Finding the Way Home,
Means Answering the Call

by Heather M.

ATF Universe

This is the fifth and final part in the series Christmas for Some, Means Answering the Call. It is set in the ATF AU. JD Dunne is an Army reservist who has been called to active duty and sent to Iraq. I have built this story around real events. To keep this a work of fiction these events are not one hundred percent accurate. No disrespect of any kind is intended.

No infringement of any legal ownership rights, be they individual or corporation, is intended.

A very big thank-you to both Mari, Phyllis and Sue M. for their beta work; this fic is significantly better for their efforts. My thanks as well to Stephanie for sharing her University convocation experience with me.

A special thank you to the following authors for allowing me to refer to their works of fiction:

Becky E., her fiction "Starting Over"; May Robinson, her fiction "The Anniversary"; Phyllis, her fiction "Aftermath" and; Karen, her fiction "Complement."

The appropriate nod to the episode entitled "Achilles" for a quote I borrowed from it.


Please Note: I must warn you - JD goes to some very dark places in this story. It may not be to everyone's liking but I felt could not do justice to the subject otherwise.

Size: Approx. 375K

Nathan walked slowly back and forth. It was now well after midnight and Alicia had been asleep in his arms for hours. He should have put her to bed some time ago but tonight he wanted to hold her. Holding her reassured him that everything was going to be alright.

He'd given her a bath earlier this evening. He'd made silly noises and funny faces that at three and a half months of age she had reacted to with wide-eyed, quizzical expressions. He'd just finished buttoning her sleeper when Rain appeared in the doorway. He knew, by the look on her face, that something was wrong.

"Nathan," her voice shook, "the news."

He'd bundled Alicia up in his arms, and had followed Rain into the TV room. He stood beside her and listened as the CNN reporter recapped the hourly report.

"Less than 24 hours after an early hand over of sovereignty to the Interim Iraqi government three marines were killed and two were wounded in Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded as their humvee passed by the device. And in the western province of Anbar, three soldiers were wounded near the town of Al Qa'im. Officials say they were ambushed while on routine patrol."

"Nathan, Al Qa'im isn't that where...?"

Nodding, Nathan shifted Alicia to cradle her in one arm while slipping the other arm around his wife, pulling her close. "-where JD is stationed," he said, finishing Rain's question.

They had listened to the broadcasts until after ten, hoping for an update, some detail that would reassure them that JD hadn't been involved. Then Rain had nursed Alicia and gone to bed. Nathan had turned the news off and listened as Rain tossed and turned until finally falling asleep. Rain needed her rest, the 4 a.m. feeding was not long away now.

Nathan hadn't slept though. He hadn't even felt like sleeping, he couldn't chase away the nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Nathan settled gently in the rocking chair in Alicia's room. He sat starring at his daughter as she slumbered peacefully. He vowed to himself that he would keep her safe like this forever. Lifting her up, he lay a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Oh baby girl," he whispered, "I fear for your uncle tonight."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Ezra pounded away at the bag.

He told himself over and over again that it wasn't his fault, but it didn't seem to help, he just pounded the bag even harder.

He'd been driving home when he heard the late news report. He had spent the evening at the University taking in a performance of classical guitar. When he heard the news he pulled over. He changed radio channels again and again. The ten o'clock reports on the other stations confirmed the first report. In the western province of Anbar, three soldiers were wounded near the town of Al Qa'im. A feeling of dread fell heavily upon him as he sat repeatedly pushing the scan button on the radio hoping one of the reports would refute the others. The news reports over, Ezra sat for a long time, absently watching the lights of passing traffic, fighting the tug of the old addiction. Finally, he pulled away from the curb and headed for his gym.

He had kicked and punched the exercise bag with both hands and feet until they were numb and bleeding, trying to purge himself of the feeling that the team was gone forever.

It wasn't his fault, he told himself again. 'It happens every time I became attached to a place,' he thought angrily. It was just the previous evening that finally, after four years, he had dared flaunt the superstition and had unpacked the last moving carton. 'Superstitions should be respected,' he chastised himself.

His body barely registered the damage he was inflicting upon himself. It wasn't until he noticed the bag was becoming speckled with the red of his own blood that he realized what he had done. Ezra dropped to the mat exhausted. Seated with elbows on bent knees, his head resting between his bloody bandaged hands, Ezra wrestled with his worst fear, 'JD Dunne, the team will not survive your demise.'

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

He hated cleaning tack. Yet, Chris Larabee had spent all evening and well into night in the barn, working the Neats Foot oil into all the bridles, reins, billet straps and stirrup leathers, patiently rubbing in the oil to clean and condition the leathers. Once again Chris recognized his father in himself. Matthew Larabee spent his evenings doing the fiddly things that required his time and patience whenever he was worried about his eldest son, Connor, when the news from Viet Nam was bad.

Chris had heard the newscast on the radio in the Ram on the way home. "Three soldiers wounded in an ambush near the western town of Al Qa'im in Iraq. The names of the wounded and the extent of their injuries are not known at this time." Chris had had a bad feeling ever since. It was the same feeling he had years ago. He was in New York at a conference. He had suddenly had the feeling something was wrong at home. He'd left the lecture hall and had called home right away. No answer. He then called Buck at the office and was told Buck had been suddenly called away. Chris had stood debating what to do for a moment before the secretary to the Director of the New York office, and an old acquaintance of Buck's, had found him. There was an urgent call for him at her desk. Sarah was on the line, could he come home now? Adam was very ill, the doctors suspected meningitis.

The doctors had been correct and Adam, thankfully, had made a full recovery, but that feeling of dread Chris had had back then was the same feeling he had now.

Chris set the last bridle to its place on the wall next to the stalls. Milagro whinnied and shook his head. Chris reached over and stroked his nose. "What do you think, boy? Is your master okay or am I letting my ghosts get the better of me?"

Chris fed the last piece of carrot left in his pocket to the horse. He picked up the cordless phone and shut off the lights before closing the barn doors and making his way back to the house. He would try Buck again before he showered and again after his shower if necessary before turning in. He had tried calling Buck all night, both at home and on his cell, so far no answer. He hoped Buck had had a date tonight and had turned off his cell so they wouldn't be interrupted. Chris didn't want to think about the possibility that Buck was purposely ignoring his calls.

Chris hit redial and the phone connected and rang. Buck had carried a lot, for both of them, when Sarah and Adam had died. Chris didn't like the idea that Buck wouldn't allow him to do the same for him now. Seven rings and still no answer, reluctantly Chris placed the phone back on its cradle and started unbuttoning his shirt as he headed for the shower.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck looked at the ringing handset of the telephone. It lay on the bed beside him but Buck made no move to pick it up. He could read the number on the call display. It was Chris again. He didn't feel like talking to him right now. He didn't want someone trying to rationalize his fears away.

Every half-hour since he'd gotten home CNN had updated the news but there had been no update to the story he was interested in. He sat now on the edge of JD's bed turning the origami angel in his hands as he ran a pinched thumb and forefinger along the folds of the angel creasing and re-creasing the edges.

He didn't know why but he was worried. He'd put a frozen dinner in the microwave and had just opened a beer when he turned on the news. Now six hours later the frozen dinner was still sitting in the microwave and his beer sat abandoned on the coffee table. Ever since the report, Buck had had a bad feeling. Why this time, this report, after so many others in the last six months, why did this news report make him worry?

The images of the perfect rows of coffins in the belly of a Hercules transport kept rising to the forefront of his mind. The people who smuggled those images out for everyone to see had done the American people a service in his opinion. A time of war should not be considered business as usual. The realities of war should not be hidden away by government spin-doctors because it is unpopular for the current administration. War was unpopular, the death of every soldier should be mourned by every citizen and embraced by the country's leadership for the tragedy it was.

Was that the way JD was coming home? Buck's throat tightened at the thought. He pushed the thought away as he flopped back on the bed. Palms over his eyes, elbows in the air Buck thought back on their last four years together.

He recalled their first meeting. He had watched as JD repeatedly pushed his hair out of his eyes while explaining his ideas for upgrading their surveillance and recording techniques. Law enforcement's version of Doogie Howzer he'd thought at the time.

The kid showed he'd had the stuff it took, though. His first bust with them and he single handedly managed to take down two felons. JD hadn't escaped completed unscathed, a concussion and one hell of a flu bug had landed him in hospital. The next day, after not showing up for work, he and Chris found JD sick and concussed in a rundown motel. Buck was horrified when he saw the dump that JD was living in and to learn JD had checked himself out of the hospital because he didn't have much money. He was still paying off his deceased mother's medical bills.

The kid and his situation had really gotten to Buck because the next thing he knew he was lying to JD, telling him he needed a roommate to share expenses. It was the only way he could think of to get JD out of that horrible place and still let the kid to keep his pride.

Months later, just how much JD had come to mean to him, hit home with Buck, when JD was the victim of a hit and run. Buck had never known such terror before as he watched JD's body fly through the air and fall out of sight over the edge of the expressway. Now, as it always did, remembering that moment made Buck shudder. It had been the anniversary of JD's mother's death and JD had forgotten it. With his body badly battered, his soul racked with guilt, JD had lapsed into a coma. Buck was afraid they were going to lose him. He spent two straight days at JD's bedside, talking to him, encouraging him to wake up. Buck could hardly believe it when he felt JD's fingers twitch in his hand.

It hadn't all been rough moments, though. He smiled when he thought back to his and Vin's dumbfounded reactions when they found out JD was singing and drumming for the band Four Corners at Eli Joe's, a local bar. The women had shouted for JD to take his shirt off. The kid had teased them with a smile but basically had ignored their demands. Buck actually chuckled out loud at the memory. The kid had shown he knew how to keep those women wanting more.

Buck sobered up suddenly as the incident of a year ago came to mind. JD had put his fist through the kitchen wall.

It had been himself and not JD who'd needed help that time. He'd gone into an emotional tail-spin. Weeks before, he and Vin were leaving the Saloon when they had both been shot. He lay in the shadows and watched as everyone had either chased after the perp or rushed to Vin's side, leaving him alone and bleeding in the dark. The trauma of the shooting had made the few dozen seconds before they found him seem like hours. The whole incident had played with his head and all the crap from having grown up a 'poor white trash bastard'...crap that he thought he'd left behind, came back to haunt him.

He was home from the hospital and still wrestling with his sense of self worth and his place among the seven when JD heard him talking in his sleep. JD verbally tore into him over what he had said. Buck wouldn't give in. The trauma of being abandoned in the dark while everyone worried over Vin had cut deep. In exasperation JD had punched through the kitchen wall. JD had done it in anger at Buck's pig-headedness but it had served to get Buck's attention.

He remembered what the kid had said as they sat together on the bathroom floor waiting for Nathan to take them to the hospital.

"Buck, you know that we would never do that. You have to know that." Tears fell as the boy asked. "Please. I need you so much."

"I know, kid. I just sometimes I let that inner voice make me crazy. I just get scared sometimes."

"I know those childhood demons are hard to ignore, but that's what we have each other for don't ya think?"

It was afterwards, while he was inspecting the wall with the intent of repairing it, that Buck realized the force needed to damage the wall so badly. Buck, still recuperating from his own gun-shot wound, had swayed badly on his feet and had needed to sit on the floor to keep from falling down, suddenly overwhelmed at just how strong the bond between the two of them had become. He had been shaken to the core at the fact that JD loved him just as much as the brother that he considered JD to be.

The phone rang again shaking Buck out of his memories. He sat up and read the call display. This was the one caller he would pick up for tonight.

"Hey, Casey. How are you, darlin'?"

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The second Tuesday evening of every month was Josiah's turn to volunteer at the mission with Father Mike. Father Mike would stay the night and see to the needs of any of the mission's residents that should anything arise. This evening Father Mike was hobbling around on a sprained ankle, injured in a basketball game earlier in the day. Josiah had heard the early news reports and knew he wasn't going to sleep tonight so he sent Father Mike home. The shift at the mission shouldn't be too arduous, it was July and the weather was fair so many of the usual customers would find a safe place somewhere else tonight.

Josiah sat now in the tiny office with the radio turned down low. There was a break in the music as the three a.m. news report came on.

"Less than 24 hours after an early hand over of sovereignty to the Interim Iraqi government, three marines were killed and two were wounded in Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded as their humvee passed by the device. Three more marines were wounded in an ambush on the western edge of Anbar province near the town Al Qa'im. "

"In other news President Bush, speaking in Istanbul on he last day of the NATO summit, said that a sovereign Iraq was a "decisive defeat for extremists and terrorists." Bush also said "The rise of democracy in Iraq brings hope to the Middle East."

Josiah sipped his lukewarm cup of coffee thoughtfully as he listened to the news report. He was reminded of a Hebrew proverb... "The soldiers fight and the kings are heroes."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Casey thought back to her conversation with Buck as she turned over in bed. She was so disappointed in him. He had lied to her. She could hear the lie in his voice when he had said he thought JD was probably fine. There are so many soldiers stationed at Tiger Base, the chances of it being JD were "almost astronomical". Just wait and see if we're notified Buck had said. Buck hadn't been anything but truthful with her in the last six months, now he was lying to her and it made her angry. She could only conclude he lied because he felt the same as she did, that something must really be wrong.

Casey burrowed deeper under the covers gathering JD's Patriots jersey closer to her. It no longer smelled of JD but wearing it had become a comforting habit. When she finished her exam at noon today, she thought life was wonderful. She had done well and JD was due home in days. When she got home, she read JD's e-mail; his tour had been extended another six months! She had been terribly disappointed, JD tried to be positive saying that it was important that he was doing his duty and that the next six months would go by quickly. Listening to the news reports all evening, she felt something was wrong; it had been all she could do to keep from crying, which she did now, alone, buried deep under her covers.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Vin had spent the evening at the rifle range. He had been anxious, so anxious he hadn't scored well. After the range, he decided to go for a ride and try to straighten out his head. He had ridden through the streets for more than two hours, his hair loose and flowing in the breeze. Normally he liked that feeling. It was a feeling of freedom but tonight it did nothing to center him and he arrived home still feeling unsettled. The feeling became worse. He became so distracted by it that he'd burned his supper. Deciding he wasn't hungry after all, he tossed his supper, pot and all, into the garbage and began to pace around his tiny apartment. The feeling that something was wrong grew stronger. He needed to get out. He needed to think. He grabbed an old blanket and headed for the roof.

Now Vin was seated on the rooftop. Hands out, palms up, the backs of his wrists resting on his knees he sat cross-legged on an old blanket under the stars, repeating his mantra. The sounds of the city had faded with altitude and seemed far away from up there. It had been a long time since he had needed the solitude of the rooftop. A long time since he had needed the concentration techniques his first instructor in Rangers had taught him years ago.

A natural marksman, his C.O. had thought he would make an excellent sniper, but like most that entered the program calming one's self for a perfect shot was a learned skill. His first SOTIC instructor had taught him how to meditate, how to clear his mind, relax his body and tune his senses to the job at hand. With practice, it had become second nature for his mind and body to ready themselves in this manner before a bust. Every now and then, when something bothered him, when he was having trouble thinking a problem through, he'd meditate to help figure things out. He used those same techniques now. He stopped chanting and lifted his face to the stars above.


Vin's eyes shot open and he turned suddenly to the east. Something had happened to JD!

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

He climbed slowly back to consciousness. Greeted by a rhythmic, chuffing roaring in his ears, his body shook in time to the rhythm. Light spun past his eyes in the semi-darkness as strong vibrations ran up his spine. Blinking, he tried to focus on what was above him. He carefully turned his head to the left. PAIN! Searing, agonizing pain! He stiffened in reaction to it as it tore down his shoulder and streaked down through his arm and his side. He took a number of rapid shallow breaths and the pain began to recede. After a minute, he took a chance and cautiously turned his head to look to his right. His eyes had begun to focus in the half-light. Randy! Randy, Oh God, he looked so pale. He was so still. Randy needed help. Where was Buck? Buck would help Randy. The chuffing evened out to a steady, ear-filling hum as the vibrations receded slightly. Where was Lennie? He would help Randy. Sarge? They hit a bump. Everything around him seemed to shake and shudder. Ohhhh! Sainted Mary Mother of God! More pain ripped through his body. Someone was moaning. A face appeared above him. Nathan? Not Nathan he realized, feeling profoundly disappointed - but the expression was one he'd seen a hundred times before. The man who wasn't Nathan reached over to pick up the clear plastic bag he now realized was resting on his chest. Maybe Chris could...? His helmet! Where was his helmet? If he lost his helmet, he'd catch holy hell from Sarge. A fog began to gather before his eyes. Got to find his hel...

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Twenty minutes later the medi-evac helicopter settled gently onto the ground. Even before the blades stopped turning, the doors slid open. The field hospital medical personnel approached. Orderlies pushing stretchers that reminded one of wheelbarrows because of a single set of large wheels attached to the middle of the stretcher. The doctor ran a quick triage and in less than a minute, in their designated order of one, two and three, the orderlies set-off down the dirt road toward the hospital as fast as they dared with their injured charges.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The bullpen was quiet. Each man moved slowly, as they went about routine tasks. They had all heard the news from the night before. Each one recognized that none of the others had slept either. Brief one word exchanges revealed that they all shared the same fear, that this time, the news from abroad included one of their own. They would wait together for an official notice.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD squinted and cringed at the bright lights. He had been barely aware they had landed; the noise of the helicopter had faded and been replaced by the sounds of the jogging pace footfalls and words of reassurance and encouragement from an unfamiliar voice who called him "Buddy". Walls and a ceiling rushed by above him; he felt himself slow down and then turn before the bright lights assaulted his eyes.

He'd stopped moving. There were so many voices, all of them urgent, it was confusing him.

JD rose slightly and strained to look around trying to find Randy and Sarge. He was rewarded with searing pain ripping through his shoulder and down his side. Grimacing, he felt hands help him lay slowly back down.

"Take it easy, soldier, we don't want you to start bleeding again," cautioned a disembodied voice.

"What's your name, soldier?" The voice was calm and came from somewhere above his head. Gentle hands held his head in place as someone to his right cut away the last of his t-shirt. It occurred to him briefly that he didn't know what had happened to his body armor.

"Dunne, sir." His own voice sounded strange

"I'm Major Swayne, I'm a trauma doctor and the Captain here is Nurse Bell. You're at the field hospital at Tiger Base. Are you hurt any where else other than your arm and your shoulder, Dunne?

JD had to think about his answer, "Don't think so, sir."

"I'm going to examine you anyway, Dunne. Let us know if anything hurts."

"The other men in my unit, sir, how are they?"

"They're being looked after by good friends of mine, Dunne. I need you to concentrate on yourself right now."

"Yes, sir."

The doctor started by feeling the back of his neck and then lifting his head just a little to rock it gently from side to side. JD winced and the doctor set his head back down, again. JD felt the strong fingers gently probing up and down his good arm and other hands were feeling down his legs and back up again.

"Where did you get the shiner?" asked the doctor. The question sounded off-handed as JD felt someone loosen his belt and ease his pants down. Warm, gentle fingers firmly palpated his abdomen.

"Pardon, sir?"

"The black eye? How did you get it?"

JD reached up, his cheek was tender and misshapen. It was then that he realized why he couldn't see the person to his right. His eye was almost completely swollen shut. "I guess in the fight, sir."

"Can you tell me about this fight, Dunne?"

JD swallowed and blinked. He searched the ceiling with his eyes not really seeing anything as he tried to recall what had happened. "I don't... I don't really remember a whole lot, sir."

"Do you remember how you hurt your arm?" The doctor leaned over JD far enough that JD could see him clearly with his good eye.

Doctor Swayne's gentle blue eyes reminded JD of Josiah's; JD was struck with how weary the eyes looked. Between that and the hint of gray at the temples of his military haircut JD suspected that Doctor Swayne looked older than he really was.

"Do you remember how you hurt your arm, soldier?" the doctor repeated.

"There was a... a ... he had a knife!" Suddenly, panic gripped JD as he reached out defensively, coming in contact with the doctor's scrubs. He grabbed the front of the doctor's shirt with a fist. The doctor deftly put his hand over JD's. "It's okay, soldier, take it easy. There's no knife here," said Swayne soothingly.

The memory of the knife held high above him had JD panting and sweating.

"Take it easy, soldier," repeated the doctor. "It's over now."

JD's eyes found the doctor's face. He found only reassurance there.

"It's okay," the doctor repeated, "you're safe here."

JD's breathing began to slow as he calmed; he eased his grip on the doctor's shirt front. Doctor Swayne tugged gently at his hand and JD eased up on his grip until his hand was free. He felt Swayne gently lay his hand back down by his side. The doctor's hand remained there, covering his own.

JD closed his eyes. "It's over. I'm safe now," he repeated to himself over and over again as he willed himself to relax.

He opened his eyes. Doctor Swayne watching him, a concerned expression knitting his brow, "Better?" he asked.

JD swallowed and nodded once stiffly.

"Good," Swayne smiled encouragingly. "I'm going to take a look under the bandages now. It's going to hurt but I'll try to be as gentle as I can."

JD lay stoically, focusing on the ceiling, waiting for searing pain to rip through his shoulder and down his arm again.

None came.

There was the occasional twinge while the doctor dictated notes to Nurse Bell. She stood beyond where he could see with his swollen eye. Turning his head carefully, JD's eyes traveled from the ceiling to Nurse Bell. It was the first time he realized she was the owner of other set of hands. She wasn't young but she wasn't old either he thought as she caught him looking at her. Bell winked at him and continued to take notes.

The doctor leaned over him again so JD could see him clearly. "Okay, private, you've earned yourself a trip to Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility in Germany. There is fairly extensive muscle and tendon damage that requires surgery and they have first rate staff and facilities there. I don't think it's anything that can't be repaired but the experts in Germany are better qualified to make that judgment than I am. Do you understand what I've said to you?"

JD nodded, "Yes, sir, I'm being sent to Germany for surgery."

"They're going to fix you up just fine, Dunne. Do you have any questions?"

For the first time, JD noticed the room was quiet, Randy and Sarge were gone. Orderlies were moving about the medical stations, cleaning up where they had lain. "Yes, sir. The other two men who came in with me, Private Randall and Sergeant Ingram, how are they?"

His eyes followed Doctor Swayne's as he looked over at Nurse Bell.

"The Private has been sent to surgery. I don't know what happened to your Sergeant. I'll try to find out for you."

"I'd appreciate that, ma'am."

Doctor Swayne and the nurse moved away off to one side to concentrate on completing the paper work.

'Surgery!' thought JD desperately to himself. 'Oh, God, please save him,' he prayed, 'He has a wife and young kids who need him. Please, God, I don't want to be part of the reason Randy dies.'

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck snatched up the receiver before the first ring tone ended. "Wilmington."

Out of the corner of his eye he was aware that Chris had appeared in his doorway while the rest of them turned in their seats to listen.

"JD! How the hell are-," Buck suddenly felt weak as relief washed over him. He hadn't realized, until now, how keyed-up he'd been waiting for news. This was a good sign. He had been dreading a visit from a military officer and maybe even a Chaplin.

"Yeah, yeah, it was on the news; we've been wondering-," Buck's relief was short lived.

"You've been wounded," Buck repeated dumbly, leaning forward to set his elbow on his desk while he rested his forehead on a trembling hand. Alive was good, real good, he reminded himself but a serious injury would probably mean the end of his career with the ATF. "Ambush? How bad?" Buck damned himself for asking it but the question was out before he could stop it.

"You're still in-country but they're going to move you to Germany and do surgery there."

"Sorry, JD, everyone's here, I'm trying to let them know what's going on."

"Yeah, yeah, okay."

"You figure you'll be home in a few days. Do you know home meaning a stateside hospital or home, Denver?"


"Yeah, I'll find Casey as soon as I get off the phone here."

"It's...," Buck's voiced failed. He swallowed quickly and straightened in his chair as he took his fears in hand before speaking again. "It's good to hear from you. We're all real glad you're going to be okay."

"Same here, Kid. Keep us posted."

Buck dropped the receiver back into its cradle. He felt like he'd just aged twenty years in the last two minutes. He let himself sink slowly back in his chair. All he could think about was that JD was going to be okay, no matter what happened from here on he was alive and everything was going to be okay. Someone cleared their throat behind him and he was suddenly reminded that he hadn't said anything to the others yet. He turned to face them. "It was his unit in the ambush reported on the news last night. JD didn't go into much detail but it sounds like the three of them reported wounded have all survived. JD says his left arm and shoulder are cut up pretty bad. They're sending him to Germany so a specialist can operate on him. Other than that he's fine." 'Except that he sounded dog tired,' thought Buck privately.

Buck waited as they each took a moment to digest what he'd said. Chris nodded seriously, Josiah said a quiet "Amen", Nathan let out a long slow sigh, Vin smiled a gentle little satisfied smile, and a look Buck couldn't quite decipher flickered across Ezra's face and disappeared suddenly.

"He couldn't get a hold of Casey, I should go find her and let her know."

"Hey pard, you want some company?"

"Yeah, Vin, I think I do," replied Buck as he levered his lanky figure out of his chair.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD handed the cell phone back to Nurse Bell. He lay back and closed his eyes. He suddenly felt very tired and his shoulder hurt like hell. Nurse Bell must have noticed something because she asked if he wanted more pain meds. JD just nodded. Nurse Bell said she would be right back and he heard her leave.

Nurse Bell had come in a few minutes ago to check on him. She had offered JD the chance to phone home and let his family know what had happened. JD wanted to phone Casey, but try as he might JD couldn't remember either her cell or home phone numbers. Nurse Bell tried to reassure him saying that such memory lapses were common and temporary after a traumatic event. What about another family member or a friend? Considering the time difference JD opted to phone the office. 'Why was it he could remember how to calculate time difference between here and the States and not remember Casey's number?' he wondered as Nurse Bell dialed the office for him.

Talking to Buck and telling him that he'd been wounded was the hardest conversation he'd had since he sat and talked with his mother one last time on that cold February night five years ago. Once he knew that the others were there with Buck, it had become easier for him somehow. He realized it was just as well he couldn't remember Casey's number, now she wouldn't be alone when she found out and he would have been caught thousands of miles away with no way to comfort her.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The situation seemed a little surreal to Casey as she stared at Buck, Vin and Nettie. Their expressions were anxious as they looked back at her. She wasn't sure what they were waiting for. What did they expect? Did they think she was going to scream, or cry, or breakdown in a torrent of useless tears? Well, quite simply, if that's what they were expecting they were going to be disappointed. She had too much to do.

Buck had said that it was JD's unit on last night's news (she had known that somehow) and that JD had been one of the soldiers that had been wounded. He was going to be okay, though. He was being moved to Germany soon for medical treatment and then home. When? Buck didn't know for sure. She suspected she didn't have much time.

She needed time to plan his homecoming. It wasn't going to be the homecoming that she had previously imagined because now he was wounded but he would be home and safe and she would be with him again and that's what was really important. She had so little time, not only to prepare his homecoming celebration but also to prepare herself because, just like before he left, she would be supportive emotionally and physically too if needed for as along as he needed her to be. She loved him and she would be here for him and that was all there was to it.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD carefully reached over from his own gurney to lay his hand on Randy's arm. He let his hand rest there. Randy was still unconscious. The doctors didn't think Randy would have made it to Germany for treatment so they had amputated his leg here at the Tiger Base medical facility. The doctors and nurses had commended JD. The tourniquet most certainly had saved Brian Randall's life. He would have died from blood loss without it but it hadn't saved Brian's leg.

JD's chin trembled as he fought the urge to cry. Two shiny tracks made their way slowly down his cheeks anyway. JD sniffed and quickly wiped the tears away before replacing his hand on Randy's arm. 'How was he going to support his family?' JD asked himself. Randy was the assistant manager at a grocery store in a little town. He did everything from bagging groceries, to inventory, to the payroll. From Randy's stories, Tweed hadn't lost any of its small town qualities. They still took orders over the phone and delivered groceries to the elderly for free. Randy himself made some of the deliveries, putting the groceries away in the customer's own refrigerators and cupboards while relaying the latest news from around town. 'How was Randy going to support his wife and daughters and the new baby now?'

JD would be moved to Germany in a few hours. They said Randy would follow in a day or two. JD decided that he would stay by Randy's side until he awoke.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Chris stopped writing. A split second later he threw down his pen, shot to his feet and strode over to the window. Raising one arm high he leaned against the sill and stared down into the street below. 'Jesus, JD, what have I done to you?' he thought as a deep sadness descended upon him. "The Kid", why had he ever hired him?

Chris closed his eyes. He could see JD four years ago, standing in the courthouse lobby, blocking his way while holding his resume out for Chris to take. He'd looked just like any techno whiz kid still in high school with his young face and tousled hair. At the time Chris didn't think this kid in front of him could be serious. Despite his own snarling manner, JD had stood his ground, remaining business like in his stubborn determination to be considered for the tech position. Even his own rudely curt initial answer of "No", hadn't dissuaded the young man from his goal.

JD Dunne defied all logic, too young in years, shy of experience but still Chris had short listed him for an interview. Chris had told himself that it was because JD's credentials were second to none and his letters of reference had been glowing in their assessments of his potential. Months later, Chris realized he had short-listed the kid because JD had been insistent; he had admired the kid's moxie. It was that same grit that got JD into trouble but more often than not had kept the team out of bigger trouble. Chris couldn't shake the feeling of dread that it had been that same moxie that had gotten JD wounded.

JD had interviewed well. Chris hadn't asked him any questions, instead choosing to sit back and observe the candidate before him. Chris was impressed by the poise of the person answering while at the same time wondering if the kid needed to shave everyday. The rest of the panel had immediately dismissed JD as too young and discussed offering the job to another candidate. Chris only half listened to their arguments as his mind kept going back to the young man who had stood in front of him that day, determined only that Chris consider him for the position. Chris smiled now remembering the one moment during their first meeting that JD had forgotten himself. When he finally agreed to consider JD, something that looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a fist pump smoothly became a firm handshake.

Chris found himself thanking the other members of the panel and dismissing them. He made his recommendation to Travis, one John D. Dunne of Boston PD.

Many times since that day he had questioned his decision to hire JD, every time JD ended up in the hospital after a bust, every time JD was put in peril. Not once could he bring himself to dismiss their seventh member, even for his own good. The fact was, JD brought out the best in the rest of them. Buck, Josiah and he were getting old and jaded, they'd seen too much, it was JD's enthusiasm and willingness to learn that rejuvenated their attitudes and reminded them all why they entered law enforcement in the first place. To Vin and Ezra, cast outs because of their "lone wolf" styles, JD provided not only the technical ties while on a bust but emotional ties for these men as well. Neither man was a natural mentor yet JD saw and used both of them as such. Nothing built solidarity like being needed.

They rarely spoke of it, but they all felt it, the brotherhood they shared. The relationship between Nathan and JD was subtly different. Nathan was probably the only one who came close to matching JD intellectually. Though none of them were slouches in the smarts department, Nathan was the only one who ever even came close to beating JD at chess. JD discussed religion and ethics with Josiah; he hung out with Vin when it came to just having fun; but after Buck, Nathan was the team member JD was most likely to just spend time with. When Buck was away on business, JD, more often than not, could be found at Nathan and Rain's house for supper. Chris wasn't sure exactly what the connection was. They were both originally from back east. Both still cheered for their hometown teams, for Nathan that meant the Pistons and the Red Wings, for JD the Patriots and the Bruins. Chris knew Nathan had considered leaving the team many times; opportunities for promotion were presented to Nathan regularly; more money or a safer job were tempting for someone who aspired to be a family man. Chris suspected JD was one of the reasons Nathan, so far, had chosen to stay.

Chris sighed, opening his eyes to stare out into the street again. In his opinion, the military built character and measured a man's inner metal. Chris had secretly been pleased at JD's decision to enter the reserves and had actively encouraged him to do so, knowing full well the kid idolized him and would do anything short of murder to garner Chris' praise. It had never occurred to Chris that JD would be sent to an active theater. Now he lay in an Army hospital wounded due to enemy attack. "Cut up pretty badly," Buck had said. You have to get damn close to the enemy to get "cut up". Chris fought to change that line of thinking, his experience as a SEAL instantly brought to mind too many scenarios where JD could get "cut up".

It was adversity that built character but he had also seen adversity break men. JD, despite his tough upbringing, still believed that the human race, though flawed, was nevertheless basically good. Six years of police work had done little to tarnish that ideal.

Was all that gone now? Had JD's decision to serve his country and, his own subsequent support, destroyed all that made this young man special and unique?

Chris knew that much of his own distress lay in the fact JD was so far away and that he wasn't able to personally ensure that the kid was being properly taken care of. He turned away from the window and sat down in his chair again. Their seventh couldn't get home soon enough to suit him.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"Hey, Denver, how ya hanging?" the words reverberated off the walls of the room. JD had to smile; twenty years from now he knew he'd recognize Tank's booming voice across a crowded football stadium. The guy would never change. A barrage of harsh Spanish followed the greeting as TJ swore at Tank in his first language before telling him in English to "Shut up, we're in a hospital."

Tank and TJ both appeared at his side, grinning down at him with Lennie standing behind them.

"Alright, how about you guys?" asked JD.

"Just alright, with all these fine ladies to look after you?" asked Lennie.

"In case you hadn't notice, they're all officers," replied JD.

"I guess that does complicate things a bit. How's Randall?" asked Lennie nodding toward the man on the other gurney.

"They amputated his leg."

The news immediately sobered the high spirits of his three comrades. "Rough," replied TJ sympathetically. "What about you?"

"Muscle and tendon damage, they're sending me to Germany for surgery."

"Lookee here, boys," cackled Tank loudly. "Dunne's got himself a purple heart." He lifted the medal up to show the others.

"Tank, keep it down," ordered Lennie as he took the medal from Tank and gently pinned it to the sling holding JD's wounded arm. "When did you get this?

"Uhm a few hours ago I guess... last night maybe, I'm not exactly sure. The Lieutenant Colonel said something about the president and a grateful nation and laid this on my chest. I was still kind of out of it."

"You should be proud," said TJ. "You did a good job out there, JD."

"Hell, JD, I guess you earned it," said Tank. "I was never so happy than to find out you were still breathing after we pulled Hajji off you."

JD cringed inwardly at Tank's casual use of the popular slang word for Iraqis. It was like using the six-letter 'N' word to refer to Nathan. Despite everything that had happened, the use of the word still made JD uncomfortable but he was in no shape to take issue with it at the moment.

"Hey, JD, I'm sorry about decking you," said Tank.

JD looked at Tank. "What?" JD was confused. "What are you talking about?"

Tank frowned, "I had to clock you one when you-," Tank suddenly seemed uncomfortable as he shifted his balance from one foot to the other and back again. He then turned his face to the floor and then back at JD, "Well, you know-".

"JD, don't you remember?" asked TJ cautiously.

"Remember what?" JD looked from Tank to TJ then to Lennie. Tank looked terribly ill at ease, while TJ looked back at him questioningly. Lennie cocked his head a little to one side as he stared back at JD.

"Hey, how about you guys go see if you can score us some coffee?" said Lennie quietly.

"Sure, Lennie," replied Tank quickly. JD got the impression the man was relieved to be leaving.

"Hey guys, they're going to move me real soon, and, well, uhm, just in case I'm gone when you get back, take care of yourselves, okay?"

"Hey, take it easy, Denver; when I get stateside I'm gonna look you up. I want to meet this girl you been boring us with. See if she wants to go out with a real man." Tank gave JD a gentle playful punch on the knee.

JD couldn't help but muster a wry smile. "I told you, Tank, she's more woman than you could ever hope to handle."

"Yeah, yeah," retorted Tank weakly as TJ shoved him out of the way to take his place beside the bed.

"You did real good out there, JD," said TJ smiling down at him as he grabbed JD's raised good hand gently in an arm wrestler's grip. "Don't you ever think you didn't."

"Thanks, TJ."

They turned to leave, and were barely outside the door when TJ lit into Tank about being 'stupido'. Lennie waited until they couldn't be heard before he turned back to JD.

"Do you remember what happened out there, Dunne?

"Not much," said JD, letting his head fall back against the pillows. He was feeling very tired again.

Lennie nodded. "You saved our necks, Tank's, TJ's and mine. You made a hard decision, Dunne, and you stepped up. No one I know could have done better."

JD shook his head confused. "I don't remember anything like that."

"Give it time, you will and when you do, remember what TJ said, no one could've done better," said Lennie. JD was struck with how serious Lennie was; there was none of the jokester about him right now. "The Major told me he's thinking of putting you in for a commendation."

"A commendation?" JD was dumbfounded but the thought of a commendation was upsetting to him.

"Time's up, Corporal," said the nurse from the doorway as two orderlies entered the room. They gently kicked up the legs that turned the bed JD was lying on into a two-wheeled stretcher.

"Promise me, Lennie, you guys'll stay with Randy until he wakes up," asked JD anxiously, "someone should be here..."

"Don't sweat it, Dunne, we'll stay," replied Lennie.


"Yeah, JD?"

"Tell, Sarge," JD hesitated not sure what he wanted to say. "Tell, Sarge that I'm sorry. Tell him he was right, that if I'd followed orders none of this would have happened."

Lennie stared back at him. JD wondered if maybe Lennie was going to say no to his request to apologize to Sarge on his behalf. Then Lennie smiled and replied, "Sure, JD, I'll tell him."

The orderlies started to push JD's bed away. "Keep your pecker up, Dunne," said Lennie following as the bed moved out into the corridor.

JD watched Lennie standing in the hall outside the room where Randy still lay as he moved slowly down the hallway. Lennie raised an arm, made a fist and than gave it a little shake for emphasis. It was the signal Sarge used for "Be Strong".

JD raised his good arm, elbow still resting on the bed and returned the gesture.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Lennie watched until JD's stretcher was out of sight. Then he went back into the room and stood beside Randall. 'All things considered, the two newbies had done pretty damn good,' he thought as he watched the other reservist sleep. He wondered if he should tell someone about what he didn't put in the report, but whom, without k o-ing Dunne's future with the military? The family Dunne was going home to sounded like a pretty savvy bunch and if they were anything like he remembered Nathan Jackson, Dunne had good people at home who would be there for him. He'd probably be okay, decided Lennie.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility, Germany

JD sat in his wheelchair beside Brian Randall's hospital bed. The first thing JD had done when he was allowed out of bed post-surgery was go in search of his friend. They had sat in silence for more than an hour now. JD had asked Randy if he'd finally been able to talk to his wife. Barbara Randall had received official notice that her husband had been wounded five days before but it had been left to Randy himself to tell her of the amputation. JD watched as Randy fought back the tears when he tried to tell JD about their telephone conversation. Brian Randall eventually gave up saying only, "She's more than I deserve." Then Brian had turned his face to the wall and there they had remained ever since.

JD felt the need to let Randy know he wasn't alone. He leaned forward in his chair and, reaching over, laid his hand on Randy's arm. Randall turned his face back to look at him.

"It's okay," said Randy when he saw JD's worried expression.

JD swallowed convulsively shaking his head in distress when he found that words of comfort wouldn't come.

Randy smiled a little, "It really is okay. You have to know Barb. She's always made the hard stuff so easy to deal with. She's really amazing, you know?"

JD nodded. "But, what are you going to do? How are you going to support your family now? Your job keeps you on your feet all day, you have to lift stuff and drive a lot. How are you going to do that now?"

Randy turned his hand in JD's and grabbed it tightly, shaking for emphasis as he spoke. "Hey, don't worry about me. I got Barb and the rest of my family in my corner. Hell, my whole town will help take care of me and my family until I'm back on my feet," Randy smiled, "so to speak. There are four generations of my family buried in the cemetery in Tweed and four generations still above ground. We take care of each other in Tweed, North Dakota. I'll be okay. You got that?"

JD looked back at his friend. He could see the confidence in Randy's face. Randy was convinced he was going to be okay, to him this was just another curve ball that life threw at you once in a while.

JD nodded. "I got it."

"Good," said Randy. He motioned toward the JD's other arm now wrapped in bandages and secured in a sling across his chest. "What did the doc say about that?"

"My body armor saved me from anything really serious. There's some muscle, tendon and nerve damage. The doc tried to put a positive spin on it. He said he tried to keep the stitches small to keep it from being too obvious. I'm going to need lots of physio but there still might be some loss of mobility. I guess I'll worry about that when it happens."

"You, Dunne?"

Brian and JD looked around to see a young woman in clean and pressed fatigues. The name on the shirt said Sweeney. An office clerk from somewhere JD thought.

"Who wants to know?" asked Randy, there was a belligerent bite to his words, just enough to make the clerk pause and re-think her tone and attitude.

"I have orders here for a Private John Dunne."

"That would be me," said JD, holding out his hand.

"How do I know it's you?"

"I'm a wounded man," replied JD with exaggerated patience. "Why would I lie?"

"I have to be sure... ahh, private... sir," stuttered Sweeney.

"I'm a grunt, don't address me as sir," scolded JD. "Jeez..." JD exaggerated a grimace of discomfort as he reached into the top of his gown and eased his tags out. He held them out at their chain length for the private to read.

"Sorry, Private Dunne, I have to be sure."

"Yeah, whatever," said JD, holding out his hand for the paper.

Sweeney stood for a moment seemingly unsure as to what she should do.

"You can go now," said JD dismissively

They watched as Sweeney turned on her heel and scurried from the ward.

"I can't believe we were that green just six months ago," chuckled Brian while JD read the orders. "What's up, they ordering you to get better?"

"No... these are travel orders. They're sending me home."

"Like home, home or a hospital stateside?"

"Home, Denver, home. There must be some mistake. The surgeon talked about a rehab facility before going home," JD sighed tiredly, "Jeez, I wonder how long it'll take to get this snafu straightened out?"

"Hey, JD, don't!"

"Don't what?"

"Don't screw with this."

JD looked at Randy questioningly.

"C'mon think about it... This will take you home to your friends and your girl. The army'll just send you to some VA hospital. It'll probably be weeks before you get home."

"They'll figure it out, when I get on the plane all trussed up like this." JD used his good hand to indicate the sling strapped to his chest.

"You could manage for a little while without the sling, with just the bandages, just long enough to get home, couldn't you?"

"What about my uniform? My t-shirt is gone, they sent my shirt with me, but about the only thing left of it is the name tag."

"Are your pants are okay?"

"Just a little bloody," JD nodded.

"Well then use my shirt. I'm not going to need it. They're going to send me home in this hospital get-up anyway. My shirt's bigger so it'll have more room for the bandages and we'll get someone to wash your pants and replace my name tag with yours."

"What happens when they find out?"

"It's their fuck-up, you were just following orders."

There was less doubt as JD looked back at Randy.

"Come on, JD. Where would you rather be, sleeping in a ward with a bunch of us or home in your own bed?"

JD thought for a moment... Now that the surgery was done, Nathan could help with changing the dressing. He could figure out rehab later, maybe once he was home they'd send him someplace local. The thought of being with Casey; the guys; the privacy of his own home; the comfort of his own bed; it was all pretty tempting.

"Okay, who do we get to sew my name tag on your shirt?"

Brian smiled mischievously. "How about Sweeney?"

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"Casey, darlin' what's wrong?"

Buck looked at the young woman at the opposite end of the bench seat of his truck. When he picked her up at home, it was obvious to him that something was bothering her. He'd watched her chew on one finger nail after another all the way to the airport. Now they were seated in the parking garage of Denver's International Airport and the petite brunette seemed frozen in place.

Casey threw Buck an anxious look that was tinged with fear. "Buck, I'm scared," Casey's words were hardly more than a whisper. She shook her head and furrowed her eyebrows with worry. "What if he's changed? What if he doesn't love me any more? What if...," She paused and turned her head to stare sightlessly out of window. Buck could see her lower lip tremble. She took a deep breath, it seemed to calm the lower lip, "What if, after all he's been through I can't give him what he needs?" Her voice broke with the last word.

Buck reached across the seat and covered her small hand with his big one.

"Whoa there, you're getting ahead of yourself, darlin'," he said softly. He waited until she turned to look at him again before he spoke. Holding her gaze with his own, "Casey, I won't lie to you. War changes a man; there is no doubt of that. But, most who've gone to war want to come home to what they left behind. It's the memories of you and home that kept him going when things got tough," Buck squeezed the small hand in his gently, "and believe me there were a lot of tough times. I can't guarantee that you two'll be able to pick up where you left off but I know for sure that you are exactly who he needs to see today."

She turned her eyes away and he watched as her she fought her doubts.

"Casey..." she looked up at him again. "I know he loves you an awful lot and I think you love him just as much, that's got to count for something."

Buck watched as the worried expression faded away.

"Okay?" he asked her.

"Okay," she said with a smile.

Buck squeezed her hand lightly before letting go, "So let's go welcome our soldier boy home."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The trip home seemed to be taking forever. His shoulder throbbed painfully. One of the other guys had accidentally bumped into him while they were boarding in Germany. To a healthy body the incident would have meant nothing but to JD's injured one, it had been agony. JD had sat very still hoping the pain would subside and trying not to obviously cradle his injured arm. He had to ignore the pain if this was going to work. JD only hoped it didn't start bleeding. Blood on his uniform would raise questions and a brief investigation would have him sent directly to the nearest hospital. He was on the last plane connection and headed to Denver, the trip home would soon be over.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck stood behind Casey, his hands resting on her shoulders, as they watched the soldiers deplaning. They stood in the same spot along the wall of windows they had watched from when he had left six months ago. Buck found him first. He leaned over to talk into her ear as he pointed. "There he is," he said. She followed his finger and jumped slightly in his hands when she found him "He's so thin..." Although the words were out loud it was almost as if she were speaking to herself. Buck had to agree with her, he did look thin but what worried him even more was that JD wasn't walking like a man who was finally home from war. There was no spring in his step indicating his desire to see the loved ones he had been missing. JD's movements were labored. It had Buck wondering that maybe JD's wounds were worse than he had let on in his phone call telling them when he was coming.

JD disappeared from view and Buck and Casey turned to wait anxiously for him to walk through the arrivals gate. The soldiers started to appear. Family groups moved forward in anxious anticipation. Then there were suddenly cries of recognition followed by cries of "Over here." Then words were cut off just as suddenly as families clustered around their returning loved ones, hugging and kissing and crying all at once. Only quiet sounds of tears and softly spoken sentiments of "I love you; Daddy, I missed you; Welcome home, son," could be heard.

The first groupings didn't move away from the gate entrance and it made it harder to see the soldiers following behind. Even with his height Buck had to strain to see over the crowd as Casey asked anxiously, "Do you see him?"

"Not yet, Darlin'."

"There!" she said suddenly and she was gone. Buck caught glimpses of her bright yellow hair ribbon as she weaved quickly through the throng. Even then Buck didn't see JD until she reached for him with both arms.

In one single, swift movement JD had dropped his duffel and they were in each other's arms...her face buried in his shoulder, his face buried in the hollow between her neck and her shoulder.

Buck waited and watched. Neither of them moved. They didn't even appear to be breathing. A maelstrom of activity swirled around them as other families reunited. They stood wrapped in each other's arms oblivious to everything going on around them.

It reminded Buck of some of his own homecomings. Two were particularly memorable. The first was coming home to his mother after his first two years in, boot camp, followed by a string of postings. It had been an exciting two years for him; no two days had been the same and he had gotten to see a bit of the world. He'd grown up a lot during his tour. He had so looked forward to getting home and seeing his mother but he had been shocked at how old she had looked and it had saddened him a little to realize how much he'd grown away from her.

The second homecoming was December of 1983. October 23rd of that year he and Chris had been stationed at the Marine Barracks in Beirut. A truck carrying a 12,000 pound bomb was driven into the US compound early that morning while a number of men still slept. It was a sleep that many never awoke from. The death toll was 242 troops. It was the first time he really understood what dying for your country was all about. His mother was gone by then and Sarah came to meet them both. He remembered how much he felt like crying when she put her arms around him to give him a hug. After weeks of anger, fear and confusion, so much became clear to him at that moment. It had been during that visit home that Chris told him of his intention to put his name forward as a candidate for the SEALS. It was Chris's hope that Buck would do the same.

Buck shook himself from his reverie - that was ancient history now. Young men like JD were fighting the wars now.

The last of the soldiers had cleared the gate and many families were now making their way from the arrivals gate toward the parking garage. Buck started to make his way slowly toward JD and Casey, his eyes watching them intently every step of the way. He noted that while JD held Casey firmly with one arm around her shoulders the other rested lightly around his own ribs.

"Hey kid," Buck surprised himself when the words came out in a raspy whisper.

The young couple stirred and two sets of red rimmed eyes looked up at him.

"Buck!" The next instant JD was in his arms.

Buck rapidly blinked back tears as he hugged "the kid" who had just returned from war.

"Hell, JD, it's good to have you home." Buck whispered into the ear at his chin.

"It's good to be home," came a muffled reply against his shoulder. JD made no move to let go.

JD just didn't look thin he was thin. Not that JD was fat before, but now he was all sharp angles and hard edges, a hundred and fifty pounds of sinew and gristle. JD's good right arm felt like a wire band wrapped tightly around him.

The wire band eased a little and Buck, a little reluctantly, let go.

"Where's everybody else?" asked JD as he wiped stray tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand before putting it around Casey's shoulders.

"They're all at the ranch. We weren't sure if you'd feel up to seeing everyone, considering you're wounded and have been traveling for a day and a half. Casey and I are the scouts. If you want to just go home and take it easy we understand but if you're up to a big homecoming barbecue then everyone's waiting at the ranch.

"Honestly, JD. There's no pressure if you want to wait a day or two, everyone will understand," said Casey, looking up him from under his arm.

JD smiled down at her happily, "I'm a little jet-lagged but I can't think of anything I'd rather do more than see everyone."

"Let's go then," said Buck, hoisting JD's duffel over one shoulder. They turned as one and headed toward towards the exits...Casey's arm around JD's waist, his good arm around her shoulders, while holding his injured arm close to his body.

They passed a burly young marine and his wife huddled close together on the airport seating. Forehead to forehead, her arm across his shoulders, both wept quietly while their attention focused on the blue blanketed bundle he cradled tenderly in one arm between them. The tip of his little finger on his free hand was held in a death grip by a tiny knuckle-dimpled hand.

Buck found himself welling up all over again.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The drive to the ranch was quiet. Buck watched the two young people out of the corner of his eye as he drove. Casey and JD were huddled together as close as the seat belts would allow. JD sat in the middle, his good right arm beside Casey so they could twine their arms together and hold hands. JD watched intently out of the window of the truck. Occasionally he would look down at Casey. Casey seemed to instinctively know he was looking at her and she would look up at him in turn. After a brief smile and a squeeze of her hand, JD's attention would snap back to the roadside again.

It shocked Buck when he realized what JD was doing. He was watching the roadside for suspicious activity; still attuned to watching for sudden attack. Surely it would wear off in a few days, thought Buck, when JD readjusted to being home - and being safe again.

JD's actions changed as they got closer to the ranch. His head turned more often the closer they got. JD wasn't on watch anymore so much as making notes. Buck smiled to himself, recalling that same feeling when he came home the first time, JD was reassuring himself that what he remembered of home and familiar things were unchanged.

Casey too became anxious as they neared the ranch. She had been so afraid JD would think her idea childish and stupid. Everyone had tried to reassure her otherwise and had helped with the decorations.

She had nothing to worry about.

"Holy Sh..." JD blurted out. Then he threw his head back and laughed. "Where did you get one that big?"

The large nearly century old oak tree that graced the center of Chris's front yard was wrapped in a six foot wide yellow ribbon made of crepe paper. A bow, stretching more than eight feet on either side supported like a kite with balsa wood and suspended from the tree branches above by kite string, was listing gently in the wind.

After a moment, JD stopped laughing and kissed her upturned face.

"Welcome home, soldier," she said.

He let go of her hand so he could put his arm around her shoulders. He leaned over kissing her again slowly and more deeply. "It's wonderful," he said smiling happily.

Buck wheeled the truck into the driveway, the passing fence posts adorned with yellow ribbons. Buck was about to lean on the horn to announce their arrival when he noticed people were quickly appearing on the verandah. Even before the truck was halfway up the driveway, everyone began pouring down the steps to greet them, applauding and whistling loudly.

Buck pulled up to stop beside the house. Casey scurried out the truck first with the others still applauding and whistling as JD made his way slowly and more cautiously out of his seat. Once his feet hit the ground, everyone gathered around to welcome him home. Having said his hello to JD at the airport Buck turned off the ignition, folded his arms over the steering wheel and watched as the others welcomed their cherished one home.

JD scooped Billy up into a one armed hug. Billy was all smiles and said something that made JD laugh. Once Billy was down on the ground again, Mary hugged JD and then kissed him on the cheek, JD smiled back at her. How things had changed thought Buck, six months ago a kiss from Mary would made JD blush as red as an apple. Today the kid took it in stride.

Rain hugged him next, the wet tracks of tears glistened on her cheeks, she also said something that made JD laugh. Probably something about smelling like baby puke, thought Buck. Rain was always concerned about smelling like baby puke these days.

Nettie reached up to take his face gently in her veined and wrinkled hands. JD inclined his head toward her as she stretched up on her tip-toes to kiss his cheek as well. Her expression was serious as she said something that JD nodded to in reply.

Josiah went next. After a hug, he held JD at arm's length, his hand on JD's right shoulder. Buck knew that no one had missed the fact that JD had lifted Billy up with only his right arm. Josiah said something to JD, the reply causing Josiah throw his head back in laughter.

JD then turned to Nathan. After a quick hug, Nathan indicated to JD's injured side while he said something. Probably reminding JD that he wasn't supposed to get wounded because he, Nathan was not there to patch him up, Buck figured. JD replied and Nathan, smiling broadly, cuffed him gently on the side of the head, JD made a no attempt to duck the swat and they both laughed.

Vin gave him a look up and down and nodded in approval. Vin must have said something smart-assed because the next thing Buck knew JD gave Vin a one-handed shove that just about put Vin in the dirt. Vin came back as if to retaliate and then suddenly both Vin and JD laughed and hugged each other rocking from side to side. Buck had to smile. JD wasn't the weakling calf in the bull pen anymore.

Ezra had hung back until now. Buck watched as Ezra carefully drew JD into a hug, hesitantly, bringing his hand up to cradle the back of JD's head, drawing them closer together. JD seemed not to notice Ezra's awkwardness, as his right armed gripped the southerner tightly across the shoulders. From where Buck sat only he could see Ezra blinking rapidly in a valiant attempt to stem threatening tears. Buck doubted Ezra knew anyone could see him, aware of Maude's moratorium on public affection when Ezra was growing up; as far as Buck was concerned, Ezra would never know anyone did.

All this had taken place in probably a little more than a minute before Buck slipped out of the truck and made his way around it to join the group.

Chris solemnly held out his right hand. JD paused and then took it. Chris didn't shake it but used it as a lever to pull him into a hug with his left arm that lasted several seconds. Chris drew back but kept his left hand on JD's shoulder never letting go of JD's hand. Everyone was quiet as Chris looked into JD's face. "I want you to know, in case you haven't figured it out for yourself, that we missed you JD. We're all very proud of you," said Chris, "and it's damn good to have you home, son."

JD dipped his head suddenly, swallowing hard before he brought it back up to face everyone, for the first time since the airport he was brought to tears.

"Than...Thanks, Chris," his reply was raspy as he looked at everyone with tears in his eyes.

"I think a beer is in order just about now," suggested Josiah loudly.

"Now you're talking," replied Buck cheerfully.

Words of agreement could be heard all around.

Casey slipped in under JD's good arm and they all made their up onto the verandah.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

A short time later JD found himself settled into the seat of honor in the main room. The extreme fatigue of his day had descended like a great weight as he sat quietly, sipping a beer. He wondered if the beer was safe considering he was still on pain meds. As best as he could remember, he'd taken the last one yesterday evening in Germany. He should be okay.

He was appreciative of the coolness of Chris' home. In the July heat, his uniform shirt was warm and he wanted to keep his shirt on. He was fairly sure that he had bled into his bandages and likely into his t-shirt when his shoulder was knocked a day ago and an ocean and two continents away. Blood on his t-shirt would raise concerns and questions that he didn't have the energy to deal with right now.

He steadied the beer on his knee and sat back for a moment trying to relax and enjoy the fact that he was home. It was harder than he thought it would be. It felt so good to be home but still he felt tense and a little on edge. The beer wasn't providing the expected wave of relaxation that always rolled through his body with the first one. 'It'll take time,' he reminded himself, 'just give your mind and body a chance to gear down.'

Choreographed activity borne of the many family get-togethers went on around him as drink orders were filled and snacks were laid out. He was advised that his favorite of marinated steaks and potatoes cooked on the barbeque were on the menu for tonight. Buck let him know that if JD wanted to change his clothes he'd packed a bag for him and it was in the spare bedroom. Billy came over and began to describe his, Vin's and Nathan's adventure of climbing the oak tree to suspend the giant bows of the yellow ribbon. In lowered tones, the boy described how everyone had laughed when a bird had pooped on Ezra's shoulder while Ezra stood below directing the efforts of those in the tree. Then the boy launched into a lengthy description of his school's letter writing campaign to the soldiers in Iraq over the previous school year. Somehow a tiny cry from the back of the house managed to penetrate the hum of activity.

JD's face lit up as he recognized the sound. The tiredness of a moment ago dissolved as he leaned forward to get out of the chair again. "Alicia! She's here? Can I meet her?"

"Take it easy there, Uncle JD," said Nathan striding across the room to put a restraining hand on JD's good shoulder.

"Aww, c'mon Nathan I'm not so beat up I can't get up to see my niece," said JD a little irritably. 'He was barely home and they were treating him like a kid again.' The thought automatically whipped through his mind.

"It's not that, JD. It's just that she's been napping for a couple of hours, she'll need a diaper change and, likely, clean clothes."

"Give me a minute to make her presentable and I'll bring her to you," said Rain as she disappeared down the hallway.

It only seemed a moment had passed after JD sat back and closed his eyes before Rain spoke.

"JD Dunne, I'd like you to meet, Alicia Jade Jackson."

JD opened his eyes. Rain stood sideways before him. Dressed in a peach and cream sun-suit, Alicia sat in the crook of her mother's arm with a steadying hand on Alicia's chest. Alicia "sat" upright, wobbling slightly as she stared at him with big brown eyes.

'She's beautiful,' he thought, as he stared back at her. He smiled with delight as she studied his face seriously. She frowned briefly then burped suddenly, her little bow shaped lips smiled back at him proudly.

"I see you haven't lost any of your charm with women," wise-cracked Buck from across the room.

It was then JD realized how quiet the room had become; everyone had stopped what they were doing to watch Alicia and JD.

"I wouldn't let it bother you, JD," said Ezra, "If we are to consider our fair niece's perfectly natural bodily functions as reactions to what she thinks of someone, she often exceeds the capacity of her diaper when Mr. Wilmington holds her."

"Now hold on, that only happened twice!" retorted Buck.

" the last week," said Vin, with a wry drawl.

"I don't think there isn't anyone in the room she hasn't christened with spit up a least once," added Josiah.

"Except Chris." said Mary.

"It shows up a mile away on black," said Chris simply, as if that were a logical reason why he hadn't been spit up on yet.

"More likely the benefits of experience," said Nathan.

JD looked up at Rain, "Can I hold her?"

"Sure you can," said Rain as she moved around to settle her daughter in JD's arms. "She's getting pretty good at holding her head up, but you still have to provide some support for her spine.

She smiled at him once Alicia was secure in his arms. "You're a natural, JD," complimented Rain before moving off to help with the preparations again.

JD looked down at his niece. He marveled at how smooth and perfect her skin was. She was so grown up compared to the pictures he had from when she was first born. She still looked a lot like Rain he thought as Alicia reached out to him with one arm, her hand wavered awkwardly in front of his face. He smiled at her again. Her hands were big like Nathan's. 'Big hands...' He was reminded of Lennie's description of Nathan, 'a really tall man with big hands.' - big hands that had saved Lennie's life in the Gulf. JD's thoughts traveled back to Lennie, Tank, TJ and Sarge. What would they be doing now? Here he was holding his infant niece and they were probably making the lives of a couple of newbies hell. Drills, night patrols, check point duty... The memory was suddenly there. It was overwhelming. The sight of the burning car, the smell of burning metal and rubber, the smell of death, the blood, the screams, the crying, the broken bodies of the little children...

"...let me take her."

JD looked up from Alicia, into Nathan's face.

"JD, let me take her," repeated Nathan, his voice was calm but insistent.

JD looked down at Alicia again; he was still holding her, he looked up again at Nathan kneeling beside him. He was having trouble seeing their faces clearly. It was then that JD suddenly realized he was crying. Not just weeping silent tears but actually sobbing. He was crying for the children, the victims of the car bomb at that check point in Al Qa'im that morning weeks ago. Tears of grief he hadn't been able to let go of before now.

JD held Alicia out for Nathan to take. With Alicia safely in his arms, Nathan began to stand and disappear from JD's view just as JD buried his face in his hands. The sobs continued to rack his body.

It was some minutes before the grief subsided and JD dropped his hands from his face. They hung limp between his knees while he took a number of deep breaths. He felt a tremor run through him with each breath. A large linen handkerchief appeared before his eyes. He took it without a word and dried his face before blowing his nose into it. Gradually he became aware of the hand gently stroking his good arm. He raised his head. Buck knelt on one knee beside him, his brows knitted over eyes full of concern. He felt the warmth of a small hand clasped onto his knee. Only then was he aware that Casey was kneeling on the other side of him. He turned to her, her expression was fearful as she watched him, tears glistened in her eyes. Looking up, the rest of them were there watching him, expressions of concern written on their faces. Not all of them he realized, Rain, Alicia, Mary, Billy and Nettie were no where to be seen.

He dropped his face again.

"I lied," he croaked. The words were hardly audible because his throat was thick with phlegm. He cleared it once, twice, then a third time.

"I lied," he said clearly this time, starring at the floor between Buck's foot and Casey's knees, not wanting to see their faces during his confession.

"About a month ago I e-mailed you that there was a car bombing at a checkpoint across town from the one I was manning," he said haltingly still fighting past the physical effects of the weeping. "I lied," he repeated, "The bombing was at my checkpoint" His voice faltered. The room remained silent while he mentally composed himself. He hadn't spoken of this to anyone yet. He'd had a crazy thought that if he didn't talk about it, it would go away, it would be like it never happened, but those children were dead and not acknowledging it was eating away at him.

"The kids were playing soccer on the street near the checkpoint. Randy and me, we knew, don't ask me how we just knew when the soccer ball started rolling toward the car, it was like a premonition, we knew something was going to happen. We knew something was wrong. We ran, we yelled at the kids to stay back but it was too late."

JD wiped desperately at his eyes with the sodden handkerchief as the tears began again.

"The Spanish soldiers love their soccer. They left their old soccer balls behind when they went home... I gave them to the kids... I never dreamt... They were so happy to get real balls to play with... I didn't mean for them to get hurt..."

JD gave up on the soggy handkerchief and dragged the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes.

"The kids never had a chance, so small, their bodies were so small, all bloody, limbs just... gone, they never had a chance..." His throat closed up so he could only mouth the words. He swallowed. Shaking his head he spoke, his voice high-pitched and small, "God forgive me, I feel like I murdered them," the sobs overtook him again.

JD had no idea how long the tears lasted this time. He only knew that he couldn't stop until there were no more tears left to fall. He took a couple of deep breaths then used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe his eyes and dry his face again.

He raised his head expecting to face the recriminations from the others for his deeds.

Casey, her cheeks wet with tears, cried quietly beside him. She had both hands on his knee now, clinging to him. He saw that she was crying for him - for his grief and guilt over the deaths of children.

He reached up and cupped her jaw and stroked her cheek with his thumb. "Love you," she mouthed silently as he stared into her eyes. He smiled sadly back at her. She turned her face into his hand, kissing the palm. The tears in her eyes overflowed to run down her cheeks again. He wiped them away with his thumb. He understood her gesture of love and support.

JD scanned their faces slowly. They were all seated now in chairs, all except Buck who hadn't left his side.

He was confused. He had expected to see blame and condemnation in their expressions; instead he saw... understanding and sympathy and something else. Faces, that a few minutes ago were filled with joy and laughter, held something else now... something JD had never seen before.

"JD,' Buck began quietly, "we've all been there. Chris and I, covert operations with the SEALS, the civilians were always the ones who suffered the most, just trying to keep on living, their homes gone, their way of life destroyed." Buck swallowed hard, "It was Beirut, I was desperate for cover, I ducked into this one building, the roof was gone, the sky showed through, I remember it was so blue... There was a woman inside. She was surrounded by her dead children." The big man scrubbed at his eyes with his hand as if the gesture would wipe the memory away. Buck looked at him again as if he intended to say something else, Buck only shook his head.

Josiah's low rumble came across the room, "In Nam, there seemed to be no regard for the children, so many of them orphaned, so many of them were used..." The deep voice caught for a moment. "There was so little regard for their suffering..." Josiah looked as if he'd aged a hundred years; his soft blue eyes were dewy now with memories that were more than three decades old. Josiah stood suddenly and moved across the room to stare out the window into the front yard.

"JD, I have not experienced war in the formal sense but I know of the horror of innocent victims of fanaticism." Ezra's voice sounded as it always did but he sat sideways in his chair facing away from JD and the rest of the group. "I will not debate the alleged abuses of civil liberties at Waco. Like you, I was following orders, but April 19th is a date that never passes without my remembering what happened there. Seventy-four people died," the voice paused briefly, "twenty-one of them children, twelve of them had not yet seen their 5th birthday," Ezra's voice faltered again. He turned his head to look at JD. "The images of that day..." Ezra's famed personal control faltered as a stricken look spread across his face. His eyes were seeing something else, focusing on something that tore at his soul. "I... I want to forget... I know I will never..." Ezra swallowed as he fought to regain control of his emotions. He dropped his face, got up suddenly from the chair. As he left the room, they could hear the last remnants of the iron grip he usually had on his emotions break.

Chris stood and moved in to settle on one knee in front of JD, Buck and Casey shifting to make space for him. "JD, you couldn't have known the car bombing was going to happen," Chris said quietly; there was a tenderness in the man's eyes that JD had never seen before. "You gave the children the soccer balls because you wanted to provide them with a little something in a world that had taken so much from them. If you had any way of knowing it would be the cause of their deaths, you would never have given them those balls.

"I know Chris." JD dragged the sleeve over his eyes again. "...and my common sense knows it but something inside of me gets going, I get upset and I feel guilty for giving them the balls."

"We understand, JD. Things get crazy in a war. Where you've just come from, it's easy to forget who you are." Chris reached over and grasped JD gently by the back of neck. "You said that when you realized something was wrong, you ran toward those kids hoping to protect them. You didn't turn and run away to save yourself. JD, know yourself like we know you, you would have put yourself in harm's way before you would have let anything happen to those kids."

The green eyes looked intently at him. Not the eyes that made him squirm and talk too fast when he'd figured he'd done something wrong but eyes that told him the man before him was worried about him.

JD nodded. "Lennie said that most vets learn to put their experiences in a place where they can deal with day to day life again.... I guess that's what I have to do."

"Lennie knows what he's talking about," said Chris nodding slightly but his eyes never left JD's face. "It takes time, though."

"If you need to talk, JD, anytime, you know we're all available." The offer came from Josiah. "Sharing each other's experiences, putting them out in the open, goes a long way to learning how to keep them in that place."

There was a round of confirming sentiments.

The fact that the replies came without hesitation and ready willingness to talk about things that were so personal and painful to all of them had JD choking up again. He glanced down briefly then took a big breath to steady himself before replying, "Thanks, guys."

"Okay, kid?" asked Buck.

"No, but I think I will be," replied JD soberly.

"Give it time," said Buck as he gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. "Well!" said Buck in a booming voice that signaled the moment was past and the welcome home party was back in the swing, as he rose to his feet, "I think it's about time we fire up that barbeque."

"I'll get the spuds," said Chris.

"Wait, Chris. I want to add some chopped onion and parmesan to the potatoes before you put them on the grill," said Nathan as he followed Chris into the kitchen.

"I better keep an eye on Buck," said Vin, "for a demolitions expert he isn't all that good with fire."

JD looked at Casey, leaned over and gave her a quick kiss and got to his feet, his movements slow and stiff. Casey stood up beside him, the empty tissue box in her hand. She gave his hand a squeeze and left the room. He rolled his good shoulder. It felt good to move.

Ezra was no where to be seen.

JD saw Josiah starring intently out of the front picture window. He crossed the room to stand him. Rain was sitting on a blanket on the ground with Alicia in her lap, Nettie beside them. She moved a colorful toy to within Alicia's reach and Alicia laughed. Mary and Ezra were taking turns pushing Billy on the tire swing that hung from the old oak tree.

'Ezra always liked to spend time with young children,' thought JD. Then it struck him. 'He would have been about twenty-three at Waco... all those kids that died there.'

"Whatever helps you make it through the day," said Josiah as if he'd read JD's thoughts. Josiah turned his face from the window to look at JD. "The road is bound to have a few rough spots, JD. It will be hard at times; don't hesitate to ask for help."

"I won't."