"You'll owe me this time, Ezra!" yelled Buck, as they watched the game.
"The game is not over, Mr. Wilmington, so do not count your winnings until you hold them in your hand," Ezra replied, with a smug smile.
"It'll be soon!"
"Shut up, both of you. We're trying to watch here," complained Chris, throwing a small pillow in their direction.
Ezra caught it, propping it behind his head. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris rolled his eyes and leaned back, snatching a pillow from behind Vin and using it himself.
"'ey, cowboy, ya can get yer own pillow back. Don't take mine." Vin reached up and tried grabbing it back. That started an impromptu wrestling match between Chris and Vin, culminating in Nathan and Josiah taking all the pillows abandoned by their owners and making themselves extremely comfortable.
The trill of a cellular telephone interrupted the game yet again. All seven men checked and Buck called, "Mine!" A pillow from both Nathan and Josiah hit him square in the face while the others groaned.
He answered it, "Hello?"
"Buck?" A hesitant voice was barely audible.
"Yeah, darlin', how are you?" He did not recognize the voice, so he wanted her to keep talking so her name would come to him. Seeing the glares from his teammates as well as JD nailing him in the head with a spare pillow, Buck climbed over the back of the sofa and walked outside.
Harper heard the men in the background and groaned. Today was Sunday, game day, at Chris Larabee's house. One of the things she picked up from the profile and personal information given to her by AD Travis when learning their habits. "This is a bad time." She hesitated.
"I'm never too busy to talk to a lady," he replied, still trying to recognize the voice.
"Forget it," she said and went to hang up.
Buck started talking fast. "Now hold on, and don't go hanging up on me before I know what's bothering you. You called Buck for a reason."
"Never mind." The voice snapped just as the connection died.
The amount of heat in that statement was his best clue. As soon as the woman snapped at him, he knew who it was - Harper. Something was wrong though because her voice sounded bad. Just as he went to call information for the number for the Hampton Inn, Chris opened the door and yelled, "Buck, no class tomorrow, Harper's out sick. Travis just called...so if you have any plans with a lady, enjoy yourself!" The door shut.
Buck called information, received the number, and disconnected, seeing JD walked outside to join him. "Hey Kid, give me a minute, okay?"
"You're calling Harpy, right?"
"Yeah." Damn, the kid was smart.
"She called yesterday, but told me not to tell you. Sounded kinda strange, but I forgot until Chris said she's out sick."
Buck stared at his roommate. "What time?"
"While you were out with this week's flavor." JD ducked the inevitable slap then realized Buck never swung. "What's wrong? Usually you're trying to cuff me for that."
"There's more to it than Harper being sick."
"Actually, she said she wasn't feeling good. She was fine when we left her Friday. You don't think?"
"I don't know anything, yet. What exactly did she say?"
"She said she had a sore throat." JD stared at Buck.
"She might be genuinely sick. If so, then why's...never mind," Buck mumbled to himself. "Go on inside."
JD shrugged. "Sure. Just don't take too long, okay? I won't tell the others who you're calling, but I figured I'd let you know she called yesterday."
"Thanks, JD," Buck said, with a warm expression.
"Tell her I hope she feels better." With a wave, JD went back inside while Buck dialed.
"Hampton Inn, how may I help you?"
"Yeah, Ash Harper's room, please."
A few seconds later, the connection went through and the telephone rang. It took three rings before a voice he did not recognize answered, "Hello?"
The use of her first name threw her. In her half medicated state, she did not recognize the voice and answered automatically, "Excuse me? Who is this?"
The voice on the other end continued in a soft tone. "Ash, it's Buck. What's going on?"
A rush of warmth filled her. He called back. She did not think he would; she figured he would wait until the next day and try to reach her during work. "Nothing; go back to your friends."
"You don't sound like nothing's wrong."
She laughed then gasped. "Oh, don't make me laugh. It hurts."
He asked, "What happened?"
"Look, I'm not going to drag you away from your friends. Have fun. I'll talk to you later."
"I'm coming over there if you don't start talking."
"I can't really talk about it, Buck, okay?"
"You want some company?"
A long pause and finally she sighed, "Go back to your friends, Buck. I'm fine."
He snorted. "Fine doesn't sound like you swallowed razors. Sore throat from what?"
"Ash," he reasoned back. "Since you won't talk now, how about I come over when the game's done? We can talk then."
"All right. I guess I could use some company."
"Just need to know one thing, darlin'."
"What shall I bring?"
"I'll see you in a bit."
"I'll warn you I'm not up for dancing."
"I'm thinking a quiet night will do you wonders," he replied, glancing inside before looking at the barn again.
"Sounds wonderful, but you don't have to."
"Darlin', I'm coming over whether you like it or not, just to make sure you're okay."
"I'm not exactly at my best, but I'll see you when you get here," she told him. "Later." Harper hung up before he could say goodbye.
Buck returned inside, seeing the various looks the others gave him. He settled into the sofa with a sigh. "It's hard being so popular with the ladies," he remarked with his usual bravado.
Chris snorted saying, "Yeah, right." He focused back on the game.
"Ya bailin' on us, Bucklin? Some girl snapped her fingers and wanted ya ta come runnin'?"
"Now, Junior, it's not like that at all," he denied, with a shake of his head.
JD stayed silent because he knew more than he planned on telling. Buck's reputation with the ladies often invited harassment by his friends and co-workers, but when the women that counted him as a friend called for help, the ridicule often hurt because the men jumped to the wrong conclusion. If Buck did not handle them, JD would the next time his roommate went to the bathroom. The fact that JD knew the woman involved, and how horrible she sounded made a difference in his attitude.
Buck added, "And you're missing the game. I want to collect from Ezra sometime in the very near future." With that redirection of attention, the men returned their focus to the game, while Buck sat and contemplated. He felt eyes on him. Looking up, he caught Chris flick his eyes toward the kitchen. Buck nodded and walked in there during the beginning of a break, Chris following him a few seconds later.
"What's going on?" his friend asked. "You look like someone gut punched you."
The taller man rubbed his jaw choosing his words carefully. "The phone call came from a lady friend that I think got herself in trouble. She's real skittish about asking for help and not telling me much. I'm going to go see her later, but I'm afraid it's pretty bad."
"I'm not going to pry, Buck, but if it's something I should know about, tell me, okay?"
They exchanged glances and walked away, but Chris held suspicions of what was going on and was not going to ask, yet. It unsettled them both and dampened their enjoyment of the game.
After dropping JD off at the CDC, Buck drove over to the Hampton Inn and knocked softly on her door.
= = 7 = =
"Who is it?"
"It's Buck." He stood within view of the peephole so she could see him easily. To him, it seemed to take forever for her to reach the door. He heard the locks undo and she opened the door, letting him catch it, while she walked back over to the bed and slowly sat down.
"Hi." She finally said, but did not look at him.
"Hi, darlin'. Mind if I sit with you?" He closed the door.
He judged her as subdued, to say the least, and nervous, if the way she played with the bedcover was any indication. The stiff way she held herself also showed him things were not okay, along with the uncharacteristic sweatpants and button down flannel shirt. Buck took his spot near her, but still not crowding her on the king sized bed, as he looked around at the room.
Buck took in the table with the papers spread out on it, a laptop computer, her briefcase, a small refrigerator, the television in a solid wooden chest with drawers beneath it, a mirrored closet, and a vanity with a number of small items on it. A miniature four-cup coffee maker sat on a shelf between the main part of the room and the vanity along with a large collection of medicine bottles. "Must be interesting living in a hotel."
She shrugged and continued staring at her hands.
"You want to talk about whatever it is that is bothering you?"
"Not particularly." The voice sounded slurred and gravely at the same time.
He sighed. "Ash, I'm here as a friend. I'm not going to judge, I'm not going to walk out, I'm here for you. Can you at least look at me?"
A long three seconds later, she raised her face to his and it took all his control not to visibly react. The entire right side looked like someone mashed a foot in it, highlighted by the spectacular demonstration of the different hues of purple. Multiple white butterfly bandages stood out in stark contrast around the cheekbone and eye, while the swelling inflated the jaw, lips, eyes, forehead, nose, and ear on that side only.
Carefully Buck took his left hand and slid it under her chin, shifting it from one side to the other. "That looks like it hurts. Want me to kiss it and make it better?"
The beginnings of a smile started only stopping when the lip began splitting. "If you're brave enough." She mumbled through the left side of her mouth.
"I think I'll take my chances." He leaned forward and planted a kiss on the center of her cheek. "All better?"
"Anywhere else?" Buck could not prevent a little bite from entering his tone, and he winced when her face tightened and she pulled away. He could guess what happened, but he wanted her to tell him.
"Don't ask. I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
"I'm fine, Buck. I don't know why I called."
"Because you missed me?"
"I've seen you. Now you can leave."
"I told you I'm not leaving. What happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
Buck shifted so he sat next to her and put an arm around her waist, easing off when he heard her indrawn hiss of pain. "Something painful obviously happened and I want to help you."
"Girl, something happened because I've seen ground chuck at the supermarket that looks better than your face."
At that, he felt her relax and her head leaned over to rest against his shoulder. "How about I can't talk about it?"
Buck considered. "I can accept that." Privately, he thought if Jefferson and Mentral worked her over, someone somewhere instituted the code of silence. If it was those two, they would dearly regret the day they laid a hand on her.
"Good. You're not getting anything more out of me about it."
He slowly shifted his hand to her shoulder and pulled her a little closer, feeling the slight tremors in her body. "No talking, just holding. How does that sound?"
"Then let's get you a bit more comfortable."
She lifted her head off his shoulder and gave him a look with the bad eye.
He rolled his eyes. "Not anything like that, darlin', we already agreed that wasn't for us. Yet."
Harper immediately apologized. "I'm sorry. Just kinda out of it today, I guess."
Buck kissed her forehead. "That's all right, Ash. Let ol' Buck take care of you. You need any of those pills over there?" Without warning her, he lifted her up and placed her in one of the chairs.
"All of them."
Blue eyes glared at her. "You haven't taken any of your pills?"
She explained, "I haven't been able to get up to get any of my pills. Took all my energy to answer the door."
Buck ran a hand down his face. "Okay, you need to use the bathroom?"
"I could if I got there."
He chuckled. "I can fix that." He walked over and picked her up again, putting his hands carefully under her buttocks, and high on her shoulders, where he figured the least amount of damage was. She snuggled into him during the short trip and he placed her on her feet beside the toilet. "Can you handle this or do you need help?" He did not act embarrassed, nor did he let her feel that way.
"I can do it."
"All right. Let me know when you're ready to come out." He closed the door and went to the bed, pulling down the covers and plumping the pillows. The remote he moved within hand's reach. He shifted all the pill bottles to the top of the nightstand, pushing the alarm clock back. Buck rummaged in the refrigerator until he found a bottle of water and placed it beside the pill bottles.
"You ready, darlin'?"
"I think so." She opened the door, shuffling painfully to the sink, each step a study in agonizing slowness. It hurt him to watch her wash her hands. The torture continued while she brushed her teeth and then picked up her hairbrush.
"When's the last time you washed your hair?" It looked a little ripe and he thought he might make her feel better if he helped her clean herself up.
Harper gave him a disbelieving look.
"Darlin', I can tell you that I feel one hundred percent better after a shower or a bath. I think you might too. You under orders not to have either?"
"No. Just can't lift my arms, get the stitches wet, bend over, or breathe. The last one's the kicker."
He gave her a smile. "How about I run you a hot bath and set you in the tub? There's another game coming on and I can watch that while you're soaking."
"It sounds wonderful, Buck, but I..."
"Don't tell me you're shy." Buck winked at her. "I won't look."
"Maybe just a little to see where else you're hurt, but seriously, Ash, I'm not going to do anything ungentlemanly."
"You can't tell anyone else you did this." She raised her arm to extend a finger then lowered it immediately. "Ow."
"A hot soak will do you good. You have any bubble bath you want me to add?" He came around her and bobbed his eyebrows at her, all the while starting the water.
"Please. Over there, in the square case by the window. Pick one."
Buck walked around her again and found the medium-sized cosmetic case, pulling out the top layer and rooting around until he found one he liked. Giving it a good, exaggerated sniff, he said, "This one."
"I'm not telling."
"Nope. You'll find out." He kept his back to her, as he poured a generous amount in and watched the bubbles form immediately. The scent of gardenias filled the room.
She attempted a smile. "Gardenias. How did you know that was my favorite?"
"This one's almost empty and you have a full bottle in there." He gave her a lop-sided grin. "I am a surveillance expert."
Harper smiled back, careful not to split her already damaged lip, giving him one of the first real smiles he saw since he arrived. "I'll grant you that."
"Now, have you eaten?"
"What do you want?"
"Do they have anything that doesn't require chewing?"
"We can ask them to stick a steak in the blender." He found the room service menu and flipped through it. "Here we go."
"Baby food available upon request."
He laughed at her expression. "Just kidding, Ash. Just kidding."
She continued leaning on the vanity while the water ran in the background, staring at him with narrowed eyes. "Give me that."
"How does something easy like applesauce sound?"
"I want something a little more substantial, thank you."
"Hey! They do breakfast all day. Applesauce and toast? You can gum most of it."
"What are you having?"
"I'm going to have a steak with all the trimmings."
"Get a side of mashed potatoes and gravy while you're at it."
"Mashed potatoes with applesauce?"
She glared. "Got a problem with that?"
He gave her another smile. "Not a one. Dessert?"
"What's on the menu?"
"I think I'll surprise you."
"Eat now, or later?"
"When I'm done?"
"How about I order about thirty minutes from now? Figure it will take them at least that long to bring everything up here. That will give you an hour soak."
Buck checked the water and found it at the right level and temperature. "Okay, darlin', let's get you in here."
"I can walk." She demonstrated by making it very carefully into the bathroom.
"That you can, and I'd say you're doing really well if you were in your hundreds." He didn't mention the fine sheen of perspiration, or the fact she was using the wall to hold herself up.
"Bite me, Wilmington."
"Be glad to, but I don't think I can find a clear patch of skin."
"Oh!" Her voice showed her aggravation.
"I'd hit you if it didn't hurt to move."
"Well, then, I guess I can count myself as living on the edge as I walk over to you to get you out of those clothes. You ready?"
"Promise me something." She toyed with the buttons on the front of her shirt.
"Don't get mad and don't tell anyone."
"Uh-oh. It's worse under the shirt, right?" Buck stared hard at her, daring her to deny it.
"I won't let you see me get mad. Can I get mad once you're settled?"
She laughed. "I expected that. But you can't tell anybody, please?"
"I have my reasons. Please? I'm asking friend to friend."
The pleading look in her eyes nearly undid him. "Ash, I give you my word I won't say anything to anybody."
Her shoulders sagged in relief. "Thanks."
"Anytime, darlin'. Now, let's get you settled."
He let her turn around and unbutton the shirt, letting it fall to the ground. His attention focused on the ceiling above her and kept his eyes there when she started sliding her sweatpants down. Her groan snapped his eyes to her back. The bruises were more spectacular there. Buck felt his blood boiling and clamped down on it. He promised he would get mad later and later could not come soon enough. Whatever coward did this to her, that person was a dead son-of-a-bitch. If he found out it was Jefferson or Mentral, he'd kick the shit out of them and give the remains to Chris to ease their guilt for calling off the protection.
"Darlin', no offense, but you mind if I take those off? You don't look like you're bending too well right now."
"You just want to look at my butt." Harper glanced at him over her shoulder.
He grinned. "It's a fine butt for sure, but I'm looking out for your comfort."
Buck came behind her and slid the sweats down over her hips, keeping his face averted and trying not to blush. For some reason, this felt more intimate than any of his encounters with lady friends, but his feelings had not changed; to him, right now, he needed to treat her gently. "Can you, uh, step out, uh, please?"
She lifted one foot then the other and he whipped the sweatpants from the floor, turning around and tossing them out the door in an effort to gain his composure. Once he felt he was okay, he faced her again and lifted her up, easing her into the waiting bubbles and comforting hot water.
Harper groaned again as the warmth rolled over her. "Perfect."
"You want me to wash your hair now, or later?"
"Oh, let me soak for a bit." She settled herself in the tub and closed her eyes.
"All right. In about thirty, I'll call room service and then come in and wash your hair. Your back too, if you want."
"Sounds divine. Make yourself comfortable out there." Her eyes remained shut and a small contented sigh escaped her lips.
Buck left the room, closed the door, and sat on the bed. He took off his boots with shaking hands and placed his weapon and ID on the nightstand. The rogue wanted to remove the gun, before he shot something for the hell of it, mostly because of what he observed on her body. He saw more of the bruises than he did skin and as the enormity of what happened to her settled in, he started shaking with rage. He dialed Chris's cell twice, hanging up before connecting each time because of the promise. The longer he sat, the angrier he got. Finally, in an effort to distract himself, he flicked on the television and watched the late game on cable. When twenty-five minutes passed, he managed to calm down enough to find clean clothes for her, and call in the order to room service. With that done, he went to check on her.
"Ash?" He knocked twice on the door and waited.
"Thirty minutes already?"
"Yeah, darlin'. Sorry."
"It's okay. Come on in."
He walked in to see the bubbles still floating and her lying where he left her, with the exception of her hair being wet in the back. "You ready?"
"Please." She tried sitting up, but could not.
"Stay still, I'll do that."
"You, uh, mind if I take off my shirt so I don't get it wet?"
He removed his shirt and set it on the vanity outside the bathroom. Buck also grabbed the floor mat and placed it where he wanted her to stand, and then arranged the towels for easy reach. Kneeling beside the tub, he lifted her to a sitting position and grabbed the removable showerhead on the cable. That he handed to her to hold while he found the shampoo and worked it into her scalp. The sounds she made caused him to smile. It sounded to him like no one ever washed her hair before with the slow deliberateness he did. Reaching forward, he turned on the water and let her test it until she nodded. He flipped the button and she gave him the showerhead, letting him rinse her hair until it was clean.
"If you feel up to it," she replied.
Buck turned off the water and gave her the showerhead back while he shampooed again. Once he rinsed, he added her conditioner and while that sat, he soaped up a washcloth and rubbed her back with circular, whisper-soft touches. He took the showerhead from her and let her finish cleaning herself before starting it up again and rinsing her completely. As intimate as this situation was, Buck realized that he only felt friendship and caring right now. They let the water out of the tub before he re-hung the showerhead and lifted her on the count of three.
She clung to him for a minute because the muscles in her legs softened in the hot water. After she nodded, he let her go and dried her briskly with the towel, careful around the bruised areas. Wrapping one towel turban-style on her hair and the other around her body, Buck lifted her and placed her in the center of the bed. He handed her the clean clothes, giving her a little privacy as he returned into the bathroom to straighten things. He knew she was a proud person, and this probably was not easy, to say the least. Hell, it wasn't easy for him.
"You, uh, need help with the pants?" He finished hanging one of the used towels on the rack and cleaning out the ring in the tub. He figured he didn't want her thinking him a total slob, even though she cleaned the CDC before.
"Not while I'm laying down," she called back.
That made him smile, remembering a lady friend once telling him that the only way she got into the tight clothes he loved was lying down.
A knock sounded on the door, so Buck quickly pulled on his shirt. He found his wallet, getting out enough for a tip, watching the hotel employee set up the table by the edge of the bed. Harper kept her head down and wet hair in her face, so the employee could not see the damage. After she signed and Buck gave him a generous tip, Wilmington sent him on his way with hearty thanks and collected the remaining wet towels, before sitting across from her.
They ate in silence, both distracted with their thoughts, but acting as if it was the televised game that held their attention. When she'd had her fill, he let her have her pills. The water bottle from earlier was back in the refrigerator. The ice water pitcher, delivered by Room Service, provided the liquid needed to take her pills.
"You know I'm going to crash when these kick in." Harper looked at him.
"You don't have to stay now."
He gave her a smile. "I told you I wasn't leaving. Well, except for work tomorrow, but I'll be back by when I get off."
"You don't have to."
"You're repeating yourself."
She yawned then covered her mouth. "Sorry."
"It's okay. Haven't been sleeping well?"
"Never sleep well. This is just worse than normal." One by one, the pills disappeared into her mouth, followed by painful swallows of water.
"Well, let's see what we can do about that." He carried her over to the vanity, so she could brush her teeth and was flattered when she handed him a brand new toothbrush from the case beside her. He used it quickly, and then put her back in the center of the bed.
"Mind if I get a bit more comfortable?"
"Go right ahead."
He took off his shirt again, turned off the lights so only the TV lit the room, and tucked her under the covers. Buck stayed above them, still in his jeans and socks. He set the alarm to give him enough time to drive home, shower, change, and still be on time for work. JD could ride his bike in, so that was not a worry unless it rained. Then he'd be cutting it close, but he'd see what happened with the weather when he woke. "I'll be laying right here if you need me."
"Jeans are not comfortable to sleep in, Buck. I won't be offended if you take them off."
His smile brightened the semi-dark room. "Thank you, darlin'."
As he took them off, she yawned again. "And I won't be offended if you get under the covers. We have slept together before."
"You're an angel of mercy."
"No, Buck, you're my angel of mercy." With those words, she lifted the covers.
He crawled between them, tucking her into his embrace, careful of his hand placement, and felt her snuggle against him. "I'm here if you need me, Lady Ash."
"Goodnight, Sir Buck." She laughed at her joke before letting herself fall asleep.
The sleep lasted exactly three hours before the nightmares woke her. No sound or noise came from the room, the television having been turned off earlier, probably while she was sleeping. The memories of this beating dredged back up memories from her captivity, and the various assaults she suffered through then surfaced. The continued nightmares intensified with a vengeance. Feeling Buck behind her, she cursed because she could not move and he still slept on. She tried every trick she knew to make her sleep, including all her meditation exercises, but the best she could do was a light doze. A very long time later, Harper listened to the alarm. She felt Buck stir, shut it off, and then heard him move things around. All the while she kept her eyes closed. She felt the soft brush of his lips against her temple. Then he was gone, and she was alone with her thoughts and nightmares again.
Monday arrived quietly, not drawing attention to itself in any way. Each of the 'Magnificent Seven', with the exception of Nathan, who was on his day off, dragged themselves to work to face their offices instead of the classroom. Most were curious, hell, suspicious of Harper's sudden sickness, but all attempts to find out information were stonewalled. Suspicion ran rampant without any confirmation from an official source.
JD arrived early for once, not having to wait on Buck, and enjoyed the breakfast he actually had time to stop for this morning. Just as he finished, Ezra arrived with seconds to spare. He smiled at the Southerner. "Mornin', Ez."
"Mr. Dunne." Ezra placed his briefcase on his desk, before removing his coat and hanging it on the rack. Buck, not seeing the Southerner, accidentally shouldered him into the collection of coats, the resulting clatter and muffled cursing bringing Chris out of his office.
"Buck." The leader leaned against the doorframe, privately enjoying Ezra's dilemma. A small smile played at his lips.
"Mr. Wilmington!" The yell came a little clearer when Ezra removed a coat sleeve from his face, causing Buck to flinch.
Turning, the rogue reached over and yanked Ezra out, using his hands to straighten the man's suit. "Sorry, Ez. Didn't see you there."
"Will you stop?" Ezra pushed Buck away with irritation in his movements.
Buck rolled his eyes and sat down at his desk.
Chris asked, "Want to join me, Buck?" The tone indicated the question was not a request, but a command.
Sighing, the rogue stood and walked into Larabee's office, letting Chris shut the door. "What's up, Stud?"
"How is she?"
"Who?" Buck appeared confused.
"Don't know what you're talking about." He rubbed the back of his neck.
Chris shook his head. "You're not that good of a liar, Buck."
"What makes you think I know anything?"
"You really want me to answer?"
"You get a strange call during Sunday's game. You go outside, and the next minute my telephone rings. It's Travis, telling me Harper's out sick, and then he hangs up on me. I try calling him, and get his voice mail. His machine picked up at home. That's it, no explanation. I called Harper's room, but got the front desk, with instructions to take messages when the line's busy. You come back in worried, and then leave."
"That doesn't mean I know anything."
"Throw in the necklace, Buck."
"Necklace?" Buck swallowed.
"The mounted knight charm she's wearing. That's new. Add in the little knight you put in your desk drawer to keep it safe."
"For the record, I think nothing happened between you and Harper the night they trashed her car. Figure she's a good friend, not a lover. She also doesn't have the look women you've slept with wear." Chris propped his body on the corner of his desk, crossing his arms.
"What look?" Buck's eyes narrowed.
"The 'I've been loved by a master' look. So if something happened, either it was horrible, or nothing happened."
"You're prying, Chris." The taller man shook his head.
"We helped make her a target."
Buck changed the direction of the conversation, going on the offensive. "She was a target before we got involved. Try again."
"Guilt's not a good enough reason?" Chris parried.
"Not this time."
"Travis wants us to look out for her." The blond looked out the window.
"That's not it."
A few seconds of silence passed. "She makes me laugh."
"A lot of people make you laugh, Chris. Why's she different?"
"Because I see some of myself in her."
"What parts? It's definitely not the curves. You're a little more manly than that."
Chris chuckled, and then sobered. "I keep asking myself what was so bad in her life that she keeps distance from everyone."
"Couldn't tell you, because I don't know."
"You've seen it?"
"The black hole where her emotions should be inside? Yeah, I've seen it. She puts on one hell of an act for everyone. That outer shell is damn tough to break."
"And rarely does anyone look past it. That makes me wonder if I would still be that way if you hadn't been there. I resented the hell out of you then, but it was what I needed. I meant what I said in the bar, Buck. Thank you for helping me." Chris stretched out a hand to Buck.
Buck looked at it, grabbed it, and used it to pull Chris into a bear hug. "Anytime, pard." Wilmington broke the embrace, turning away to wipe his eyes. When he turned back, he caught Chris quickly lowering his hand from his face.
"So." Chris cleared his throat. "I know I can't change Harper's past, but I can try to help her in the present. How badly did they work her over?"
Wilmington blew out a breath. "I can't talk about it."
"Buck." Chris' voice dropped to a very soft pitch. His eyes flashed once. "You can trust me."
"I do trust you, but I literally can't talk about it. Seriously, Chris, I just cannot talk about it. I gave my word. Please."
"So they did get to her."
"Leave me alone, pard, and don't press. I'd tell you if I could, but I can't."
"Damn it, Buck, how bad?"
Buck stood, his emotions raw from their conversation. "Chris, talk to Travis. That's all I can say." Leaving his boss, his friend, staring after him, Buck strode out of the office, the figurative steam rolling off him. He did not stop at his desk, just continued out the door. The men's room door slammed hard, echoing through the silent offices.
Chris stared after his friend for a moment before closing his own door, shutting out the curious gazes of the others. He took a seat behind his desk and reached for the telephone.
"What happened to Harper?"
"I'm fine, thank you for asking."
Chris counted to ten. "I'm asking about Harper."
"She's not feeling well today. I believe I explained that yesterday on the telephone."
"Sir, was she attacked?" He heard nothing for a long minute.
"Chris, because I respect you, I'm going to say this once. Questions regarding Harper's well being are considered classified. I am not at liberty to discuss her, and I would appreciate your cooperation. Have a good day." The former judge disconnected abruptly, leaving Chris staring at the telephone.
The team leader figured the best way to settle his apprehension was to go to the source and ask her. Not wanting to admit it to himself, he realized it was the only way he would be able to assure himself she was all right. He stepped out of his office announcing curtly, "I'll be back." He noticed Buck refused to meet his eyes as he left. Physically, he swore he could feel several pairs of eyes boring into his back.
Chris left the Federal building, driving to the Hampton Inn. He knocked hard on Harper's door.
"Who is it?" The voice came through the wood very softly.
"I'm not opening the door."
"I'm not leaving."
"I can have Security remove you."
He actually laughed. "I'd like to see them try. Now open the door." Chris heard shuffling and waited what seemed to be a long time before the door opened a crack.
"Go away, Larabee."
The ATF team leader shook his head.
"What part of classified don't you understand?"
"Open the door, Harper." He could only see the left side of her face.
"And if I don't want to?"
"Then I'll break the door."
"How nice. Using force to get what you want."
Chris swore under his breath. "Then answer this. Are you okay?"
"I will be. Thanks for stopping by. Have a nice day." She slammed the door in his face.
Larabee weighed his options and decided that pressing the issue would not gain him anything at this point. He wanted to know, yes, but the supervisor in him understood the term 'classified' and respected that. He hoped that in the next couple of days he would find out the truth; something like this would not stay secret for long.
Chris returned to the Federal Building and called Buck into his office again. He noticed the barely restrained hurt and anger in the stiff movements, and hoped he, Chris Larabee, would not make more of a muck of things. "Buck, you're right. Classified is classified, and I'm wrong asking you to tell me. I'm letting it go for now."
Buck stared at him, and stared hard. He finally saw whatever he was looking for and nodded slowly. "Thanks, pard."
"Do I need to say do what you can for her?"
His longtime friend smiled. "I am and I will."
"We'll talk about this when we can, right? You know I hate not being in the loop."
"Good. Thanks, Buck."
They walked out together, the tension obviously gone from their postures. Both returned to work, ignoring the glances of the others throughout the majority of the day.
Near the time to leave, Buck pulled JD aside. "JD, I need you to do me a favor."
"I'm hoping to bring Harper over tonight so she can relax, but I don't want the others to know."
"You want me to disappear?"
"I thought you already had a date with Casey."
"Well, I do, but it's going to be an early night. She's got school and work tomorrow."
"Come home whenever you're done; I'm just asking you keep quiet about it, don't tell anyone what you see."
"I can do that."
"I knew you could." Buck clapped him in the back. "Better than before, I hope."
"Gee, thanks, Buck. Glad for your vote of confidence. Now, if I don't leave, Casey will skin me for being late."
"Go on, Kid, and have fun." Buck hit him harder on the back this time, knocking JD off balance, before he left as well.
= = 7 = =
Around five o'clock, a knock sounded on the hotel door. Harper asked, "Who is it?"
"Buck, darlin', open up."
Sighing, and knowing he would not leave, Harper shuffled slowly to the door and opened it. "Hi."
"Well, you must be doing better because it didn't take you all that long to answer the door this time." He pushed the door open, stepping forward to enter before she could close it again.
Harper shifted to one side to let him pass. "Not as stiff, but still sore."
"Good." He leaned down to buss her cheek. "Now, get yourself ready."
"For what, Buck?" Her tone sounded fatigued and irritable.
"You're going out tonight."
"No line dancing for me. Anyone you want to scare with my face?"
He laughed, treating her to a big smile. "No, darlin', we're going to go over my place and watch movies. Probably have a sugar high."
"You won't take no for an answer, will you?"
"Nope. Now, come on, find some clothes, and let's get you ready to go. Where's your overnight bag? I don't want to drive you back here in the middle of the night."
"Well, I've got three movies, and that's about six hours, give or take. That puts us finishing late, and I'm not bringing you back, especially since I know your muscles are going to stiffen up. What pills do we need to take?"
"Who said I agreed?" She went to cross her arms and stopped with a wince.
"Quit acting like a sulking kid, Ash," he gently admonished. "I know you better than that. Need me to run a bath?"
"Then are you ready to go?"
Harper caved to the inevitable with a sigh. "If you don't mind starting the water, please, because I haven't mastered bending over without pain."
"Got that. Any special scent today?"
"You know where to find them; your choice."
Buck chuckled. He stepped into the bathroom, started the water, and then came out to find a scent - Orange Blossoms. He noticed Harper opening drawers slowly and pulling out clean clothes. The rogue watched as she carefully filled a bag with items. "You're definitely moving better."
"Want some help getting in?"
"I think I can manage."
"Yell if you need me."
Once the tub finished filling, Buck made himself comfortable on the bed, turning on the television and waiting for her. She soaked less this time, working more on making herself as presentable as possible. Somehow, she managed washing her hair without inflicting more pain to herself, or wetting the stitches on the right side of her face.
Gingerly climbing from the tub, she dried herself carefully. Harper dressed in the bathroom, having brought everything she wanted into the small room with her. Keeping her wet hair wrapped in the towel, she stepped out. The look on Buck's face made her wish she'd taken the towel off.
He stood, walking over to hold her chin in his tender grasp. "I could kill them for this."
"But you won't."
Buck sighed. "I, uh, talked to Travis when Chris came to visit. So no, I won't kill them, but they'll face the trial board and criminal charges, at the minimum."
"Yes. Now, can we please move on? I still have to figure out how to braid my hair."
"Were you a valet in a previous life?"
"No, but I'm descended from a long line of women-loving Wilmingtons." He bobbed his eyebrows.
Harper laughed then held her side. "Ow."
"Don't do that if it hurts, Ash."
"Breathing hurts, but I have to do that."
"I can't help you there, but I can work on your hair." He stood behind her in the vanity area, leaning close to give her support while he used the blow dryer.
Once he finished, he found a ponytail holder, put it on his wrist, and expertly French braided her hair. "Wonderful."
Harper looked in the mirror, involuntarily wincing at her hideous reflection. "The braid, maybe."
"The whole package." He winked at her, watching her smile when she saw his action and sincerity in the mirror.
"You are good for my ego."
"You're a beautiful woman, Ash. When the right guy lands you, he'll go to bed and wake up every morning with a smile, knowing he's holding one of the most gorgeous women on the planet." Buck wrapped his arms around her waist, hugged her, and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "Until then, Lady Ash, Sir Buck will keep the evil blackguards away."
She laughed, adding her hands on top of his. "Thank you." Harper shifted slightly, leaning up to give him a quick kiss on the lips.
"Anytime, darlin', anytime." He chuckled. "Your chariot awaits. Shall we?" He let her go.
"Let us head for the sunset." She managed a flick of the wrist without pain.
Buck grabbed her overnight bag, handing off her small purse, and took her arm. "You have your room key?"
"Keycard, yes." She patted her purse. Harper linked her arm with his. They left the hotel without incident, and reached the CDC a short time later.
Buck settled Harper into the recliner, taking care not to aggravate any injuries. "What can I get you to drink, Ash?"
"Ice water, please."
"Sure, darlin'." He brought back a tall glass of ice water, in a spill proof cup, for her and a soda for himself. "How about some popcorn?"
"Can I gum it?"
"Your jaw's sore." Buck hit his forehead with his hand. "I forgot. Stupid, stupid me."
"You're not stupid, Buck, and the left side works. Go on and make it. If it hurts, I won't eat it. I'm tired of soft foods. Besides, with lots of butter, it should just melt in my mouth."
"I understand about the soft foods, Ash."
"So what are you waiting for?"
"Be right back." He made real popcorn, using the oil method, saturating it with melted butter and a light dash of salt. He split it into two large bowls, handing her one, and dropping into the couch beside her. Buck smacked his forehead. "Napkins." The rogue dashed for the kitchen, grabbed a handful, and gave her some. "Okay. I forget anything else?"
"Put the movie in?"
"TV ready to go?"
"Then let us begin."
They laughed their way through the first movie, and teased each other through the second.
Joining them just before they started the third, JD found himself relegated to errand boy before Buck let him get comfortable. The newly arrived gopher refilled their drinks, made more popcorn, and dragged out the potato chips to go with his soda. When he finally sat down, Buck started the movie.
JD did his best not to stare at Harper, but his eyes kept finding their way over to assess the damage. He noticed she rarely moved, and winced after every laugh. Fortunately, she remained unaware of his scrutiny, or seemed not to notice. He planned not to say anything about it to her, unless she brought the subject up first.
Halfway through the movie, Harper took her pills during a break, and ten minutes after that she fell asleep.
JD noticed and whispered to Buck. "Those pain pills must be strong."
Wilmington glanced over, taking in the relaxed, yet damaged features. "I don't think it's the pills, JD. I think it's feeling safe."
"Feeling safe?" JD gave his roommate a quizzical look.
"Like there's someone to guard over her while she sleeps. She doesn't have anyone like that to do that for her."
"That's sad, but she has us now, right?"
"The team. All of us would just about do anything for her now, including Chris."
"Yeah, Kid, I guess you're right. She's off again tomorrow, but she's staying here tonight."
"I figured. You leaving her there?"
Buck sighed. "Yeah, she's comfortable. No point in moving her when she doesn't need to be moved."
= = 7 = =
The movie ended, and the men quietly cleaned up. Buck found a comforter to cover her with, settling it around her body without disturbing her. They turned in, Buck sleeping on the sofa just in case she woke and needed anything.
A few hours later, Harper did wake; she was startled from her medicated slumber by a twisted version of the nightmare she endured every night. Again, she cursed softly, and then heaved herself out of the recliner. She made it to the bathroom in time to throw up, another nightly occurrence, courtesy of the nightmare, and groaned. The vomiting aggravated her ribs, so she lay against the cold toilet, tears silently streaming down her face.
Harper knew her doctor, or her therapist, could give her something to make her sleep through the night, but she also knew it would be a defeat. First, she would have to admit the nightmares still held power over her, to the point she needed help. Second, she could lose her active duty status, and they would transfer her to an administrative position, far away from the field and active duty. That is if the ATF did not discharge her for medical reasons, washing her out. A medical discharge would prevent her from taking another law-enforcement field position, and to her, washing out meant the bastard ex-husband won. She could not let any of those options happen, not if she wanted to keep what was left of her sanity.
Fortunately, she never woke either man, and after brushing her teeth, returned to the recliner. Harper planned her day in her mind, and created several to-do lists and scripted a mental rough draft for future lessons. She lay there in silence, letting her mind drift, until the clock finally moved forward to the point she could legitimately get up and start the day.
Part of her detested deceiving Buck for the second night in a row, but if she wanted to keep her secrets, she would continue the charade. Secrets the ATF classified at the highest level, and truths about their shameful conduct they never wanted to admit. The classified status suited her; it meant she answered fewer questions, saying she let anyone close enough to ask.
That, she identified, was the current problem. These men treated her differently; more like a person and less like the target of scorn. They would find out her secrets, or try to, and she was not sure what to say. Maybe the answer: 'I can't talk about it' would work for a while, but for how long? Should she risk a friendship?
Having fixed them a pot of coffee, Harper woke Buck up first, enjoying his smile as he slowly realized where he was. "Hey, darlin'. You sleep okay?"
"Just fine." She lied to him with a straight face. "Just fine."
"Good. You probably need it. I'll be back before you miss me." He stood, stretched, and went to his room to get ready for work.
"I do already." Harper mumbled this to herself, not relishing a day alone in her hotel room. She kept circling back to the question about risking having friendships, and figured she could think about the answer today.
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