All The King's Horses (cont.)

By: Heidi




Part Six

Chris sighed.  He'd rather not go to Miami for this leadership class, yet he found no way out of it.  If he conspired in sending his men to a team-building seminar without full disclosure to them, he had to take his lumps for it during this class.  Part of him just wanted to say forget it, tell Harper he wasn't going.  The responsible part of him, the team leader, which would win regardless of his personal feelings, said he was going.

"You ready?" asked his co-conspirator.  "Or you want to gather more wool, fruitlessly trying to escape your fate?  Are you thinking of throwing me out and locking the door?  I will not go away."

"Why did I invite you in to begin with?" he muttered to Harper, the Instructor standing at the front door watching him with an amused expression. 

She laughed.  "I'll be out front while you lock up."  Turning away from him, she left his house.

He wasn't sure if he should be insulted she was taking him to the airport, or relieved he wasn't going to have to take a cab, or the other option of driving himself and leaving his truck in long-term parking.  Mary would have offered him a ride if he had said he needed one, but he had enough on his mind without having to deal with the tangle of feelings their current murky status brought.  Nathan said Rain would come get him, like she was getting JD at Casey's and taking both men, but Harper offered first, and he didn't really feel like watching a goodbye scene between happy lovers.  Shaking off his thoughts, he made sure everything was secure, the instructions available for Nettie and Casey for checking on his horses, and said goodbye to his Labrador Seven.  Casey would be taking him home with her in a few hours to stay the week, something the black puppy would adore. 

Chris nodded, partly to assure himself he'd done everything he needed to do, and partly to gather the courage for a week of hell.  Hefting his bag, he enabled the alarm, locked the front door, and stopped beside Harper's car. 

"I'm driving," he announced. 

"Like hell you are," she retorted.

"You can't drive."

"The state of Colorado says I can."

He smirked.  "Best you can do?"

"Oh no, Christopher, and you know better than that.  I'm barely warming up.  However, I will let you drive.  It will be worth it to see your face."  Harper tossed him her keys.

"See my face about what?"  He caught the jangling ring, stared hard at her, trying to read her.  Even after all this time, when she wore that particular expression, he couldn't guess with accuracy what she was thinking.  Giving her a grimace for her blatant use of Christopher, knowing he hated it, he moved around to the driver's side.  Deciding to make her uncomfortable, he said, "You're going to confess to having fantasies about me."  Offering his most powerful smirk and a wink, he waited for her response. 

"If I did, I definitely would not tell you.  Your ego's already large enough it couldn't take the deflation from my rejection.  By the way, your comment about confession just cost you a delay in my sharing information about your teammates."  She got in and closed the door, leaving him staring over the roof at the now-empty spot.

Uh-oh, he thought.  What did they do?  They were only gone a day…well, two if he counted today.  Putting his bag in the back, he settled himself in the driver's seat.  First thing was to adjust the seat back, his preference not knee knocking the steering wheel.  Waiting until they were on the highway toward Denver and the general direction of the airport, he flicked his eyes over to her.  Damn her, she wore an evil smile, silently lording her knowledge over him.  

"I knew they would make an impression, but I had hoped you would have made sure they knew the importance of their visit," she said, sugary-sweet disappointment in her tone.

"What did they do?"  Part of him dreaded the answer.  There were so many possibilities, all of them bad, none helpful to keeping his nerves calm.  Calm, hell, he'd settle for not having to worry about his blood pressure shooting through the roof before he saw Nathan and was forced to sit down for his own good.

"Later.  So, are you looking forward to going?"

"Harper," he warned. 

"Fine.  I'll let you sulk in silence."  She stared out the window.

If he didn't know what a circus it was to get his weapon through airport security, he would pull over right now and make her talk at gunpoint if necessary.  As it was, he was ahead by her letting him drive.  I can outlast her, he thought, focusing on the drive.  I will outlast her, he vowed.

They rode in silence for a few minutes before she spoke.  "Did you know their flight was delayed?"

Still outlasting her, she's making conversation, he thought to himself.  Safe to answer this one.  "Yeah.  I called the airport to make sure their plane took off.  It was at least two hours."

"Apparently the oven broke, so they were stuck at the gate, on the plane, for those two hours," she confirmed.

Two hours sitting in the airplane without going anywhere – he didn't want to think about it.  Vin must have been going crazy just sitting there in an oversized metal tube surrounded by people and unable to get up or walk around.  Josiah might have tried to calm him down; Buck probably flirted with all the eligible women; Ezra would have complained to anyone that would listen.  He didn't receive any reports of violence on the flight. 

"Did they have an outburst?  Really bad moods?" he guessed aloud.  "I know I would have been in one or made one, and I'm one of the quieter ones."

"You?  Yeah, right.  Did you know they had to approach twice because of a plane low on fuel declaring an emergency?  Or how about they had to land in St. Louis and wait, on a supposed non-stop flight, because the airline tried to fill their plane with those on the broken bird?" 

"You trying to cheer me up?"  Chris flicked a glance at her, finding her staring at him.

"Trying to prepare you," Harper replied.  "Consider your state of mind if this happened to you."

"Mine wouldn't be good.  What did they do?"

"Did I mention Vin and Ezra upgraded their seats to first class, leaving Josiah and Buck in coach from here to St. Louis, through all the delays?"

From what he saw on the surveillance tapes for the case, and heard between them before he sent them on this trip, it was amazing Josiah hadn't stretched Buck until he broke; the fact they were stuck in coach together during those delays scared him.  Not to mention Vin and Ezra's abandonment to first class.  "Please tell me Buck and Josiah didn't have seats together."

"Right next to each other.  Vin and Ezra enjoyed a nearly empty first class."

He knew where this was going.  "They got into a fight, didn't they?  How much damage am I paying for?"

"You are not paying any damages.  Ezra did something quite interesting.  Let's see if you understand why."

"What?"  His fingers tightened on the steering wheel.  The use of Ezra and interesting in the same sentence usually was someone's way of saying words couldn't adequately explain what Ezra did.

"When it was announced they were landing in St. Louis, Ezra upgraded Josiah and Buck's tickets.  The last leg of the flight the four sat together in first class."

"Self-preservation," Chris said immediately, relief filling him.  "He knew if he didn't, they'd kill him when they landed."

"Is that all?" she prompted.

"They owe him money.  He'll hold that over their heads." 

Harper scoffed.  "Are you listening to yourself?  The way you're describing Ezra, he sounds like he does nothing unless there is an ulterior motive benefiting him."

Shame flooded Chris when the meaning of her remarks set in.  He had to stop looking for the reasons behind everything Ezra did, and just accept an act of kindness as part of the man.  "Sorry," he mumbled. 

"It's Ezra you owe an apology to, and more understanding."

"Don't tell me how to handle my team," he snapped at her.  "We've been over this before; you give me advice, but you don't dictate."  His eyes glared at her before flicking back to the road ahead.

"Easy, Chris.  I thought the same things about Ezra, but then I wondered.  Why would Ezra upgrade the tickets, unless it was to save them from the hell in coach?  The money's not important to him, at least not the amount involved, and he can defend himself against the others."

"He did a nice thing because he wanted to?"  Chris considered.  "Yeah, he does that when you least expect it, but you rarely find out about it.  He upgraded them because it goes back to the whole brothers theory."

"I'll pick on my brothers, but I won't let anyone else?"  She grinned.  "Yes, I'm quite familiar with that theory myself.  I think Ezra believes in it, whether he wants to admit it or not."

"Okay."  Chris nodded.  "What else did they do?"

"What makes you think there's more?"

"I know them," he replied.  "There's always more.  A never-ending more; just when I think it can't get any worse, they still surprise me." 

She shrugged.  "Barbie Sue called me to thank me for sending them."

"Barbie Sue?"  Horror filled Larabee's voice.  "What the hell kind of place did you send them?"

"Oh no, Christopher, you asked me to send them, so don't pin this solely on me when we're both responsible.  Besides, Barbie Sue Drew and her husband Teddy are good people.  They care about what they are doing."

"Barbie Sue Drew and Teddy Drew?  Sounds like my worst nightmare."

"No, their worst nightmare arrived the other day.  Drunk."

Chris swallowed.  "They were drunk?"  He felt his face start to flush, and his blood pressure start to rise exponentially.

"Yes, smelling of apples and booze.  The apples came from the appletinis on the flight.  Complimentary in first class, I'm told, because of the delays."

"You snooped," he accused. 

"You bet I did," she replied.  "My reputation's on the line for sending them.  I warned Teddy to expect a challenge; I had to make sure they showed up.  So I called the airline and convinced them to get a member of the crew to call me relating to an investigation, tell me what happened.  I asked Barbie Sue for full details."

"An investigation?  Who's dealing the crap now?  Someone abusing their position, maybe?"

"Not really, when I'm ordered to do so by my Assistant Director Orin Travis, based on his being within hearing when I took the call from Barbie Sue," she retorted.  "On speaker, at his order.  Chew on that one, because I have to report to him when I complete the investigation.  Lucky for you, I'm telling you what Travis didn't hear, and won't be included in the investigation that I've termed non-relevant to showing up armed and intoxicated to training."

"Son of a –" Chris cut off.  "Travis and I are going to talk about starting an investigation."

"Leave him be.  A supervisor hearing something he has to take action on can't ignore too much, especially when there are people already breathing down his neck about your team.  He's just as worried about Team Seven as you are; maybe more.  He is the front line taking the abuse; he protects you as much as he can.  But it will help if you have a plan of action, read between the lines: in-house discipline, I can give him."

"I'll speak to them about showing up drunk for training."  Chris flexed a hand on the steering wheel, making a fist and releasing it.  "There will be repercussions, but nothing official in their files.  Their community service hours went up significantly.  How's that?"

"Officially, that will go a long way, especially considering the damages your team accrues whenever released on an unsuspecting populace.  Thirty-day performance plans might go farther.  Just so you know, they paid for their behavior down there.  Barbie Sue drove them out of bed before sunrise to discuss the rules.  Greeted them at the door of their cabin banging on a metal trash can."

A chuckle escaped with the visual.  He'd seen his boys with hangovers, and they weren't pretty even when they woke up on their own.  Appletinis weren't their usual drink, meaning their bodies would react differently to the alcohol.  "Bet that went well."

"She said, and I quote, 'Agent Tanner is quite in shape, however Agent Wilmington needs to learn some manners'." 

Chris burst out laughing.  "She's lucky they didn't shoot her."

"From the descriptions she gave me, they were nursing hellacious hangovers," Harper explained.  "Josiah was full of good humor, but the others were obviously dragging a bit."

"What else did they do?"  He could tell there was more; he was almost afraid to hear the rest.  Part of his brain already worked on the proper phrasing for the verbal counseling session, to make it not a reprimand but a suggestion of improved behavior.  Maybe he'd break down and use that thirty-day performance plan Harper kept, well, harping on him to use.  The plan put the person on probation for thirty days, and at the end, if successfully completed, it was signed off by the supervisor and filed for ninety days.  If the employee finished the ninety days without a relapse, the paperwork was destroyed.  He hated putting anything in writing, but these, if he wrote them right, like don't show up with alcohol on your breath at a training class, and made sure there were no training classes, they could be deleted in a matter of months without an official notation.  She took a deep breath, turning his thoughts away from the paperwork to hear the rest of it.

"Someone released methane in the rules of the camp meeting, but no one commented or claimed it.  I intend to leave that part out."

Larabee started coughing, his own face flushing with embarrassment. 

"Followed by a breakfast – Josiah eating scrambled and sunny-side up eggs in front of the others, along with sausage and country gravy, causing them to pass on their own meals.  But don't be afraid; they really shined during the first exercise."

"Oh, boy," he said, half-wincing.

"Rope exercise.  Put at least four people in the middle of a mat, give them a coiled rope, tell them to make a square out of it while wearing a blindfold.  I'm told there were several 'accidents' where the rope struck someone."

Chris nearly dropped his head into his hands; he felt a headache forming behind his eyes.  The only reasons he didn't was because he wasn't going to give Harper the chance to rub bad driving in his face.

"Followed by another team-building exercise of rolling a golf ball down open halves PVC piping into a tin can.  You have to roll it without stopping it from one end of the line to the other.  A few welts appeared on legs when people kicked each other, some slips with the pipes and elbows into the sides, and a few 'Whoops, I'm sorry, my hand twitched' whacks to the head when they thought Teddy and Barbie Sue weren't looking.  They were."

He groaned.

"And the best part – their team name is the Denver Darlings.  What mileage I will get out of that.  Speaking of mileage, here we are, at the airport.  Won't this be a fun trip for you?"  Harper laughed.  "Enjoy your training.  Call me if you have any problems."

"I'm calling you every night, lady."  He parked her VW along the curb, hopping out and grabbing his bag.

"I'm flattered," she replied.  "But not necessary."

"With them, it is.  Thanks for the ride."

She passed him at the driver's door, taking the keys from his hands.  "Anytime, cowpoke."  Harper slipped behind the wheel, adjusting the seat up where he had moved it back. 

"Harper."  He leaned in real close, crowding her in the confines of the VW.  "Don't call me cowpoke."

"Sure thing, Christopher."  Stretching, she kissed him on his cheek.  "Have a lovely time."  She nearly took him out with the door, hitting him in the back of his legs and buttocks. 

He jumped back smirking.  "Looks like you needed the space away from me more than I did."

"Cowboy!" she snapped, slamming the door and taking off.  She nearly ran over his foot. 

Chuckling, he whistled his way through check-in.  Sometimes, flustering Harper with innuendos made his day.  The thought sustained him until he waited to board, remembering what she said about his friends.  His temper started to simmer, nearly causing him to rip Nathan and JD's heads off with strong, inappropriate language when they sat beside him at the gate. 

Part of his mind could not wrap around what happened.  They showed up drunk.  Not just had a beer or two drunk, but all-out drunk.  By the time the remainder of Team Seven boarded and took off for Miami, he was ready to blow.  Instead, he settled for giving the two unfortunate souls with him a lecture about proper training behavior, pointing out the error of the others' ways in nauseating detail, much to Nathan and JD's amusement.

"You must be kidding," Ezra protested.  "I refuse."

"No way, no how."  Buck waved his arms and head no.  "Not happening."

"Someone's gonna die," Vin said. 

"Did I hear a volunteer from our group?"  Josiah threatened. 

All four glared at each other, visually sizing their potential opponents up.

"Welcome, everyone.  Today's exercise is teamwork in competition."  Barbie Sue beamed beside the monstrosity.  "Moon Bounce Volleyball."

"That's fer kids," Vin called out, "We ain't little." 

"This is the adult version," Teddy explained.  "You'll have fun.  Every team will get fifteen minutes to practice bouncing before we start the games, two teams at a time.  The winner of the game gets fifteen minutes added onto tomorrow's exercise."

"My joy escapes me," Ezra deadpanned.

"It ain't your joy that needs an escape.  It's us," Vin shot back. 

They watched while the other teams took their turns practicing.  For some reason, Barbie Sue and Teddy Drew sent them inside the giant structure last.  Bright blue in color, the moon bounce resembled the miniature ones for kids where giant air pockets inflated to a certain tension allowed the children to jump up and down within the confines.  This adult version was super-sized, increased to hold the weight of bigger people, with a giant net dividing it in half.  Yellow trim completed the environment, with thick yellow high-test nylon netting to keep the adults inside instead of bouncing out of the contraption and injuring themselves. 

After removing their shoes, they climbed into the moon bounce.  On their side, there were five separate air-mattress type tubes, insuring not everyone stood on the same tube at the same time.  Ezra worked his way to the side near the back, his plan obvious in choosing not to participate.  His non-participation lasted as long as it took him to take a step across the tube to reach the corner.  Josiah jumped high, coming down on Ezra's tube while the Southerner was mid-step. 

Off-balance, Standish shot diagonally upwards and left, falling flat on his face against the webbing holding them in.

"That'll leave a mark," Buck joked. 

Picking himself up, Ezra mustered a fake smile for his teammates.  He moved away from Josiah, giving the profiler a wide berth and a glare promising retribution.  "Perhaps.  But not as bad as the ones others will receive." 

Josiah nearly grinned, but he didn't want to ruin the experience for the others.  Ezra looked like he had never been on a bounce before; Buck wobbled around worse than a newborn calf; leaving Vin experimenting with shifting his balance.  The profiler figured what the hell, he could at least have fun while getting even with co-workers.  All his books told him adults needed to play just as much as kids did; this qualified as play.  Besides, a little revenge on the side worked well for him, disguised as a sport.

Ezra felt humiliated.  For all his sophistication, he never went into a moon bounce as a child.  It was not dignified, Maude told him repeatedly, denying him the chance to play kid games.  Team sports, until he joined this collection of motley souls, rarely included Ezra P. Standish unless there were no other options, or it was mandatory and he was the last one picked.  Even when required, he did as little as possible to participate.  With his current uncharitable thoughts toward the dissimilar souls with him, and theirs toward him, not being able to bounce inside this contraption tugged at his ever-present insecurities.  He shifted on his feet, testing the air tubes beneath him.  Well, he would not add "unable to bounce" to the list of qualities the previously mentioned motley souls could tease him about in the future.  He would do well in this activity, even if it killed them.  Them, not him. 

Buck watched Ezra and saw the Southerner's discomfort.  Ez, he thought, you never even learned how to play.  Sighing, he figured he'd keep an eye out on the Southerner and not bounce him into the wall like Josiah did.  Vin and the profiler, however, were fair game.  Using his leg strength, he came down on Vin's tube when the Texan was jumping up, sending Tanner straight at the ceiling.  He didn't expect Vin to twist mid-air and come down intentionally on him, taking him off his feet.  Okay, game on, he thought.  Elbowing the sharpshooter while rolling over, he was rewarded with a grunt.  You want more, Tanner, come get more, he silently willed into Vin's blue eyes when they met while rolling away from each other. 

This could be more fun than he thought, Vin mused to himself, gaining his feet.  Bucklin's upset 'bout me knockin' him down, and I ain't even started yet.  He moved his hand just enough for Buck to see the challenge was accepted.  Before he could do anything else, a heavy weight slammed into him from behind, knocking him right back the way he didn't want to go.  He collided with Buck, pushing both men into the netting.  A quick glance showed Josiah with a cheshire grin and hopping over to Ezra.  Exchanging a glance with Buck, the two men agreed Sanchez needed a lesson. 

"Okay, everyone, it's time for the first match.  The Denver Darlings against the Ypsilanti Yankees."  Barbie Sue smiled brilliantly for them, her teeth almost matching the whitening gum commercial.  "Since we have five teams, we're going to do a double elimination tournament.  The Bombers were forced to leave last night for an emergency at home.  When the Darlings and the Yankees finish their match, they come out, and the Tornados go against the Reds.  The loser of the Tornados/Reds comes out, and the Condors go in.  We play until four teams are eliminated twice."

"It's gonna be a long day," Buck muttered to Vin.


"Anyone intentionally losing will be disqualified from the tournament, and will be disqualified from participating in tomorrow's activities, which are a requirement to complete the course."  Barbie Sue looked right at the Denver Darlings. 

"Hay-ell," Ezra exclaimed.  "So much for passivity." 

"Hey Ez, ya know what sweat is?  If ya don't, ya will today."  Vin grinned.

"Go straight to hell, Mr. Tanner.  In fact, all of you can go and I will leave this bubblegum version of Hades."

"I'm already in hell, brothers," Josiah interjected.  "I'm driving the tour bus."

"Let's get started!"  Teddy Drew called.  "Volley for serve, play to twenty-one points." 

The first game showed how uncoordinated the Denver Darlings truly were, if the number of collisions was a true indication.  They fell quickly behind in the score, no matter how hard they apparently tried.  The only member with any grace, not looking like a cheetah trying to run on slick sheets of ice, was Josiah.  Vin came a close second in graceful, able to hit the inflated volleyball and send it where he wanted it to go more often than not.  Buck was a collection of waving arms smacking anything – and everyone – in their path, when he wasn't stomping on someone's foot, or landing on their tube and sending a teammate into a bounce a direction the teammate did not want to go.  Ezra did his best to remain dignified; the others were not letting him, especially since Buck stood next to him.

After the fifteenth point scored by the Yankees against the scored by accident three of the Darlings, Teddy called a stop to the game. 

"Darlings, I'm not seeing an effort."  He shook his head. 

"I ain't yer darlin'," Vin snapped. 

"Team name, something you should take pride in," Barbie Sue explained. 

"I'd like the name if they were gorgeous women in bikinis," Buck said.  "Then they would be darlings."  He gave his teammates a glance.  "These boys ain't anything close to darlings."

"Beside the point," Teddy Drew said.  "What we need from you is teamwork.  Now, because we feel you're not working together, and you're not really participating –"

Ezra interrupted, "Yes, the perspiration coating my face shows my lack of exertion."

Teddy continued as if Ezra had not spoken, "We feel you are dangerously close to being disqualified.  I don't believe I need to repeat the consequences to you."

"What would be acceptable?"  Josiah asked, leaning his bulk against the netting. 

"Better than a fifteen-three trouncing I've seen so far," Barbie Sue replied.  "A more even distribution of points."

"If we could have a moment?"  Sanchez asked. 

Barbie Sue and Teddy Drew agreed.


The Denver Darlings huddled up in the corner of the moon bounce, glaring anyone who appeared intent to eavesdrop on them.

"I hate this wretched place," Ezra complained.  "What further humiliations must we suffer?"

"It ain't no picnic for me either," Buck muttered.  "I wanted to get away from all of you, not come here and be buddy-buddy rah-rah you're my best friend teammates."

"Ya weren't the only one needin' ta get away and be alone."

"Enough," Josiah growled.  "I don't want to be here either.  We agree on that.  Can we also agree we don't want to be sent home not having finished the course?"

"I care about completing the course why?"  Ezra posed.

"Chris," Buck, Vin, and Josiah answered as one.

"One man?  Although he can be intimidating, he is not worth this degradation."

"Ya want the team ta stay together?"  Vin reasoned with Ezra.  "Ya think some other boss would put up with our crap?"

"No, he or she wouldn't.  Which brings up the next point."  Josiah made sure he looked them in their eyes.  "Our reputation."

"That bunch of hooey?"  Buck scoffed. 

Ezra rolled his eyes.

Vin held up a finger.  "See yer point, 'Siah.  We earned the reputation of being the biggest, meanest, toughest – and tightest – group on the block.  Now we're squabblin' like kids because we're sick of each other.  How's that look?"

"Like we can be divided and conquered," Standish said quietly.  "Once word of that spreads to the rest of the law enforcement community, courtesy of the teams we have here talking about those inept fools in the ATF, it will reach the ears of the criminal element."  

"Setting us up as targets," Buck completed for Ezra.

"Weaknesses are better hidden."  Josiah nodded.

"We have to prove we are capable of working as a team, no matter the circumstances.  However hideous they are."  Ezra gave a loathing look to the moon bounce encasing them. 

"Ground rules," Buck began.  "We play the game, try to win, but if there's a free shot, I ain't holding back.  Fair is foul, and foul is fair."

"Agreed," three men echoed.

"One last thing," Vin said.  "Let them think we snipe at each other like this all the time, but when it counts, we got teamwork ta spare."

"Let's do it," Wilmington announced.  "No team hands in the middle yee-haw.  We ain't that close right now."  He turned and walked back to his position.

The game resumed, with the Darlings rallying.  Gone were the intentional launching of a teammate into the netting, or sending him flying skyward, or knocking him off balance by jumping up when he was landing; it was more of a coordinated effort as a team, not a collection of individuals with a negative agenda.  They actually won, but not without cost.  Sitting out the next game well away from each other, sweat pouring off their bodies, water bottles quickly emptying, they watched the Tornados trounce the Reds.

The Condors gave the Tornados a fight, but the Tornados seemed to have one goal – to win.  Both teams left the moon bounce for the Yankees – Reds game, ending with the Yankees eliminated after a match point volley lasting several minutes.

Team Seven, a.k.a. the Denver Darlings, entered the moon bounce to take on the Texas Tornados.  Both teams were undefeated, but the Tornados played two games to the Darlings' one.  It showed, because the Tornados made mistakes because they were tired, where the Darlings put their best act of teamwork on.  The victory came with a cost – Wilmington caught a Tanner elbow to the eye when they both went for the ball, giving him a beautiful shiner.  Ezra and Josiah both dove for the ball, banging heads but saving the point.  Each had a matching knot on the forehead.  Vin did not escape injury; he twisted his ankle when he came down wrong, wrenching it enough to be an annoyance, but not enough to come out of the game. 

Given the state of both teams – the Tornados also battered each other while trying to win – the Drews put the Condors against the Reds, both teams with one loss each.  The Condors emerged victorious, allowing the Reds to collapse gratefully on the newly arrived lounge chairs.  A midday meal came with the lounge chairs, letting both the Yankees and the Reds get a chance to eat and relax, watching the other teams battle and sweat in the moon bounce.  The humidity slowly increased during the day, zapping energy in the Miami heat.

With one loss each, the Condors went on to face the Darlings.  Heat, humidity, and exertion prolonged the game.  More injuries occurred for the teams, minor ones, but aggravating enough to shorten tempers.  The Condors could not hold their teamwork together, giving up point after point to the Darlings.  It ended when Ezra served an ace for game point. 

Exhaustion set in, the Darlings going against the Tornados for the win, and that extra fifteen minutes in the next day's activities. 

"One more time," Josiah said with a sigh while the Tornados entered the moon bounce.

"Must we?"  Ezra complained.    

"Shut up and take it."  Buck buddy-shoved Ezra with enough force to show his seriousness, but not enough to show dislike to anyone watching them.  "One more game and we're done for the day.  Then we can settle things.  You hear me?"

"I look forward to the opportunity."  Standish glared at Wilmington.

"Everyone ready?"  Barbie Sue asked.

"Let's go," Vin drawled.  Giving one final dirty look to his teammates, he lowered his hands to his knees and waited for the volley for serve.  He listed slightly to one side, favoring his injured ankle.   

If anything, this game was the most brutal yet.  The Tornados wanted to win.  They played hard, gave no quarter, pushing themselves to their limits.  As a result, they pushed the Darlings to their limits, causing more than one mid-air collision.  The tricks the Darlings used the first time to beat the Tornados did not work the second.  Each point was an extended battle lasting no less than two minutes, if not longer. 

"Rotate!"  The Tornados leader called, the team having won the serve back. 

"I wanna rotate him into the ground," Vin hissed, wiping the sweat from his forehead.  Even though Teddy Drew checked his ankle and pressure-wrapped it, everyone could tell it still pained him.  Teddy determined it was bruised, not sprained or broken, with his paramedic skills, so Tanner was given the option to sit out.  In fact, he was strongly encouraged to sit out this last game.  Yet, there were no replacements available for the Darlings like some of the other teams had, and Vin's intense desire not to sit out like a sissy to leave the other three to battle alone, he soldiered on.  It was another demonstration of teamwork for those watching – someone injured will give their all for the team, instead of letting the team suffer for it.

Privately, the four men from Team Seven knew if three of them had to play against the other teams, with Vin sitting out, there would be a reckoning amongst themselves.  The only way they were getting through this mess to begin with was to protect their reputation and not show weakness when someone was hurt or when they could not get along. 

"I'll hold him for you, brother," Josiah said.  "Ankle?"

"Ain't likin' this bounce no more."  Tanner's blue eyes met the lighter blue of Josiah's.  "How come ya ain't flopping around like fish outta water with the rest of us?"

Sanchez grinned.  "Echoes of the past."

Ezra and Buck groaned. 

"Ten serving eight," the Tornados server yelled. 

"And here we go," Buck whimpered. 

Point for point, the game between the Texas Tornados and the Denver Darlings stayed close.  The lead traded back and forth, never staying with one team, the serve switching frequently.

"Game point," Josiah yelled.  "Twenty serving twenty."  He launched the ball over the net.  Despite their weary efforts, they lost the point, turning the serve back over to the Tornados.  The end was painful – an ace falling between all four of them, with all four diving for it and colliding in a mass of arms and legs in the middle of the moon bounce.

The Tornados cheered.

"I hate you all," Ezra mumbled, ripping his arm out of Josiah's hair. 

"Sniffin' y'all ain't making me like y'all any better," Vin grumbled, pulling back from the pile. 

"Like you smell like a rose," Buck shot back.   

"Whoever has their arm under my stomach better let me get up first or I will be dispensing some justice," Josiah threatened. 

Everyone stilled until Sanchez got up, walking out of the moon bounce without a backward glance.  He strolled over to the cooler, dug out a water bottle, and talked to one of the Condors. 

Ezra, Buck, and Vin half-limped, half-flopped their way out of the moon bounce, making a painful discovery.  After their prolonged time in the device, they had difficulty walking a straight line without their limbs trying to compensate for the remembered give and take of the air tubes.  Consequently, they bounced up and down, limbs half-flailing while their balance sorted itself out.  All three mentally promised future pain to Josiah for his seeming ability to ignore the lingering effects of both the hangover earlier and the moon bounce today. 

They quit speaking to each other in their cabin when they arguments worsened, involving low blows and cheap verbal shots, things they usually would never say to each other.  After their showers and dinner, they changed into their swim trunks and headed for the monstrous hot tub.  Before the imposed silence, they agreed on a show of teamwork to go to the hot tub together, not because they wanted to, but because it presented a united front.  All of them had sore muscles they wanted to soak, meaning they would be there together anyway, because the Drews only had the hot tub open certain hours.  A couple already occupied the tub when they arrived.

"Hi, guys!  I'm Emma, and this is Devon.  We're from the Condors."  She rolled her eyes.  "We really haven't been introduced."

"Buck Wilmington, at your service."  Executing a quick bow in her direction, he winked.  "How do?"  He held out a hand to Devon.

"Nice to meet you.  Heck of a shiner."  Devon shook his hand. 

"Had worse."  Shrugging it off, Buck slid in next to Emma.  "So, Emma, are you married?"  Grinning at the brown-haired woman, he sidled closer.

She laughed.  "Yes.  To Devon." 

"Lucky man."  Wilmington scooted away under Devon's not-quite-laughing, but still somewhat amused eyes.

"Ignore him.  We do.  Josiah Sanchez." 

"Hi," Devon said. 

"Ezra P. Standish.  Who did you offend to be sent here?"  Releasing Devon's hand, he kissed the back of Emma's before settling in the water.

"We asked to come here," Emma explained. 

"Those must hurt."  Devon tapped at the center of his forehead, looking between Ezra and Josiah.

"More than you know," Ezra replied.  "It was an indignity."

"Quit yer fussin', Ez, and move over.  I need ta stretch out my leg," Vin grumbled.  "Hi y'all.  Vin Tanner."

"Sorry about your ankle, man."  Devon winced.  "Sure it's not sprained?"

"Nah.  Got a heck of a bruise."

"Like the one on my eye?"  Buck countered.

"Ya can walk without limpin'.  If ya want ta continue walkin', stuff it."  Tanner glared.

"Easy."  Buck changed the subject, returning to Emma and Devon.  "So, you asked to come here?"

Devon chuckled, his white teeth bright against his dark complexion.  "Emma thought our shift needed some help in the teamwork department.  Seems we can't get along as well as she would like."

"What do you do, if you don't mind me asking?"  Josiah glanced at them.

"Vice," Emma answered.  "Can't say much more than that."

"Don't need to.  Did a turn in Vice myself."  Buck nodded. 

"Who did you piss off to get sent here?" asked Devon.  "Even we've heard of the Magnificent Seven, and we hadn't heard there were problems."

The four men exchanged glances. 

"Officially," Ezra began, "we are here to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, and determine whether our employers will continue to send teams here for improvement."

"But unofficially, you boys aren't getting along and someone decided this might help?"  Emma guessed.

"We ain't heard anythin' unofficial, other than our boss was forced ta send us," Vin said.  "Courtesy of our Training Division."

"Last one was a bad one, huh?"  Devon prompted.  "We had a really bad one and quit talking to each other.  I spent more nights in my recliner than I did in my bed with my wife.  There's a few more people in our group, and they sent us all to a class like this.  By the end of it, we realized we needed each other, warts and all, if only to stay sane."

"Sanity is ill-defined and overrated."  Sanchez submerged for a second, coming up and wiping water from his face, avoiding the knot on his forehead.

"All right, I can't hold back any longer."  Emma leaned forward toward Josiah.  "How come you were the only one out of all the teams who looked graceful in the moon bounce?  I know I was all arms and legs, and when I came out I thought my limbs were made either or rubber or steel at the same time.  It didn't even faze you."

"I wanna know too."  Buck sat up.  "Better be good, or we'll have a drowning accident."

Sanchez sighed.  "You noticed."

"Even the dullest tools in the shed, as Mr. Wilmington would put it, could see your ease of movement," Ezra griped. 

The profiler closed his eyes.  "Back when I was a Marine, somehow I got put into a special program.  They sent regular Marines to NASA to test the fighting abilities and combat readiness of a well-trained real soldiers – swabbies and doggies didn't qualify –" he opened his eyes to see middle fingers extended from Buck and Vin, "in simulated space and space station conditions."

"You're full of it."  Buck shook his head.  "They never did that."

"Yeah, they did," Devon said.  "Semper Fi, my man.  My father was one of the last test subjects for the program, and I heard about it when I was in the Corps."

"We did assaults, insertions, and things I'd rather not think about in no-gravity, half-gravity, simulated moon landings, meaning moon bounces.  Where do you think they got the name?"  Josiah grinned.  "Either you got it, or you got sent back to your unit after an extensive debriefing.  I got it.  When they finished their simulations and testing, they sent us back to our units with orders not to talk about it.  Top Secret: Bouncers classified status was lifted last year.  Program was put in reserve because there wasn't enough money to send Marines with the launches; they barely got funding to get what they did up into space."

"Respect ya couldn't talk about it," Vin said.  "But ya could have warned us ya would use us ta have fun on."

"And give away an advantage?"  Sanchez shook his head.  "Nope."

"If you were so well trained, why do we have these?"  Ezra pointed to the lump on his forehead.

"Because I haven't done it in years," Josiah snapped.  "Takes time to remember the moves and coordinating yourself with others.  Saying there's something to coordinate with, and that wasn't you three today."

Vin laughed.  "Kinda like if one guy screws up cadence, the entire unit looks bad."

"That's because you boys weren't in the Navy."  Buck stretched out his legs, putting his arms behind his back.  "We always look sharp."

"Sharp ribs when ya hurt my elbow," Tanner allowed.

Even though they smiled and joked, all four knew things had not been settled between them.  They probably would not settle them tonight, either, because they were tired and sore.  A good night's rest might help make things easier in the morning.

Part Seven

His phone rang during a break.  Recognizing the area code as local, he figured it was the police telling him one of his boys got in trouble.  "Larabee."

"Agent Larabee?  This is Barbie Sue Drew from –"

"I know," he cut her off, born from a desire to cease her voice.  Her pitch and delivery drilled right through his head with every cheerful note.  "What did they do, and do you need me to pick them up?"

She giggled.

He thought he heard glass shattering inside the phone, wincing when he realized it was her laugh, a cacophony that nearly shredded his brain.  What was Harper thinking when she sent them to Brain-Slicing Ditz?  With a silent groan, he thought of his men.  If he thought their moods were bad before they left Denver, he shuddered to imagine their demeanor after a week listening to this.  He began to doubt this team rebuilding was going to be a good idea, or a success.

"Oh, no need for you to pick them up.  They are presenting quite a challenge, something Teddy and I have wanted for a long time.  A group so dysfunctional they'll be a wonderful example to show others what a difference we can make with teams.  They'll be an example to everyone when we're done."

Bad example, he thought.  What not to do…but with her voice, could he seriously blame them?

Barbie Sue continued in a rush, "The only thing I really wish was that they would stop accidentally hurting each other."

He felt a twinge at the base of his neck, a tightening.  Staring out the windows of the hotel's conference room floors, he willed himself to relax.  "Hurting each other?" he repeated, wanting clarification.  If they want to get hurt, he'd be more than happy to bust their heads together until he felt better.  That could take some time.

She giggled again.  "They're not very graceful."

Graceful, my ass, he mouthed.  As mad as they were at each other before they were sent to this helpful exercise, he knew they would used any excuse to inflict physical pain upon each other.  Progress, in a way, because they were interacting if they were hitting, which meant there was conversation involved at some point, better than the silence and cold professionalism he last witnessed. 

"But that's not why I called."  Her voice snapped his attention back to the cell phone in his hand.  "Do you know if Agent Standish is, um, allergic, to salt water?"

His forehead thumped once against the glass.  He almost allowed a snicker at the desperation excuse; the teamwork exercises must be unpleasant for Ezra to go the allergy route.  "No, he's not.  If he continues to say he is, have Buck or Josiah throw him in and see what happens."

"No, no, no.  There's no need to do that.  Agent Standish is such a kidder.  I never know if he's serious or not.  He really is very good at that, isn't he?"  She giggled again.

Yup, it was official.  His brain surrendered the fight to the headache her voice and her message created.  If it wasn't for the shooting pains in his head, he would have asked sooner.  His free hand covered his eyes, the heel of his hand pressing against his right eye socket, where the pain seemed to be strongest behind the eye.  He couldn't remember something about salt water in the website he reviewed.  "Why do you need to know if he's allergic to salt water?"

"We're having an activity near the water, and he may get wet.  He said he should be excused because of his allergy.  I just wanted to make sure, because he's so hard to read.  We need all four of them for this exercise, three won't really work that well.  Besides, if I excuse him, what kind of teamwork building message does that send?  It's against our motto, Trust Everyone, All Members."

Chris nearly drove his eye out the back of his head at the motto.  "He's not allergic.  Can you give him a message from me?"


"Tell him if he keeps it up, I'll see how allergic he is to lead."

"Lead?"  Barbie Sue questioned.  "I don't understand."

"He will.  They give you problems call me.  What type of exercise is it?  Give me details, so maybe I can help prepare you against them if they decide they don't want to play."

Barbie Sue explained.  With every word she said, his headache strengthened in power until it dominated over all else. 

Buck sighed with gusto.  He was sore, tired, cranky, and those resident assholes he came with really were pissing him off.  Not that he wasn't already in a state of perpetual pissed off, but fighting for shower time, living in close quarters, and putting up with this teamwork rah-rah bullshit didn't help.  On top of that, he had to put his bathing trunks on – no Speedo, his preference, because of the abuse he took last time he wore it in front of his so-called friends – with a t-shirt.  The part that bothered him was his trunks were still damp and damn cold from the night before, one of the resident assholes placing his on top of the air conditioner vent last night so they chilled instead of dried.

You just don't do that to a man, he thought to himself.  He also considered appropriate payback, probably having to get all three of them because he wasn't one hundred percent sure who was the culprit.  Vin probably did it – he was the practical joker of the bunch.  None of them had icicle shorts, causing all kinds of uncomfortable temporary damage to important parts.  He glared at them again with his one good eye before he left for breakfast.  They ignored him, perpetuating his grumpy mood.

It was all Vin could do not to laugh or even acknowledge Buck's discomfort.  Whoever thought of putting Wilmington's trunks on the air conditioner vent deserved a prize.  Thinking on it, he knew Buck would come up with a payback; the only problem was he was now the prime suspect.  Hell.  Now he was on Buck's list and he had nothing to do with it, and a bum ankle to boot.  He had tried last night to get out of today's activities, knowing it would be more swollen and painful than yesterday when he woke, but Teddy Drew refused.  Said he'd be sitting most of the day, and his hands weren't broken.  He'd like to break his hand on Teddy's face, but the momentary gratification from that wouldn't compensate for the pissed-off cowboy, who should be in Miami by now.  If Chris was still in Denver, more than halfway across the country, Vin figured he just might just take the satisfaction, but knowing Larabee was entirely too close held him back.  There wouldn't be a flight time to cool down his friend's temper; it would be a full blast because of being so close.   

Each day in this place pissed him off.  He wanted solitude, not this mild version of basic training camp.  He could deal with most of it, but the three people in the world he didn't want to be with roomed with him.  And one of them set him up to be the victim of a practical joke payback.  Hell.  Giving one good glare at Josiah and at the closed bathroom door where Ezra primped, he hobbled out.

Ezra stayed in the bathroom for several reasons, but two were the most important.  One was spite.  He knew if he stayed in, they would have to share the other bathroom.  Another was the desire for privacy.  He'd quickly discovered his only privacy was in the shower, or using the facilities.  This was not acceptable to him, but he could find no way to change it.  He'd tried, but every solution he imagined resulted in Chris or Harper being told he wasn't cooperating, he wasn't playing nice, and his career – his life – would suffer because of the three buffoons driving him slowly insane with their constant presence.

He heard Buck stomp out, and the distinctive sound of Vin limping out the door.  He didn't know if Vin or Josiah put Buck's trunks on the air conditioner vent, but there were no sounds of bloodshed in the cabin, so it might not have been Vin.  It wasn't him, which left Josiah, but it was not a Josiah-type action.  Or Buck hadn't decided what he was going to do, which meant staying out of sight was preferable and self preserving.  

Overly tired last night, he cursed the fact he tried to get out of today's activities with the shallow excuse he was allergic to salt water.  What was he thinking?  Running his hands down his face, staring at his reflection in the mirror, he knew the request hurt his credibility.  Perhaps the saccharine twit running this place might believe he was being sarcastic, and he could escape any repercussions.  Usually one to avoid repercussions, he decided he would show up with a positive attitude – serious acting required – and participate, no matter how degrading and nauseous it made him.  He barely looked at Josiah when he finally left the cabin.

Josiah hid a smile when Ezra left.  Peace and quiet at last.  Sure, he would be late for breakfast, but he remembered how to eat fast from his Marine days.  He was sore from yesterday's volleyball injuries, but he didn't have the brittle stiffness the others moved with today.  Smiling, he figured he'd see plenty of stiff people.  Most would be suffering from never using those particular muscle groups that were put into play yesterday; they would all be paying for it now.  Observing the aftermath would amuse him, especially from those who thought themselves in shape and would be trying to hide their conditions so they would not appear weak in front of the others.  Especially his so called friends; he would like to watch them try and hide how bad they felt. 

Yes, he admitted to himself, it was petty of him to put Buck's trunks on the air conditioner vent, but the man deserved it, although he would have preferred a freezer.  Buck deserved worse after the odious atmosphere he made them endure.  Having reached the cabin first, he took over one of the bathrooms.  The night's spicy meal apparently disagreed with his stomach, leaving the other three half-retching.  Buck apologized and used the spray, but the damage was done.  Putting his swim trunks out to dry, he turned in early, not realizing he bumped Josiah's to the floor, under the table into a spider web in the corner. 

Sanchez noticed them missing when he couldn't fall asleep and stared at anything to occupy his mind.  With quiet steps, he picked up his trunks, disgusted by the web clinging to the damp material.  Washing them off in the bathroom, he used Buck's towel to dry them, and replaced them.  Buck's "accidentally" fell onto the vent before Josiah went back to bed.  He slept the sleep of the righteous.  Now it was time to deal with the others again.  Hopefully, if he planned things right, Vin would take the blame for the prank, and when Vin denied it, Ezra would take the blame.  Either way, those three would be busy pranking each other, leaving him out of it and in relative peace.  It should be a good day.

"Ezra?"  Barbie Sue walked over.  "Can I speak to you a minute?"

Looking up from his food, he smiled at Barbie Sue even though he wanted to choke her.  "Of course."  He stood.  They walked a short distance away from the others still eating their breakfasts.  Ezra remained silent, letting her start the conversation.

"I spoke with Mr. Larabee this morning.  I was concerned about your allergy, and if there was anything else I needed to know about your team, without bringing it to the attention of the rest of the guests."

Hay-ell, he thought.  So much for no repercussions.  "I hope you realize I was kidding."

"Oh, that's what I told Mr. Larabee.  I found his response to be as amusing as you are."

This was not good.  If she missed the joking in his comments, Larabee's comments will probably be at the same level, and fly over her head.  Mustering a smile, he asked, "What did Mr. Larabee say?"

She giggled.  "First he suggested if you continued with the allergy, I was to have Buck or Josiah toss you in salt water to see what would happened."

"He's such a kidder," Ezra commented. 

"He also had a message for you, which I don't understand."

"Go ahead with it."  He kept the smile on his face.

"He said if you keep it up, he'll see how allergic you are to lead."

His smile froze, the implications clear to him.  Chris would shoot him if he continued to make waves.  

"Do you know what he means?"

"Yes," Ezra said.  "He means he might outfit me for some lead shoes if my sarchasm becomes a problem."

"Sarcasm," she gently corrected.  "That's quite an interesting threat."

Standish inclined his head, knowing she did not grasp the colloquial meaning of sarchasm – the distance between the author's sarcasm and the person who just does not get it.  In this case, Barbie Sue Drew missed the barbs in his comments. 

"Well, if you're ready, we can get started today.  I just wanted to make sure you knew we do care about our guests and wouldn't want you to do anything that may cause you harm." 

"Thank you," he forced out.  What he wanted to say probably would earn him the lead bullets; he'd rather not be here at all, had a few select phrases, but the proverbial thin ice he stood on could not bear any more weight.  He kept his comments to himself.

"Let's go."  Barbie Sue half-bounced away.

"I am drowning in cheerful stupidity," he muttered before following her.

Barbie Sue clapped her hands to get their attention, having moved the guests to the edge of the manmade saltwater lake on the property.  Two storage buildings sat on one side, and several piers stretched out into the water.  Multiple straight lines of floating markers created a path across the lake to the center.  There was even a large building with the lettering "Drew Marine Supply," complete with wide wooden front porch and colorful bunting.  "Okay, everyone, today's the day for one of my favorite activities.  How about you, Teddy?"

"Love it," he replied immediately, a big smile on his face.

"Hate it," Buck said under his breath.

"You haven't even heard what it is, brother.  Give it a chance," Josiah suggested, a half-smile gracing his lips.

"You wear the cold suit and tell me how exciting this is," Buck hissed back.

"Get over it," Vin snapped.  "Unless ya want yer ankle ta match mine." 

"Today we get to enjoy the outdoors.  Each team will receive money and sent to our store to buy materials to build a raft.  You will have two hours to build your raft, followed by an hour's worth of testing it.  Then we will race them.  Awards will be given at the end."

"Most team members drowned," Ezra dryly commented. 

"We can get first in that," Buck offered.  "Who wants to stop breathing first?"

"You," they said to each other.

"Now, the stipulations," Barbie Sue called out, cutting off the low conversations between the team members of all the groups.  "First, you only have twenty minutes in Drew Marine Supply, with the exception of the Tornados, who receive an extra fifteen minutes for winning yesterday."

The Tornados cheered themselves. 

"Second, there is no catalogue.  You must use the twenty minutes inside to figure out what kind of raft you're building.  It must float and go through the water with some type of propulsion."

"Next, you will exit the rear of the building to the area marked for your team.  You will not be able to start, or discuss anything about design until the other teams are finished.  You also must stay within budget."

"What is the point of this exercise, other than to show our lack of shipwright skills?"  Ezra called out. 

Barbie Sue smiled.  "I'm glad you asked.  The point is everyone has to work together and trust each others' choices under pressure."

The Darlings wore their poker faces, the tension in their stiff frames hinting at the turmoil beneath. 

"We'll start with the Tornados, since they won the extra time."  She paused, holding up a small paper bag and pulling names out of it.  "The Yankees, then the Reds, the Condors, and finally the Darlings.  Good luck to you all."

The Darlings separated from each other, ignoring everything around them during the long wait.  By the time it was their turn, they walked over with a sense of impatience to get this done and over with, posthaste.  Having waited so long, they already decided their game plan – divide the money into four shares and everyone find what they thought would help a raft float without having a conversation about it, or wasting time talking.  They'd figure it out like they always did, on the fly during the time allotted. 

Once again, he thought, I am placed in a deplorable situation because of my fellow teammates, where I am completely out of my depth.  Ezra winced at his mental pun about depth, considering they were building a raft.  Having divided the store into fourths, his section consisted of materials to bind everything together.  Going last meant all the excellent items were already gone, or quantities had been seriously depleted.  He figured it was another attempt by the sadistic Drews to force them to work together with limited resources, and he wouldn't put it past them to have rigged the drawing to put their team in this position. 

Giving the aisles a serious scrutiny before he picked anything up, he checked his funds.  Calculating, he figured out what he could get, and what he could not, severely limited by not knowing what the others were going to buy with their money.  Nor did he want to ask them; he could hear Buck knocking something over in his section, and preferred not to be seen with him during these clumsy moments.  It was embarrassing and demeaning enough to be here, without having Bronco Buck destroying the interior.

Heaving a put-upon sigh, he made his selections.

"Y'all shouldn't put these displays so close to each other," Buck called out, staring at the fishing bobbers rolling around on the floor. 

He wasn't about to admit to the fact he turned around too quick and got dizzy, his depth perception just a smidge off because of the shiner.   

"Don't worry about cleaning it up; we'll take care of it.  Your clock's running down."  Teddy smiled at him, pointing to the large timepiece on the wall.

Buck refrained from telling Teddy where he could put the clock.  Given he was in the floatation section, his job was to pick what could make the raft stay above the water and not below it.  He didn't want to talk to the others to find out what they were buying; if this was true Team Seven style, it was throw everything together and make it work.  Besides, he had no love for his teammates right now, and if they talked, they'd argue.  He wasn't about to get into an argument.  That would come during the building phase.

Choosing different items at random, based on their perceived floatability, he finished his shopping.

He knew he was the only one thinking ahead for this raft building.  The competitive streak in him insisted on his attention to detail and planning.  Vin figured he'd take the section of the building materials, knowing at minimum he could use twine and logs to make something float.  Both twine and logs were in his section.  Using his low-key powers of suggestion, he picked this section for himself, suggesting Ezra might be more comfortable with the adhesives.  Buck immediately zeroed in on the floatation section, and Josiah, with a small verbal nudge, went towards the odds 'n' ends collection. 

No matter what the others picked, he had a plan already in place.  If they would just let him do what he needed, they'd have a raft in no time.

The loud crash caused him to wince and sigh with resignation when he heard Buck's voice.  Yup, they weren't going near each other in the store.  He quickly gathered everything he wanted, heading for the checkout.

Josiah grinned.  He knew what Vin was up to, and let him do it.  Vin had an innate ability to lead without the perception of leading.  Ezra would do fine in the adhesives, Buck and rubber products were a natural fit, and Vin took the hardest section for himself.  Given the other man's extensive outdoors experience, the profiler knew Vin would create something to float by the end of the day, regardless of what they brought to him. 

Speaking of which, he figured on making Vin's life a little easier.  He spotted two important objects, which he quickly snagged for their team.  They cost half of his money, but the other half went for the peripheral items to assist them. 

Buck's little accident expedited Josiah's own shopping trip, deciding he'd rather be outside than in here for the next incident.

Shopping time depleted, money spent, the four members of Team Seven stared at their collection of goodies, wondering how in the hell they were going to make a raft out of what they bought.

No one said it, but all four thought they could have talked to each other once, or more importantly should have.  A more disparate collection of junk could not have been assembled, and given the quality of the items the other teams had procured on their trip, Team Seven had a battle ahead of them to make this into a raft and have it float.  There were interesting possibilities, especially something crude, but it was going to take a serious amount of work and cooperation.  Hearing the snickering and seeing the highly amused faces of the teams around them, they knew the Darlings were the butt of the jokes – again.  With a collective sigh, the four realized individually, but instinctively together, that they needed to come up with something, even out of this mess.  Now it would be not only a matter for teamwork, but a matter of pride. 

Part Eight

Authors Note: I don't know if what they have will really float, and I apologize in advance to those who are in the know.  I'm using a little creative license with the raft and materials to create it.

= = = = = = = =

"Ready – Set – Build!"  Teddy Drew called out to the teams.

"What in the hell are we going to build with this?" asked Buck, indicating the mismatched goods they bought. 

"Not a raft," Ezra observed, "at least one that floats."

"We need either some divine intervention, or a good plan."  Josiah rubbed his chin.

"Let's start with the base."  Vin pointed to the long objects beside the profiler.  "Space them five ta seven feet apart."

"He's in odds and ends, so he buys longboard surfboards."  Buck assisted, picked up one of the boards, and set it roughly six feet away from the other. 

"Surfboards of various sizes float, no matter the sizes of the oafs on them," Ezra pointed out, putting a drawl on the phrase sizes of the oafs.

"They can steer in the water.  I'm guessin' the course is down the middle of the straight lines, out ta and around the buoy, and back again.  We'll need steering ta make that corner."  Vin studied the rest of their acquisitions.  "Josiah's boards and Buck's two paddles oughta help with propulsion and turns."

"What about the center?"  Josiah prompted.  "We have to be on the raft to propel it."  Sanchez wanted to keep his teammates thinking, because thinking wasn't fighting.  He really preferred not to get out on the water and having to swim because their differences caused them to create an inferior raft.  Waiting for a response to his question, he analyzed his feelings, all the better to keep his own balance, and realized he was not going below the surface feelings to the real ones.  He did not want them humiliated in front of these others.  Everyone already looked at them with either amusement or derision for their constant sniping and "physical accidents" against each other.  Seeing their interactions through strangers' eyes, especially the pity they gave them for their raft-building supplies, stung right through his balloon of pride, deflating his self-delusion.  Looking hard at himself, he realized this discord between them hurt his sense of family, their kinship.  It shamed him they they could not stand anyone's company after all they endured together.  He was not ready, not strong enough to fight with them to force a truce – yet – or broker a peace, but he would cut back on some of his commentaries and petty bickering until their attitudes were more receptive.  Anything he could do to help restore the camaraderie would help.

Ezra spoke, bringing Josiah out of his thoughts.  "We could use your wet noodles, Mr. Wilmington."

"Hey!"  Buck glared at Ezra.

That didn't help, Josiah thought. 

"As a cushion between the boards," Standish finished.  "I said noodles, plural, thank you very much."  He extended a foot full of grace to the bright colored, long cylindrical floatation devices normally sold for the backyard pool. 

"Ten planks," Vin said, "and twine ta bind them.  How 'bout we do somethin' different?"  He looked at his teammates.  "Make the cushions Ez suggested, but space six planks between and over them, the ends on the longboards' edges?"

"We'll need the boards closer, and split our weight between them and the planks."  The profiler adjusted the boards so the center was not as large between the longboards.

"The five inner tubes can take some weight."  He indicated the deflated black rubber inner tubes he picked up in the store.  "If we put them in the center."

"Weight," Ezra mused aloud.  "Our center won't be strong enough for all four of us.  What if we, oh, Lord help me for even suggesting this, straddle the boards, distributing the mass equally.  For example, both Josiah and Buck are near the same weight, as are Vin and I, so we can get the two boards close to holding the same weight for balance.  The center can bind the two sides."

"A sail.  Josiah got us sheeting.  We could make a sail fer the center."  Vin shifted materials around.  "Take four planks, use the twine ta secure a frame fer it.  Ezra's glue he got could attach the sail ta the frame."

Buck continued the brainstorming, "Use a fifth plank to create the mast, and stick it in the empty glue can, with the can glued to the plank, to anchor and tack."

"Put at least one inner tube around the mast base for stability," Josiah suggested, pleased with their progress. 

"Where do we put the glue to use it, and what will you use to turn our sail?" asked Ezra.

"Five planks fer the mast and sail, leavin' five fer the center.  Make that three 'cuz we only have two paddles; two planks can double as paddles fer us in the back."  Vin scratched the back of his neck in the bright sun, moving his hair away for a second before letting it fall.

"Four."  Buck arranged the planks and foam noodles between the boards in a mock-up of what they discussed.  "Josiah and I can be in the front with the paddles.  There's your raw power and forward propulsion.  I'd rather work the sail since jarheads aren't capable," he dodged the punch aimed at his shoulder from Josiah, "but the weight distribution has to be right, and the dogface knows almost as much as this former Naval officer.  He should work the sail." 

"This dogface can kick yer swabbie ass," Vin threatened. 

"What about the remaining plank?"  Ezra interrupted before Buck retorted. 

"Rudder," Vin, Josiah, and Buck said in unison, sharing a laugh about the same idea uttered simultaneously.

"Your job in the back, Ez."  Buck grinned.  "We'll attach your foam squares to the top and bottom with the rubber tubing you got to give us better steering ability.  Maybe rope off the rudder to be worked with the sail." 

Progress, Josiah thought.  Their natural teasing started to reassert itself without the nasty edge of previous conversations.  Hoping to calm things further, he said, "So we don't get in anyone's way, why don't we split up assignments and work independently?  I'll wax the bottom of the boards."  He held up the container of wax, his last acquisition in the store.  "When the rudder's done, we'll wax the plank."

"I'll work on the sail," Vin offered. 

"Much as I detest the thought, I will glue the noodles together, while Mr. Hot Air Wilmington inflates the rubber inner tubes."

"Hey!"  Buck glared at the Southerner.

"Unless you remembered to buy an air pump?"  Standish quirked an eyebrow.


Ezra cursed under his breath again.  This glue reminded him of when he helped Vin at the youth's center marine outing.  He remembered the ease Tanner had with applying this to repair a canoe, and the brand had been around for years.  He even used it during his boarding school days, and later when he was part of the various Yacht clubs to show he knew his way around vessels.  His memory, however, did not remember the tar-like thickness the glue possessed when he opened the can.  With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he looked at the can, spotting the little advertisements he missed in his haste to leave the store.

"New formula – extra bond!" the small circle promised.  "Dries 75% faster!" cried another circle. 

"Wonderful," Ezra murmured.  He found the paintbrush he bought to apply the glue, realizing unless he was exceptionally careful he would wear the sludge.  When the paintbrush went into the can, it nearly stood up on its own, not sinking into the depths.  "You must be the extra cream version of Mr. Tanner's coffee," he told the glue while pulling the brush out.  "Light and lethal."

"What's that, Ez?" Vin asked, walking by the Southerner with his planks.

"I said the new improved formula of the glue reminds me of your coffee with extra cream in it.  The paintbrush is scared." 

"Just like ya are of my coffee, since ya can't handle it," Vin retorted with a smile.

Refraining from firing off a crass one-finger salute required he turn his attention directly to his task.  He applied the first layer of glue to two of the noodles, one of which promptly rolling away from him.  He chased it down, removed the debris it picked up during the roll, and slapped it against the noodle coated in glue.  Making sure they were even, he stood there thinking he appeared idiotic until the two noodles clung together without his assistance, and they did not appear ready to roll into the water on their own. 

Ezra continued working with the noodles, gluing them together in pairs of two with the exception of the last two noodles, which he left loose.  It was a tedious and time-consuming task, requiring his attention to detail.  Once the pairs were sufficiently dry, he took them to the longboards, measured, and glued them down to the longboards.  When they dried in place, he painted the tops with the glue, attaching a plank atop each pair.  So far, he had stuck himself to the boards, the planks, and he preferred not to recall when he wiped his hands on his bathing trunks.  His action requiring shameful assistance from a grinning fool profiler to separate his hands from his trunks. 

Perspiration, not sweat, ran down his face, and he realized he forgot to bring his sunscreen, or apply it at their cabin.  Dear Lord, what the sun would do to his complexion he shuddered to think about; the grief he would take from the others over using his male moisturizers to prevent wrinkles and sunspots would be intense from his boorish companions.  Glancing down at his lower arms, he saw they appeared to be slightly tan, meaning he was burning quickly.  He hated this place. 

Buck put his best efforts into inflating the black rubber inner tubes.  When he bought them, he didn't even think of inflating them; he figured there'd be an air line he could use.  None was forthcoming, and he hated it took Ezra to point it out.  For all his bluster, nothing worked.  He tossed one aside in disgust, partly mad at himself for not thinking of buying an air pump. 

"Idiot," he muttered.

"Buck?"  Teddy Drew, the last person he wanted to see, squatted down beside him.

"What?"  He couldn't even muster a friendly grin.  His lips felt numb from blowing so much to no effect. 

"I have something for you."  He produced a small, battery-operated air pump.  "Barbie Sue and I didn't realize the Tornados bought all the air pumps.  We wondered while all the teams ignored the inner tubes and left them behind.  When you bought them, we didn't think to ask why you didn't buy an air pump.  Through no fault of your own, we allowed you to purchase materials you could not use, which was unfair to you.  We've told the other teams we made an error and are correcting it by giving you an air pump."

"Thank you," Buck said.  He was more grateful for the pump than to be mad about the error.  "The other teams were okay with this?"

Teddy Drew smiled.  "The Tornados were not until we explained all the other teams took the best materials, leaving yours with a hodge-podge we're still trying to figure out how you're going to get to float.  Quite honestly, you did not have many choices other than the tubes, and it's our fault for not asking you if you bought a pump.  We didn't specify in the rules, which we are going to correct, that all inflatable items require buying an air pump.  So, they are forced to accept it.  The rest, well, the Condors said you needed all the help you could get.  Use in good health as you need it."  He walked away.

Blue eyes stared at the pump, a wild idea forming in his brain.  "Vin."

"Yeah?"  Tanner looked up from his sail frame.

"We just got an edge."  He pointed to the pump in its waterproof case.

"We gotta adjust the sail and rudder for me ta run, and Ez can use the pump ta give us wind.  We got a chance, fellas."

"Just so everyone knows our competition, the Tornados bought all the air pumps.  I can't see what they're doing, but they had a reason for it."  Buck attached the hose to the inner tube and turned on the pump.

"Cretins," Ezra mumbled, concentrating on spreading glue on Vin's twine knots securing the sail frame together.

"They are seriously trying my patience, brothers," Josiah remarked, using some twine to double secure the noodles to the boards. 

"We'll beat 'em," Vin said. 

"Or we'll sink trying," Ezra added, sarcasm heavy in his voice.  "Which will be worse?  Sinking in the water or boiling in the sun?  Who did we anger to be sent here?"

"Buck, yer turnin' red," Tanner interjected, cutting off Ezra before he could get a full head of steam going.

"You ain't much better," Wilmington shot back.  "Another thing for us to bitch about.  Suffer in silence."

Vin dearly wanted to knock Buck flat on his back because of his comments.  His ankle throbbed.  Yeah, sitting took the pressure off it, but that didn't reduce the already prolific swelling, or lovely color array marring his flesh.  He was still irritated with his teammates, but they were building the raft.  It would float.  And the Tornadoes would pay for taking advantage of the other teams. 

Giving a cursory glance to the other teams spread along the edges of the piers, they'd give a good contest, but wouldn't win.  From what he saw in the rough forms, their rafts were too heavy and would depend on member strength versus using Father Sky's winds.  He couldn't see what the Tornados were building from here, but he figured they would use the air pumps for propulsion, or build a sail like they were doing and use the pump to blow air into the sail.

Fractured Team Seven, as he thought of them – not Darlings, no way, no how – had another advantage.  On the good days, the team went boating together.  Ezra belonged to the local Yacht clubs, whatever the official name was, and could boat with the best of 'em.  Once, well into his cups, the Southern cuss admitted to being on both rowing and sailing teams at some of those fancy private schools he attended. 

Vin was no slouch on the water either; he would take any opportunity to go out on it, whether it was kayaking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, or fishing, but this wasn't what he had in mind.  He'd love to go out on a fishing boat out into the Atlantic and do some marlin fishing, or shark fishing, or just to sit on the water and relax with a beer in his hand.  Maybe he still could when this asinine fire drill was over.

Putting all their advantages together in his head, since what he was doing didn't require all his brain, he figured he and Ezra could pilot the vessel.  Buck's Navy time made him a small craft and paddling expert, and Marines always learned water skills, especially rubber boat assaults, meaning Josiah could paddle their raft. 

"Ez, go ahead and glue the sail edges down."  Vin studied the frame, made smaller than the sail to allow the material room to fill.  Laughing blue eyes ignored the disgusted look Ezra gave the quickly depleting gallon of adhesive. 

Yeah, they had a chance.

They completed their building process with ten minutes to spare.  Now came the one-hour period they received to see if their raft actually floated, and how to fix it if it did not.  Unfortunately, they were required to wear life jackets at any time they were in the water, which irritated their sun-tinted skin.  Second, it was awkward as hell moving the raft.  It wasn't designed to be on land, and carrying it down the steps was out.  Therefore, they did the best they could.

"Vin, be careful with that," Buck warned.  "I ain't fixing a broken mast."

"It's my mast," Vin shot back, turning his body and getting a better grip on top of the pier.

"Ezra, you might want to wash your hands off in the water again.  I can still see glue on them," Josiah pointed out from his spot beside Buck in the water to hold the raft.

"Yes, Father," Standish shot back, reaching off the pier to rinse his hands again, intentionally flinging the excess water off at Sanchez.

"Are we five now?  Flicking water?"  Buck wiped the droplets off his face.

"Boys," Vin said softly.  "We ain't got enough time ta fight and see if this floats.  Ez, grab this side.  We'll lower it down ta them, then get in and see what we can do with it."

"If I must," Ezra muttered under his breath.  The sharpshooter and the Southerner picked up the ungainly, unwieldy raft, lowering it slowly off the pier to their waiting coworkers. 

"Ow, damn it," Buck yelped.  "Hit me in the bad eye with a bat next time.  Might feel better."

"Quit bitching and get off my foot," Josiah snapped back.  "I can't move if my ankle's sunk in the sand."

"Do you have it?"  Ezra asked.  "I'm losing my grip."

"Yeah, yeah," Wilmington retorted.  "We've got it.  On three?"


"One, two, three."  Buck loosened his grip on his end of the raft, while Josiah did the same to see if it floated. 

Surprisingly, it did.  After two minutes of staring at it bobbing in the water, both men backed away from it a space to see if it would continue to do so without their hands on it. 

"Congratulations!"  Barbie Sue Drew offered from the pier.  "We didn't think it would.  Excellent teamwork."

"Thank you."  Ezra mustered up a fake smile.  "A word of advice, ma'am – never discount us, and never underestimate us."

"We'll see."  She giggled.  "It still has to race."  Barbie Sue wandered off, not seeing the four glares aimed at her back.

"I'm really starting to detest her," Standish announced in a thick drawl. 

"Ez, we ain't agreed on much lately, but I'm with you there."  Buck shuddered in the water.  "Too much sugar rots your teeth."

"Fellas, she's right."  Vin dropped gracefully off the pier into the water.  "We gotta run the race, or try.  Need ta do that ta pass this class."

"Don't forget, brothers, we're also in competition with those who wish to see is fail."  Josiah moved to the middle of the left longboard.  "Buck?  We'll have to coordinate this."

"Yeah.  Vin, you and Josiah get on first so the weight's even front and back.  Like I need to say it, but hey, we're supposed to be on the same damn page and be a team.  Rah, rah, and all that bull."  He held his side on the right middle.

Ezra moved over to his corner on the left rear of the raft, keeping it secured.  "Ready."

"On three," Vin said to Josiah around the mast.  "One, two, three." 

They climbed aboard, Josiah straddling the board and part of his weight on the inner tube toward the center to keep it even.  Vin balanced on the board and the inner tube.  The raft bobbed, but did not capsize. 

"Ez, Buck?"

"On two, to be different," Ezra remarked.  "One, two."

They climbed aboard, sending the raft bobbing crazily until it settled itself in the water. 

"So far, not bad," Josiah said.  "Glue seems to be holding pretty well, especially since some of it's only been on an hour."

"It dries seventy-five percent faster."  Ezra's delivery showed his distaste for the product. 

"We ready ta try ta steer?" Vin asked. 

Buck and Josiah glanced at each other, then up on the pier where the oars sat waiting. 

"Aw, hell," Tanner muttered.  He leaned far to his right, nearly tipping the raft, before he was able to reach the oars and pull them off.  "Ez, hand this ta yer dumb ass in front of ya, and here's yers, dumb ass."

"Bite me," Buck snapped.  "We had to make sure the dogface and the civilian didn't drown."

"I was more worried about the swabbie drowning than I was the dogface or the civilian," Josiah replied.  "I saw barnacles on him."

"Shut up, jarhead."

Josiah calmly reached over and smacked Buck with his oar for the comment.

Buck swung back, nearly putting his oar through the sail.

"Knock it off!" Vin yelled.  "Hell, boys, we're never goin' anywhere iffen we destroy the raft.  Might have ta repeat the exercise ta complete the class." 

"I hate this place," Ezra retorted.  "I truly hate this place."

"Now, swabbie, jarhead, y'all have ta forget y'all don't get along.  Y'all have ta paddle together or else we'll be goin' in circles."

"Who elected you leader?"  Buck asked. 

"I did, 'cuz I don't want the Drews over here talkin' ta us about teamwork.  If y'all didn't notice, they're starin' at us.  Again."

Josiah sighed; so much for their fragile peace during the building process.  He knew he wasn't helping.  He also knew he needed to do more to create teamwork, but he just didn't feel like it.  Hearing Ezra's southern accent thicken and Vin's drawl become more pronounced told him those two neared the end of their patience.  His wasn't much better.  They needed to stop the comments about the military service, because all that did was help their animosity grow.  There was enough hostility without bringing in the armed services, which still had not settled their disputes in decades.

"Buck, you ready to try forward motion?" he asked, working on his positive attitude. 

"Sure.  Why not?"  Midnight blue eyes met pale blue eyes.  "Ready?"


Two oars struck the water, propelling their craft forward.  It wobbled, the sail frame flopped around, but the raft stayed afloat.  The second stroke brought it forward more, and it continued to bob, but not sink. 

"Time ta try the sail," Vin said.  He adjusted it to pull the breezes into the frame, and a strong gust hit.  Their raft vibrated violently, shooting forward with speed and nearly tipping the occupants off.

Their practice continued, working out the kinks, until the Drews called an end to the allotted hour.  They were able to eat a lunch, take a break, and clean up.  Then it was time for the races to begin.

Barbie Sue smiled at the assembled teams.  "You're going to race your rafts both against each other, and against the clock.  So you could lose your heat, but win the race.  The two best times will run one race against each other.  We're also going to have solo races, so your team will compete in at least two separate events, if not three.  If the raft survives one but not everything, that's okay.  If you survive all, there's a bonus for you."

"Oh goody," Ezra muttered.

"So, we're going to have two heats to begin.  The Condors, the Darlings, and the Reds will race each other.  The Yankees and the Tornados will race second.  Then the individual races will begin where it will be just your team and your raft against the clock for best time in our second category."  Barbie Sue stepped back, allowing Teddy Drew to step forward.

"For safety reasons, all participants will wear life jackets.  There will be two boats positioned on either side of the racecourse in case the raft sinks.  They will hold position until needed as not to create wake to tip the rafts.  Our people will be there in seconds, so don't worry."  He looked at the teams.

"That said, the course will be down the lines, around the buoy, and back again.  Darling, will you draw the lanes?"  He held up balls with one through four printed on them, dropping them into his ball cap.  "We'll call this out alphabetically for both heats."

"Condors, lane two.  Darlings, lane three.   Reds, lane one."  Barbie Sue tossed the balls back into the cap and moved them around.  "Tornados, lane four; Yankees, lane two."

"For the solos, you get your choice of lane.  So, Condors, Darlings, and Reds, take your rafts to the start line."  Teddy Drew waved them toward the rafts.  "We'll let you know when to start."

"Here we go," Josiah said.  He and Buck hopped off the pier, taking a corner of the raft.  "Do we want to board now, or board there?"

"Board there," Vin said.  "Less work fer us, less stress on the raft.  I'm aimin' ta run it three times ta beat them damn Tornados."

"I'm with you there," Buck said. 

"Childish, but I wish to complete this class.  It's only for one day," Ezra said aloud, taking his corner of the raft.  "Shall we walk?"

Fortunately for them, the lake was shallow in this end, and did not get deeper until they neared the line.  The warm water rose to the top of Ezra's sternum before they reached the starting point. 

"Like we practiced," Vin said.  "Me and Josiah, you and Buck.  Ready?"

"One, two, three."  Josiah called the count while they climbed aboard, this time prepared for the raft's bobbing.

"One, two," Buck announced while he and Ezra joined their friends on the handmade raft. 

They paddled to the beginning of the lines, positioning themselves in the lane.

"Isn't this fun?"  Emma looked over at them from the Condors' lane. 

"Yippee," Devon added.  "I'm having so much fun I can't stand myself."

"Devon!"  Emma snapped before looking back at the Darlings.  "Interesting raft.  I'm surprised it's floating."

"So are we," Ezra replied.

"Everyone's in position!"  Barbie Sue yelled over the megaphone.  "Let's get ready to race!  Wait for the signal."

"Who gave the cheerleader a megaphone?"  Devon grumbled.

"Right with you on that one," Josiah interjected.

"On your mark!" she yelled.  "Get set!"

Josiah and Buck leaned forward, paddles at the ready to propel the raft.

"Gooooo!"  She shouted, while Teddy Drew set off an air horn.

"I hate that man," Ezra snapped, working the rudder until they could catch some wind.

"Call it for us, Ezra," Josiah requested.  "Keep us in sync."

Ezra gave the profiler a dirty look, then noticed the other teams were right beside them.  "Ready, and, stroke.  Stroke.  Stroke."

Vin had to hand it to Josiah.  Instead of having Ezra's mouth insulting them the entire race, the profiler put Standish in a position of contributing to the team.  In fact, it would boost Ezra's self-esteem to call like a leader.  It was also an obvious show of unity for the other teams that they were able to follow commands without a fight. 

He noticed their forward progress smoothed out, instead of being bumpy and jerky like it was prior to Ezra spacing out the calls as a timer.  They were actually starting to pull ahead of the other teams.  The Texan knew it would not last long; Buck and Josiah's arms would only take so much before they started to hurt.  Feeling a strong breeze starting, he released the sail and took over their rudder. 

Ezra never missed a beat, grabbing the lines to help tack their homemade sail, or hold it in place when they caught a good wind.

The sharpshooter nearly held his breath when the wind filled every loose piece of fabric on the sail.  Their raft shot forward with the power of the breeze, allowing Josiah and Buck to cease paddling.  The breeze continued until they turned the raft around, where they fell out of the push of the wind.  Buck and Josiah put their strength into the paddling, while Vin and Ezra worked on tacking back and forth to give them the advantage.  They actually came in second in their heat.

During the next race, the Tornados lost to the Yankees.  This set up the Yankees against the Condors, resulting in a Condor win.  Barbie Sue and Teddy Drew presented a trophy to the Condors, with the Darlings finishing second overall just ahead of the Tornados by one second. 

Buck sighed, preparing for another round of paddling.  He hated it when they did it in the SEALs; he still hated it now.  His problem was he always had the upper body strength to put him in the front of the damn rubber boats.  Now, years later, he was still in front of the damn raft.  Frustration filled him, causing him to get snappish.  Correction, he thought, more snappish than he was before. 

The air horn sounded, signaling their start to their time trial.  He put his strength into it, hoping they would catch another breeze like the one they did during their race.  Their second place finish pleased him in a way; second out of five, and ahead of the Tornados.  Now was the last part of this hellacious teamwork exercise on the raft, and he hoped to finish it quickly.  At least Josiah knew how to paddle in sync with him, and having Ezra call it made it easier to work through the muscle burn.  This time, they didn't catch a breeze, no matter how hard Vin tried, to the buoy.  Once they turned around, however, the breezes came at their backs. 

It took very little effort to catch the wind, the sail causing the little raft to lift up and nearly fly.  About three-quarters of the way back, a not-so-short distance to the finish line away, the breeze started to die off.  Buck and Josiah doubled their efforts, while Ezra opened up the air pump's nozzle, aiming the strong stream at the sail.  They regained some of their speed, bouncing across the finish line with a spent air pump, tired paddling arms, one sore throat from calling, and a team who was pretending everything was wonderful when it was not. 

Buck sighed when they finished.  Their poor raft, which endured so much, fell apart when they lifted it to their pier from the water.  In fact, one plank fell off and hit Ezra in the foot.  It was all he could do not to laugh at the creative Southern curses and hopping actions performed by his teammate.  The rest of the planks followed suit, separating from the noodles, and the longboards parted company with the attached inner tubes.  When Vin tried to catch the raft before it fell back into the water, he lost his balance.  One foot went onto an inner tube, sending him careening through his sail to land in a heap on his bad ankle.

Buck saw it about to happen but could do nothing to prevent it.  The raft continued its tumble onto Josiah, who was unable to shoulder it and Vin at the same time.  He tried his best, but his feet slipped in the wet, sending everything flying into Ezra, and that included Vin.  His reflexes were too slow to do more than grab onto longboard and go along for the ride. 

Four men sorted themselves out in the water.  Buck felt various items strike him in the torso, and held his breath until he break the surface.  When he did, he saw Josiah come up under a longboard and whack himself good.  Part of him felt guilty for thinking good, but another wasn't so inclined.  The other part was concerned with the abrasions on his chest stinging like a son of a gun. 

"I detest this!"  Ezra shoved noodles off his face and away from him.  "I will be haunted by noodles for the rest of my life!"  He pulled himself out of the water, heading for their cabin without looking back. 

"Ezra!"  Barbie Sue called out, "you need to come back to the podium.  We're giving out awards." 

His body stiffened, and Buck nearly laughed.  Nearly, because the one scrape along his ribs protested the action.  Plus, he had a strong sense of self-preservation – the goose egg forming on Josiah's forehead in the same place as where he had the collision in the moon bounce made him cautious of even showing a smile with the profiler so close. 

"Actually, never mind.  We'll clean everything up, and you all clean yourselves up.  We'll do awards at dinner."  Barbie Sue waved them off.

Ezra sighed.  He felt so put upon by this entire ordeal that he even stopped hating his teammates.  It was a sorry state for him to welcome the complaining of the others, especially when they were comparing their injuries.  After their meal, Barbie Sue and Teddy Drew stood up on their platform in the dining hall.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, first, let me congratulate you on successfully completing the first half of your stay.  We only have one more major exercise left, and we'll start tomorrow.  Give yourselves a hand."  Barbie Sue clapped.

"Hear my rapture," Ezra mocked, performing a silent golf-clap.

Buck, Josiah, and Vin chuckled.

"For our first award, can we have the Yankees come up here?  Congratulations on the fastest race!"  Barbie Sue presented the trophy to the smiling group.  Teddy snapped off a team picture before allowing them to return to their seats.

"Darlings, come on up!" 

Ezra held back his inelegant snicker at Vin's snort and foot-dragging to the podium. 

"Congratulations on your second place finish!"  Barbie Sue shook their hands and gave them a trophy.  They posed for the picture and returned to their seats, the small brass trophy sitting in the middle of the table between them.  It was an elegant trophy, he considered to himself.  Small, compact, and well appointed, it listed them as Raft Builders Race, Second Place, and gave all four of the team member's names on a separate small plaque beneath the Second Place engraving. 

They sat through the Tornados presentation without a word. 

What next, Ezra thought to himself?  What next?  He stared at Barbie Sue, seeing her glance their way more than once.  What's in store for us now, and how badly will we be nickel-and-dime injured until we cannot function? 

"Since we didn't have anybody sink in the race, we'll pass on the Titanic Award.  We do, however, have a few more awards."  Barbie Sue pulled a cover off a table revealing a few more clear plaques.  "Most Impressive demonstration of Teamwork – the TEAM Award – goes to the Tornados!" 

The Tornados stood for another group picture, cheering themselves.

"Rah, rah," Ezra muttered to Buck. 

"I'll rah-rah them into tomorrow with one excited fist," Buck mumbled back.

Standish bit his lip to stop laughing when he saw Barbie Sue looking their way.

"For the most innovative design, congratulations to the Darlings!" 

Surprised, he was a second behind Buck and Josiah, but man enough to help Vin back to the platform to accept their award. 

"Before you go away, also the most spectacular unraveling after a race goes to the Darlings!"

He felt his smile freeze on his face when the rest of the teams laughed at them.  Yet another reason he wanted out of this place.  So far, he'd participated in moon bounce volleyball and raft-building, both skills he did not have in abundance.  What was tomorrow's torture?  If it was basket weaving, he had a chance. 

"I mean the raft, not the team," Barbie Sue announced.  "Play nice with each other," she admonished.

He stepped away from the platform, the rest of the team following him in their hobbling pace.  The Southerner wanted to leave without looking back.  What kept him here?  He couldn't answer that one easily; he wasn't that scared of Chris Larabee.  It was just he didn't want to lose the life he was building in Denver.  He could withstand the humiliation here if it meant not starting over somewhere else, even though these three buffoons with him currently grated on his one nerve.

"Our last meeting is tonight, where we'll have a debriefing with each team over what worked, what didn't, and what could have worked better.  After that, get a good night's sleep.  You'll need it in the morning."

Larabee answered his phone with a growl, "Yeah?"

"Nice to talk to you too," Harper said.  "I'm sending you a video on your phone.  You might find it interesting.  Along with some pictures.  Barbie Sue sent them to me.  Have a good time!"  She disconnected.

He hated her when she took control and never let him get a word in edgewise.  Deciding it would be poor form to call her back and hang up on her, he opted instead to mute the television in his room.  Truth be told, it gave him a break from the thick handouts the instructor planned to test him on at the end of the session. 

Opening the files, he burst out laughing.  The first picture showed his four friends floating on a homemade raft.  Just looking at it made chuckle; it must have seriously offended both Ezra and Buck's sense of seamanship to be seen on it.  He flipped to the second, a distance shot showing Buck and Josiah rowing.  He continued through to the third, a solo shot of the four of them alone on the water, the raft literally skipping across the surface. 

Ezra's smile caught him off-guard, even with the evident knot on his head.  Standish was aiming what looked like an air pump at the square sail, filling it with a breeze to propel their vessel.  It looked like Ezra was having a good time.  How about that?  He checked Buck and Josiah, and both of them were smiling, along with the broad grin on Vin's face.  Maybe, just maybe, they might work out their differences.

The video shattered that dream into a thousand shards.  It showed the boys trying to lift the raft out of the water and catastrophe.  He winced when the plank hit Ezra; when Vin went through the sail; Buck's ungraceful belly flop off the pier, and Josiah banging his head when he surfaced.  Watching it a second time, he bit back a snicker.  The snicker quickly became a guffaw, until he held his sides in hysterical laughter.  It was just too funny. 

Before he could stop himself, he sent the files to Nathan and JD.  He figured they'd enjoy it.

Maybe sending them there was a good idea; at least they were getting exercise.

Part Nine

The coming of the morning brought neither joy nor happiness to the occupants of the cabin.  They preferred not to be here, not to get up, especially as their various injuries continued to make themselves known, almost worse than a nagging nurse at the hospital when they were injured.

Buck privately thought they were like a bunch of classic cars that collected minor dents and dings from a bad owner.  Or a series of owners, considering Training sent them here, and Chris could not stop it, or would not.  If it wouldn't hurt too much, he would wallop the heck out of Ezra for his morning confiscation of the one bathroom.  But, he took over the other bathroom just for spite two sprinting steps ahead of limping Vin. 

He showered quickly, dressed fast, and walked with as much dignity as possible to breakfast.  Hopefully, today's nonsense wouldn't be too painful.  He still owed a few belts here and there for the disaster yesterday.  Not to mention the accounts payable to the other teams.  His stomach still stung when he thought about hitting the water the way he did. 

Please, God, he silently sent, let it be painless today.

He was going to kill him.  Not just hurt him, or make it a quick end to his life, but seriously inflict great pain on Buck Wilmington.  And this time, he'd see it coming, no anonymous pranks.  Vin still fumed because of his mostly cold shower and the quick step Wilmington did to beat him into the bathroom, knowing the Texan's ankle wasn't up to snuff.  He counted on a hot shower this morning to work the stiffness out of his ankle, and the rest of his abused body.  What did he get?  A door slammed in his face and icicles in his hair.

Here he stood shivering and keeping his weight off one leg.  Couldn't let them see how bad it hurt, or the fact it took a few minutes in the morning to get it loosened enough to walk to breakfast without a limp, because his pride wouldn't allow it.  Nor could he quit and go to the doctor's; it was worse than he was letting on to everyone else.  Quitting was not an option, because he, Vin Tanner, finished what he started.   

The support wrap went around his ankle, and he hissed through his teeth when he pulled it tight.  A thick sock went over top the wrap, and he finally put his full weight on it walking out of the bathroom to get dressed.  His eyes watered from the pain, but his towel wiped across his lids to eradicate the moisture.  Four aspirin shot down his throat before he walked with Ezra to breakfast.

Ezra felt a good measure of satisfaction in both taking the first shower, and confiscating the better bathroom.  Yes, they were nearly identical in size, but the showerhead in the one he preferred worked better, giving a stronger pressure.  He needed to get the conditioner out of his hair, no matter how long it took, so he did not have the greasy, smarmy look, and he refused to allow it to have the consistency of straw by not using conditioner.  Just because he was forced to live in barbaric conditions did not mean he needed to appear as a prehistoric man if he could help it.  Besides, he justified, the increase in pressure lessened the time he spent rinsing. 

He knew some of his teammates thought he was vain, but his polished image often gave the illusion of responsibility, of culture, something his teammates often lacked with their more down to earth personalities.  As a whole, the team worked, even thought it suffered from what he termed a run of bad luck lately.

Did he truly bear ill will against his teammates?  No.  Would he admit it?  Also no, because to admit it could be a sign of weakness, and Ezra P. Standish had few weaknesses.  He finished in the bathroom, turning it over to Vin, and dried his hair.  He waited for Vin, because he knew the other man was in more pain than he was willing to admit.  Company often helped distract the mind from pain, and he was no different.  Besides, he still believed in presenting the united front to the other teams.

Alone at last.  Josiah took a deep breath, enjoyed the solitude.  He needed moments like this to keep his own balance.  Given the amount of pain circulating through various aches, some freshly added since his arrival here, he liked being alone.  He didn't have to hide his winces, groans, and aches, and no one would delicately shudder as if offended when he cracked his back, knuckles, and knees. 

Lord have mercy, he was sore.  He was used to working out so the moon volleyball didn't kill him, nor did the rafting, but he did use his muscles in a few ways he wasn't use to or hadn't in years, so it sure did give him a few new twinges.  The headache from the multiple head strikes did not help.  Maybe these won't stay around long enough to become part of his "growing wiser" collection.  It seemed every year he found something else that ached, throbbed, twinged, didn't like cold weather, didn't like wet weather, or caused his head to swell like an inflated melon during, well, most of the pollen season and the flu season.  He was self-conscious enough during the swelling periods that he let the fat head comment get to him, something he normally wouldn't do. 

Giving one good stretch, he smiled briefly with joy at being alive before he saw the time.  Showering and dressing with speed, he rushed to make it to breakfast.  Typical, he thought to himself, we're still sitting together, with a few other additions, yet we're not communicating.  We were making progress yesterday, until the raft fell apart.  Perhaps today's activity might help with the transition back into a team.  No correct that…they were always a team, it was just others that perceived them as not combined and couldn't accept their way of dealing with their own idiosyncrasies.  Being a team, they went along with this plan to pull them back together even though what all four of them needed was a separation to get their thoughts together.  Now, if they managed not to kill each other, and everyone kept their annoying little tics and pet peeves inside, they were almost to the end of this ridiculous training and could get out and deal with the matter as they needed to – apart and alone.  Glancing around at his teammates, he hoped they realized the same.  Turning to his meal, he dug into breakfast, figuring he needed to eat hearty to survive the next encounter.

Barbie Sue bounced up onto the podium.  "Today's our big event."

"You throw a parade and let us leave?"  Ezra muttered under his breath, earning chuckles from his tablemates.

"Remember when we said you'll be getting in touch with nature during the orientation?"  Barbie Sue prompted.

"We missed that part," Buck whispered to Vin.  "Somewhere between the appletinis and our very late arrival."

"I could use an appletini," Ezra delivered sotto voice.

"Couldn't we all, brothers?"  Josiah asked softly.

"- this is the best part of your stay," Barbie Sue continued.  "You get to be Wilderness Wonders!"

"What?"  Buck's jaw dropped open.

"Oh, no," Ezra said.

"Yes, you guessed it, the next two days you will spend in our wilderness learning to work together," she finished. 

"I hate you all," Ezra announced.  "Each and every one of you.  This is your fault, not mine."

"'Before ya throw blame, Mr. Shades of Gray Paint Expert, ya got sent here with us," Vin challenged.

"Darlings, please!"  Barbie Sue called.  "Let me finish."

Four men glared at each other, no one looking forward to the next two days. 

"The teams will be given separate courses.  We have ten different trails, and not enough teams this time.  So you won't cross paths with each other out on the trails.  Isn't that great?"  She smiled.  "It will be a group-intensive, and each team will have a goal to accomplish.  So, everyone back to their cabins, fill the backpacks we have for you," she indicated piles for each team, "with what you'll need in the wild for two days, and come back here."

"I hate this place," Buck said, grabbing his pack and sprinting out the door.

"He wants to make sure the rest of us are forced to endure a twisted repeat of breakfast," Ezra complained, taking one pack and handing it to Vin.  He passed another to Josiah.  "Shall we go pack and face our execution like gentlemen?"

"We've survived moon volleyball and a rafting exercise.  Getting lost in the woods is the closest thing to normal for us," Josiah said. 

"Define normal," Tanner deadpanned.  "Besides, I reckon we can sneak up on the other teams and get a little payback."

"A plan worth exploring."  Ezra grinned, seeing a pair of matching grins on his teammate's faces.

Two hours later, they were on their way, map in Ezra's hand, ropes in Josiah's pack, compass in Buck's hand, and sealed packets with Vin.  Their instructions were strict and to the point:  proceed approximately one hour due north following a well-flagged trail to a clearing.  There would be a purple marker somewhat visible, but needing finding, which would contain their next set of directions and instructions on when they could open the next packet.  The instructions also were exact regarding roles:  each team member held a specific assignment vital to the group, and no one else should do another's assignment, unless directed to do so in the packets.  Since the Drews told them any attempt to open the sealed packets out of range of the markers resulted in exploding dye packs and destruction of the contents, they were not so motivated to open them.  Dye packs they could handle; receiving an incomplete for the course was not something they wanted to own up to with Larabee. 

"I hate this," Ezra complained, wiping some type of foliage from his face.

"Don't start," Buck warned.

"I'll start anything I want to," Ezra replied.  "Free country, as Vin so often says."

"Be prepared ta finish it," Vin warned.  "I ain't in the mood."

Standish remained quiet for a moment.  "Upon further consideration, I will hold my comments until a time when they are more appropriate."

"You do that," Josiah commended. 

The hike passed in silence under Buck's navigation.  For the view, Florida's beauty shone through.  Yellow sun beat down through the green foliage, with bursts of color all around them.  Their pace did not set land-speed records, for they often had to follow the trail markers to find their way through the crisscrossing paths.  Since it was easy to get lost here, the Drews gave an easy route to the first marker to insure everyone arrived.  After the first marker, though, they were on their own.  In the clearing, the experienced woodsmen found the marker quite easily.  Bright purple, standing out against the background although partially disguised, it held an envelope encased in a sealed plastic baggie. 

Buck read, "Open packet one."

Vin leaned back against a tree, pulled the packet out, and ripped it open.  "We're ta follow the compass east north east fer an hour, then find a second marker with help of a riddle, "Between the earth and the sky, with your eye, you will spy."

Three men groaned.

"Let's go," Buck said.  They continued on their journey through the paths, following the compass. 

"Where's the marker?" asked Ezra.  The four men stood within thick foliage, checking for what they were there to find.  Covered in sweat, with the indigenous insect population feasting on the Denver Darlings, none of them wanted to be there.  They did not want to continue this madness, but there was no escape. 

"I don't know," Buck snapped.  "We didn't find it when we got here, and we sure haven't found it yet."

"We sure we're in the right place?"  Vin prompted.  "That we followed the compass right?"

"Of course we followed the compass," Buck retorted.  "I do know how to use one."

"Lemme see," Vin said.  He swiped it from Wilmington's hand.  "Aw, hell."

"What?"  Buck snatched it back.  "It's working."

"It ain't workin'," Vin countered.  "It's pointin' north northeast fer due north.  Look, my watch points north, and it ain't pointin' the same way as this compass.  I knew it didn't feel like true north."

"Why didn't you check your watch some time ago if you didn't think we were going the right north?"  Buck faced off with Vin. 

"I did, about five minutes ago.  Felt like north, but not quite.  I'm supposed ta trust y'all with navigation."

"Yet we walked for five minutes after you knew he was wrong," Ezra said.  "Teamwork at its finest."

"Stay out of it, Ez," Vin warned.  "We can't be too far off, maybe another hour or two."

"Brothers, we walk, we finish, then we go on vacation," Josiah pointed out.  "Alone.  Keep that goal in mind.  And let's not forget some of the payback the other teams deserve during the nighttime hours.  Straighten out now during daylight, and take out frustrations at night."

"I want to know how we got so far off.  I can follow a compass," Buck complained.

Tanner pried off the compass casing.  "Ya didn't notice the numbers on it?"  Using the tip of his knife, he scraped away the covering, revealing a different set of letters and numbers beneath.  "How about this small magnet?" 

"Amateurs," Ezra mumbled.  His head drooped.  "Now we must go back the way we came, which was not well marked to begin with, and attempt to find our way to the second marker, which will be hidden, at least another two hours from here.  What a lovely way to spend the day.  LOST due to operator incompetence and a teammate's silence!  What a woodsman you are, Mr. Tanner.  Bravo!"

"It's wasn't the operator, it was the equipment."  Buck got toe-to-toe with Ezra.  "You saw Vin take it apart."

"Step careful, Ez, or the other teams won't be the only ones I'll mess with tonight."

"As if, Mr. Tanner.  Your hobble pains me to watch, and I know I can outrun you.  You should have said something sooner.  And you, Mr. Wilmington, you are a former SEAL!  Emphasis on the word former, which explains this predicament.  Have you no pride in yourself, or even the ability to judge when a compass was tampered with to the extent that one was?"

"Easy, brothers."  Josiah stepped between them, this time using his physical presence to force them to pay attention to his words.  "First, the compass was not Buck's fault.  Second, we need to stop fighting if we're going to make it back to our starting point, or the next marker point.  Third, we have a way to contact the Drews if things get out of control.  Consider this like one of our cases."

"Normal," Buck snorted.  "Everything's gone to hell.  That's this trip."  He took a deep breath.  "Sorry I snapped."

"I apologize also."  Ezra held out a hand.  "I believe we have some distance to go before we can escape this asylum."

"Arkham."  Sanchez looked at their faces.  "Arkham Asylum.  From Batman?  I can see Ezra here as the King of the Royal Flush Gang.  The Spade version."

"I do have a bit of royalty in me," Ezra professed, ever so modestly.

"Royal pain in the butt," Buck joked. 

"Which makes you the Joker for your sense of humor only you can appreciate.  The requisite purple and green color scheme suits you."  Ezra smirked.  "With Mr. Tanner's thin, rangy build, he could be the Scarecrow, a man who brings the nightmares."

"I'll be y'all's nightmare if we don't move in the right direction."  Tanner started back the way they came on the trail just wide enough for one person.  "No offense, Buck, but I'll lead to the second marker.  We're closer than to the first marker.  Reckon we'll rotate in what we do."

Ezra rolled his eyes and followed Vin.

"Sounds like a plan," Josiah said.  "We work better when we change tasks."

"Clayface!"  Buck yelled from in front of Josiah.  "You sound just like Clayface!"

"You want to become clay, brother?"  Josiah threatened.

"Dear Lord, what I must endure."

"I hate this place, I hate the Drews, I hate the entire idea of team togetherness."  Ezra trudged through the pouring rain.

"I hate mud," Buck added.  "Hate it when it gets in the crevices."

"I hate hearing about your private parts and bodily functions," Josiah snapped.

"I hate the bitchin'," Vin called back.  "I can't see in front of me and have a bunch of nipping jackals behind me."

"Then let's stop," Ezra suggested.

"Like hell," Buck snorted, coughing when water went up his nose.  "The trail's washing away, and I don't trust the critters in this part of the world."

"I know I'll hate myself for asking, but what does one have to do with the other?"  Josiah's voice rumbled along with the rain.

"Because if we stop, we'll lose the trail to the mud, get lost, then we're at the mercy of the critters.  You were a Marine.  You know better."

"Marine's don't get lost.  They clean up messes left by the SEALs."

"Here we go," Ezra mumbled under his breath.  "All we need now is –"

Vin spun around and stopped their single-file progress.  "Listen up, Jarhead, Swabbie.  This Ranger will lead y'all out, and when we get back, we'll settle this the way we've been needin' ta fer awhile."

"A Ranger putting in his two cents," Ezra finished his sentence.  "I have had enough of this juvenile behavior and inter-service rivalry.  All three of you are out of the service, and supposedly work for the same agency.  On the same team, no less.  Not the Marines, Army, or Navy; the A – T – F."  Having said his peace, he stepped around Vin, working his way forward on the trail. 

His foot stepped on a loose rock, sending his feet out behind him, sending him face-first into the mud formerly a trail.  Given the slight elevation, Ezra began a slide down the trail, slipping off it into a now-rushing, quickly swelling stream. 

Vin, Josiah, and Buck dove for him, all three landing in a stretched-out pile. 

"Ezra!"  Buck bellowed.

"Mmrprhfr!"  Ezra answered before he bounced along the current, his face under the water's turbulent surface.

Gaining their feet, they ran after their teammate, following the stream, leaping over rocks, knocking trees out of the way, pushing through the high grasses growing along the banks of the swollen waterway.  The stream widened some distance down.  The three men crashed along following the progress of one of their own, hastened their speed as they realized the growing danger.  Water deepened; the currents strengthened, and the debris multiplied.

Ezra sank in the wider, deeper portion.

"Josiah!"  Buck shouted, pointing with his fingers.  He dove in the water after Ezra.

"On it!"  Sanchez sprinted further down to the point where the stream turned sharply, Vin right on his heels.  The profiler waded to his knees, bracing against a sturdy fallen log forcing the turn in the stream. 

Tanner freed the bundles of rope from Josiah's back, attaching one hook and line to Josiah's waist, the other end to a strong trunk behind him.  "I hooked you."

Josiah nodded, stepping forward with Vin feeding the line toward the men bobbing their way.  Using raw strength while praying, he stretched and grabbed Buck's outstretched hand.  More prayers and muscle helped pull the pair closer to the shore.  Vin continued tightening the line, bracing off his good foot, bringing them closer to shore.  Inch by inch they fought the current, their own injuries, and muscle fatigue until they were, not necessarily on dry ground but at least safe out of the turbulent stream. 

Safe being a relative term, their history as a team thwarted the definition on a constant basis.

"Don't move."  Vin calmly stated as in the same breath he drew his gun from its holster at his back and fired once to Buck's right.  The others, used to their teammate's orders and skills at keeping them safe in the past, did not even blink at the unexpected action.  Instead, they watched in awe as the quickly fired bullet killed a snake before it struck the unsuspecting lothario. 

Buck muttered curse words not appropriate for any company, hefting Ezra to his feet with Tanner tucking under the other side.  "'Siah?"

"Coming, brothers."  Sanchez pushed himself to his feet, wincing at the movement.  "Think we can find the marker now?" he called out.

"To hell with markers," Vin yelled back over his shoulders.  "We're goin' back ta camp, and to hell with the Drews, and to hell with Chris."

Part Ten

Returning to camp was easier declared than done.  Not only did they have to deal with the rainstorm and the destruction of the trail, but they also had a series of new injuries.  Josiah pulled muscles in his back, Vin strained his arms and worsened his ankle, Ezra was a giant bruise from head to toe, along with a cough sounding like it crept into his chest and planned to take up residency.  Buck hacked up water but refused to allow them to look at his midsection or his head, where a thin line of crimson dripped down from the back.  They hiked until they reached the first clearing, finding it flooded and making it impossible to stop for the night.

Frustrated, aggravated, wet and sore, they pushed on, none of them wanting to admit defeat to the Drews so they refused to use the radio and push the button to call for immediate transport out.  To a man, they agreed they were not going to do this unless they became immobile.  While they still had strength and mobility, they were going back to camp on their own.  It was their way.

They staggered into the compound holding each other up, not speaking but united in their determination to reach their cabin, clean up, and leave.  Part of their plan worked; they did reach their cabin, but they were not alone for long.

"Are you okay?"  Barbie Sue burst into their cabin demanding in her most shrill voice.  "What happened to you?"

"If you know what's good for you, ma'am, you'll leave," Buck warned. 

"I beg your pardon?"  Both eyebrows rose as she managed to take in their bedraggled state.  "What happened?  Do any of you need medical attention?"

Josiah put himself in front of her.  "Ma'am, I would strongly recommend you take a few steps out the door and find a vehicle for us to take.  If you don't, then we will take a vehicle and leave."

"If you need an ambulance, I'll call one for you.  Please, let me know what's going on," she pleaded.

Buck used subtle, nonverbal cues to move Josiah out of the way without touching him.  "What's going on is you're lucky we don't rename this place in our honor.  You gave us a compass someone sabotaged.  We got lost because of it.  In straightening ourselves out, we got caught in this storm, which you didn't warn us about as a possibility, and Ezra over there got sucked into a swollen stream that qualified as a raging river today.  Josiah, Vin, and I went after Ezra and we damn near drowned." 

"Not counting the snake," Josiah added.  "Serpents in your garden of Eden.  You should be ashamed."

"Oh, how could I forget getting shot at by my own teammate killing a snake trying to make me dinner?"  Buck's voice rose with intensity, nearly shouting every word at Barbie Sue.  "We're injured, damaged, probably deranged, and the last thing we want to do is deal with you and this place!  We'll take that incomplete to get the hell out of here." 

"I…I don't know what –"

"To do?"  Ezra smoothly finished.  "Leave.  Your inept team building has done one thing no one else has – enraged us to the point we will face the wrath of our employer than spend another moment in this hideous cesspool of false jocularity."

Barbie Sue squared her shoulders.  "I will not be treated this way."

"Y'all packed and ready?"  Vin asked.  "We're leavin'."  He hobbled past Barbie Sue.  "Thanks fer the hospitality." 

"Wait.  Let me call you some help, get you taken care of.  Give me the chance to make this right."

Four men glared at her and answered in unison, "NO!" 

They went directly to the parked vehicles followed by Barbie Sue.  Each time she opened her mouth they glared her into silence.  Teddy Drew encountered them at the vehicles.  "Take the van.  It's got a full tank."  He tossed them keys.  "Call us from wherever you get treatment; let us know how you are."

"Teddy!"  Barbie Sue looked at her husband. 

"They're hurt, Barbie, and I'm not going to force them to stay.  Call us."  He pulled Barbie out of the way, letting them load up and leave.

"Agent Larabee?"

Chris knew it before he answered Barbie Sue.  His stomach tightened when he saw the sudden storm brew up, and when the rain came down, his instincts told him someone got hurt.  "Which one and how bad?" 

"I'm sorry?  This is Barbie Sue Drew.  Is this Agent Larabee?"

"Yes, who's hurt and how bad?"

A long pause stopped conversation.  Her tentative voice asked, "They haven't called you?"

His stomach relocated to below his knees.  "No."  A half-second later, anger made it rise to its proper location for them not calling him.  "Again, who's hurt?"

"All four of them.  From what little they would tell me, they had a mishap on our adventure course, and now they are being unreasonable."

"Unreasonable how?"  Unreasonable he could believe; now he wanted specifics. 

"They took our van and left."

"Barbie, give me the phone."  Chris heard a male voice in the background, followed by the phone changing hands.  "Agent Larabee?"

"Speaking," he replied.

"This is Teddy Drew.  Your men, from what my wife tells me, went out on their Wilderness Wonder trip. . ."

"Their what?"  His eyebrows lifted at the title.  Harper told him it was like a hiking expedition, not Wilderness Wonder; what the hell?

"We send them hiking in the trails for two days with a specific series of objectives.  Each person has a function in the group, and it's supposed to make them bond and work together to finish, with rotating roles.  But I'm going way off topic.  Your group went out, made the first marker, but they didn't make the second.  We started to get worried when they were well overdue for the second marker, so we checked the cameras.  They weren't on any of them."

"What kind of failsafes do you have in place?"  Chris interrupted.

"The packages they carried all have trackers on them, and there are cameras on most of the main trails at the forks.  We didn't find them on the cameras, and the storm started.  Killed our visibility.  So we remotely activated the homing beacons on their gear when it became really bad, and it showed they were on their way back to the camp.  We figured if they were seriously hurt, they could have activated the distress beacon themselves."

"They didn't," Chris said.  He knew they would not.  Short of serious injury – such as impalement, amputation, or severe hemorrhage, those four would not activate an emergency beacon.  They'd make do themselves.

"No.  From what Barbie Sue says they told her, their compass was tampered with, causing them to go in the wrong direction.  Unfortunately, the section they wandered into belongs to the county preservation program, and is not part of our property."

"Meaning?"  He allowed a touch of menace to drop into his voice, but he already knew the answer.  Disaster.

"Meaning they were in sections without our safety netting, flood control devices, or cameras."

"Was the boundary marked?" he asked.

"The sign was destroyed in the previous storm; the new one's being made now.  We didn't expect them to veer so far off our property."

"What happened to the compass?"

"We don't know; they didn't turn it over to us to examine.  But they said that Ezra was caught in a stream and nearly drowned."

"And?"  There was always "and" involved.

"The others managed to pull him out, but they were hurt in the attempt."

Not surprising, but not everything that happened.  "What else?"

"Barbie Sue wasn't quite sure about this, because your men were being, well, rude to her, but they talked about shooting a snake about to strike one of them."

"Rude I can understand.  How long ago did they leave?"

"About an hour.  We hoped they would have called you first, so we didn't want to tie up your cell phone or the hotel phone."

"They didn't call.  I'll take care of them.  Thank you for notifying me."  His finger hovered on End.  Teddy's voice stopped him from pressing the button. 

"Agent Larabee?"


"Please tell your men we're sorry about what happened to them.  They've been through a lot during their time here, and we're going to give them the course complete they deserved.  In fact, we're going to refund the fees for the class.  If there's anything else we can do, please let us know." 

"I will."  He disconnected before some of the choice words he wanted to say escaped his lips.  Time to start.  He dialed each of their cell phones, not surprised when they didn't answer.  Pulling out the courtesy phone book, he located the phone numbers for the hospitals.  Chris took a deep breath and prepared to dial.

His cell phone rang, causing him to scowl.  "I'm busy, Harper.  They're hurt and missing."

"Try this clinic."  She rattled off a name.  "They are getting treated for injuries, at least as of fifteen minutes ago."

"Why'd they call you?" he snapped into the telephone.

"They are pissed off and felt me a good target for their anger.  Buck gave me an earful about sending them.  He really let me have it.  I won't describe the colorful phrases he used.  Or Vin's promise to me about payback.  Or the Southern sarcasm cutting like a razor blade calling me almost every name in the book and questioning my intelligence.  Or even Josiah's fury. . .  I don't recall hearing him so mad before.  All four gave me their opinion, and I expected them to call you next.  They didn't tell me where they were, but I checked the list of clinics close and highly visible to the Drew compound.  Something about them refusing painkillers gave me a hint."

Chris scrubbed a hand down his face.  "I'm going after them."

"Have a good time.  Be prepared for anger."

"Do they need to apologize to anyone, or do I need to on their behalf?"

"I doubt it, because Barbie Sue called me first to warn me.  If it's as bad as they say it is," she paused, "we both may do some apologizing to them.  Keep in touch, let me know how they're doing."  She disconnected.

The slow burn of his temper continued during his elevator ride down, and during the cab ride to the clinic.  He got his receipt for the high cost of the cab, frustrated with the entire situation.  Walking into the clinic, he knew his boys were there.  The noise level in the patient rooms tipped him off.

"No needles in my butt!"  Vin half-yelled, refusing the tetanus shots.  The clinic personnel insisted because of the raw abrasions on his hands from the ropes and exposure to the stream water, not counting his other injuries of questionable nature.  Yesterday's tangle with the sail left him feeling some pain from the fall, compounded with today's adventure.

"We don't need to aim there, sir.  Just your upper arm."  The nurse continued to smile.  "Unless you can tell me for sure when your last tetanus shot was, we're giving you one for precautionary."

"I told ya it was in the last couple years," he retorted.  


"Musta been when I was in Denver and got shot.  Figure they gave me one then.  Don't remember much other than it hurt.  Call Denver Memorial.  Or was it the Trauma Center?  Hell, I don't remember now."

"Then you can't guarantee you had one without us investigating you and tying up our resources.  You're not the only one sick here, sir, and it's easier to just give you the shot," the nurse countered.  "Why won't you let me give you something for your broken ankle?"

"Because it ain't any worse than I dealt with all week.  I want ta leave," Vin replied.  "When's that?"

"When you get your tetanus shot."  She smiled.

Vin took a deep breath and held out his arm.  Larabee, friend or not, would pay for this mess.  He'd take out his pound of flesh, and maybe some more.  He might even leave leftovers for the others to play with; Larabee was the cornered mouse who didn't know it yet, and four pissed off wet cats were ready to have some fun. 

Chris should have known sending them to this team retreat fiasco was a bad idea.  Larabee should have stood up to the Training Division, to Harper, to Travis, and told them no.  The man should know by now that shoving them together was the last thing they needed.  Harper, well, was Harper.  It was her job to make things work, and she was under orders from Travis to protect Team Seven as much as possible.  Besides, there was enough blame to pass around; they really could have refused to come here, and taken the disciplinary hit for it. 

 "I want to leave," Josiah stated.  He shifted, feeling the back brace rub against his skin.

"You still need to wait for the doctor to give you your discharge.  He's with an emergency now."

Buck, he thought, remembering one of the staff yelling for the doctor to come into the room he saw Wilmington go into earlier.  "How are the others?" he asked, trying not to move.  Someone had to drive, and it would probably be him.  Vin's ankle was probably broken; Buck had a head injury, and Ezra probably had more bumps and bruises than anyone else.  He could live with his back screaming in agony every time he shifted his bulk, and made another promise to himself to lose weight and lessen the pressure on his back.  The knot on his head from the rafting incident and volleyball was survivable, also, although it did nothing for his looks.

The profiler felt better after reaming out Harper for even being involved with this place.  This entire trip was a disaster from beginning to now, and they still had the long trip home.  At least they had time off down here to recuperate, but to be in Miami with an injured back sucked, to borrow JD's favorite word of the week.

He hated waiting, no matter how patient everyone said he was.  Especially when the wait was for a man to give him a bottle of pills and send him on his way.  Besides, there was still the matter of settling with Chris Larabee for letting them come down here.  One of the reasons their team was so successful was because they were all alike as much as they were different, Larabee no exception.  Like them, he needed his own quiet sojourns to regain his balance.  Chris should have known it was a bad idea to send them here.

He could have stood up for himself and said he wasn't going, but he didn't, and now he paid the penalty.  There was enough blame to go around.

"You can get your needle and thread away from my head!"  Buck bellowed.  "I don't need to be sewn up like Frankenstein, and you're not shaving a spot in my hair!"

"You have a gash in your head that needs stitches," the doctor on duty calmly informed his agitated patient.  When the four sunburned, bedraggled men stumbled into the clinic over an hour ago, he'd wish then that he could have shot them all full of tranquilizers;  he wished it more now.  This particular patient nearly did a nosedive to the floor because he got dizzy and nearly passed out, resulting in a longer examination and cranial x-rays involved. 

"Are you going to be reasonable about this, or should I let the bacteria infect your brain?"

"Hell," Buck muttered in defeat.  "No painkillers."

"A local."

"No needles, no pills, no painkillers.  I want my head clear when I leave here."

"Fine.  When I start, you don't move or I don't give you painkillers for tomorrow when you need them."

Buck rolled his eyes, winced, and settled.  The stitches went in immediately, and the x-rays showed a pair of fractured ribs, no internal head damage.  He remembered how the injuries happened.  When he grabbed onto Ezra in the water, he rolled with him, putting himself closer to the bottom, so Standish could take in air.  He knew there were underwater obstacles, but slamming into a submerged tree while the current rolled them around hurt like a sonofagun.  The scrapes on his torso from the raft destruction loved that, along with the sting of the water.  Hitting his head created stars, but his SEAL training kicked in to prevent him from gasping from the pain of it, and dealing with the injuries afterward.  Forcing the memories away, along with the rest of the bumps and bruises he took during their bounce along the current, he focused on getting out of here.  Larabee needed a good punch in the face for this cluster.  He couldn't believe his old friend did this to him.

What happened to the Larabee backbone?  Why didn't Larabee stand up against the others?  The team fought occasionally, and usually time off and space gave them the chance to regroup.  But no, not this time; this time they got team-building.  He'd roll his eyes if it didn't hurt or pull on the stitches.  And Harper, well, he thought they were friends; why the hell did she pick them, or let them be picked?  Chris had a lot to answer for, especially if he let Harper sweet-talk him into sending them. 

Ezra Standish wondered how many more indignities he had to suffer.  Apparently, each of his previous wounds worsened due to the exposure to the muddy water, and he collected more pains, aches, and a fracture in his wrist.  The wrist injury came from when he tried fruitlessly to hold himself on a wide tree trunk and a piece of debris whacked his hand. 

He'd rather not discuss the humiliation of his face, or the packing they shoved up his nostrils.  Or the X-rays, or how they cleansed his multiple scrapes and abrasions beneath his clothing from his trip in the current.  His foot hurt from getting whacked with the board, and the trip down the river made it to the point he couldn't put weight on his foot.  Much less put on his shoes, not that the poor wet things were salvageable.  

He wanted to leave.  No painkillers; he wanted a drink.  He wanted a clear head when he let Larabee have it once and for all.  Larabee wanted them to bond as a team; well, they did.  A team in absolute misery united in the purpose of beating the snot out of their team leader until he had packing up his nostrils.  Their leader thought they needed this; they needed this like he needed a board on his foot, or a swim in the water.  Chris knew their way of solving problems; he shouldn't have rolled over and allowed this to happen.  The four of them discussed payback in excruciating detail during the ride here, while they debated calling him.  They chose Harper instead because she couldn't just show up here, and she had to take it from them.  There would be more suffering for her when they got back to Denver.

He would wager on that.

Chris continued to pace the waiting room.  The staff would not allow him back with the patients, or admit they were there, especially considering the "patients" did not say the injuries were work related.  Of course they didn't; that gave Larabee rights to know about their injuries.  His glares proved ineffective to the hardened clinic staff, leaving him waiting to see them when they received their discharges and had to pass through the waiting room.

Did they honestly think they could leave without someone calling him and letting him know?  More fool they.  He had a few choice things to say to them, and he could not wait to start.

Time continued to pass, cooling off the anger and replacing it with worry.  He continued to pace, ignoring the pointed looks of the other people in the waiting room, and focusing his gaze on the door leading out from the patient area.  He remembered hearing their voices when the door opened to let another patient in the back, so he knew they were conscious.  If they were in bad shape, they would have been sent to the hospital, and he would see them leave.  So he waited.  The stay continued.  He flipped through most of the magazines, counted to one hundred in his head, and paced with restlessness took hold.

The door opened, allowing a familiar figure to step out.  With the straight back, shoulders squared, and bruises in the weathered face to show testament to pain, Josiah Sanchez exited with his pills in hand.  Glancing at Chris, his lips tightened, and he walked to the other side of the waiting room.  A single harsh pale blue glare kept Chris in place.  He knew his profiler better than to approach him while he was in that type of mood. 

Maybe he should have called Nathan and JD as reinforcements.  He forgot to include them in this run to the clinic.  They could have provided a buffer, and they deserved to know about their friends.  Why didn't he call them?  He whipped out his cell, receiving Nathan's voice mail.

"Nate?  I'm at a clinic with the Fearless Four, and they've been hurt.  I don't know how bad, but I'm at a clinic and not a hospital.  I'll call you once we're on our way back to the hotel.  Let JD know."

Chris put his cell phone back on his belt as Ezra walked out.  To say Ezra walked was a polite reference to the slow step-by-baby step forward progress with a severe list to one side Standish achieved.  It hurt Chris to watch him.

When green eyes connected with his, they narrowed slightly, Standish changing course toward Chris.  "You, sir, are despicable."  He wobbled forward while he delivered his scathing insult, losing his balance and nearly falling into Larabee's chest. 

Reflex had him wrapping his arms around Ezra to give him support, causing a yelp of pain from the Southerner.  Both of Standish's arms clung around his waist for balance, and the hands attached squeezed hard, attempting to relocate his internal organs into a more compressed pattern.  He felt like a cartoon character grabbed by the giant's hand in the middle until the top and bottom swelled around the miniscule waist.  When he opened his mouth to protest, Ezra withdrew.

"I hate you, sir, and may you rot in hell for your duplicity."  Standish hobbled over to Josiah.  Ezra pulled out his cell phone and another object, dialing quickly.  The Southerner raised his voice while glaring directly at Chris.  "Yes, this is Chris Larabee, and I have a room booked there.  Room 842.  I have a request.  I need four separate suites on my personal credit card for friends who have just arrived.  Can you arrange that for me?  Sure, I have the card right here.  The numbers are..."

At least he lowered his voice, Chris thought, while biting his lip and preventing himself from making a scene.  It also struck him as somewhat scary Ezra imitated his voice almost exactly, so much so he wondered how long he practiced.  He glared at Standish, who waved a familiar wallet back, before disconnecting.  I'm gonna kill him, he thought, mad at himself for not realizing the stumble was a well-played lift of his wallet.  Okay, he would pay the bill for the rooms; that was the least he could do.  Then he'd get reimbursed by the ATF…maybe.  Either way, if it made them happy and maybe even talking civilly with him, he'd take it…for now.

Speaking of taking it, Buck walked out with almost as stiff a gait as Ezra.  The main difference was the spectacular shiner obscuring one eye.  Colors told him the bruise was at least a day old, not fresh damage, but the white bandage peeking out from behind his head when Wilmington turned to acknowledge the other two told more of the story. 

Dark blue eyes connected with green.  Buck walked over, looked him up and down, and turned his back on Chris.  "You're not worth hitting." 

"Get your licks in now, big dog," Chris warned.  "While I'm in a generous mood."

Wilmington stopped. 

"Don't, Mr. Wilmington.  Do not debase yourself on that cretin," Ezra warned. 

"Not worth it."  Buck joined Ezra and Josiah.

The rest of the patients and families waiting departed to other sections of the room, mostly clustered together and out of the way of the drama.  They needed treatment, not violence, and they felt the tension radiating from the four men in the room, even though three were obviously injured, was reaching a boiling point.

Chris took a deep breath.  This was worse than he thought.  Buck never, ever cut him that way; both knew it was an insult of the highest order to tell someone they were not worth it and present their back.  Only because he knew it was a bad day – week – and the other man was injured prevented him from punching Wilmington's lights out.  When he sent them down here, he never imagined this.  He reckoned on at least one trip to the hospital, but not the seething hostility he felt coming from his men, and Vin hadn't even come out.

Speaking of, the nurse held the door for the Texan to hobble out on crutches, his foot in a calf-high cast.  He thumped his way over.  "Ya ain't welcome here, cowboy."

"I know," Chris replied.  "But I'm here anyway."

"Then stay here.  We're leavin'."  Vin thumped a couple steps away.

Chris watched him go without moving.

"Aw, hell."  Tanner spun around, hopped over, and got right into Larabee's face. 

Green eyes stared into blue impassively.

The punch came lightning fast, and completely unexpected.  It drove into the blond's gut, bending him in half.  When Chris lifted his head, it was only to take one to the jaw, knocking him on his butt onto the fallen crutches.  

"Don't ever send us ta somethin' like that again," Vin warned.  He reached down, picked up his fallen crutches, and hobbled away.  The quartet reached the door as Chris picked himself up off the floor.

He said nothing, halfway surprised he still had his teeth, knowing Vin held plenty back.  It ticked him off, but he swallowed his anger again.  He knew when it was suggested this team retreat idea wasn't right deep down, but he'd gone along, worried because he'd never seen the four so at odds with each other, but mostly he knew it was his attempt to conform with the agencies administration, who had them under a microscope in recent months.  Harper's rationalizations made sense at the time about not leaving them alone.  He picked his battles, and this one wasn't one he could win without heavy cost to himself and his team.  He needed the credit for going along with this from Travis to mitigate future problems.

Josiah looked back while he held the door for Buck and Vin.  "We're going to the bar and drink ourselves unconscious until we forget.  You're welcome to come."

"Fair enough."  Chris crossed to the door, recognizing the olive branch, small as it was.

"And you're driving," Josiah finished, letting the door go and nearly hitting the blond in the face.

"Oh, boy," he muttered under his breath, opening the door and finding his friends getting into the van.  "Ezra, I want my wallet back!  Josiah, you had better call Nathan before he flips out.  Buck, JD's worried about you."

"Cowboy, shut up and drive," Tanner ordered.  "No orders.  We want alcohol, not you."

Biting back a few dozen ignorant comments, he drove them to a bar he'd found with Nathan and JD, a place where they could relax.  He called Nathan and JD again to meet them there.

They were almost as good as their word; they drank themselves into a near-unconscious stupor, ignoring Nathan's lectures, JD's questions, and tearing Chris apart whenever the topic of the camp came up.  Larabee's perceived lack of manhood in standing up to Harper and Travis about sending them received a significant amount of discussion, most of it insulting in nature.  The bill, of course, went to Larabee.  He paid it without complaint, knowing he deserved it.  Once back at the hotel, he, Nathan, and JD helped the four to their separate hotel suites, much better quality than the rooms the other three were in, with Jackson promising future visits, despite the various protest and threats against his person.

When he returned to his room, the air turned blue with all the comments he held back throughout the night.  He also worked up a good head of steam.  Someone else needed to share his misery, and he still needed to call the Drews to tell them where to find the van in the morning.  In fact, he'd call them in the morning once he calmed down, hating the fact these people participated in the further damaging of his team.  He wondered how thoroughly Harper checked out this place.  It was a given that if they really wanted an evaluation of their program they would not be receiving favorable marks from him or his team.  His plan was to make her pay dearly for this debacle, and not allow her to convince him that he needed to interfere.  He should have just gone with his gut.  Therefore, he knew the one person who could take the brunt of his temper, his co-conspirator Harper deserved to share in his misery.

"How bad?"

"They're breathing and passed out drunk now.  I blame you.  You're getting the bar bill."


"You want the bar bill, or the hotel bill?  I'd rather give you the hotel bill, but I've been enough of an ass about this I'll pay the bigger one."

"Fine.  It couldn't be that bad."

He smirked.  The bar bill included too many shots.

"So did it work?  Do you think, even though they are who they are, that I could use the place for other teams?"

"Yes and no.  They're united in their hatred of me and the Drews.  I don't think much of their tactics.  From what they told me about, the camp's more set up for corporations, not law enforcement or emergency services."

"I can think of some upper management which could benefit," she thought aloud.  "Or training staff; we did, but we're not front lines any more."

"Travis doesn't need this."

"Higher.  Those who have forgotten where they came from down in the trenches.  Besides, I can use shame that the Seven completed it; why can't they?" 

"I'm not interested in your future plans for the Drews.  My people don't go there again.  They don't go on any retreats again.  You get me?"

"I understand."

"Never should have listened to you."

"Are they fighting with each other now?"

"No," Chris said.  "But they're mad at me and you."

"Someone is always mad at me, although I'd rather not have them mad.  I hope they'll eventually forgive me.  Do you think there is improvement or not?" she asked.

"Improvement, but I'm not happy."

"Forward progress is still progress," she replied.  "They're on leave the next few days.  Let them relax, see what happens."

"When I get back, lady, you and I are having a long talk about my team."

"I look forward to it.  Get some beach time for me, but don't forget to finish your classes."  She disconnected.

"I hate it when she does that."  Chris punched the pillow, flicking out the lights and going to bed.  He hoped tomorrow would be better.

They shouldn't be doing this, especially in their conditions.  Nevertheless, it was a matter of honor with them.  Four men limped, hobbled, and snuck through the thick foliage.  Two used walking sticks while leaning on their respective partners in mischief.  In their rented van, the eager computer expert gave them directions, while the semi-reluctant team's paramedic stayed behind the wheel, ready to drive. 

Of the two recruits, JD was more than willing to help take revenge against the various slights their targets made against 'his' team.  Nathan took a bit more convincing, but not too much.  Jackson was always willing to support the team, especially when he was reminded he could have been sent to the retreat with them.  In response, he replied he reserved the right to point out the foolhardiness of their pranks and tell them "'I told you so" should any do further harm to themselves.  They all agreed Chris could continue to stay in the dark.  They still weren't over their mad at him, and wouldn't give him the heads up they were doing something he might have to act on as their supervisor.

Oh yes, this was necessary. 

The snoring reached them first.  Exchanging glances, the ex-Marine and ex-SEAL approached the sleeping team, insuring the placement of the poison ivy and poison oak would encompass all.  A check of the medical records, easily but illegally obtained by JD, showed no one was allergic.  Let the Tornados deal with the itching, and the raising of welts from the poison plants as a lesson.  Their woodsman hid their passage with the Southerner's help, until they reached the next team who dared insult them.  They received a dosing of itching powder sprinkled oh-so-craftily across their campsite. 

This continued throughout the woods with the other teams, a variety of payback schemes carried out unseen by even the cameras, currently watching the same scene over and over, courtesy of JD looping the feed.  The only team not subjected to meanness, but given a damp coating, was the team that did not insult them with their new hot tub friends.  This team received the damp treatment instead of something more sinister so they could report on return something happened to them too; the police would wonder what was going on here, and the relatively unscathed group would not be held suspect. 

Mission complete, four men made their way back to the rented van, even silently withstanding Nathan's lecture about their foolishness during the ride back to the hotel.   

Let the fun begin.


They called, the jerks, to tell him, their friend and leader, they were okay; or they talked to Nathan and JD.  But all four of them found other places to be, and not with any of the three there for classes.  Not that he saw, anyway.  On the first day of his leave after the conference ended, he met them at the pool like the message suggested.  They had stretched out on chaise lounge chairs inside a large cabana, dressed casually, joined by Nathan and JD.  He did notice all four of them wore their shirts, probably to hide the number of bruises and scrapes they collected, except those on their faces.

"Hey," he offered in greeting from the open front flap of the cabana, the portion facing the pool.

Six men acknowledged his greeting.

"Pull up a chair, Larabee.  Yer blockin' my view."  Tanner motioned Chris to the empty one beside him. 

"Sure."  He stripped out of his shirt, leaving only his trunks, and stretched out on the chair indicated for him.  The only one in the sun, sure to give him the fading reddish color the others sported. 

"We've been talking, Chris," Buck began when he threw the bottle of suntan lotion at him.  "Cover up that white skin first."

He complied, figuring sunburn would not help the situation.  Lotion went on his chest.  "Know you boys don't want to hear this, but Harper called, along with the PD.  Found out that one of the last round of guests thought it would be funny to spice up the trip by screwing with the compasses.  The Drews are pressing charges."

"Good," Buck muttered.

"Also doing their best to make it up to the ATF for your experiences.  Count on another trip down here if they go to trial."

"Vindication and vacation combined," Ezra said, "all paid by the ATF.  My, the possibilities."

Chris wondered if Miami would be safe on their return when they were healthy.  He made a mental note to come as chaperone, using his own leave time, if Travis would allow it.

"I'm all for testifying if it ruins the sonofagun who caused the last part of the pain."  Buck grinned. 

Chris cleared his throat before they started placing blame for the first and middle parts of their trip down here and ruined the fragile peace he currently enjoyed.  "Strangest thing, though.  The Drews are scared to talk to you or me for some reason, so they're calling Harper.  She calls me, thank you very much, because you chewed her out, and she's giving you time to calm down before she talks to you."

Four men chuckled. 

"Continuing, she said the Drews wanted to know if you suffered any poison ivy, poison oak, unexplained rashes, itching, sneezing, diarrhea, nausea, or anything like that.  The teams you started with came in pretty tore up."

"Nope," Vin smirked, "Think I know how to avoid poison ivy and poison oak."

"Amen," Josiah agreed. 

"Given a fair shot, we would've aced those woods," Buck acknowledged.  "Even as pissed off as we were."

"Indeed," Ezra nodded, "And my person felt secure in my compatriots knowledge of the Wilderness Wonder."

"Weren't really out there long, found enough trouble as it was," Vin finished as the others nodded.

Chris watched the expressionless faces as they spoke, and couldn't help feel he was missing something.  He glanced over at Nathan and JD and thought they would all do well at a Saturday night poker game; there was something going on.  Something he wasn't privy to, but the other two knew about, and actively concealed from him.  If he really thought it through, he didn't think he wanted to know.  He might have to do something discipline-wise, and he thought they had been through enough without incurring something official. 

He chose his words carefully.  "As long as you feel confident you could have passed, that's fine with me.  They did pass you because of extenuating circumstances.  Reminder, there's an open investigation on the Drews, so there may be more calls before we leave.  And after we get home.  Part of this investigation is at the Drews' request to find out why they are being targeted."

"Interesting," Ezra said.  "I'll be sure to complete my course evaluation, then." 

The other three who attended with him laughed, then winced when they jarred their injuries. 

"Chris, I'm telling you now if I get some stupid certificate in the mail, you'll have it pasted to some part of your anatomy," Buck warned.  "And believe you me, I'm not putting this certification on my resume."

"I believe none of us will," Ezra said.  "This is an experience all of us wish to forget, but will not."

"Which brings us to us, Chris.  We decided we don't need group therapy to be a team," Josiah finally broached the topic they wanted to confront their leader with, the main reason for this meeting.  "The intentions were good, but we all know about the road to hell."

"Yeah," he replied.  He felt like he'd been on an emotional road to hell, and his men looked like five miles of bad road.

"We needed time apart, Chris," Ezra stated simply.  He sipped his frozen beverage.  "We had no desire to be around each other; in fact, we could not tolerate each other."

"Remember how Johnston and Haynes used to be best of friends until they spent days on patrol together?"  Buck rolled his head to look at Chris. 

He nodded; he remembered the two SEALS who were the best of friends, but when they came back from patrol, they hated each other, couldn't stand to be around the other, and needed space before they could be friends again.  Now Chris felt like an idiot for not remembering and recognizing that was happening to his team.

"I'm sorry," he said finally.

"Ya should be," Vin shot back, not giving an inch.  "Chris, we're a family.  Sometimes families fight when they're too close too long.  I don't like knowing that when Buck eats marinated beef the bathroom ain't habitable."

"Welcome to the club," JD mumbled.  "Why do you think CDC is appropriate?"

"Coming from the Texan who has his body functions timed on a clock, you sure don't have room to talk," Buck retorted. 

"Gentlemen, please," Ezra interrupted.  "It is behind us, no pun intended."

"Sayeth the water closet swine," Josiah intoned, "who believeth cleanliness is next to godliness, with the hottest water only."

"And further believes that men should not inhale and expulse air to create a melody that drives the wildlife from the area during sleep," Ezra finished.

"I thought you were finished," Nathan interjected.  "That doesn't sound finished."

"It's finished," Buck announced. 

"We're pickin' on each other instead of pickin' at each other," Vin clarified.  

"There's a distinction, Chris," JD offered, feeling very knowledgeable on the topic from rooming with Buck, and becoming brothers.

"I guessed," the blond replied.  "So how's it going to be the next few days, since I paid for the past few?"

"Your first peace offering."  Ezra waved his empty drink in the direction of the passing server, who nodded she would bring him another.  "You have to remember one thing, Chris."


"We need time alone."  Vin reached over and punched the blond in the arm.  "Time to regroup, get ourselves straightened out."

"I'll remember."

"Please do," Ezra prompted.

"And if you forget, Stud, I'll give you ten reasons and two boots to remember," Buck warned. 

"I still owe you for that cut in the clinic," Chris replied.

"You deserved all of it!" the four yelled back.

"JD, isn't it nice to be the spectator on this one?"  Nathan asked.

"Yup, they're not yelling at me, and it's not my fault.  It's all good."  JD watched a pair of college-aged girls walk by in their barely-there thongs.  "It's very good."

The other men chuckled after they appreciated the view.

"Consider us together as Humpty Dumpty," Josiah said, bringing their attention back to him, "and be careful what's done to us in the future.  We didn't fall this time, but we did nearly fall off the wall.  All the counseling in the world won't help if we do fall.  So, topic closed, and let's enjoy our vacation."

The words of the childhood rhyme rang in the leader's head.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King's Horses,

And All the king's Men,

Couldn't put Humpty together again