

"He can be a handful,” the profiler acknowledged.

"That's putting it mildly,” JD grumbled, looking reluctantly at the dirty dishes in the sink. He knew he wasn't the neatest of housekeepers, but he had grown up with an excellent teacher, his mom, who had taught him the importance on staying on top of household chores before they grew out of control. And next to Buck…he mentally rolled his eyes.

Annoyed but unable to help himself, JD quickly rinsed off Buck's dishes and stuck them in the dishwasher. He could hear Josiah and Nathan behind him talking, keeping their voices down in deference to the sleeping family, and he was barely paying attention until he heard Chaney's name.

Grabbing a dish towel he wiped his hands as he turned around. "What about him?”

"We were just talking about what Chaney's next step might be,” Josiah explained.

Nathan nodded. "Axley has disappeared so Chaney's missing his number one confederate, Sturgis is most likely in hiding from Chaney as well as the law. Talk about a major loose end; it's got to be driving Chaney nuts.”

"Not to mention we have Vin's attackers in custody,” Josiah added, "and two of them have spilled their guts. If Chaney's as hooked into the DPD as we fear, he might know that by now.”

"Which is probably driving him even more nuts,” JD said thoughtfully.

"And the trial is coming up fast,” the medic noted.

"And Team Seven is out of reach,” Josiah pointed out. "Chaney has nothing he can use to get at Vin.”

JD was aware of a growing uneasiness. "And Vin's testimony will put him behind bars for the rest of his life, or maybe even on death row. I'm thinking that Chaney's feeling like he's backed into a corner.”

Josiah's eyebrows rose. "I wouldn't be surprised if you're right.”

Nathan was frowning now. "According to all the stories, Chaney is one paranoid bastard. What do you think he's likely to do if he's feeling backed into a corner?”

Only silence, heavy, charged, answered. The three of them exchanged glances and JD looked out the window. "I think we should run all this by Chris. Vin, too.”

Nathan nodded slowly and Josiah said, "Yes, but I'm guessing that they both have already been thinking along these lines.”

"Yeah?” JD eyed him curiously. "Then why did it take us so long?”

"We had other things on our minds,” Josiah said with a smile. "Chris is team leader; he has to always keep the larger picture in view. And Vin…” he paused, his smile turning thoughtful.

"Is Vin,” JD said flatly.

Josiah and Nathan looked at each other again and nodded.


Unlike Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee didn't consider the wilderness his natural environment. But he did enjoy periodic hiking and camping trips far from civilization.

On another day, he would have enjoyed this walk through a quiet forest. In the clearing that surrounded the guest house, despite the setting sun, it was still light. In the forest, beneath the wide spreading branches, the light was dimmer, more diffused. He had to be watchful where he stepped, and once or twice he slipped on the damp leaves that littered the ground. He should have stopped to grab a flashlight before leaving the guest house but he hadn't thought about it.

Suddenly he sensed someone nearby and stopped, his hand dropping to his weapon. He saw movement through the trees several yards away, then Ezra appeared, his own weapon ready for action. They relaxed simultaneously at the sight of the other.

"Mr. Larabee,” Ezra greeted. "Were you coming in search of me?”

"You can head back,” Chris affirmed. "I want to look around for myself. Let Buck know when I'm done, it'll be his turn. And,” he added with a glance at the darkening sky, "since it's just about night, someone else. Nathan,” he decided.

Standish smiled faintly. "It will be my pleasure.” He touched his forehead with a forefinger before turning away.

Chris waited until he could no longer see or hear the man before moving on. He listened as he walked but heard nothing. With night fast approaching, even the birds had gone to nest. His eyes searched the forest, ceaselessly casting about, but he saw nothing that deserved a second look. All was quiet, calm, at peace.

He began to review their activities since the night Vin had called him to ask for help with the Reyes' family, thinking back over what they had learned and comparing it with what they suspected. As best as he could figure, they were on top of the situation.

And that concerned him. Chris Larabee knew all too well that no one could plan for everything, because it was impossible to know all that needed to be planned. He couldn't know what Chaney was thinking or planning. The fact that they didn't know where Rich Axley was also worried him.

Maybe this knowledge was behind the small gnat of concern making a knot in his stomach. Chris wasn't sure, but experience as well as instinct knew better than to disregard it.

Was there any way Chaney could have found out where Team Seven was hiding the family? Chris had gone over the possibilities more times than he could count and every time he came up with "no.” The members of his team, all experienced, had come to the same conclusion. But Vin was right. Better to prepare for the worst and not have it happen, then not prepare and…

Despite his intense thoughts, Chris's attention to his surroundings did not waver. When he finally completed the circuit around the guest house, he decided to enlarge their surveillance. One man wouldn't be enough to keep an eye on the property and he was glad he had decided to double the guard at night. Was there anything else he could do? That he needed to do? He decided that he would have a conference with his teammates when he was done here. Maybe their brainstorming would come up with something he hadn't thought about.


One a.m.

Vin's gaze moved slowly across the forest but even with his superb eyesight, he could see very little. Heavy rain clouds blocked any light from the moon or stars, and the continuing drizzle only added to the poor lighting.

He and JD had relieved Buck and Nathan just minutes earlier. "All quiet,” Buck had reported and the drenched medic only nodded in agreement.

Vin pulled his hat lower and readjusted his radio headset. The chilly breeze grew stronger and he zipped his jacket up all the way. When they were about to head out to relieve Buck and Nate, Josiah had offered a poncho he kept in his truck. JD, after a quick look at Vin who gave him a nod, had accepted. The Texan was dressed for the weather and he knew JD wasn't as prepared. Although how much a poncho would help between the on-again, off-again rain and unpredictable wind was anyone's guess.

Despite his preparedness, he was uncomfortably damp. It wasn't the first time he'd been cold or wet and sure as hell it wouldn't be the last. Still, it was funny how no matter how many times you worked in this kind of weather, it never got any easier. At least the bad weather would help them avoid the greatest danger when on guard duty…falling asleep.

Quit yer complainin', Tanner, and focus on the damn job.

At least the brim of his hat kept most of the drizzle out of his eyes and off the back of his neck, and for that he was grateful. He paused to turn slowly in a circle, eyes searching for anything that seemed out of place. He didn't see anything, and the soft splatter of rain landing on the ground, among fallen leaves and into the already existing puddles, interfered with his attempt to listen for what didn't belong.

His eyes drifted over the clearing, past the darkened monastery, to the guest house behind it. There were two lights in the house, one in the kitchen and one in the small room on the opposite side from the main room.

Tanner smiled to himself. Josiah called that small room a study and on its bookshelves were a few volumes that had caught the big man's attention when he saw them earlier in the day. Five would get him ten that the profiler was comfortably ensconced in the little room perusing one of those volumes.

On the far side of the guest house he saw movement, but even as he stiffened, he relaxed. It was only JD, patrolling the rear of the property.

Vin adjusted his mouthpiece and spoke quietly. "How's things, JD?”

"Fine and dandy,” came the soft response. "If you don't count this damn rain.”

"Nathan says this ain't rain,” Vin said with a chuckle. "Just drizzle.”

"Hah hah.”

The Texan took another quick look around. "I'm gonna take a walk down t' the highway. Back in a few.”


Vin strode down the road, keeping toward the center where there were fewer puddles and the gravel made for better walking. As he traveled, he thought of JD's words. Even apart from the normal discomfort of being out in it, the bad weather made their job more difficult. Ordinarily, sound carried in the night, but the moisture in the air muffled all sounds and created a haze in the air that made seeing difficult. Add in the ordinary darkness of night, made darker by the heavy clouds, and Vin felt as if he was practically deaf and blind, not a comfortable feeling for a sniper.

When he reached the end of the road where it met the highway, he stopped and looked in both directions. There was no traffic in sight, and nothing to hear.

Vin sighed. What he wouldn't give for a clear night. Hell, Tanner, at least it ain't pourin' rain like it was earlier. Buck had had a lot to say, even if he'd been in a hurry to get indoors. Apparently he and Nathan had gotten the worst of the storm during their guard duty. Even though the rain had slackened to a drizzle by the end of their shift, they'd both looked like drowned rats by the time Vin and JD relieved them.

He took another look up and down the deserted highway, then headed back up the road. By the time he got back to the clearing, he was relieved that the drizzle had lessened…again. More importantly, the heavy cloud cover had begun to break up and moonlight finally peeked out, definitely an improvement over the utter darkness earlier.

All was quiet. Dawn was hours away so even the wildlife remained snugly hidden away in their dens or nests. Despite the chilly temperature, all seemed quiet, with nothing to alarm or disturb him. Not that he was about to relax his guard.

Vin's eyes drifted across the clearing and paused again on the guest house. He knew why the light was still on in the kitchen. Chris was still up. Apart from those on guard outside, he insisted on the rest of the team getting some sleep while he kept an eye on things inside.

Thinking of his friend and team leader made his heart ache. It was a common saying that no one could know what another person was feeling. Maybe that was true in general, but Vin knew, at least most of the time, what Chris was feeling. Through that unexplainable connection they shared, Vin understood, with a depth of understanding that had no words, the pain that the older man still carried over the loss of his wife and child.

And now here he was protecting another family with a young child. The case was digging up a lot of memories for Larabee, and with those memories had come a resurgence of that old pain and grief. For which Vin could not help feeling guilty.

Until the Reyes' family walked into the outer office of Team Seven that first night, Vin had not thought about the impact little Magdalena might have on Chris. But the moment the man had seen the baby, Vin had been struck by the searing grief that cut through Larabee…which had come through their connection with a power that almost buckled the Texan's knees.

Vin wished there was some way to shoulder some of those emotions, to ease the weight Chris carried. But he knew there wasn't. All he could do was be there for his friend, try to help by his presence the man's insupportable feeling of loss.

His gaze lingered on that single lighted window in the kitchen, the ache in his heart deepening.

"Ya ain't alone, Cowboy,” he murmured. "An' I ain't goin' nowhere.”


Having finished the book he'd found earlier, Josiah now moved quietly through the house, double-checking doors and windows to make sure all was secure, pausing at each window to peer out. Outside, all was in deep darkness, the rain-swollen clouds hiding the moon and stars that would normally lighten the night.

He was tempted to go back to the kitchen but refrained. The last time he'd checked, Larabee had been sitting at the island, papers spread out while he looked through them. It had taken only one hard look from those green eyes to tell the profiler his presence was not wanted. Wisely, Josiah had left the man alone.

Knowing Chris was awake, Josiah thought about hitting the sack but an unusual restlessness kept him moving. Pausing by one window he glimpsed movement outside and froze, watching intently. After a few seconds he relaxed when he recognized JD's figure as he moved around the back of the building. Josiah knew that Vin was on the opposite side of the property but didn't expect to see anything. No one ever saw anything when the Texan was on sentry duty.

The profiler headed through the living room toward the back of the house. When he passed the small study he stopped short. Someone was in there, someone who had not been there when he he'd left the room only fifteen minutes earlier.

Josiah started to reach for his weapon, then stopped on an relieved breath. Not wanting to frighten the still figure leaning against the wall, he said softly, "Can't sleep?”

Gabriel's head rose at his words but he didn't turn around. Josiah's eyes narrowed as he studied the youngster. It wasn't his painfully thin frame that caught his attention, but the desolation radiating from the slumped figure. His throat tightened; no one just beginning his life should be so burdened.

He moved a few steps closer while debating his words. "Are you hungry?” he said quietly. "I can whip up some soup or a sandwich.”

For a moment the boy didn't respond, then he shook his head and sank into a chair. The sight of that shaking shoulders propelled Josiah forward and he took the chair opposite. In spite of the dimness, he could make out the boy's expression, and his heart twisted. There was more than desolation in the boy's features. There was hopelessness.

Josiah waited but when Gabriel remained silent, he said gently, "You know, sometimes when I have a lot on my mind, I find that it helps when I share it. I'd be happy to listen.”

Gabriel kept his head down. Josiah remained quiet. Any response was up to the boy; the profiler needed to be silent.

For a while Josiah thought his offer would go on unacknowledged. Finally, and so softly he could hardly hear the words, Gabriel said, "It doesn't matter.”

There was such despair in his voice it was almost palpable. Even if Josiah had been on his death bed, he would have had to respond.

"There have been times in my life when I've felt that it was a waste of time for me to keep on breathing,” he admitted. The boy's head rose slightly at that. "But I've discovered that those times don't last. Friends can be helpful in those times, and God even more so.”

"I betrayed my family,” Gabriel said, his voice breaking.

"No, you didn't,” Josiah said gently but forcefully. "Despite what was done to you, despite the threats of those who wished you harm, you risked your life to protect your family, even though telling the truth cost you much suffering.”

Gabriel shook his head. "They'll never trust me again. They shouldn't…” his voice trailed off.

"They love you, Gabriel. Whatever wrong you think you have done against them, your aunt and uncle will forgive you. As for Magdalena…” despite the seriousness of the moment, Josiah couldn't help smiling at the memory of that enchanting little face. "For Magdalena, there's nothing to forgive. She loves you.”

The boy dropped his head into his hands. "What I did was… unforgivable.”

"I'm sure it feels that way right now but it's not true.” Josiah leaned forward, wishing he could take the boy in his arms but knowing such a gesture would be rejected. "There's a verse in the Bible that says, ‘With God all things are possible.' Love is possible, Gabriel. We can reject the love that our family or friends offer, we can reject God's love, but the love remains whether we accept it or not.”

"I don't deserve it, not after what I did.”

The words were muffled by his hands but Josiah heard them. His smile this time held sadness as he spoke from his own long experience. "Love between people can be complicated, but God's love is not. Nor is it based on deserving. None of us deserve it but God loves each one of us, regardless.”

Gabriel shook his head. "Not me. He can't.”

Josiah paused, thinking. After a minute he said, "Are you familiar with what may be the most famous verse in the Bible? John 3:16.” This time Gabriel didn't respond so he continued. "It says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.' A man named John Bunyan who lived in the 1600's said of this verse, and I'm paraphrasing here, that if the name ‘John Bunyan' was included in this verse, so that it read ‘if John Bunyan believes in him he shall not perish but have eternal life,' Bunyan would have assumed the verse was talking about another John Bunyan. But the verse says ‘whoever' believes, and in that ‘whoever' Bunyan saw himself and knew this verse was meant for him. As it's meant for every one of us, every imperfect, fallible human being.” He paused again when he saw the boy wiping his eyes, then went on, more gently.

"You are ‘whoever,' Gabriel. You are one for whom Christ left heaven to come to this earth to be born a human baby, to grow up to be a man who taught, preached, healed, suffered, died a terrible death, and rose again three days later. All for you. He loves you supremely, and nothing you do or say can make him love you less.”

Gabriel bent over, trying to stifle his sobs. Josiah knelt beside the chair, pulling the boy into his arms. "He loves you, son,” he whispered, "and so does your aunt and uncle and Magdalena. All the mistakes you think you've made can't change that.”

It would take more than these few words, Josiah knew, to enable the boy to believe in his heart, to be able to trust that belief. But if he could help Gabriel to even begin to accept the possibility, it would be a beginning, something to build on.


The hours passed slowly for the pair on guard duty, the intermittent rain turning to drizzle, back to rain and then to drizzle again. The only breaks during those hours were the hourly check-ins between Tanner, JD and Larabee.

At the end of another swing around the property, Vin paused as he reached the driveway to take a long look around. He was glad the drizzle had ended – for the moment, anyway – though it remained damp and cold. More importantly, the heavy cloud cover had begun to break up and moonlight shone intermittently down on his surroundings, definitely an improvement over the utter darkness earlier.

All was quiet. Dawn was approaching and he looked forward to the shift change in another half-hour. Then it would be Nathan and Josiah's turn and he looked forward to a little sleep, warm and dry inside.

Vin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He hadn't seen or heard anything throughout the night during his patrolling of the area. There had been nothing alarming to be seen or heard.

At that moment instinct suddenly spiked a warning.

He reached under his jacket for his weapon, feeling a new itch in the middle of his back, not a physical sensation but something else. Something he had learned years ago to pay attention to.

Tanner held his breath, the better to listen, but only silence came back to him. His gaze traveled slowly around, taking in the driveway, the small herd of vehicles parked off to the side of the monastery and hidden by the curve of the road. The guest house windows were all dark now except for the kitchen window.

His head turned as he took in the woods surrounding the clearing. The cold, damp air enhanced the scent of the pine trees and sharpened his senses. There was nothing to catch his attention, nothing to raise the hairs on the back of his neck.

But something did.

After a tense moment of fruitless listening, Vin dropped to his stomach. He brushed aside some gravel and pressed his ear against the soft ground, closing his eyes, the better to concentrate. Contrary to Hollywood, he knew better than to expect to hear someone walking around. But it was a fact that the ground could transmit sound waves, and heavy vehicles could cause a vibration through the ground that could be heard at a distance.

He listened intently while the seconds passed, before raising up and brushing the mud off his face. Nothing.

After a look around, he jogged quickly down the long driveway until he reached the curve in the road, then he dropped down again to press an ear against the surface. His entire body went rigid when he heard what he had feared, the faint rumble of passing vehicles on the highway.

Damn it to hell!

It could have been perfectly innocent traffic passing by. But in this isolated spot, at this time of the night, Tanner had no doubt it was Chaney's people. How they had found out where the Reyes' family was, he had no idea. Not that it mattered now.

Swallowing a curse, Vin jumped up and raced back up the driveway. As he neared the parked vehicles he increased his pace, only to slip in the mud and fall to his knees. Swearing under his breath he started to rise – and froze.

His jeep was parked twenty feet away and water had pooled in a shallow depression underneath. Reflected in the water was a faint red gleam.

Vin leaped to his feet and ran straight for the jeep. Dropping to his knees again, this time deliberately, he wriggled underneath, heedless of the water and mud. There, fastened to the undercarriage of the jeep, just inside the left rear tire, was a small, metal box, a tiny, steady red light gleaming on its side.

Son of a bitch!

Chris, we got trouble!

He yanked the tracking device off and was about to smash it to the ground when he stopped himself. Instead, clutching it in one hand, Vin adjusted his mouthpiece and said, softly but urgently, "JD, get back to the house!”

A few seconds later, JD popped around the far side. Already half-way to the guest house, Vin gestured sharply. The younger agent nodded and disappeared, while Vin raced for the door. He shoved it open with such force it would have banged against the wall, but he caught it before it could. Just as he stepped inside he felt JD behind him.

Chris was already on his feet facing the door, hand on his weapon, having been warned by their connection. Josiah stood a couple feet away, looking from the sharpshooter to their team leader. Before either of them could speak, Tanner tossed over the small device. Larabee caught it; one look was all he needed and his lips thinned in anger.

"It was stuck on my jeep,” Vin snarled, barely keeping his voice down. "The bastards 've been trackin' me. They're close.”

Chris glared down at the device, his hand tightening around it. Then, like Vin, he stopped himself. If they destroyed it, the signal would break off and the enemy would know they had been discovered. Better to let them think Team Seven was unaware of their approach.


Five minutes later the rest of their teammates were awake and standing around the kitchen island. One look at the tracking device was all the others needed to understand.

"I heard 'em headin' up the highway,” Vin explained.

"Toward the lake,” Josiah said with certainty.

Chris gave a short, sharp nod. "Then they'll be coming overland.”

"More covert,” Tanner noted. "But city slickers ain't gonna find it easy.”

"True,” Ezra said, "however, the topography will enable a larger assault force than one approaching via the road leading to the driveway. They may also be aware that it would be a simple matter for us to set up an ambush for anyone attempting to use the road as an entry point.”

Nathan frowned. "The only way they could know that is if they've already familiar with this place, and we only found out about it yesterday.”

"It don't matter now,” Tanner snapped. "They're comin' and we need to get movin' to stop 'em.”

Chris's gaze traveled around the group. Ezra and JD were the only real "city slickers” on the team but they both had hiking and camping experience. Both knew their way around in the wilderness. Josiah, Nathan, Buck and Chris all had military training and experience working in hostile conditions. As for Vin…

If the situation weren't so serious, Larabee would have been tempted to smile. He would match the Texan against a whole damn military platoon. Chaney's goons might be shooters, but he doubted many, if any, of them knew their way around wilderness such as in these mountains.

His eyes met Vin's. He recognized controlled anger in those blue eyes along with confidence. They both knew what was needed. Words were unnecessary. Except… "Keep in touch,” Chris ordered.

Tanner nodded and left, this time carrying his rifle. He heard the door close quietly behind him but all his attention was now focused outward. His team was counting on him to provide intel and come hell or high water that was exactly what he was going to do.

There was no way to know if the vehicles he had heard earlier composed the entire enemy force or if more were involved. He remembered what Josiah had said about it taking approximately a half-hour to hike from the monastery to the lake. Vin doubted that many of Chaney's thugs were wilderness-savvy so it would likely take them longer. Then again, he'd never gone wrong planning for worst-case scenarios.

Only one way to know sure.

Vin moved sure-footedly through the forest, watching where he stepped, listening hard, eyes searching for anything out of the ordinary. The rifle rested easily in his arms, a familiar and comfortable weight. But he doubted that he would use it, or the SIG in the holster beneath his jacket or the small back-up pistol in one of his boots. Staying covert meant maintaining silence. It was the weapon sheathed in his other boot, a wicked looking, sharp-bladed knife, that was most likely to be put into play.

In wartime he wouldn't hesitate. But this wasn't wartime and he didn't plan on using it if he could avoid it. Keeping a low profile was what was needed. The closer he got to the enemy, the more quiet he needed to be.

He could feel the air moving easily through his lungs, his body responding without effort to the demands he was putting on it. Despite the danger and knowledge of an impending attack, he felt ready for whatever was coming.

Even though he took his time, moving with caution, Vin was able to cover ground relatively quickly. As he traveled he kept a mental note of how much ground he was covering. His communication gear was good for five miles, which should cover him. A walk that took a half-hour could be anything between a mile and two miles, depending on the terrain and the experience of the person walking. These mountains were mainly untouched by humans, and anyone trying to go cross-country on foot wasn't going to find it easy, especially if they had little experience in the wilderness.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, Vin was able to move more swiftly, sure-footed, aware of his surroundings and concerned only for sounds that didn't belong. Periodically, he glanced at the sky, still filled with ominously dark and heavy clouds. Ordinarily, the beginnings of sunrise would be lightening the sky by now, but not this morning.

Tanner stepped carefully over fallen limbs, around the bushes that blocked his way, ducking under branches that drooped down across his path. It was a natural obstacle course, and he was reminded of the far tougher obstacle course he'd had to survive in Ranger School.

Relatively speaking, this "course” was a piece of cake, especially as it was set in his favorite environment. Despite the heavy underbrush, he continued with increasing speed. Only when he calculated he had gone a full mile did he stop, make sure his radio was turned down, and softly confirm with Larabee where he was and that he hadn't encountered any hostiles.

Hearing all was still quiet at the guest house, Vin went on, relieved both by the news and what it meant – their suspicion was correct, the enemy was coming in cross-country. Which meant he would be the first line of defense.

His lips tightened. He knew he would able to get the drop on those he ran into, but that wasn't his job. His job was intel, and for that he had to remain undetected.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, he stopped in his tracks. Ahead he heard someone stumbling through some bushes, accompanied by some curses.

"Shut up!”

The angry words were spoken in a low voice, but the sound carried. It was enough for Vin to pinpoint where it was coming from – northwest, maybe thirty yards in front of him.

Tanner slid silently to the left, stepping even more carefully. He really wanted an idea of how many were coming before he returned to the guest house. With that in mind, he moved forward with even greater caution. After a few minutes, he could hear them more clearly, stumbling footsteps, wet underbrush scraping against bodies forcing their way through.


They were carrying small flashlights, keeping them pointed at the ground but still startling bright to Vin's night-adapted eyes. Worse – for the bad guys – using flashlights would ensure their own vision would be less than it could have been without that artificial assistance.

Vin spared a moment for one disgusted thought – amateurs! – before he quickly counted the small beams of light. There were ten of 'em, but that wasn't all. Behind those carrying the lights, he could make out dimmer, more indistinct figures, one, two…four.

Beyond numbers was one more fact that increased Vin's heart rate. In the backwash of the lights he could make out some of their weapons.

Son of a bitch!

After the first shock, he wondered at his surprise. The reason the ATF had been after Chaney was his illegal arms dealing. Naturally he would have access to serious weapons.

Most of the enemy were carrying M-16's, but he also saw a couple AK-47's and one…damn, it looked like a Remington 700 Tactical AAC-SD.

Vin drew in a deep breath and began to retreat. His team needed to know ASAP that they were going up against a bunch of major-league assault rifles. They would be sitting ducks if they stayed in the guest house.

As soon as he was out of hearing range, Vin moved more quickly, as fast as he dared go through the heavy underbrush. He kept track of his surroundings and when he was less than a hundred feet from the monastery, he spoke softly into his mike.

"Comin' in.”

When he reached the guest house the door opened and he slipped inside, shutting it immediately behind him. The kitchen light had been turned off; the room was dark but he could see his teammates were almost in the same positions as when he had left, except for Nathan who stood in the hall doorway and Josiah who was half-in and half-out of the dining room.

"Well?” Chris demanded.

Vin reported in quick, clipped sentences. It took only a minute. When he finished, he locked eyes with Larabee.

"We gotta get the family outta here.”

"Where?” Buck said.

"Barn,” Vin and JD said simultaneously.

Chris nodded. The barn was big, with lots of hiding places and several exits. If the enemy got too close, they would just take the Reyes' family out the back way. But that was only a last resort that hopefully wouldn't be necessary.

"Josiah, Nathan, get the family moving, now!” As the two agents disappeared down the hall, he turned to the rest of his team.

"From what Tanner says, the best time to catch them will be as they're coming out of the forest.”

Vin nodded. "They're still pretty bunched up. They're not gonna start spreadin' out until they have some open ground. With their firepower, we can't let 'em get set up.” A fretful whimper drifted down the hall to them. He glanced in that direction and his lips tightened, before he turned his gaze back to his team leader.

"I'm gonna head west and get behind 'em.”

"And I'll go east to get around the other side of them,” JD said immediately.

Buck frowned. "Wait a minute – ”

"It makes sense,” Josiah said smoothly. "We'll be able to catch the attackers front and back.”

Chris nodded while his thoughts raced. Catching the assault force off-guard was their best bet. His only hesitation was allowing his youngest agent to take one of the most dangerous positions. He looked at JD who returned his gaze, his hazel eyes determined.

"Don't worry, Chris,” Vin said easily, while giving Buck a reassuring look, "I'll keep an eye on JD.”

JD gave the sharpshooter a hurt look, to which Vin responded with a wink. Chris caught it although Buck was in the wrong position to notice. The kid relaxed and Larabee gave a short nod.

"Get moving,” he ordered.

The two youngest disappeared out the door and he turned to his remaining teammates, pretending he didn't notice Wilmington's worried expression. "This is what we're going to do.”


As soon as they were outside. JD turned to Vin. "You think I can do this, don't you?”

Tanner grinned. "Hell, JD, I know ya can. I just figured sayin' that would shut Buck up, at least long enough for us to get outta there.”

JD grinned, the anxiety fading from his expression. "Okay, then.”

"Watch yer footin',” Vin advised, adjusting his headset.

"No problem.” JD gave him a jaunty wave and headed off.

Vin turned and went in the opposite direction, making his way through the dense underbrush, ignoring the raindrops that fell from the branches above. Immediately ahead he saw a circle of small trees, almost invisible behind the overgrown brush. Yeah, that'd work just fine.

Even as he slipped between the trees, he heard a mutter just ahead. Tanner ducked down, welcoming the enveloping bush. He shifted his rifle before raising one hand to the radio and risked a few whispered words to Larabee.

"In position. Enemy ten yards away.”

A second later he heard JD, barely audible through the radio. "Ditto.”

A few minutes later he heard the sounds of large bodies forcing their ways through the underbrush and around immovable trees. He gritted his teeth, not moving as one of the figures stumbled past, only a few feet away.

The dim lighting made visibility difficult, but Vin was able to see enough to confirm his earlier estimate. Fifteen. All armed with automatic assault rifles.

Tanner took a deep breath and let it out slowly, lifting his rifle into position


"All secure.”

Larabee gave one click in response to Josiah's soft words, waited, then clicked again. With the civilians safely – or as safe as he could make them – out of the way and protected by Josiah and Nathan, he could focus on the job at hand.

With Tanner and Dunne moving behind Chaney's thugs, Chris spread out his remaining team members, with Buck and Ezra on either side of the monastery. Chris himself was ready to move to whatever direction proved the best. Providing everything worked out, their would-be attackers would find themselves in a nasty little trap.

Suddenly, Vin's voice came through, urgency underlining his whispered warning. "In position. Enemy ten yards away.”

Larabee tightened his grip on his pistol, shifting his weight. Despite the temptation he couldn't have his team start shooting without giving the invaders a chance to surrender. He had to give them a warning, and he knew his voice would allow Chaney's men to pinpoint his position …which meant he had to be ready to move as soon as he spoke.

He slipped around the building and moved out of the clearing to settle near the guest house, where he crouched down. People, even those who knew better, tended to shoot high. Best to give the bastards as small a target as possible.

The last few minutes of waiting were always the hardest. Larabee was acutely aware of his men spread out on the property, the Reyes family hopefully secure in the barn's loft…a lot of lives depending on him not only planning right but executing his plan as intended. If he was wrong about any part…no, not going there.

Two quiet, quick clicks came through his headset and Chris's grip tightened on his weapon.

Show time.

* * * * * * *

It was almost a shame.

Watching as the enemy stumbled past on their way to murder an innocent family, Vin was in perfect position to take them down, almost before any of them knew what was happening.

But this wasn't a war, at least not an official one. So war-time tactics were not an option.

He aimed his rifle at the center of one man's back, then moved to another, then another.

So easy.

And the threat to the Reyes' family would be over.

Tanner swallowed the impulse and let them go on.

Another twenty feet and they would reach the edge of the clearing. Vin knew Larabee was planning to yell out as soon as the group appeared. He strongly doubted anyone was going to surrender.

At which point, Vin Tanner would do what he had been trained to do.

He waited one minutes, two minutes, until he knew the first attackers in the assault were just about to reach the clearing, then gave two quick clicks on the radio before raising his rifle again and pointing it at the closest target.

* * * * * * *


Larabee waited until the tall, burly figure in the lead got two steps out into the clearing.

"ATF! Drop your weapons!”

He was utterly unsurprised to see the thug wheel in his direction, Uzi swinging with him.

Chris fired, saw the man drop, and dodged to the side to avoid return fire.

Around him the explosion of weapons resounded from every direction.

Bullets zinged! by, impacting and sometimes ricocheting off the building Larabee sheltered behind.

He flinched despite himself at the closeness of the impacts, and felt/heard something pass by so close it stung his shoulder.

Larabee pressed harder against the wall while aiming and firing with cold precision.

Screams were now coming from the assault force under the unexpected attack. Even as some of them fell, others were trying to spread out and still others attempted to retreat back into the forest.

But more distant fire told Larabee that Vin and JD were in position and doing exactly what they were supposed to.

* * * * * * *

It was practically like shooting fish in a barrel.

In the midst of the pitched battle, Vin realized he'd been an ATF agent long enough for it to overcome his instincts and training as a sniper.

It would have been easy to kill his enemy, one after the other.

Instead, he chose to aim low, shooting them in the legs, taking them down and – so long as they dropped their weapons – rendered helpless.

Those who kept firing, even after being wounded, were another matter.

Tanner fired with deadly accuracy, barely aware of bullets blazing by him, some wide of the mark, others finding the trees behind which he sheltered.

Despite the superior fire power of the enemy, they had no chance against Larabee's trap. Half of them were now on the ground, and suddenly one of them threw down his weapon and raised his hands.

"Okay, okay!” he yelled.

That was apparently enough to convince the remaining enemy to drop their own weapons and surrender.

* * * * * * *

As soon as they saw the attackers weaponless, the members of Team Seven held their fire.

The sudden cessation of firepower was almost deafening.

Chris kept his weapon pointed unwaveringly at their attackers while he spoke into his headset.

"Tanner, Dunne, move in.”

He had barely finished speaking when he saw a dark figure slipping through the trees to come up behind their attackers.

* * * * * * *

Vin hadn't waited for Larabee's instructions. As soon as he saw the last man drop his weapon, he moved forward.

"Hands on your heads,” he ordered as he approached, then waited until those still standing obeyed. "Nobody move,” he warned as he began grabbing the weapons and setting them out of reach.

His eyes moved ceaselessly about the group, alert for any activity, but they appeared to be thoroughly cowed. Several prone figures were groaning but two weren't moving and he didn't know if they were alive or dead. There was no way to check on them now, not until the entire team was present to ensure things remained under control.

Though he remained focused on the would-be attackers, Vin was aware that JD had not responded to Chris's call. With each second that passed, his concern grew.

With the last weapon secured, Vin said, "All clear.” As soon as the rest of his teammates were present, he was going to find JD.

* * * * * * *

Larabee moved fast, but as quickly as he moved, Ezra and Buck were with him when he reached Vin. They didn't have enough handcuffs to go around, but Ezra, with his usual foresight, had a pocketful of plastic ties that did the job. The thugs that were uninjured were made to sit down several feet away, so that those who were hurt could be checked out and treated.

Half-way through this work, Chris realized Tanner had disappeared. He was annoyed the sniper hadn't given him a heads-up but not concerned. If there had been anything to be worried about, he was sure the Texas would have told him.

* * * * * * *

Vin moved through the forest, weapon ready…just in case.

He headed for the last spot he had seen JD firing from in as straight a path as the trees allowed. It wasn't until he figured he was within a few yards that he spoke softly.

"JD? It's Vin.”

Silence was only his answer and his heart skipped a beat. Then, weakly,


That was enough to increase Vin's speed, and a few seconds later he cut around a massive tree to find JD lying on the ground, eyes closed in a face covered in blood.

The sight stopped Vin's heart, an old, horrifying memory leaping out to slap him in the face, and freezing him in place for an interminable few seconds. Then he managed to shrug it away and dropped to his knees beside the still figure.


JD opened his eyes and smiled feebly. "S'okay, I wasn't hit.”

"Then what the hell?” Vin ran a gentle hand over JD's head, and suddenly he found the wound, a small jagged cut on his forehead, just below his hairline.

"Just a damn splinter from a tree,” JD grumbled, his voice a little stronger.

Vin's heart started beating again. "Sure 'nuff,” he said in relief, his exploring fingers confirming JD's words. "Probably one 'a the bullets hit a branch and shattered it. Your head got in th' way.”

"Everyone okay?” JD asked.

The sound of something large crashing through the forest brought Vin to alert, snatching up his weapon, only to relax again when Josiah appeared, breathless, his clothes disarranged from passing branches, but in one piece.

"JD, Vin!” he exclaimed.

"We're okay,” Tanner said before JD's blood-covered features could panic the big man. "JD just got hit by a splinter. But we could use Nathan.”

"Oh, hell,” JD groaned. "All I need is to wash my face and put a band aid on.”

Vin stopped him from wiping at the blood with a dirty hand. "Ya ain't exactly sanitary right now, JD. If we don't let Nathan take care 'a ya, Chris'll have all our heads.”

Josiah rumbled a laugh. "JD, you listen to Vin. You know he's right.”

"Damn,” JD sighed. "Buck's never going to let me hear the end of this.”

"JD!” the bellow was distant but coming closer. Rapidly.

"Uh-oh,” Tanner said, grinning at the younger man.

"Brace yourself, brother,” Josiah added, smiling at JD. "Your mother-hen is fast approaching.”

Vin rose and extended a hand. "You probably wanna meet him standin' up or he'll be sure you're dying.”

"Not sure that'll help,” JD said on another sigh as he reached for the proffered hand. "When he sees – ”

New sounds of crashing through the forest broke over them, seconds before Buck Wilmington burst into view. His frantic gaze raced over the trio and his eyes widened until they looked as though they were about to burst out of his head.

"JD! My god!”

"It's not – ”

JD's explanation was cut off when Buck swung on Vin, blood suffusing his face. "You sonofabitch! This is what you call looking after him?”

The verbal attack stunned Tanner, stunned them all. Surprisingly, JD was the first to speak.

"Wait, Buck. I'm okay – ”

"This is how you look after your teammates!” Buck roared, heedless of Dunn's words. "Stupid, useless – ” Emotion choked off his tirade, even as terror-driven rage sent a fist smashing into Tanner's face, knocking the smaller man backwards.

"Buck!” the cry came simultaneously from JD and Josiah, but it was too late.

Vin lay unmoving, stunned. After a minute he got slowly to his knees, then climbed back to his feet. For a moment he just looked at the furious man who glared back at him as the others stared in shock. Vin's expression was blank, unfathomable. Then, without a word, he turned and disappeared into the forest.

"Vin!” JD called after him belatedly, scrambling to his feet. "Wait…” his voice trailed off as he stared at the place where Tanner had vanished. Suddenly he swung around to face his teammate.

"You're the stupid sonofabitch!” he yelled, just before hitting Wilmington square in the chest with all his strength.

An unprepared Buck stumbled backwards and fell hard.

Josiah stared between a stunned Wilmington, prone on the ground, and a furious JD standing over him, then looked into the woods. But there was no sign of Tanner.

"Dear Lord,” he murmured.

Without warning, a new voice, an all-too-familiar voice, snarled behind them, "What the hell is going on!”

* * * * * * *

Night falling outside darkened Chris's office but it wasn't as dark as his mood.

He hadn't had time to take in the scene he had walked into this morning, with JD squaring off with Buck and Josiah standing by. The fact that Tanner had left the scene without telling him had angered Larabee, but he'd had no time to follow up on it. Between wrapping up the bust, dealing with the Judge and talking to the Chief of Police about the leak in the DPD, it had been a hectic day.

Despite his earlier concerns about his teammates' emotional involvement in this case, they had all acquitted themselves well, or so he had thought this morning. It was only a short while ago when he finally returned to the office and found Vin absent, JD still clearly furious and refusing to talk to a hang-dog Buck, that Chris realized he had a problem on his hands.

Even before returning to the office, before discovering there was a problem, Chris had been intending to talk to Vin. He'd known the Texan was already upset with himself because he hadn't thought to check his jeep for tracking devices prior to coming up to the monastery. But, hell, no one had thought about the possibility, and as team leader, Chris was still kicking himself over that lapse. He'd known that Chaney had targeted the Reyes' family because of the family's close relationship with Tanner. So when the family had disappeared, it was logical to assume that the arms dealer would have focused on Vin in an effort to track them down. Which was exactly what had happened.

Nonetheless, they had survived, the bad guys were behind bars, and Chaney's trial was going forward, with Vin's devastating testimony sure to keep the man in prison for the rest of his life or on death row.

Chris had planned to talk the whole mess through with Vin until the sharpshooter was in a better frame of mind. But that idea had gone by the wayside when he discovered the bigger problem now threatening to tear his team apart.

It had taken a private interview with first Josiah, then JD, and finally Buck, to discover exactly what had happened. Chris's first inclination was to bust Wilmington in the chops, but the desire faded quickly.

He hadn't needed Josiah's insight to know where Buck was coming from, why he had reacted the way he had. Buck didn't know, had had no way of knowing, that his words had struck Vin where he was most vulnerable.

Only Chris knew Vin's background. He knew the Texan was still haunted by the thought that he had failed his Ranger team during that last, tragic mission. So he was all too aware that Buck's words had unwittingly hurt Vin far more than his fists ever could.

Chris rubbed tired eyes and blew out a frustrated breath. As much as he wanted to go to Vin, to try to reassure him, he knew it wasn't his place. Without meaning to, Buck had called up Vin's darkest demons and it would have to be Buck to find a way to lay them to rest again.

Larabee had known Buck Wilmington since high school, and he knew he was a good man. A good man and the most loyal friend anyone could ever have. But there was more to the man than high spirits and charm. He had a temper, too, although it didn't show itself too often. On those occasions when he did lose his temper, Buck could be a raging bull, mowing down everyone and everything in his path without thought or reason.

As he had done – physically as well as verbally – to Vin this morning.

"Hell,” Chris muttered, staring at the wall without seeing it.

Buck had assaulted Vin which could lead to some serious charges. Once he had heard the whole story – barring Vin's side – Chris told Buck that he was going to suspend him for two weeks, without pay, and put a written reprimand in his file. Any additional penalties would hinge on Tanner filing an official complaint.

Chris knew he wouldn't. He also knew that, notwithstanding Buck's reaction to JD's thankfully minor injury this morning, the big man was now regretting his actions and words; he had even agreed to the suspension without one murmur.

So far, so good. But the most important issue still remained to be dealt with…Buck making amends to Vin.

Ordinarily, Chris wouldn't have doubted that Tanner would accept the rogue's heartfelt apology. But because Buck's words had ripped open the still unhealed wounds in the depths of Vin's heart, Larabee worried how the Texan would react.

Once again the urge to go to Vin rose, and once again Chris pushed it down. He had to give the two men time to fix things between them.

Damn. He hated waiting.

* * * * * * *

Vin paced slowly around his apartment. Since he rarely spent much time in the place, he had never minded its small size. Today he minded because that small size limited his ability to pace.

If the Reyes' family had been in their apartment, he would have gone to visit. Time with Magdalena would have soothed his sore heart. But they weren't in their apartment. Josiah had moved them to another improvised safe house, and only Chris knew where it was. Not because the rest of the team couldn't be trusted, but simply for convenience' sake.

Vin thoroughly approved of the caution, but it left him feeling aimless. He still had to write up his report, but he couldn't bear the thought of going into the office. Couldn't bear coming face to face with Buck…or with the rest of his teammates who might be feeling the same toward Vin as Buck did.

He stopped in the middle of his small living room and took a deep, shuddering breath. His thoughts turned back to this morning, to his first sight of JD after the firefight, his first sight of the young man whose face had been a blood-stained mask. In that instant, in the midst of surging terror, JD's form had suddenly morphed into Andy, Vin's best friend from his Ranger days, Andy who had died in Vin's arms as the result of another firefight.

It had only lasted for a blink, but it was enough to tear away the curtain in Vin's mind behind which he normally consigned his worst memories. Although only lasting a few seconds, the flashback had shaken him badly.

Maybe if it hadn't happened, he would have been better prepared to deal with Buck's frantic and furious arrival, better able to distract or calm his teammate before everything went to hell.

But it did happen. Even as he was struggling to mentally right himself, Buck's attack had knocked him still deeper into the nightmare of pain and blood and anguish and loss Tanner had experienced that day he had lost almost his entire Ranger team. And back into the abyss of guilt that had haunted him ever since.

Vin squeezed his eyes closed but it didn't help him to shut away the old emotions – now back in all their power and condemnation– that had held him captive since this morning. Abruptly he became aware that his lashes were wet, and he swiped angrily at his eyes.

Knock it off, Tanner. JD's okay.

Tanner knew this was true. Despite the young man's terrifying visage this morning, the injury had actually been superficial. Nathan had probably been able to take care of it with just a few minutes' effort.

But that wasn't the real problem.

Vin had meant what he said to JD this morning - about reassuring Buck that he, Tanner, would look after the younger man - simply to get Buck to let them leave without an argument. In the midst of the firefight, there was no way Vin could have kept JD from being hurt. He knew that. Hell, JD knew that, and he would have been insulted if Vin had treated him as less than an equal, as someone who needed to be protected. JD had been doing his job as a federal agent and he had done it well.

The entire team knew how close Buck and JD were, how Buck looked on the young agent more as a brother than a teammate. It was no surprise that Buck had been upset that JD had been injured, and certainly at first glance JD had appeared to be hurt much worse than he had been.

Vin gently rubbed his cheek where Buck had hit him. He didn't think it was broken, although it still throbbed. And his eye had been swelling all afternoon. Based on the swelling on his face, he figured by now that he had one hell of a black eye, though he had deliberately avoided looking in the mirror.

Despite his face's soreness, it was minor compared to the ache in his heart.

All day he had been going back and forth in his mind, trying to persuade himself that Buck's words were inspired by fear and his infamous, open-mouth-insert-foot habit. But he kept coming back to the same question. Was his rationale really true or did Buck's words actually reflect what he thought, deep down, about Vin? And if Buck thought that, what about the rest of his teammates? Did they have similar thoughts?

When Vin had told Chris a few months ago about his last mission as an Army Ranger that had gone so horribly wrong, he hadn't thought to ask him to keep it to himself. There had been no reason to. Vin had known Chris would never breathe a word of his confession to anyone else.

But maybe one or more of his other teammates had somehow learned the truth behind why Vin Tanner left the Army so abruptly. He didn't know how that could've happened, but it was possible. All of them were smart and experienced investigators. Yeah, it was possible. And…if they'd found out… maybe that was why Buck had said what he'd said. Maybe he'd really believed the words he'd said.

He closed his eyes again against the despair welling up within him. Was there something, after all, he could have done to somehow ensure JD remained uninjured?

Was there something he could have done to protect his Ranger teammates from the ambush that had cost almost all of them their lives?

"Damn it,” he whispered, swiping away fresh moisture from his eyes.

He had gone round and round with this question for months – years – and still couldn't come up with an answer his heart could accept.

Was it true? Were his deepest fears, harshest guilt, true? He had failed his teammates and they had died because of his failure.

If that was true, then it was possible he had screwed up again today, that he had overlooked something, missed something, and JD had suffered because of it, because he had failed again.

Anguish warred with guilt, overwhelming him, making breathing impossible.

Without warning his legs gave way and he found himself on his knees.

In his mind's eye he was suddenly surrounded by his fallen teammates. They stood silently, bloodied, mutilated, as he had last seen them. In the center stood Andy, his eyes dead and unseeing yet searing into the team's sniper.

"Ah'm sorry!” Vin wept, doubling over, wrapping his arms around himself, feeling as if he was being torn apart by the condemnation of those he had loved, had sworn to protect, and had failed.

* * * * * * * *

Buck Wilmington parked in his usual spot at the Federal Building and sat dispiritedly. He'd spent a mostly sleepless night, going back again and again over the events of yesterday morning. Unfortunately, every time he did he saw himself behaving like a stupid horse's ass.

If the night of kicking himself over and over hadn't been bad enough, the memory of JD's blistering tirade had made it even worse.

Buck had never heard his roommate explode like that, and that the explosion had been focused on Buck Wilmington – the memory still made him wince.

JD had blasted him almost immediately, as soon as Vin disappeared at the scene of the bust yesterday morning. Refusing to accompany Wilmington back to the office, once he had arrived with Nathan, JD had utterly ignored him, refusing even to look in his direction, much less speak.

Their other teammates made no effort to interfere. They had stayed strictly out of the way, and Buck was unhappily certain that they were on JD's side – and Vin's.

Maybe because it was so unexpected from JD – maybe because Wilmington himself began to feel guilty about his words and actions toward Vin as soon as he cooled down – but JD's furious rebuke had cut deeply into Buck.

Worst of all was JD's vanishing after the reports were finished. As he stormed out of the office, Buck had managed to get up enough nerve to ask him where he was going. JD turned around with a jerk, hazel eyes cold as Wilmington had never seen them before, and spoke his first words since his earlier explosion, in a biting tone. "Anywhere you aren't.”

That was the last Buck had seen him. Buck hadn't had the guts to call when JD didn't come home last night; he was sure the younger man wouldn't have answered. He only hoped he would find him in the office this morning.

Buck rubbed his face hard. When in the hell was he going to learn to think before he opened his big fat mouth? He didn't know Vin's history, but he was aware something bad had happened during his time with the Rangers. And Buck was very aware of how seriously the sharpshooter took his responsibility in watching out for his teammates during their busts.

So why – WHY – had he said what he'd said? And why – WHY – had he actually hit –

He cringed again at the memory. His thoughtless words and actions had badly hurt Vin. He'd seen that the moment it happened but been too angry to recognize it until afterwards. And he knew he'd hurt their friendship.

Maybe beyond repair?

The thought sickened him, especially considering he had no one but himself to blame if it proved to be true.

"Shit,” he muttered unhappily, wishing he was flexible enough to kick himself in the ass for real.

He knew he owned the Texan a big apology. And damn, but he was lousy at apologizing.

"Quit stalling, Wilmington,” he muttered to himself. "Get your useless self up there and do what you gotta do.”

Technically, he shouldn't be here because of his suspension. But he needed to see JD, ensure he was okay. Most importantly, he needed to talk to Vin…and somehow make amends. How, he had no idea, but he was sure Chris would understand.

His heart sank even further at the thought of facing Tanner, and he reluctantly shoved the door open.

Time to face the music.

* * * * * *

Although Vin normally loved riding his motorcycle, this morning he regretted his decision to ride it to the federal building. If he'd been in his jeep, he could have stayed in it for a while, hidden from any interested eyes, until he was able to get up the nerve to go up to the office. But on his motorcycle he was too visible, and the security cameras would certainly pick him up. If he stayed put, sure enough some security types would come to see what was going on.

There was no escape. He got reluctantly off his Harley, made sure it was locked up, then headed for the elevators. His palms were damp with sweat; his heart was pounding. Without thinking, he reached inside his jacket and felt his ID and badge. Would he be leaving the building with them?

* * * * * * *

Every time the elevator dinged an arrival, Buck found himself wincing.

Damn, but he didn't want to do this.

But he had to. For Vin's sake, for his own sake, for the sake of the team.

Even though the rest of Team Seven was present, Buck had never felt so alone in the office. Unlike JD, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra had greeted him normally enough, but the usual back and forth joshing was sadly missing. Worst of all, as far as Buck was concerned, JD remained cold and distant.

Buck was at a loss how to get his young "brother” back. He figured that wouldn't happen until he'd made things right with Vin.

If he could.

Chris had called him into his office as soon as he came in and came straight to the point. "I'm assuming you're here to talk to Vin?”

Buck wanted to squirm. "Uh, yeah. But…”

"But what?”

"I…uh, hell, Chris, I don't know what to say.” He gave his old friend an almost desperate look.

Larabee stared at him, but his eyes didn't look quite so cold, nor was his tone quite so forbidding. "You better figure it out and fast. How about starting with you're sorry?”

"I am, damn it, I really am,” Buck admitted. "But I…I'm just so damn lousy at…” he sighed gustily and ran a rough hand through his hair. "It's a hell of a lot easier to just, you know…laugh it off.”

At the forlorn note in the big man's voice, Chris sighed too and leaned back in his chair. "From what Josiah and JD told me you said to Vin, laughing it off is not going to be good enough.”

Buck leaned forward, dropping his head into his hands. "I still can't believe I said that to him,” he muttered. "I can't believe I…” he shook his head helplessly.

Larabee's eyes narrowed. "I know you were upset at the time, but I'm wondering where those words come from. Do you believe what you said? Maybe deep down?”

"Hell, no!” Buck jerked his head up again, eyes wide. "I trust Vin, all the way. I was just…when I first saw JD he looked like…like…” his voice dropped, the words squeezing themselves out. "Like he'd been shot in the head. And I…I just…lost it.”

Chris almost groaned, though the words only confirmed his earlier suspicion. He'd figured Buck's over-the-top reaction had been triggered by something like that, the apparent realization of his biggest fear, the loss of the young man he loved like a brother. Add that to the big man's habit of speaking – not to mention acting – before thinking and you had one sorry recipe for disaster. Which had come to pass yesterday morning.

"You screwed up big-time,” he said matter-of-factly. "It's going to take a big-time apology to make things right. You know that.”

It was Buck's turn to lean wearily back in his chair. "Yeah,” he said, almost inaudibly.

After he was gone, Chris stared at the wall without seeing it. Buck was going to have to come up to scratch, that's all there was too it. Otherwise…Chris knew there was no way Vin would stay with the team.

His hands clenched into fists. He was not going to lose Tanner.

Then again…it wasn't up to him.

"Hell,” he muttered. Maybe it would be a good idea to slip out of the office for awhile.

* * * * * * *

The elevator dinged again and Buck tensed involuntarily. It could be someone heading to one of the other offices on the floor, but there was only one individual missing from this particular office.

This time he saw a familiar lean figure walk out of the elevator and Buck swallowed hard. He glanced quickly around the office. At the moment he was the only one present except for Nathan who was at the opposite end of the room, rummaging through the storage closet.

Buck wasn't sure if he was glad or sorry the others weren't around. Then all thoughts disappeared as Vin entered the office. Buck winced at the sight of his battered face, swallowed again and stood up.

"Hey, Vin,” he said, and winced inwardly at his jocular tone.

Tanner stopped, his expression unreadable. Several seconds passed before he said quietly, "Buck.”

"Uh…you got a minute?” Idiot, Buck chastised himself. He needed to come up with something better than that. "I mean…I thought…” He stopped again and licked his lips. Before the Texan's expressionless gaze, Buck felt even more uncertain than earlier.

"Look,” he started again, all too aware of the awkwardness of his words. "About what I said, uh, did, out there,” he waved a hand in the air. "I mean, yesterday. You know, when I thought JD was hurt…” he hesitated, hoping for some reaction. When he didn't get any, he took a deep breath and tried to smile. "You know how I get when I think the kid's in trouble.”

Vin stared at him, as if waiting for more, and before that cool blue gaze looking at him out of a badly bruised face, Buck's words deserted him. What in the hell had he been thinking? What had Chris said? For the life of him, he couldn't remember. After an uncomfortable minute that felt much longer, the younger man finally turned and walked away. Buck looked after him unhappily.

"Damn,” he muttered, knowing he had screwed up yet again.

Feeling suddenly adrift, he wasn't sure what to do. Go after Tanner? It was his first thought, one he immediately discarded. Not now, not like this. Not until he had a better idea of what the hell to say.

Coffee, he decided suddenly. He'd get a cup of coffee before returning to his desk. Maybe the caffeine would help him to think…of something.

When he entered the break room he found it empty except for Josiah who was apparently taking a few minutes for himself. He was sitting at the table, reading one of his psychology journals while sipping a cup of coffee. He looked up when Wilmington entered, and Buck was abjectly grateful when the older man greeted him without judgment.

"Thirsty, brother?” His eyes narrowed as he got a good look at his teammate. "Something wrong?”

There was the question of the day, Buck thought with a touch of bitterness. He appreciated Josiah's casualness. Everyone knew what was wrong, but the profiler was giving Wilmington the opportunity to talk or not, as he wished.

Abruptly, Buck realized he needed help with this mess. He blew out a breath, pulled out a chair and slumped down in it. "I screwed up,” he admitted. "And I'm not sure how to make it right.”

Josiah laid his magazine down. "Do you want to talk about it?”

Buck's first instinct was, "Hell, no.” But he swallowed that desire. Instead, he explained haltingly, ending with the words he'd spoken to Vin only a few minutes ago.

"I tried to say I was sorry. Well, not exactly,” he admitted. "I tried to laugh it off. You know, tried to get him to grin and, I dunno, maybe say it was okay, me behaving like a jackass, I mean.”

"Did it work?”

Buck's attempt at a smile faded. "No. He just walked away.”

Josiah nodded slowly. "Do you remember that old saying, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me'?”

"Yeah. Why?”

"It's true words can't break bones, but they can break hearts.”

Buck flinched. Josiah's eyes, darkened by sadness, rested on him. "Justifying, explaining away, or even understanding someone's behavior or words is not the same as apologizing or asking for forgiveness.”

"I, uh… I guess I never thought of it that way.”

The profiler leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. "It's a common perception that if you've hurt someone and then regret it, that other person is just supposed to shrug off the hurt as unimportant, and all will be well. That's not realistic and it's also unhealthy.”

Buck shifted uncomfortably. "What d'ya mean?”

Josiah's gaze turned inward. "Some people think forgiving others means that we deny we've been hurt or pretend that an offense is not important.” He shook his head. "That kind of denial actually works against the healing process because it ignores the real physical or emotional pain that someone else has caused us.” His blue-gray eyes studied the unhappy figure across the table before going on.

"When that happens between friends, the pain is even greater for the wrong committed is actually a betrayal of trust. It can permanently injure a friendship if it's not addressed honestly.”

"Honestly,” Buck repeated, looking pained.

The profiler looked at him compassionately. "If you had thought about it for an hour before you spoke, I don't think you could have found words better designed to hurt Vin. And hitting him only emphasized your words.”

Buck winced again. "Damn it 'Siah, I never meant to… I mean…” he tried for a shrug and a smile but failed at both. "It was JD, you know?”

"I understand your concern for JD. Do you think Vin is less concerned for his wellbeing than you?”

Buck closed his eyes. "No,” he said, almost inaudibly. "I was…I was so...scared when I saw JD on the ground, all bloody, and I thought…” he shuddered, unable to give words to the terror that had washed over him at that moment. "And then, I guess…I mean, I just…just blurted it out. And then…” he stared down at his hand, made a fist, and grimaced, before raising guilty eyes to the profiler. "I've given Chris a hard time because when he gets scared he gets mad, but I did the same thing, didn't I?”

"You already known the answer to that.”

"Yeah.” Buck fell silent, thinking painful thoughts. Finally he sighed. "I need to tell Vin I'm sorry for what I said and did, really sorry, don't I?”

"Do you want to heal the wound that you inflicted on your friendship?” Josiah asked quietly. Buck flinched again and Josiah nodded. After a minute, Buck nodded, too.

* * * * * * *

Hours later, Vin was back in his apartment, feeling as if he was about to explode from frustration and pain and deferred plans.

A day spent doing paper work was a good reason for frustration, but today the paper work had actually been a relief.

After their brief confrontation this morning, Buck had vanished from the office. And as for Chris …

Vin blew out a breath, feeling his fists clench.

After that fruitless encounter with Wilmington, Vin had decided to face down Larabee in his office and resign from the team. It was almost a relief when he'd come to that decision, but his plan was squelched because Chris had also left the office, departing for parts unknown. Nor had he come back.

Although this wasn't the first time Larabee had been out of the office for the day, this time Vin was suspicious. He'd been trying not to give away anything through their connection, but he figured that Chris had a good idea of what he was thinking and feeling. That being the case, Chris making himself unavailable was a good way to keep Vin from turning in his badge.

It was a temporary move – they both knew it. If push came to shove, Tanner could take his resignation straight to Travis. He didn't want to do that. As painful as it would be to give his badge to Chris, he figured his team leader – and friend – deserved the opportunity to say whatever he might want to say…although the thought of what Larabee might say made him cringe.

Vin knew what was going on. Chris was being elusive because he wanted Wilmington and Tanner to get together and say whatever needed to be said to resolve the problem, to ensure the team stayed together.

He tried to swallow but his throat was too tight. If only it was that simple.

It had been such a strange day. Everyone had tried to act normal, but it hadn't felt quite…right. As for JD…Vin smiled fondly. The team's youngest member had made his loyalty clear – he was on Vin Tanner's side. Period.

His smile died. He didn't want what had happened between him and Buck coming between JD and Buck.

If only Chris had stayed in the office today… it could all be over. Vin could be getting ready to leave town now – the thought made his throat hurt.

"Damn you, Chris,” he muttered.

A knock on the door turned him around in surprise. Had Larabee decided not to hide anymore?

He strode quickly to the door and yanked it open, ready for a sarcastic retort about people playing hide and seek. The words froze on his lips at the sight of Buck Wilmington standing there.

Buck smiled uncomfortably, uncertainty in every line of his body and his expression. "Hi, Vin. Uh, can I – I mean, can I – we…talk?”

Being so unexpectedly in the big man's presence brought all the pain and uncertainty of the past two days flooding back. His hand tightened on the door knob because it felt like the only thing holding him up. But despite the hurt, despite the fresh feelings of new – and old – guilt that Buck's harsh words had inspired, Vin couldn't shut the door on the man who he'd thought was a friend.

"'kay,” he said, stepping back to allow Wilmington inside and closing the door behind him. He had no idea what to say and fell back on the familiar. "Want some coffee?”

"No, thanks.” Buck smiled his uncomfortable smile again.

For a minute Vin just stood there, at a loss to know what to say or do. Then Buck cleared his throat. "Um, maybe we could sit down?”

Sitting down, right. Vin gave his head a little shake. "Yeah, sure.” There weren't many choices in the living room since furniture had never been a priority for him. He gestured at the old leather chair that, despite some stuffing escaping from one armrest, was still pretty comfortable. As Buck settled down in it, Vin took the other chair, sliding to one side to avoid the spring that had a habit of rising and falling on its own.

Trying his best to stifle the hurt that threatened to overwhelm him again now that Wilmington was here, Vin watched Buck who was staring down at his hands. The silence stretched between them, increasingly uncomfortable as the seconds turned into minutes.

Vin had no idea what to expect – was Buck going to continue his tongue lashing? Was this going to turn into a fist fight? No, Vin couldn't imagine raising a fist in anger against his teammate. Then again, came the bleak thought, he'd never thought one of his teammates would do exactly that to him.

Buck's head came up and Vin was startled to see the man's eyes were moist. "I thought JD was dead or dying when I saw him,” he whispered.

All his hurt was swallowed up by astonishment. Buck had thought - but how could he - hadn't he seen - ?

Vin caught his squirreling thoughts before they could fly off in every direction, and thought back to his first sight of JD yesterday morning when the firefight had ended. The younger agent had been lying on the ground, dazed and unmoving

Seeing JD open his eyes had quelled Vin's first flash of panic at the sight of the younger agent's bloody features – and then he was immediately overwhelmed by a flashback to that last mission. The momentary distraction had been quickly interrupted by Buck Wilmington's frantic bursting into the scene…and then everything went to hell.

Vin sighed to himself. Okay, he had a much better understanding of where Buck had been coming from during that explosive confrontation. But…

"Ya thought JD was dead cuz I hadn't backed him up?”

"No!” Buck looked at him in horror. "I never thought – Vin, I wasn't thinking of anything except JD, and how scared I was for him, how scared I always get when he's at risk …” he waved a hand, helplessly. "I know he's a trained agent. I know how he hates me…hovering over him. But I…I forgot everything except that JD looked like he was dead and I hadn't been there to look after him and it was all my fault…” his voice trailed away and he swallowed hard, like he was about to throw up.

Vin stared in confusion. Buck was blaming himself because JD had been hurt?

"Buck, that don't make sense. Ya wasn't even there. It was me – ” he stopped at a new thought. "Ya was yellin' at me but ya meant to be yellin' at yourself?”

Buck's eyes looked haunted. "I wasn't there…and JD died. At least… that's what I thought…”

Aw, hell. Vin knew, and he knew Buck knew, that JD wasn't a helpless little kid in need of a protector. He was an adult, as Buck had said, a trained agent. And Buck needed to come to grips with that or they were headed for more trouble.

"Ya gonna have to talk to JD,” Vin said. "Ya gotta tell him the truth. And ya gotta talk to Chris. And talkin' to Josiah would probably be a good idea, too.”

Buck dashed a rough hand across his eyes. When he lowered his hand, that haunted look had faded, but it remained a vivid memory for Vin.

"Yeah,” he said slowly. "But I…” he leaned forward, suddenly desperate. "Vin, I'm all messed up about this, I know. But you've got to believe me…I'm sorrier than I can say that I hit you. And I'm really sorry about what I said to you.” He shook his head as if frustrated. "Damn it to hell, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it, not a word of it. I trust you to watch my back, to watch JD's, hell, to watch out for all of us. I trust you more than I trust myself. I swear.”

Vin was quiet for a minute, thinking over Buck's words, while feeling as if a ton of worry was sliding off his shoulders. There was still some hurt – that hadn't dissipated as completely as he would've liked, but the hurt was less. He had to trust it would continue to fade over time.

"I believe ya,” he said quietly. "And I 'preciate ya comin' over. I know them words wasn't easy for ya t' say.”

He saw Buck swallow, then lick his lips. "So,” the man said tentatively, hopefully, "are we okay? Are we good again?”

As big as Buck was, as dangerous as he could be, for a moment Vin saw sitting across from him a teenager who'd lost so much but was still persevering against all odds. He couldn't help smiling.

"Yeah, Bucklin, we're good.”

Buck's smile blazed and he jumped to his feet. Vin started to rise too but before he was fully upright Buck had grabbed his hand and was shaking it so enthusiastically Vin felt his teeth about to chatter.

"That's great! Really great!”

He looked as relieved as Vin felt. Finally managing to extract his hand before Buck's grasp crushed it, Vin cleared his throat.

"Ya sure ya ain't interested in coffee?”

For a minute Buck looked surprised, then delighted. "Coffee sounds good, food sounds great.”

Vin threw an uncertain look at his tiny kitchen. Did he have anything to eat? "I…um…”

"Come on!” Buck threw an exuberant arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Dinner's on me!”

Abruptly Vin realized he'd hadn't eaten much of anything for the past couple of days. Food sounded damn good.

"Good idea,” he agreed with another smile.

* * * * * * *

Another day, another end to the day. Chris looked over his report one more time before adding his signature. Finally, done.

He tossed the pen aside and leaned back in his chair, stretching in relief. It had been a hell of a couple weeks, in more ways than he or of any of his team could have imagined. Thankfully, their main goals had been accomplished.

The Reyes' family was on its way to California, where Josiah had hooked up Fernando with a job as head gardener with one of the monasteries cum wineries in the Napa Valley. He'd also arranged for Gabriel to receive treatment at a facility in Napa designed for teenagers struggling with addiction.

Chaney, Axley and Sturgis were all behind bars, denied bail. In mopping up the last details, the team had discovered that Chaney had bought Sturgis' gambling markers, which he had used to drag Sturgis into his scheme to murder Vin Tanner. A final question answered.

Thinking of the murderous guns dealer, Chris smiled in grim satisfaction. He was sure that Chaney was not looking forward to his trial beginning in a little more than a week, a trial at which Vin Tanner's testimony would take him down once and for all.

As for goals closer to home…

Larabee glanced out his window wall to the outer office. JD was just returning to his desk and Chris's gaze lingered on the youngest of his agents. Apart from the bandage on his forehead, he looked his normal, absurdly youthful self. The rest of the team looked the same as usual… but in actuality, things weren't quite the same. Not quite.

Buck appeared from the break room, throwing a smiling comment to Nathan as he passed the latter's desk. The medic's response made the big man laugh, laughter which echoed around the room from the other team members.

Chris smiled involuntarily. Yes, everything looked normal. But anyone who knew these men recognized a subtle shift in attitude, especially between Buck and JD. He knew the two had talked; he knew JD had moved back home to the condo he shared with Buck. But Chris also knew it wasn't his imagination that Wilmington was being…careful, for lack of a better word, around the younger man, giving him more space than he used to. Treating him more like a fellow agent rather than a little brother.

Larabee was glad to see it but also, to his surprise, a little saddened. The relationship between the two had always enlivened the entire team, the brotherly back-and-forth, the joking…

He shook his head at himself. He thought it was likely that as Buck and JD got used to the slight shifting in their relationship, they would relax, and some – if not all – of that brotherly rapport would return. Knowing Buck and JD, knowing the bond that underlay their relationship, he figured it was only a matter of time.

His phone buzzed, pulling him out of his musings. It was Travis and the call took a good half hour. During that time, Josiah appeared on the other side of the glass wall, held up a pile of reports for him to see, and set them down in the in-box Buck had jokingly placed on the desk outside of Chris's door months ago, which had turned out to be more handy than anyone could've guessed. While he answered Travis's questions, he watched his teammates leave, Josiah and Nathan together, Ezra who offered a tip of his hat to Chris as he passed by, then Buck and JD, talking animatedly as they disappeared.

By the time Larabee hung up, the outer office was deserted and silent.

No, not deserted. When he stood, he could see Vin's back; he was still at his desk, doing something on his computer. The sight was mildly surprising because Chris had already received the Texan's report and he knew how much the younger man hated computers. He used them because he had to, but otherwise he avoided them as if they were poison.

Curious but not wanting to intrude, Larabee walked out of his office and slowly approached Vin from behind, giving him plenty of time to warn him off or hide what he was doing. But the sharpshooter just kept working on whatever he was doing and Chris was surprised that he didn't react to his team leader's presence. Ordinarily, Tanner was always acutely aware of his surroundings. Not this time. He was staring at the computer monitor with an almost unnerving intensity.

Chris drew close enough to see Vin was working on an e-mail. Without meaning to, his eyes fell on the typed characters: I'LL BE THERE.

Vin's forefinger hovered over the SEND key and Chris was surprised to sense rare indecision in his friend. He opened his mouth and closed it again, resisting the urge to offer help. Whatever was going on had to be Vin's decision.

Abruptly Tanner hit SEND and a second later a new message popped up: MESSAGE SENT.

The sharpshooter leaned back in his chair but Chris didn't see any relaxation in the lean figure. He considered backing away without revealing his presence, then Vin hit a key on his keyboard that turned the screen dark and swiveled his chair around.

"Hey, Cowboy.”

"Hey,” Chris returned. He couldn't help glancing at the now blank monitor and Vin's eyes followed his. He took a deep breath and blew it out.

"Doc's graduatin' from vet school in June. His wife's throwin' a party for him and Snake e-mailed me about it. Said Doc wanted me to come.” Tanner shrugged, a gesture that could mean anything. "Guess I'm gonna be goin' to his party. Snake's gonna be there too, and the wives, I guess.”

Chris saw apprehension in the sapphire blue eyes, the tension in the way he sat, and was saddened by the realization that what should be a joyful reunion was instead a source of anxiety for his friend. He suspected that reunion was going to dig up a lot of memories, a lot of them bad ones.

What could he say? What words could he speak to reassure Tanner? None. If he'd been in Vin's shoes, he might have declined the invitation. But Vin Tanner had more grit than anyone Larabee had ever known. Running away was not something Vin knew how to do.

Suddenly he had an idea. "I'd like to see MacInne again. He gave me a hard time when he was here and I never got the chance to give it back to him.”

Tanner's eyes brightened. "Ya wanna come along?”

Already Chris was regretting his idea, but he wasn't about to change his mind now that he saw the relief in his best friend's eyes. "If you think it'd be okay.”

"Snake probably told Doc about ya. He'd likely like to meet ya, too.”

And be put under a microscope, Larabee was sure. Still, he'd like to meet these people who had meant – who still meant – so much to Tanner. And be there for the Texan if the memories got bad, yeah, Chris wanted to be there.

"Okay,” he decided. "You can warn them you aren't coming alone.”

A soft chuckle was his reward. "All of a sudden, gettin' together sounds kind'a good.”

Chris was relieved to hear that. "Good. Now how about we go get something to eat?”

Vin got to his feet and stretched. "Ya sound like Buck.”

"Is that a ‘no'?”

"Naw, food sounds good.”

As they strode out of the office, Larabee said, "Why don't you come out to the ranch this weekend. We haven't had a chance for a long ride in a while.”

"Sounds good, but I was plannin' on comin' out there anyway.”

"You were?”

"Yeah.” Tanner threw him a mischievous look. "Maybe ya forgot, JD's got his motorcycle in your barn. We're plannin' on workin' on it this weekend.”

If JD was coming, it was an almost certain bet that Buck was coming. Chris smiled as they stopped at the elevators. "Since almost half the team will be at my place, we might as well invite the rest of 'em.”

Vin's gaze turned suddenly hopeful. "Maybe for another barbecue?”

The elevator dinged its arrival and the doors slid open. Chris gestured Vin inside and followed.

"Maybe we'll let Josiah use his special barbecue sauce this time. He promises it'll blow our heads off.”

"Oh, yeah!” Blue eyes gleamed in anticipation and Larabee chuckled.

The entire team at his ranch this weekend…the idea sounded…right.

His team, right where they belonged.

After all, how much trouble could they get into right under his eye?

Vin looked up suddenly, fresh mischief in that blue gaze.

Chris suppressed a shudder.