The Way of Things:
Right Beside You

by LT

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, don't make no money off of the guys.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Ursula for starting the story line and special thanks to Marla and Sue for encouraging me. This is my first story to submit so please be gentle in your comments.

This is a story in the universe started by Ursula in The Way of Things. Several others have written the story of Buck's being shot and the repercussions of a moment in time when assumptions were made and demons were released. I felt it was about time that Chris be made to face a few truths. This story follows What You Mean to Me by KT, just a few hours later. (Thanks Marla!!!)

Supper was over but the smell of charcoaled steaks still lingered in the air. The seven men had enjoyed their meal and the conversation that accompanied it. Nathan and Josiah had volunteered for clean up, as they usually did. It gave the two old friends a chance to get deeply into one of their philosophical discussions without one of the younger 'brothers' constantly disturbing them.

"Come on, JD, I'll take you on in a game of checkers." Vin was already headed for the living room, afraid that Nathan or Josiah might change their mind.

Chris watched the two youngest head for the living room and the checker board. He smiled to himself. It had been a good day so far. The air had been cleared and he had seen the reemergence of his old friend. Subdued still, perhaps, but Buck had seemed to come back to them willingly. The birthday gifts that each man had thought long and hard about had seemed to do the trick and Buck had turned the corner and beat back his demons. Chris hoped that it was a permanent vanquishing of the voices that told their scoundrel that he was not good enough to be part of this strange eclectic family. The shooting and the immediate aftermath had left their lanky ladies man in the midst of a deep and toxic depression, one that had the potential to destroy them all. Chris had over heard the words of self doubt, especially where he was concerned, but he hoped that Buck had understood today just what he meant to his brothers. The brooding leader of this pack of renegades was not as sure as some of the others though. He knew the wounds that were tearing his oldest friend apart were cavernous and buried so deep that they would never be vanquished completely. He only hoped that today, Buck had started to put the doubts and fears back into their closet where he stored them.

Chris watched as Ezra started to head for the door to the one and only downstairs bedroom. He reached out and caught the con man's arm.

"He's fine Ez. Let him rest. He's had a long strenuous day." He himself had wanted to open that door. He wanted to know that Buck was all right, that he was accepting them again. One more time, Chris wanted to say 'I'm sorry, my friend, for abandoning you in your darkest time.

Please forgive us, ME, for not realizing that it was you who had taken the bullets, you who had saved Vin's life, you who needed our support and attention.' But he could not say those words to his oldest friend. 'Hell, admit it, Larabee, he's your brother in every way but blood. Where would you be without him? In the grave that's where. And where would the others be without him? They wouldn't be part of this family, that's for sure.' This family,

This strange, eclectic group of men that Chris considered brothers, wouldn't exist without Buck Wilmington and not just because he had saved Chris from himself. Buck had personally made each and every member of ATF Team 7 feel welcome and protected. Ezra would still be wandering alone through the backwaters of the FBI, still believing he had to face the world alone. Vin would be out there alone too. The gun man who had never had a family would still be an orphan instead of believing in the love of six brothers. JD would be searching for a home, someplace to feel loved and supported in every way possible like he did with his best friend and big 'mother bear'. Josiah would be on the outskirts of his unit, watching but never really participating. Nathan, as was his way, would be fighting to save lives and defeat the bad guys but he wouldn't find humor or light in his day to day world as he did now. No, it was the big loveable rogue in their midst that brought them together and bonded them into a family with his acceptance and love. 'And now, he's scared and hurting and feeling the self doubts that have plagued him since childhood. God, I hope we got to him today and he'll see what he means to us all.'

"Why don't you join me out on the deck for a few minutes, Standish. Go on out, I'll be right behind you." He inclined his head toward the sliding glass door that led to the deck off the kitchen. The undercover specialist hesitated a moment, still wanting to go check on his friend. Finally, he nodded and made his way outside. Chris quickly grabbed himself a beer and poured Ezra a snifter of his favorite brandy. He joined Ezra outside as the sun was setting over the mountain. It was his favorite time of the day, Buck's too. He noticed Ezra was looking at the barn, not the beautiful sunset. He followed the Southerner's gaze and saw his oldest friend going into the barn where the Seven kept their horses.

"He wouldn't do something stupid, would he?"

"I highly doubt it, Mr. Larabee, he doesn't have the strength to do much of anything. But, the fact remains that he is still separating himself from the rest of us. It is not a good sign, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps I should join him and try to persuade him to talk to me." Ezra started for the steps that led down to the thick green yard.

Chris grabbed Ezra's arm again. "Give him some time alone, Ez. He needs to work some things out for himself and he can't do it with us hangin' on him."

Ezra stopped and looked back at his boss. He took the brandy from Chris and gazed inquiringly at the man he could never quite figure out. Ezra was an excellent judge of his fellow human. He could sum up a man with just a glance and a few well placed words. But he had never quite understood the bond between Larabee and Wilmington. He knew they had been friends for a long time and that their friendship developed prior to the devastating blow that the murder of Chris's family had delivered to each man. They were such complete opposites from one another.

Their backgrounds were so diametrically opposed that he couldn't see how they had bonded so completely. And he doubted right now if Chris understood what Buck was going through.

He understood. He had suffered being an outcast. He had suffered betrayal. And he had suffered being tormented by the nasty words and deeds of children and adults when all one really needed was a smile or a hug. He understood the tiny voices that told the adult 'You're no good. You can't play with us. You don't belong. You're white trash. We hate you, go away!" He too had heard the voices, especially after the fiasco in Atlanta. And he had fled that city and left the rejection behind. He had run as the voices had instructed him to. His salvation had been an ATF team in Denver. His deliverance had been a group of miscreants who had accepted him for who he was now. Where would Buck find his salvation?

"Mr. Larabee, would you allow me to inquire of you something of a rather personal nature?" Ezra took a small sip of his brandy as he watched the temperamental man's face. He saw the battle that took place. Finally the man before him nodded. "Did you have loving parents as a child? Did you have a home to return to as the day wound down?"

Chris swallowed hard, remembering his mother and father. "Yeah. Why?"

"Then you cannot possibly begin to understand what our scoundrel is going through or help him come to grips with the evil spirits that haunt his mind at the present time. His doubts and fears are so imbedded in his mind and heart that he will not be able to shake them. I am afraid for all of us for he is not capable of returning our affection or TRUST at this time and the feeble attempt we made today with our paltry gifts only embarrassed him."

"I won't accept that, Ezra. I can't accept that pronouncement of doom for my team, my family. I will not loose him. I NEED him in my life!" Chris was getting angry, his typical reaction to things emotional.

"God dammit, Chris, for once in your life, think! What does Buck need? It certainly isn't your anger or your pity! He needs YOU! The rest of us are mere cogs in the wheel, and that includes JD. He needs the friend he gave his devotion to, how many years ago? Twelve, fourteen? All that man needs is for you to tell him that he is still a part of your life! Is that so hard for you, to crack open that door and show him a tiny portion of how you feel about him?" Ezra turned away from the object of his fury. He walked to the railing that surrounded the deck.

"You can't possibly understand the insecurities that he feels. The voices that tell him he isn't good enough to be your friend. When you shut him out after the deaths, do you know why he hung on so valiantly? It wasn't because it was what was best for him, that's for sure. He did it because he gave you, Chris Larabee, the piece of his heart that he had kept cosseted his whole life. I would imagine that he had never had a male friend before you came along. That something in you told him to let go, that it was okay to believe in you, that you would not betray him like every other male in his life had done before. And it was because of you that he grew to understand that every man is not the villain. Do you have any idea what it feels like to grow up not knowing who fathered you? Do you know how it feels to have other kids taunt you because of what your mother does? Do you know how it makes you ache inside when all the other boys go on a camping trip with their dads but you can't because you have no one to take you?" He turned back to glare at Chris. "He saw the man who killed his mother. He saw his mother beat and degraded by men. His whole youth, he never knew a man that was decent and honest and caring. And yet, that big scared kid found a way to believe in you, to trust you, and it took until two months ago for him to doubt that part of his heart that he gave you so completely, so eagerly. And now! You betrayed him, turned your back on him and went to another who wasn't even hurt. Hell, we all did. The only way to save our brother is for you to regain that trust."

Chris had been listening carefully, almost in awe of the clarity with which Ezra saw the man he, himself, thought he knew so well. Buck had told him about his mother about two years after they had become partners on the Denver Police Department. He had never shared that information with any of the others, feeling it was too personal, that it was not his place to tell tales about Buck. So how did Ezra learn of the fact that Buck had seen the man who killed his mother? Did Buck tell him all of these things or did the Southerner know about these feelings because he too had felt the sting of words and deeds when he was young? Chris had overheard part of the conversation that a drunken Buck had engaged in with Ezra the day they had gone to pick him up from the hospital. He hadn't understood everything that Buck had spoken of but evidently, Ezra did.

"I don't know how, Ezra. I don't know what I did in the first place to deserve the love of that man. The fact is, he's too good for me. From the very beginning, I knew that he was something special. He had a .... noble quality that I had never encountered before and he has never lost that quality, no matter what evil or despicable things he witnesses. I've known for a long time that he seeks the company of women because of the betrayal of men. Do you know why none of the ladies he dates ever seem jealous when he moves on?"

Ezra cocked his head and softly answered, "No, I don't Mr. Larabee."

Chris looked toward the heavens and noticed the first star of the evening. He drew a ragged breath and went on, "He's their knight in shining armor. He comes to the rescue, lights up their world for a brief time and then moves on to slay another dragon and free another damsel in distress. They see the ability he has to gather someone in and make them whole again. He did it for me, for JD, probably for you too. And once that person is whole again, he needs to move on, always seeking the battered soul. That big loveable lug is all heart." Chris took a long draw from his bottle of beer.

"I've only learned in the past two years how much of that heart he gave to me, to Sarah, and especially to Adam. Hell, it was only today, that it dawned on me how much he lost when they died. He needs to be needed, though, and that's why he took in JD. I didn't need him anymore. I was as whole as he was gonna make me. The kid, though, he was still bleeding. He needed a big brother and Buck is one terrific big brother."

"That he is, Chris, that he is." Ezra affirmed Chris's opinion. Finally, he was beginning to see what held the two men together for so many years. He had been wrong. Maybe Chris could understand Buck, not the way he did, but other aspects of the complex man that other men never glimpsed. "Go, talk to him just the way you have opened up to me. Show him your underbelly for once, instead of your fangs. The two men who were drawn to one another fourteen years ago are still here, undercover perhaps, but ready to come out into the open."

Chris nodded and stepped off the deck, heading for the barn.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris opened the small door that led into the musty darkness of the barn, he wasn't sure what he was going to say to Buck, but he knew that he needed to regain his old friend's trust before the day was over or they would end up loosing him, perhaps forever. One small light illuminated the interior of the roomy stable that housed ten horses and two goats. Chris made his way down the line of stalls to where Buck stood, rubbing the neck and mane his big gray mare.

"She missed you. JD did his best to keep her exercised but he was pretty busy trying to juggle you, Casey, and work. "

Buck stroked the muzzle of the horse. He didn't turn his head to acknowledge the man who strode towards him.

Chris tried again. "Your mother hens will be worried about you if they find you're missing."

The mare softly nuzzled Buck with her lips, trying to comfort her master and friend. Buck moved his right hand to the mare's neck and scratched gently, up and down. He spoke soft reassuring words to the horse and she laid her neck across his shoulder, utterly content.

Chris was beside the man now. Buck still hadn't acknowledged his presence. The man in black also reached out a hand and patted the gentle mare's neck.

"They didn't have to do that today." Buck closed his eyes and concentrated on Bourbon's warmth.

"You're right, they didn't HAVE to do what they did. They wanted to, Stud. They needed to show you how important you are to them. Believe me, nobody forces those men to do anything they don't want to." Chris smiled, thinking about how excited each had been when they could report that they had come up with the perfect gift for their lost companion.

"No, I meant I'm fine. I know they ...." He stopped himself. He took a pain-filled breath. "Thanks for taking care of her in my absence, Chris. She looks fit." Buck dropped his head just a bit.

Chris could tell Buck was drained, emotionally, physically, and mentally. The man reeked of weariness. But there was something more. Something that made him appear shattered, drained of all energy and spirit. Chris stepped back from the horse. "Come on, Pard, let's get you back to the..." He stopped as he watched the ladies man reach out to grab the stall door. Buck staggered slightly and then his knees buckled. Before Chris could get behind him to break his fall, he crashed to the hard packed dirt floor.

Chris was instantly on his knees beside his fallen friend. He cradled Buck's head in his arms. He saw the perspiration that beaded his forehead and heard the quick breaths Buck was drawing. 'Dam,' he thought, 'He should never have been allowed out of the hospital. What the hell were we thinking today. We should have waited until he was stronger to all pounce on his like we did this afternoon.' He saw the dark blue eyes open and search for a friend.

"I've got ya, Buck. I'm right here for you. Just lie still, I'll take care of ya." Chris ran a hand over Buck's forehead, trying to comfort the trembling man in his arms.

"Don't ...." It was said so softly Chris wasn't sure it was even said out loud but the message reverberated from the hayloft above them.

"I'll never leave you, Pard. You've got me for life. Just hold on, hold on." Chris crooned over the shattered soul. He laid his cheek against Buck's head and continued his litany. " I will always be right here when you need me, Buck, just like you have always been there for me. What would I have done without you, huh? You're my anchor, big guy. You're what makes me human. I couldn't leave you. I can't loose you. Do you hear me, Buck Wilmington! I need you. Please, come back to me. Come back to all of us. We don't deserve you but we love you. You are the heart that makes this family survive."

Buck raised a shaky hand and placed it on Chris's arm. He squeezed, needing the feel of Chris. "I thought .... you forgot all about me. It hurt to see you kneeling by Vin when I needed you. I just wanted one of you to give a dam about me. I needed you, Chris!" The tears cascaded down Buck's pale cheeks.

Chris tightened his hold on the bigger man and rocked slowly back and forth. "I'm so sorry about that, Buck. We didn't see you in the shadows until Vin called out for you. It happened so fast and all we saw was Vin on the ground, the man with the gun running. We didn't see you in the shadows, I swear, we didn't mean to abandon you. Please, please, believe me. You were unconscious when we got to you. But believe me, I was never so scared in my life, Pard, I thought you were gone. It felt like the light went of my life and I knew I would be lost without you but Nathan and Josiah wouldn't give up on you. They brought you back to me. None of us knew you had been awake to see us kneeling by Vin or we would have explained it all to you. I would never abandon you, not in a million years, Buck. You've got to believe me."

Buck closed his eyes and drew in ragged breaths. For the first time in almost three months, he felt whole again. His body had given out but his soul was flying. "Help me up," he whispered against the pain that coursed through his body.

"NO, you lie still. You are not going anywhere, do you here me. I've got it taken care of." Chris fished in his pocket and pulled out his small cellar phone. He had called Ezra earlier in the day to see when they were going to arrive at the ranch since he knew that Ezra was picking up Buck and JD. He had stuck it in his jean pocket when Vin drove up. He hit the numbers for his home phone and waited for one of his men to answer.

JD led the charge to the barn with Nathan, Ezra, Vin and Josiah right behind him. After Nathan quickly checked Buck's vitals, they carried the big man back to the house and tucked him into the bed in the downstairs bedroom. JD pulled a chair up beside the bed, ready to stand guard over his big brother.

"JD, would you mind if I sat there for tonight. You can have him tomorrow when you go home. I need him to know.... I just want him to know..." Chris's eyes pleaded with the young man for understanding.

"Sure." JD got up and was quickly replaced by the blonde. Chris tenderly touched Buck's face and smiled when the midnight blue eyes opened and met his.

"I'm right beside you, Pard. Always."

Buck sighed and fell sound asleep for the first time in months.


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