All The King's Horses

by Heidi

Category:  Gen Hurt/Comfort/Humor ATF

Main Players:  All Seven, with special attention to Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Vin

Rating:  Nothing that you wouldn't see outside the theatre and you can be under the age of majority, but not below the age of puberty

Warnings:  Some bad words, and an exercise into what happens when people spend entirely too much time together, no matter how well they like each other.  Also appearance of an OFC in a secondary role. 

Author's Note:  Thank Cin for the quality of the fic.  She's the one that took a bad idea and made it better.  Thanks for reading.

Part One

"If yer head weren't up yer butt, ya wouldn't have these problems," Vin told Buck.

"Keep it up, and you'll need surgery to correct your face," Buck replied.

 "Like ta see ya try."  Vin held his arms partially out, motioning with one hand for Buck to attack.

 "Stop it," Josiah ordered in his distinctive tone.  Neither amusement nor toleration reflected in the delivery.   

 "Why should they, Mr. Sanchez?" asked Ezra.  "I would find it quite satisfying to watch them beat out what remaining sense they have left.  It would be far more entertaining than our current pursuit."

"Don't push me, Ez," Vin warned.  "I ain't in the mood."

 "I would be, anytime, anywhere, but I have to be here.  Not with the sweet thing I had to cancel on because of this hooey."  Buck glared at Ezra.  "Can't you close this deal faster?"

"You think the rest of us do not have lives, Mr. Wilmington?"  Ezra scoffed.  "I have better ways to occupy my time than being situated in this foul-smelling, cramped, abominable tin contraption with the three of you.  I see you for breakfast, I see you for lunch, and most often for dinner.  I see more of you than I do anyone else.  The only privacy I have is my time in the facilities, and sometimes, those aren't even private facilities."

"Sometimes, Ez, I don't want to see so much of you.  No offense."  Buck gave a forced smile to the Southerner.

"None taken, for the feeling's mutual."  Ezra gave back a smile just as insincere.

"I'm takin' a walk," Vin announced.

"No," three voices chorused.  Josiah blocked Vin in while the others guarded the doors out of their metallic prison on wheels. 

"Get the hell outta my way."  The Texan growled in frustration.

"Vin, if you don't sit the hell down, I'll knock you there," Buck warned.  "None of us want to be here, especially together, but we're doing the job.  You walking out – again – because you can't stand being penned in here might blow the assignment.  You want to explain to Chris why his surveillance was shot because you couldn't keep your ass in the van?"

Tanner glared for a minute.  "Hell."  He sat down, blowing out a breath.  "Chris don't scare me."

"He hasn't scared me for years," Buck replied.  "But I don't like hearing him yell, and I'm not in the mood for it."

"None of us ever are, Buck," Ezra replied.  "I swear the man looks for a reason to pick on my innocent self."

"Brother, innocent and you do not belong in the same sentence," Josiah commented.  "That applies to us all; we've done too much in the last couple weeks to be innocent anymore."

"Like takin' the money," Vin said.  "It weren't ours."

"We're turning it in," Buck countered.  "Every cent, meticulously counted." 

"Or the fightin' with the police," the Texan added.  "Bustin' the cop's face in durin' that bar fight for the cover."

"Didn't know you had it in you, Ezra," Buck grinned.  "One shot, down like a tree."

"I was picturing knocking your head off," Ezra remarked.  "It felt quite remarkable."

"Hey!"  Buck protested.

"Shhh…here comes the players," Josiah hissed.  "Ezra, are you ready?"

"Always.  You insult me by asking.  It will be most pleasant to step away from you gentlemen, even if it may be into a pit of vipers."

"We'll stay close, Ez," Buck assured him.

"And I'll have yer back," Vin told him. 

"God bless us, brothers, keep us safe, and please God, watch over us fools," Josiah prayed.  "Amen."

"Amen," the other three chorused. 

Like shadows, Ezra and Vin quietly made their exit from the van for the bust.

The bust was, well, a bust. 

Their target exercised extreme caution, forcing them into another week's worth of surveillance.  Two by two, they continued sitting in the hated van, taking shifts to learn the habits and identify any of the new players.  Sometimes it was Ezra and Josiah; others Buck and Vin; Vin and Ezra; Buck and Josiah; and sometimes, when the need called for it, all four of them together like the previous time. 

Such enforced closeness began to wear them down.  Not being able to move much in the "tin can," as they called it, stuffed in between computers, recorders, and miscellaneous paraphernalia added to the general discomfort.  Two was the optimum number of occupants in the back of the van; each member of the pair could stretch out a little bit, also pace a few steps if needed.  Three pushed the limits of space; four exceeded it. 

Even though they were, in fact, good friends, said enforced closeness and the stress of their mission strained their relationships with each other.  All pet peeves took on a new dimension, and grated on nerves like fine sand caught in a gear, causing it to grind, grate, and protest loudly.  At one point, they agreed not only to an hour of silence between them because matters were coming to such a head, but because anything spoken could have resulted in physical injury to someone, or the equipment.  They stopped hanging out with each other during the off-duty times.  They didn't hide per se from the others; in fact, choosing the other team members company, as long as none of the other three were involved.  It was simply avoidance to maintain the peace.  For example, Nathan invited Buck and Josiah over for steaks cooked on the grill.  By mutual silent agreement, Buck stepped out in favor of a road trip, leaving Josiah alone with Nathan.  Buck had already made plans with JD to go for a long motorcycle ride, where JD invited Vin.  Tanner declined, choosing instead to go camping in the woods by himself. 

Unaware of the agreement or the other plans, Chris invited all of them to his ranch for the weekend in order to "reconnect" with each other, and the surprise on his face was evident when only Ezra accepted his offer.  His subtle questions to the Southerner did not gain any answers beyond Standish rhetoric. 

Their target was determined to piss them off and/or send them to the hospital with apoplexy.  From their point of view, either he wanted the deal or not, yes or no.  None of this, as Buck called it, "chickenshit negotiation crap" their target subjected them to for the past three weeks.  

Relationships between them deteriorated even further.  The target continued to be overly cautious, or enjoyed playing games, of which none of them were amused.  Amusement and the dodo bird were synonymous – both extinct.  The target set up three separate meets, days apart.  He canceled one, another was rescheduled; locations changed at the last minute; or twenty minutes warning of a meeting.  Nothing ever settled in a correct manner, he needed more time. 

Ezra's patience rapidly dwindled each time he dealt with the target's prevarication and indecision.  He took to snapping at the others when things did not go well, and became defensive when the others questioned – through teasing or direct contact – his ability to close the deal.  These occasionally pointed queries cut into Ezra's sometimes-wavering self-esteem, making him doubt himself and vowing to do better.  No matter how well he did, the target was not committing, and he could not figure out why.  That behavior bothered him too.

Buck's temperament, usually easy-going, became surly and snappish.  His height made sitting in the chairs at the tin can's consoles for long periods uncomfortable, because he could not even stand up straight without having to bend at the shoulders and neck.  He gave up, taking over a section of floor space with a inflatable cushion, his back against one wall and his legs stretched out onto the console opposite him.  It became an issue because he refused to pull his legs in whenever someone was walking in the narrow aisle, forcing the other party to step over Buck's booted feet and long legs, or trip over them when not paying attention.  For a surveillance expert, Buck was more like a weary traveler stuck on an airplane at the gate waiting for the craft to taxi, knowing he couldn't leave the plane if he wanted to get where he was going, but not happy with all the delays. 

For someone meant to live off the land and be wild and free, Vin's confinement in the tin can pushed him closer to the edge.  The sniper could manage to sit in the same place for hours with a rifle in his hand waiting for a shot, but usually his locations were outdoor and the key word was hours, not days like they suffered now.  In addition, there was the knowledge that the assignment would end when he worked as a sniper – none of this day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after excruciating second "hurry up and wait" philosophy in surveillance. 

Being Ezra's partner/bodyguard put Vin in the awkward position of not being able to go out in public in this general area without Ezra, since they were supposed to be inseparable.  Even his off time had regulations to where he could go, and where he could not afford to be seen by their hyper-paranoid target's extensive network of snitches.  Since most of those "safe" places required a tie and jacket, both of which he preferred to go without, there were few choices left to him.  Spending time with Chris was sporadic, dependent on whether any of the others were going to be there.  His salvation came in his horse rides, giving him the strength to endure one more session in the tin can without ripping someone's head off and stuffing it in an orifice, friend or not. 

Josiah felt the pressure of the deteriorating bonds keenly, trying his best to remain the peacemaker.  His level of patience, however, rapidly dwindled with each hour of bickering he was forced to sit through, listen to, and try to stop.  Several times, he nearly told Chris he quit, but giving up on something as special as what they had – before this madness – seemed almost sacrilegious.  Yes, men had their differences, but they were not meant to air them out every time all four were forced to be in the tin can.  He had his own pet peeves; he was human.  When he started picturing choking someone for saying again that this was "bullshit" for the umpteenth time, he knew he needed a moment or two.  Or several.  That's when he came up with the Silence in the Tin Can theory. 

Silence in the Tin Can meant no talking unless it was work related, only work-related, with complaints, comments, and filibusters not welcome.  They passed hours in quiet, not speaking, finding peace surrounded only by the auditory beeps of the equipment and the incessant yakking of their target.  After a time, even the beeps rubbed the nerves raw, not to mention the annoyance at hearing their target's voice, and usually only his voice.  The target talked to himself, giving another level of irritation to an already combustible situation. 

The tenth attempt – almost a month and a half after the start of the meetings, three months since the beginning of the assignment – had them at the end of their tethers.  Silence in the Tin Can partially worked to keep the peace in the metal prison, but now the Silence permeated their personal lives.  The four found themselves not speaking much, if at all, to each other outside of work.  Sometimes disagreements in the tin can resulted in physical contact of a negative variety.  So far, only pushing and shoving resulted from the physical contact, with no obvious bruising the others could see.  They found themselves agreeing however, that what happened in the van, cliché as it sounded, remained in the van.

Silence outside the van was easy.  After months of being each other's constant companions with limited space, and talking the only break for entertainment, they'd pretty much heard all the stories of each other's lives by this point.  At least all of those that each of them was willing to share; there was no doubt in any of their minds that there were stories they were not going to share.  Ever.  With nothing new to talk about, they shut up, keeping most of their counsel to themselves, even when they were with the others. 

The four gave the others of their team special consideration, trying not to bring their tension down on the rest.  They knew Nathan, Chris, and JD felt guilty enough with other obligations keeping them from assisting on the case.  In turn, the others' preoccupation with their own problems, while they knew about the stress twenty-four hour around the clock surveillance could bring, felt the situation was under control with assistance provided by loans from other teams.

Problem was that assistance was limited.  The backups could only cover the night surveillance for a few reasons, the most important of which being they did not know all the players and the intricacies of the case.  Since the target did love to sleep, this worked out well, giving the team a break of at least up to six hours a night.  It was not quite enough time to recoup entirely, yet enough to keep them from going insane.  They had to work hard not to rip heads off first thing in the morning.  They were professionals and made do, hiding it well from the others. 

Frayed nerves and an agreement not to come to blows in front of the others, both the backups and the remaining three, kept the illusion of a "team" alive.  None wanted to let the others in on the emotional turmoil the quartet suffered while spending so long in the tin can, so they stayed mum, not sharing with anyone, even each other, the high cost of stress on their bodies, minds, and souls. 

By the end of the tenth meeting at four in the afternoon, Ezra finally secured the target's commitment, none too soon.  Having started the meeting at eleven thirty in the morning, listening to the target's show of self-importance drove them crazy.  He wanted Ezra to dance attendance on him, and show how significant he was to Ezra, who could have cared less by that point.  The Southerner had to have Vin leave behind because of the target's insistence on a one-to-one meeting, sans bodyguards on both sides, at the man's beachfront estate.  Said property made the tin can almost stand out, but Buck found a parking space overlooking the property about two blocks away in a park-and-ride lot.  Vin joined them after his dismissal and orders not to return until he received a call, or five hours passed.

Standish feigned interest in the various collections of the target, which had to show Ezra each piece with a detailed history and method of acquisition. 

"Get your fat head out of the way," Buck grumbled to Josiah.  "You don't need to stare at the Matisse.  It's been reprinted more times than I care to count."

"Appreciating the art," Josiah countered, leaning further forward, unintentionally obscuring Buck's view.

"Get some glasses, blow it up on the screen, play it back later, but just back off," Wilmington snapped. 

"You were cracking on my age?"  A dangerous edge entered Josiah's voice.

"Just your eyesight.  Back the hell off.  I can't see diddly-squat because of you in the way."

"We ain't seein' anythin' important," Vin countered from beside the back doors.  "Nothin' ta write home about."

"I can't see anything because of balloon head here," Buck complained. 

Josiah snaked a hand out, put it on the back of Buck's neck and pressed his head forcefully into the monitor.  "Can you see now?"

"Fellas," Vin warned.

Buck thrust back with his body, nearly toppling Josiah over.  "You want to try that again face to face, pard?" he threatened.  He half-stood, most of the upper half of his body bent because of the ceiling, but little came away from the menace in his tone.

"Whenever," Josiah promised, half-standing himself, flexing his fists.

Wilmington tackled, with both going down hard on the van floor.  They wrestled each other, grunting and moaning, until the third member of the team bravely came between them.  It took a few kicks to appendages to get their attention before he could squeeze his lithe form between them, none to gently.

"Ya chuckleheads think this is helpin' watch Ez?"  Vin growled at the two of them.  "Reckon the floor of the van ain't even bein' watched this close, what with yer heads knocking around."

The safety of their fourth stopped both men cold.  Glaring with the promise this wasn't done yet, they separated and returned to their vigil. 

"Thievin' bastard," Vin growled from behind the chair.  "He ain't go no right ta those things.  They belong ta the People."

"Most of those artifacts belong with the People, or in one of the People's museums, not hidden away for one man's benefit," Josiah agreed. 

They stared at the collection of Native American artifacts representing many tribes.  Some of the items Vin explained were sacred, and certainly stolen because no Native American would ever sell them. 

The longer he watched, the more furious he became.  He paced – something he wasn't supposed to do – once or twice, before he spun and threw a fist into the side of the tin can.  Unfortunately, he swung right next to Buck's head, missing by centimeters, but it was enough to startle the other man.

Jumpy and already on edge, Buck responded swinging, catching Vin in the gut.  The angle lessened the impact, but not by much. 

"What was that for?"  Vin demanded after he got his breath back. 

"You know," Buck said.  "Don't startle a fella like that, you could've hit my head, then I would've rolled yours off your skinny shoulders."

"Ta hell with ya," the Texan snarled.  "Say yer sorry."

"When you do."

"Enough," Josiah barked.  "We're not helping Ezra here."

Again reminded of their main mission, the two combatants separated.  Tensions still simmered high, with only a spark needed to make them forget about their teammate and tear into each other.

"Later," Buck promised.

"Hell, Josiah, there won't be anythin' left fer ya when I'm done with him."

"Who said I'd let you go first?"  Sanchez asked.

Fists flew.

The trigger?  The last straw snapped.

They were tired, thirsty and hungry, none of which scheduled for alleviation any time soon.  The chance had been there, but now their highly anticipated meal, the portions not smeared across the floor lay scrambled and uneatable in the bottom of their trashcan.

Vin had just returned with their needed refreshments and just as he was setting it out to pass around a banging on the door startled him.  The food wound up scattered across the floor, the drinks following drenching the sandwiches as lids popped off, with the final insult of splashing across the shoes and pant legs of the three.  Further destruction ensued as they scrambled to check their visitor and keep their cover intact.

It was a trooper on his routine patrol stopping to check the activity at the park-and-ride in the middle of the day.  Vin met the trooper outside the tin can, explaining his company had set the van up for its drivers to use.  It was a relay station of sorts, allowing the long-haul trucks to continue on their routes as drivers exchanged along the way to ensure they stayed within their drive time allotments.  Vin told the trooper a partial truth that he'd hiked down to the nearest store for some food, while he was waiting on the next driver bringing a delivery out of Texas, and was still several hours out.  Understanding, the trooper left without checking the interior of the van or seeing the pair of men hidden inside trying to cover surveillance equipment.

They could not risk breaking cover again, because the trooper chose to pull under a tree on the far side of the lot to work on his reports.  They should be able to trust a fellow officer with their identities, but they preferred to leave nothing to chance.  This was their perp's territory, and given his extensive history of slipping through ATF's clutches, they could not be sure if he had any of the locals on his payroll. 

Therefore, they were stuck, again, with no way to get replacement food and drinks.  They tried to concentrate on Ezra and the target, to take their minds off rumbling stomachs and dry mouths.  However, trapped with the smell of food they could not eat, feet still sloshing through liquid in cracks they could not dry, drinks they could not drink, damp trouser legs sticking to them, they snapped briefly.   

It wasn't until they nearly went out the back doors of the van because someone's foot hit the lever that they stopped fighting.  Almost fearfully, they panted for breath and checked to see if the trooper was coming back over.  The trooper sat in the shade, head down, oblivious.  For comfort, they could take the risk and tell all to the trooper, but as tempers cooled, professionalism took over and they realized they could not risk Ezra's safety.

They returned their attention to the monitors.  All three took turns cleaning up the mess inside the van.  When they realized what Ezra and the target discussed, they nearly started fighting again because arguing was more interesting.

Ezra learned, not that he cared, about this particular artist's subtle use of shading in his artwork, applying twenty-five shades of gray in a piece.  The target continued to drone on detailing the proper names of each of the shades, along with how the artist achieved the differences.  Watching the paint dry would have been an improvement over the explanation.

Standish left the meeting with the promise of a final gathering the next day to make the exchanges.  Vin met him at their car, where Ezra quirked an eyebrow at his less than pristine appearance.  It was with great joy the four finally made their way to the office to plan their takedown, after a stop for food, and telling Ezra to shut up about the condition of the tin can.  The command for silence was one of the very few things they agreed upon today. 

Chris Larabee was worried.  He usually received cause to worry, but now, he could not quite identify that cause, which niggled at the back of his mind driving him nuts.  All four of his men sat in the team's conference room, alert but barely speaking unless prodded.  None of the usual jokes and banter flew around the table; the quartet remained serious and professional.  Serious and professional attitudes might have set off his unease.  The plan was simple and straightforward; all contingencies were covered; they were teeth-achingly thorough and by the book for the entire operation the following day. 

By the book, where did that thought come from?  It was as if someone handed them a manual and they drafted their plans within the guidelines with little to minimal change to the procedures.  It might work, but knowing this group, he wanted to make sure their insurance was up to date.  Anything could happen.

Nathan and JD tried to lighten the mood here and there; the best they could do was to elicit small smiles.  After giving his approval, Chris adjourned the meeting feeling more ill at ease than before it started.  He waited around the conference room to see if someone wanted to talk privately, but no one did.  Larabee left his office door open to encourage pop-ins, yet he sat alone at his desk.  He even stuck around another hour before going to the saloon for the traditional before-bust drinks in case someone didn't want the others to see him coming to Chris.  No luck.  His arrival at the saloon showed six men sitting around their customary table, minus the chaos that usually accompanied them. 

Inez met his eyes, indicating without words not all were well, and she was worried about things.  He signaled for a round on him.

"Evening, boys."

Various grunts and replies greeting him, without the normal enthusiasm a pre-bust usually created.  Most times, they were hyperactive, ready to go, and did not want to wait; he usually counseled patience.  Not today, there was no life in them.  "Everyone all set?"

"Ready for this ta be over," Vin sighed.

"Amen," Josiah echoed. 

"If tomorrow's the last I see of the inside of the tin can, it'll be enough for a lifetime," Buck avowed.  "Short of a direct order, Chris, I'm not setting foot in that heap again."

"The sooner we complete this, the sooner I will be free," Ezra agreed.  He lifted his glass.  "To freedom."

"To freedom," the others chorused. 

Reading the body language between the men, he finally realized there was a lot of tension between them.  The fact they were quieter than usual was obvious; now he finally understood they spoke, but not to each other.  Still, they were putting on quite the show for the others.  Part of the show was leaving early, all four stating it was with the intent to rest and be fresh before the operation went down the following morning. 

His drive home got him thinking.  He could not remember the last date all seven of them had been in the same room, not work related, except for tonight.  Technically, meeting at the saloon could stretch into a work-related activity; Ezra could easily argue it was tradition, and part of the unwritten requirements for their job. 

Deeply troubled, he thought hard about the situation.  How could he let things deteriorate like this?  He cursed himself for not noticing it sooner.  Given he had been in court for several days, when not there in endless meetings with the top brass, he still should have caught what was right under his nose.  His action now was to correct it.  He thought for what seemed hours, trying to come up with a solution. 

They had something special, the seven of them.  He refused to allow one case to break up years of work.  If those four needed to reconnect with each other, he would make sure they had the opportunity.  And he knew just the person to come up with ideas.

Without thinking about the time, he grabbed his cell and started dialing.  He wasn't surprised it was answered on the first ring.

"Hello?"  The voice sounded nowhere near awake.

"I'm sorry; did I wake you?"  A quick glance at the clock had him wincing. 

"Despite the rumors, Larabee, most nights the witching hour is past my bedtime."

"Sorry, I wasn't thinking about the time."

"That's a given.  Now what's so important you call at . . .it's one a.m.!" 

Chris held the phone away from the shriek.  Giving it a second's pause, he brought it back.  "You can tell time, Harper, I'm proud."

"I can also kick your ass."

"We'll debate that later."  Now that he had her on the phone, he didn't know how to explain what he needed.  Asking for help wasn't his strong suit, and she, more than others, knew what it cost him to ask.

Silence carried for an uncomfortable moment. 

"There a point to this, Christopher, or do I log this as an obscene phone call?"

She knew him well enough to push his buttons.

"Call me Chris, and I'm going to hurt you for that."

"You can try.  Now, what do you need?  I'll save you the embarrassment of saying you need my help, we'll stipulate that as an unspoken given, and get to the point of this so I can try to go back to sleep."

Yeah, she knew him well.  "Got a bust going down in the morning.  The plan's by the book and all within the guidelines."

"What the hell happened to your team?"  All trace of sleepiness and banter left her voice.  "What's wrong?"

It should have offended him that she picked up immediately they were following the book and that was an unusual occurrence.  Given what she did to train them to try to pay lip service to the guidelines, it was not that surprising she realized something was wrong.  However, it still upset him a bit.  "I don't know, exactly.  Vin, Buck, Josiah, and Ezra have been working their butts off on this case for three months.  Spent a lot of time together, but they're not talking to each other or really to us unless it's work related."

"What have Nathan and JD said?  JD would have said something to you because he is living with Buck.  Nobody's said anything to me, but I've been buried in training classes both day and night.  Not that I would expect them to, either."

"Not a peep.  I watched them tonight, and thinking back, they took pains to conceal they aren't getting along from all of us.  They've avoided group activities.  It's almost every man for himself."

"Give me more.  Surveillance?"

"Shifts in the van."

"Oh, Chris, don't tell me you're the one with the square box."

 "Square box?" 

"They stuck you with it, didn't they?  No wonder those four are cranky."

 "You'll have to explain that one."  He didn't like the sound of her voice, especially the part about stuck. 

 "Transportation, Motor Pool, whatever you want to call them, received all new surveillance vans about four, five months ago.  Ones designed with comfort for the Agent in mind.  Most of the square boxes shipped off to another region in need of something different, but they kept one for emergencies.  Emergencies, Chris, not for long-term assignments."

 "Which the jokers in the motor pool issued to my boys.  What's the big differences?"

"A refrigerator, for one.  Captain's chairs.  More storage.  Ergonomics – good layout for the computers, monitors, etc. for better posture.  Higher ceilings; means less ground clearance, but you can stand up in these without cricking your neck.  Literally rolling recreation vehicles compared to the cramped quarters in the older ones."

 "Son of a bitch," Chris muttered. 

"How long did you say have they been cooped up in the square box?"

"Assignment's been about three months, round the clock."

"No teamwork left.  You have a couple options."

"Give them to me."

"One:  take the team out on a group vacation.  This has worked before, but I'm not sure the extent of damage.  I'm going worst case scenario.  Two:  counseling."

"No counseling."

"Chris, there's no stigma attached to Critical Incident Stress Debriefings.  They are mandatory for most.  Being cooped up in the square box for months qualifies."

"No.  I like the group vacation."

"That might blow up in your face.  You have to think hard about it; how often will you be able to go on a group vacation without memories of a bad one?  Or what happens when it drives your team further apart?"

"Hell."  He could see where she was going with it; that's why he called her.  She could give him the objective point of view whether he liked it or not.

"Leaving them alone is a risky business; they could stew and fester and make things worse.  My suggestion would be to separate them from the others and have them work on repairing their friendships first.  Without risking what they have with the rest of you.  If the three of you are there to fall back on, it might be better."

"How and where?"

"Funny you should ask that."

He could hear the teasing note in her voice; his hackles rose.  "Not one of those bullshit teambuilding classes."

"There's a new one I've wanted to try."

"You first."

"Bad phrasing.  One I want to send a group to other than myself.  I did it with Rose, Lisa, and Cheyenne.  We had a blast, and we worked out problems we didn't know we had.  It still hasn't been approved for ATF teams, requiring a more in depth review." 

"Team building?  That implies something's broken."

"You're calling me, aren't you?"

"Don't push it," he warned. 

"Look, given what you've told me, they will do one of two things.  First, pull away from the group.  Don't be surprised if in a couple months you start getting transfer requests.  If things are bad now, hiding it will not work.  They'll just get on nerves and start pushing buttons."

"What's two?"

"Get somebody killed because they will foolishly try to stick it out and the problems will fester untreated.  They can and will ignore them until they blow, which usually comes at the worst possible time."

He didn't like what he was hearing, and both possibilities seemed likely, the latter more than the former.  Timing was never a strong suit with them.


"Yeah, I'm thinking."

"I will give you a minute.  Make that five."

He stuck his tongue out at the phone.  Juvenile, yes, but he felt better.  A thought occurred to him.  "This isn't one of those hold me up while I fall bullshit classes, is it?"

"No.  There are objectives in it, and it can be a lot of fun.  I'd sign them up for two separate sessions.  Either they'll get lost in the woods or they'll get wet.  You want me to e-mail you the website?"

"Yeah.  I'll look at it tomorrow."

"Let me know.  I can get them in the weekend sessions if you want, but I need to know yea or nay."

"Who pays for it?"

"Training, of course.  I have money for classes, and I can't quite convince some of the team leaders to let me send people."

"I'll consider it.  Saying the bust comes out okay tomorrow, I'll let you know."

"Fair enough."




"You're welcome, Chris.  Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help, but at a decent hour please." 

"Right," Chris chuckled.  "Night."

"Good night."

He disconnected, unsure if he felt better or worse about her idea.  What she said made sense about what his boys would do; he just didn't like hearing it.  Deciding to sleep on it and see if things looked better in the morning, he turned out the light.

Maybe they could do the bust and everything would be fine afterwards. 

Yeah, right, he thought.  If there was a grand piano anywhere in the area of the bust, his boys would find it and it would fall on someone.  If they could just get through the bust first…

Part Two

It was worse than Chris feared; the bust was flawless in execution, not a temper seen, no egos, no attitudes, just cold professionalism.  No gloating, no smart remarks, no high fives, not one single snotty comment from any of the four.  JD made up for it, but Buck, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra could have been poster children for the ATF professional. 

He decided they were going on Harper's retreat whether they liked it or not.  Having made the decision, the blond watched them talk to Nathan, or JD, but not really to each other.  Unless, of course, it was required to maintain the illusion everything was just wonderful for Nathan, JD, and his sake.

To be fair, Larabee checked the website for the program Harper recommended.  It looked like bullshit to him, but if it did half of what it claimed to do, it would be worth it.  Now the trick was to convince them to go – whether they wanted to or not.  Things could not stay this way.  Deciding to get a refill on his coffee, he headed for the Cantina.  Once in there, he heard a conversation he was not meant to hear. 

"I can't keep this up much longer," Buck said to Vin, just outside the Cantina.

"Hell, none of us can.  Just a little while longer.  I'm thinkin' Larabee's getting more suspicious."

"Let him think whatever he wants.  None of us can stand being around each other any longer.  Don't give me that look; we all know what we have to do, and it doesn't include being together."

Their voices faded as they continued to the conference room, and Chris refilled his mug.  Returning to his office, he shut the door and made a call.

"Training Division, Harper speaking."

"It's a go."

"Are you sure?"

"I overheard them talking.  I don't know what all is going on, but they admitted they can't stand being around each other," Chris sighed.  "I don't know what they're discussing, but it won't be together.  That makes me suspicious.  I probably won't like what they are planning, and I'm sure they know I won't.  This can't be any worse."

"I am sorry, Chris."

"So am I."  It pained him to admit it, especially to her.  He felt like he was failing as a leader.  Wasn't proof about how bad a job he was doing in that he had to turn to outside sources to put his team back together?  His own men would not tell him they were having problems.  He would try her solution.  If it did not work, he had a few plans of his own.  Right now, he did not want to interfere directly because to do so could damage the friendships more. 

"Do you want me to tell them, make it over your objections?"

"No.  We'll do the Harper E-mail Directive again, like you did with CPR."

She laughed.  "I did not know you then."

 "I hated you."

"You still do, but we work around it." 

He smiled in spite of the content.  They both knew he did not hate her any more; he also appreciated her giving him the option to say that it was her fault, not his.  "I don't hate you, Harper.  I just don't agree with your methods."

"And I don't agree with the Team Seven John Wayne approach to law enforcement, so we're going to agree to disagree.  Fair enough?"

"Fair enough.  Send me the information."

"Check your e-mail."

"You work fast."

"Give me five more minutes and I will have their flights booked."

"That long?" he cracked.

"Just have to wait for the invoice to process," she replied.  "There they go.  Check your e-mail; you should have all the details.  Shall I warn the place?"

"You want an unbiased opinion, right?" he countered.

"Yes, I do.  Let's see how they handle troublemakers, especially troublemakers not talking to each other."

"A true test."

"If you need anything else, let me know.  In fact, let me know regardless.  Do I need to call to make sure they arrived?"

"No, because you'll call attention to them.  I'll make sure they get there."

"Out of curiosity, what excuse are you going to use for you, Nathan, and JD not going?"

Chris nearly cussed aloud; he didn't think of that.  "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, I can take the team out of service for training."

"You have that authority?" he scoffed. 

"Ask Team Three."  Her voice was cold and devoid of emotion.

He shut up; he remembered how Team Three kept violating procedure and civil rights of suspects, causing their cases to be thrown out of court on technicalities.  The team was supposed to start a case, was pulled off before the assignment began, and forced to take training classes for a two-week period.  When they protested, Travis told them the training was not a suggestion, but an order, and no further discussion was welcome or warranted on the topic.  The second-in-command protested, earning himself an administrative vacation; the grievance over the unpaid part was still in the process of review. 

"I see I have your attention.  You are due for a class in leadership skills in order to keep the certification Travis arranged for you."

"No.  N-O, Harper.  I'm not going back to that bullshit."

"Tell me again how you passed the last team review generated by Washington?"

"Hell."  After one-too-many injuries on the job, whenever one of the seven received more than a boo-boo, someone in Washington always pushed for a team review.  Three out of four times they were shot down, but every once in a blue moon a group of specialists came, critiqued, and tore the team apart.  Often the recommendations included separating the team, which was unacceptable from the team to the Assistant Director.  During the last, Harper and Travis convinced the inquiry board that Chris Larabee would benefit from a Leadership Certification Course, which would help lower the amount of incidents brought to Washington's official attention.

It worked, which also ticked Chris off, because he learned more watching his horse dominate the rest of the horses than he did in that class.  Nonetheless, the paper certification looked good to Washington, and made them feel like they contributed to "correcting" the problem of injuries for Team Seven.  "Don't tell me it's been a year."

"Eight months, but you can recertify any time after six.  The recertification's good for two years, versus the one year for the first part of the course."

He did not want to, but it gave a legitimate excuse for what he wanted.  God, what he wouldn't do for his guys.  "Fine.  Nathan?"

"I arranged a paramedic tour with a Shock Trauma center and LifeFlight slash Medivac slash whatever you want to call it ridealongs, along with some seminars."

"He'll love that," Chris said.  "What about JD?"

"There's an interesting conference in Miami."

"No.  I'm not sending JD to Miami alone."

"I figured you would say that.  You three are going together – your recertification, JD's conference, and Nathan's ridealongs in one place.  It's as close to a paid vacation as I can get.  I saw your caseloads; it is justified."

"Miami with Nathan and JD.  Could be fun."

"Did I mention you are there for five days?"

"Even better.  I'll work on my tan."

"After you tell the others.  Your itinerary will take me an hour or two.  I really thought I would have to fight you more on this, that you would not agree."

"Set it up, Harper."  He cleared his throat.  "Thanks."

"You're welcome.  Do me a favor, though.  Make sure a shark doesn't eat any of you.  There's too much paperwork for me to fill out.  Besides, I'd miss you."

"The only shark down there will be me," he replied.  "Later."  His fingers hit the print commands on the itinerary and the teamwork seminars.

"Good luck."

"I'll need it."  Chris crossed through the office to the copier, the silence creeping down his spine, filling him with dread.  He made copies of all the itineraries, separating it into the four piles for the others.  Returning to his office, he called his office phone from his cell phone, disconnected and hid the cell in his pocket, stormed over, kicked his door shut, and then proceeded to scream (at himself, but they didn't know that) for five minutes.  He slammed the phone down with force – quite impressive, he believed – and he took a deep breath.  

His next action was to put on what he called his "asshole" face, storming out into the common area.  One glare encompassed the room, not that he needed to do much to lower their voices.  The dead talked more than this room.  They did not look at him, wasting the glare.  Fair enough, his voice could do the glaring through inflection.  "Conference room.  Now."  Spinning on one heel, grinding the carpet beneath him, he led the way. 

He did not look at them while they filed in silently.  Nor did he turn around until the silence started getting to him.  When he turned, he slapped his hands down on the table, reverberating in the quiet.  "What the hell did you do?"

No one answered.

At least, the blond thought, no one admitted to anything he, Team Leader Larabee, might not know yet.  He also noticed Buck, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra did not look at each other. 

"I have been informed that we are now considered on training rotation."

"What?  How did that happen?  We didn't piss anyone off!"  Buck protested.

At least he's talking to me, Chris thought.  "Somewhere along the line, we did because we're being split up for these training assignments."

"Harper?" asked Buck.  "I can usually sweet-talk her out of most things."

"My conversation with her was the yelling you might have heard a few minutes ago," the blond leader replied dryly.

"Aw, Chris, you pissed her off.  Now her mind's set, and we're stuck.  Thanks, buddy."  Buck rolled his eyes. 

"She won, I believe, if we are here in your bad graces.  Good show, Mr. Larabee," Ezra stated.  "Your side of the conversation was probably the most impressive waste of hot air I've heard since my currently incarcerated target discussed shades of gray ad nauseum to me."

Vin, Josiah, and Buck glanced at each other once, looking away quickly.

Bingo, Chris thought.  Something happened there, and they're ashamed of it.  There was nothing in the reports I've seen so far, and I doubt there will be, but now I know I'm doing the right thing.  "My loss not withstanding, it might be construed as a vacation."

"A vacation's when we're not bein' shot at, and it makes us crazy, Chris; ya know that," Vin answered.  "Hell, bring on the next case before we kill each other sittin' around."

The problem is I don't know if he's serious about the killing each other here, Larabee wondered to himself.  Time to get to it.  "The team's being split up."  Their reaction warmed him; they were outraged and pissed off about it, all six complaining at the same time, their voices one on top of the other.

"What?"  Nathan yelped.  "We worked those problems out!"

"Uh-uh.  No way," JD murmured.

"Bullshit!"  Buck yelled.

"Says who, Brother?"  Josiah crossed his arms.

"Aw, hell," Vin muttered.

"How long, Mr. Larabee?"  Ezra asked, "Until we are all back together again?"

They did not want to break up, which relieved him immensely.  "About a week.  I'm being sent to recertify in that Leadership Course.  JD's going to a conference relating to computers.  Nathan's getting a series of ridealongs to refresh his skills.  The four of you, however, were selected to try out a program for the Training Division."

"What kind of program?"  Ezra queried with suspicion in his voice.

"Survival and agility training under adverse circumstances for groups working high risk situations."  Chris rolled his eyes at one of the descriptions on the website. 

"What do they think we're gonna do?  Get lost in the woods with only a rope bridge ta save us?  No, Chris."  Tanner shook his head. 

"Please, Mr. Larabee, I'm insulted."  Ezra sniffed.

"That's for rookies and screwups," Buck said.  "We're definitely not rookies, and I don't think we're screwups."

"Ezra's got more dexterity than a cat, so he's got the agility covered; Buck's got an agile tongue dealing with all his women; Josiah can probably give lectures on adverse circumstances, and Vin's a high-risk expert.  Those were part of my arguments to Harper.  Want to guess how successful they were?"  He smiled his trademark ticked off half-smirk, half-challenge to confront him.

"Given her propensity to be perverse, I'm sure you played into her hands," Nathan said.  "She set you up, and you took the bait."

Chris nodded.  Privately, he felt pride for this justification he came up with, and made a mental note to share it with Harper in case they called her.  "To which she replied that an experienced group of people should be able to give an objective and unbiased view of the program through the eyes of those who have lived some of the most extraordinary circumstances, and evaluate the program's effectiveness."

"Why us, Chris?" asked JD.

Keep your mouth shut, Kid, Chris thought not too kindly.  "Because we're the only team not in the middle of an assignment and Harper's got budgetary constraints.  She has to spend the money by a certain date; can't wait until the next team comes up available."

"Horseshit," Buck said.  "I'm out."  He pushed away from the table and started to stand.  "We're fine, Chris.  We don't need a sissy class, and we don't need to be her guinea pigs.  I'm going to go tell her that."

"Sit down."  Chris glared. 

"I'm gone."  Wilmington stepped toward the door.

Larabee blocked him.  "Sit down, or I'll put you in your chair." 

The two friends stared at each other. 

Buck broke the silence first.  "You're kidding, right?  We just spend months together in a damn van.  We know each other better than anyone else on this planet, and we're being sent for this cockamamie evaluation bull hockey because of Training having to spend money?"

"Does this sound like my idea?"  Chris asked, hoping Buck would not figure it out.  "Don't you think I know the four of you have been with each other almost constantly?"

"Then why us, Brother?"  Josiah wanted to know.  "Why not the three of you and one of us, and send Ezra to the computer class?"

"I would enjoy that."

"No," Chris said immediately.  "You four have the most interesting injuries out of all of us, the reason why you were chosen.  Buck, sit down.  I'm tired at looking at your forehead."

Buck chuckled.  "Okay."  He threw himself into the chair.

"Explain this, O Great Leader," Ezra said.

"Use simple words for the simpleton with the mustache," Vin cracked.

"I'll give you a simple black eye," Buck promised.

"When I'm through with you," Josiah crossed his arms. 

"Do not leave me out of this," Ezra interjected.  "I insist on participating."

"Boys," Chris growled, cutting them off.  He waited until they ceased.  Part of him winced; these potshots at each other sounded natural, not forced or practiced, and definitely not lighthearted.  "Considering the time you've already spent together, you'll find it a breeze to get through.  Evaluate the program.  Unless, of course, you four were picked to give the instructor hell and a challenge."

"I like the idea of a challenge," Josiah mused aloud.  "Be as difficult as possible."

"Won't be hard," Vin said.

"Something going on you boys want to tell me about?"  Chris created an opening in the conversation.

"Just around each other too long, Chris," Buck replied.   "Cramped, cooped up, and cranky.   Now we have to go?"

"Yes.  You leave soon; next weekend.  Perhaps being the experienced souls you are, you could have a little fun with the program.  Create situations to see how they handle them."  The blond passed out the itineraries. 

"Miami; interesting locale," Ezra remarked.

Oh, hell, Chris thought to himself.  It could not be…

"South Beach, here I come!"  Buck pumped a fist in the air. 

"Sun, sand, and relaxation.  Count me in."  Josiah smiled.

"I can live with that.  Feed a few folks ta the 'gators."  Tanner leaned back in his chair. 

It's official…they scare me, Chris thought, and I'll be a phone call away, not a few hundred – thousand – miles apart.  Instead, he said, "No one will be fed to the gators, and you won't have sun and fun or South Beach until after the class."

"How about you arrange a little leave afterwards?  I'll put in for it," Buck suggested. 

"Since the rest of us will be in Miami also, that sounds like a plan.  I'll find a hotel that will have us," Chris agreed.

"We're traveling separately," Ezra said.  "Since our class starts before yours, and you still have a court appearance, we will see you down there.  If there's nothing else, excuse me.  I have preparations to make."  Standish stood and walked out. 

"Any other questions?"  No one else spoke.  "Okay, I'll take leave slips before the end of the day."  Chris left as well.

Ezra did not want to go.  He already spent enough time with the three that he just wanted time to be himself, solitude, peace.  His nerves were shot; he wanted to leave the team.  Recognizing that leaving would be like putting one foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave, he knew he would not write the transfer or the resignation.  He just needed some time away from everyone.  Time to get – Lord help him – his balance back, as Josiah would say. 

Yes, he knew that the time in the van was vital to their assignment, but Dear Lord, even the saints had limits to their patience.  The ancient gods struck down on those who offended them; why couldn't they have been merciful and ended their torture?  He knew, but was not going to ask, that the three had exchanged blows at one point during his time with the target.  There was no way the mess he saw was caused by a simple "accident;" he was too observant to buy that whopper. 

Maybe this teamwork thing could be helpful; if they allowed their personal discomfort to compromise his safety, however remotely, he needed to know if they could be trusted to watch his back.  Or if he needed to make other arrangements through his team leader.  Or, last resort, the transfer or resignation.  Mother did have a plan for him…

"Ouch!"  Ezra yelped.  He looked down at his finger at the deep paper cut.  "Dear Lord, even thinking about Mother physically hurts." 

The Southerner fervently wished it were not a harbinger of things to come.

Part Three

Perhaps if he were not so furious, the world would not be the lovely shade of red.  Given he spent so much time watching the war of silence in the main room, combined with the skin-tightening sensation of stress and tension hanging over everything and everyone, it was inevitable he thought about what brought them to this point. 

With those thoughts came the dangerous ones – someone needed to have a new orifice created in their posterior, someone in the motor pool.  Would it help?  His temper, yes.  His reputation as a hardass, you bet.  Make him feel better?  Oh, hell, yeah. 

Giving one last look at the men under his care, his "team," or what was left of it, he decided he could not wait to ream someone out.  His ride down in the elevator provided him the rationalizations.  One, the ATF had considerable money invested in this team, and losing it would be giving an advantage to the other side.  Two, the ATF was spending more money in order to repair the damage this moron did.  Three, the new vans were around long enough, so there had to be new procedures in place for the use of those vans.  Therefore, someone committed a violation of procedure to issue the square box instead of one of the new ones, meaning someone was vindictive. 

With a full head of steam, he left the elevator ready to breathe fire.  Before he got two steps into the bay, he heard a familiar voice.

"I expect full apologies to the members of Team Seven from your man, and one from you as well."

Harper, the meddlesome woman; what was she doing here?  This was his team, his responsibility.  He'd already fallen down on the job once to let this happen; now she's getting apologies for him? 

"Harper," he growled from behind her.

"Yes, Agent Larabee?"  She turned, giving him a poker face.

"I would appreciate if you remained out of Team Seven's business."  He noticed Kevin Farmer, the head of the motor pool, appeared fascinated.

"Of course, Agent.  How you run your team is your business; violation of policy is mine."  A touch of steel entered her tone.  "As such, Mr. Farmer and I were discussing the proper distribution of surveillance vans, along with what disciplinary actions would be taken."

"Don't let me interrupt.  When you're finished, Kevin?"  Chris folded his arms across his chest. 

"The operative term was 'were', Agent.  Mr. Farmer and I are finished now.  Enjoy your training."  Harper walked out.

"Give it a minute for the frost to clear," Kevin muttered under his breath. 

"She can chill a room, can't she?"  Chris agreed companionably.  He still had issues with her, and he planned to take care of them when he was done.  Right now, he could not afford to let the others believe that he and Harper were close.  It was a tight-wire act.  They did not need it perceived by the other teams that his team garnered any special privileges from her because of their friendship.  Nothing was further from the truth; she was tough on all of them, and worked just as hard for all the teams because she cared.  Yet she could not afford to let that side of her show.  It was that vulnerability that any hint of a special friendship and Team Seven, most especially Chris Larabee, could cause her irreparable damage, because it might put a chink in her authority.  Others might perceive she could not provide the discipline needed among the ranks without it being said she could only do so with her own personal enforcers in the form of Team Seven.  

"Brrr…okay, now that we're alone, let me say something.  One of my boys screwed up.  I'm dealing with him."

"No kid gloves.  My team's been compromised."

"Don't you think I know that?"  The man shifted until he faced Chris directly.  "I've been here fifteen years, and you know me, Chris.  When I'm here, I take care of your boys.  I went on vacation, then helped another motor pool straighten out their mess for a couple weeks.  I had no idea the square box went to your team and for how long.  It's officially listed in the log as down for maintenance for the past three months."

Chris said, "I planned to tear you apart."

"I respect that," Kevin replied.  "It's deserved."

"I'm still pissed."

"Fair enough.  For what it's worth, I'm sorry.  This won't ever happen again; not if I can help it."

"I figure it won't.  The guy?"

"Will be dealing with Harper for the rest of his very short career.  I couldn't wish for anything better for the pain in the ass.  Can you believe the guy thought I'd be pleased with what he did, given your track record with our vehicles?"

"Can you believe," he parroted for effect, "that pisses me off more?"  Chris glared. 

"Sent me to the stratosphere.  Just sent him home when Harper showed.  Lucky him; he missed the bitter cold.  You two plan this?"

Larabee scowled.  "Hell, no!"

"Didn't think so, but had to ask."

"Understand.  I was thinking about coming down here and dealing with this.  Didn't find out she beat me to it, until I got here..."

"Gotta be faster than her.  Seriously, Chris, I really am sorry.  What a mess."

"Thanks.  We'll see what I can salvage out of this.  I just hate like hell Harper got involved to this level."

"If you hadn't figured out Team Seven is the pride and joy of AD Travis, you need to be yelled at more than I do.  Travis let her loose on us to give you time to straighten your house."

His temper, which had been easing back with Kevin's blunt honesty, surged back at the implication that Harper was an animal on a leash, released at the whims of an Assistant Director.  He bit back hard on his first response, going instead with his second reaction.  "I'll have to talk to him about that.  I don't need help." 

Kevin chuckled.  "True enough."  He held out his hand.  "Truce?"

"Truce."  Chris shook. 

Given his temper still fumed about Harper being involved in his business, it did not take him long to walk to her office.  Before he opened his mouth, she fired the opening salvo.

"You two done your macho men apologize out of the woman's hearing routine, and was it sufficient?  Or do I need to pursue this further than what I have already started?"  She stood and closed the door, standing face to face with him.

"It's settled.  And it wasn't macho men," Chris retorted without backing off.  "You were rude and insulting to me, not to mention interfering in my business."

"Please."  She rolled her eyes.  "You undercut me.  I had to put you down, or else I would lose face.  You understand that concept, don't you?"

Sad part was he did understand losing face.  Using his mind, he replayed their conversation and realized he did.  "Sorry, but that doesn't excuse you going down there."

"It's my job, Chris, and you know that.  When you quit being pissed, you'll realize that.  You told me your team received equipment they should not against specific instructions.  If I need to connect the dots for you, it was a violation of procedure.  As a Training Instructor, it's not only my responsibility to create and review procedures, but to enforce them as well.  Do not dare to ask me not to do my job."  She glared.

He glared back.  Moments passed.  "I told you in confidence."

"Yes.  But when we spoke the next day and I asked you – get this straight for future investigations – about sending your team to these classes, you agreed because of them being cooped up in the square box, and mentioned that to me.  I acted on that information, not what you said to me the night before.  Clear?"

His lips lifted in a smirk.  "Clear."  He reached forward to squeeze her shoulders.  "Thanks for taking the heat.  I'll take it so you don't have to."

She reached up to squeeze his hands.  "You're welcome, but you have enough on your plate.  Fix your team, Chris, and enjoy your vacation.  This will work to my favor, put a little more fear into the rest of this boys' club about doing something stupid and against regulations." 

"I owe you."

"Forget about it."

"No, I owe you."  He narrowed his eyes.  "You set me up.  Miami?"

"I provided you the opportunity to be close to your team in case something happened, thereby eliminating the need for the local office to get involved."

He smirked.  "No matter how you dress it up, I owe you one.  Don't think I won't collect."  The blond walked out before she could reply. 

Vin's head hurt.  Not only was he not sleeping right, his body still out of sync because of the surveillance, but he was having problems with his luggage.  First off, he did not trust anyone with his bag but him.  The flight he was booked on only allowed one carryon, instead of the typical two, and it could only be as big as a breadbox, or something ridiculous.  He had to check a bag, and that bag could not be locked because of the new airline regulations.  Everything important had to fit in his carryon, meaning his carryon was heavy and full.

Shredding his fingers when zippering it shut did not endear him to this trip.  Nor did dropping his carryon on his foot because he noticed his fingers bled give him a positive attitude.  Didn't anyone understand the four of them just spent months together cooped up in a tin can ready to kill each other?  That he allowed himself to do the unforgivable – he let his attention escape from watching Ezra to fighting with the others?  That all he wanted was a few days by himself with no one else to answer to, talk to, or deal with, specifically those having two legs and a mouth? 

With his duffel and carryon at the front door, everything set to go, he went to bed early.  Sooner than he wanted because Harper booked them on an early-morning flight, meaning they had to be there two hours prior to their flight, which was an hour he'd rather get up camping, not for a flight he really wasn't looking forward to in the first place.  He shuddered at the thought of cramped space with closer quarters with other people so soon.  Not to mention when his traveling companions would be little help because they barely spoke to each other without a fair amount of hostility.  No, this flight did not bode well. 

He went through his mental checklist – the neighbors would watch the apartment, the perishable food was distributed through the building, and his Jeep would be parked at the ATF building, supposedly safe in the garage.  House was locked, keys ready, bags ready, so he was good to go.  Tanner went to sleep not looking forward to the next day.

"A travesty," Ezra muttered again.  He researched the facility on the Internet, finding the website listing activities focusing on teamwork and building cohesiveness, similar to what Chris explained.  If only he could get rid of the feeling he was one of the suckers born every minute… 

There was something he was missing here; he was just so tired and so angry he could not get his thoughts together.

"I spent months establishing a rapport, working through the man's blatant and exorbitant paranoia, bring in the miscreant, and how am I rewarded?  In Miami, but not for a relaxing vacation…no…  I'm evaluating instructors for survival and agility training for high risk situations.  High risk.  Place them in a tin can with those cretins, ask them to watch your back, and I'll show you high risk."  He shook his head while folding the last of his clothing into his bag.  "And it is certainly no vacation with those same three cretins who do not want to go, either."

He paused.  "And now I'm talking to myself."  Shaking his head, he put his bags by the door and went to bed.

"You're taking this well," Nathan commented to Josiah. 

Sanchez looked up from his packing.  "Maybe we can find some peace."

Jackson scoffed.  "Maybe when someone's beaten unconscious."

"There is peace in unconsciousness," Josiah granted, "Whether I am the giver or the receiver."

"Or maybe you're planning on being as difficult as possible for this trip."

"That could be helpful to test the abilities of the instructor."  The profiler looked at the paramedic.  "Do I have a fat head?"

"What?"  Nathan looked at him in shock.

"Do I have a fat head?  A balloon head?"

"No…where's this coming from, Josiah?"

"No reason."  Sanchez fell silent.

"Another one of those moments in the van JD, Chris and I aren't supposed to know about?"

"What?"  Startled blue eyes met the brown of his friend.

"I'd say Buck called you a balloon head at one point."

"Leave it, brother."

"Uh-huh.  Meaning you two nearly came to blows, or exchanged some hostility."

"I said leave it."

"I hope this trip works things out.  The team won't take the stress for too long unless you guys work this out."

Josiah ran a hand over his short hair and sighed.  "I know."

"Stupid, idiotic, moron of an idea," Buck muttered into the phone.  "How could you do this to me?"

"Because I need people like you to give me an honest opinion," the female replied.  "Given you were cooped up with everyone, it presented the perfect opportunity."

"Darlin'," Buck started.  "I don't want to spend time with them."

"Then you have a problem, because this is not open for change, especially the night before," she replied.

"You're getting cold."

"Buck, I can't change this, and frankly, I have no desire to do so," she said.  "Have fun.  Goodbye, sleep tight." 

"I'd sleep –"

"Buck…good night."

"'Night, darlin'."  He hung up the phone.

"She shot you down…again."  JD snickered while leaning against the doorframe.

"She did not shoot me down," Buck replied.  "We have an understanding."

"Yeah, right.  You ask, she says no."  Dunne chuckled. 

"I was trying to get us out of this cockamamie idea," Buck said.  "We don't need it."

"Buck…Miami.  If you're good, you'll finish early.  If you're really good, you, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra will work out whatever your problems are." 

"There's no problems," Wilmington flatly denied.

"Uh-huh, and Nathan likes it when we're hurt.  Did you honestly think the four of you could hide the fact you can't stand each other?"  The younger man's eyes locked with the older man's, read the surprise.  "You're not that good.  None of you.  Doc and I were hoping this trip would do you guys some good."

Buck swallowed.  "You're too perceptive, kid."

"We're family, Buck.  Not much gets past us.  So, that said, if there's anything I can do, let me know.  Otherwise, I'll see you in the morning when I drive you to the airport."  JD walked out.

JD's words echoed in his head.  Family…hell.  With every family, there were ups and downs; right now four of them were in a down.  Was that any reason to drag the others into it?  If JD noticed, he was sure Chris must have.  Suspicions started to form in his mind.  Were they being set up?

Part Four

"Have fun," Nathan said, leaving Josiah at the airport. 

Josiah held back on the nasty comment immediately springing to his lips.  He waved instead, using his whole hand instead of the one finger he preferred at this time of morning.  Why couldn't they be on a later flight, instead of one leaving at seven fifteen in the morning?  Given airport security, he had to arrive two hours before his actual flight, getting up around four to make sure he was coherent when he arrived and didn't forget his gun or his identification hurt.

Much as he liked Harper, he wanted a later flight.  The intellectual part of his brain told him the time difference between Miami and Denver meant he would go forward in time two hours, requiring the early morning flight.  He would have preferred a red eye, or maybe something later in the day, but he accepted the way things were, especially because he could not change it. 

With the length of the check-in line, he knew his patience might just wear out.  The only good part was none of the other three had arrived yet, giving him a little bit of peace.  He decided to watch humanity, a favorite pastime.  A woman wearing a midriff-baring shirt with hip-hugging Capri pants caught his attention, especially with the interesting tattoos she kept exposing each time she bent over to shuffle her bag further along in the line, or the lacy white thong that appeared periodically.

"There's a sight to warm the eyes," a voice said behind him.  "Especially with the hell we're about to endure."

He nearly swung his bag backwards to take out the man behind him; he was not ready for Buck's commentary.  Instead, he allowed himself to be "startled" into "dropping" his bag on Buck's foot.

"Ouch, damn it!  What do you have in there?  Bricks?" 

"My air pump for my balloon head," Josiah calmly replied, blue eyes meeting Wilmington's dark blue.  "Gotta keep myself inflated."

Buck winced.  "I'm sorry about that, but you didn't have to drop your bag on my foot."

Josiah glanced down to see the sandals on Buck's feet.  Sandals…well, they were going to Miami, but he knew those books lining the bottom must have hurt when they hit bare toes.  "Sorry," he replied.  "You surprised me." 

"Hell, I think my little piggy might be broken."

"You want it to be?"  Josiah asked conversationally.

Buck opened his mouth to retort, holding back at the last second.  Family, he reminded himself; sometimes you just want to brain them, but you're stuck with 'em.  "Not particularly," he replied.  "I know we're getting on each others' nerves, and we really don't want to go, but come on.  Vacation on company time, and we get a free pass to be as rude as we want once we're there."

He could tell the older man was considering what he said, so he added to his argument.  "We're assigned seats together on the plane.  "Personally, I don't want to spend the flight ignoring the person beside me.  There will be enough problems when the other two get here."

The profiler considered, Buck hoping for the best.

"We're not done," he finally said.  "It'll be ugly when we get there."

"Aren't you the one that says we have to let things out?  We're getting a constructive way to do it," Buck countered with a smile.  "Besides, I hate ugly; we'll call it nasty."

"Call what you like; no holding back." 

"No holding back," Buck repeated.  He held out his hand.

Josiah shook it.

He hated mornings.  More specifically, he hated getting up in the mornings at a time when he usually went to bed on his days off.  Dealing with airports was not high on his list of things to do; nor was going to this asinine training.  Ezra Standish wanted time off to recoup from such a long assignment.  At the end of an assignment, he needed time to sort out and discard the characteristics of his undercover personality from his real personality.  This exercise was not allowing him to do that, and he resented the hell out of it.  He planned to be a problem.

Starting now.  He found the line for the flight, saw Josiah and Buck waiting in the throng, noticed first class was empty, and made a decision.  Ezra P. Standish would happily pay the difference for a first class ticket not to ride in coach like a sardine.  He went right to the counter, traded his ticket up, and left the other two still in line.  His hope remained they stayed blissfully unaware of his change in status.  The Southerner went through the security checkpoint, his freshly applied tags showing he was carrying, and found the first class lounge for the airline.  Not one iota of his being planned to go into that waiting area until it was time to board.  Period.  To hell with teamwork; it was Ezra first, foremost, and for himself.

The airport drove him to distraction.  He'd overslept this morning, making him run late, with only an hour to get through the security checkpoints before his flight boarded.  One look at the long line for check-in – even this early in the morning – told him he would not make the flight.  An idea struck him when he saw a shorter line – first class.  Much as he hated parting with the difference to fly first class, he could deal with a faster check-in and not miss the flight. 

Larabee might let that vein in his forehead explode if Vin missed the flight, especially since Chris said he would drive him to the airport.  Stupid move, Tanner, he told himself.  He wanted time alone, away from the others the ride would give him.  He snorted; that worked well.  If Larabee had come for him, he wouldn't be late and parting with extra money.  The Texan felt lucky there were first class seats available, and he still had thirty minutes to get to his gate.  No sense waiting; he headed through the security checkpoint with his special tags, reached the gate, finding Josiah and Buck sitting and watching a pair of early twenty-something women playing cards at their feet. 

More accurately, they were getting a free show from the girls in their low rider pants and short tops, exposing skin and thongs.  Vin understood Buck's fascination; Josiah's somewhat came as a surprise, but he figured when something was on display right in front of you, it was hard not to look.  Figuring not to interrupt their fun, he settled against one of the huge circular support posts.  He saw Ezra walking toward him, nodding his head in Standish's direction.

The Southerner gave a curt bob of the head in return, stopping beside him.  "Oh, my.  A full flight."

"Fer the suckers in coach," Vin replied.

Standish lifted an eyebrow in question.

"Runnin' late, so I switched up to first class."

"How nice.  So did I." 

Further investigation showed they sat next to each other in first class. 

"Lovely," Ezra mumbled.  "I have the aisle."

"Ya want the window, ya got it.  I can stretch my legs out."


"Ya talked ta the others?"

Standish lifted an eyebrow.  "Have you?"

"Good point."  Vin looked around, blue eyes landing on green.  "I ain't in the mood fer them."

"Nor am I."

"Don't feel like fightin' with ya, either, Ez."

"Personally, I prefer a pleasant flight." 

"Then we ain't gonna fight on the flight, save it fer the counselors?"

"We have an agreement."

"– Now boarding all first class passengers for Flight –"

"Our cue, Mr. Tanner."

"After you, Mr. Standish."  Vin motioned the Southerner ahead of him, using his periphery to see the glares Buck and Josiah were sending them.  He also did not look them in the face, figuring they had as much opportunity to change their tickets as he did.  More fool they; he was going to enjoy this flight.

"Son of a bitch," Buck swore.  "You see that?"

"I did," Josiah answered.  "Should have thought of that myself."

"You're not kidding.  We're in coach while they are catered to in first class.  Is it too late to change?"


"Things just got harder for them at this class."


Vin loved first class.  He had a bigger seat, it was soft, and he received special treatment.  Ez wasn't being a jerk, either, which made getting cooped up in this oversized flying can a little better.  It weren't Ez's fault they got stuck in the tin can because someone thought it would be funny, and Ez was the guy out front of the operation.  Ez also pulled his share of time in the tin can, so taking out his general piss poor attitude on the Southerner wasn't going to help. 

He heard Buck's voice when he boarded, and smiled to himself at the muttered comments about people leaving other people behind, forgetting where they came from. 

"No, Buck," he said in a whisper, "I just remembered where I can get ta now."

Ezra pretended not to hear Vin, privately impressed with his friend's mature outlook on life; one where personal comfort ranked a little higher in the general scheme of things.  It took some people years to reach the point where they could say, "I deserve better," and act on it.  Besides, if he had no choice in going to this farce, having Vin beside him did not hurt his feelings.  Vin could be a good companion, current troubles aside.

Josiah's patience neared the breaking point.  He was a patient man, oh yes, but it seemed the well ran dry all too often lately.  He felt the fool for not thinking of upgrading his ticket; he had the money to pay for it, and gladly would have done so.  Yet, here he was in coach because he lacked the foresight to do what Vin and Ezra did.  Looking at the fellow sardine travelers, he realized it was going to be a long flight.  He counted at least six kids under the age of five, three infants in carriers, and two or three potential loudmouths.  Not counting the folks who shared their life stories with the people around them, whether the people cared or not. 

Buck, bless him, gave the profiler the window seat.  Given they were of similar heights, Josiah preferred the window instead of the aisle because he could look out and see God's work from a wee bit higher than the ground.  He also could get his feet under the seat in front of him, giving his legs some room to stretch out.  Resolving to make the best of it, he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.

His ego still smarted.  Just for fun, to see if he still had it, he flirted with the twentysomethings in front of him in the waiting area.  They flirted back, making him feel good.  Until he walked to get some coffee and overheard one tell the other it was cute how the "old man" still thought he was good looking enough to attract her, and her friend agreed.  Her friend added insult to injury by saying he was dressed too young for his age, and the only thing he needed was socks to go with his sandals to make his outfit completely ridiculous.

The girl he was flirting with continued with the remark, "It would be different if he was rich, but he's flying coach.  Please.  I like the guy with the longer hair and faded jeans getting ready to board.  You can tell he's got money." 

Buck privately assured himself he would make sure Vin got a good comeuppance for both the first class upgrade, and for showing him up without doing a single thing. 

Maybe he needed to rethink his wardrobe; he didn't see anything wrong with his short-sleeved button-down Hawaiian print camp shirt (from Old Navy ™) and cargo shorts from that store.  He sure looked younger than Josiah, wearing jeans and a plain black t-shirt, with a homemade woven belt accidentally in style. 

A thump landed in the back of his seat.  He turned around to see an elderly woman blinking at him. 

"Oh, I'm sorry.  I just can't get this bag up into the overhead.  It's a little heavy."

"That's okay, ma'am.  I'll help you."  He lifted the bag to put in the compartment, his back screaming in protest, his arms quivering.  "You remembered the sink, ma'am?"

She giggled, a sound not compatible with her image.  "Bricks, actually.  I sold my house to move in with my daughter because I'm getting on in years.  She wanted some for the garden we're going to put in.  Remind us both of where we came from, and the good memories in that house." 

"That's right nice, ma'am.  All set."  Buck sat back down, ignoring the glares of the waiting passengers to get to their seats in the back.  At least Harper put them in the first row with some room.  He settled back for takeoff.

"We apologize for the delay.  Our oven is malfunctioning and needs to be repaired before we're allowed to take off.  Thank you for your patience, and flying with us."

"Can I put her in the oven?"  Buck asked Josiah, when the senior flight attendant announced it would not be much longer, her third announcement in ninety minutes.

"How about you first?  I'll see how you fit," Josiah grumbled.  "Move over."

"I'm over as far as I can."

"Then sit in the aisle."  Sanchez elbowed Wilmington in the stomach to get his arm from leaning over the armrest into the profiler's seat.

"Deflate yourself and you'll have room," Buck retorted.

"Mr. Standish, Mr. Tanner?  Might I offer you a beverage?  I've just been informed it will be another forty-five minutes before we can take off."  Sandy, their personal attendant, leaned down beside them.  "We really do apologize, but we do not have another plane to load everyone on, and by the time we did, this one would be fixed." 

"It's quite all right, Sandy.  Might I find out if the bar is open?  I would like something with a little bite to it."  Ezra gave her a winning smile.

"Well, we have the appletinis available.  Would you like one of those?"

"Yes.  Mr. Tanner?"

"I think I will partake, if Sandy doesn't mind."  Vin gave her a dazzling smile.

She blushed.  "It would be my pleasure.  Just make sure they are finished before we taxi, please."

"You have our word," Ezra solemnly replied. 

They watched her walk away.

"First class is real nice," Vin said.

"Oh, yes.  You're more informed, more room, and more service than in coach.  They don't know they are trapped back there for another forty five minutes before we even take off.  I wonder how Buck and Josiah are doing?"

"Do you care?" the Texan retorted.

"Honestly?  No."

"Me neither.  They didn't take advantage of the opportunity."

"Gentlemen?  Here are your appletinis." 

"Sandy, you are an angel of mercy," Ezra told her.

"Thanks, Sandy," Vin said. 

"My pleasure.  If you need anything, let me know."  She went back to her other two customers, talking softly with them in the back of first class.  There were only four people in first class on this flight, creating the illusion they were nearly alone on the plane.  Just don't look past the curtain; the masses were unhappy back there.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I know this has been a difficult flight so far, and we are now going to land in St. Louis for an unscheduled stop.  Let me assure you there is nothing wrong with the plane.  We are going to ask you deplane momentarily.  Your seats are guaranteed to be here, and you are welcome to leave your luggage aboard.  Thank you for your cooperation."

"You've got to be kidding me," Buck muttered.

"Bar?"  Josiah asked over the din of the complaining customers and screaming children.

"Bar," Wilmington agreed.  "I feel the need to be intoxicated before we take off again."

"Gentlemen, we are stopping in St. Louis.  One of our sister planes developed trouble, forced to land in St. Louis."  Sandy kept a smile on her face.  "Since we have almost twenty seats available in coach, and a number in first class, we were directed to land and pick up the passengers.  We apologize for the delay, and you will be given vouchers for another flight with our airlines, redeemable at any time.  We're also giving complimentary drinks for the rest of the flight." 

"We appreciate you telling us," Ezra said, his drawl thicker from the amount of appletinis he consumed. 

"Thank ya very much," Vin told her, his own words slightly slurred, matching Ezra drink for drink.

"You have the option of deplaning, which we are doing in coach, or you can remain seated," Sandy suggested. 

"We are just fine where we are, Sandy," Standish said.  "How long?"

"At least an hour, if not more.  Again, we apologize."

"Sandy, would it be possible for me to upgrade two of the coach passengers to first class?"  Ezra asked.

"Yer drunk," Vin said.

"Hay-ell, I must be," the Southerner drawled to Vin.  He fixed green eyes on Sandy.  "Could I?"

"Well, we would really appreciate the two additional coach seats; first class was not going to be full." 

"Charge me."  He pulled his credit card out of his billfold.  "Mr. Buck Wilmington and Mr. Josiah Sanchez.  Can you seat them right with us?  Much as I want to kill the fools, I can't leave them in the coach hell back there."

"I'm sorry to say they will not receive vouchers."  Sandy gave them an apologetic smile.

"That's just fine," Ezra said. 

"We'll take care of it."  She stepped away with his credit card, stopping at the in-flight phone.  After a few minutes, she returned with the card.  "Here you go, sir.  When we land, they will bring the receipt to me for you to sign." 


"What we will do is hold them from deplaning.  Once everyone else is off, we will move them up here, then move the first class passengers to the lounge to wait." 

"Reckon they'll think they're bein' detained."  Vin grinned.

For a non-stop flight from Denver to Miami, a reroute to St. Louis was not something Buck or Josiah wanted.  Not only did the drink service not offer cocktails, but they had been in these seats for hours.  Buck looked up when the flight attendant leaned forward between their seats.  

"Gentlemen, when we land, please remain in your seats and do not deplane."

"Why?"  Josiah asked. 

She looked around quickly, indicating the other passengers.  "Would you please be patient?  I can explain everything…later." 

"So much for our beer," Buck sighed.  "Yes, darlin', we'll stay put."

The flight attendant smiled her thanks. 

After a second approach to St. Louis required because another plane declared a fuel emergency and put everyone else into a holding pattern for almost an hour, the plane touched down, rolling to a stop.  Passengers deplaned, some taking their bags with them, some not.  It took almost thirty minutes for everyone to leave. 

A flight attendant, one not working the coach section, came over to them.  "Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Sanchez?"

"He's Sanchez."  Buck pointed.  "What's the problem?"

"I'm Sandy, gentlemen.  Are you familiar with Mr. Ezra Standish?" 

"That worthless piece of human waste up in first class thumbing his nose at me?  Yeah, I know him."

Sandy blushed at Buck's words.  "Well, Mr. Wilmington, you might want to revise your opinion.  Mr. Standish upgraded your seats to first class for the remainder of the flight.  We will ask you to deplane to our first class lounge until we're ready to reboard.  Of course, there will be complimentary cocktails and lunch served in the lounge."

"Let's go," Buck said.

"Bless his heart," Josiah added.  "I'll break him later."

Their first sight of Ezra and Vin involved watching the two stare at them and laugh. 

"Boys," Vin said.

"Gentlemen."  Ezra inclined his head, nearly tipping over.

"You're drunk!"  Buck exclaimed.

"I have been at the libations, and they were most tasty.  Shall we drink our lunch?"  Without waiting for an answer, Ezra headed toward the first class lounge.

"Good enough for me," Josiah said.  He followed Ezra, with Vin and Buck coming up behind.

Too many hours later, it was late afternoon, or early evening, in Miami.  Their flight was plagued with more problems when they attempted a reboard.  The luggage from the other flight was misplaced, resulting in them not boarding until the luggage was found and transferred.  The people became more and more restless the longer they were delayed from where they were, and the flight attendants could not keep up with the demands of the cranky passengers.

The exception to cranky sat in first class.  Four men made sure no one complained, having drunk themselves into happiness and joviality with each other.  Whenever someone voiced a complaint, the tall one with the mustache and the salt-and-pepper haired man both said they would happily put the complainer back in coach for the remainder of the flight.  The threat proved effective; however, the alcohol stores rapidly depleted.

Four very drunk, very happy, very friendly men arrived in Miami for their adventure.  They proceeded to the shuttle service, shoving and pushing each other good-naturedly, and riding to the facility.

A man and woman waited at the reception area.

"Hi, everybody! You're them boys from Denver who got delayed.  Welcome to Team First.  I'm Tedd Drew, but you can call me Teddy Drew, and this is my wife Barbara Sue Andrew, Barbie Sue Drew.  Just remember, before you leave, we'll have you believing in Team First – Trust Everyone, All Members – First.  Here, Teamwork is everything, and we'll teach you how to be a team!"  Teddy Drew took a breath. 

Four pairs of eyes glared at Teddy Drew.

"We, my friends, have been set up," Ezra pronounced.  "There will be a death."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Buck slurred.

"Death, singular or deaths, plural?" Josiah asked. 

"Get in line; I'll get ta the cowboy first," Vin said, his rasp and running words together nearly making his speech unintelligible.

"You've been drinking!"  Barbie Sue Drew exclaimed. 

"Thank you, Princess Obvious," Josiah added. 

All four burst into laughter, stopping when they saw the glares she aimed their way.

"Long flight."  Vin gave them a blue-eyed stare.  "We've been up since 'fore the roosters, and we've been travelin' even longer.  "Y'all try bein' cooped up in a tin can with a bunch of whiny folks for hours on end.  Y'all wanna argue with me?  Might be in yer best interest ta show us where ta sleep 'fore we get all pissed off and tear this place apart."

"Sleep, hay-ell," Ezra muttered.  "Taxi!"  He flipped out his cell phone.  "I'm sure we can find accommodations in Miami proper."

"They won't come here," Teddy Drew said.  "Unless I call them."

"Then you call them," Ezra suggested. 

"Now," Buck said. 

"Sorry, I won't do it."

"Boys, I know you've had a long day, and perhaps alcohol was not the best solution to your stress, so why don't I show you were you're bunking?  We've got a right nice cabin for you," Barbie Sue interjected.  "At least until morning, when you can call your Agency and find out if they'll let you out of training." 

They eyed each other, communicating silently, in order to make a decision.  Their decision was to stay for the night, then cuss out Chris and Harper in the morning. 

Part Five

Barbie Sue Drew strongly disliked alcohol.  She did not allow it in her house, nor did she allow it in her workplace.  Yes, the guests lived here during their stay, but her rules applied to everyone.  Having four men show up hours late and drunk was unforgivable.  Late she could understand; she called the airport to find out what happened to the flight, and received the "delayed" message repeatedly throughout the day.  Drunk, however, she did not; there were better options.

Her personal history with alcohol came from pledging a sorority her first year of college.  She was accepted, and at the mixer party between her sorority and their brother fraternity, she drank too much.  Her drinking resulted in her waking up in the hospital from alcohol poisoning, and not remembering how she got there.  Nor did she remember the fraternity brother who was mad at her for passing out while he was undressing.  She vowed never to lose control to alcohol again, and refused to drink a drop of it, up to and including food made with liquor. 

She walked with purpose to the door of the cabin spaced well away from the others.  All her cabins were spaced apart to insure the teams could freely argue without having interference from some other well-meaning teams.  In one hand she carried a metal garbage can lid; in the other, she held a metal spatula.  There were ways of dealing with drunks, and they had better shape up right now.  Yes, it was an hour before they were expected for breakfast, but she sincerely believed they would sleep through breakfast.  Since they were drunk the night before, they did not receive the talk about the rules of the camp.  The only time available in the busy schedule was to do so prior to breakfast, whether they liked it or not.  Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open to hear the sound of snoring.

"Disgusting," she muttered.  Propping the door open with a doorstopper, she stood just out of sight and weapons range.  With significant glee, she beat the metal lid with the metal spatula as hard as she could.  "RISE AND SHINE!" she yelled in her shrillest voice.  Her hands continued to whack the lid, creating horrible sounds that reverberated off the cabin walls and through hung over skulls.

"Aw, hell, lady, ya wanna get shot?"  One of the men appeared at the door, his gun in his hand.  He only wore boxers. 

She looked; she couldn't help it.  He was in good shape, and very attentive for recovering from a night's excess.  He noticed immediately where she was looking.

"Bucklin, door's fer ya," he yelled into the room, backing quickly away. 

"Is she naked?" a sleep-filled voice asked.

Barbie Sue gasped.  "HOW DARE YOU!" she yelled into the cabin.  "You are expected at the front office within twenty minutes.  This is not optional, and I expect an apology."  She stomped off, furious at their behavior.

"Did the odious woman leave?"  Ezra asked, not lifting the pillow from his head.  "Taking her metal instruments of torture with her?"

"Yeah.  Ya boys coulda warned me I was walkin' over in my shorts."  Vin shook his head, wincing after a second.  "I ain't havin' them appletinis again.  Second thought, maybe not so many."

"At least they deadened the pain of coming in here," Buck muttered.  He stretched, scratched his stomach, rolled over, getting onto the ladder down from the top bunk.  He missed a step, falling to land on his butt.  "Damn it.  We're not kids sent to summer camp; we're grown men.  Don't need bunk beds and enforced closeness."  Standing, he rubbed his offended posterior, looking in on the bottom bunk to see Josiah blissfully sleeping and snoring.

"I was too intoxicated to care last night."  Ezra removed the pillow from his head, his eyes taking inventory of their cabin.  "Dear Lord.  This place is almost worse than the bunkhouse at that Old West reenactment you forced me to last year.  Rustic hell."

"It's better," Buck muttered.  "There's two bathrooms with running water here.  No outhouse."

"Lucky me…modern plumbing."  Standish rubbed his eyes.

"Ain't that bad, Ez," Vin supplied.  "Like an efficiency motel room.  Mini-kitchen with fridge and microwave, couple couches around a TV, our bunks in the corner, and a desk fer writin'.  Nice view out the back."

"We are on the fringes of the Everglades, Mr. Tanner.  Mosquitoes, snakes, and lest I forget, alligators."

"Couple relatives of yours, Ezra?"  Buck joked. 

"Your ancestors," the Southerner replied.  "I call first shower."

"You'll use all the hot water," Wilmington complained.  "Someone wake 'Siah; his snoring's killing my head.  My butt hurts, and he's grating my last nerve."  He paused.  "Just might smother him with the pillow to make him stop."

"I believe I will use cold water; there will be no steam to make me nauseous or dizzy.  I refuse to start my morning on a fall like you, Buck."  Standish stood, staggered a few steps, and fell back against the bunk bed support, nearly falling into the bottom bunk.  "Mr. Tanner, I insist you quit moving the room."

"Hell, Ez, I want it ta stop too."  Vin rubbed his temples. 

Josiah snored on. 

"Josiah!"  Buck called loudly.  "Ow," he whispered, holding his head.

"Not so much volume, Mr. Wilmington."  Standish gripped the support tighter; eyes stayed screwed shut, face contorted in pain.

"Why don't ya just shoot yerself and get it over with?" asked Vin.  "Reckon that'll hurt less than yer bellowin', and I won't hear ya whine anymore today."

Buck turned to face the bunk beds he shared with Josiah.  "His snoring's not bothering the rest of you?  It's like a giant balloon deflating, the lips flapping together."  Wilmington paused.  "Oh, hell, I hope he didn't hear that." 

Sanchez snored, the visual in everyone's mind now.

"All right, Mr. Wilmington, point made.  I did not need that visual, nor do I wish further colorful descriptions."  Ezra bent down to explore the floor around him, coming up with an item.  "Ha."

Standish took his prize – one of his shoes from yesterday – and tossed it in Josiah's direction.  He struck the covers atop Sanchez somewhere around the stomach.

Buck stood beside the bunk bed, almost hovering, watching with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

A meaty fist came out and caught Buck in the thigh, sending him off-balance to land on his backside – again.  "Son of a bitch!"  Wilmington yelled.  He rolled on his back, gripping his upper thigh and massaging it.  "Cramp.  Cramp.  Ow.  Cramp."

"Who's next?"  Sanchez bellowed, rolling to a sitting position with both fists clenched, just missing smacking his head on the bunk above him.  "Who hit me where it counts?"

"Oh, hay-ell," Ezra muttered, half-running and half-staggering across the room into the bathroom, nowhere near a straight course, shaving kit in hand.  He slammed the door behind him. 

Three men groaned at the slam.

The shower started.

"I hope you drown!"  Josiah yelled.  He pushed himself out of the bunk, nearly stepping on Buck when he put his feet down.  "Teach you for standing too close," he grumbled to the still glaring, half-whimpering Wilmington.  He strolled into the other bathroom, closing the door.

"Where'd I put my gun?"  Tanner grumbled. 

"Give it to me when you find it," Buck said. 

"Ice water!"  The screech came from Ezra's bathroom.  "How rude!"

"We ain't takin' our showers at the same time, Buck," Vin announced.  "Reckon I might shoot me a Southerner fer shriekin' like a scared girly-girl."

"Leave me some hot water for this thigh.  Josiah packs a mean punch first thing."

The two men worked in quiet, pulling out their clothes and kits.  A short while later, Josiah came out humming to himself, good humor apparently restored. 

"Morning, brothers," he said to Buck and Vin.  "It's great to be alive."  Wearing only a towel, he dropped it to dress in his underwear, followed by comfortable jean shorts and a gray short-sleeved polo shirt with the ATF's logo.  "Ready to face the day?"

"I hate you," Buck growled.  "I really hate you right now."

Sanchez chuckled.  "Save it for the class.  What time is breakfast?  Looking forward to some oatmeal, or maybe some scrambled eggs and bacon.  Maybe even some French toast, or pancakes swimming in thick, gooey syrup.  Sausage and country gravy sounds even better."

"Ugh.  Food – bad."  Wilmington shuddered. 

"That's right; ya didn't hear.  We're expected at the main office about –" Vin looked at his watch.  "Five minutes from now."

"I'll go say our hellos."  The profiler attached his weapon to his belt, checked the battery on his cell phone, and slipped on his sandals.  "See you in a few."  Sanchez left.

"He left?"  The second bathroom door opened, revealing a somewhat more composed Ezra Standish. 

"Yeah."  Buck chuckled.

"Good.  I can prepare myself in peace."  Ezra closed the door.

"Ya wanna go first?"

"Go ahead.  Still trying to get past the thought of scrambled eggs, bacon, and oatmeal he put in my head."  Buck rubbed his stomach looking slightly green.  "Don't want to think about the sausage and country gravy."

"Ignored him the first time; harder the second.  Keep it up, Buck, and I'll shoot ya later." 

"Good morning," Josiah greeted.  "How are you today?"

"Good morning," Barbie Sue replied.  "Where is the rest of your team?"

"They'll be along."  He shrugged.  "Could you tell me what exactly we'll be doing here?  I'm a little unclear on the details."

"What were you told?"  Teddy Drew asked.

"I was told we were being sent here because of our experiences to –" Josiah stopped, wondering if he was supposed to reveal this program was under review.

"Because of your experiences to what, Agent Sanchez?"

"Receive training in teamwork," he finished.  Having seen the Team First logos, along with the pictures of different groups, and remembering snatches of the conversation the night before, he gave them the answer they expected.  "We're having a hard time getting along lately," he confided. 

"You seemed to be friends when you were drunk last night," Barbie Sue commented. 

"We were drunk, ma'am, because we had a very bad flying experience.  Usually we don't overindulge on a work-related detail." 

"Get out of my way," a familiar voice grumbled.

"Go the right way, and I will," came the reply in a Texas accent. 

"Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, if you please?  We are late," the third voice reminded them. 

Teddy Drew opened the door, admitting the three arrivals.  "Come in." 

Like Josiah, they dressed in an ATF polo shirt and shorts, the style and colors dictated by their personal preferences.  Procedures required they dress for training classes with one of the ATF logo shirts; pants could be anything as long as they were appropriate for the activity and in good condition.  For some reason, the ATF felt it necessary to dictate training clothes, but no one argued because it was better than going to a training class in suit and tie, which the ATF could enforce in a heartbeat.  Vin wore a red short-sleeve shirt, the top button undone, with long jean shorts and battered sneakers; Buck chose the light blue short-sleeve unbuttoned with navy cargo shorts and sandals; Ezra wore the white short-sleeved shirt, ironed to crispness, his pleated khaki shorts pressed with white socks and pristine white running shoes. 

"I am willing to forgive your indiscretion last night," Barbie Sue told them once they sat down.  "As long as you comply with the rules."

"What are the rules?"  Ezra asked. 

"No weapons.  They will be in the individual weapons lockers we have here, and you will have the only key to your locker."

Four men exchanged glances, agreeing without words to submit. 

"Second, no calling for food delivery, or cabs, or going out for beer runs.  All your food will be supplied here."

They agreed – for now.

"Third, you gentlemen expressed to us last night you felt this was a mistake and you needed to leave.  I will allow you one phone call in my presence to speak with your supervisors to verify your attendance.  However, I received information you would attend and participate in our classes, and your names were very clear on the applications.  Your Instructor Harper said to tell you, and I quote, 'if they quit, leave, or refuse to participate, they are suspended,' unquote."  She gave them a hard stare.  "Her words, not mine."

"Lovely sentiments," Ezra remarked.

"My next rule is no alcohol."

All four men stared hard at her. 

"Are evening liberties off premises allowed?"

"If I feel you have earned them," she replied to Ezra.  "However, returning in the inebriated state you were in last night will not be tolerated.  No alcohol means no alcohol."

"Keep the bad news coming," Buck said, motioning her to continue. 

"Bad news?  These rules are designed for your benefit.  On that topic, no physical altercations permitted.  If you do have a physical altercation, you will be sent home."  Barbie Sue raised a hand.  "Before you consider this as a method of leaving, Instructor Harper advised me if you do degenerate to the point of physicality, she will be forced to start an investigation.  She said you would understand what that meant."

"The she-devil's tail has stung," Ezra said just loud enough for the other men, but not Barbie Sue, to hear. 

"Now, we are here to help you become a team."  Teddy Drew smiled at them.  "We'll provide advice, counseling, step in when needed, and leave you alone when needed.  You just need to complete the activities." 

"Help us become a team?"  Buck started laughing until his head hurt, causing him to stop and wince.  "We don't want to be together, Teddy Drew and Barbie Sue.  We just spent months cramped in a space smaller than this office, to say it was a tin can would be generous.  All we could do was stare at each other, but it was more like fall over each other and certainly step on each other's toes, way too often from ten to eighteen-hour stretches at a time.  We want to be left alone, not playing some stupid games or doing some idiotic task."  He took a deep breath.  "No offense."

"Well, now I know why Instructor Harper left such specific instructions for you."  Teddy Drew continued to smile, ignoring the bulk of Buck's outburst.  "You do need our help, and we do love a challenge, don't we, Barbie Sue?"

"Oh yes," Barbie Sue enthused.  She clapped her hands in glee.  "We'll make them our special project, Teddy.  They already know how to be a team, we saw that last night, but they've forgotten.  We can really help." 

"Dear Lord, take me now," Ezra groaned.

"Amen, brother, amen," Josiah echoed.

"Team First, gentlemen.  Trust Everyone, All Members.  We'll help you relearn that trust in each other."  Teddy looked ecstatic with his new "special project." 

"I'm killin' me a cowboy.  Y'all get in my way, I shoot ya too."  Vin crossed his arms and glared at the others.

"Get in line," Buck growled.  "After I take care of Harper."

For Vin, this looked like it was going to be a horrible trip.  He snuck into the bathroom during breakfast to call Chris, his so-called friend, and chew him out.  Instead, he was surprised to find he had no service. 

"Aw, hell."  Frustrated, he put his phone away, figuring on trying again later in the day when he could get away from the others.

He didn't want to play nice with Buck, Ezra, and Josiah; he just wanted time by himself.  Now, with them the Drew special project, they would be forced to be around each other.  He resolved to be as mean as possible; see what the Drews could do about it. 

Josiah wanted peace and harmony.  His balance felt off, making him question every decision he made.  Was it the right step, or was it a misstep?  Being in the cabin with the other three, in bunk beds no less, reminded him of the tin can.  At least they could do things to each other in the cabin they couldn't in the tin can, as long as they weren't caught. 

He didn't even bother to call anyone; he just sucked it up, making sure he ate large portions of the greasy foods to make his teammates ill to their stomachs.  Fools; they laughed at him about his hangover remedy, but it worked.  He wasn't suffering from a headache or queasy stomach. 

Good cheer for everyone; that'll annoy them.

If pressed, Ezra would say this was the third to last place he wanted to be.  The last place would be back with the mark talking about shades of gray.  The second was in the tin can again with these three.  However, the cabin came close; the confines closed in on him.  He did not know how he would survive the classes without causing them severe harm. 

All of his character traits from his assignment swirled in his head, forcing him to think before he spoke or acted to make sure it was Ezra P. Standish, and not his persona.  Why couldn't they have been left alone?

He started planning an intricate payback for Harper, figuring on having it meticulously in order by the time he got back to Denver.

Shoot me now, Buck thought for the sixth time.  He hated hangovers, and he knew better than to mix his drinks.  However, when they were free and he was already drunk, he didn't care.  With the dirty looks he was getting from Barbie Sue and Teddy Drew – what the hell kind of sissy names were they? – he wanted to leave. 

It wasn't his fault; he didn't release the silent but deadly in that office.  Damn near killed him with the smell, but he sat there stone-faced just like the other three morons he came here with for this idiotic class.  No one admitted to it, but it made things a damn sight uncomfortable for them all.  He could just tell Barbie Sue thought it was him because he was the loudmouth.  He didn't understand why she seemed immune to his animal magnetism, but she was and it looked like she meant to make his life miserable.  Not that it wasn't already.  Silently he glared at his three companions, declaring to himself that one of the sons a bitches would pay dearly for letting him take the blame. 

The silent but deadly methane release was just one more score to settle.

Barbie Sue smiled at the participants gathered inside a large gymnasium type building.  "Okay, everybody, it's time for the first exercise.  We've come up with names for your teams to make it easy.  It's based off the name of your hometown.  From Baltimore, we have the Blue Bombers.  We have Denver's Darlings, California's Condors, Raleigh's Reds, the Texas Tornados, and finally the Ypsilanti Yankees." 

"Hello, Darling," Josiah said to Buck.    

"You want to keep your teeth, Darling?"  Wilmington replied. 

"I know it's cute, like me."  Barbie Sue giggled.  "We're here to have fun, right?" 

All other participants laughed, most shooting amused looks to the "Darlings." 

"Blue Bombers, front and center."  Teddy Drew directed them to the large square piece of mat dead center in the room.  A long rope lay coiled in the middle of the mat. 

Five men and women came forward, standing loosely on the edges of the square. 

"Problem solving is our first activity.  What we have here is a rope with two ends.  You need to make a square out of the rope in the shortest amount of time.  The catch – you will be blindfolded.  You tell us when you think you have it, and we'll tell you yes or no, but no suggestions on how to correct it.  You'll have to talk to each other to figure out how to fix what you have done."  Teddy Drew looked at the Bombers.  "Ready?"

"What the heck," one of the women said good-naturedly.

Teddy and Barbie Sue began blindfolding the team, positioning them where they wanted them in a half-circle around the coiled rope.  "Okay, go." 

"This is stupid," Buck muttered to Vin. 

"Ya think?"

It took a few minutes for the Bombers to make the square, with only a couple mistakes.  Everyone applauded when they finished, mostly because Teddy and Barbie Sue motioned them to, not because they wanted to clap.

"We'll bring up the Yankees, next, let them show us how it's done." 

"I can hardly contain my excitement."  Ezra studied his nails. 

A squabble broke out between two of the Yankees, the only excitement in their performance.  The two people apologized at the end of it, looking like they meant it, taking the sting out of their earlier words. 

The Reds ripped through the exercise; they appeared to be overachievers and fully into participating with the activities.  It was clear the Darlings were not the only ones irritated by the goody two shoes attitudes.  The only ones receiving more dirty looks were the sugar sweet twins of Teddy Drew and Barbie Sue.

"Gentlemen," Ezra half-whispered to the other three.  "Shall we release some frustration during this exercise?  Show them what a challenge we will be?" 

"Game on," Buck replied.

"I'm in," Josiah agreed.

Vin nodded.

"Okay, how about the Darlings?  Are you ready?"  Barbie Sue called.

"Ready, willing, and able," Buck answered. 

The four men took up their positions, allowing the pair to blindfold them.

"Okay, go."

All four immediately bent down for the rope, banging heads. 

"Watch it."


"I've got it, dummy.  Let go."

"I already have an end," a southern accent announced.  "Find the other one and give it to me."  Ezra continued to stand in the middle with his end, patiently waiting for the other.  If he had both ends, they could stretch the rope out straight to find the length.  Once they did that, they could pace out the distance between the two ends, find the centers on both lines, and pull them out to create the square. 

"Here it is.  Hang on, I'm getting it to you," Josiah said.  He swung it out in front of him to find where the bodies were in relation to him.

"Ouch, damn it.  Not so hard," Buck complained.  "I ain't Ezra."


"My arm.  When I get this blindfold off –"

Thwack, thwack.

"Was it necessary to strike me in the face, Mr. Sanchez?"  Ezra complained.  "Give me the end."


"Sorry, thought you had it," Josiah muttered.  "Hold your hand out again and I'll find it somehow."

"Just hold the end up and I will take it."

"You want it?  Come get it," Sanchez threatened. 

Ezra reached around blindly until he encountered a body.  Holding back a grin, he reached forward with significant force to land an openhanded, palm first smack on Sanchez, keeping his hand there to follow the shoulder down to the hand.  He snatched the rope end.  "All right, children, we have the ends together.  Let me get to a corner."  Using his foot as a guide, he felt his way to the edge of the mat, tracing the line of it to the corner. 

"I'm set.  Stretch it out," he announced.  His fingers tightened on the ends, knowing the attempt to knock him off his feet would come soon.

Buck felt ridiculous, hated being here, and thought this was a stupid exercise.  Figuring on a little payback, he bent down, grabbed a chunk of rope, and whipped it up. 


"Watch it, ya moron."

"Making sure it doesn't have any kinks," he announced in a singsong voice.  Taking a couple steps backward until he felt the tension in the line, he cranked both sides – he held a chunk in each hand – up and out. 

"Ya want the rope up yer butt?"  Vin casually asked. 

"Gentlemen, please," Barbie Sue interjected.  "Play nice with each other."

Screw this, Buck thought.  He jogged diagonally backward with the rope until the two loose sides connected, pulling them almost tight.  Almost, because when he found the point where it folded at the middle, he wrapped his hand in it, bracing himself.  Using his strength, he yanked it hard left, then immediately right.  Two satisfying whacks resounded in his ears, telling him he nailed both Josiah and Vin with the rope.  He pulled even harder, a sudden jerk back, to hear Ezra squawk and a muted thud. 

"Asshole," Vin yelled.

"Payback," Josiah promised.  "Don't sleep tonight."

"Gentlemen, please!"  Barbie Sue implored.

"I believe you have that end, Mr. Wilmington.  As your end grows near," Ezra threatened. 

"Let me know when you sissies are ready to square this out," he announced.  A sudden sharp pull in the rope announced Ezra had returned to his position at the corner. 

"Pace it out," Ezra suggested.  "The sooner we finish, the sooner we hurt him."

A couple of places on his body stung from the rope hitting him.  He'd forgotten, stupid fool, ropes were part of Wilmington's stock in trade.  He only had to blame himself for the shots he took from the rope.  Figuring on a little retribution, he grabbed onto the rope and worked his way down to Ezra.  Counting the steps it took to reach Buck, when he got there, he kicked the other man's shin.

"Bring it, boy," Buck warned him.  "Just bring your A-game when we're done.  You'll need it."

"Ya need ta remember ta show, old man," Vin shot back, walking back the line to the halfway point.  "'Siah?"

"Almost there," Sanchez answered. 

He felt Josiah across from him.  "On three?"


"One, two, three."  Vin backed up with his side of the rope until he could go no further.

"Set," Josiah called.

Applause broke out.

"Well, Denver Darlings, you showed you can make the square, but you weren't square dealing with each other," Teddy announced.  "Drop the rope; I'll take it.  Go ahead and remove your blindfolds."

Vin ripped his off, glaring at Buck.  He raised a finger, motioning the two of them would square off later. 

"Okay, let's have our next team.  When we're done, we'll talk about what could have gone better for all the teams," Barbie Sue announced. 

Vin didn't mention the giant red marks on Ezra's face where he was slapped with the rope; nor did he look to see what he had on him from where Buck hit him.  When they left the mat, they moved far away from each other.  He knew if they stayed close, they'd end up rolling around on the mat settling things the way they usually settled things, not with this teamwork bullshit.

His arm stung from Buck, his chest stung from Ezra's slap.  His only thought now was his teammates were going to pay.  His patience was gone.  Josiah Sanchez stared across the mat at his scattered teammates, grateful for the break from them, dreading what was coming next.  They'd kill each other.  At the very least, someone was going to the hospital.


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