JD found another note from Buck the next morning. Taped to his bedroom door, it had obviously been scribbled and left the night before, though he had missed it in his stupor.
With Melinda at Hyatt Regency. Set your alarm--FBI 9 AM Pre-show at 8
With enough past practice, he was able to simultaneously shave, suck back a cup of cold coffee leftover from the pot Ezra made the night before, and wrestle with a tie in order to get ready in time. His head hurt, his eyes were gummy and blurred. His mouth tasted like a combination of aluminum foil and aged rice pudding, laced with the acid of the old coffee.
He thought it was better than he deserved.
Waiting for the perpetually late Ezra to pick him up, he practiced a variety of repentant expressions.
But it was an easy thing to atone to Standish. The Southerner slid into the parking lot of a Starbuck's en route and commissioned the regretful youth to pick up an iced, double shot frappé. The large chocolate chip-hazelnut muffin JD purchased for his breakfast clinched the apology.
Asking forgiveness of Buck wasn't going to be so easy.
The conference room was filled with suits when JD and Ezra slipped in, finding a space next to a small table overflowing with greasy puff pastries, mini-muffins, and dried bagel halves. The sight nauseated him even more, and he swallowed heavily as he looked away--only to find Buck watching him.
He wasn't sure if he should maintain the contact or cast his eyes down. He and Buck had argued before. You couldn't have the type of relationship they did and not have a blow-up or two along the way. But the cause had always been trivial--as when JD had borrowed a favorite cowboy hat from Buck for a road trip with Casey and then forgotten about it as it lay crammed into a corner of the backseat, covered by a pair of heavy and unused roller blades. It resembled a cauliflower when he fished it out.
Or when Buck had been forced to reveal JD's habit of checking into Chris's e-mail when the team leader was out of town "just in case of an emergency." This came about when Buck inexplicably offered some advice on a certain sexual position to Chris--information that would have only been needed had Buck been aware of the e-mail Chris's paramour Mary Travis had sent after a vacation together.
What he said last night to Buck had been very rude and very wrong. It had been judgmental, something he had promised himself he would never be with his uninhibited friend. And it had been childish.
He hoped his regret was evident as he held his roommate's gaze. He shook his head, frustrated that they wouldn't have an opportunity to talk it through sooner rather than later. His face flushed with embarrassment.
Then his face flushed with a new wave of nausea as Ezra held a bagel half and a container of vegetable-speckled cream cheese up to his face.
When he looked back, the nicest description he could think of for the look on Buck's face was disappointed.
The FBI had nominal jurisdiction in most domestic bombing cases--enough that when the crime was solved, they would be able to take credit for it, though their contribution was usually minimal. It was simply accepted that the ATF's way was to graciously step into the background and not gloat upon their successes, unlike the gray-suited Feebies who crowded the room with self-importance. As the meeting began, one of the Feebs had decided to spend some self-aggrandizing time recalling their victorious past successes and extolling the merits of their banding together again. The only thing missing from his inspirational spiel was a circle of clasped hands and a series of trust exercises.
JD nursed his second cup of coffee, trying to focus on what was being said, but his thoughts wandered aimlessly, thinking about the night before, the number of holes in the ceiling's acoustic tile, and whether or not it would be fair for the queasy agent to exact revenge upon Ezra so soon after his apology as his teammate kept waving annoyingly fragrant croissant and jelly doughnuts in front of his nose.
For arriving on time, the rest of the Team Seven members had secured seats around the conference table. When Buck and Vin rose to join the agents who were addressing the meeting, Ezra and JD, who had worked their way around the room to be closer to the team, slipped into their seats. Finally, the two ATF agents were called upon to deliver their findings on what information had been gathered and what suspects were making their short list.
Buck began his recitation with an overview of the two bombings, showing pictures of the sites and evidence gathered in a series of Powerpoint slides shown on a small screen set up on one side of the room. He glided fluidly through the timelines of the events, his charts clear and concise. When the slide show ended , Buck stepped forward to bring the room up-to-date with findings they'd put together that morning.
A morning when he'd had been late, JD thought guiltily.
"If you look through your copies of the report," Buck began, as the meeting's participants rustled the indicated paperwork, "you'll see that the incidents are incredibly dissimilar. In the first, there was an actual explosion from pipe bombs with a computer used as the timing device. The second incident seems like a prank. A computer was also used, to e-mail the threat, but that can no longer be considered uncommon in today's culture. And there was no real bomb. Just a bag filled with a child's game. Then you go back and see that the first bomb was filled with jacks. Another child's game.
"Our computer specialist inputted all the gathered intel into EXIS," he continued, "but we didn't have high hopes. Nothing matched--not sources, not materials. But brilliantly, he included a series of search parameters that took this common factor--and this is the only common factor--into account. The results are before you."
The said specialist cringed with embarrassment. How could Buck bestow such praise on him? He felt awful. He hadn't even been there before the meeting to gather the print-outs. He had no idea what EXIS had spewed forth that the senior agent was going to announce.
"Thanks to Agent Dunne's expertise, we've found a pattern that we hope will lead us to the individual or group doing this."
The quiet room erupted into a buzz of hushed arguments that quickly died down when Chris glared at the assembly. "Go on."
"There've only been two incidents," piped up one of the Feebs, "that's not a pattern."
"We don't think there've only been two incidents," Vin countered quickly. "And that's what Agent Dunne's work's uncovered."
Another round of debates swept the room as JD felt all eyes on him. He wanted to bolt and run. He would rather have been anywhere else--at the dentist, at the tax auditor, getting a prostate exam--anywhere. He worried where this was going.
"Agent Dunne," Buck called above the din, "would you like to continue?"
He recognized a look of pure maliciousness on Buck's face that in the past had only been seen when the fun-loving man was planning an elaborate prank or scheme against his friends. He had never seen it used in a professional capacity, and he almost shuddered at its spitefulness.
Shaking his head, he quickly declined. "Oh, thank you, Agent Wilmington, but you're doing a great job."
Buck offered his thanks, then waited for Chris to silence the room again with his steely gaze. "In your packet is a list of bombing incidents throughout the States that have heretofore been unresolved and unconnected." He waited as the agents pulled out the indicated paper. JD opened the file he'd brought in with him from his desk and pulled out a columned list of cities from its contents.
"Fortunately no one has been killed but they're causing millions of dollars worth of damage and destruction, not to mention an incalculable amount of fear. All these incidents incorporate a children's toy or game." Buck pressed a button to forward to the next slide in the presentation, which duplicated the hard copy. "Starting on May fifth in Baltimore, Slinky toys were used as shrapnel in an explosive device, which was set off in the waiting room of a medical complex that contained several gynecologists' offices. Then, a week and a half later, at a Planned Parenthood office in St. Louis, aluminum pick-up sticks in a suitcase bomb shattered the windows and cut up several women and doctors on the site. "
Buck's voice faded away as JD compared his paper to the slide on the screen. He nudged Ezra in confusion. "Hey, Ez, do you have this page? I've got a list of the cities, but not the toys."
"Of course not," came the low reply. "We came in too late to get the hand-out."
JD looked down at his paper again. All the cities matched. All the dates matched. Then what list was he looking at? Checking the sheet more closely, he noticed a URL running across the left footer that wasn't on the presentation slide. And a date two days earlier written on the right.
The URL was AWomansChoice.org. The date was from the afternoon he pulled the itinerary of Melinda Gardner's lecture tour out of the printer.
Were the bombers following the Gardners? It was a strong possibility.
But then he remembered Jake's strange remark in the kitchen during the party, pointing out that the bombings were a help to their cause.
He shuffled the page to the back of the file folder and prayed he could keep a poker face as well as Ezra.
The meeting dragged on far longer than it needed to, but finally ended. JD waited patiently as Buck and Chris parried off an attempt on one FBI agent's behalf to congratulate the ATF for the new information and insult them for the still remaining unanswered questions. With a forced tolerance, Chris dismissed the niggling with a wave of his hand and stalked away, followed by the brave Fed.
This left JD and Buck alone in the conference room.
"Good work, kid. Sorry you weren't here early enough to review your own results before the meeting started."
"Yeah, I'm sorry, too." Willingly, JD braced himself for a deserved reprisal.
"You look terrible," Buck said with a smile.
"What?" The chastisement wasn't going exactly as the young man had imagined. "I mean I feel terrible," he affirmed. "Not just that I'm about to upchuck the last two months' worth of dinners, but what I said last night. I'm the one who's sorry."
The older agent began to circle the table, silently gathering up leftover yellow pads and stapled reports. JD followed him.
"I'm sorry, Buck," he began again.
"Josiah told me you were drinking boilermakers--boilermakers plural--on top of not eating. You can't drink that much." He tossed the collected pads back across the table in frustration, scattering half-filled coffee cups and crumb-laden paper plates. His voice lowered to an angry whisper. "Why were you drinking at all?"
"I don't know," his roommate sputtered. "I was upset and confused--"
"About what?" JD echoed back in amazement. About what? he thought, surprised at the question. About the way you've been avoiding me? About the way you're not including me in one of the biggest life-changes you could possibly have? You think it doesn't matter to me?
"About the case."
Buck looked away sharply, as if he'd been slapped. He walked stiffly towards the door.
"Buck?" JD ran after him.
"I know when you lie, okay? And I know you're lying," Buck said as his partner caught up to him. "I know everything about you. I know you only drink when you're afraid to face something." He raised his arms in a gesture of helplessness. "I know when you're not feeling well and I know how to make you feel better. I know when you're down and I know how to get you back up. What would happen to you if I wasn't around? Where would you be now if I hadn't taken care of you when you joined the team? When you got your ass shot up and you didn't know how to work in the field and you were so green, I. " He stopped and took in a staggered breath.
A thunderous pounding in his ears fought the silence in the room as JD struggled for the right response. He also knew everything about his friend. Or he thought he had. The outburst didn't make sense to him.
Just as suddenly as the older man had twisted into a whirlwind of emotion, he relaxed.
"You were so green I used to call you 'Kermit.'"
It had been a long time since he'd heard that nickname. JD offered an earnest smile. "Thanks. Thanks for all your help." He thought his expression of appreciation would ease the tangle Buck seemed to be in, but the peeved look on his face showed it seemed to have the opposite effect.
"I'm not looking for thanks. I'm looking for the truth. What's going on with you?"
"Is it that easy, Buck?" he threw back. "I ask you that and you bite my head off. You ask it and, what, I don't get a choice?"
Buck lowered his head in deference. "You're right." His arm reached for the doorknob.
"I'm worried. " JD blinked. "I'm worried about you. I don't want you to get hurt. If it doesn't work out with Melinda, and if, you know, you and Jake don't click," he trailed off.
Buck cocooned his arms around himself, wrapping them tightly. He looked at the floor for a long while before finally raising his eyes again to meet his best friend's.
JD felt sure he was reading his conflicting thoughts. Of course he was worried about Buck. He may have thought about the possibilities of this situation arising, but when it actually happened, how could anyone be truly prepared?
And now he was beginning to suspect this possible son of some pretty dirty deeds.
But he could not admit to Buck his real worries were more self-centered.
He was worried about himself.
Why was he not good enough for Buck's love? What was it about himself that made him so easily discarded?
His own father hadn't wanted to know him, nor had anyone in his father's family.
The fathers of his friends, the men who trained him at the police academy they'd all slipped away as JD moved on with his life.
Now the man he thought of as a true father-figure was closing him out of his life when the possibility of his own blood son appeared. Maybe even leaving him.
"I'm worried, too." Buck loosened his arms as he replied. "I don't know what's going to happen. Things don't always work out the way you think they will. I know what I want but you can't always " He shrugged as he opened the door and preceded his partner out of the room. "Well, it's just like what the Stones said."
"Yeah." JD watched him walk down the hallway and tried to make sense of his best friend's confusing non-response. The only thing he thoroughly agreed with was the last statement. You can't always get what you want.
Evidence assessments and incident reports from the newly-related bombing cases began filtering in as quickly as requests were made and Ezra and Josiah organized them for the rest of the team to analyze. Buck took over the conference room for his "war room," pinning up site pictures on a bulletin board, making lists on a large pad set up on an easel, and reading the information over and over again for anything that could yield clues or leads to the identity of the bombers.
Whenever JD went into the room, Buck would hand him a file to add to the EXIS query, or ask him to do a search about specific elements of the bombs or the toys. No other conversation passed between them.
Reading through the new material yielded ignored references to e-mails involved as well as an improved understanding of the diversity of materials used. Although it was frustrating not to be able to form a clear identity of the bomber based on a typical signature of style, that fact alone yielded several new theories that could only bring them closer to an answer.
Halfway through the day, JD finally had to hide in the bathroom to escape the compliments of his own team members and other co-workers on his discovery. He cringed everytime he saw a hopeful smile or a crinkling of eyes that implied "You did it, kid."
He had pushed some buttons and walked away. That's what he'd done. Then he'd gone out and gotten drunk and disappointed his best friend. That wasn't too hard to do.
Now, after seeing an unexpected similarity between the dates of the bombings and the tour schedule of the Gardeners, he was going to have to find out if the connection wasn't just a coincidence. And if it wasn't, he was going to have to break his best friend's heart.
Buck had every reason to leave him and not look back. It was happening again and he had no idea what he was doing to make it happen and how to make it stop.
He wondered how many boxes he would need. He'd have to rent a van. Although he'd never accumulated so much it wouldn't take him more than an evening to pack it all up, it was more than would fit on his bike. The bike he'd bought while in Denver. He'd bought skis, too, and a bigger stereo system than he'd ever owned in his life, due to Buck's encouragement. There were the things they'd bought together, too. A barbecue grill and the 50-inch TV and curtains. Shit. The curtains cost almost the same as the TV.
Buck could have them all. He didn't want anything to remind him. He never did. No moss on this stone, he thought.
"JD? You all right?" Nathan stood in the doorway.
"I'm fine." With a deliberate ease, he pushed off the tiled wall and turned on a cold water faucet.
"It's just that. " The medic shrugged. "You left your desk over a half hour ago, so, after last night the guys got worried. I was elected you know. "
JD splashed some water on his face, then wiped it dry with a paper towel. He forced a smile to his lips. "You get all the fun jobs."
"Yeah, well. It also seemed like you needed someone to talk to. " Nathan arched an eyebrow. "And it looks to me like you've suspended Buck from that job."
The younger man looked back with a similarly arched brow. "Looks like that, does it?" He swallowed a laugh. "Looks can be deceiving."
His teammate smiled. "C'mon. I need a cup of coffee that hasn't been made by Vin and you need to get out of here."
"You been reading my mind, Nate?" His eyes sparkled at the irony as they left the room. "I have been thinking of getting out of here."
Nathan bit his lip. Looks weren't as deceiving as JD thought--and this looked to be a harder talk than he expected.
The noonday sun sent drops of sweat rolling around the inside of his newsboy cap, and, once again, he had to fight to keep up with the pace of the taller man walking beside him, but it felt good to be outside and away from the source of his tension. Occasionally they would foray into conversation. The heat was a common topic, as were sports, girlfriends, and Ezra. JD wasn't offering any explanations for his behavior, and Nathan hadn't asked him for any.
As they headed into the historical district of Larimer Square, Nathan commented on the architecture of a building and JD began to explain that it had a background as dancehall in the 1880s.
"You really like it out West, don't ya?" his teammate interrupted.
The former New Englander nodded. "Yeah, I feel like. " He shrugged. "You know the cliché. As soon as I moved here, I felt like I belonged."
"Really?" They stopped in the restored area and Nathan easily hunted out his desired good cup of coffee. Once home to saloons and rowdy houses, the restored red brick buildings now housed the trappings of yuppie preservationists, which included a Starbuck's among its trendy galleries and restaurants.
Settling on a bench with a pair of iced Cappuccinos and lemon squares, Nathan came back to the topic. "Well, if this is belonging, I could get used to it."
JD squinted in the bright sun. "You don't like it here?"
"I like it here fine." He took a deep sip and rolled an ice cube around in his mouth for a moment before slipping it back into the plastic cup. "Just miss some things in the South."
"Smell of jasmine in the air."
"The slow, easy pace."
"And some really big bugs."
"Are you missing Boston?"
JD brushed the crumbs from his pants. "Of course I miss Boston. It's only the only other place I ever lived." He stood and wiped the back of his neck with a napkin, then tossed it into a garbage receptacle. "On a day like this, though, I don't miss the humidity."
"Nope." Nathan smiled. "Like I said, I could get used to this." He took another cooling sip. "Good coffee. It helping your hangover some?"
"Some." He took a deep pull from his cup, then set it on the bench before leaning back on a lamp post. "You want to know why I was drinking last night."
The medic shook his head. "No, I know why you were drinking. I'd just like to see if there's something else you can do instead."
"It's been known to help."
JD's eyes widened in anger. "Yeah, well, I've been trying to talk, but I'm not getting any response." He banged his head lightly against the post. "You see what's going on, Nate. Buck's shut me out. I mean, I can't be coy about it. You see it. Everyone's seeing it. I just have to accept it. I should be used to this by now."
"Used to what?"
Nathan watched as the young man's lips tightened and his eyes looked away. A chill dampened the back of his neck in spite of the heat. "JD, you don't have to talk to me. Talk to Josiah, or Vin, or even Ezra, but talk to someone. Something's eating you up inside and you can't go on like this."
JD grabbed his plastic coffee cup off the bench and flung it into the trash. Slowly Nathan drained his own coffee, then held out the empty cup. The action coaxed a small smile of out of his teammate, who obligingly tossed it in the garbage before sitting back down on the bench.
"I'll tell you something I haven't even told Buck," he began. "I had a Big Brother when I was thirteen. Ma thought I needed 'male influences' in my life, so she signed me up. His name was Mike Palucci. He was the best."
He twisted on the bench, trying to find a comfortable position. "It wasn't just about him being there at ball games or track meets, you know. It was having a guy to talk to about everything. Girls at school, my voice changing, what I wanted to be when I grew up."
"Yeah, but, more than that. I think, for the first time, I felt what it would be like to have a Dad, you know?"
His friend understood more than he would realize. Although his father had died only recently, the loss of Nathan's mother while he a child had deadened his father's heart. He might have grown up with a man in the house, but their relationship was kept at a distance. Sometimes he felt that it had been just as bad as growing up fatherless.
"When I was fifteen, Mike got me a summer job at the police horse stables. Shoveling out shit all afternoon, but, man, it was great. I could be with the horses and I got to know the cops. That's probably what started me on my way here."
"Sounds like a really great guy."
"I don't think Buck would agree."
Nathan tilted his head in question until JD pointed to his head. "He gave me this cap!"
After a laugh, the young man continued.
"He was a great guy," he insisted, "until he and his wife had been trying to have kids. Hadn't been so successful, that's why he was in the program. Then, one day we meet and he tells me he's moving to Texas. His wife finally got pregnant and wanted to be near her family with the baby. I asked him to stay." He bit his lip. "And he said that I had to understand. It it was a 'family thing,' he said. Now that he was having his own kid, he couldn't be with me anymore."
Nathan squeezed his shoulder in sympathy. "He didn't stay in touch?"
"He sent me a card for my birthday and Christmas. He never called. Then it stopped."
"What about you? Didn't you try to stay in contact?"
"We were pretty bad off then. Mom was starting her first treatment. I couldn't afford to call. I could barely afford stamps." JD took his cap off and wrung it in his hands. "I just I thought I meant more. "
"You think that's what's happening with Buck now?" He wondered if JD hadn't made enough effort on his part, but who really knew?
"He's all but said it." It's a family thing, he recalled, and a shiver went down his spine. Buck had said it.
He stood up and set the cap back on. "We should probably get back. Thanks for--"
"Conversation's not over." Nathan unfolded his lanky frame and they started along the sidewalk. "This is the part where I get to give my thoughts." He looked down at his friend with a smile. "And I think you're wrong."
JD screwed up his face in refusal.
"Buck doesn't leave so easy. You know that."
Shrugging, JD increased his pace. "I don't know anything anymore." He strode forward another half block before he realized that Nathan was not beside him. Turning around, he saw him stopped at the corner, arms folded across his chest, with a rare, unforgiving look on his face. When it became clear that the older man was not going to budge from his position, he reluctantly walked back to join him.
"You know that," Nathan continued, "You know that for a fact and right now I'm more ashamed of your behavior than his."
"But Huh? " JD couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Remember the Stuart James case? How Buck showed up and backed us even after Chris suspended him? Or when he stood by that idiot Bryce when all the other teams left to save their hides and almost got fired for that? What about the Terry Greer case? He coulda found a way to escape but--"
"That's his job," JD said with a scowl.
"Right. So let's talk about Chris. Let's talk about how he's stood by him for more than a dozen years. Stuck by even when Chris was pushing him away after his wife and son died. Gave him a bed when he was drunk, cleaned up his vomit, covered for him on the force."
"That's Chris! He didn't ask for it."
"You want someone who asked for it?" Nathan rebutted, his voice starting to match his teammate's in irritation and volume. "How about Inez when she was being stalked by that guy, Don Or Nora when she was getting beaten up by her boyfriend. Or Lydia or Lucy or Millie or pretty much every woman he's gone out with. They're all still friendly with him."
"Yeah, they're all women," came the flippant answer. "I think your argument ends there." He tried to walk away again but Nathan grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
"Oh, no, it doesn't." The tall man nearly shook with rage. "Don't forget Vin, when they almost came to blows on the Mosely murder. They're still friends. Or me, when Buck helped Ezra with the prostitution sting against my request. Or what about your sorry ass. Your screw-ups have gotten him into plenty trouble and yet he still backs you up. You think something like this just ends his regard for you? That's it--it's all over?"
"Yes! They all leave me! My father! My mother! Mike! The guys on the force! Now Casey's talking about it. So I'm not surprised Buck's going to, too."
Nathan was stunned.
"We've got to get back," JD pleaded. "He's already pissed at me for drinking. Now I've disappeared from the office." But his friend refused to move.
"Kid, your momma died. She didn't want to leave you.' Nathan gritted his teeth. "My mother, on the other hand, committed suicide. Can you see the difference?"
A flush of hot shame crossed the younger man's face. "God, Nate, I'm sorry."
"No, no--I'm overreacting." The older man took a deep breath and gestured for them to start back. "I just " he started. "I just can't believe what you're thinking. You know how Buck is. When he makes a friend, he keeps a friend. I've never known anyone who's so steadfast."
"Then why is Buck avoiding me? And don't say he isn't," he followed quickly.
Nathan thought for a moment. "Maybe he's just feeling he needs to be a father to the boy, unfortunately to the exclusion of others. He never had a father himself."
JD put his hands in his pockets, not quite convinced. "Yeah?"
"Maybe he's thinking, 'This is how I would've liked my father to be with me.' Really attentive and just being there for him."
That's what Mike had been like, he thought. That's what Buck had been like to him.
How could he begrudge Jake that? Once again, he was embarrassed at his behavior. Wouldn't he have wanted the same attention if his own father found him? In his heart, he knew Buck was doing the right thing, but when he thought about how unappreciative Jake seemed to be of it, he felt more frustrated.
The walk back to the office returned to conversations concerning the heat, sports, girlfriends, and Ezra. During the lapses, he wondered if he should tell Nathan of his suspicions. After their talk in the kitchen during the barbecue and the damning list of the Gardners' tour schedule, he was starting to become convinced that somehow Jake might be involved in the bombings. He'd been known to be correct based on far less, especially when his gut instinct counterbalanced the facts. But he also knew he couldn't trust his gut on this one.
If he was going to do this.
If he was going to destroy his best friend's hopes as ruthlessly as the bombs were ripping apart the women's health centers.
If he was going to destroy his own hopes in the process and be able to live with himself.
And somewhere else, he thought.
Then he'd better be damn sure.
Back in the office, work continued at collating the variety of new information. JD checked on the status of his remailer investigation, but no results had come back. He wondered how the DNA tests were going, and tried to figure out the probability of which answer was going to come back first. More importantly, he wondered which answer would be worse--Jake being involved in the bombings or Jake being Buck's son.
He couldn't do anything about the paternity test, he knew. The answer would be either yes or no. He thought he knew what he would be doing in either case; his behavior at the whole event proved that he wasn't worthy of his relationship with Buck. He refused to stay and be hurt regardless of whether Jake became a part of Buck's life or not.
Nathan was wrong, he thought. Buck might not leave Chris. They had a very long, intense history that still had too many unresolved feelings to be settled easily.
Buck wouldn't leave his women--that was as unalterable a part of him as his height or hair coloring.
But he could leave JD.
Everyone else did. It was always just a matter of time.
And that, JD admitted, was why he had been thinking it was better to leave first.
He opened a desk drawer to find a new CD before starting back on the EXIS analysis and looked at the pile of jewel cases thrown on top the other personal items he'd accumulated.
He'd need more boxes.
When JD returned to the duplex that night, it was dark and cold, the only sound coming from the rattle of the over-taxed air conditioner. After checking his bedroom door and several places in the kitchen for any notes from Buck, he grabbed a cold beer and sat on the living room couch, pulling his ever-present newsboy cap low over his eyes.
Buck was out again with the Gardners. Well, not out, exactly. Melinda was speaking somewhere, and Buck was attending the lecture. Probably playing into the picture of "one big happy reunited family." The entire team had been invited but Chris had offered the polite refusal that work on the case precluded their being there. It couldn't look like they were taking a night off, or worse, supporting her campaign. He remembered the way Melinda's eyes are taken on an icy sheen at Chris's remark. She had purred back her understanding, but all could tell she had been offended.
Buck had been involved with some bitches in the past, but whatever attraction had initiated those liaisons usually dissipated very quickly. This one wasn't going away fast enough for JD's taste.
Love really is blind, he thought. And deaf and dumb and basically trouble.
Maybe he should call Casey and see what she was doing.
After a long pull from the beer bottle, he took out his cell phone, then thought better. He didn't want to know what Casey was doing. Especially since she hadn't called for several days, so whatever she was doing, she was doing it without him.
She was leaving him, too.
He sat there for a long time, the room slowly getting darker, along with his thoughts.
Thoughts about where he had come from. High points. Cool points. Low points. Where he was now. And if he had any place left to go.
He got up and went into his bedroom to survey the contents. Closet. Dresser. Bed. Desk. Crap in the corners, crap on the floor. His mother would have smiled and chided him in her light Irish accent. "I remember there being a carpet on the floor when we moved in, boyo," she used to say about his bedroom in Boston. "But t'ank you so much for saving me the task 'o vacuuming it."
He set the beer on the night table and sat on the bed. Opening the table's top drawer, he took out a good-sized wooden box still redolent with the aroma of fine cigars. Buck had given him the box. Or rather, JD had given Buck the cigars, on the promise he would get the box back. There weren't too many items in it. He'd only started to fill it with papers, pictures, and other sentimental items, imitating a box Buck had shown him that he had been carting around since his childhood. If nothing else, JD could strap it to his bike and ride into the sunset with emblems that would remind him of his most important memories.
He dumped the contents onto his quilt and sorted through them. There was the official letter from Chris on ATF stationery affirming his appointment to the team. Sappy valentines from Casey. Achievement awards from grade school through Boston University as well as certificates of honor from the Boston PD. His mother's rosary and an empty bottle of L'Air du Temps. A matchbook from the hotel in New Orleans where he lost his virginity. A pair of cuff links. A toy brace of 1877 Colts with imitation ivory grips. His apartment keys from Boston and a duplicate set of his motorcycle keys. A tattered antique dime novel.
Reminders of his team members included a cross from Josiah, a poker chip from Ezra, and a cut-out newspaper clipping of a poem Vin had written for a cowboy poetry contest. He hadn't been able to find anything suitable for Nathan or Chris yet.
Buck was represented by a broken cylinder from a Remington Army Conversion pistol they'd found while hiking through a ghost town in the mountains. They both spotted it at the same time and there was a brief clash of wills as both argued their case for possession. Buck finally relented, handing it to him and saying that he should use it to remind him to take care of himself and his weapons, since they followed a dangerous career path. To JD, it was a reminder of the care Buck bestowed upon him and he cherished the rusted, broken piece. At the time, he felt it was enduring like Buck.
He had hoped there would have been time to add more items to the box before he left Denver. He pondered his room, wondering if there was anything that needed to be added to the contents. Closet. Dresser. Bed. Desk. The newsboy cap he'd probably be wearing, as well as his watch and cross. Back to the dresser.
Opening the bottom drawer, he felt around underneath an aggregate of worn-out belts and tattered baseball caps until he grasped the prize he sought. The tie felt like silk, at least enough to a then-thirteen year-old's hands so that he thought no one would notice it was polyester. It was a rich China blue sprinkled with small pink, green, and orange flowers. He'd bought it for a father he never had. He meant to give it to a father he believed was his. Twice. Now its symbolic value went far beyond the four dollars he paid at the thrift store over twelve years earlier.
But after placing the tie on the bed, next to the rest of the box's contents, it didn't look like it belonged. One of these things is not like the other, he thought. One of these things just doesn't belong.
In his bitter, twisted mood, he wondered if it was unfair to keep only the awards and mementos of good times and close friendships. Maybe there should be another box of failures and lost relationships.
Maybe the reason there shouldn't be was because the box would become too big to carry.
The tie was folded up and stuffed into his jeans pocket.
He drained the beer and headed to the kitchen for another. Closing the refrigerator, he almost dropped the bottle--not from the condensation on the glass, but from the sound of keys jangling in the door locks.
"Honey, I'm home!" Buck called from the entrance.
JD emerged from the kitchen, drying the palms of his hands on his jeans. The unopened drink was left in the fridge.
"Hey, kid." The older man dropped his keys onto the entranceway table and rifled through a pile of mail. "How're ya doing?"
"Fine." He moved slowly back across the living room towards the couch as casually as he could, Buck's eyes following him the whole way.
"Yeah?" His roommate dropped the mail and headed for the kitchen. "Chris told me you bunked out pretty early. Can't blame ya." He returned with two beer bottles and waved one in air as an offering to JD. The younger man declined. Buck raised his eyebrows, but said nothing else, leaving the bottle on the dining room table before opening his own. "You must be pretty tired from all the work. I wanted to make an early night of it, too, but, you know, I had to go to Mel's lecture."
They stood at opposite ends of the sofa, neither inclined to take a seat.
"How'd it go?" JD asked in a cautious voice.
The older man shrugged. "It sounded like an enthusiastic crowd but I didn't see 'em. I stayed backstage. Thought it was better, you know, like Chris said."
"She's very committed to her cause. A lotta people came up afterwards and thanked her."
"Jake was there?"
"Yeah, he's part of the whole thing. She talks about his achievements, talks about how much he means to her."
Buck sat on the couch and patted the cushions, indicating JD should join him. Instead, he went over to the dining room table and twisted open the beer. "D'ya mind?"
"Nah. It's not like you're driving or anything."
"I wasn't driving last night," he countered.
"It wasn't about that and you know it," Buck shot back. "It's just you had no excuse for getting drunk."
JD raised up his bottle as if making a toast, then gulped down half. "I don't need an excuse," he finally responded, wiping drops of beer off his chin with the back of his arm.
"Slow down, son."
"I'm not your son!" The younger man slammed the beer down on the table. "You've got a son! You've made that very clear."
He watched as his roommate raised his tall frame from the couch. He expected the wrath of Hell to descend upon him. Instead, Buck's face exhibited relief instead of anger.
"Yeah, that's what I figured this was all about."
"You don't know anything." JD raced for his bedroom, but Buck's longer stride overtook him and he blocked the door with outstretched arms before the younger man could escape. They stood there, each watching the other, like an irritated bull contemplating his target.
Here come the fireworks, he thought.
But again, Buck surprised him.
"I'm sorry you're feeling this way," came the softly spoken reply. "I know I haven't been You see " He struggled for the right words. "I thought this could happen one day. I mean I'm no fool. Anyone could lay odds as easy as Ezra on the chances. But ya gotta understand. " He lowered his arms, trusting JD would hear him out.
"I thought my life would be a lot different when it did happen," he explained. "Where I lived. What I did for a living. I wouldn't be living with you. I figured he'd be a little bitty baby, not eighteen years old. I thought I would have a hand in shaping him, guiding him. Giving him the kind of love my ma gave me. I mean, I know I'm not perfect," he said with a grin, "but I think she did a pretty good job. I don't lie--much. I don't steal. I treat people with respect.
"I wasn't going to seek it out, but if it happened, I wasn't going to shirk my responsibility. So when Melinda showed up, and there was Jake, well , he's not what I expected."
JD moved back slightly, as if he needed more room to absorb what Buck was saying.
"So, I'm sorry," his best friend said with a shrug. "I'm usually pretty good, going along with the curves that I've been thrown. This one I'm hitting the wall on this one, pard." As he walked back to the coffee table with measured steps, he didn't miss an opportunity to twist around his roommate's cap so that the bill faced forward. Picking up his beer, he shrugged again and wet his lips on the bottle.
If JD had been a little less defensive about being perceived as manly, he would have described the feelings that were filling his heart as "warm" and "fuzzy." Finally Buck was opening up to him as he was supposed to. Finally Buck was admitting that he hadn't been treating him right. And it was all because Buck was so confused by what was happening that he simply couldn't act normal. It was going to be all right. Buck was going to confide in him, rely on him, let him be there for him, as always. Maybe their relationship would change--slightly--but he wouldn't have to leave. They'd be a team again. They'd be Buck and JD. He was so relieved. He adjusted the cap back to his preferred position.
He glanced into his bedroom and closed the door slowly, hoping his roommate hadn't noticed what he'd left in full view on his bed. "I'm sorry, too--" he started.
"Don't apologize," Buck cut him off sharply. "I don't need your apology. You've done nothing wrong. You've been your usual perfect self."
"Oh, I'm far from perfect," he said with a laugh. "I thought--"
"No, compared to Jake, you are." Buck set down the beer. "He complains. He's rude. He's fresh to his mother. He's a jerk."
All of a sudden JD felt as if he had entered The Twilight Zone. "Now, c'mon," he countered. "He's only a kid."
"You're doing it again. Don't make excuses for him." Buck's voice raised in agitation as he came around the couch. "You shouldn't be defending him." He stopped so close to him, the youth had to resist the urge not to cover his face. "You shouldn't agree with me. But you're so forgiving. You're so kind-hearted."
The words dripped so venomously from his lips JD could almost feel a cold poison spreading through his limbs. He couldn't move. Weren't those supposed to be good qualities?
"Every time I look at you," Buck continued, "I'm reminded of what Jake is not. And I think to myself--I'm such a failure. I feel guilty I wasn't there for him."
"What the hell's wrong with you?" JD exploded. "How could you have been there for him? You didn't know about him until four days ago. You don't even know if he's really your son!"
Blue eyes flashed black as the older man stumbled backwards as if he'd been hit.
"Have you thought about that?" he persevered. "You can't lay this on me. At least I'm doing something to prove it."
"What?" Buck regarded his roommate uneasily. "What are you doing?"
"I'm having DNA tests run," came the defiant answer.
Buck's eyes whirled with viciousness. "You don't have the right."
I have every right! The words detonated inside his head. "You weren't doing anything about it."
"What else have you been doing? Following them? Checking up on them?"
JD removed his newsboy cap. For a moment he had the strange feeling of observing himself from within his own body. It was as if there was not only the exterior being known as JD Dunne that walked and talked, but that there was another being, deep, deep inside, like an alien, watching the fight between these two men and wondering who he was and what he was doing there. In spite of the air conditioning, he felt a cold sweat break on his forehead.
"What else have you been doing?" The low voice echoed in the stifling air.
"You know he's got a record." JD struggled to keep his voice steady. "Jake's been kicked out of four prep schools. First for stealing. He brought guns to one school. And another time he beat up a kid so badly, he's still going through corrective surgery."
"You ran a search on him?"
"He he's good with computers Not as good as I am, but good enough."
The words echoed silently in the cavernous room until Buck voiced them. "Good enough for what."
He walked over to the desk in the living room they shared for work purposes and picked up a file, his hands shaking. "It's here, Buck. I'm surprised you didn't notice it. I did, in the meeting. The dates of the bombings. The dates of Melinda Gardner's tour."
"Oh, Christ," Buck groaned.
"JD, are you that jealous?"
"No, I I know it's still mostly circumstantial, but if you think about it, there's opportunity, there's motive on Jake's part. If you really listen to him, he's not a fan of his mother's cause."
" Your kid doesn't look too good. "
"I don't want to listen to this. I don't want to listen to you." Buck grabbed the file and tossed it at him.
" I'd swear he was your son. "
"Right now, I don't want to even look at you."
" Close enough. "
They'd argued before. You couldn't have the type of relationship they did and not have a blow-up or two along the way.
Both men lifted their chins at the same time.
"If you think that way I'd better "
"I think you'd better "
The final word hung in the air before them, until JD showed the courage to grab it.
" leave," he choked out.