TITLE: Caroline's Corner
CHALLENGE: June 2003
UNIVERSE: ATF/AU
MAJOR CHARACTERS: All Seven, OC's
RATING: PG-13 (Refers to 9/11)
ARCHIVE: Yes, Please
SPOILERS: Not that I'm aware of...
NOTES: Ghosts, but not of the Confederacy
AUTHOR: Q'Mar
EMAIL: marmaeve@aros.net

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belongs to Mirisch Entertainment Inc., with all rights and privileges thereof. This work is a work of fanfiction, for the amusement of the author and fandom who have nothing else to do since they arenít making any more episodes of the show. No money or other renumeration has exchanged hands, this is just for fun, guys!

 Carolineís Corner

June of 2002 Denver International Airport

Chris Larabee stood next to the pile of bags and wondered if this was a mistake. It had been a hard year since the 9/11 attacks and most of the Federal agents had been run almost into the ground trying to both fight the war on terrorism and continue to do their original jobs. His team was exhausted, He was exhausted. Stress levels were high and they were sniping at each other, getting angry over little things, and reacting to situations a little more violently than they called for.  Yesterday alone, Buck had spent two whole hours yelling at Vin, he discovered later that it was about a pen.  As Team Leader, he had attempted to have his men take some time off when things started to settle down a bit, but every time they tried, because they stayed in Denver, they kept getting drawn into cases, rarely their own. Judge Travis finally put his foot down after a case that ended up exploding, literally, in the middle of the ATF picnic out at Nettie Wellsís spread. When the invitation came from his parents to bring his team out to the farm in Indiana, Travis had not only rubber-stamped it, heíd made it a direct order.

Chris rubbed his eyes. The farm was a unusual choice for relaxation and he hadn't been home in years, though he remembered the place fondly. He hoped that the Ďboysí would take to the place, because if they didnít things could get very uncomfortable. Heíd given them fair warning about the farmís little 'quirks', but somehow he didnít think theyíd believed him. That could be a problem, a real problem. This was probably a mistake...  Pinching the bridge of his nose to ease the stress, he debated it again. Maybe they should have gone to Hawaii or even back to Vegas. No, he thought, not back to Vegas... He didnít even want to remember the last time they were there.

JD came running at him, Buck in hot pursuit. Both of them had their Federal Badges in open display around their necks, but they didnít stop behaving like children. Larabee nodded at Security, which was showing some concern about the pair. The nearest guard noted Chrisís own Federal badge and nodded in acknowledgment. He grimaced in return. The chaotic duo were Larabeeís responsibility. Buck was after JDís ball cap and JD wasnít about to give it up. Sometimes Chris wondered if he would have been better if heíd gone into teaching high school, like Sarah used to tease him about. The hours couldnít possibly be longer and the behavior was probably more mature. His six could give any hormonally challenged brat a run for his money. Over towards the Cinnabon he could see Josiah getting something for them to eat. Nathan was with him, obiviously discussing yet another moral point or failing of a team mate. Blessing Josiah, once again, for taking charge of the frequently sanctimonious medic, he considered some strategy.

Nathan was, right now, a continuous problem, like a long term migraine. As much as he liked the man, Jackson just couldnít seem to stop "trying to help" them be more "moral and upright" men. Because he was the best at keeping the team alive after the firefight, the medic remained on the team, but his bad attitude was getting worse after 9/11, and Chris wasn't sure if he could keep dealing with the damage left in the medic's wake. If the medic's father had been a preacher like Josiahís had been, the situation might have been understandable. However, Obediah Jackson had been a beat cop and then a lawyer, and Nathanís own background wasnít as stellar as the medic would have wanted them to believe. Chris kept it to himself, but Nathan had come to him just before a purge of his department in Kansas City. The tall African-American had very narrowly escaped being tarred with the same brush he used so liberally on their undercover agent.

Alex Welch, the old RMETF coordinator, had warned him that having both men on his team would lead to confrontations. Jackson had a bad history with white undercover agents, he seemed to view them as in need of moral guidance. The man didnít have the same problem with black undercover agents, but trying to point that out to Nathan was futile. The medic bristled angrily anytime anyone even suggested that he had a racial bias. Chris had met Obediah and the rest of Jacksonís family and knew that the attitude was not something he was brought up with. Obediah had been heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement and didnít tolerate any disrespect for any person, no matter their background. But Nathan... well the medic had made it his lifeís work to Ďcorrectí the world as he saw it. He was very intolerant of faults, especially all the little flaws and mistakes in his companionsí characters and right now he was very loud in 'discussing' what they could do to correct them...

Since Ezra had a past that few of them knew anything about and more importantly was a white, and southern, undercover agent, he was the ususal target of Jacksonís bile, especially recently. It had caused a division in the team, was effecting their efficiency, and had caused the already stressed Standish to become "formal" and return to that dreaded 'quiet' behavior from a couple years ago. Ezra had been especially affected by the attacks, and Josiah had some concerns about him. Chris himself was worried that Ezra had lost someone and as he did with all the things that hurt, kept it to himself. Larabee had called a meeting one morning, when Standish was out of the office. But even after the rest of the team had discussed what was going on with the tight lipped southerner, Nathan wouldn't let up. Every one of them had taken the medic aside and tried to talk with him about what he was doing, but he wouldnít listen, wouldn't acknowledge it. He wouldn't even listen to the pleading of Rain, his girlfriend.

Rain and some of her classmates had recently run into Ďproblemsí, mostly large and drunk, on campus where she was taking some continuing education credits in specialized craft therapy to fill out her medical degree requirements. Some of her fellow students were Muslim, and recent feeling on campus had been drastically worsened by the addition of members of a 'White Power' group. One afternoon, the students found themselves in shoving match after class. It could have become very ugly. Ezra, strangely, had been on campus that day it exploded, while on a case, and had come to the students' rescue. Holding both groups at bay with only his attitude, he'd defused the situation before it could become a riot. His verbal assault on their tormentors had been heard by most of the rest of the students in the area, leading to an informal award from the communications department and a standing invitation to visit any and all of Rainís fellow studentsí homes for dinner and other things....

Ezra, of course, declined. His undercover agent was a lone wolf, rarely socializing with any one outside of the team and even then, he didnít join in the activities as much as Chris would have liked. Badly burned in the past, Standish was cautious and cynical, his level of trust could be measured in teaspoonfuls and his past was one dangerous black void. Larabee felt overprotective, mostly because none of the southernerís past bosses seemed to have given a damn. The phone conversations with Chris's father had helped to foster the idea that he should be watching out for Ezra, maybe more so than most of the rest. It also hadn't helped that he was getting calls from the National Station in D.C. that were mostly excuses to check on Standish's condition.

Still thinking about his agent, Larabee looked around the terminal for him. He finally saw him, coming out of the restroom, slowly limping towards them. Dressed as usual, in an expensive suit, and ignoring the pain of his recently injured leg, Standish presented a picture of calm Ďappropriateí behavior.

Getting smacked across the arm drew Chrisís attention back to the inappropriate behavior beside him.

"Whatíd you do that for JD?" Buck growled. Whatever heíd been planning to do to their boss, JDís action had interrupted.

"Are we really going to the place you grew up, Chris?" JD asked for about the thousandth time.

"Yes, JD." Chris said absently, his attention still on Standish. The southerner had run into Vin, the teamís Texan sharpshooter, and was talking to him as they headed back towards the waiting area. Vin Tanner and the skittish undercover agent had formed a strong friendship, almost as strong as the one he himself shared with the Texan. Whenever he felt Standish slipping out of the teamís circle, he could always count on Vin to bring him back. As the sharpshooter had worked for a while as a bounty hunter, it wasnít an idle speculation.

"Theyíre okay, Pard." Buck Wilmington said quietly following Chrisís line of sight. He was unsettled, more so than his boss and oldest friend, over the events of the last couple of months. Standish had secrets, alright, one of which was that he was the third person on Gen. Carpenterís speed dial and Carpenter was the Commander out at NORAD. Carpenter was on Standishís speed dial as well, position number 12. Wilmington shuddered a little, heíd figured out that the secret early morning home visits Ez received from old Peter Collier, Standishís neighbor and the local NSA rep, meant that he didnít want to dig into Ezraís background. Buck had been a Navy SEAL and knew when he didnít want to know more...

JD had been unsettled too, but he was far more curious than the others. Heíd tried to trace Ezraís career, and had been very annoyed when he couldnít. The southerner had the same social security number as a "Michael Collins" whoíd been a Federal agent back in the 60's. At that point, Buck had shut JDís search down and forbidden him to look further. Wilmington trusted Ezra, and knew that he didnít want to know, Really didnít want to know.

The young computer expert had been annoyed with Buck for a day or two. Heíd taken it to Chris, whoíd told him to knock it off, and later heíd also received a lecture from Peter Collier. Collier was an easy man to overlook, quiet and unassuming, but JD, raised on conspiracy theories and knowing that the man worked for the National Security Agency, paid close attention. Whatever Ezís past was, it wasnít something he wanted to Ďdisappearí over. So, heíd turned his attention to researching this little vacation instead...

"So how many ghosts are there on the farm?" JD asked, startling Chris out of his revery. Buck groaned and smacked JD with the baseball cap.

"Thought I told you to quit with that nonsense." He growled. "There ainít no such thing as a ghost!" Buck wasnít entirely happy with this trip, the Larabee family had been estranged for a long time, though in the last couple of years theyíd been communicating by phone. It wouldnít be good if they had a repeat of that phone call with Chrisís so called brother after Sarah and Adam were killed. Dragging his attention back to the conversation beside him, he frowned in annoyance. JD was continuing on and on about the ghosts and Buck thought about taking the ĎKidí out to get something and have a 'little talkí, but then Chris laughed, the first real laugh in a long while.

"I can't say that there aren't any ghosts, JD. My own experiance says that there are. You'll see what I mean when we get there. The place is very strange. And Very Haunted." He said, watching as Tanner and Standish walked up to the bags. Vin motioned to an empty chair and Ezra raised an elegant eyebrow. The southerner seemed to have about had it with the teamís Ďnursemaidí routine. "Carolineís corner is definitely haunted." he repeated.

"The whole town?" JD exclaimed. He was very excited about seeing a ghost.

"No, JD, the farm is Carolineís corner. The nearest town is Bolton." Chris shook his head, realizing that what was old familiar to him might just be truly strange to his team. Heíd grown up at the Ďcornerí and knew itís ins and outs...

"Caroline? Is that your mother, Chris?" asked Vin. None of them had heard much about Larabeeís family, except Sarah and Adam.

"Hell no!" Chris exclaimed. "My motherís name is Diana. Caroline was the wife of the guy who settled the place back in the 1850's and she hasnít decided to leave yet. Sheís really very bossy."

"You have a bossy ghost?" Buck asked. Chris looked at him, he hadn't been home in years, but his childhood memories were fresh in his mind.

"Yep. More than one... theyíre all bossy, always telling you what not to do..."

"Thereís no such thing as ghosts." the newly arrived medic snorted. Josiah stood beside him, passing out pretzels and soft drinks. Chris was grateful that the profiler hadnít brought coffee. His team was over stimulated as it was.

"I beg to differ, Mr. Jackson." Ezra Standish spoke for the first time in a long while. "There are many things in this life that defy explanation. One must not close oneís mind to the things that science can not account for."

"Should have expected youíd go for something like that. Ghosts."Jackson snorted. "What next? Black Helicopters? Just because youíve got the rest of this bunch believing in your little fictions, donít mean I donít have your number. Itís just another way to cheat and con. Thatís what you do isnít it?" he demanded.

"I make no apologies for the abilities I have and the duties I preform with them. As to fictions... as you will. There are more things in this world than anyone can imagine. It behooves one not to make pronouncements about them without knowledge. That is a dangerous thing for anyone to do. Such decisions tend to come back to Ďhauntí one." The southerner said softly. Jackson snorted again.

"So I guess youíre going to prove it to me? Gotta spend this whole vacation waiting for your little ghostly tricks! I ainít putting up with it! You try it and Iíll nail your hide! Got other things to do than to put up with one of your wild bets or be the butt of one of your Ďpracticalí jokes." Nathan steamed.

"Rest assured, Mr. Jackson. I have no such bet or intention. You have my word." Ezra said tiredly.

"Your word! Whatís the word of a Standish worth?" Nathan spat. The call to Board the plane interrupted the argument. Jackson stormed over to the bag inspection station, as if wanting to distance himself from the others. The rest of the team shrugged and gathered up their gear. As he helped get Ezraís bag, Chris heard him say.

"What indeed is the word of a Standish worth? What indeed." Ezra seemed a million miles away but Chris was the one who  found himself shuddering.

On the Flight, the team behaved predictably. Buck was disappointed when the pretty female crew members avoided him, leaving his service to the one male steward. JD engrossed himself in a stack of printouts, Chris could tell that they were repetitions of the same old story about the farm. He sighed, his father would have an interesting time with JD Dunne, that was for certain.

Two rows back, Nathan was still fuming, complaining to a very weary Josiah. Sanchez hadnít said anything about the ghosts and Chris wondered what he thought since the profiler believed in omens and crows. Nearby, Vin sat next to Ezra, across the aisle from Chris. The sharpshooter had talked Standish into taking his meds and the southerner had dropped off into a light doze. Chris knew it was light because theyíd learned the agent didnít sleep deeply unless he was sure of his surroundings. Larabee found himself remembering the teamís reaction to being sent on this vacation, everyone had been a little excited and curious about coming, everyone except Ezra. Standish had given him one startled look and been quiet after that. Heíd written it off as the usual loner behavior, but now he wasnít so sure. It would have been expected for the cynical undercover agent to mock the idea of the farmís ghosts, but the way he reacted, Chris was now struggling with the previously unforseen idea that Ezra had run into this kind of strange thing before.

 

The Ghost debate continued, without let up on the ride out to the farm, though Ezra didnít speak again. The drive was enjoyable and Chris was able to point out to his team many of the landmarks of his childhood. He directed Josiah, who was driving, to take a right onto a dirt road. The road went by pastures and fields, but they could see a house and barn. As soon as the rented SUV pulled into the dirt driveway, a green eyed older woman was at the door pounding for them to open up.

"Mom!" Chris said sliding out of the vehicle and grabbing the woman into a hug.

"We were worried that you wouldnít get through. Het said we were in for a storm! Youíd best get in to the house. Itís going to be a big one." she said leaning into Chrisís side. The others, except Ezra, looked up into the open blue sky. Standish grabbed his one suitcase and limped toward the house with alacrity. Chris, still hugging his mom, grabbed his case and led the way.

"You coming, Ladies?" Chris said. The team shuffled around getting their luggage.

"Weíre so glad you all could come. Iíve got all the guest rooms set up. Some of you will have to double up, though. Rick and Sandy are here with the mob, and Patsy too. Weíll get everyone sorted and dinner will be on the table in about 20 minutes. Max is friendly and doesnít bite, but Curtis does. Donít mind William, heís in a crotchety mood. And watch out for the teacup!" Chrisís mom led him up onto the porch where Ezra waited for them. She smiled at the uncomfortable southerner, and taking his arm as well as Chrisís drew the two into the house.

"Did she just say to watch out for a teacup?" asked Josiah.

"Yes, thatís what I heard." Buck answered.

"Thank you brother, I thought my hearing was going." The profiler replied. Nathan made a comment under his breath and the Ďkidí started to bounce. This was going to be an interesting vacation.

Suddenly, the sky turned grey and poured down sheets of rain.

Inside the farmhouse it was nice and cozy. After they had dried off and changed, Chris introduced them around. Max proved to be an old Irish Setter, who after greeting them enthusiastically, settled down beside Ezraís chair and warmed his feet. Curtis, who bit Josiah, turned out to be Chrisís youngest nephew, his brother Rickís son. Rick was thinner than Chris, but had the same height and coloring. His wife was Sandy, and they had brought all five of their children. William, an old man in worn overalls, sat in the rocking chair and made irritated faces. Buck Wilmington felt irritated too, he spent some time glaring at Rick Larabee who returned the favor. Their one past contact, the phone call, still made them both angry.

 

Buck had an even more uncomfortable time when seven-year-old Rick, Jr. came over and climbed into his lap. Memories of another green-eyed little boy choked him for a moment and he realized why Chris didnít talk much about his family. This child, a living reminder of what Chrisís lost son Adam might have been, would be too much to deal with. The boy looked at him strangely and then climbed out of Buckís lap. He went over and crawled into Josiahís lap. Leaning back in relief, Buckís hand brushed the edge of a china teacup.

Patsy turned out to be Patricia Larabee Harlan, Chrisís little sister, whom Buck had heard of but never met. The two Larabee siblings teased and harassed each other, lightening the mood. There seemed to be distance between Chris and his brother, Rick, but not between him and Patsy. Rick watched his siblings with an irritated expression, but Sandy, his wife, seemed very happy to see Chris and his sisterís connection.

Diana Larabee watched her children and guests with a smile, noting the odd appearances of the china teacup in the group. Where ever the piece landed, the person nearest would either startle or stare. Up to his old tricks, she considered fondly, though she noticed the cup avoided certain people. It was so good to see everyone together, especially Chris. Heíd been so far removed from his family since the murder of his wife and child. This team of his had opened him up to a re-connection with them and she wasn't about to waste it. They were family too, these men, she realized looking at them, and would protect her son from all harm. Even if it came from a well meaning sibling. She wished that Rick would get over his disappointment with Chrisís career. He was what he was supposed to be, and apparently it made him happy.

She gave the quiet southerner by the fireplace an extra smile. It surprised her that he seemed so shy of her and of the others. Max, the dog, looked up at his mistress as if to say, donít worry Iím watching over him. The agent's hand would stroke the dog for a minute or two, and then be still beside him. He seemed very sad to her, and Diana couldn't help remembering a merry little green eyed boy from years ago.  She nodded at the dog and went through the door into the kitchen to check on dinner.  Gathering the dinner things, she was interrupted by Chris who came into the kitchen to help.

"Nice young men," she said.

"Theyíre good men, when theyíre not pretending to be obnoxious teenagers." Chris said with a chuckle hearing Josiahís booming voice from the living room. The big profiler was describing some obscure place heíd been as a child. In his mindís eye he could see each of his teamís reactions. "Whereís Dad?"

"Heís up at the base being General Larabee. Heíll be here soon, along with the rest. All he needs to do is glare and they should be back on schedule. The rain should be over soon. Het said it wouldnít last too long."

The back door was flung open, and four men in Army green stepped into the kitchen. They were dripping wet.

"You should have waited." Diana frowned at the mud they tracked in. " You knew Het said it wouldnít last."

"A little mud is a small price to pay for the ability to get some peace, much less to see my Eldest son." Said General Larabee. He was as blond as his son, with the same green eyes and at the moment the same hesitant expression. "Christopher... Itís good to see you."

"Dad." Chris said, a little unsure. There had been some harsh words between them, mostly on his side, when Sarah and Adam were murdered. His parents had been posted overseas and couldnít get back for the funeral because of multiple crises. Now, with a couple of years distance, he could understand why his father couldnít come. He hadnít known that his mother had been seriously ill at the time, only finding out when his sister, Patsy tried to help them reconcile. There had been misunderstandings all around and heíd spent so much time drinking to dull the pain. If Buck hadnít been there, he didnít know what would have become of him. It had taken time for him to sober up, to come to some terms about his losses. Afterward, he found that a great distance had grown between himself and his family, a distance that had not been helped by the fact that Rick blamed Chrisís job at Denver P.D. for the murders. Theyíd had a screaming argument, and heíd forbidden any of them, Rick, Sandy, and Patsy, to come to the funeral. Heíd been so bitterly angry.

"Itís good to see you, son." The General said gently. He seemed as uncertain as Chris was as to what to do. It was easier on the phone than in person.

"Good to see you too. Thank you for wanting to host the maniacs I brought with me."

"Theyíre welcome, Theyíre yours." the General smiled widely. "I know better than to separate a commander and his men. It leads to problems, all the way around." Chris nodded in response and turned to pick up the napkins for the table, and found himself confronted by a china teacup.

"Still at it?" The General laughed. "Canít stay out of it, eh Jess?" The older two of the three soldiers with him laughed. Chris thought he recognized the two of them, but he couldn't place them.

"You canít expect that heís going to stop interfering at this point, do you, Sir?" the taller one, an older Hispanic man with light eyes, the twist on the emphasis on the title told Chris that this was one of his fatherís closest friends. His father and the two older men laughed again, but the younger solider, not much older than JD, looked bewildered.

"Heís always been nosy." The other older solider, a handsome African American, laughed teasingly. "And you have guests. He has to meet them all, kind of like Max." The teacup responded by raising up six inches off of the counter and lowering back again. Chris kept trying to place the familiar voice.

"Youíre Jah!" Chris exclaimed finally recognizing the man. "Youíve changed."

"So have you" Jah laughed "Youíre not twelve anymore, JalapeŮo!" He teased using Chrisís old nickname. "Still got the temper, but now you have six men to inflict it on!" Even as Chris laughed with the others, he wondered how Jah knew he had six men on his team. The General must have told him about them.

"Bet you donít remember me." The Hispanic man teased. He stuck out a massive hand, which Chris took. "Raul, Raul Sanchez" they shook.

"I have a Sanchez on my team," Chris started to say.

"I know. My nephew Josiah, that old idiotís son. Pardon me. Hezekiah may have been my brother but he was a nut and what he did to those children was inexcusable." He sighed, much like Josiah, and added. "I guess I should renew acquaintances."

"Why donít you call the mob into dinner?" Diana asked. "Iím ready and Chris and I can get the table set while you do something about the mud." The last had the sting of an annoyed housekeeper about it.

The meal went well, except for the green pea war. Chrisís four year old niece, Lara, had a great aim, and soon peas were zinging around the table. Vin, Buck, and JD got into the spirit and most everyone got hit with at least one. All of them had come to dinner, except the old man, William, whoíd refused Josiahís invitation with a mild snarl. Through out the meal, General Larabee sat serenely at one end of the table, with his wife at the other end ignoring the childish behavior between them. This "Chaos" was the standard behavior at Carolineís corner that Chris remembered. At the other end of the table, Jah stared at Ezra Standish.

"Pardon, Col. Jackson, Do I have something on my face? You seem inordinately interested in my countenance." Ezra used his napkin to wipe his face but his bright green eyes watched the Colonel with suspicion. Before he could answer, JD, overhearing, said.

"Jackson? I didnít hear when you were introduced. Are you related to Nathan? Jahís kind of an odd name, not one youíd forget though..."

"Kid, not everybody of the same surname is related. Itís a thousand to one that thereís a connection between him and Nate. I mean, what are the odds that Chrisís dad would have Josiahís uncle working for him?" Buck said, continuing to glare at Rick Larabee, who favored him with a cool expression. However, Wilmingtonís comment sent the most of the rest of the table into spasms of laughter.

"Young Nathan is my 2nd cousin, Buck. And my given name is Elijah. I just go by Jah. Too many Biblical names running around the family." Jah said. He paused and looked back at Standish "I didnít mean to make you uncomfortable. You just..."

"The past is past. I know whom I resemble, Col. Jackson. It makes no matter in this modern world." Ezra said. He rose and bowed to his hostess. "A truly lovely repast, Maídam. I hope you will excuse me if I leave the table before desert. The scrutiny of multiple Jacksons is some what wearing on my stomach." Standish bowed gracefully again and left with the dog, Max in his wake.

"Touchy" JD said worriedly.

"No kidding, Kid." Buck said. Josiah was frowning with concern, but Nathanís expression was one of anger. It was matched by Jah Jacksonís, but his was directed at the medic and not the departed southerner.

"He has more than enough reason." General Larabee said resting elbows on the table and putting his head on his joined fists. He sighed, looking much more exhausted than he had earlier.

"What have you been doing to that one?" Jah demanded.

"What have I been doing? You donít know that slimy no account good for nothing Southerner!" Nathan spat the last as a curse. Whatever the angry Colonel would have said in reponse was prevented by the sudden appearance of the china teacup on his plate. Buck stared at it. It was the same one heíd bumped into in the living room. "I donít know what kind of game you folk are up to with that thing, but It ainít funny and Iím tired of it. Stop it now." Nathan commanded.

"Itís a nice thing when a Visitor makes demands in his hostís home!" came a soft southern accented voice from behind them. A woman, dressed in a green 19th century riding habit and carrying an unlit lamp, stood near the fireplace. There was no way she could have entered unnoticed.

"Ah, Miss?.." JD said, a little wide eyed. He gathered his courage, but his heart was pounding. "The teacup thing is freaking me out as well. Would you mind, well, not doing it?"

"I would oblige you, John David Dunne, if it were mine to do so. As I do not care for tea, the cup is not mine and you must take it up with the one to whom it belongs, as well as the current master of the house. He may wish to keep his welcome to others, no matter how uncomfortable such makes many of you here." the woman looked pointedly at Rick Larabee who narrowed his eyes. "The storm is blowing out, but the riders have not found what they search for." She told General Larabee.

"Thank you Mrs. Danvers." the General responded sadly. "I was hoping for a different outcome, but that will have to do."

"Very well, but remember that so called outcomes are rarely telling at this stage of the game. There are more hands to draw and the shuffle may upset some well thought out strategies." She gave him a reassuring smile. "It is not yet time, and I have both Duty and Obligation to preform."

"Be safe, Caroline." Diana Larabee responded. The woman gave a gentle laugh.

"I am beyond mortal harm, My dear! The task alone remains." With that the ghost drew a thin reed from a brass can on the mantle and lit her lamp from the fireplace. "Good rest to you, my friends. The morning is wiser than evening."

Nathan snorted and Caroline walked across the room, and handed him his napkin.

"Sounds a dreadful illness coming on, Nathan Edward Jackson, beware it doesnít leave you blind when you most need your sight." She gave him a melancholy smile and walked through the table, vanishing on the other side, lamp still in hand.

"I believe, I believe," JD muttered. "Now please go away!"

"Easy, Kid." Buck said. He was as startled by the occurrence as the rest of the team, except Chris who seemed to accept it as a matter of course. Around him, the Larabee family continued their meal as if nothing had happened. He glared at his friend.

"I did warn you." Chris said, looking at his men, Nathan in particular. "After all youíve read, JD, itís surprising you didnít believe it." He turned to his father. "I wasnít expecting Caroline tonight. She used to walk only once a month towards the end. Whatís going on? Other than Duty and Obligation?"

"Donít mock the Duty and Obligation, Christopher. Itís a very serious matter." the General said wearily. "I had hopes of those riders." he looked at his wife. "Caroline Danvers walks almost every night, these days. Itís not like old William, whoís always been a constant. Theyíre waiting on something. Something Iím supposed to do..."

"Matt, youíve got to stop beating yourself up over this. Itís never been obvious what they want us to do. Even when we were all together, even when Jess could interpret most of the odd things they do, even then, there was never a clear direction for us to follow." Raul Sanchez said, trying to ease the tension.

"But at least back then, we were together. Weíve paid too high a price for that folly! If I could get my hands around that Bastardís neck!" Jah hissed angrily, his hands clenched.

"That "Bastard" has been dead for a decade, Jah. Thereís no going back. Weíve got too much to do to spend time working over old anger. Yes we were betrayed. Yes we lost both our team and our brothers. Thatís never going to stop hurting." The General sighed. "Iím sorry Christopher, this isnít the vacation you had planned. All of this has been heating up in the last couple of days and I should have warned you."

"Itís okay Dad, I warned them and Iím fine with it. If the ghosties get to be too much, weíll just go camping out at Deckerís place or up to Rhondaís."

"That wonít get you away." Patsy said, subdued. "Deckerís been seeing the Indiana regiments drill all week, the Union ones. Rhondaís Ďlittle friendí is back bothering her. Sheís Laurenís grandniece so itís slightly understandable, but still..."

"It would be nice if you dropped in on Rhonda. Sheíd like to meet your team, especially young John there." Diana said, beginning to clear the plates.

"Why me?" JD squeaked, he was still unsettled by Carolineís appearance.

"Rhonda is Laurenís grandniece and your mother Rachelís aunt." Diana explained. "Lauren was the sheriffís daughter, and itís hard for Rhonda because the rest of the Dunnes wonít have anything to do with her."

"Sheriff? Rest of the Dunnes?" JD asked in confusion.

Diana Larabee laughed and went over to the mantle. Two group photographs held a place of honor in the center. She brought both of them to the table.

"This" she said pointing to the first one, "This was Sheriff Dunne. He was young for the responsibility, but in those days you could be considered a man at 14 on the frontier." JDís eyes widened and beside him Buck smothered a gasp. The seven men in the photo looked like them! The cowboy Buck even had his mustache.

"I havenít seen that picture in years," said Chris leaning over to get a good look. He was startled to see that the old familiar thing showed his team. They looked exactly alike, even to the cautiously friendly expression on Vinís lookalikeís face, and the guarded wary expression on the southernerís. The intense look on the face of his counterpart had Chris feeling like there was something important he was missing.

"There are always Seven." said Rick "Now you know what you should have, back then." he snapped at his brother. "You were always too busy to listen to the family histories. Heaven forbid you learn enough to avoid Great-Great-Grandfatherís mistakes. What did it matter to you that the Duty and Obligation was coming up for our generation? Youíd just go off and play at cops and robbers and not be bothered! You donít even know enough to stop whatís coming. One hundred and twenty years and Chris Larabee still canít get it right."

"Richard, Thatís enough!" General Larabee yelled. Rick looked mutinous, but stopped. "Itís not One hundred and Twenty years, not quite." he added in a more gentle voice. His younger son just glared at him and left the kitchen.

"Iíll go." Sandy said. "Sounds like you have some things to tell them, sir. Rick will calm down in a little." She left the room taking her children with her. Patsy carrying the youngest, gave her big brother a slight smile and left as well.

"Why do they look like us?" JD asked. "Is it some reincarnation thing?"

"No reincarnation." the General said firmly.  "You are your own selves and must make your own choices. Itís just that for over a hundred years, since the first Seven, weíve been repeating a kind of...cycle. Whenever there is need enough, a group of seven form. Itís usually accidental but itís happened too often to be coincidence."

Nathan snorted, but they ignored him. "This was our Seven." General Larabee handed his son the other group picture.

"Did you," Buck began hesitantly, "Did you have my father on your team?"

"No, Buck. I had your uncle, Frank Wilmington. But I knew Thomas, and he wouldnít have abandoned your mother and you. He was killed by a drunk driver on the way back to marry your mother. He didnít know about you until that day. Thomas already had the ring and had been looking forward to proposing all through that tour in ĎNam. It was the only thing that kept him going. He would have been there, Buck." The General added gently. "He would have been there. He loved your mother so."

"And Frank?" Buck asked, heíd lost his mother a couple of years before heíd met Chris and was anxious to connect with Ďfamilyí as Karen Wilmington never spoke of them.

"Lost Frank later, with Stanhope, back in Ď78. Donít hear much from Merrill, but I can give you some addresses if you like. Donít get your hopes up too much though. Frank was the apple of his dadís eye and when Karen turned out to be pregnant, Merrill took it hard. Frank was overseas with us and couldnít run interference for his sister."

"I wish sheíd come here." Diana said. "We could have put her up, there was always room and welcome."

"Karen felt that sheíd be looked down on, no matter where she went around here. Thatís why she moved out to Nevada. Wanted a new start, with no one looking down their noses at the ĎSenatorís daughterí with no husband and a child." he looked at Buck. "She loved you, Her father gave her the choice, but she kept you and lost his love."

"Then I wonít be asking for the addresses." Buck said.

"I have some pictures of your parents if you want to look at them later." The General added nodding. "Some things of all of my team."

"Was my, Was my father part of your team?" JD asked.

"No, Rhonda was our Dunne. I met your father once, a long time ago. Iím afraid I never thought he was good enough for Rachel. They were cousins, both Dunnes. She left the west only to end up marrying kin in New York." General Larabee laughed. "Rachel was something amazing. If I had been younger and unattached, ah well." He looked at Diana who smiled indulgently, this was obviously easy territory. "She should have been a beauty queen, she had the looks and more brains than most people Iíve met. At least she had the sense to get away from Laurenís poisonous house."

"This Lauren seems to be a very negative person." Josiah added thoughtfully. Heíd been amazed at meeting his uncle Raul, whom heíd thought dead for years. He was assimilating all of the information to be pondered on later. Destiny, though, was an incredible thing. One hundred years, he didnít know anything about his ancestor or the Ďoriginalí Seven... It would make an interesting research project when they got home.

"Lauren was the Sheriffís daughter and was affected by the lies she was raised with. Cassandra would never have tolerated them, but with twins and a dead husband, she had to take what help she could get."

"Cassandra?" JD squeaked, his girlfriend back home was Casey.

"Cassandra Wells Dunne, the Sheriffís wife. Loyal to a fault, even after Sheriff Dunne proved to be too young for the politics he was mired in. Sad situation. If you want to know more, Cousin Matt down in Dolores is Sheriff there and has access to most of the family histories. Iíd suggest Richard, who has been studying the family for years, but youíve seen his attitude." General Larabee sighed.

"Who is that?" Vin Tanner asked softly. The quiet Texan had taken no part in the conversation but had watched them all, weighing their words. Heíd almost gone after Ezra earlier, but knew the southerner needed some space, so heíd remained and was glad he had.

General Larabee followed his pointing finger to the picture. "Thatís Malone. Malone Tanner, your uncle, Vin." His eyes grew sad and Vin knew that the older Larabee had shared as close a bond with his Tanner as he had with Chris.

"Is that Ezís Pa?" Vin asked trying to move the conversation away from something painful. Heíd find the General alone sometime over the vacation and ask his questions.

"Yes, thatís Jess."

"Ez should see this!" JD said excitedly. "Weíve met his mother but I bet he hasnít seen this picture of his dad! She's really something, all fancy and with all of those husbands..."

"If you please, Do NOT name that woman in this house." General Larabee said angrily. "I think this is more than enough for tonight, itís late and youíve had a long trip." he added more gently taking both photographs and returning them to the mantle. Vin noticed that his gaze lingered on the figures of Malone Tanner and Jess. "Good night."

Recognizing the order, Chris led his team up to the bedrooms. Nathan grumbled as they went up the stairs.

"Something wrong, brother?" Josiah asked, hoping to forestall Jackson making an idiot of himself in General Larabeeís home.

"This is all nonsense," he declared, out of Chrisís hearing. "Theyíre up to something!"

"A serving General? Someone whoís spent years in the service? His whole family? What could they possibly have to gain by it?"

"Donít know, but itís holograms and fake pictures. They did that thing on a computer, the one with all of us in western gear. Itís a fake, Has to be!" the medic stormed into the guest room they were sharing.

Josiah wasnít sure why Nathan couldnít accept what theyíd seen. No hologram could be corporeal enough to pick up a napkin one minute and to walk through the table the next...

Buck bit his lip to keep from swearing. The teacup sat neatly on the stairs leading to their loft style guest room. JD snickered, in spite of his unease, watching Buck trying to pry the thing off of the stair tread. The little china teacup behaved as if it was glued. After Wilmington gave up, JD leaned over and wasnít surprised when the cup lifted easily off the stairs.

"Good night, Ghost." JD said. There was some soft laughter in response.

"Good night John David." came a voice out of the air. "Sleep well. Good night Bucklin Thomas." There was a laugh. "Itís good to be teasing a Wilmington again. I hope I havenít disturbed you...Much."

"Damn" swore Buck, but he laughed as he did so.

Chris walked down the corridor with Vin. The sharpshooter was sharing a room with Ezra, and both of them were a little worried about what the southerner was doing. Trying to be as quiet as he could, Vin swung the door open knowing Standish's usual violent reaction to being awakened. Ezra lay curled up in bed, Max at his feet, deeply asleep. The weary lines of exhaustion  had been smoothed away from the southerner's face. He didn't stir at the door's opening, and was very definately asleep. Max, looked up at them, decided that they were no threat, and closed his eyes.

"Canis Fidelis" said a soft voice behind them. Both turned startled, and saw Caroline Danvers with her lamp behind them.

"Dogs like Ez, Maíam." Vin said politely. He wasnít sure about speaking to a ghost, but his ma had taught him manners."I ainít ever seen one dislike him." She laughed, a light airy laugh.

"Although the beast is faithful as well, it was not to him I referred. The faithful hound, Vincent Richard. It is the badge of the Family Standish and itís nature. No matter how much others may endeavor to make it otherwise," She frowned. "The nature of a Standish is always the same. Duty and Obligation, hidden in a chamaeleonís cloak and performed with as much chaos and mayhem as is possible. It will be quite a race that one runs, but his oath will hold him at his end." She looked at Chris who was frowning. "It is no torment, but joy to remain to fulfill the task, and not everyone is granted that work. The only sadness is for those left behind. We are aware of them, but they donít always remember that there is time beyond life and they will be with us again." Looking more gently at Chris, she added. "Losses are hard to bear, but there will always be gains to balance them. Good night, Christopher Matthew. Good Night Vincent Richard. I must watch the northern road...Morning will come soon enough for talking."

She raised her lantern high and vanished.

 

The Next Day, Eventually

The first up in the morning was usually Vin Tanner. He was the early riser. Having been a Federal Marshal before he became an ATF agent and being used to chasing criminals as a bounty hunter tended to make him antsy if he didnít wake with the birds. However on this occasion he remained asleep and the very disgruntled medic was the first to rise.

Nathan Jackson had not enjoyed the "entertainment" last night. The presence of Caroline Danvers had not been something he could come to terms with. There were no such things as ghosts, the scientist in him wouldnít, couldnít accept it. Besides the thick southern accent told him that it must be a con, it had to be. But how had she walked through the table? Much less after handing him his napkin?

Leaving Josiah sleeping, Nathan went downstairs and searched the kitchen. There were no obvious holes for cameras or projectors. Heíd almost decided that it must be some secret project that the General was involved in, something that for some peculiar reason the man enjoyed springing on unsuspecting guests. Nathan was so involved in his search that it took him several minutes to realize that he was being watched.

Bright blue eyes narrowed as Jackson searched every nook and cranny of the kitchen. Nathan was startled as he noticed the wiry man leaning against the counter sipping a mug of coffee.

"Sorry, I didnít realize that anyone was up yet." Jackson said in a friendly manner.

"This household goes pretty much 24 hours a day, and thatís not enough" The man said, his faint drawl carrying a tone of gentle reproof. Nathan didnít register it.

"The General is a Joker, isnít he?" Jackson said, trying to piece the fragments of the previous nightís activities together. The man spat out his coffee, choking and gagging, and he rubbed his short crew cut hair trying to get control of himself. "Are you alright? Breathe in, thatís it." Nathanís medical training took over and he carefully helped the man over his coughing jag. "You work for the General?" The medic asked.

"Iím his driver" the man said.

"Oh, Iím Nathan Jackson. I work for Chris Larabee, the Generalís son."

"I know."

"I guess everybody does." Nathan grimaced, thinking of Colonel Jah Jacksonís ire. "Does the General do this sort of thing to everyone who visits?"

"What makes you sure itís a joke?" The man said.

"Itís not real. It canít be." Nathan said.

"Youíre one of those types that has to have proof of every thing in the universe, arenít you."

Nathan hurumphed and continued his search. The man laughed and resumed drinking his coffee. After a little, the man added. "Iíve got to get to work, Iíll be in the garage. The engine in that old heap needs work. See you." He gave a slight smirk and went out the kitchen door.

Jackson continued his search. He was looking at the paneling on the wall when the General came in. The older man raised an eyebrow, Chris-style, and poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Malone made it didnít he?" The General said with a grimace.

"I guess, he went out to fix the car." Nathan said, concentrating on his search. General Larabee gave him a faint smile and continued on with his morning tasks, watching the younger medic with amusement. He washed out his cup and shook his head. Never try to get a scientist to believe in the paranormal....

Diana Larabee came into the kitchen, watched the medic for a moment, and then started breakfast. Very slowly the other members of the household woke and began to drag themselves into the kitchen. The military men were wide awake, but Nathanís teammates were bleary-eyed and sleep tousled. Apparently each of them had slept deeply, more than they had in months, and it had been difficult to leave the comfort of sleep.

Buck and JD were happily resigned to the stay, Wilmington having gotten over his "haunting by teacup". Chris was ignoring the whole thing and concentrating on re-connecting with his family, annoying Nathan. If the man had known that the General was up to this kind of trick, he should never have brought them here. Josiah looked depressed, and the medic wondered why. Vin Tanner yawned and stretched, seeming completely at ease in this environment.

The one person who had not come to breakfast was the one that Nathan least wanted to see. Everyone on Team Seven knew that Ezra Standish didnít eat breakfast, if he could get away with it.... For the most part Nathan had no quarrel with how the man took care of his body. Ezra had the best diet of the Seven, except himself, and worked out, though heaven only knew when he did it. However, the mind that inhabited that body...well, Nathan couldnít find words to describe the disdain he had for Standishís morality.

Max, the dog, brushed past the medic and went into the living room. Jackson guessed that it must be going to find the undercover agent. For some reason animals and small children flocked to the man, disproving in Nathanís mind the old adage that they went to the people whoíd least cause them harm. That man should be quarantined until he stopped taking advantage of others! Nathan grimaced and sat down next to Josiah for breakfast.

Sanchez watched his friend with some concern. Instinct told him that Jackson had been looking allover the Larabee kitchen for hidden cameras or projectors. He truly hoped the man wouldnít annoy the Generalís family, though the Senior Larabees seemed to be rather unflappable. The one worry in his mind was the young undercover agent. Ezra had been on the outside of their circle since the terrorist attacks and the distance was increasing. It was bad enough that Chris had been getting calls from Washington D.C. about Standishís condition and status, but with Nathan picking at him and all the rest of the unknown, but heavy, burden the southerner carried, Sanchez wasnít sure heíd be able to keep up much longer. Looking across the table he caught Vinís slight smile. Since Tanner was closer to Ezra than any other member of the team, excepting perhaps the strange bond he had with Chris, and Vin was rooming with the prickly man, it was good odds that Standish was better than heíd been last night. Josiah snorted, now the man had him thinking in gambling metaphors!

A sudden movement of the table centerpiece, a bowl of fruit, when no one was near to touching it, caught all attention. The Larabees continued eating as if nothing was unusual. Col. Jackson took a moment from his enjoyment of the meal to give his cousin, Nathan, a serious frown. For some reason the members of General Larabeeís Seven were as protective, if not more so, of Ezra than the team he belonged to. Nathan cussed quietly under his breath, manners forbade him from swearing loudly in front of his hostess. As if in answer the centerpiece lifted a full foot off of the table and swung down to land at the medicís place.

Diane Larabee looked up at her husband and the General responded with the raised eyebrow that Team Seven knew as "Iím not sure and I donít want to know" in his sonís catalogue of expressions. Continuing to eat, General Larabee talked a little with JD about the history of the old farmhouse, the current state of the nationís military, the possibility of war, the new types of Coke being brought to market, where to buy the best souvenirs in the area, and how Rhonda Dunne was related to him. JD was his usual self rocketing from topic to topic, but the General clearly followed him through all of them. Raul Sanchez looked at his nephew at the other end of the table. There was much the two of them should discuss, but Raul was uncertain how much he could because of "Classification". Josiah sent him a look that plainly said that he understood.

Richard Larabee, Chrisís younger brother stared, ignoring the gentle imploring expressions of his wife, Sandy. He wasnít willing to work on his relationship with his brother at all. Josiah sighed, with Nathan and Rick, it was going to be an interesting vacation. Even the children were quiet with the stress. Maybe heíd try to get a vacation from the vacation. Down at the other end of the table, Chris sat quietly next to his father. The usual dark mood seemed to have flown from the mind of the Ďman in blackí.

They finished the meal and heaped compliments on the head of Diana Larabee. The older woman just laughed and sent them all out of the kitchen, except her husband who rolled up his sleeves and helped with the dishes. Chris felt a pang, remembering how heíd kept that tradition with Sarah and how surprised sheíd been when he had. His parents had always shared the work and heíd never thought anything about it until heíd seen others who didnít. It was fairly certain that Judge Travis didnít wash so much as a plate in his house, and Mary had been insulted when Chris had tried to do so after a long party at the Judgeís house. Evie Travis, the Judgeís wife, had had a look that said sheíd have welcomed the help, but Maryís sense of Ďproprietyí wouldnít allow it. Since Evie rarely used caterers or other assistance around the house, sheíd probably ended up cleaning for hours, because Mary always went home because she had to Ďput the paper to bedí. Next time there was a fancy party at the Judgeís, Chris would wait till Mary left and have his whole team pitch in. For some reason Mary Lawrence Travis caused him to lose all connection with who he really was. It was a disturbing thought that heíd think about back in Denver. Heíd been gone from Carolineís corner for far too long.

Chris noticed that Old William, one of the more consistent ghosts, was standing in the corner watching him with approval in his green eyes. Heíd never looked at him with anything but annoyance before, and Chris wondered for the first time if the ghosts could read minds...Old William snorted with amusement and tossed his head in the same way Ezra did when he was terribly amused by the childish behavior of his team mates. It stopped Chris dead for a moment. Carolineís accent and gambling metaphors, Old Williamís mannerisms, even the strangely elegant way the old Farmhouse was laid out, everything reminded him of his wily southern agent. His parents obviously knew Ezraís parents, especially Maude, if the Generalís anger was to be correctly interpreted. It was time for Chris to start getting some straight answers about the "Sevens" and especially Standish. This One hundred and twenty years thing his brother kept harping on seemed to hinge on him, but it also brought Ezra to mind every time he thought of it.

Ezra might Ďfulfil his oathí about the duty and obligation, but Damned if Chris was going to let him do it until he was far older than Josiahís uncle! He wasnít going to lose a man. Not now, not one of these men....

As if in answer, Old Williamís eyes grew sad and his expression wary, a look that was the twin of the undercover agentís when he had news his boss wouldnít like. Chris frowned at him. If he had to follow Standish to Hell and drag him back, he wasnít going to lose the man!

 <<<7>>>

Nathan had left the kitchen and found the undercover agent siting, with the dog at his feet, in a little area that had to be the Generalís reading room.

"You missed Breakfast," He growled.

"I wasnít hungry". The southerner replied softly. Standish was draped across the chair, looking for all the world like he hadnít been well for years. One arm hung down over the armrest and occasionally weakly scratched the dogís head. He was holding a framed picture in the hand that was in his lap.

"You insulted our hostess." Jackson added grinding it in. When was the man going to get it through his head that other people mattered, that their feelings were more important than all of the guilt the southerner must be feeling? If heíd just listen to Nathan, to 'read' him as he did all of the criminals that he worked with, then heíd understand and straighten himself out. Heíd get off his selfish kick and get out and help people. Heaven knew, after 9/11 there were too many who needed a hand.

"Mrs. Larabee is hardly likely to have been insulted by familiar behavior, Mr. Jackson." Ezra said tiredly, his southern accent thickening. "As it is, itís next to impossible for me to keep anything down right now. It would be a terrible crime to partake of the good ladyís delectable cooking and then return it in the most egregious manner. Most deplorable." He rose from the chair wearily. "I feel that this poor canine is in need of some exercise, and since I deplore manual labor, Iíll take him for a ramble. Perhaps then, we will both welcome the noontime repast." Without anymore comment, Standish limped over to a side door, hidden just beyond the bookcase, and left. Max, the Irish setter, paused a moment to give Nathan a strange look, and followed the southerner out to the barnyard.

Nathan sniffed, a little put out that the annoying man had missed the point yet again. He picked up the picture Ezra had been looking at. Jackson was going to put it away when he looked at it clearly. The subject of the photo was a group of people, most prominently placed was a little boy, maybe five or six at most, sitting on the steps of the Farmhouse. Clearly written on the childís face was a despair that made Nathanís eyes water. However a closer look made his heart pound almost to bursting, the child was familiar, too familiar...Ezra.

In the background of the photo was a green-eyed man, about thirty, who sat helplessly beside the child, trying to comfort him. Behind him stood Diana Larabee and a man who looked so much like Buck that he had to be Buckís uncle Frank. Mrs. Larabee looked like sheíd been crying and Frank looked on with an expression that Nathan found easy to read. The man was both angry and protectively worried. Buck had that expression on his face when he was afraid for JD, and this man was looking at both the green-eyed man and the child that was Ezra with an expression that promised pain for whoever had hurt them.

Jackson pulled back, his thoughts reeling. Somehow the Standishes knew Larabeeís family, and knew them well enough for the General to have pictures around the house. Chris had pictures of his team, but they were all in one place, on a knickknack stand in the living room. Nowhere else. The General must have been very close to Ezraís father to have such a picture of his son. Nathan wondered what Ezra was so upset by. Probably didnít get his way, the medic snapped back from the deeply disturbing picture.

Leaving it on the desk, Nathan walked back into the family room and into the middle of an argument Chris and Rick were facing off and the General was trying to make peace. Buck gave Nathan a tight grin from the sidelines, a wide eyed JD beside him. Chris might get angry but heíd never spoken to any member of his team this way. In the other corner, Josiah, his uncle Raul and Col. Jackson were talking very softly. Nathan was only slightly startled as the teacup sailed through the air and came to rest beside Chrisís right hand.

Looking at it, Rick swallowed what heíd been about to say. In his gut Nathan knew it was something that would have forever damaged any chance of a relationship with Chris. The Ďman in blackí was fuming, the waves of his anger palpable in the sitting room. Nathan didnít want to see the argument get to the point of a permanent separation, heíd done it himself with his sister, Zipporah and it still caused him a great deal of pain. He hadnít been right to do what he did, say what he did, but at the time heíd been convinced it was the only way. She wouldnít give up on the idea that he should be more like their father, Obediah, and Nathan was tired of the comparisons. The medic still felt badly about cutting her off, but he couldnít bring himself to try to mend the hole in his world. It just wasnít possible to do so without seeming to be a fool....

The argument increased in strength and each of the members of Team Seven found themselves looking for an exit. Slowly they slipped out, leaving the battling Larabees to each other, even Buck, who couldnít stand it any longer.

 <<<7>>>

"I hadnít guessed." Josiah said from his new perch on the railing of the porch. He had come out of sight, but not shouting distance, so as not to disturb the moves toward re-connection but not so far as to be unhelpful if intervention was necessary. Col. Jah Jackson and his uncle Raul Sanchez had followed him out. Jah raised a corner of his mouth and pulled out a bag of checkers and Raul responded by pulling out a checkerboard from behind him with a flourish worthy of Ezra. The two men set up the checker game, and Josiah began to ask questions about the Larabees, at first, and then about Ezra, knowing that these two held some keys that might help him to help the southerner out of his crisis.

Both men were uncomfortable about the discussion, very worried about "Classified" matters, but Josiah was able to get some answers that left him gasping for air. Heíd never have guessed the things they told him about the younger man. Oh Son! Josiah found himself grieving over the news and instinctively knew that it was only the tip of the iceberg.

 <<<7>>>

Buck was close to breaking his most important rule. "Never get involved with the family members of a friend". Patricia Larabee Harlan, Chrisís younger sister, was a lot like her brother had been before the car bombing that killed Sarah and Adam. She was on the edge of a bitter divorce and feeling uncertain, something that Buck was very familiar with dealing with Chrisís anxieties. Heíd dragged JD with him, on the pretext of getting information about his "Great Aunt" Rhonda Dunne. It amazed and worried Buck that the previous seven had been so closely connected to them and that theyíd never met. He didnít even want to think about that picture, the one of the nineteenth century Seven. That was truly frightening.

JD had come along, knowing that Buck wanted to talk to Patricia. However, Sandy Larabee had brought her five children out of the line of the fire between their father and uncle. The young computer expert had been an only child and relished playing with the kids, having wished for siblings most of his life. He wasnít sure about all of this, but it was pretty amazing. Tomorrow would be great, heíd get to meet his great aunt Rhonda and find out all about the Dunnes. And maybe heíd be able to get over his shock about Casey. Was he really destined to marry Nettie Wellsís niece? He loved Casey, but he didnít want to be forced into it. Perhaps if he knew more about the previous JD...a Sheriff, huh....

 <<<7>>>

Nathan had escaped and wandered the large farmís outbuildings. How the General ever kept up with it all, Jackson couldnít figure out. Eventually he found his way to the garage and found "Malone" working on the engine of a car. It was obvious that heíd been working on one car, but the pieces of several vehicles were sitting there laid out on sheets.

"Getting too hot in there?" Malone had drawled.

"Way too hot. Canít seem to straighten it out without yelling." The medic replied, feeling at ease in the shady garage.

"Ah well, some people have to be loud to untangle their messes. Some folks never do. Too proud I guess. Would you hand me that wrench?" Malone said leaning back into the vehicle.

Nathan handed him the tool and suddenly found himself talking, spilling all the things he hadnít been able to say to his team mates, all the things that heíd kept inside him. Malone just listened, asking for a tool here and there, but listened and closely too.

<<<7>>>

Ezra Standish followed the Irish Setter, Max, as they rambled over old familiar trails, eventually ending up near the cornfield. His head hung low and he was weary. It was too much, being here. There was no way that heíd convince Chris to let him leave for a while, no real escape from Nathanís constant harangues, no where to go. Heíd made his choice and heíd stand by it, no matter how much the medicís commentary hurt him.

He felt the presences long before they manifested, knowing the feel of them so well.

"Good Afternoon". He said politely. There wasnít much point in being rude to a ghost, especially these ghosts. They were guardians and he would not, could not trifle with them. They were too important to treat lightly.

"Well, Child?" A thin man, in the dress of the turn of the century, said green eyes blazing.

"Well, What?" Ezra responded in honest confusion. He was tired and the weight of his pain, as well as that of his hopes, made him feel dull in the presence of these guardians. They were so like and yet so different to the ones he was familiar with. Baldwinís guardians were so very well known to him, but he wasnít as close to these. Standish wished, not for the first time, that Caroline was here. Sheíd been a customary and dear companion. These were folk he should know, but as the past had fallen out, heíd had little chance to learn about them....

"Have you chosen?" The man asked, although his tone was not gentle, he seemed to be as kindly intent as he could be. It took Ezra a couple of minutes to place him, Alexander Forth. The Majorís grandson. Heíd been a hard man because heíd lived a hard life, but his actions had always been with care for other people. Ezra didnít know what to say, he choked on his words.

"What is your choice?"

"It is made, long ago and it will not be altered." Ezra said firmly. He stood his ground, although he was shaking like one of JD's Coke Splatter Specials. The guardians looked at him with great understanding and compassion.

"Are you certain?"

"As Ever, as Always, The choice is mine. I was granted one miracle in this life, one that has given me far more than I could ever have expected or dared hope for." Ezraís eyes grew distant as he thought of the moment of that miracle. "I Will NOT break faith with it. There is no going back, no choosing another path. I will stand on my vow. I know what will come, and Iím ..." he paused. "Not hesitant, though I fear it! I have to be honest, It terrifies me. I wish it could be other, but I choose the life I have lived. I will not unweave what has been. They are worth everything to me. If what is coming came a dozen times, it would be the same. I chose as the Major did before me." Ezra closed his eyes and swallowed. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider. As Ever, as Always."

The Guardians nodded as if it had been expected, though their eyes told him theyíd hoped that heíd chose the easier path, one kinder and more gentle than the damaged fragmented life heíd led. It was required that heíd been given the chance to change his mind, that was duty, but he wasnít going to alter his decision. Not ever. Seeing Chris alive and living... seeing them all alive, granted the sight of the possibilities for this pack of wild "Brothers" heíd found, It meant everything. And if he had to carry his burden for a thousand years, he would. Knowing Them would be his strength for what would come. Ezra flipped a card in his hand. He looked at it, Seven of Spades...

And they would not be alone...this time. Heíd gotten that promise when heíd accepted the charge, so many years ago. They wouldnít be alone.

Whatever else the guardian ghosts would have said was silenced by the sounding of a loud volley of cannon. Ezraís face paled to absolute white.

"No. No. NO!" He screamed in denial. "Not another, Please, no..."

"Taverís folly has sounded itís guns. The Nation is in distress, but the tragedy has not yet occurred." Old William reminded him. "When there is nothing you can do, when the choice is set in stone, you hear the guns at the moment of Tragedy. This sounding can be altered." The man drew his lips into a thin line. "Iíve heard them often enough to be sure. This sounding can be changed. This can be prevented."

"What are they firing for?" one of the others asked, watching the living man staring at Williamís face.

"I do not know."

In that instant, a lathered horse came roaring past, Caroline Danvers on itís back wild with terror and grief.

"Theyíve come. The riders have failed. The fool made his choice! He made it for gain...We must stop them. Theyíve come for the General! They will slay them all!" She wailed as she galloped past.

Several ghosts vanished to fulfil their oaths. William looked at Ezra.

"They will have come for you too, to use against them. Christopher will do anything to save you. And not he alone, You Know how far the General will go to protect you. They will risk themselves to save you, take dangerous chances. We must find a way to stop this. This is not the hour, we can not lose them now... We must protect them. You know that." His eyes lost focus for a minute. "Hide, into the corn!" Ezra needed no urging. He dashed into the corn and knelt down, Max beside him.

"I saw him. He was out for a walk. Where the hell did he go?" an unfamiliar voice yelled.

"He canít have just vanished. Into the corn!" one of the men yelled. There were moments of fruitless searching, but Ezra was not found. The men were armed to the teeth and prepared to use their weapons. One of them came near to Ezra but a sound from elsewhere led them off. William, Ezra realized. Then he smiled. William was a prickly bastard and hard to get around. Theyíd be off on a merry chase.

What could he do to save the others?

 <<<7>>>

Nathan was in shock, Shock with a capital "S". Malone had shown him some things that left him totally wiped out. He hadnít realized that Malone was Malone Tanner, Vinís dead uncle. He should have...What the hell had happened to his brain? The man, the ghost, had listened to all the things he was feeling, all the pain, and all the things heíd thought and felt about Ezra.

Heíd listened and then proceeded to turn Nathanís total view of reality inside out... The things heíd shown him, the facts heíd been MADE to see. It had been a tour of Hell, his own personal hell. But one that was the result of his own Choices. Jackson had made an innocent comment in response to a question that Malone had asked, and then his whole world had come undone. He felt like Scrooge with the three ghosts, heíd only had one, but one he prayed was enough!

Just as he was regaining some balance, some sense of himself, a woman on a horse dashed by, wailing an alarm. It took a moment for his befuddled mind to recognize her, Caroline Danvers.

The General was in Danger, the Whole Larabee family was in Danger...and Ezra, Oh Lord, ...Heíd driven the man out of the house. Ezra! What had he done!

 <<<7>>>

Buck and JD were comfortably relaxing with the women and children. Diana Larabee had joined them to check on her daughter. The stress of the argument between her sons had been too much for her to bear. She loved them both and couldnít handle seeing them tearing at each other. Watching the grandchildren play had almost restored her balance when she was startled by the appearance of Caroline Danvers on a lathered horse.

"Danger!" The ghost screamed startling them all. "Get the children into the hiding place!"

"Danger? Hiding place?" Buck was startled, but the Larabee women were gathering up the children and rushing towards an innocent looking corner of the Farmhouse. Patricia turned something and the whole wall opened. Both agents drew their weapons and took protective positions around the women and children.

"Thereís trouble." Nathan called coming to the house at a run. He drew his weapon and joined his team mates in protecting the Larabees. "That lady ghost..."

"We saw her." Buck said shortly, he turned at a noise and was startled to see a man with a crew cut who was a ringer for Vin pull out a machine gun. "Can ghostly weapons hurt people?" he asked Diana who was beside him.

"They work, they donít do what they would do if they were living weapons, but they do do things. Why?"

"That guy is setting up a machine gun."

"What guy?" Diana asked.

"Malone Tanner." Nathan said.

"Maloneís here?" She asked turning around and around looking for the ghost.

"Right there maíam, Canít you see him?"

"No. You donít get to see the people who were important to you in life... Itís not allowed. Not unless the time has come. Itís not supposed to be time..." She said, clutching one of the grandchildren more closely to her. "Iíll set the booby traps, so donít come in after us. Thereís a bell in the parlor. When itís safe ring it. The boys will tell you where it is."

"Maíam, not that Iím not happy you have them, but why do you have booby traps and hiding places?" Buck asked.

"The Standishes were big into the anti slavery movement. Thereís a hidden classroom down there and safety." Nathan said.

"Standishes?" JD asked in bewilderment, watching the parameter. "What Standishes!"

"The Danvers were cousins of Ezraís dadís family. This was a stop on one of the western routes out of slavery..."

"Maloneís been telling tales again." Patricia said.

"Yes, Maíam. Iím glad he did." Nathan said, still shaken from what heíd seen. "Iíll ring the bell when itís safe. You set those traps and hang on. If the bell rings three times, get out the tunnel, cause the house is afire. Okay? Donít stop, Donít look back, just get to Rhondaís? Okay?"

The medic helped the ladies close the wall behind them.

 <<<7>>>

Josiah, Raul and Jah Jackson were in the middle of a killer game of checkers when Caroline Danvers rode up to the porch.

"Theyíve come. He chose treason. The General is at risk! They will kill him and all of his family!" She cried struggling with the horse.

Jah overturned the board and pushed both Sanchezes towards the house. Josiah pulled his sidearm and watched as both old men did as well. They were prepared for everything except for Caroline grabbing an old shotgun and covering their retreat.

As they reached the door, Caroline started, blood pouring out over her riding habit.

"Keep going, This is as far as Iím permitted to aid you. The women and children are safe, the others are warned and help is coming but they will be here first. Hold on and you will survive." She sank down against the wooden door frame still clutching the shotgun, and she took aim, obviously intending to keep shielding them as long as she could.

"But..." Josiah began, staring at her.

"Thatís where she died, Josiah. Itís where she can make a stand, she did so in life, itís permitted in death... The rules governing the situation are so complex that I canít figure why it is but thatís what she can do, all she can do. Sheíll keep them occupied for a while though."

<<<7>>>

The argument was going in full force when a dozen men in the clothing of the mid nineteenth century ran through the walls.

"Theyíve come!" A hard looking man said, off loading two guns and a rifle.

"Diana, the children!" The General cried.

"In the hiding place." The man replied. "Caroline is holding the porch. Your men," He said to Chris "are in the back."

Outside the sound of Gunfire broke the quiet, startling the animals.

"Larabee, Weíve got your man! Going to kill him if you donít get out here. Already had to shut his smart mouth, Larabee. You want him alive, you come out. Iíll kill him if you donít. Borland ain't here to save you, General. Come on outa there!" A voice bellowed from the farmyard.

"Donít, Chris! They donít have Ezra!" said a thirtyish man with bright green eyes. He held the china teacup in one hand. "Ezra is safe, donít fall for the bluff. And Donít let him fall for it." the man pointed at General Larabee. The General was frightened, Chris noticed. His father was never afraid. The leader of Team Seven thought, This wasn't happening. It wasnít real to him.

"We have to bargain. We canít let them kill Ezra!" General Larabee cried.

"They donít have him." Chris said.

"How do you know?" His father said with some desperation. General Larabee was torn between protecting his family and protecting Ezra.

"He says so." Chris said pointing at the man.

"Chris, thereís only a teacup there!" Josiah said, but all of the rest were relieved by the sight.

"If Jess says it, itís true." The General said, visibly relaxing. "Weíll get them."

"Why didnít you hear him?" Chris asked in confusion.

"The people who cross who are close to you canít show themselves to you, Itís another of those idiot rules." Jah Jackson snapped. "Ask that old hoodwinker about them out there. How many, and where."

"But,..." Chris started to ask in some confusion.

"Just ask."

"Tell them that there are ten of them, heavily armed and most of them have some military training. Not good training, mostly from "Militia" groups." He winced. "But some idea of what they are up to. Rescue is coming, if you can hold on, they'll be here soon."

Chris repeated what heíd said.

"Thanks Jess." The General said with real gratitude.

"Jess?" Chris asked.

"Jesse Allen Standish, at your service." The man reached out and shook Chrisís hand. His flesh was cool but not unpleasant.

"Are you Ezraís father?"

"I was." Jess said with pain in his expression. "I had that privilege while I was in life. I never thought Iíd be lost so soon. That I wouldnít get to be there with him." Standish frowned. "Iíve watched him every step, every pain-filled step, every moment in Hell. I just wasnít permitted to be there to protect him from ..." He paused. " The world" He added after a moment. Chris got the idea that he had intended to say something else and ĎMaudeí was his guess.

Before they could say anything else, the men outside made their move.

 

Carolineís corner Part 3 A long Afternoon

Vin Tanner had left the Larabee farmhouse in the middle of the argument. It had been hard for him to watch Chris and his brother tear into each other, especially since Chris was never that angry with his men. There was a field over behind the barn, and he could see some horses milling around.

Indiana was interesting, but he was wishing for Colorado and the Larabee Ranch, more specifically for Peso, his horse. A ride on Peso would usually reset his equilibrium. Ezra was a concern right now, as usual. He didnít know what to do for his grieving friend, except punch Nathan out. However, that wouldnít make the situation easier. Vin had read the indecision and the fear in Ezra after Chris explained this little jaunt. Standish apparently knew the General, and definitely knew the ghosts... The southerner had spent a whole morning before they left filling Vin in about Caroline and the rest. Heíd believed him, after all hadnít he dealt with more weird stuff ever since Ezra became his partner?

 

Vin was pretty sure that every ghost in the continental U.S.of A. knew Ezra Standish. He just wished theyíd leave the man alone, especially now... It just didnít seem fair that his partner had to carry so heavy a burden.

Heíd tried to redirect people, tried to get the others onto a different track, but damn they were single minded! Only the raging feud between Chris and his brother seemed to distract the others from pecking at the southerner. Lately it appeared that all the ground theyíd gained especially with their stubborn medic had been lost. It had been a hard couple of years. Ezra had nearly died twice in the last six months and heíd lost track of how many times it had come that close in the last year... Truthfully there were days when Vin thought Ezra was actively courting it. He sighed. Wasnít it bad enough for the man to have people trying to murder him, people spying on him, and having to carry the pain of his loss without ever saying anything to the others, because it was "Classified"?

Trying to find some normalcy for himself, he considered the Generalís offer, and considered it hard. Vin called himself a fool but the mysteries of his own past still haunted him, just as much as any of Ezraís guardian ghosts.. After breakfast, Vin had talked to the General, asking his questions, and the older man had given him a packet of things, pictures mostly, but there was one red book, a journal. His uncleís journal. He wasnít sure what to do. Malone Tanner had died long before Vinís birth. Vin had few recollections of his mother and none of this uncle, his grandfather never having talked about him...

Vin put the packet in his jacket pocket, not certain if he wanted to face the memories of a stranger.

One of the horses, a spotted Appaloosa, nuzzled gently against Vinís arm. He petted the head softly, stroking the long silky mane. As he was considering his options, he heard gunfire from the house.

 

                                                                                        <<<7>>>

Ezra Standish listened with all of his senses to determine if the men had moved on. He had one chance and only one chance to get help for the others. His team was going to be caught in the crossfire and if he didnít raise the alarm theyíd all be killed. That was something heíd never allow, risk all to prevent.

No one was nearby so Standish ran, ran as fast as his injured leg would allow him to go. He dragged himself through the corn and other crops, listening for pursuit. There was none, but he went cautiously. If he were caught, there was a chance that he could be used against the Larabees, both the General and Chris. That had to be prevented, at all costs. General Larabee was far too valuable to the Military, to the Nation, to him... And Chris...There had to be a reason that theyíd been attacked now, especially when Chris was here with a highly trained team of ATF agents. They probably wanted them both. A disturbing thought, which meant that someone knew what he was as well. Such highly classified information required a high level of access, something these Militia misfits certainly didnít have....

Grimacing slightly against the pain in his leg, he looked back to determine his position. Deckerís place was just over the small artificial hill the Danvers had created as part of one of the escape systems. If he could get to Deckerís then he could get help from both the living Military and the police and the dead Indiana Regiments. He just had to get there!

Turning toward Deckerís, Ezra saw a familiar dark hollow ahead of him. For a moment he hesitated, panic gripping him making him gasp for air. No, he told himself, he had to make it to Deckerís, had to get help. No matter what had happened in this place, he couldnít let it overwhelm him. His Team, his brothers, they needed rescue! Max quietly leaned in against Ezraís thigh, the Irish Setter offering what comfort he could. Ezra shut his eyes to the memory of pain and pushed ahead grasping Maxís collar. The dog led him as he tried to ignore the insistent memory of his motherís voice whispering ugly threats. That was then, this is now he told himself. Sheís not here.

                                                                                <<<7>>>

Chris ducked as his motherís china cabinet took a volley of hits, spraying glass and porcelain fragments all over the defenders. The Ghost of Ezraís father tried to shield him against the shrapnel, but there was only so much protection he could afford. Looking around Chris could see the others had ghosts looking out for them. Screaming obscenities, the men outside fired volley after volley into the house. Jah Jackson had been hit in the arm, Josiah cut with flying glass from one of the windows, and the General had been scratched by a round that nearly missed his thigh. Help couldnít come too soon for Chris. Heíd tried his cell-phone but the reception had been too poor. None of the others could get a signal. Obviously their attackers had brought something to jam signals with, and theyíd cut the normal telephone lines.

A trap door in the middle of the kitchen floor lifted up. Chris took aim without thinking.

"For Mercyís sake, Hold your Fire!" Jesse screamed into his ear. Chris didnít fire and in a second was shocked to see a dusty and grimy JD Dunne grinning at him.

"Exits from the last stand, anyone?" JD quipped.

"Knock it off, Kid. We want to get into the house not out of it!" Buck grumbled. JD grinned a little more, and led Buck and Nathan into the House. Nathan automatically grabbed his bright orange medical duffle from beside the stairwell and began treating the injured.

"How long should we hold out in here?"Chris asked the ghost of Jesse Standish. "Shouldnít we go out the trap door?" The ghost listened for a moment and then shook his head.

"If you can hold it together a little longer, help is coming. I can hear them. If you leave the house too soon, you will play into your attackersí hands." Jesse looked troubled for a moment and then turned his attention back to Chris. Chris was too familiar with Ezraís facial expressions to be fooled.

"What is it? Is Ezra okay?"

"Ezra is...Fine." Jesse said grimly.

"Fine or Fine?" Chris demanded in return, knowing that word oh so well.

"Ezra is free, they have not found him. However this place has a hazzard of memories..." He looked at Chris with sorrowfully wide green eyes. "I wish..."

Not sure how to comfort a ghost, Chris looked over at his men, assessing their conditions. Buck gave him the old familiar grin. Team Sevenís Rogue seemed ready for anything. He was keeping an eye on JD, but Chris could tell that no matter how exuberant the "Kid" was, he was also ready for anything. Sometimes, Chris thought, they discounted JDís training and background. They shouldnít. The "Kid" was twenty-six years old, even if he didnít look a day over seventeen, and had worked the streets of New York City for three and a half years. JD gave him a considering look and then flashed him one of his biggest grins.

Donít get cocky, kid. Larabee glared at him. Now was not the time or place. At least Vin wasnít in here, the claustrophobia would be driving him to extremes. The ghosts had said that Tanner was safe where he wouldnít be found. He found himself trusting that statement. Another volley of bullets struck various points in the wall. JD took cover well. Chris turned to see where the rest of his team was. Nathan was putting butterfly bandages on one of Josiahís cuts. Whatever the medic was saying to the older man caused him to laugh slightly. The Ďman in blackí looked at them with no little confusion. Jackson had been a royal pain, a truly royal pain, for quite a while. Josiah had had to deal with him and there had been precious little that the medic had said that made anyone laugh. As if heíd heard his leaderís thoughts, Nathan looked at Chris and gave him a large sheepish grin. Shuddering slightly, Chris turned to see what the Ďold timersí were up to.

His father and the two survivors of his Ďsevení were as actively involved in the defense of the house as Chrisís team. Hell, even Rick was laying fire as if he were trained. The General looked at his son with a curious expression.

"Of course heís trained," Old William snorted in Chrisís ear. "Ever known a Larabee to be unprepared?"

"Yes," Chris snapped. "Me, all the time!"

Both Ghosts laughed, Old William with a full throated chuckle that Chris would never have believed of the man, and Jesse with a laugh that sounded so much like Ezra.

"The lad is on the way back from Deckerís." Old William said. "And that other one of yours is getting ready for something. Not sure what, but knowing that itís a Tanner, itís sure to be creative."

"I thought you said Vin was safe!" Chris cursed.

"He is, they arenít gonna find him, Boy."Old William snapped back. "They could look for years and never find him. What heís gonna do to them, well, thatís another story. A Hunter he is and Hunters have their own ideas of whatís proper doings."

"Hunter?" Chris was baffled.

"You were there remember? Oh yes, I forgot. You thought all that Native American Nonsense didnít really mean anything. Just a ceremony for Vinís peace of mind. Lord, Boy, sometimes you are the most dense person Iíve ever met." Old William shook his head. "Youíre gonna have some problems with this one, Jess-lad." He added shaking his head. Then the curmudgeonly ghost vanished.

"What did he mean? Trouble with me?" Chris hissed. "And why are you here? Shouldnít you be with Ezra?" He lashed out at Jesse from worried anger. The ghost just looked at him sadly.

"I canít be. I can see him. I can walk beside him. I canít do anything else." Jesse looked at Chris with an expression of grief so heavy that Larabee almost choked back the rest of his angry complaint, almost.

"Iíd give anything to be with Adam, even just to walk beside him. Just to see him, to let him know that I love him."

"I canít even tell Ezra that." Jesse said so softly that Chris almost missed it.

"Why? Heís the one who can see all of the ghosts around here! Hell, Carolineís like an old friend to him. Why canít you be there and tell him anything, everything." Chris cursed. "That mother of his is just about useless."

"I wouldnít call her useless, Iíd call her Evil, Christopher Matthew. Itís not permitted for Ezra to see me right now. He will, eventually."

"Why not now? This seems like a crisis point in his life." Larabee snapped as he fired out at their attackers.

"Itís not allowed."

"Iíd face any punishment to be with my son. Anything." Chris yelled at him. He could see that Jesse Standish had the same temperament as his own Standish. Larabee had pushed him to the edge of his anger.

"Ezra will see me again..." Jesse bit out in a voice colder than the Arctic. "He will see me in the last few hours of his life. Then and only then. Itís not an event I wish to rush." Chris looked at him incredulously. Jesseís face was as blank a mask as the one Ezra often wore. Another volley of gunfire kicked up more shrapnel and Jess again shielded Chris as much as he could. "This is not a crisis point in his life."

"I wouldnít say that. Heís grieving, hurt... and we canít reach him. Iím losing him and I donít have clue one about what to do."

"Ezra is grieving, yes. That only time can heal. As for the rest, itís moving to a resolution." Jesse threw a tight grin at the medic. "The person going to reach a crisis point, this day, is you, Christopher Matthew Larabee. Thatís why Iím here, Stuck here listening to you carp about things that you donít understand." The ghost looked through the shattered window with expression of grief woven with anger. "I have to try to reach you, thatís why Iím here. Stuck here. Listening to Richard James making a fool of himself because he wonít see what is actually happening. Watching people my son loves make Asses of themselves without even the slightest clue what is going on, or what he needs. I canít be with him, giving him what limited comfort and support I am permitted. I canít be with him because I have to be here with you. You know my son so well, do you? You know that heís hurting, heartsick... When did you bother to ask Ezra why he was hurting? Vin knows, he was there when he was needed... You seem to think that Ezra is supposed to bring his secrets to you, throw them all in your lap and walk away happy and whole. Tell me, Christopher, just when did you become divine?" He turned back to Chris with a face colder than heíd ever seen. "If you are so able to solve Ezraís problems, why donít you know what they are? All of your men have secrets, many more than even they know. Many of them are as dangerous and damaging as my sonís. Why donít you know them if you are so clued in...so wise?" He was twisting the china teacup in his hand.

"I never thought that I was God, Standish. Damn you are enough to drive a man to drink."

"Youíve never needed an excuse for that." Jesse hit back.

"That was low." Chris growled.

"Apparently not low enough. There are more lives riding on your judgement than just yours... more than just your teamís. If you donít get a clue, as the current idiom goes, you are going to get a lot of people killed without knowing that you could have saved them... Dash right in and fix a few things, get buried in your own trauma, ignore, fight or feud with your team and lose. Itís a Larabee for sure." Jesse looked around. "They shouldnít have given this task to me. I canít make you understand. They are all going to die, not today not in this nonsense, but in the greater trial to come. One hundred and twenty years. Almost over and we didnít change a thing. Iím out of my depth with this one! Iím no Fate, I canít give you choices... Iím not even in life to save those who will fall because I canít make you understand.." He ran a hand through his auburn hair. Chrisís blood ran cold. The ghost continued despairingly."They are going to die, Ezraís going to die, and all I can do is argue with you."

"Ezra is not going to die. If I have to ride into Hell and drag his ass back here. Iím not going to let him go."

"Thatís good Christopher, I almost believe you." Jesse looked at him. "How are you going to stop it when you donít know what Ďití is? Had you considered that? Just because Richard James is acting like an idiot doesnít mean that he doesnít have a point or two to make. The other Christopher Larabee couldnít wait to rush in, couldnít get his information straight, couldnít find it in himself to reach out to his men until it was too late. He buried himself in his own pain until he had to bury his men. That Seven broke and all Sevens that follow will fall for the same reasons...My sonís death will seal that cycle. The Major sacrificed his life believing in the men he served with, in the man that he followed. Ezra knew the instant he saw you in Atlanta that going with you six was to be his death, but he chose you. He would rather have had the time, even on the edge of this family of yours, this family of misfits. He would rather have had the time with the six of you than any earthly thing."

"Weíre not...Ezraís not..." Chris gaped with the idea that Ezra would die because of them.

"You are the last people in my sonís life that he will call family. The only people that he will ever allow that close to him. There are others that he cares for, but none will ever reach his heart as deeply. Heís been too damaged. Too systematically damaged for that. None of us could even believe that heíd reach out for you, believe in you. He shouldnít be able to do that, to trust you or anyone. She did that to him, My failure did that to him, and She made it permanent. After all heís suffered, none of us had the hope to believe that he could bring himself to reach out to you. We all thought it would end up a pale imitation of what happened back then, but we were wrong. He did reach out for you, and made the choice. It was a miracle...." Jesseís eyes were bright with unshed tears. "The last chance, I canít reach you, Iím speaking Greek to you." Another volley of gunfire dusted them with splinters.

"Iíll learn Greek then." Larabee growled. "If it was a miracle that he reached for us, Iím not about to let him go. What the hell are you trying to tell me? Somehow I get the feeling that it has to happen in the middle of a gunfight."

"Some things just do." Jesse gave a half-hearted attempt at a laugh.

"Okay. So youíve got my attention. Iíve been ignoring the problems with my men, avoiding Ezraís past, trying to keep it all together. I lost my wife and child and I really am never going to get over that. However, these men are my family and Iím not going to lose one, not any of them. I nearly lost Ezra last year. You know about that?" Chris looked at the ghost.

"I was there. Every moment." Jesse looked at him. "You do care, but you are uncommitted and distracted. There was something alarmingly wrong with your medic but you chose not to see it. Your best friend has been at risk from an old enemy. You almost lost him through neglect of your Bureauís politics. Your Hunter came through his personal Hell with only my son at his side instead of all of you. He survived but shouldnít you have been there? The "Kid" is being slowly led away from your circle, dangerously so. Hezekiahís son has a heavier burden than you know, but you should. And my son... that youíve known and avoided considering. All of these things that have happened are connected and youíve ignored the threat. Ezra has been walking the knife point, as you so often say, but youíve done little to bring him in from the edge. Youíve feared losing him, feared a connection to him, feared his "Dark" past, feared pushing or pulling him. Christopher, why are you afraid of my son?"

"Iím not sure. I donít know if Iím afraid. Itís hard to put into words." Chris said, knowing that he had to be honest now or never. The very thought of losing any of his men filled him with terror. But hearing Jesse recite a list of things that had happened or almost happened gave him chills beyond the terror. He had to find a way. Ezra wasnít going to die, and certainly not because of them. "I donít know why. Itís a shadow. Something half remembered. All I know is that sometimes he scares me. Whether itís the power he has, or something else, Iím not sure. Yes I can tell that heís "gifted". There were a couple of people with Ďgiftsí back in the Navy and let me tell you, it wasnít worth it. They suffered so much because of those Ďgiftsí, I couldnít see anything worthwhile about them. Vinís Ďgiftedí too. I was hoping that it was just a phase, that itíd go away. I canít stand to see them hurt so much. It just doesnít seem worth it to me."

"It was their choice." Jesse said.

"I guess. The ones I knew in the service, they suffered so much, then they died. I didnít want that for my men. I wanted to convince myself that it wasnít real."

"Christopher. You grew up here. Among ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Donít you think itís odd that you canít deal with living people having Ďgiftsí but you can deal with any number of ghosts? Guardian ghosts at that?"

"I guess it is kind of stupid." Chris dove for more shelter as another, heavier volley of bullets tore thought the room. "Theyíve got lots of ammo, but lousy aim."

"Theyíve got other problems too." Jesse gave him a grin. Slowly Chris could hear the roar of a machine gun, echoing strangely. As the machine gun opened fire, he could hear cursing and explosions.

"Vin?"

Jesse looked at him startled then grinned.  "Well itís a Tanner. Vinís up to something else."

"Please donít let him kill himself doing it."

"No, Hetís watching him. Heís watching Het so I guess theyíre both on the way to a resolution. Can you hear the gun?" Jesse asked curiously.

"Yes. Doesnít sound right to me. And there something in the distance. A bugle?" Chris looked at Jesse in confusion. "Bugle, right."

Jesse laughed. "Yes Christopher. Itís a bugle. The cavalry is coming." A stray bullet brushed past Chrisís ear.

"Now itís time to move to safer ground. Vin Tanner has taken out the guards that would have caught you and their back up is involved with the Ďmachine guní. We need to get out and meet the cavalry."

Chris started herding his men and the old timers to the trapdoor. He and Rick were the last to leave. For a moment Chris could see pride in his brotherís expression, pride followed by embarrassment. Giving Rickís biceps a squeeze he told himself that they would work things out. Somehow.

Following Jesseís lead into the darkness, they started to go through the tunnels the Danvers had dug back in 1850.

                                                                               <<<7>>>

 

Vin Tanner tried to hide his surprise at being Ďjumpedí by an Indian. An old fashioned warrior if the state of his clothing was to be believed. He was dragged into one of the outbuildings. But he didnít struggle with his attacker. Instinctively he knew that the man was on his side. His senses told him it was a ghost.

The man gestured to himself, "Het" he said. "Short name" Vin understood it to mean "nickname" and that the man wouldnít give him his full real name. He nodded in return. Giving a wide smile that was almost as feral as a "Tanner Grin" the warrior pointed to something half hidden under a tarp. What was there caused Vin to return the ghostís look with a true "Tanner Grin".

                                                                              <<<7>>>

"Damn." Chris said, bumping his head for the fourth time. "No one thought to bring a flashlight." The escapees from the house were slowly feeling their way along the tunnel. How JD had led Buck and Nathan through to the house, Chris was sure heíd never know... Each man held on to some portion of the man in front of him. The pale form of Jesse Standish was the only light, and that more by sense than sight. Finding himself at the end of the line, Chris felt the darkness encroaching on all of his senses.

Within a couple of minutes heíd lost hold of Buck who had been in front of him and found himself lost.

"How the hell did they see down here when they used the damn tunnels!" Chris snarled.

"Darkness can sometimes be boon and sometimes bane." Caroline Danversís voice echoed in his head. "Morning is wiser than evening, Christopher Matthew, hold fast."

"He canít." Another voice whispered. "Heís unwilling to choose."

"Unwilling or unable? I never believed that he would be the one with the courage, much less the convictions." Another voice hissed in Chrisís ear. Chris felt that he was in a room full of people, people that he couldnít see and it annoyed him. Heíd always felt this way when the ghosts tried something like this. That was part of the reason he left in the first place.

"Courage is being scared and doing the right thing anyway."

"Heís too Smart to listen to platitudes." One of the voices hissed. "Too wise to bother with what is coming. Bah! Let him wander where his "Smarts" led him to. This one is no use."

"Heís loyal to his men." The voices multiplied, whispering all around him.

"Loyal but unwilling to risk himself, to risk hurt."

"He risked hurting, risked grieving, Last year. He didnít have to care for his dying team-mate."

"But the boy didnít die. It was a trick from that bitch of a mother."

"Does that change what he is or has done? The two things are not connected."

"He threw away the chance. Not of any use! He bears the potential of great gifts, but refuses to use them. To chance them!" One of the voices raged.

"He doesnít understand. All heís ever seen was the pain. Never the hope!"

"Itís too late."

"Too Late."

"Heís made his choice." The voices all agreed. Chris cursed silently. What the hell did they want of him and who were they to judge him?

"I havenít made any Damn choice. I donít have a frigging clue what the hell you are babbling about. My men are under attack. Could you go somewhere and whisper and Iíll get back to you when I have a moment."

"There is only the moment, Now. This is it. Your choice, Christopher Matthew Larabee."

Chris smacked his forehead against a support. Rubbing the lump, he replied to the voices.

"Iím not sure what Iím choosing here. You all seem to be accusing me of something. Iím not sure what. In a Trial the accused at least gets council from someone who knows the law."

"Very well, not that it will change matters." One voice said with feigned fatigue.

"He must chose a councilor, Jesse can not reach him ."

"Who will help?"

"I will." Said one voice. It was bright and sounded young.

"I will" Replied another, dripping with sarcasm.

"I will." A third cried, snide and arrogant.

"I will." Said a fourth, a voice heavy with weariness.

" I will." Said a fifth, strangely manic.

Chrisís gut clenched. Heíd always avoided this sort of thing as a child, telling the ghosts that they were too bossy or taking off to avoid listening to their lectures. This was different, he was no child now and the lives of his men and those of his family were at risk. Jesse had said that none of them would die this day, but he hadnít said that theyíd make it through unchanged. It hadnít been so long a time away from the Corner for him not to remember how bad "Changes" could be. He tripped in the darkness, cursing.

A rough hand reached for his and helped him right himself.

"I donít want..."Chris began but the hand clasped his mouth.

"Watch it, not to choose is considered a choice. Tell them you are thinking. If you are considering, theyíll let you be." The weary voice said in his ear. It had a smoky, earthy feel. Quickly the hand released him.

"Iím thinking." Chris said aloud to the waiting Darkness. In response he could suddenly see the edge of the barnyard where Ezra Standish stood. He seemed alone at first, but Chris blinked and saw not only the Irish setter, Max, beside him but dozens of men. Standish stood up raising an arm. Wanting to shriek at the man to take cover, Chris could see the danger he was in, he pleaded and pleaded with the voices. Ezraís arm came down in a quick swing and Chris could hear the roar of Cannon.

He could feel them too as the tunnel reacted to the volley. The Militia men were crying out, screaming more and more obscenities. They returned fire and Standish, like an idiot, was a visible target.

"Ezra!" Chris cried out in fear for the man.

"You must make your choice. There is no time." The voices whispered.

"You need to pay attention." The bright childish voice said. "Listen to us. There are rules and they are the only things that matter right now." Although it was bright, that childish voice put shivers up Chrisís back. There was a danger in blindly following rules of any sort.

The other voices echoed the childish voiceís complaint.

 

Chris ignored all of the voices, focused on the image of Ezra Standish openly risking himself in the gunfight.

"Heís alright. The man has more lives than a damn cat and they ainít run out yet." The weary voice told him softly. A brush of a gentle hand on his shoulder gave Chris a little comfort. Again the other voices rose to demand his attention. They started arguing amongst themselves. The childish voice pleading for them to follow the rules, the snide voice proclaiming itís own self-righteousness, the sarcastic voice whispering proverbs, the manic voice began singing insanely.

"If I have to choose a councilor blindly, I choose you." Chris said to where he thought the weary voice was.. He could feel the spirit beside him start. The owner of the voice seemed more corporeal than before. Chris could almost swear that he could feel the man standing next to him.

"There are others that are wiser than I am and I ainít real pretty to look at. Why choose me?"

"My men are at risk of their lives and you were the only one who thought of giving me any comfort."

"I made a lot of mistakes, Kid. Still make em"

"So do I." Chris answered bitterly. "Jesse Standish pointed out quite a few of them earlier."

"He just wanted your attention. To get you to think."

"Why isnít he the one stuck answering my idiot questions?" Chris asked. "He wasnít getting through, wasnít able to teach me enough Greek? Right?"

"No, this would have happened any way." The voice replied. "You have to be free, uninfluenced by your friendship."

"Jesse Standish wasnít a friend of mine."

"His son is."

 

"Alright," Chris said, losing patience. "They want me to choose. What are they wanting me to choose from? Since they were annoyed with me about Ďgiftsí earlier, thatís what Iím guessing. Am I right?"

"Yes." The voice said in his ear. "It is about Ďgiftsí, but youíve got to choose from something other than your prejudice. Youíve seen the price that some are called to pay because of them, but youíve missed the fact that those who paid it felt it was worth it. You said it wasnít worth it earlier. Too much pain.

Kid, why do people choose to have Ďgiftsí if all that they are is pain?"

"Iíve never thought about it."

"Thatís obvious, Kid."

"Iím not a kid."

"To me you are and quit trying to shift the conversation. I know the idea scares you spitless. Did me."

"You were offered one of this so called Ďgiftsí? Did you refuse?"

"Nope. I was almost there, almost at the point to choose for myself when something interfered."

"What could interfere? I thought this whole process had a Ďhigher connectioní. Thatís what Dad always says."

"Death did."

Chris was startled. "Sorry. I wasnít thinking that way. Sometimes itís hard to remember that you people are dead. Youíre too lively sometimes for me to believe it."

"Wasnít my death, but death destroyed things all the same." The voice continued, somehow conveying a weight of sorrow.

"I..."

The voice cut him off. "Now, listen to me, Kid. There isnít a lot of time left in this moment. I failed to appreciate the idea of the Ďgiftí and failed to understand. Youíre on the verge of making the same mistake. I was too involved in my own pain to see that there were things going on, things I could have stopped."

"Like this one-hundred-and-twenty year cycle thing? Iím not going to let Ezra go. Will this Ďgiftí stop that?"

"Maybe so, maybe no. Itís hard to say. Everything in the world is dependant on choices. Because of who you are, what youíve chosen to do...You are being offered an opportunity to do more. The Ďgiftsí exist to help people. To protect, to heal, to strengthen, to sustain, to give justice to those who canít get it on their own."

"You make it sound like itís all so helpful. Thereís a lot of pain involved, both in using the Ďgiftí and in the fact that everyone Iíve ever seen with one dies because of it."

"Not everyone is asked to make that sacrifice, Kid. Hundreds have lived with Ďgiftsí and not died of them. I ainít going to promise you that if you take the Ďgiftí itís going to save your men. I am going to tell you that if you take it, youíre going to save a lot of lives before youíre done. Wonít say youíre going to get through without hurtiní, or maybe even dyiní but youíve already signed on to do that, havenít you?" The voice was followed by the rustle of cloth and leather. Itís owner seemed to balance strangely. Chris was certain he could hear the voice dragging something as it moved slightly. "You swore an oath to protect and serve. Everything youíve done in this life has been predicated on it. Balanced on it. Even when you were drinking too much, you still looked out for the people around you. Never let them get too close, but you still watched out for Ďem. All thatís being asked of you is to take on more responsibility for others, to be willing to help. The Ďgiftí will allow you to help more, reach more, save more than you could ever do without it. Isnít that worth both pain and risk?" The voice hesitated. "Please Kid, ...Itís worth it. Youíve got to trust me on that."

"Blind trust?" Chris snorted.

"Faith more like." The voice replied. "I didnít have enough when it counted. Wasnít payiní attention."

"What do I do?" Chris said. A thousand things, memories and wishes long forgotten played though his head. Overwhelmed he nodded, feeling defeated.

"You canít choose from defeat, kid. No one wants to force this on you, but this is the moment. The one opportunity. Do you choose to accept a Ďgiftí that will help others, freely and in the knowledge that you may be called on to sacrifice? Perhaps even your own life?"

"My life, yes, I would. Not my Men. Not Vin, Not Ezra, Not Nathan, Not Josiah, Not Buck, Not JD. Not anyoneís life but mine."

"Thatís the way it works, kid. You canít make their choices for them. Only they can. Two have chosen to accept the Ďgiftsí that were offered, balancing the pain of their lives, their pasts, with the ability to help others, to spare them the same nightmares. Are you willing to stand up for Justice when no one else will? To ensure that the victims, the survivors, receive the answers that they need?"

Chris felt a moment of Deja vu, Wiley Redd, the Senator who set up the RMETFs had asked him the same question, offered the same solution. Find Justice for those who didnít get it, ensure that the families knew, not spending their lives wondering as he did about Sarah and Adamís deaths. To help people find peace. That was what the man had asked of him, what had brought him back from the brink. Heíd been so ready to give up that night. One whisper in the darkness had stopped him from ending it...one offer had given him a life-line to hold onto. It had brought him these men, this family.

Come about and live. The whisper had said. Choose, Choose to go or come about and live. There are no other options. It floored him, pushing him down against the wall of the tunnel. The whole of his life echoed this statement. When he was nine-years-old and nearly died, when he joined the Navy, when he built a family with Sarah, the promises heíd made to himself when Adam was born, everything that followed. His whole life led to this choice, he felt it in everything inside him, every fiber of his being, every shred of who he was. This choice was his, and his alone. Could he stand knowing that he could have helped and did not? Could he stand knowing that a family that had suffered as he had when that car bombing destroyed his life... Could he stand knowing that he could have helped them, had he not been selfish and not refused the Ďgiftí?... No, he couldnít stand that, he wasnít that kind of man.

Squaring his shoulders, just like he had back in the Navy, Chris stood up and faced where he thought the voices might be.

"I choose the Ďgiftí freely, understanding that I may be asked to die for others, to sacrifice for others, and that this gift will not ensure the safety of my men, but in the hope that it will help me to protect and support them as well as all those who have need of what is granted me to hold." Chris was rarely so formal but the words felt right. A gentle hand gripped his shoulder.

"You have chosen, Kid." The voice said as if a small portion of itís weariness were lightened. "Itís the right one. I know it is. I donít think you could have lived with yourself in the long run if you hadnít. Youíre not that kind of man."

"Thank you for the help. The counsel. " Chris said as he got his breath back. " I wish that I could help you. I know the ghosts around here are guardians but I donít get the idea that youíre one of them." He tilted his head as a full tide of strange information rushed into his mind. "Iím not sure about what gift Iíve got, but my gut tells me that, and all of this stuff Iím feeling says so too. Can I help you get to some resolution? To find your rest? Itís little enough reward for helping me..." The tunnel rocked throwing both Chris and the ghost against the wall. "What the Hell?"

Beside him the voice began chuckling that soon became a full throated roar of laughter.

"Kid, Youíve got a Standish who taught a Tanner all that anyone can ever know about things that go Boom. Itís bad enough when we had guns and dynamite, but with the stuff you boys have got to play with, well, I ainít sure I want to know." Chris could hear the man beside him limping as they reached the end of the tunnel.

"Are you hurt?" Chris asked incredulously.

"Ainít nothing that you can do about it, Kid." The man replied. There was light around the door that was exit to the tunnel. "Your boys are fine, the Militia men arenít, but somebody stupid enough to attack This place has got to be out of his mind." He gave another dry chuckle.

Chris threw open the door of the tunnel and stepped out into the light. The man who had been his councilor resolved into a black shape that slouched as he dragged a stiff leg behind him.

"I promise, I will help you somehow." Chris told the ghost. The light was bright and he was having a hard time focusing. "Where are we? I canít see."

Chris turned back to his councilor who was awkwardly standing with his back to him.

"We ainít quite finished." The man replied still with his back to Chris. "Youíve made your choice. Youíve accepted the Ďgiftí. It should be obvious, but you are what these folk call a "Justikar". It means that all of your abilities are bound up with bringing Justice to the people. Now every Ďgiftí has a positive and a negative. If you go out there, unprepared, you are going to be one dead Justikar."

"Justikar?" Chris asked, wanting to get this over and get back to his men. "What else do I need to know?"

"Every strength can be a weakness. Every weakness can be a strength. Depends on what you do with Ďem."

"Okay." Chris said slowly. Experience told him that there was no rushing the ghosts, but he wanted to get to his men. Especially Ezra. The fool was going to get himself killed. "So whatís the weakness?"

"Balance." The ghost said keeping his back to Chris. "Justikars have a problem with balance."

"Like on a beam or walking a straight line?" Chris said trying to get this over with. He was becoming very frantic about his men. Jesse had said they wouldnít die, but that didnít mean they wouldnít be harmed...

"No Kid. Balance. In your mind. Judgement swings between Justice and Mercy. Neither can rob the other, but both must be used. Many a Justikar has become a monster because he stuck to the letter of the law and failed to show any compassion for those around him. Itís real easy to get stuck on Vengeance and forget that there is more than you involved."

"Okay." Chris said recognizing the truth of that statement. He remembered what heíd been like after Sarah and Adam died. Only Buck had prevented him from becoming a Monster, and Buck had paid dearly for it.

"You need to take someone as your balance."

"Iím not going to just grab someone and marry them!" Chris was infuriated.

"Calm down Kid! Damn, youíre almost as bad as I was!" The ghost said. "A balance ainít required to be a spouse, or anything like that. Can be but it depends on the folks involved. A balance is someone whose physical and mental well being are more important to you than your own."

"Only one?" Chris was floored.

"Six menís minds might be a bit much for anybody to keep track of. Drive you mad right quick." the ghost said with a slightly bitter laugh. "Donít mean that you ainít as close with the others, just one who needs you. Someone who is in need of your protection and your gifts. Someone who needs a person who ainít going to betray them. No matter what."

"Ezra" Chris whispered.

"Kid,... You sure?"There was an uneasy pause. "That one has a hard way to go. Heís a Standish and the cycle is going to end one way or the other. It ainít going to be kind." There was a grim resolution in the ghostís voice.

"I said I wasnít going to let him go before. Iím not going to abandon him to this Ďcycleí. I donít care. Ezra is not going to die." Chris said with determination. All of his anger was now channeled into this cause. "Ezra is not going to die."

"All men die, Kid." The ghost said gently. "Some just know their fate early on."

"Fate can change. You said it yourself. Choice is what makes the world alter."

"And some Choices canít be unmade." The ghost said with compassion. "It ainít your choice if he lives or dies. Itís his, Kid. You canít unmake his life. Only he can and he wonít. He knew that choosing as he did would lead him to that end. The things that heís done, the choices that heís made will not be unmade."

"If I have to walk into Hell and drag his Ass back here. I will. I donít give a damn about your one hundred and twenty year cycles. I am not going to lose Ezra." Chris was getting desperate. He could hear the sound of gunfire now and that redoubled his fear for his men. "Is there something else I need to know? If not Iíd like out of the fun-house now."

"No Kid. Youíve made your choices. You have your direction."The ghost paused and opened a hidden door to the outside farmyard. "I just hope you have better luck than I did." Slowly the ghost turned to face him. Chris was stunned. The face was his own. Lined with pain and wooden on the left side, but his face. The clothing was from the nineteenth century but it was his face. He could see a mangled arm and the dead dragging leg. The ghost led Chris out the door. "Your men are here. Keep Ďem close. I failed to. Please donít follow me. If you can find a way not to end up this way, DO IT!"

Out in the bright light of the farmyard, Chris could see the pale forms of the voices who had argued so. JD, Nathan, Josiah, and Buck. His mind screamed that he should take cover, find out where the Militia fighters were, but he was strangely unable to. The ghosts before him were wildly altered from the men he knew and yet they were so like.

JDís face was hard, determined to keep within the rules, to advance. There was no mercy for failure, from himself or from others. Chris shivered. This was where JDís dogged determination to keep regulations went. What happened to the compassionate and naively trusting young man whoíd bound their team up with enthusiasm?

Nathanís face was self -righteous and contemptuous. It frightened Chris. This is what Nathanís need to always be right could lead to. People didnít matter only a rigid code of ethics and an ideal that no one could live up to, not even Nathan. Heíd seen the roots of this in the medicís treatment of Ezra and hadnít put a stop to it. Where had the giving soul under there gone?

Josiah was a study in grief. Platitudes instead of action. The ghost wouldnít look Chris in the eye. Somehow Josiah had done something that no amount of Penance would ever put right. His burden was so heavy that it looked like the ghostís back would break under it. Where was the forgiveness that the man showered on others?

Buck actually terrified him. The wild manic expression screamed madness. The huge grin was not based in humor but in insanity. Chris couldnít imagine what had brought the man to this. He looked at his own double, but the ghost of the previous Chris Larabee wouldnít look at him. Shame and guilt bound the man here, that he could tell...but for what?

An explosion caught him off guard and he was startled to see three men, his Vin, an old Indian who winked at him as he went by, and another Vin, a transparent one, rush by carrying homemade explosives. The ghostly Vin turned to look at him, one side of his face horribly disfigured and his whole expression full of bitterness. Saluting Chris gravely, the ghost raced by intent on protecting the living man with him.

Despair gripped Chris, what was this? Were they fated to become these things? Chris, a sound mind bound in a damaged body, tortured by guilt, Vin mangled and full of bitterness, JD intolerant and merciless, Nathan self-righteous and uncaring, Josiah burdened by shame and regret, Buck wildly insane and dangerous...Ezra? Where was the ghost of Ezra?

As if in answer to his question Chris saw a rider in the distance, silver grey and too bright to look on. The ghostly Vin reached out towards him as did his own phantom twin. The other ghosts looked at the rider with varying unpleasant expressions. The rider raised a hand in salute but there seemed to be a barrier between him and the others.

"We are not going to end up this way. Even if I have to unravel the world. This is not how we end." Chris swore. "If I have a Choice, then this is it. We are not going to end this way!" He could swear the unholy foursome laughed at him but that only made him more determined.

One of the homemade explosives went off scattering militiamen and throwing Chris to the ground. Reeling from the aftershock, Chris saw the phantom forms of the Indiana Regiments opening fire on the militiamen. Ezra was just in front of them directing the fire. Chris shook himself off and stumbled toward the southerner.

His double ran with him, supporting and shielding him from the explosions. Chris had a strange feeling of disorientation when he looked at Ezra. The southerner seemed encircled by waves of energy. This Chris could tell were the signs of Ezraís own gift. Whatever it was it was damn powerful, but Ezra, he could tell was fading. He caught hold of Ezra, slightly startling the man but being startled in return when a second pair of hands helped to pull them both to shelter. Vin, his Vin, gave him a lopsided smirk just as Chrisís newly woken powers bound him to his Balance...and to his Hunter.

Vin just smirked harder at Chrisís discomfiture. Was this what his Ďgiftí was supposed to do? It was suddenly quiet he noticed, looking around. The militiamen had stopped shooting because most of them were down from the assault against them. Ghosts in uniform wandered all over the farm. One Colonel in the Indiana Regiment looked at the three men sheltering by the barn gravely. He tipped his hat to them and wheeled his horse to begin rounding up his ghostly men.

"Interesting twist there, Kid." The ghost of the other Chris Larabee whispered in his ear. Chris felt a cool metal object being pressed into his palm. "A gift, for a gift. Donít show it, donít lend it, and above all donít lose it! Remember. This choice was the last one you have to make blind. All answers are open to you if you ask, and Time, well, Time in the Right place donít mean nothing...Take care of them, and that promise of yours. Donít end up this way!" The ghost faded leaving only the sound of groaning wounded militiamen and the wail of sirens in the distance.

Chris looked down into his hand and found that the object heíd been given was a key. Remembering his previous experiences with the Cornerís ghosts, he knew better than to laugh it off. He carefully slid it into his pocket.

"We arenít going to end up that way, and I havenít forgotten that I promised to help you. Somehow I will." Chris whispered back to the ghost. " I WILL." He found Vinís curious eyes on him and grinned back at the man. Accepting the gift made him feel a little of the peace heíd been wanting since his familyís murder. He looked down at the face of his undercover agent, now his "Balance". Ezra looked bewildered, frightened even. Heíd never seen the man so openly confused before.

"Donít worry, Itíll work out."

"But..."

"Donít worry. Somehow itís all going to work." Chris whispered. "Letís find the others. Weíve got a lot to figure out." He said in a regular voice. Vin grinned again.

"Hang on Ez, when the Cowboyís got his teeth into somethiní, he donít let up." Vin teased.

Chris shot him a warning look. Ezra staggered slightly causing both to tighten their grips on him.

"Easy, Itíll work out. Weíve got you."Chris squeezed his arm comfortingly.

One of the Sheriffís deputies came running over to check on them about the same time the other members of Team Seven came flying up. They must have looked like Hell because the Deputy took off calling for a medic. The men of Team Seven looked at each other in extreme discomfort.

"Chris?" Buck was uncertain. Chris gave him a grin and eased up his grip on Ezra, letting Vin help the southerner. His old friend was apprehensive, fearful even.

"Weíre okay. Weíre going to be fine." Chris told him. He took a step towards the house and gave Buck an encouraging look. JD was shivering beside him, Buck pulled the "Kid" to him despite his own fears.

"Chris, we saw...." JD started, plain terror in his eyes. Behind him Josiah looked worried and Nathan looked like a man who has seen Hell.

"We arenít going to end up that way, boys." Chris declared. "We arenít going to end up that way."

 

The Sheriff and his men, along with a rather large contingent of Military personnel carted off the militiamen. Chris looked around his devastated parentsís home and sighed. Team Seven was going to be doing some repair work. Grinning at Buck and JD he tried to comfort them knowing what theyíd seen. Nathan seemed to be handling it with a determination not to be the man heíd seen. Josiah was overwhelmed with it all. Jah Jackson, Raul Sanchez, and the General were discussing things with the senior Major from the "Rescue party". His mother and the kids were probably half way back from Rhondaís place by now...

 

Rick sat on the remains of the porch and stared across the farmyard at the two remaining agents. There was something very sad in his expression. Chris looked back over to where Vin and Ezra were standing talking to someone from the Sheriffís office. The battered southerner leaned on Tanner but wouldnít let the deputy touch him. As Chris watched, the man handed Ezra a box, thin like a jewel box, but longer. Standish opened it with an expression that bordered on awe. Inside was a leather glove, heavily decorated.

"About Seventeenth century, I think, Early Seventeenth Century." Josiah said following his gaze. Seeing the others staring at him with little comprehension, he continued. "In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries the giving of a glove meant a lot of different things. It could be a favor of love, the token of a binding contract, it could even mean the passing on of a duty or an obligation."

Chrisís blood ran cold as Ezra raised the glove to his forehead in a gesture of honor and acceptance.