Lauren finished her dismount and looked up to see her dad smiling his approval from his place on the balcony. She waved at him before wandering back to where some of the other girls were gathered.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"I think you have an admirer," Kaylie said.
"He's really cute," Lisa added. "I love the long hair and leather jacket look."
"I think it's kind of creepy the way he's been watching you," Payson added, always the cautious one.
Lauren looked to where her friends had indicated and felt a smile break out across her face as she recognized the man leaning against the wall.
"Do you know him?" Kaylie asked.
Without answering, Lauren was already moving across the gym floor. "Uncle Vin!" she shouted and flung herself in to his arms.
"Hey kiddo. Looking good out there," Vin said as he hugged her tightly before setting her back down.
"Thanks." She smiled. "The qualifiers for Nationals are in a few months. It'd be great if you could come."
"Yeah, little brother, are you going to be around?" Steve had seen the reunion from his perch on the balcony and had headed over to join them.
Vin smiled and the two brothers quickly embraced. "I should be," Vin said.
"So you got the job? You're really going to be an ATF agent?" the disbelief clear in his question.
"You make it sound like I'm gonna be cleaning sewers." Vin laughed.
Steve smirked. "It's about as glamorous."
"Well there are a lot of people who think lawyers are worse." Vin knew his brother was just concerned. Vin had been through a lot of different jobs since his discharge from the Army and nothing seemed to stick.
"Lauren! You talking or training," Coach Marty called from across the gym.
"Coming!" she called back before hugging Vin once more. "Gotta go." She headed back to work.
"So the job?" Steve prompted. "This guy Larabee, he must be ok if you already said yes."
"We clicked," Vin confirmed. "I think it'll be a good opportunity. I meet the rest of the guys on Monday."
"You sure about this? As much as I love the idea of having you in the same state again…" Steve paused. "I mean it's dangerous work."
Vin smiled. "Always the big brother. I'll be fine and it's not any more dangerous than the military."
Steve snorted. "You'll move back in right?"
"I was thinking of getting a place in Denver."
"Don't be ridiculous. You still have a room at the house. Save your money."
"House," Vin chuckled, "that place is more like a hotel."
"Very funny. You're staying and that's that."
"Control freak," Vin teased.
"Stubborn bastard," Steve retorted before adding, "It's good to have you home."
Vin nodded and looked out across the gym to see his niece on the balance beam. "Damn she's impressive."
"Best beamer in the country," Steve said proudly. "I only wish her mother could have seen how great she's become."
Vin watched as Steve toyed with his wedding ring. "I'm sorry I wasn't here," Vin said, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder.
"It's been four years, you can stop apologizing now." Steve gave him a sad smile "You were in the Army; not like you could have hopped on a plane"
"Still – "
Steve waved him off then clapped his hands together to dispel the mood. Grabbing Vin's arm, he led him outside. "Why don't you head back to the house and relax. Lauren and I'll be there in a few hours."
"Sure. Good idea."
Vin stopped and stared at the black Hummer in the parking lot. "Team Tanner," he laughed, reading the design on the side.
Steve just shrugged. "Don't tell me you're still driving that bucket of rust?" he asked, pointing at Vin's Jeep.
"Hey, don't be making fun of the Jeep."
"Let me buy you a new car; a congratulations on the new job sort of thing."
"I love my Jeep," Vin insisted. "'Sides, you don't need to be taking care of me anymore. I'm a grown up now."
"Can't help it. You and Lauren are the only family I have. It's what I do."
Vin shook his head. Their parents had died when he was six and Steve was sixteen. It took six more years for Steve to graduate high school and college before he was able to rescue Vin from foster care, but his brother had never been far away.
"I know, but I really don't need a car and I will be getting my own place soon."
"Not too soon."
Vin smiled. "Don't reckon it'll be too soon." He clapped his brother on the shoulder and headed for his ride. "See ya later, bro."
Vin pulled his Jeep into the parking garage of the Denver Federal Building. At this early hour, he'd made the commute from Boulder in just over thirty minutes. Steve had been up making breakfast for him when he'd wandered into the kitchen. He'd been reminded of all those mornings that his brother had done that when he was a kid. Vin couldn't help but smile when he thought of how lucky he was to have Steve. His brother had raised him while starting his law career, and then had gone on to become incredibly rich and successful. Vin knew it stemmed from a determination on Steve's part to never be poor or helpless again.
Vin didn't mind living with less, but his brother was one of the most driven people he'd ever met. Vin had drifted after the Army and was hoping that the ATF would provide him with the career he was searching for.
He sat in the Jeep, working up the nerve to head upstairs and start this new phase of his life. Steve had tried to loan him one of his suits, but that was his brother's style not his. He'd thrown on jeans and a T-shirt under his leather jacket much to Steve's dismay. Vin laughed, thinking of the disbelieving look on his brother's face as he'd headed out the door.
"You gonna sit there all day or what," Chris' voice asked, breaking Vin from his musings.
Vin smiled as he exited the Jeep. "Just waiting for you."
Chris returned the smile. "Well then, let's get you upstairs so you can meet the team and start earning that paycheck."
The elevator deposited them on the eleventh floor and Chris led the way into the office space assigned to Team 7. There were six desk scattered in sets of two around the open room, four of which were already occupied. The men all looked up as they entered.
Chris smiled as he leaned over to whisper, "They never get here this early, guess they couldn't wait to meet ya." He clapped Vin on the shoulder as he announced, "Hey Ladies, this is Vin Tanner, our new sharpshooter."
The four immediately gathered round and began introducing themselves.
"I'm Buck Wilmington," said the tall mustachioed man as he was the first to reach them. "Welcome aboard." He held out his hand which Vin shook. "Heard you broke the a few records down on the firing range."
Vin blushed. "I'm pretty good, I guess."
"Better than good," Chris confirmed.
Buck smiled as he stepped aside for an even taller African American man. "Nathan Jackson," he said.
"Nathan," Vin repeated as he shook his hand.
"Nate here's our very own medic," Buck informed him. "Don't get hurt on or you'll never hear the end of it."
"Y'all just don't take care of yourselves so someone has to take charge," Nathan insisted.
"Now, Nate, I know you mean well but we don't need a mother hen," Buck said. "We're grown men."
"Don't act like it much," Nathan shot back, but there was a smile on his face.
"Hey!" Buck tried to sound indignant.
"He has a point, Buck," Chris teased.
Vin smiled at what seemed like a familiar exchange as the others had been together for almost six months. He hoped that he wouldn't feel like an outsider, and he was heartened by the connection he already felt with Chris.
A gray haired bear of a man stepped up to interrupt the banter and held out his hand. "Welcome brother, I'm Josiah Sanchez. Just ignore Buck, we all do."
"Hey!" Buck said again before addressing Vin with a twinkle in his eyes. "They're just jealous of my sparkling personality and my way with the ladies."
"You are so full of crap," said the last man in the group who identified himself as JD Dunne, though truthfully, Vin thought he didn't look much out of his teens.
Buck cuffed the back of JD's head. "Now that ain't nice, kid."
"Cut that out," JD snapped and then looked at Vin. "See what I have to put up with?"
Vin laughed, enjoying the obvious camaraderie and affection between the men. "I'm staying out of this."
"Smart man," Josiah quipped.
"Alright, everyone back to work," Chris said. "JD, help Vin get his computer set up."
"Sure thing, Chris." JD pointed Vin toward the set of desks that had been unoccupied when he'd arrived.
Chris headed into his office, but the others followed Vin to his new space. They all seemed reluctant to get back to work even though Chris had ordered them to do so. Vin looked up when he felt Chris' eyes on him from the doorway of his office.
His new boss smiled and shook his head. Vin got the distinct impression that Chris knew that not much work would be accomplished today and was hoping Vin would be a good sport about it, answering all the guys' questions. Vin nodded his understanding and returned his attention to JD.
"Either one?" Vin asked, looking at the unoccupied desks..
"No actually, that one," he pointed to the desk on the left, "belongs to Ezra. He likes to keep his space neat."
"Guess he's the only one," Vin teased as he looked at the other desks which were cluttered with files and personal items.
JD smiled. "Believe it or not, I know where everything is."
"I bet you do." Vin gestured to the unoccupied desk. "So where's this guy?"
"Ol' Ez don't roll in until about nine," Buck interjected.
"He put the flex in flexible schedule," Josiah added.
Vin knew that their start times were fluid as long as they put their time in each week and Chris had told him that most of the team was in by eight except, it seemed, for - Ezra.
JD pulled up a chair and indicated that Vin should do the same. He began to rattle off information and Vin found he had to concentrate to keep up with the flow of words pouring out of the young computer expert. Eventually the others drifted back to their desks when it appeared that JD and Vin were actually trying to get something accomplished.
Vin spent the rest of the morning navigating his computer and filling out new employee forms. The others wandered by asking questions and making polite conversation. As the morning passed and he was included in their camaraderie, Vin felt as if he'd know these guys for months instead of hours; he was sure he was going to like it here.
The mysterious Ezra had yet to make an appearance and Chris had come out of his office several times demanding to know if their seventh had arrived yet.
"No, Chris, he ain't here yet." Buck chuckled when their boss had made his fourth inquiry as to Ezra's status.
"Tell him to see me as soon as he arrives," Chris grumbled and returned to his office, slamming the door behind him.
Nathan shook his head. "Don't understand why Ezra does it."
"Does what?" Vin asked.
"Goes out of his way to make the vein on Chris' head throb," Buck said.
"Because he can," JD added. "And since Chris hasn't actually shot him yet – "
The others laughed at what was apparently a common threat from their leader.
Vin's curiosity about their missing member was piqued. "Chris and Ezra don't get along?"
"Nah, they get along fine," Buck replied. "Ez just likes to push Chris and we like to watch."
"Very true, Brother Buck," Josiah said as he looked at his watch. "But being that it's almost noon, I'm guessing Chris is more worried than angry."
"He's probably out reconning for our next case and forgot to check in," JD said.
Just then Vin's stomach rumbled loudly, letting him know it was lunch time, and he looked up sheepishly as the others cracked up at the sound.
"I think someone's hungry," Buck chuckled.
Vin laughed. "Hey, I'm a growing boy."
"I'd believe it because, Junior, you are down right scrawny," Buck said as he clapped Vin on the shoulder. "You wanna grab lunch?" Buck addressed the question to the entire group.
"Junior?" Vin sent the taller man a questioning look, but Buck just shrugged it off. Vin didn't mind the nickname as it indicated a form of acceptance by the older man which he appreciated.
"I could eat," JD said.
"Kid, you can always eat."
Vin chuckled. 'Junior' was definitely better than 'kid'.
"We usually head to the deli around the corner," Nathan said. "You want to join us, Vin?"
"Sure, just let me finish up here," he said gesturing to his computer.
They each moved to finish up last minute tasks before leaving. Vin was busy deciphering the last of the orientation forms when he heard the others laughing and clapping at the arrival of their seventh man.
"Look who decided to grace us with his presence," Buck boomed.
"Watch out, Ez, Chris has been hunting for you all morning," JD teased.
Vin looked up and felt his breath catch in his throat. He watched the impeccably dressed man enter the bullpen and give a cheeky two fingered salute to his teammates.
"Has Mr. Larabee's anger reached Defcon 1 yet?" Ezra asked.
"The vein was starting to throb," JD warned.
Ezra smiled. "Then I'd best inform him of my arrival before he succeeds in giving himself a stroke."
"Hope you have a good reason for being late," Nathan said.
"Mr. Jackson, I always have a good reason for my time of arrival. Unfortunately, Chris does not always agree."
Vin couldn't help but stare at the man. Ezra was younger and slimmer, but otherwise it could have been his brother Steve walking into the room – well except for the southern accent. Vin froze as the man approached his desk.
"You must be our new sharpshooter," Ezra said holding out his hand. "Ezra Standish at your service."
Vin gulped and tried to find his voice. He stood slowly to return the greeting. "Vin Tanner," he finally croaked out.
Ezra gave him a funny look. "Are you all right, Mr. Tanner?"
Before Vin could reply, Chris' office door was flung open with a bang. "Standish, get your butt in here."
Ezra gave Vin a big shit eating grin. "Duty calls." He opened his briefcase and searched through it before removing a file. He seemed blissfully unaware of the glare Chris was drilling into the back of his skull.
"Sometime today, Ezra!" Chris snapped.
Ezra sighed and rolled his eyes. "Really, the man has only one volume some days." He winked at Vin before heading toward Chris' office.
Vin collapsed back into his chair. He didn't know what to think. How was it possible that his brother and Ezra Standish could look so much alike? A feeling of dread knotted in the pit his stomach because he was sure that he didn't want to know the answer to that question.
"I think he's faint from hunger," JD joked.
Vin looked up to see the others gathered around.
"Are you ok?" Nathan asked. "You just got very pale."
Vin shook off Nathan's concern. "I'm fine." At their disbelieving looks he repeated it, "Really, I'm fine. I just – " He gestured lamely at Chris' office.
"Don't worry about them," Buck assured him as he knelt down beside Vin's chair. "If Chris ain't yelling it means Ezra was on department business this morning. We just ain't been informed what it was about yet."
"Ezra does a lot of undercover work," Nathan added. "It means his schedule doesn't always line up with ours."
They thought Vin was worried about Chris' temper. He almost laughed; if they only knew. He suddenly felt like he needed to get outside, as if the walls were closing in. He stood. "I'm starving; let's get that lunch you mentioned."
"Sure, let's go," Buck said, the concern heavy in his voice. He glanced up to look at Nathan and Vin knew they were worried about his suddenly erratic behavior.
"Great!" Vin grabbed his leather jacket off the back of his chair and practically raced to the elevator. He didn't even look back to see if the others were following, he had to get out of here now.
Vin was feeling much better after he'd eaten and his panic from an hour ago seemed like childish nightmares. JD, Buck, Josiah and Nathan had been great company at lunch and he was feeling good about how quickly they'd embraced him as part of the team.
"So, you must have a horse?" JD said as they walked back from the deli.
"Yeah, I do. Why?"
"I knew it!"
Buck chuckled at Vin's confused look. "JD's convinced that owning a horse was one of Chris' requirements when he was putting this team together.
"You all own horses?"
They nodded. "Keep them out at Chris' ranch," Josiah explained.
"We go riding all the time," JD said. "You'll have to get your horse out there so you can join us."
Vin smiled. These guys must really like each other if they spent that much time together, almost like a family.
"Where's you mount now?" Nathan asked
"My older brother's been boarding him for me at Marshall's stables near Boulder." Vin led the way back into the Federal building, holding the door for the others.
"That's practically Chris' neighbor. You could ride between the two places; save money on hauling him," Nathan observed.
"I don't think my niece would like me moving my horse, she's gotten awful attached to Peso." Vin laughed remembering how chagrined Steve was that Vin's ornery beast had taken to Lauren. That horse didn't even let his brother ride him even though he'd been taking care of him on and off for years.
"That's great that you've got family nearby." Buck smiled. "You'll have to bring your brother by sometime so we can meet him."
The elevator arrived as they approached and they piled in.
"None of us has family – 'cept Ezra has his mom – so it'd be cool to include him," JD said. "What's his name?"
Vin was very glad he was facing forward in the front of the elevator so the others couldn't see his reaction as he realized he shouldn't have mentioned his brother. "Steve - Tanner," he added belatedly and then mentally slapped himself . Of course Steve was a Tanner, why would he ever doubt that? But if they ever met his brother, how could Vin explain Steve's freakish similarity to Ezra when he didn't understand it himself?
Vin was saved from further contemplation when the elevator dinged, allowing them to exit onto their floor.
Ezra's back was to him as he entered the bullpen. The southerner was standing there, hands on hips, talking to Chris and Vin was struck again by how much he looked like Steve. Ezra's hair was a little longer and lighter, but the way he held himself was disturbingly similar.
Buck clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Ready for more fun and games, Junior?"
"Yep," Vin said, but inside he was screaming NO. He wasn't sure he wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting across from Ezra when his appearance unnerved him so much.
"If you continue to stare at me, Mr. Tanner, I might begin to question your sexuality," Ezra said with a wry grin.
"Wha…," Vin sputtered.
Ezra clasped his hands in front of him as he leaned forward on his desk. "Either you are staring because you find me attractive, in which case I should inform you that I do not swing that way, or you have a question you wish to ask me, but because we do not know each other well, one that you are reluctant to voice."
Vin hadn't realized he'd been staring. As the afternoon had dragged on, Vin kept hoping a logical explanation as to why Steve and Ezra looked alike would present itself. He tilted his head in confusion as he attempted process what Ezra had said when he heard Buck's booming laughter behind him.
"I think you broke him, Ez," Buck teased.
Ezra was smiling broadly at him, waiting for an answer. "You just remind of someone I know and – " Vin hesitated, knowing that once he admitted it there was no going back "—the resemblance is uncanny."
"Obviously an attractive man of impeccable taste and intelligence," Ezra said as the others in the bullpen burst out laughing only to have Ezra scowl at them.
"Yeah, he is."
Ezra nodded his appreciation for Vin's confirmation of the self-flattery.
"Now, Vin, that's impossible. We all know they broke the mold when they made Brother Ezra," Josiah said.
Vin noticed that Josiah tended to call everyone brother, yet for some reason, it bothered him to hear it used in reference to Ezra.
Ezra quirked an eyebrow at Josiah. "Thank you, I think." Looking back at Vin he asked, "And who is this remarkable person that I remind you of?"
It was too late to deny Steve's existence, and if any of them ever did meet his brother, they'd see the resemblance immediately. Vin figured he might as well tell the truth. "My brother Steve."
Ezra just stared at him with an expression that asked if Vin was making fun of him. The other four just swung their eyes between the well-dressed southerner and the scruffy newbie.
"You're kidding, right?" Nathan asked.
"Your brother? The one you told us about who lives in Boulder?" JD asked, seeking clarification.
Vin sighed. He'd seen those types of incredulous looks before when he and Steve were introduced as siblings. He and his brother really didn't look that much alike. It suddenly dawned on him why Ezra's appearance bothered him so much. It should be impossible for a stranger to look more like his brother than he did.
"Yes, JD. Steve's the only brother I have." Yet, he wondered if that was still true.
Buck laughed. "Well, now we really need to meet him."
Vin supposed it was inevitable that they'd want to see the resemblance for themselves.
Chris had chosen that moment to emerge from his office. "What' s so funny?" he asked.
"It seems Vin's brother is a dead ringer for Ez here," Buck explained.
Vin tried to back pedal. "Whoa Buck, I never said dead ringer. Besides Steve's ten years older than me, so definitely not that much alike."
Chris also swung his gaze between his two agents. "I'm not seeing the resemblance."
"You sure, Chris; they're practically identical," Buck teased.
Chris smiled. "Why don't you invite you brother to join us for a drink after work today?"
"Yeah," said JD. "Let us judge for ourselves."
Vin shook his head. There was no way he was going to bring his brother into this until he'd had a chance to warn him. "He's real busy in the evenings. Maybe some other time."
"Oh come on, Ezra…oops I mean, Vin. I get them confused all the time," Buck said as he leaned over toward Chris. "It's uncanny."
"I'll see what his schedule is like," Vin said, hoping if he put them off he could delay the meeting for as long as possible.
"I would very much like to meet your brother, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he glared at Buck. "If only to prevent our teammates from torturing us with twin jokes."
"Was that Vin or Ezra speaking?" Buck chuckled.
"It's getting old fast, Buck," Chris chided. "Now back to work." The others dispersed, but Chris remained standing at Vin's desk. "First day going ok?"
"Fittin' right in."
"Good. Tomorrow we'll get you started on the real stuff. No more orientation crap," Chris said before heading back to his office.
Vin looked over at Ezra. "Sorry 'bout all that stuff about my brother. I shouldn't have said anything."
Ezra smiled. "On the contrary, I am relieved to know that I'm not going to have to worry about you asking me out."
Vin laughed. "Nope. No worries there."
He looked at the time and willed the clock to go faster so he could get home and share this strange day with Steve.
During dinner Vin had avoided talking directly about work, he hadn't wanted to discuss Ezra in front of his niece. He'd told Lauren that he was thinking about moving Peso out to Chris' place and that, thankfully, had occupied most of the dinner conversation
After assuring Lauren that she'd still be able to ride Peso when ever she had the time, the teenager had excused herself and disappeared into her room.
"So now that Lauren's gone, you want to tell me why you've been avoiding all my questions about your first day?" Steve asked.
"I don't know what you mean." Vin picked up his dish and walked toward the kitchen.
"And just so you know running into the next room is just another form of avoidance," Steve called after him and chuckled as Vin shot him a familiar hand gesture.
Vin placed the dish in the sink. He didn't turn around when Steve came up beside him and put his own dish down.
"I ain't running away. I just don't know how to explain what happened today."
Steve leaned back against the counter. "I thought you like this Larabee guy?"
"Chris is great. Feel like I've known him forever. I told you, we clicked."
Steve nodded and stayed silent waiting for him to explain. Vin turned around to mirror his brother's leaning position against the counter. "There's this one guy on the team – " Vin paused not sure what to say.
"He picking on you," Steve teased as he bumped shoulders with Vin. "Need me to beat him up."
"I'm not twelve any more," Vin laughed. "But I appreciate the offer."
Vin stared at the opposite wall unwilling to meet his brother's eyes as he explained, "The guy, Ezra Standish, he looks just like you. I'm telling you it was freaky like I was looking at you only he's about ten years younger." Vin took a deep breath and let it out.
He wished Steve would say something, but his brother was silent. Vin risked glancing sideways at him and was unsettled by what he saw.
Steve had gone pale and was staring at him. "Did you say Standish?"
Vin turned to face him. "What is it? Do you know this guy?"
His brother rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. When he started pacing, Vin got nervous. "Steve, you scaring me. Say something."
Steve stopped and hung his head. "I just never thought – I mean – Aw hell. Wait here."
He disappeared into his study and Vin headed back to the dining room to sit back down at the table. The way his brother was acting had him worried and he figured he'd be better off seated when Steve returned.
It was five minutes before Steve came back into the dining room carrying several important looking documents. He sat down opposite Vin and there was a sadness in his eyes that only confirmed Vin's fear that something important was about to change.
Steve laid the papers on the table and smoothed them as he spoke, "I never thought I'd ever have to share this with you," he looked up to meet Vin's gaze. "I never thought it mattered and I didn't think you needed to know."
Vin swallowed before he asked. "Know what?."
Steve didn't say a word just slid the top paper across the table. Vin glanced briefly a the paper recognizing the formal lettering at the top. "This is your birth certificate, so what?"
"Steven Stan – " Vin stopped and looked up. "It says here that your father's name was Preston Standish. I don't understand."
Steve passed over some other papers. "Dad. Our dad," he gestured between them, "The only dad I ever knew was not my biological father. These are the papers from my adoption at age two and when my name was officially changed to Tanner."
Vin quickly looked through the pile of documents, feeling his blood run cold as he read the words confirming that Steve had not been born a Tanner. Anger welled up in him as he shoved the papers back at his brother and stood up so quickly the chair fell backwards. "Why didn't you ever tell me that we're not really brothers!" Vin slammed fist on the table as he felt himself fighting back all the childhood fears of abandonment. Fears that had haunted him through the years in foster care and beyond. This was his worst nightmare made real; to be alone without family.
Steve stood and circling the table he grabbed Vin by the shoulders. "Hey!" He shook him. "Look at me! We are brothers. We have the same mom and Laurence Tanner raised us both. He is the only father we ever had. The only one that mattered. Hell, I named Lauren after him even after I knew the truth."
Anger still running high, Vin pulled out of his grasp. "How long have you known?"
"Since the crash. I found all this in their papers," Steve said sadly. "I didn't want to believe it – " he chuckled ruefully. "For a long time I didn't believe it, but the papers don't lie."
Vin's anger was losing it's intensity as he realized that his brother had been carrying this burden around for over twenty years. "Mom – She never told you?"
Steve shook his head. "Guess she felt it didn't matter. Hell, from what I can tell the guy never married her and never showed up again, but - " he paused. "Well, I always wondered, you know?"
"You should have told me," Vin said finding himself the one trying to give comfort now. They'd both lost their parents the day of the car accident, but Vin understood that Steve was afraid he'd lost even more; his identity. "I could have helped somehow."
Steve snorted. "You were just a little kid when – when – they died," he stumbled over the words, "there was no way I was going to dump my issues on you. We went through almost six years of hell with social serves trying to get you out of foster care and I barely got to see you as it was. Did you really think I was going to risk all that because of some papers that those idiots might use to deny my rights as your brother?"
Vin nodded his understanding as he remembered that turbulent time in their lives. His brother had been allowed periodic visits with him while he'd been languishing in foster care, but it didn't ease the pain of separation. Vin had felt so alone; wondering each time Steve was forced to leave, if it might be the last time he ever saw his brother. Steve had worked hard to graduate from college early and finally, fresh out of law school, he'd taken on the entire system to prove that at twenty-two he was more that capable of taking custody of his twelve year old brother. Steve was destined to be an amazing lawyer and that had been his most important case. Vin would never forget the day the court said they could be together; it had been the single happiest day of his life.
"And once we were together."
"It never mattered."
Steve breathed in and out slowly. "It still doesn't matter."
Vin looked at his brother and realized that he was just as scared as Vin of being alone. But they weren't alone they had each other. "No, it doesn't matter," he confirmed. "So what do we do about Ezra.?"
"He's got to be related. I mean if you saw him, you'd believe he was your brother."
"You're my brother," Steve said in the tone that brooked no arguments.
"Don't you want to know the truth?"
Steve sighed. "Can we cross that bridge when we come to it? I mean what are the chances I'd ever meet the guy."
He was surprised that Steve was trying to avoid the whole thing, that wasn't his brother's style, but then Vin had been reluctant to share Ezra's existence with Steve. Vin thought about the way the others had pressured him for a meeting with his brother. "Actually, I think they're pretty high."
"Not yet then." Steve was practically pleading for Vin to drop the whole thing.
Vin understood that they both needed time to process this new information. "If you don't want to meet Ezra just yet, I'm ok with that." Vin was sure he could put off his teammates' curiosity until Steve was ready to meet them all.
"Are we good then?"
Vin smiled. "We're always good.
"Come here, you." Steve said returning the smile and pulling Vin into a fierce hug. "I'm sorry I never told you."
"I understand why you did it; always trying to protect me," Vin said as they broke the embrace.
"It's what I do."
"You're very good at it too."
Steve actually laughed. "I know." He then reached toward the table and picked up the dirty serving tray handing it to Vin. "I cooked so the dishes are yours."
Vin smiled as he took the tray. Yeah they were good, he thought.
Vin headed down to the kitchen, the smell of bacon and eggs drifting toward him as he reached the bottom of the steps. It seemed Steve was cooking again. He paused in the hall when he heard his brother's voice.
"That's right Standish," Steve said spelling the name out. "I want to know who his parents were, where he was born, his work history. I expect to know his favorite color by the time your investigation is complete."
Vin wasn't that surprised his brother was having Ezra investigated. In fact he was relieved to hear Steve taking charge, this was the in control commanding brother he was used to not the man who wanted to avoid the topic from last night.
And while part of him didn't like the idea of investigating a co-worker, Vin understood that his brother wasn't going to walk into an unknown situation without all the facts, and truthfully, Vin wanted to know too.
He waited until the phone call had ended before entering the kitchen. If Steve wanted to tell him about the investigation he would. If not, well Vin figured he'd at least hear about the results eventually.
"Morning," Vin said as he sat down at the kitchen table.
Steve placed a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him. "Eat up. You're still a growing boy."
"I thought we established that I don't need you to take care of me."
Steve smirked, grabbed the plate and settled down across the table to eat it himself. "In that case, little brother, you can get your own."
Vin reached across the table and snagged the plate back. "Don't mind if I do."
Steve gave an exaggerated sigh before standing and getting his own breakfast. As he sat back down he asked, "You ready to face him today?"
He knew Steve was referring to Ezra and having to sit across from the man everyday. "I'm actually not minding the whole idea," Vin replied and it was the truth. After the conversation last night, Vin knew that, no matter what, his relationship with Steve would never change. As for Ezra, whether or not he turned out to be a relative, he was still a co-worker and Vin was looking forward to getting to know all of his new teammates better.
The weeks passed in a blur as Vin settled into his new job. The cases were picking up and the team was very busy. Buck still continued to make the occasional twin joke, which was usually met with a hail of wadded paper from the other five. Vin almost looked forward to Buck's next groan inducing remark as the shared joke had helped him connect with Ezra. The requests to meet his brother had fallen off as the others focused on simply getting to know Vin.
If Steve had found out anything about Ezra from the PI, he'd yet to share it and Vin figured he'd give his brother until the end of the month to come clean about what he'd uncovered before he confronted him and demand to know.
Vin looked up when Ezra finally made his appearance. "Morning, Ezra."
Ezra tipped his head in acknowledgment, but his gaze was fixated on the object sitting on his desk. "What is that?"
"Geez, I thought a guy as smart as you would know that was a cactus."
Ezra narrowed his eyes as he replied, "I know what it is. I was merely curious as to why it was sitting on my desk and if you might know who placed it there."
"Thought your desk could use a little cheering up." Vin had already covered his desk with personal items like the rest of the team, but it seemed that Ezra was determined that his desk remain as sterile as the day he first occupied it.
"I fail to see how this prickly plant could provide such an emotional lift to my desk."
"Just say thanks, Ez, and enjoy it."
Ezra continued to eye the cactus with suspicion before transferring the look to Vin.
Vin laughed. "I promise it's not a gag and it ain't gonna shoot water at ya or make funny noises if ya touch it. It is what it is, something for a friend."
Ezra's face broke out in a genuine smile. "Thank you, Mr.Tanner. I do appreciate the gesture friendship." He picked up the small plant to look at it more closely before setting it in place on the corner of his desk next to his computer.
"You know what else is a gesture of friendship?"
Ezra quirked an eyebrow at him. "And what would that be, Mr. Tanner?"
"If y'all would cut the Mr. Tanner crap and call me Vin."
Another broad smile followed the first. "I will do my best to remember that – Vin."
"Good." They fell into silence as each immersed themselves in the work for the day. Periodically, he caught Ezra smiling at the tiny cactus and that made Vin smile too.
Vin felt it was important for him and Ezra to connect; to be friends. In his gut, Vin knew that this man had to be Steve's brother. If and when Steve received confirmation, Vin knew he was already friendly enough with Ezra to smooth the shock of that first meeting for both men.
That Friday, Vin pulled his Jeep into the circular driveway, exited the car and climbed the front steps to his brother's house. As he reached for the handle, the door was flung open and a small blond whirlwind bounded by him.
"Hi, Uncle Vin. Bye, Uncle Vin," Lauren called as she headed for her car.
Vin chuckled. "Have a good practice, shortstuff."
Lauren glared at him over the top of her car as Vin threw his hands up in surrender as she chastised him. "Can you please find a better nickname?"
"No problem, shortstuff," he teased.
Lauren rolled her eyes. "Later," she quipped as she got into the car and drove off.
Vin entered the house calling, "Hi honey, I'm home!" He wandered down the hallway when he heard his brother call to him from the home office on the right.
"In here," Steve said.
Vin entered the room and stopped as he caught the gloomy expression on his brother's face. He was seated behind his big oak desk a file in his hands. Vin figured that Steve was finally going to share the results of his investigation into Ezra.
Vin leaned against the door post waiting for the big reveal. "What's up?"
Steve looked back down at the file in his hands and cleared his throat, but the words wouldn't come.
Vin crossed the room and perched himself on the corner of the desk and gestured to the file Steve was holding. "That the report from the PI?"
Surprise showed on Steve's face. "You knew I was investigating him."
He shrugged. "I heard the conversation last month. Figured you'd tell me when you were ready. I'm guessing, he really is your brother."
"Half-brother!" Steve snapped.
"Half-brother," Vin repeated quietly. "So now we tell Ezra?"
"No!" Steve was still unsettled. "There's more you need to know."
"Is that Preston guy still alive?" Vin assumed that was about the only thing that could be bothering his brother. The chance to meet the man who'd abandoned him when he was a baby.
"No, he's been gone a long time. This …" he huffed out a rueful breath, "is about Ezra." Steve looked up and Vin could detect a hint of sadness in his eyes as he plowed ahead. "He's dirty, Vin. Ezra's record is rife with accusations of bribes and double crosses. He was run out of the Atlanta FBI when they couldn't prove anything. I don't know why he's on Larabee's team, but guys like that – they don't change."
Vin stood angrily. "I don't believe it!"
Steve didn't say anything just handed Vin the folder. He snatched it from his brother's hand and began to read. It was incredibly damning stuff.
"It's all gossip." Vin tossed the folder back on the desk. "Nothing was ever proven and I know Chris. He wouldn't have recruited Ezra if it were true."
This wasn't what he'd expected when he'd overheard Steve ordering the investigation. Now Vin was wishing that he'd followed his gut and put a stop to it. He should have simply insisted that Steve meet Ezra and let them all figure their connection out together, but it was too late now.
Steve stood and circled the desk. "I know you like Chris, but you've been with the team just over a month. How can you be sure that they aren't all like that?" He pointed to the folder scattered on his desk.
"I just do," Vin said icily. "They are good men and they are my friends, even Ezra." It was true in the short time he'd been with the team, he'd found something special. He and Chris had formed a bond that he couldn't really describe and he trusted the man like he'd trusted no one except his brother. And Ezra – well – he liked the guy and didn't see the man described in the folder. In fact, according to Chris, Ezra had become a real part of the group since Vin's arrival and credited the sharpshooter with being the final piece of the puzzle that had forged the seven into a real team.
Steve shook his head. "I know you think they're good guys, but the file – "
"Is just a bunch of lies!" He glared at his brother.
Steve reached out to grasp his brother's arm and held on as Vin tried to shake him off. "Listen to me!" he snapped. "They cannot be trusted to watch your back!"
Vin was in shock at what Steve was suggesting. "I'm not leaving the team. I won't."
Steve's stance softened as he let go of his brother's arm. "Vin, be reasonable. If something happened to you – "
"Nothing's gonna happen, 'cause I trust these guys and I'll prove it to you." Vin turned and stormed out of the room.
Steve chased after him calling, "Where are you going?"
"To talk to Chris."
Steve got in front of Vin blocking his way. "You really think he's going to tell you the truth?"
Vin felt his anger dissipating as he saw the frantic concern in his brother's eyes. "Yeah, I do." He studied his brother's face and finally understood some of what was driving him. "This isn't about the trustworthiness of the team is it? This about you not wanting to face the fact that Ezra's is really our brother."
"Half-brother!" Steve snapped. "And this about me worrying about you, little brother."
Vin felt a small smile creep across his face at his brother's emphasis of their relationship and he knew he was right, Steve was scared. Not just for him, but about Ezra too. Steve didn't know the guy the way Vin did. In the past weeks, Vin had come to think of Ezra as a friend. He'd had time to get used to the idea that his teammate might be some kind of relative and was actually looking forward to Steve and Ezra meeting. The report from the PI had thrown everything askew and it was going to be a lot tougher to get his brothers together and on solid ground.
Vin placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Trust me. The file is wrong. Ezra's a good guy and I aim to find out the truth about what happened in Atlanta. Then we invite our brother to dinner and tell him all about his new family."
Steve shook his head resigned to giving Vin his way. "All right, Vin. Talk to your boss, but promise me you'll think about what I said."
"If I think the guy's dirty, I promise I'll resign on Monday." But I know I won't have to, Vin added silently as he headed out the door toward Chris' ranch.
Vin pulled his jeep up the dirt driveway that lead to Chris' place. It wasn't the first time he'd been there. There had been several gatherings at the ranch to watch various sporting events and a big welcoming BBQ Vin's first weekend with the team, but this was the first time he'd come here without an invitation and by himself.
Now that he was parked in front of the house, he was losing his nerve. He didn't know if Chris was home alone and he sure as hell didn't want to see any of the other guys.
He looked up as he heard the door open and saw Chris standing on the front porch with a quizzical look on his face.
Vin knew he couldn't turn around now. He needed to find out the story behind the information in the files and hopefully put Steve's concerns to rest. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly as he climbed out of the Jeep and headed up the steps to face Chris. "Hey cowboy," he said but the teasing nickname felt heavy on his lips.
Normally Chris responded with his patented 'don't call me cowboy' but instead he frowned and ushered Vin into the house without a word. Chris disappeared and returned with two beers. Handing one to Vin, he settled on the sofa and gestured for Vin to take a seat.
Vin took a swig of the beer before sitting in the armchair adjacent to Chris. The silence continued and Chris just looked at him. He finally tilted his head indicating that Vin should get on with it.
Leaning forward on his knees, dangling the bottle between his legs, Vin picked at the label before he broke the silence. "I heard some rumors – about Ezra; about when he was with the FBI." He wasn't about to admit that Steve had had Ezra investigated nor was he going to say anything about Ezra being related. He just wanted to get the truth about the other stuff in the file.
Chris grunted and leaned back into the sofa. "They ain't true," he said.
Vin looked up to study his leader's face. Chris believed it and if Chris believed the accusations were false then Vin wanted to believe that too. "I figured. Had to ask though," he said apologetically.
Chris nodded. "Wondered if this might come up."
Vin settled back into his chair and took another pull on his beer. "Can you tell me anything?"
"It's Ezra's business, but I will say he was set up."
"Sounds like it was a pretty bad situation," Vin pushed, remembering some of the more outlandish points in the file. "You really believe that he was innocent?"
Chris' eyes narrowed. "Absolutely. You've seen Ezra in action."
They'd had one big bust since he had joined the team and Vin had been impressed by the way the team had come together, especially Ezra in his undercover contact role. The man had been fearless and it was his work that made the bust go down like clockwork. It certainly wasn't the behavior of an agent on the take.
Chris was studying him and Vin dropped his eyes as he resumed picking at the label of his beer. He felt guilty that he might have allowed Steve's concerns to foster any seeds of doubt about Ezra.
"Now you want to tell me what this is really all about?"
Vin smiled, there was that ability of Chris', to read him like a book. Unfortunately, he couldn't tell Chris the real reason that he wanted to know about Ezra. "I just couldn't believe it. I really like the guy and - " Vin shrugged indicating he had no hidden agenda. Vin wasn't sure Chris really bought it, but he didn't challenge him.
Chris chuckled. "Ezra's a difficult bastard, but I wouldn't have him on the team if I didn't trust him."
"He ain't that difficult." Vin laughed as Chris arched an eyebrow at him. "He just enjoys setting ya off is all and you let him."
"I let him because I choose to let him."
Vin cocked his head at Chris; the dynamic between the two men becoming clear. Chris trusted Ezra, but like anyone who had been burned before, Ezra was still learning to trust Chris. Larabee had figured out that Ezra needed to push to understand that nothing was going to change his position on the team. "Well hell, I didn't think you were that clever, cowboy."
Chris smiled. "Don't call me cowboy."
The weekend had been a bit strained with Steve, but Vin had finally convinced his brother that he was wrong about Ezra. Steve had agreed that they would invite Ezra over for dinner on Saturday and share the truth. Vin even suspected that Steve was looking forward to it.
He hadn't been able to talk Ezra all week as the undercover agent had been making his check-ins from the field. The team had a big bust coming up this week, so it was just as well. Vin didn't want to distract Ezra until the job was over and he suspected an invitation for dinner might be a bit disconcerting.
By Wednesday morning the guys were itching for the take down and everyone was double checking their double checks. A map of the designated warehouse was spread out on his desk and Vin was confirming the angles from where he planned to position himself during the raid.
"Alright ladies, saddle up." Chris entered the bull pen all geared up and ready to go. "We have a green light."
Vin grabbed his stuff and followed the others out of the office. He figured there'd be plenty of time to talk to Ezra after the bust.
Chris was pissed. He paced the hallway of the hospital like a caged panther. The rest of his men were seated in the hard plastic chairs that lined the waiting room just staying out of his way.
Buck was finally elected to talk to him. "Hey pard, maybe you want to sit down. You're wearing a groove in the floor," he said cautiously as he approached.
Chris glared at his old friend. "What happened, Buck? How the in the hell did Vin get shot?"
"It was an accident," Buck said. "One of those random things no one sees coming."
He hated to admit it, but Buck was right. It was one of those freak injuries that just happened, but that didn't lessen the guilt Chris felt about his agent getting hurt on his watch. Vin had been up in the rafters when the bust had gone down. There was a brief exchange of gunfire that the ATF team had put down with ease. It wasn't until all the bad guys were subdued and Chris called for a check-in that they'd realized anything was wrong.
"A bad angle, maybe a ricochet, no other way to explain how that bullet got by his vest," Buck said, trying to steer Chris to a seat. He pulled away from Buck's grip and began pacing again.
When Chris hadn't gotten a response from Vin, all eyes had looked up to see the sharpshooter draped over his rifle, blood dripping down his side and onto the ground. He felt his heart drop as he raced up the stairs to the rafters. With Ezra's help, they'd gotten Vin down, but he'd been unconscious and so pale that it had scared him. Vin'd been gut shot and it didn't look good.
Now they were waiting and no one had told them anything about Vin's condition. Chris' attention was drawn to the flurry of activity at the nurses' station and he headed in that direction determined to get information on his wounded man, but was cut off by Buck and Ezra.
"Allow me to question the nurses this time," Ezra said. When Chris attempted to move around the shorter man Ezra put a hand on his chest. "I think this situation calls for more tact and diplomacy that you are capable of achieving at this moment."
Reluctantly Chris nodded and Ezra went off to see if there was any news.
"Now will you sit down?" Buck asked.
Chris sighed and slumped onto a chair while Buck settled in beside him. When Ezra returned the others gathered to hear his report.
"Well?" Chris snapped.
Ezra frowned. "Just as before, they refused to tell us anything as we are not family, and until Mr. Tanner is in a position to countermand that edict, I'm afraid we will remain in the dark."
"We'll see about that." Chris rose, but this time Nathan stopped him.
"His brother'll be here soon. We got no right to be demanding anything."
Nathan was right, but that didn't mean he had to like the situation. Chris was listed as next of kin on the others' medical information, but that that was not the case for Vin. "Then where the hell is this mysterious brother? Anybody call him – what's his name - Steve?"
Nathan nodded. "He's on his way."
Raised voices at the nurses' station caught their attention. All six ATF agents turned toward the confrontation and were shocked by what they saw.
"I already told you, Mr. Standish, that I can not release any information on Mr. Tanner's condition except to family members." The nurse pointed down the corridor. "Now, please go sit down."
The man's hand slammed onto the counter. "I told you, you stupid woman, I am not Mr. Standish. I am Steve Tanner and Vin Tanner is my brother, so you either tell me what room he's in now or this will be the last job you hold in the medical profession."
Chris looked from the man at the counter to Ezra. Ezra was staring slack jawed at the irate man who'd identified himself as Steve Tanner.
"Ezra?" Chris asked.
The agent shook himself and looked up at Chris briefly before returning his gaze to his doppelganger. Chris knew this was bad as he'd yet to see a time when Ezra was speechless. The others were just as gobsmacked and stood shifting their gaze between their friend and the new arrival trying to determine if they were seeing things.
Chris looked back at Steve Tanner, who had now removed his wallet and shoved some identification in the nurse's face. "Satisfied?" he snapped.
He'd been so distracted by Tanner that he'd failed to notice the blond girl standing next to him until she spoke.
"Daddy," she tugged at his sleeve. "Daddy!"
"Not now, Lauren."
"You have to look at that guy," she insisted and pointed toward them.
No Chris corrected himself, she was pointing at Ezra.
Steve looked up and met Chris' eyes before shifting his gaze to Ezra. His eyes grew dark and the anger he'd just displayed was nothing compared to what Chris saw now. He pulled his daughter closer. "Ignore them!"
Chris knew that Steve was understandably upset about what had happened to Vin, but the hatred he saw seemed a little extreme. So far, his team was still too stunned to say anything and it was up to him to smooth things over with Vin's brother.
He stepped up to the counter. "Mr. Tanner, I'm Chris Larabee, Vin's boss. I'm sorry that we have to meet under – "
"Save it, Larabee," Steve cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I have nothing to say to you, " he glanced back to where the others were standing, "or your men."
"I understand that you're upset. We are all worried about Vin."
Steve huffed a laugh of disbelief at him. "I doubt that," he said as he moved by Chris.
Chris would not be dismissed so easily. "Mr. Tanner!"
Steve didn't stop as he barreled by the others dragging his daughter with him. "Daddy, that man?" Lauren craned her neck to look back at Ezra as they passed by.
"Don't look at them, Lauren. They're the ones who got your uncle hurt. We have nothing to say to them."
Chris felt slapped by his words. The guilt he'd heaped upon himself stopped him from challenging Steve's accusation because he did feel responsible for Vin's injury. He stood helplessly by as the two disappeared through the security doors and into the patients' wing where Vin was sequestered.
JD was the first to recover his voice. "He looked just like – " he glanced at Ezra.
"I know, kid. It was uncanny," Buck agreed.
Chris sat beside his undercover agent who had collapsed into a chair after Steve had left. "Ezra, do you know why Vin's brother looks so much like you?"
Ezra ran a hand through his hair and slumped back. "I am at loss to explain the resemblance."
"Vin wasn't kidding when he said Steve looked like Ezra," Nathan said.
"Guess you really are a twin," Buck teased trying to lighten the mood.
Ezra just glared at him and Josiah took the opportunity to smack Buck on the back of the head causing JD to chuckle.
"Not so much fun on that other end, is it, Buck?"
"Shut it, JD."
Chris suspected from the look on Steve's face when he saw Ezra that he knew the reason the two men looked so much alike. Chris patted Ezra on the shoulder trying to comfort his agent.
"What do we do now?" JD asked.
"We wait," Chris replied.
The doctor was just exiting the room when they arrived and stopped to give Steve an update as Lauren entered the room first. She wasn't prepared for what she saw. Uncle Vin looked so pale and there were IV's and other things sticking out of him.
"Is he gonna be ok, Daddy?" she asked when he'd finally joined her at Vin's bedside.
Steve took Vin's hand. "The doctor says he should be fine. He's just sleeping off the anesthesia."
He looked back at Lauren and noticing her stricken look reached out to stroke her hair. "I shouldn't have brought you."
"There's no way you leave me behind." Though Lauren suspected it wasn't just seeing her uncle this way that had him concerned for her.
The call about Uncle Vin had come during practice and Lauren had insisted that she was coming too, but seeing him like this, she thought maybe her dad was right and she should have waited until he was feeling better.
Steve sat down in the chair next to the bed, never letting go of Vin's hand. Lauren perched on the armrest and put her arms around her dad's shoulders. Steve smiled faintly and with his free hand rubbed the arm she had slung around his neck.
The two of them sat there watching Vin breath before Lauren finally broke the silence. "Daddy, who was that man?"
"They're your uncle's co-workers."
"I know that." Lauren could tell he knew exactly who she was referring to and had tried to avoid the question. He should know better then to think he could outmaneuver her when she wanted something. "The man who looks exactly like you. Is he the long lost brother I heard you and Uncle Vin talking about?"
Steve pushed her back slightly to look into her face. "I don't know what you mean."
Lauren rolled her eyes and stood. "Really Daddy, I'm not stupid. I heard you both talking about him. What's his name?" She searched her memory. "Ezra. It's him, your brother. Tell me the truth."
"Can we not do this now, Lauren?" Steve begged as he gestured back at Vin. "Not while your uncle is fighting for his life."
"I think I won," came the raspy voice from the bed. Steve and Lauren moved quickly to his side.
"Hey, little brother," Steve said clasping his hand once again. "How're you feeling?"
"Hi, Uncle Vin," Lauren chimed in.
"Like I was hit by a truck." He coughed and Steve handed him a cup of water that had been waiting on the night stand and then raised the bed so Vin could drink.
When he'd finished, Steve took the cup form his trembling hand. "Better?" Vin looked as weak as a kitten and too pale to Lauren's eye.
Vin nodded. "What happened?" Then as if remembering something, his eyes went wide. "Chris and the fellas, they ok?"
"They're fine, Unc; just waiting down the hall for you to wake up." Lauren got a mischievous grin on her face. "Should I go get them?'
"No, Lauren! I told you we are not doing this now." Steve narrowed his eyes at her before turning back to Vin. "Don't worry about them. You need to rest."
"Good to know they're alright." Vin sank back into the pillow and closed his eyes.
The door opened and a nurse entered. "I just need to check on Mr. Tanner," she said as she circled the bed.
Lauren knew that her dad wasn't going to let those men in to see Vin, but she desperately wanted to find out about her dad's brother. Seeing that Steve was caught up in conversation with the nurse, she took her chance and quietly exited the room.
She approached the double doors and peered through the window. She could see the six men in the waiting area. Her dad's twin was slumped in a chair and she watched as he waved off any attempts by the others to talk to him.
Looking down at her gym sweats, Lauren wished she'd had time to change, but getting to the hospital had been more important. At the time, she had no idea that this was going to be her first meeting with a new relative. Her dad seemed firm in his desire to ignore his double and Lauren really wanted to know why.
Her dad may not have confirmed the familial relationship, but he hadn't denied it either which, in her experience, meant that she was right. Lauren was determined to find out what Ezra - Uncle Ezra she corrected herself -- knew and telling them all that Vin was awake was a good excuse to approach him.
She pushed the door open with more force than necessary, causing it to bang against the wall. They all turned toward her. Well, she did want their attention.
A lanky blond met her halfway, the other five trailing behind.
"How's Vin?" he asked.
She looked up into the concerned hazel eyes. "He's going to be fine. In fact, he's awake and even asked about you guys. I told him you were all ok."
The blond breathed a sigh of relief and the others murmured their thanks at knowing that Vin was recovering.
"You must be Lauren. I'm Chris Larabee, Vin's boss." Chris proceeded to introduce the others including Ezra, confirming in Lauren's mind that he was indeed the man she'd heard her dad refer to as his brother.
She turned her attention back to Chris, not yet ready to talk to her new Uncle. "I've heard Uncle Vin mention you. You're the one who wants to steal my horse," she teased.
"I thought it was Vin's horse."
"He thinks so, but Peso loves me best."
This elicited a few chuckles from the men, except for Ezra who seemed intent on simply staring at her and it was starting to unnerve her. She could tell he wanted to ask about her dad.
"Can we see Vin?" Chris asked.
Lauren had come to talk to her new uncle and she thought it was time to lay her cards on the table. Lauren directed the answer to Chris' question at Ezra. "Would you like to see Vin, Uncle Ezra? I don't know if Daddy will let everyone else in, but you're family."
Ezra's eyes went wide as he sputtered, "Unc..uncle?"
"What are you talking about?" Chris asked. The others were staring at her demanding some explanation while Ezra simply plopped onto one of the hard plastic waiting room chairs.
She was in no mood to deal with these men and their concerns. Lauren glared at them. "I'd like to talk to my uncle in private if you don't mind."
Chris started to protest when Buck took his arm and dragged him a respectful distance away. The others had followed, and while it gave her and her uncle a semblance of privacy, she knew they were all listening.
Satisfied that they wouldn't interfere she sat beside Ezra who looked at her with the same green eyes as her dad. She could read his confusion clearly, and it made her feel really awful that she'd shocked him like this. "I'm sorry, I thought you knew. I overheard Daddy and Uncle Vin talking about you." Though she'd suspected that they hadn't told Ezra of the family connection, Lauren hadn't been positive until now.
"They know for sure?" Ezra asked. "I'm really – " he could bring himself to finish the admission.
"I don't know the whole story, but yeah you're really my uncle and they're really your brothers" She knew that when her Tanner grandparents had died, Steve and Vin had been sent into the foster care system. Lauren wondered if maybe her dad hadn't been able to rescue Ezra like he had Vin, but then she'd never heard anything about a missing brother so maybe something else was going on.
"Well, this is an interesting turn of events."
Lauren smiled at him wondering why it was so much easier for her to accept the connection than him. "It's going to be great. I mean I know Uncle Vin really likes working with you. And Daddy's really a Teddy bear; I know he didn't seem that way earlier."
Ezra quirked a small smile at her. "Vin said that?"
"Oh yeah, talks about you and his teammates," she gestured toward where Chris and the others had retreated to, "all the time. He really likes the ATF. Though Daddy thinks its too dangerous – " she trailed off as she realized that maybe her dad was right.
"You're father is correct to be concerned. It is dangerous work, but what happened to Vin was an accident."
Lauren sensed he was trying to comfort her and she thought that was awfully nice of him. "The doctor said he's going to be ok." She studied Ezra, trying to read the familiar and yet younger version of her father's face. "You're really worried about him?"
"Of course!" Ezra seemed surprised that she would doubt that. "We are all concerned with Vin's health and now I guess I have and even bigger reason to be."
She didn't understand why her Dad had been so mean to Ezra, or why they hadn't told him. Ezra seemed like a nice guy just like in the stories that Uncle Vin had shared about his teammates. Lauren suddenly realized that, in his own way, Vin was preparing her for this day. Preparing her to like this man and accept him as family. Well if Uncle Vin liked him that was good enough for Lauren.
Not really sure what was motivating her, but sensing that it was the right thing to do, she leaned over and gave Ezra a hug. "Welcome to the family," she said.
"I have a niece," he said the disbelief clear in his voice as he automatically returned the hug.
She laughed as she released him. "Yes, you do, Uncle Ezra," she said as she poked him in the shoulder emphasizing their connection.
Ezra no longer looked as confused, though he did seem a bit skeptical at her easy acceptance. It was odd that she kept recognizing her dad's expressions on his face. She supposed that was another reason that she felt so comfortable with him. It would just take him a little longer to realize that he adored her. She smiled at that thought and wondered if he would be as easy to manage as her dad and Uncle Vin.
They sat staring at each other and it felt to Lauren like he was looking for the familiar parts of himself in her. He seemed to find what he was looking for as he said, "I suppose my mother has some explaining to do."
"I have a grandmother?" Lauren asked excitedly. She'd never had any grandparents.
Ezra smiled at her enthusiasm. "My dear, I would not get too excited over the prospect of being related to my mother."
"Don't you like your mother?" Lauren frowned. Her mother had been out of her life for too many years now and she was envious of anyone who still had that relationship.
Realizing he'd made a mistake, Ezra took her hand in a comforting gesture. "Of course I love my mother, and I'm sure she will adore you."
At the sound of snuffling, she glanced up to see some of the others trying not to laugh at Ezra's declaration. She wasn't sure what to make of their reaction, but she knew she didn't want to continue this conversation in front of them.
"I should get back before Daddy realizes I've gone. Come on." She stood and pulled on his hand.
"Perhaps all of us should go see Mr. Tanner." Ezra motioned toward his co-workers
Lauren giggled. "Mr. Tanner? He's you brother, you should call him Vin."
"Yes, of course," he said as he stood and straightened his jacket.
Lauren studied him. "You're pulling 'the face' just like Daddy."
"I'm sorry, 'the face'?"
"Yeah, that face he uses when he doesn't want me to know how much something is bothering him. That face; you're doing it." Lauren wanted to reassure her new uncle that he should be happy to be part of their family and leaned in to whisper, "I know it's a shock and Daddy was a bit mean before, but I know exactly how to handle him, so don't worry."
Ezra gave a small laugh. "I do believe we will get along just fine."
Ezra was still reeling from Lauren's revelation. There was a part of him that was attracted to the idea that he had brothers and a niece that he'd never known about, but there was another part of him, the part that sounded like his mother's voice in his head, which wondered what the angle was. He certainly could believe that he and Steve were related; the physical resemblance was impossible to ignore, but Vin was younger than him. It didn't seem possible that they could be brothers too, unless his mother had been keeping some huge secrets.
Over the past weeks it had felt like Vin was making a special effort to get to know him. Now Ezra understood part of his motivation; Vin was preparing Ezra for the reveal of their familial bond. Ezra had been drawn in by Vin's easygoing nature and genuinely liked the man. He did not believe that there was anything motivating Vin beyond a real desire to welcome Ezra into the family and certainly Lauren was almost giddy at the idea of adding him to her family tree. Steve, on the other hand, had glared at him with such dislike that Ezra was wondering what he'd done to anger a man he'd never met.
"You ok, Ezra?" Chris' voice cut through his musings and he turned to face his boss.
He gave him a neutral smile. "For someone who has just discovered a family I knew nothing about, I believe I'm doing quite well."
"Good," Chris said. "Then as family, you think you can tell that nurse to let us into see Vin?"
Ezra chuckled. "It does appear that I do have that power now." The others hadn't said much and were looking to him to set the tone for future dealings with the Tanner clan.
Lauren placed a hand on his arm. "I don't think Daddy wants everyone in there. He's not real happy about Uncle Vin getting hurt."
"I think that …your father is going to have to accept that when Mr. Larabee wants something, he is hard to dissuade." Ezra was surprised to find that he'd almost said 'my brother'. It seemed his subconscious had already accepted the truth of what Lauren had shared, even if he still had doubts about the situation.
"Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you."
Buck stepped up beside Chris and Ezra. "Maybe Ez should go in by himself first. You know, meet the family."
Chris nodded. "Much as I want to see Vin, Buck has a point."
Ezra appreciated the gesture on Chris' part knowing how hard it was for him to restrain himself when one of them was injured.
Before any decision could be made, the doors leading to the patients' wing were flung open and Steve stalked toward them.
"Lauren, what are you doing out here?" he called to her.
Lauren gave him the sweetest smile as she said, "Nothing Daddy. I got turned around and Uncle Vin's friends were just pointing me back in the right direction."
Ezra couldn't help but smile at the blatant lie. After these few minutes with Lauren he no longer doubted that they were related, especially since Steve seemed to buy her innocent act.
"It's this way." Steve placed a hand on Lauren's shoulder propelling her back toward Vin's room. He still hadn't made eye contact with any of them and Ezra sensed that Steve was trying very hard not to notice him.
Lauren caught Ezra's eye over her shoulder and tilted her head indicating he should follow.
Ezra wasn't one to air his personal business in public, but he knew that no matter the fallout from Lauren's revelations, the others would eventually know the whole story. He was fairly certain that his relationship with Vin would only improve once they had a chance to discuss their new connection, considering the effort Vin had put in getting to know him, but Steve was another matter.
Steve seemed intent on ignoring Ezra, while making it perfectly clear he didn't want anything to do with any of Vin's teammates. Given that, Ezra thought it best to confront his new relation with the others present and possibly use Chris as a focus for some of Steve's anger over Vin's injury. Plus, it seemed unfair to burden Vin with all this drama while he was still recuperating.
"Excuse me, Mr. Tanner – Steve," Ezra called after them. "I think we need to talk."
Steve's shoulder's stiffened slightly but he kept walking. Lauren did not; instead she ducked under her father's arm and returned to Ezra's side.
"Come on, Daddy. Talk to him. He's your brother after all."
Steve stopped and pivoted in place. "Half-brother!"
"So it's true." He'd known it was, but to hear Steve admit the connection was the final piece he needed for it to be real. Ezra took a step toward him and asked cheekily, "Which half?"
Steve glared at him. "Paternal."
Ezra absorbed this new piece of information. It actually made him feel better to realize that his father had been indiscreet rather than thinking that Maude had given away a child. But that still didn't explain how he could be related to Vin, so he asked, "And Vin?"
"You aren't related to Vin."
Steve balled up his fists and Ezra was sure he was restraining himself from taking a swing. It had seemed a logical question to ask, but then maybe that was the root of Steve's anger.
"He's my brother!" Steve hissed. "My real brother. Vin doesn't need any of you two faced bastards. I told him he couldn't trust you." He gestured wildly at the six men in front of him as he glared at Ezra. "He's done with the ATF so you can just leave because none of you are getting to see him."
Ezra frowned at Steve's rant, surprised that the man clearly disliked them all and him specifically. He was actually dismayed by the idea that without ever having talked to Steve, Ezra had somehow betrayed his trust. As he stared into the angry eyes of his brother, Ezra suddenly understood. Steve knew about Atlanta, he had to. It was the only thing that would explain his cutting remarks and his dismissal of Ezra.
Ezra was not usually one who cared what others thought of him, or so he told himself, but he found he desperately wanted to make Steve understand that he was badly mistaken.
Before Ezra could express these thoughts, Steve had once again pulled Lauren to him and attempted to storm away. This time Chris wouldn't be put off so easily. Their leader was not one to forgive the kind of accusations that Steve had thrown at them.
Chris grabbed Steve by the shoulder and whirled him around. "Now just a damn minute! I've tired to be polite, but I will see Vin and hear from him what the hell is really going on."
"You're not family. So don't even try it," Steve shot back.
"Vin's awake, which means I don't need your permission anymore." This time it was Chris that stormed past Steve heading for Vin's room.
Vin opened his eyes and groaned as he tried to sit up. The pain wasn't debilitating thanks to the medication, but he still felt stiff and weak from his wound.
Steve had left in a hurry to find Lauren, but Vin suspected if he was trying to head her off from talking to Ezra it was already too late.
Lauren had mentioned that Chris and the guys were in the waiting area and that meant Ezra too. Vin wished he could get out of this damned bed and see what was happening because whatever it was he knew it wouldn't be good.
Steve had his dander up and Vin was sure Ezra was probably in shock. Damn it! He'd had it all planned for dinner Saturday so that Steve and Ezra couldn't help but like each other. Now, he was sure the shit was hitting the proverbial fan which, without a doubt, was aimed right at him.
Knowing how furious Steve was with Chris and convinced they shouldn't have anything to do with Ezra, Vin's imagination was running wild with images of a violent confrontation.
He slowly sat up and threw off the covers; biting his lip as a wave of pain and dizziness washed over him. Vin carefully maneuvered his legs so that they were hanging off the bed and paused to catch his breath. He eyed the distance to the floor and knew that the transition to standing was gonna hurt. He had just worked up his nerve to make the move when the door opened and Chris stormed in, closely followed by the rest of his teammates.
Steve was right behind yelling at them. "I said you can't see him. Don't you people listen?"
Vin smiled, because not one of the ATF agents paused as they entered the room.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Nathan snapped when he caught sight of Vin sitting on the edge of the bed. He rushed forward to gently push him back into a prone position. Chris was right there too, helping Nathan settle him back down.
"Just thought I go for a walk," Vin replied.
"Not the best idea you've ever had," Chris said.
"Get away from my brother." Steve moved toward Larabee but Buck was there in a flash blocking his approach.
"Now let's calm down," Buck said, ever the master of the compromise. "Vin's injury was an accident. We all feel badly 'bout what happened but it weren't no one's fault. You need to listen 'stead of yelling."
As Vin had suspected things had not gone well when his brother had met his friends.
Steve stood toe to toe with the much taller Buck, refusing to back down. "Accident!" Steve snorted. "I know all about how dirty you feds are especially my new found brother." He sneered the last and gestured dismissively in Ezra's direction.
Vin watched the storm flash in Chris' eyes before he moved to grab Steve by the shirt collar slamming up against the wall. "You had my agent investigated!"
Steve struggled against Chris' hold. "Let me go or I'll have you arrested for assault!"
"Don't hurt my Daddy!" Lauren yelled.
Chris released his grip like he was holding something hot and stepped back allowing Lauren to move in to hug her father.
In their anger, they'd forgotten that Lauren was present. Silence pervaded the room and Vin saw Ezra trying to hide his chagrin that these falsehoods from Atlanta might have turned Steve not only against him, but the whole team.
"Daddy, Uncle Ezra's been really nice to me. I don't understand. What did he do?" She looked back at Vin silently asking him the same question.
Vin wanted to reach out and hug Lauren. It seemed she'd accepted Ezra and truly wanted everyone to get along.
Steve, on the other hand, just glared at the ATF agents and before he could answer Chris did. "He didn't do anything." Chris' anger was bubbling just below the surface and Vin could tell he was trying hard to get his temper under control.
The whole situation was spiraling out of control. He met his brother's eyes pleading with him to put his manic need to protect his family in perspective. "Steve, I told that you were all wrong 'bout these guys! And just so you know I ain't quitting no matter what you think." Vin gasped the as the pain of his wound reminded him that effort to yell or sit-up was not appreciated
Nathan was still at his side. "Stop moving around. You want to tear those stitches?"
"Perhaps, Mr. Larabee, I should go," Ezra said. "I do not believe that Vin needs this conflict in his condition."
Chris didn't look Ezra direction. "Don't you move, Standish. We're gonna work this out," he said before addressing Vin. "You ok?"
Vin nodded and relaxed back into his pillow; allowing the pain to dissipate. He looked up at Chris. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let him hire that PI. I didn't - "
Chris waved him off. "Understand why. Bet Ezra does too." Vin was a bit surprised that Chris wasn't angry at him as he was with Steve, but then his boss didn't really know Steve.
Vin looked toward Ezra, who met his gaze and nodded slightly. It seemed all was forgiven at least between them.
Steve had made his way to the other side of the bed. "Vin, tell them to go." He was glaring at Chris who was meeting his brother's displeasure with equal intensity. "They obviously won't listen to me and you need your rest. We can discuss your position on the team when your up for it."
"No one's goin' anywhere," Chris growled before shifting his attention back to Vin. "You staying on the team?"
"Yep." Vin held up his hand when Steve opened his mouth to protest. "Ain't open for debate, Steve." Vin gasped a little as another wave of pain washed over him when he lowered his hand.
Steve fell silent, releasing some of his anger and replacing it with concern for Vin. It bothered Vin that he was feeling so weak; he just didn't have the energy he needed to get this mess settled. And while Vin had been known to put his brother down physically when trying to knock some sense into him, that, unfortunately, was not an option today.
No one seemed anxious to pick up the argument and the silence stretched in to awkward minutes.
Vin caught Lauren's eye giving her silent support to continue to challenge her father. A determined look come across her face as she understood what Vin wanted from her and he found himself cheering inside. Lauren was the key to making Steve see reason because, though his brother never admit it, he spoiled his daughter. If Lauren wanted to get to know her Uncle Ezra, his brother would be hard pressed to deny her the opportunity.
Lauren moved to stand next to Ezra. "Why is my daddy so angry with you?"
Ezra glanced at Vin before sighing as he recognized his role in this play. "Your father has discovered some things about my former employment with the FBI that concern him. It is a long story, but I'm willing to share it with you if you truly wish to know."
"Lauren," Chris said getting her attention. "All you really need to know is that Ezra's a damn good agent. The things your father found out were lies; rumors spread by jealous and petty men. I wouldn't have him on my team if I didn't trust him."
Disbelief flickered across Ezra's face before he clamped down on it, but Vin had seen it. He'd had learned early on that the poker face Ezra so carefully cultivated was no use with him as Vin had seen similar expressions on Steve's face all his life.
"Thank you, Chris," Ezra said simply, clearly touched by the support.
Lauren looked at Steve. "Daddy, why would you believe the rumors?"
He moved to stand in front of his daughter. "Sweetheart, it's more complicated than that."
"No it isn't!" she insisted. "These men know Uncle Ezra and Vin likes them all a lot and you know he's a better judge of character than you are; I've met some of the women you date."
"Lauren! That was inappropriate."
The ATF agents couldn't help but chuckle and it seemed that at least for the moment some of the tension was broken.
"You know I could help ya with that," Buck teased. "I'm pretty good with the ladies."
"It's true, Steve," Vin added, wanting to keep the conversation from turning dark again. "Buck has the entire secretarial pool drooling over him."
Lauren laughed and smiled at Buck. "You definitely need to help my dad. Some of the bimbos he dates - " She rolled her eyes
"That's enough, Lauren." Steve was obviously embarrassed and a bit lost by the fact that Lauren seemed to be on Ezra's side.
Lauren just continued to glare at her father; she wasn't about to let him off the hook. "You always say to get all the facts before rushing to judgment. Did you do that?"
Ezra interrupted her. "Lauren, while I am touched that you are championing me, I do not think it's appropriate for you to share personal details of your father's life in public."
Steve looked at Ezra, confusion on his face, and Vin thought for a moment that he might tell their brother to mind his own business, but then his expression softened. "Ezra," he paused addressing his new family member directly for the first time. "It seems my daughter has decided that I overreacted."
"You did, Daddy!" The tiny gymnast stood in the middle of the room staring at her father pleading with him to stop being such an idiot. "He's family and we haven't exactly made him welcome."
Vin had to smile because he knew that Lauren had won. It wasn't often that Steve admitted he was wrong, but ultimately as a lawyer, if the evidence was telling him something else then Steve was usually willing to step back and find out what it meant.
Steve glanced toward Vin as if drawing strength for what needed to happen next – for what Vin hoped would happen next - before looking at Ezra. "Maybe – maybe, we should start over."
Ezra gifted Steve with a genuine smile and held out his hand. "I am amenable to your offer."
Steve shook it. "I guess we have a lot to talk about."
Lauren practically cheered as she flung her self at her father and then at Ezra. "This is going to be great!" She moved to stand by Vin and they shared a conspiratorial smile. This hadn't been the first time they'd tag teamed Steve, and this time they'd had Ezra's help. Vin was truly impressed at Ezra's ability to adapt, though he was sure his new brother was still reeling inside, he was handling it a hell of a lot better than Steve.
"I am still willing to share all the details of the situation you find so distressing, but," Ezra looked around the room," I would prefer to do so in private."
"I am amenable to you offer." Steve laughed as he repeated Ezra's words.
"You sure you two ain't twins?" Buck couldn't help but get at least one twin joke into the conversation and there were a few chuckles around the room.
"I assure you, Buck, as Steve is some years older than me, that is a biological impossibility."
"Daddy, does this mean you're not mad at Uncle Ezra anymore?" Lauren asked. He voice dripping with an innocence her previous actions belied.
Steve looked from his daughter to each of his brothers. "I wasn't mad exactly - just – well – I guess I was unwilling to accept that things in our little family had changed."
Vin watched the tension dissipate from the room as Steve was finally willing to give Ezra a chance and with Ezra came an acceptance of the rest of Team Seven and Vin's place in it. "Change for the better," Vin said.
Steve moved to stand beside the hospital bed. "Well little brother, looks like you were right after all."
"Damn right I was, and I ain't gonna let you forget it neither."
Ezra couldn't help but be pleased with the way that Lauren had won Steve over. She was a little spitfire; definitely had some Standish in her he thought. Lauren had expressed an interest in meeting Maude and Ezra wondered how his mother might take the news of a granddaughter – well not exactly her granddaughter, as Lauren would have been Preston's descendant not Maude's. Which had him wondering about the relationship between himself and Vin; that had still not been clarified.
Ezra cleared his throat which drew everyone's attention to him, but he looked directly at Vin as he spoke. "While I'm pleased that we have resolved some of the issues revealed today, I still have one more question."
"Shoot, Ez. Whatcha wanna know?"
"Are we," he waved a hand between them, "actually related?"
Vin looked at Steve, who nodded. It appeared to Ezra that they had discussed this issue previously and had come to some important conclusion. "Yeah, we're brothers too," Vin replied simply.
"Steve has said that he and I share a paternal bond and clearly any one who sees us would believe that, but how is it that you and I are related?" Preston Standish had passed away less than a year after Ezra's birth and since he knew Vin was two years younger, it was a physical impossibility for them to be related in the same manner.
"It's simple, Ez. Surprised you ain't figured it out. I'm Steve's brother cause of our ma and Steve is your brother cause of your dad, so it stands to reason that you and I are brothers too."
Ezra listened to this explanation, but clearly he was missing something. It seemed he was not the only one who was befuddled by Vin's explanation as he noticed confused looks on most of his teammates faces. Steve and Vin were grinning at him; obviously they had thought carefully about this odd string of statements and felt it was proof that they were all three brothers.
"I get it!" JD blurted out. "It's like the transitive property."
"What the heck are you talking about, JD?" Buck asked.
JD had said next to nothing all day and now with everyone's attention on him, he was suddenly reluctant to explain. "It's – it's a mathematical theorem."
"We're talking about biology not math. Didn't think I'd ever have to explain the difference to ya," Buck teased.
At this point Lauren spoke up, a big smile on her face. "JD's right! It's the transitive property." The men now directed their confusion at Lauren.
"You understand what JD was saying?" Buck asked.
Lauren rolled her eyes. "What, I can't be pretty and smart?
"No," Buck tried to back peddle. "I didn't say that."
The others began laughing as Lauren stared up at the flustered agent. "I do have to take math, you know, and I have a brain for a reason."
"Best quit while you're behind, Bucklin," Vin teased.
"I agree," Ezra said. "Let the lady finish. She is obviously the smartest one in the room."
Ezra was truly impressed by his niece, holding her own in a room full of grown men and literally getting them to do what she wanted. Maude would have a field day with her though Ezra wondered again if the two of them meeting might be a very bad idea.
"Thank you, Uncles," she said gifting them both with a gorgeous smile which showed her dimples. "The transitive property says that if A=B and B=C, then A=C." As she recited the formula, JD was nodding along with her. "It makes perfect sense. I mean that is if Uncle Vin is A and Daddy is B and Uncle Ezra is C."
There was a moment of silence as Lauren and JD shared a look which implied that everyone else were idiots.
"I think that's exactly what I said." Vin laughed and then grabbed his stomach once again forgetting that he was only hours out of surgery. Steve placed a hand on his shoulder indicating he was ready to take over the exposition duties.
Ezra could tell that Steve was struggling to make things right. "Look, I know I've been a bit difficult about some of the more … delicate things that have been discussed today - "
"That's an understatement," Buck grumbled, paling when Chris' elbow impacted his ribs and he realized that he'd spoken aloud.
Steve shook his head, but made no retort, accepting that it would be awhile before he undid the damage he'd caused today. He looked back at Ezra. "But there's one thing Vin and I did agree on. It's an all or nothing situation. We're all three brothers or we're," he waved a hand between Ezra and himself, "not. And thanks to JD and Lauren, I believe it has been proven mathematically that we three are, in fact, brothers."
Ezra tried to absorb the offer that was being handed to him. It seemed that Steve's insistence that they were only half-brothers had fallen by the wayside as he'd come to tentatively accept the idea that Ezra was not the man he'd read about. If he wanted to claim Steve as his brother then he got Vin as a bonus; and that was a hell of a bonus. There was really only one thing to say. "It seems that I am a firm believer in the transitive property."