Finding the Way Home,
Means Answering the Call

by Heather M.

ATF Universe

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The rest of the day passed in a happy blur with laughter and the love of good friends and family. The barbequed food was excellent. Conversation, verbal barbs, jokes, gossip from the office, stories of first baby adventures, stories of computer misadventures since JD had left were shared and laughed over.

Buck had replaced JD as IT's number one most hated person. In JD's case, it was for being more talented than the entire IT group combined. In Buck's case, it was for disabling his computer with previously undocumented software glitches multiple times a month and then threatening to hit the techs who struggled to fix it with his rubber chicken when it took, in Buck's opinion, too long to fix it. JD looked at Buck in surprise, Buck responded deadpan with, "Well, if they had sent that pretty little red-head, Regina, it wouldn't have happened."

There was the roasting of the succession of surveillance techs they had had until Ryan Kelly's man from Team 3 was transferred to Team 7 for the duration. Having worked closely with JD on a number of assignments, Ed Bertrand seemed the best and safest solution for the Denver ATF office until JD's return.

Ezra admitted to being in anger management counseling. Travis had eventually gotten wind of Ezra's attempted assault on Brad Stenning, the first tech that had filled in for JD. In his defense, Ezra claimed to never having had much patience for rank incompetence. Josiah commented that to Ezra's credit, he had been attending like a good little ATF agent should.

JD was surprised to hear Casey's employment with Hargreaves and Campbell had to wait until the results of a re-written final exam were known. Casey dismissed his questioning look with "we'll talk about later."

They ribbed Nathan good naturedly as to how often he'd had fallen asleep in the office since Alicia was born. Nathan's only comment was that he now understood why people didn't have second children again right away because all they wanted to do was sleep when they got to bed. Vin commented that since JD had left the office, it was so quiet and boring that Nathan could fall asleep. Chris replied that Tanner should have said something earlier. Chris could have found him something to relieve the boredom. "What second child?" asked Rain dryly.

It all served to fill in the gap in time for JD, to help bring him up-to-date and feel a part of things at home again. It also served to demonstrate to JD just how much he had been missed.

They were seated outside on the lawn after an excellent evening. It wasn't until the end of the meal when Billy, who was used to more activity, was playing catch with a football and was ordered to "go long" by Vin. Billy went barreling into the back of JD, knocking them both over.

Vin and Billy launched immediately into apologies as JD lay on the ground white faced and gritting his teeth in obvious pain. Once JD was helped up, Billy broke into tears, mouthing more frantic apologies when it was noted there was blood on the front of JD's uniform. The young soldier held the youngster in a one-armed hug, comforting him until he stopped crying, declaring that there was no harm done and that it was time for Nathan to change the bandages, anyway. Once Billy had stopped crying, JD walked bravely off with Nathan into the house.

"JD, sit here," ordered Nathan. When Nathan was in medical mode, nothing was a request as he indicated that JD sit on the bathroom countertop as he reached over and switched on the additional lighting. They were in Chris's en-suite bathroom. It was the place where the severest of injures were treated because it had the best lighting. Chris had never removed Sarah's make-up lighting that outlined the large bathroom mirror.

JD squinted briefly against what Vin always referred to as the "one-trillion candle-power" illumination as he hiked himself up onto the counter. Nathan was surprised that JD did so without complaint. Billy, JD, Vin, Ezra, even Chris on occasion, none of them liked it but Nathan insisted all of them sit on the counter when having their wounds tended to. It was so he didn't have to bend his 6'3" frame over for what could be lengthy ministrations. He wasn't getting any younger and his back was beginning to complain.

JD sat quietly, spouting none of the usual indignant comments about being treated like a child as Nathan worked his way through the buttons of his shirt. Nathan could see why. Away from the excitement of the homecoming, JD descended quickly from the "high" of being home with family again. In the short time they had been left alone in the bathroom, Nathan watched deep lines of fatigue settle into JD's face. It accentuated a faint yellowing around his eye. JD had taken quite a blow there. The long journey home, the wound, the emotion of the day were taking its toll on their youngest. 'It would be best to get this job done and get the man home to bed,' Nathan decided.

Nathan started to slide the shirt off the injured arm and stopped when JD stiffened and let out a hiss. He looked at JD questioningly. The young man's face was contorted with the pain. "Better take it off the other arm first," said JD.

Nathan did as he was bidden and slipped the shirt off the good arm and then slowly and carefully eased the second sleeve off disturbing the arm as little as possible.

Nathan was immediately concerned at what he saw. This was no minor injury as they had been led to believe. There were half a dozen spots of dried blood along the top of the collarbone and down the front of the shoulder of his t-shirt. There was fresh blood spreading out from under his arm and into the front of JD's t-shirt. This was the blood that had soaked through to his shirt and had prompted the change of bandages. It was with a small amount of relief that Nathan could see, from the reflection in the mirror, that there was no blood on the back of JD's t-shirt. Nathan said nothing as he made a visual assessment of the extent of the injuries. Growing more alarmed by the moment, Nathan found it hard to believe they were sending soldiers home in this condition rather than home to a medical facility.

"JD, I'm going to have to cut your t-shirt off. I don't know how else to get at the bandages without hurting you."

"What ever you have to do, Nathan," replied JD; despite the extreme fatigue that was obvious in the voice, Nathan noticed there was a determined set to the young man's jaw.

Nathan scooped up the scissors from his medical kit sitting on the other side of the sink. Working carefully, he cut up the center of the front of the shirt and then sliced across the top of the shoulder and down the sleeve of the good arm. The shirt fell away to reveal one half of a very trim, well defined chest and one well muscled shoulder. Nathan had to smile briefly to himself; he'd never been in as good a shape since his time in the Gulf War. Even now, he noticed JD sat ramrod straight, not out of discomfort but out of daily habit from the last six months.

Nathan cut the shirt across the top of the injured shoulder, slowly with the utmost care. JD never flinched and the remnant of the shirt fell easily off JD's back. There was a clean white bandage on JD's forearm with no evidence of blood. Nathan decided he wasn't going to touch that one for now.

It was however, obvious that there had been bleeding earlier on the shoulder and chest. The t-shirt was stuck firmly to the bandages by dark, now dry, blood. A further complication was the fact that what had been two bandages, one for the shoulder and one for chest and underarm were now firmly stuck to one another with dried blood. It took a moment's assessment for Nathan to decide how to proceed.

"JD, I'm not going to try and take the shirt off separately from the bandages. It'll only hurt you twice. I'm just going to take the bandages off all at once and your shirt will come away with them."

"Okay," came the stoic reply. It had Nathan suspecting JD had a pretty good idea as to how much this was going to hurt.

Watching in the mirror, Nathan gently eased the tape securing the bandages off of JD's back. Holding the shirt so the weight of it wouldn't pull the bandages away before he was ready, Nathan eased the tape off of JD's chest, moving down his front and across his abdomen. Asking JD to lift his arm, Nathan worked away at the tape under his arm. The flesh there was slightly puffy and red but JD made no overt indication that it was hurting him. The young man's clenched jaw had Nathan thinking otherwise.

Once all the tape was loosened Nathan's worse fears were confirmed. The bandages were stuck in place by dried blood.

"JD, take a deep breath and try to relax," instructed Nathan noting his patient was stiff with tension.

JD flashed him a quick glance and then snorted gently, "Sorry, I keep expecting it to hurt."

"I'll do my best not to hurt you."

"I know you will."

"I'm not going to start until you're ready, okay?"

Nathan watched as JD took a couple of deep breaths, a lot of the tension from earlier was gone. "Okay, I'm ready."

Nathan started from the bottom, holding the weight of the bandages once they were free of the skin so they wouldn't pull at the bandages still stuck to the wounds. Moving slowly with experienced fingers, Nathan started on JD's side, easing the bandages away from the wounds. He moved methodically up the side, then along the chest and finally along the shoulder lifting the bandages away. When the gauze held, Nathan dabbed it lightly with alcohol. The gauze tented briefly a half a dozen times as he lifted the bandages from the wounds then let go under the gentle pressure until all the bandages came away in one large bloody wad.

Nathan felt a great sense of relief as he tossed the remains of the shirt and bandages in the sink. He hadn't caused any unnecessary discomfort for JD but more importantly he hadn't caused any damage to the healing wounds.

Turning his attention once again to JD, Nathan stifled a gasp at what he saw.

Rows and rows and rows of stitches, neat stitches looking all the world like a tiny train tracks ran across JD's shoulder and down the front of his chest, leaving the impression he'd had his arm sewn back onto his body. A tiny track looped under his arm where two separate lines of stitches some six inches in length forked down his side. Two short tracks of stitches branched off the main line at his shoulder out into his chest. A second separate mainline ran across the top of his shoulder bending suddenly down in front and ending abruptly at the knob on the end of his collarbone. The skin was multiple colors of yellow, red and purple, bruising from extensive trauma under the skin. Nathan was no forensic pathologist but from the damage he suspected that the knife had been levered back and forth in the wounds to maximize damage.

Blood oozed from only three places; it was fresh and light red in color, indicating to Nathan that the bleeding was not serious and likely hadn't been going on for long, probably only since Billy had run into him. All the dried blood indicated there had been earlier bleeding that had stopped.

Nathan proceeded to clean the dried blood from the skin as he inspected the train tracks of stitches. "It looks like you were bleeding earlier," said Nathan trying to sound off-handed in his observation.

"Yeah, one of the guys bumped into me in Germany. I probably should have said something but I was afraid they'd pull me off the flight."

Nathan wanted to lie and tell him the wounds didn't look too bad, but he just couldn't do it. "The wounds appear to be healing well, the flesh around them looks healthy otherwise; I don't think any serious harm was done either by Billy or in Germany." Nathan continued dabbing gently away, cleaning up the dried blood. "Do you remember much about how this happened?" Nathan asked casually, not wanting JD to feel pressured into describing what had to have been a horrendous experience for the young man, but it was a quiet, relatively relaxed situation, a good time to find out what had happened.

JD dropped his head. "I killed a man, Nathan."

The words were whispered but Nathan heard every one of them, they sent a chill up his spine. He stopped what he was doing and watched the top of JD's head.

After a moment JD raised his head again. Nathan looked down into JD's eyes. He could see the earnest young man he knew as their youngest agent, the same one who had given the children the soccer balls. JD looked back steadily at him as he explained. "A sniper had Lennie, TJ and Tank pinned down. Sarge and Randy were wounded. It was up to me, I had to kill him, Nathan, or he would have killed them. I didn't know there was another man. He had a knife. My body armor saved me from anything really serious. I guess the guy knew what he was doing though. He stabbed me in the arm first, made it nearly useless. Then he swung the blade at me sideways, the knife slid under the armor at my shoulder. He stabbed me again; this time the knife went down under my armor beside my arm."

"It looks like you caught a black eye as well."

JD's good hand went up to touch his cheek under his eye. "Yeah, I didn't notice it until I got to the hospital. The doc there asked me about it too but I don't remember how I got it."

"What did the surgeon say about your wounds?"

"He tried to put a positive spin on things; said he tried to keep the stitches small, to make it less noticeable, but I'm going to need lots of physio. There still might be some loss of mobility but I guess I'll worry about that when it happens."

JD sat quietly as Nathan continued bandaging the wounds. A thousand questions raced through Nathan's mind but he kept his thoughts to himself. Instinct was telling him that, that was enough questions for now.

"All done, how do you feel? Do you need anything for pain?"

"No, I'm good, I was wondering though, could I have the sling? It's just easier, safer and... and more comfortable."

"No problem." Nathan turned to dig a sling out of his medical bag.



"One of the guys said you performed surgery on him in the Gulf."

"Performed surgery?" Nathan frowned not sure what JD was talking about as he shook out the sling and then slipped it carefully under JD's arm.

"Yeah, Lennie Krakower, shrapnel in his groin."

"I remember, skinny, blonde kid."

"Well, he isn't skinny any more. He's big and he sure is strong, he was our corporal. Do you remember the surgery?" JD's voice sounded a little tentative like he wasn't sure he should be asking this question.

Nathan said nothing for a moment as he adjusted the sling so the weight of the arm was supported by that and not the collarbone muscles. "How's that feel?" he asked.

"Pretty good," said JD, shifting the arm a bit to test it. "Actually real good, that's a lot better. Thanks."

JD wanted to talk. They had all agreed, no matter how difficult it might be, they would be there for JD if he wanted to talk. "I remember."

"It sounds really heroic and you never said anything..."

Nathan leaned back against the bathroom wall behind him; he crossed his arms. This deserved his full attention and he wanted to make sure JD understood. "I guess it was considered heroic at the time, I was decorated for it but the fact is JD I was scared shitless. Our unit had gotten ahead of the line. Krakower had taken shrapnel from a mine that had gone off due to the vibration of the armored vehicles. Something had to be done quickly, he was bleeding to death. I was on my own and guessing every step of the way. I put half a dozen stitches in the femoral artery and a dozen more to close the wound, hoping to reduce the chance of infection. When support caught up with us, we rushed him to a field hospital. The doctor there opened it all up again and did the job right. It got infected anyway. It probably looks god awful but he's alive."

JD remembered how awful it looked. Lennie had had no qualms about showing it off.

"So, JD, no, I didn't feel heroic, just more scared than I'd ever been before, or since, in my life. It took a long time before I stopped having nightmares over it."

"But you handle it so well when one of us gets hurt."

"Do I?"

"I think so."

"JD, nobody handles being up to their elbows in their friend's blood well. I don't concentrate well afterwards. Have you never noticed that Josiah drives me to and from work, sometimes for weeks after a bad one? I'm easily distracted and my mind wanders, I'm not safe in traffic."

"I never noticed, I guess I should have."

"It's okay; I know I have the support of everyone on the team and it that makes it easier to deal with."

JD was quiet for a moment looking off at nothing in particular.

"Is everything okay?" asked Nathan.

"Yeah, it's good."

"I'm here if you've got any more questions."

"No, I think that's it for now. Thanks."

"Here," said Nathan as he helped him on with his shirt. JD sat quietly letting Nathan button it up for him. "Look, JD, this is just my opinion but you look just about done in, I think you should go home to bed, alone, to sleep, and soon."

"Yeah, I'm thinking you're right," said JD, his voice laced with fatigue as he slipped gently off the counter and on to his feet. "I want to spend some time with Milagro and then see if Buck'll drive me home. You need any help cleaning up here?"

"No, I got it. Go say hi to your horse, show Billy you're okay, kiss your girl and then go home."

JD smiled, "No argument here, Nathan."

Nathan busied himself cleaning up after JD left. He reflected on the incident in the Gulf. Maybe he'd feel differently now if not for what had happened after they had delivered Lennie Krakower to the field hospital. He couldn't sleep that night. He had felt like he was on some weird high and had spent hours in the mess tent before heading to his bunk. It was the wee hours of the morning and he found himself cornered by three white boys, Klan of all things. He knew they still existed but to openly threaten him here in the middle of a war on a military base halfway around the world, it seemed surreal. They warned him if Lennie died, Nathan's body would accompany Lennie's back home. Nathan had had some black white racial stuff to deal with growing up but nothing like this. Then out of the dark, behind those threatening him, appeared four of the biggest brothers he had ever seen. The one with Command sergeant stripes asked Nathan if he was having any trouble. Nathan's intimidators tensed as brawny hands gripped each of them by the back of the neck. "No, Sarge, no trouble," he'd replied. "That's good," said the Sarge. "The 'Safety Committee' and me were just out for some fresh air and noticed maybe there was an accident in the making here." "No accident here, Sarge," replied one of the troublemakers. "That's real good," replied the Sergeant. "Yeah, ah G'night, Sarge," and the three white soldiers disappeared into the darkness.

"You alright, Jackson?"

"Yeah, Sarge, I can't believe that kid Krakower is involved with those guys."

"Probably isn't. Those three were just looking for an excuse to exercise their "racial superiority."

"So we take it upon ourselves to exercise the equality of this man's army," said one of the others with a less than friendly chuckle.

"We watch out for each other here, Jackson, remember that."

Nathan knew at the time, he'd meant only the black soldiers, and so went Nathan's first active duty as a medic.

It was still that way in a lot of places, but here, a part of this group, with these men, Nathan took comfort in the fact that it wasn't.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD found Vin by himself at the corral. He was scratching behind Peso's ears when JD appeared. Once Peso saw JD, the contrary creature neighed, shook his head and scampered off.

"Hey there, JD," greeted Vin.

"Vin." Across the corral Milagro's head went up at the sound of JD's voice. The horse trotted over to the men to investigate.

"Casey and Billy have gone up to the house to see if they could find some treats for the horses," said Vin, noticing JD looking around and anticipating his question.

JD reached over and grabbed the horse's bridle; pulling Milagro's head over to his own he spoke to the horse in affectionate terms. The horse whinnied and danced in place as he greeted his master for the first time in months.

"He missed you," said Vin with a smile.

JD stroked the long neck, slowly, "I missed him too," he said somberly.

While JD and Milagro got reacquainted, Vin watched in companionable silence.

"Vin, can I ask you something personal?" JD asked as he continued to stroke his horse.


"I was wondering, well..., what was it you had to face... that is," JD hesitated, not sure how the phrase the question.

"What did I do in the military that keeps me up at night?" said Vin, supplying JD with the question.

JD couldn't help but feel a little embarrassed, "Yeah, something like that."

Vin turned to stare across the corral, his blue eyes focusing somewhere beyond the horses. "It's true that I've never seen what you would call action, and you know, of course, that the Rangers saw some talent in me and trained me as a sniper." Vin snorted gently, "You tell that to some folks and they think it sounds exciting, or even sexy, somehow." Vin turned back to look straight at JD, his eyes never wavering. "The facts are as a sniper you wait for a long time someplace usually not very nice and never very comfortable until the mark shows up. Everybody refers to your target as a mark so nobody gets to thinking that what you're doing is preparing to take a human life. Then you put that person's head in your sights and wait for the right moment. Sometimes the wait is dragged out 'cause you're waiting for an order to fire, waiting with that head in your sights for someone, somewhere else, to make the decision that this person, this person who's never done you any harm, is to die. Then you shoot that person dead." Vin went quiet for a moment; his expression was hard as he turned back to stare across the corral again. After another minute, he swallowed hard. "I did that four times with the Rangers," he said quietly. "It leaves you feeling cold inside, a piece of your soul dies every time you pull the trigger... and there sure as hell ain't nothin' sexy or exciting about it."

"But you've shot people with us."

"That's different." replied Vin, looking back at JD, "it was always in self defense or protecting one of you; they're always armed and would kill any of us to protect themselves and... I've only wounded people since I've been with the team, haven't had to kill a one."

JD wasn't sure how he felt at the moment. Here was something else he didn't know about one of the team. Part of him felt like an outsider because he'd never been told this. Part of him felt humbled because telling him had to be killing Vin inside. "Vin, I'm sorry I brought up..."

"Forget it," said Vin quickly giving JD a sad smile, "We all agreed before you got home, JD. Whatever it took, we'd help you. You remember that."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The sun was beginning to set as Nathan stowed his medical bag in Rain's car. Strolling across the driveway toward the house, he noticed JD and Casey with Billy and Vin at the corral with the horses. He could hear the sounds of friendly conversation and laughter from the young people.

He mounted the steps and dropped tiredly into the chair left vacant for him amongst Chris, Buck and Josiah. He accepted a cigar from Josiah and leaned over to puff on it as Buck lit it. Then he sat, quietly enjoying the aroma for a moment as he gathered his thoughts - they were expecting a report.

"Where's Ezra?" he asked.

"He's minding Alicia while the women talk," answered Josiah.

"Though I don't mind her spending time with her uncle, it's not a good sign for Ezra."

"We'll wait and see if he can pull himself out of this on his own," said Chris quietly. "So how's JD?"

Nathan paused and sighed audibly before answering. "Physically, I'm appalled at what I saw. I can't believe they sent him home in this condition."

"There's something in the paper or on the news every day about the overcrowding at Walter Reed. The reports say the wait is six months now, maybe they have had to make tough choices as to sending the marginal cases home," suggested Josiah.

"JD is not marginal," said Nathan flatly. "He should be in a hospital. He has three very serious stab wounds. He must have over a hundred stitches, and that's only what I can see externally, I don't know how many are on the inside holding his muscles and tendons together. There's a lot of damage. His recovery needs to be monitored. He's going to need a lot of physio and it's going to take time."

"How the hell did he get hurt so badly?" asked Buck. His furrowed brow indicated his confusion.

"It seems his squad was ambushed like the news said. JD was left to take down a sniper all on his own. He shot the sniper and then was surprised by a second man with a knife."

Buck was incredulous, "He was left alone to defend the squad, where the hell were the rest of them?"

"Two were wounded and unable to help, the other three were pinned down by the sniper."

"Jesus!" cursed Buck vehemently.

"He says he didn't have a choice. It was kill or have the rest of the squad wiped out while he watched. He made a tough call and carried it through."

"But..." Chris cocked an eye in Nathan's direction.

"He's too calm, too matter-of-fact about it," said Nathan ruefully.

"He hasn't hit the wall yet?" suggested Josiah.

"I don't think so," replied Nathan.

"Anything else?" asked Chris.

"There's bruising around one eye, a deep bone bruise. He doesn't seem to remember anything about it."

"Well, that's not too unusual," reasoned Josiah. "The details of stress filled situations are often blurred, mixed up or even forgotten, a slug to the eye during a fight for your life is a pretty minor detail."

"True," conceded Nathan thoughtfully, "But that, the extent of his injuries, being so calm about killing a man in hand-to-hand combat... I've got a bad feeling, that's all."

"What do you think, Chris?"

Chris took his cigar out his mouth and seemed to be examining it critically for a moment before answering. "He's back home with us so it's up to us to look out for him. There are too many unknowns here. I don't like it. Josiah do you still have that friend at Brooke?"

"He hasn't retired yet."

"Does he owe you any favors?"

"A few."

"Do you think we can get a copy of JD's medical assessment, and if your friend could manage it, a copy of the report on the incident?"

"I'll look into it in the morning."

"In the meantime," said Chris rising from his seat as he noticed Vin, Billy, JD and Casey coming towards them, "I think we should keep a close eye on him."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck took the steps up to the front door of the CDC two at a time. He was anxious to spend some time with JD. He'd managed to get JD to bed last night despite the fact the kid had been asleep before the truck had made it the end of Chris's driveway. He hadn't woken up while Buck had guided him to his room, stripped him of his footwear and pants and rolled him into bed. JD was still slumbering soundly when Buck left for work.

Buck paused before entering the house, taking a moment to slow down, JD might still be asleep, God knows he has reason to be and as much as Buck wanted to spend time with him. Nathan had reiterated a number of times today as to how important it was that JD get as much rest as possible.

Buck unlocked the door and entered quietly. No sound, no music, no TV, no shower running, JD must still be asleep. Dropping the mail on the kitchen counter, Buck dove into the refrigerator to find a beer. He picked up the copy of Sports Illustrated that had arrived in the mail and wandered into the living room, intent on catching the early sports report.

Buck stopped short. JD was sitting on the couch. He wore what Buck had put him to bed in with his housecoat pulled haphazardly over his shoulders. He was starring unhappily at the cordless phone sitting in front of him on the coffee table.

"Hey, there," said Buck a little cautiously.

"Hi," was the brief reply.

"How are you feeling?" asked Buck as he sat down the chair across from JD.

"A little jet lagged still but better for all the sleep," replied JD. Still not looking up at Buck, JD ran his hand through the stubble that was his hair. "It sure is quiet around here. It's nice for a change. Tiger Base was noisy all the time, quieter at night but still, you learned to sleep through the air traffic that was always coming and going."

Buck smiled, as he tuned his hearing into the hum of their neighborhood, the kids playing in the park down the street, the freeway half a mile away, the faint sound of a siren coming in their direction and the six o'clock chimes from St. Mary's, a block and a half away.

JD dropped his head back against the couch. His face was definitely leaner than when he had left. It was still a young face but it looked troubled at the moment.

"Is everything okay?" asked Buck, cocking his head a little sideways.

JD raised his head to look at him, his eyes fixed intently on Buck's face. "You tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"Is Casey seeing someone else?"

"What!" JD's eyes never wavered from Buck's face. It took all Buck had not to squirm under the kid's scrutiny as his thoughts jumped to his own brief moment of weakness. "What makes you ask a question like that? Of course not! Do you have any idea what that girl's been through while you were gone?"

"No, I don't, why don't you tell me."

Buck suddenly realized he'd been maneuvered into a corner.

"What's she not telling me? She's been out of school for two months, why isn't she articling yet?"

Bucked hoped his sigh of relief wasn't obvious from across the room.

"I can see it on your face Buck; you know what's been going on while I've been gone, don't you?"


"Tell me!"

"JD, I don't know what it is she's not telling you, at least I don't know for sure and one way or t'other, it's not my place. Whatever it is, it's between you two."

JD glared silently at Buck.

"...but I know it's not another guy."

JD looked back down at the cordless phone, "She wants to meet tonight... and explain." The word "explain" was heavy with sarcasm.

Buck's hopes for an evening with JD were dashed but until JD and Casey were good again, JD wouldn't be worth spending time with anyway. Right now, the kid looked royally pissed off.

"Do you want me to clear out for tonight?"

JD shook his head, "No, she's coming to pick me up."

"Do you want a beer?"

"Love one but I just took a pain med," JD, his tone of voice seemed less annoyed than it has been.

Buck's brow furrowed with concern, "Is it bad?"

"No, just persistent, it woke me up. I think the last med I took was Monday in Germany. It's what, Wednesday?"

"Thursday," corrected Buck.

"Huh, I guess I lost a day."

"How about something to eat?" asked Buck.

"I already ordered pizza."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Yeah," JD looked down at the floor.


JD continued to stare at the floor.

"C'mon kid, what is it?"

"I need some help with something."

"Spit it out already!"

"I need some help taking a bath."

Buck eyebrows shot up, "You want me to give you a bath?"

"Well," JD lifted his bound right arm, "I can't get this wet and the smell of me would have put most decent people out of this room by now. In the hospital, the nurses took care of..."

Buck chuckled, "Hey, that's no problem," then his eyes lit up as mischief dawned on him. "Hell it might even be kind of fun..."

JD bristled at Buck expression, "Get that look off your face right now or I'm out of here. Any one of the others would..."

"Okay, okay." said Buck holding his hands up in surrender, deciding teasing wasn't really a good idea right now; the kid was just home and already on edge over his girl. "Let's go see what we can work out."

A rain poncho was modified to protect JD's torso as Buck shampooed his hair. Buck lathered up his face and held a mirror while JD did the honors when it came to shaving. Once the poncho was off, he could wash his neck and front with the soaped up cloth Buck provided, but Buck took over for his arm and down his back. Unhooking the shower wand from its base high on the wall, he left JD on his own for everything below the waist with orders to sing out if he needed any help.

Buck stuck the pizza in the oven and waited until JD appeared in sweat pants asking to borrow an old shirt to put on over the extra bulk of the bandages. The only shirt he figured might fit was his Patriots jersey, which he couldn't find.

"I lent it to Casey," explained Buck.

"Lent it to Casey? Why? She's a Bengalis fan."

"It had nothing to do with football, JD. She came over for dinner one night, she was missing you something awful, I thought maybe having something of yours, something that was special to you, would help, you know, bring her comfort. I hope it was okay?"

"Yeah, sure it was okay, I guess," replied JD with a shrug.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

They both sat starring straight out of the car. Not touching. Not happy.

JD couldn't help but feel disappointed in her. He was over there busting his ass to keep her safe and she was home turning herself into an addict. He turned his face toward her. "So, let me get this straight, you didn't get an articling position because you haven't graduated yet and you haven't graduated because you didn't write your last exam and you didn't write your exam because you slept in because you got yourself hooked on sleeping pills?" His anger crept into his tone of voice.

She didn't look at him. "You're twisting the facts; it wasn't like that."

"It sure sounds like that to me!"

Casey turned suddenly to look at him. He could see she was angry too. "I was doing alright until those contractors were killed. Do you remember that? CNN ran that news story over and over, again. Their bodies were hung across a roadway, burned black; they looked just human enough for you to realize they had once been people!" Tears gathered in her eyes, "I couldn't sleep for days afterwards." She looked down at her hands in her lap. "The doctor at the student medical clinic at school said they weren't physically addictive, but I got to thinking I couldn't sleep without them. I ran out the night before my tax exam, I was barely passing and needed to do really well on the exam... I knew you depending on me to do well..."

Casey couldn't finish the tears took over.

JD watched her cry. He hadn't seen that particular news cast, but they had heard about the incident. It had upset and angered everyone. They had become more vigilant on patrol. Security measures around the base had been reviewed and tightened. They had been able to do implement changes to increase their safety but there was nothing Casey could do to guard against something similar happening to him.

He twisted and reached across with his right arm from the passenger side of the car grabbing her wrist gently. She twisted easily out of his grip. He took her wrist again, more firmly this time tugging insistently. "Casey, come here." She shook her head stubbornly. "Casey..."

She stopped crying and looked at him, her eyes still wet with tears. "Let go of me." Her words were quiet, her expression accusing. "Let go of me, I'll take you home."

Reluctantly, he complied.

~ ~ ~ *~ ~ ~

"How was the date?" Buck asked. He'd fooled himself into thinking he was watching the ball game when in fact he had checked out the window every few minutes, anxiously waiting for JD and Casey to get home.

"Okay," replied JD as he threw himself down on the couch beside Buck.

"Casey's not with you?"

"No," JD's reply was clipped.

"I thought maybe you two would want to..."

"Would want to what?"

"Well, you know, it's been six months since..."

"Neither one of us was exactly in the mood after she told me her news. Did you know she got hooked on sleeping pills?"

"Well, she wasn't hooked exactly..."

"You knew!" JD exploded angrily.

"She was under a lot of stress..."

"Stress!" JD cut Buck off, "Being home safe and sound is stressful? I can't believe what I'm hearing! I'm at war, people are getting killed all around me and she gets herself addicted..."

"JD, don't judge her, don't you dare judge her," Buck thundered, losing his temper now. "You have no idea how worried she was. Hell, how worried we all were! Waiting is hard, not knowing is hard. Everyday there are news reports of battles and deaths. You were there. You knew you were okay, we didn't!"

Incensed, Buck sprang to his feet and began pacing back in forth in front of JD.

"Didn't you hear a damn thing anybody said last night? Didn't you read any of the e-mail we sent you? We fucked up the first bust royally after you left. Chris was actually considering transferring us to Community Outreach for the duration of your tour. Us! Making speeches to schools and ladies clubs! Ezra was forced into anger management counseling or face suspension. Rain, already extra emotional during her pregnancy, was crying half the time. Nathan was worried sick that the emotional stress would bring the baby on too soon. Hell, Vin even started going to Church with Josiah. Casey was trying to work and still get straight A's without a lot of sleep most nights. I don't know how many nights I spent sitting on this couch wondering if I was ever going to see you again! All! Do you hear me? All because we were worried about you!"

Buck sat down hard on the couch again and took a long swig of his beer before slamming the bottle down on the coffee table.

"Buck, I..."

"I'm not finished," Buck snapped.

Calmer but still pretty damn annoyed, Buck turned to JD, "I'm not saying what you were doing wasn't hard. I've been there, it's damn hard, but it was no picnic here. Every day was extra tough for all of us because you weren't here."

Buck watched as JD turned away from him. "I don't think..."

"I'm still not finished," said Buck as he grabbed his beer and took another drink from it only to stop suddenly, squinting he held the bottle up to the light. Discovering it was empty, he put it back on the table.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't be a little disappointed in her, JD, but put yourself in her shoes for a minute. She was worried and she was lonely. As nice an idea it was to take her to the formal, one of her girlfriends got engaged that night, it only made her miss you more. I don't know if you've noticed but you can't go anywhere in this country where there aren't constant reminders of the men overseas right now. Reminders that they are in danger and may not come home, it makes it damn hard to get through a day sometimes."

Buck waited, watching JD's profile. After a minute, JD snorted gently, "I guess I was being a bit of a jerk.

"No shit."

"I, ah, I guess I should forgive her," he said a little sheepishly.

"It's not about forgiveness. She made what she thought was the best decision she could at the time. It's your understanding that she deserves."

JD was quiet for a moment before grimacing ruefully, "I get it." He got off the couch, "I better give her a call. She asked me to go to the Dean's office tomorrow with her when she picks up her grade from her re-write. I told her I'd have to think about it." JD looked down at Buck, "I better find out when she's going to pick me up."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD lay on his back. Casey's naked body was draped over his right side. Her head lay on his right shoulder; his arm was wrapped protectively around her.

It had been a good news day, but even so, he didn't feel very happy at the moment.

They had arrived at the Dean's office at eight forty-five. It didn't matter that they were early for her appointment, they were shown right in.

The Dean had made a big deal of meeting him. Since JD had taken primarily part-time courses since coming to Denver, they had never met before. The Dean commended him for the fine job the troops were doing in Iraq, as if he, JD, was personally responsible for the military's success. JD found the Dean's praise irritating for some reason. Nonetheless, he was polite in his reply.

The Dean announced that Casey, even though Tax Accounting was considered the toughest course in her program, had written an excellent exam. Her grade on the exam was enough to bring her mark for the course from a D to a B plus.

The Dean informed her that he had already taken the liberty of speaking to Ted Hargreaves and that Casey was to go see him personally after she was finished here. He had congratulated her heartily and reminded her of the summer convocation ceremonies in mid August.

Casey was smiling so wide, it looked like her cheeks should be hurting as she shook the Dean's hand. Once they were outside the Dean's office, she turned to him, before she could say anything; he lifted her up with one arm, told her he was proud of her and kissed her soundly. He thought it odd, as he lay here now, that the expression on her face was one of relief.

Hargreaves and Campbell had been boring for him. He had been left to wait in the reception area. After forty-five minutes, Casey came out, all smiles, with both Ted Hargreaves and Jeremiah Campbell in tow. They both shook hands with him when introduced and again complimented him on the fine work the military was doing in the Middle East; as well, Jeremiah Campbell, a man who could rival Ezra when it came to excessive verbal eloquence, went on and on, to the point of embarrassment, about JD being wounded in the service of his country.

JD had to wonder why the two managing partners of the prestigious firm both had taken the time to meet with Casey and himself; usually articling accountants were left to the firm's personnel manager, were they not? It became clear when Ted Hargreaves mentioned that he and Josiah had been friends for a number of years. Josiah had spoken highly of him on many occasions, and that it was good to finally meet him.

When JD had thought he couldn't take one more compliment without screaming, they finally said their good-byes, the partners both saying that they were looking forward to Casey starting on Monday. JD was left feeling upset and irritated by the whole exchange.

It was mid-morning by then; both of them were feeling hungry. They decided to stop at a coffee shop. While they were waiting in line to place their order, JD got the feeling that he was being stared at. He shrugged it off, reminding himself he wasn't the center of the universe.

When they went to pay for their order and the waitress asked politely if he was a soldier who'd been wounded in overseas, he had replied that he was. "From your short hair and your arm, I thought maybe you were," the waitress had said. She went on to tell them that his coffee was on the house. She had pointed to two pictures high on the wall above the coffee machines, explaining they were the owner's son and daughter and they were also serving. It was his policy that any soldier's coffee was free. Feeling a little embarrassed, JD tried to pay anyway but the waitress was insistent. Noticing that he was on the verge of arguing the point, Casey had put her hand on his arm to indicate to him she thought it best he leave it alone.

Casey had taken the tray holding their purchases and they had sat down. A few minutes went by, before he realized he hadn't been imagining it after all, he was being stared at. He had looked at Casey, she had met his eyes, she had felt it too. Silently, they agreed it was time to leave. They had gathered up their coffees and headed for the door. An elderly man suddenly stepped in their path. He held out his hand. JD looked as his hand and then at the old man's eyes. The older gentleman was asking to shake his hand. JD nodded shyly, and accommodated the man. JD noted his ramrod straight stance and a pin on the man's lapel, he too had served. JD asked him politely about it. The man went on to say something about Korea just as another man joined them. JD shook his hand; after a few polite words, they turned to leave and found a couple blocking their way out. They too wanted to lend their thanks and express their appreciation for his sacrifice. More people were getting up from their tables and making their way over to the young couple. The anxiety that has been building slowly was becoming overwhelming. JD had begun to feel panicky. Casey must have picked up on it, because she neatly stepped in and explained they needed to leave so they wouldn't be late for an appointment. Casey was a sly one; he didn't miss the fact that though she said nothing about it, she cast her eyes toward his arm in the sling, lending the impression that the appointment had to do with his injury. Everyone understood immediately and the people parted, leaving the couple a clear path to the door.

They strode swiftly to the car. Casey helped him get seat belted. JD smiled awkwardly and waved politely, and had received a dozen waves in reply from the people watching them from the coffee shop windows as they drove out of the parking lot.

Six blocks later, Casey pulled into a church parking lot. They had drawn a sigh of relief before looking at each other and breaking out in laughter.

JD lay back thinking now, they hadn't been laughing at the people so much as they had found the situation so unlike anything they had ever known before. Right now, he was finding it distressing. Those people thought of him as a hero. He sure as hell didn't feel like one. He was a guy who had done his job and a guy who had been lucky. Lucky, that he hadn't been Jeff Doogan and died while on guard duty, Terrence Briggs who died when his arm was crushed under the weight of a Humvee, or Randy, who now had to learn to live and provide for his family with only one leg.

He'd still been upset when they got back home to his place.

Casey had sensed that he was upset and had sat facing him at the kitchen table while he tried to explain it to her. She has listened without interrupting and just let him pour his feelings of being unworthy of everyone's adulation. When he was done, she had knelt in front of him, reached up and stroked his hair. She spoke to him but he didn't hear her words, instead all he noticed were her eyes. They were full of her love for him. He had never wanted her more.

He leaned forward and kissed her long and hard. He stood lifting her with his one arm to hold her tightly against himself. Need exploded inside both of them.

He was afraid he had been too rough with her the first time, so great was his desire. Casey had said nothing afterwards only rolled him over so she could lie on top of him. It wasn't long before his need became evident again. This time she had directed things. Slowly, lovingly, she had let him know just how much she had missed him. This time she had wisely taken her own satisfaction before accommodating his.

They had fallen asleep afterwards. He had awoken a couple of hours later and had lain still so as to not disturb her slumber.

He felt unworthy of all the praise and it was upsetting him. In the kitchen, Casey had tried to explain how these people's actions were about themselves, not him. She was right of course. He'd have to find a way to keep these people's sentiments from upsetting him.

The whole coming home experience had not been what he'd expected. He had thought it would be so great to be home again. It had been more emotionally upsetting than he would ever have thought. The expressions on Buck, Josiah and Ezra's faces when they were talking about the deaths of children they had witnessed. Nathan talking about being scared shitless, in Lennie's version of the events Nathan had been his source of comfort; Vin, the cold look in his eyes as he talked about assassinating people under orders. What horrors did Chris live with he wondered?

Then it hit him cold and hard, the looks on their faces that first day back at the ranch after he confessed he lied about the car bombing at his checkpoint. The expressions he never seen before, they were a reflection of the raw scars they all still carried of their own experiences in war.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD lay semi-reclined on the couch, still suffering from fatigue. The weekend had passed quickly and it was suddenly Monday. After the events of Friday, he and Casey had opted staying in and renting a movie Friday night. A less formal barbeque was held at Chris's Saturday, not everyone had been able to make it. Nathan had come by to change his bandages Friday after work and yesterday afternoon. He had been pleased that there hadn't been any more bleeding. Nathan had informed him that he'd made an appointment with a specialist at the hospital for Tuesday. Travis had pulled strings to make it happen quickly, so Nathan would pick him up and take him to the appointment. Last night, he and Casey had supper just the two of them at the CDC, Buck had gone out with Belinda. Casey had gone home early Sunday night to get ready for her first day of work.

It was now 1:00 p.m. and he was still in his pajama bottoms, t-shirt and robe. He had slept through Buck leaving for work that morning. Now he clicked aimlessly through the TV channels. Talk shows, games shows, the Hour of Power, reruns of the NFL games from the 70's, 'two hundred plus channels and nothing to watch,' he fumed. He settled on a rerun of Superbowl III, the NY Jets versus the Baltimore colts.

The cheers of the crowd at the game reminded him of the noise of the marketplace in Al Qa'im. They hadn't been allowed to go to the marketplace unless duty required it. From his checkpoint, he could hear the people haggling over prices, talking what sounded like a mile a minute, children laughing, parents scolding. Screams! He shouldered his rifle, screams right in his face! He jerked suddenly awake. His heart was pounding, he was breathing heavily, the NFL game was over and some stupid commercial was screaming at him. He groped around desperately for the remote and hit the off button. The sudden silence was deafening. He was upright now; his breathing was coming in shallow pants. He leaned over to rest his head on the hand of his good arm, willing his heart to slow down and body to stop shaking. He's had bad dreams before but they had never awakened him like this, probably because before he'd had either a sedative or pain killer to help him sleep.

Food, he thought, he needed some real food, toast and orange juice was all he'd had so far. He got up and went to the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door, he spied a few leftovers from the weekend. He pulled them out and after some fumbling; he managed to get them into the microwave to reheat. He'd have to see about getting an electric can opener, otherwise he was going to starve. The microwave hummed quietly away while he looked into the refrigerator again. He scooped out a beer. Holding it between his knees, he managed to the twist cap with his good arm. Tipping his head back, he took a long drink. The cold liquid felt awfully good on the way down. He sighed and leaned back against the counter. Two-forty-five, it would be three hours before Buck got home. He needed to find something constructive to do until then. He tipped his head back and let the rest of the amber liquid roll down his throat; he could feel the pent up anxiety gently drift off.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck took alternating steps up to the front door. Secretly, it was a little daily test he put himself through, as long as he could sprint up the steps two at a time he figured he was beating back old age.

"JD," Buck called out. No answer. He made his way to the kitchen leafing through the mail, "Hey, Kid, how come supper's not started?" Still no answer. Buck opened the refrigerator door and bent over, weaving this way and that looking for a beer. He was sure there had been at least half a dozen left after the weekend. He couldn't see even one.

'Huh,' he thought to himself, rising and closing the door. He turned around, there was an empty beer bottle left on the counter. He hadn't noticed it before. Across the room, on the table, sat another bottle, alongside it sat a half eaten bowl of leftover spaghetti. 'That's kind of strange,' thought Buck, JD was pretty reliable at cleaning up after himself.

Buck took a quick look toward the front door as he left the kitchen. The kid's shoes were still here, so it was likely he was, too. He traveled the length of the hallway and no, he wasn't in the living room. Buck took the half flight of stairs up and quietly turned the knob on JD's bedroom door. He peeked inside. The kid was flat out on his back snoring gently. A motorcycle magazine still in his hand - and four empties lay on the bed beside him.

Buck closed the door as quietly as he had opened it. There was something about all of this that disconcerted him. Not much to eat, six beers to drink and still in his pajamas. The kid was entitled to downtime, lord knows he deserved it but this wasn't typical JD. What was typical JD any more? In the past he'd have been up, dressed, working at his computer or his motorcycle, music blaring, JD never spent down time just doing nothing. Buck told himself to relax, the kid was just home, after a life changing six months, wounded and tired. It would take time to get back to normal.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Yelling... JD fought his way to the surface.

More yelling... JD turned over slowly sitting up before easing himself over to the edge of the bed. Oh God, his head hurt! His feet were trying to find the floor when he heard it again.

"JD, you awake?"

There it was again, Buck yelling for him. It didn't sound like anything was wrong.

He jumped, startled by Buck suddenly thumping on his door.

"... he's in there darlin', I know he is," he heard Buck say to someone. The door swung open. JD blinked sleepily at Buck standing in the doorway, the cordless phone stuck to his ear.

"Will wonders never cease, he's alive!" said Buck, awfully loudly JD thought, into the phone.

"It's for you," said Buck, grinning a bit maliciously as he held the phone in JD's face.

"Thanks," croaked JD. He cleared his throat, "Hello?"

"Hi, JD," said Casey cheerfully on the other end of the line.

"Just a sec," he said to Casey before he held the phone to chest and looked up at Buck, "This is personal, you can leave now."

"You're welcome, master," said Buck as he held up both hands and bowing before turning and making for the door.

"Hey, Casey, what's up?" asked JD with as much enthusiasm as he could muster while rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"I thought I'd phone and see how you are."

"Good, good," he had the feeling he was missing something here, "How are you?"

"Pretty good, considering it was my first day at work today."

"Ohmigod! Casey I'm so sorry," JD was fully awake now. "I forgot you started work today. How was it?"

JD felt relieved when Casey giggled on the other end of the phone, she wasn't mad at him.

"It was great! I already have a case load of some small business clients that I'm responsible for and I get to go on an audit next week!"

"Great!" Though it sounded like the definition of boredom itself to him, Casey seemed happy and that's all that counted.

She chatted on happily about the other articling accountants, the office they all shared and the rest of the staff at the firm. He forgot most of it as soon as he heard it.

"Pardon?" he asked her, realizing he'd just missed her question.

"How was your day?" She was on such a high she didn't realize he was only half listening to her.

"Uhhm, quiet, I rested mostly," he replied. "Hey, do you want to get together tonight?"

"Now?" Casey sounded surprised.

"Sure, why not?"

"JD, it's ten o'clock."

"What?" JD leaned over to get a better look at his bedside clock. The illuminated numbers changed from 10:08 to 10:09.

"Casey, I'm sorry I went to bed this afternoon and Buck just woke me up. I had no idea I'd slept so long." He felt badly and the persistent headache wasn't helping matters.

"It's okay." There was no undertone in her voice that he could tell. It really was okay with her. "You're home to rest and recuperate; it's going to take time. What do you have on for tomorrow?"

"Doctor." He replied briefly. "Buck is taking me to work and Nathan and I are leaving from there. Hey, would you like to meet for lunch?"

"Oh, I don't think it would be a good day. My supervisor is taking me to lunch."

"How about tomorrow night, then?"

"Okay, I'll call you when I get home."

"Sounds good," he paused. "Casey, I'm glad you called."

"I just wanted to tell you about today before I went to bed."

"I'm glad you did."

"Love you."

"Love you, too. G'night." He hung up. He had to smile, she was happy and that made him happy. It also made him miss work. Tomorrow would be a better day because he was going to the office.

He stretched. The action caused the mattress to shift and the empty bottles on the bed clinked gently together. The noise surprised him and his shoulder twinged painfully as he jerked at the unexpected sound. Grimacing with pain, he thought about the doctor tomorrow. He got up and, as he gathered the empties, deciding he better go recruit Buck to help him bathe again.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

It felt good to walk through the doors of the Government offices. Walter, the reception desk security officer, seventy years old if he was a day, stood and saluted him. JD returned the salute even though he was dressed in jeans. That too felt good, it was the first day he'd managed to wiggle into this jeans and do up the fly and the button on his own. He didn't mind when Casey helped him but Buck always made it an opportunity to tease him. Walter had lost a leg in Viet Nam, and usually he was all business but today he wanted to chat a while; JD figured the least he could do is spend some time with him.

He rode up in the elevator with Buck and, for the first time he could remember, he attracted more attention from the women than Buck. Many expressed their concern when they had heard he'd been wounded and all of them sounded disappointed that he wasn't back full time yet.

It didn't take JD long to realize there was a reason behind Walter's uncharacteristic chattiness. Buck let him lead the way through the doors to Team 7 offices. The room erupted with cheers, whistles and clapping. Members of all the other teams and most of the support staff they dealt with regularly, even the Manager of IT, who he thought hated him with a passion, were there as well.

He smiled shyly, embarrassed at all the attention. AD Travis stepped forward but when the clapping still didn't subside, Travis raised his hand and the room was brought to silence.

"Agent Dunne," began Travis in his characteristic growl, "I want to take this opportunity to welcome you back. I realize it will be a while before you're back with us full time. In the meantime, I think I speak for all of us when I say we're all very proud of you and we thank God that you have returned to us safely." Travis, as always, was short and to the point.

There was a pause as everyone looked expectantly at JD. He suddenly realized he was expected to say a few words. The words just started to tumble out of his mouth. "Well, Assistant Director, thank you, sir... and everyone else here for the ahh, warm welcome home. It is really amazing... It's awfully good to be home and ahh... well, thanks again."

Josiah must have recognized that he was feeling out of his depth and at a loss for words. He suddenly appeared from out of the crowd and stepped forward to shake JD's hand, "It's good to have you back, JD." The room seemed to surge forward as everyone wanted to shake his hand now but at least his speech was over.

Two hours later their office was almost back to normal. JD sat back in his old chair feeling exhausted physically and emotionally. JD had lost count of the number of woman who'd kissed him, the number who had told him that he was "so brave." The members of the other teams had told him in one way or another he'd done the ATF proud. The Manager of IT, told him he still didn't agree with his "smart ass" attitude but that his son was in Afghanistan and the least he owed JD was a hand shake. The man's tone of voice was gruff but the look in the man's eyes belied his true feelings. Ed Bertrand mentioned that as much as he'd like to return to his position as Comm. Tech with Team 3 as soon as possible, JD was to take his time and get well.

JD had found the whole hero's welcome thing awkward and embarrassing. He wasn't brave and he sure didn't feel like a hero. Children had died because of his lack of vigilance. He felt unworthy of the attention and the anxious feelings he'd felt at the coffee shop had returned.

The six of them sat in their usual spots while Chris leaned back, with arms crossed, against Vin's desk.

"Did you guys plan this?" asked JD he couldn't keep the suspicion out of his voice. He felt like he'd been set-up.

"No, JD, the word got around that you were coming in today and it just sort happened on its own," replied Chris.

"It was mighty nice of everyone," commented Josiah.

"Sure was," agreed Vin.

"I liked AD Travis's speech," said Nathan.

"You can depend on our esteemed Assistant Director to be succinct," said Ezra as he nodded in agreement.

"I think he realized that our boy here was the star of the show," said Buck proudly as he leaned back in his chair to look at JD. "Hey kid, you play your cards right, you could have a different date every Friday night for the next six months," Buck said chuckling.

"You think it's funny, don't you?" said JD angrily, "While I don't! I found the whole thing offensive."

Buck's face looked as if JD had just struck him. The rest sat up from their reclined positions and stared at him with surprised and puzzled expressions.

"It makes me feel sick!" he continued, making no attempt to hide his irritation. "I'm not brave, I'm not some hero. I wasn't out to get dates or make a name for the ATF. I was a soldier trying to do his job. Why does everyone have to make such a big deal out of it?"

"Kid, I didn't mean anything by..," Buck was halted by the withering look JD gave him.

"JD, people are just glad to see you made it home safe," said Chris patiently. "More than 3,000 of our soldiers haven't managed to do that."

"Clare from Legal, wasn't here today." Josiah said quietly, "She's gone to her nephew's funeral; he wasn't as fortunate as you."

That bit of news immediately took the edge off of JD's anger. Clare was a nice lady who'd looked out for JD when it came to legal procedure after he first started with the ATF. She was very proud of her nephew; a picture of him in full military dress sat on her desk.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, feeling a little ashamed. "I'm having a hard time dealing with all the attention, I guess."

"You've had quite a bit to deal with of late, Mr. Dunne, some ill-humor is understandable," said Ezra reasonably.

"Adjusting to being home is tougher than most people think," said Chris sympathetically.

"If your friends can't cut you some slack, who can?" asked Vin rhetorically with a smile.

"JD, time to go," said Nathan tapping the face of his watch.

He got up from his desk, feeling grateful for the excuse to escape.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The appointment with Doctor Chong went well. The specialist was familiar with the army surgeon's work by reputation; even so, he had JD sign a permission to have his military medical records forwarded now that he was JD's primary physician.

The bandages were removed and the rows of stitches were inspected critically. Dr Chong ordered x-rays to determine what and just how much work had been done internally when JD couldn't answer his questions. The afternoon dragged along as the waited for those results and to see the doctor a second time.

Doctor Chong concluded that the injuries were healing well and recommended that JD take his arm out of the sling half a dozen times a day and flex it slowly, lifting it as high as he could, above his head if possible. It would be painful to do so but JD was to do his best. The surgeon had other general recommendations for healing. JD was to keep a regular schedule of bed time and nutritious meals as well as moderate exercise such as a long walk each day. An appointment was made for two weeks time.

It was nearly six when Nathan dropped him off at home. Buck did his best to get supper in him before he fell asleep at the table.

JD was in bed for the night by seven.

Casey telephoned and after explaining JD's day, Buck suggested they get together tomorrow night.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The next morning, Buck shook him awake at seven as per doctor's orders and just before leaving for the office. He mentioned Casey had telephoned the night before and she was going to call tonight before coming over.

On his way to the bathroom, JD waved sleepily to Buck who was on his way out the door. JD managed to get himself cereal and juice for breakfast and then headed out for a walk. An hour and half later he arrived back home.

He managed to give himself a bath of sorts and at ten thirty he was wiping the dust off his computer. He started by e-mailing the guys at work and Ed Bertrand, to let him know he was available for questions; he sent an e-mail each to Lennie, TJ and Tank, and finally e-mails to Randy at both his home, hoping his wife would pick it up, and his military address if he wasn't home yet and Sarge using his military address, as he had no home address for him.

Buck replied with a number of jokes - JD e-mailed back his standard warning about such e-mail carrying viruses, not that he expected Buck to pay attention but he felt obligated to at least try. The others sent him hello e-mails, Nathan's had the latest pictures of Alicia attached.

Bertrand sent him reports as to what he'd been doing as the Team 7 Comm Tech since he'd come on-board 4 months ago, plus any reports he could find previous to that time but after JD had left. JD found it hard to believe the team had dispensed with (scared off) six techs before Travis authorized Bertrand to take over. Bertrand was a good man, thought JD to himself, he recognized the job was key to keeping everyone safe during a bust and he did his job very well.

The last thing JD did was log into his e-mail at work. IT had disabled it shortly after he'd left for Iraq. The first few were work related from Christmas, a couple were wishing him good luck on his tour in Iraq; obviously the senders were unaware he'd already left when the word got out. The dates then jumped to the last two days. IT must have reactivated his profile yesterday because the inbox was full of recently dated messages welcoming him home. Feelings of anxiety arose after reading the first few. The sentiments were not just welcome home but what a great and brave thing he'd done, serving his country. "I'm not a fucking hero," muttered JD to himself as he began to delete anything he suspected was a welcome home message, unread.

Once he'd sent the last message to PC heaven, he turned his computer off. He noticed it was time for lunch. He searched through the refrigerator and the cupboards. Still no electric can opener, he decided on the old stand-by, Kraft Dinner. He'd eat an apple or something for dessert.

While he waited for the water to boil, he found the messages weighing on his mind, annoying him to no end. He searched in the fridge for a beer. When he couldn't find any, he went to the liquor cabinet. The Jack Daniels stood front and center. He mixed a shot with some coke and poured the raw macaroni in the boiling water. The shot went down in two gulps. He ignored the fact that his throat still burned a bit as he poured another and stirred the macaroni. "Damn, why did everyone think what he'd done was such a big deal?" The second shot was slower. The macaroni was drained, the margarine stirred in, the packet of cheese and a drop of milk added and stirred again. Not bothering with a plate JD spooned the macaroni straight from the pot. 'Oh gross, mega el dente!' He discovered he hadn't cooked it long enough. He managed to swallow three spoonfuls and gave up. He poured himself a third shot, grabbed an apple and went to lie down on his bed. He figured he could catch up on back issues of Sport Rider magazine for the rest of the afternoon.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck watched as JD tried to listen to Casey while he fought off what had to be one helluva headache.

Buck had phoned Casey at work and suggested he pick her up and bring her to the CDC for supper. He'd e-mailed JD the plan and then had tried the CDC a number of times when JD didn't reply to his e-mail.

Buck arrived home with Casey at six. He sent her up to JD's room while he took the few groceries he'd picked up into the kitchen. The bottle of Jack Daniels significantly dented, the dried macaroni, the undone dishes said it all. He unpacked the groceries and put the evidence away before Casey returned. Supper was nearly ready before JD made an appearance.

Buck would normally have found the situation amusing except, between Monday's private beer fest, yesterday's outburst and today's banquet of Jack Daniels, the mustached roommate was worried. It reminded him of darker days and another friend's affair with the bottle.

Buck chided himself. This wasn't the same situation. That friend had had nothing left to live for. JD was recently home from six months of insanity; some adjustment was to be expected. Still, the old fear lingered at the back of Buck's mind. It was time to speak the kid about his drinking.

Buck cleared the dishes while Casey and JD went for a walk. They arrived back a half hour later; JD was visibly upset. They said nothing except that they decided to sit out on the back deck for a while. Buck kept a surreptitious eye on them. The youngsters talked quietly for a while; at one point Casey was kneeling in front of JD, holding his hand in both of hers. Her expression was one of worry as she spoke. He couldn't see JD's face. He turned away when she leaned up to kiss him. Whatever it was, they must have talked it out, Buck decided. A short while later they came in and the two of them drove Casey home.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD fumed silently as he flipped through the channels; it was after one and the television was turned down low so as not to wake Buck. JD told Buck that he was going to watch the late news and then go to bed, but he was still upset. Why did they have to run into Mr. and Mrs. McPherson? They went on and on and on about his tour and how brave he was. Mr. McPherson pressed him for details. Christ! Did the stupid man not realize that it wasn't exactly a topic for gossip!

JD settled on a rerun of the second Die Hard movie. It was so easy for John McClane, he thought, the bad guys were obvious. It was Hollywood, nobody really died...

He awoke with a jolt! The wide screen TV was full of fire as the plane exploded just as it was lifting off the ground. JD's heart was hammering, the explosion seemed so loud. It reminded him of the mortar attacks, the car bombings, the glass raining down around them all at the police station. He searched frantically for the remote, pressing buttons at random until the television went off. He raised his hand up to rest his head on. It shook visibly. Slowly, his breathing began to return to normal.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Thursday morning was much like the day before, up, eat, walk, bathe as best he could, then check his e-mail. There was a short note from Casey and a joke from Buck. He surfed aimlessly for an hour and then went to make himself some lunch.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Friday morning was a copy of the day before, except JD walked all the way to the hardware store. He purchased the much needed electric can opener and he arrived home by lunch time. Lunch was a childhood favorite of Spaghetti-O's. It made him think of his mother. He wondered if she would be proud of him right now. Probably. Everyone else was proud of him. Why didn't he feel proud of himself like everyone else seemed to? Despite Buck's little talk with him about easing up on the drinking, he'd snuck the Jack Daniels into his room last night and finished the bottle. It had made it easier to sleep. He was frustrated by the fact Buck hadn't restocked the beer; a soda would have to do.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

He and Casey went to the 'Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King', encore presentation. JD had shipped out before they could see it together the Christmas before. The movie, as with the first two installments, was visually impressive. The good guys won but at great cost. The young couple brought home a pizza for a late night snack.

Then they made love, it was good, very good. He spooned in behind Casey feeling very happy as he nodded off to sleep. He dreamt of the squad, the guys and how they could never tell who was trustworthy and who was not. He dreamt of the crowded market of Al Qa'im; after a while some of the people in the streets became Orcs. Sarge was warning him to stay alert, to watch for Orcs. Orcs were dangerous. The squad was walking through town, slowly they were being surrounded. One by one the people, even the women and children were turning into Orcs. The squad formed a circle; their backs to one another, surrounded, waiting to be attacked. The Orcs raised their arms, their clubs held high, opening their mouths to screech, revealing their pointed teeth. On either side of JD, Sarge and Randy went down, he called out to Lennie, Tank and TJ but he was alone, the Orcs closed in...

JD jolted awake, breathing fast, his heart pounding as he searched around the room with only his eyes to reassure himself he was safe. He had to stop doing this, he told himself. Casey lay sleeping deeply beside him; he slid out of bed. He found his boxers and slipped them on and moved quietly over to look out the window. The night sky was clear, the moon bright. He thought of Lennie, Tank and TJ. It would be early afternoon for them about now. Would they be on patrol, would they be sleeping? If their replacements were as green as he and Randy had been, would they be safe? He remembered how Tank and TJ would argue and insult each other, until Lennie had to threaten them both to shut them up. JD had thought he was serious until Lennie had grinned at him behind their backs one day.

At a feather light touch on his back, JD turned to find Casey beside him wrapped in a blanket. He smiled and pulled her into an embrace while she wrapped the blanket around them both.

"Bad dreams again?" she asked in a whisper.

He didn't look at her and just nodded.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he nodded as he pulled her closer.

"What were you thinking about just now?"

"The guys from my squad back in Iraq."

"They were good guys." she stated firmly after what JD had told her about them.

"The best," said JD roughly.

"You're worried about them, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I wonder who's watching their backs now."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Sunday night was a barbeque at Josiah's. Ed Bertrand was there. There was a lot of shop talk about the impending bust on Tuesday. JD tried hard not to feel left out but he had nothing to contribute, Ed Bertrand was probably as good as JD was at the job; besides he was on the inside right now. JD was on the outside.

'You're job right now is the most important of all,' he was told, 'get better and come back to work.' Nothing had changed he told himself bitterly, he was still the youngest and getting younger, now he was being treated like he was four years old.

JD finished his beer while the discussion of the upcoming bust continued. After listening for another ten minutes with nothing to contribute, he slipped out of the room. Scooping up a couple more beers, he made his way out into Josiah's yard. He sat down on the steps of the deck. He hammered back the first beer. Then half way through the second one, he sat and just listened to the sounds of the evening. Josiah lived on a cul-de-sac, his neighbors, like himself were older; there were no shouts of children playing outside on this warm evening to interrupt his thoughts.

JD watched the birds at the feeders and listened to the wind in the trees in Josiah's yard. The sky was so clear; he watched a plane as it flew overhead, remembering Josiah's home was on the eastbound flight path from the airport. The traffic noises seemed so distant. It was never quiet like this in Iraq; there were just levels of more or less noise. His thoughts wandered. He thought about Lennie, Tank and TJ. He missed them. He missed Lennie's jokes, some of them were pretty corny, most of them were rude or x-rated but they sure helped break the tension at times. Tank, he shook his head remembering how Tank liked to complain about everything, the food, the weather, his boots, sports teams; you name it, Tank bitched about it. JD and Randy had been so in awe of Tank's size and fierceness; they dared not say anything to him about it even when JD felt like he'd go crazy if the man didn't shut up. TJ though, not much bigger than himself, thought nothing of telling Tank pretty explicitly where to go when he couldn't stand the giant's whining any longer. JD looked down at his beer; he had never seen anybody who could put Jose Cuervo away like TJ did when they went on leave.

Then he heard it. Where the hell were they coming from? Mortars! Sarge was yelling for them to get down! He hit the dirt, pain shot through his side and shoulder. Hands over his head, he lay shaking, waiting for the concussive sounds of impact.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Josiah saw Ed Bertrand to the door. Since Ed had a young family at home, he opted to leave instead of staying to share the ball game with them. Josiah made his way to the kitchen to break out a few munchies. Looking out of the kitchen window into the yard, he noticed JD lying face down. Josiah was out of the back door like a shot.

"JD," Josiah said quietly as he reached down, the younger man jumped at the sudden light touch on his shoulder. "JD." This time JD cautiously turned his head and looked up from his prone position on the ground. He looked scared as he peered up at Josiah. "You're safe, my friend," Josiah reassured him quietly. Confused, the younger man looked around.

"What... what just happened, Josiah?"

"Let's get you up," said Josiah, providing a strong arm for support as JD rose shakily to his feet. Josiah steered him back toward the deck and sat him down again on the steps.

"Josiah... I feel so stupid. I don't know what... I just don't know," stammered JD a little bewildered.

"What did you think was happening?" asked Josiah gently.

"I was... that is, we were under mortar fire back in Iraq."


"I heard Sarge order us to get down."

Josiah nodded knowingly before answering. "You've had a flashback, JD."

"...but I wasn't asleep, I was just sitting here thinking about the guys in our unit."

"A true flashback happens when you're awake. A trigger of some kind tweaks one of your senses and it takes you back to a particularly harrowing moment in time."

"I don't remember anything like that. I was thinking how quiet it was and then out of no where I was back in Iraq and heard the sound of in-coming."

"It sounds pretty normal."

"That's normal?"

Josiah nodded slowly, "Your mind is trying to heal. It's trying to acknowledge what happened and then store it away in your memory."

Josiah kept his tone neutral as he explained what had happened; JD seemed to be calming down as he talked. "Your conscious and subconscious are trying to deal with some pretty complicated stuff. While you were in Iraq, your subconscious didn't have time to incorporate everything that was happening to you... you were too pre-occupied with doing your job and staying alert and alive to give it sufficient time to do that. Now that you're home, and relatively safe, your brain is trying to make sense of your experiences over there, but your emotions have some built in safety mechanisms to keep you from overloading while your brain sorts all this stuff out. Flashbacks are a byproduct of this process. It takes time."

"How long?"

"Depends on the person, sometimes years."

"Years?" JD couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice.

Josiah only nodded.

JD looked out into the yard as he pondered his words. A moment later he turned back to look at him "Have you had many flashbacks?"

"A few," replied Josiah with a rueful smile. "The last bad one was shortly before you joined us. We busted an arms smuggling ring. In their warehouse, we discovered old drums of napalm. Just the smell of the stuff instantly took me back to Nam. The next thing I knew it was midnight and I was in bed in Chris's spare room."

They sat in silence for a moment. When JD said nothing, Josiah continued. "It was the smell. There is nothing quite like the odor of napalm. It triggered a memory of a particularly harrowing event for me in Nam."

"I don't know what did it for me, I was just sitting here."

"It could have been something you saw, a sound..."

Suddenly, JD reached out and gripped Josiah's arm and looked skyward. Josiah followed his gaze upward all he could see was a jet from the airport. JD's grip on his arm tightened painfully. Then he heard it, JD's younger ears so attuned to the sound, given his recent experiences in Iraq, had heard it first. The sound of the jet engine, though some distance away, sounded like the first indications of mortar fire.

JD was sweating and breathing fast, almost panting. Josiah placed a comforting hand over the one on his arm. JD turned his face suddenly toward him.

White faced, JD asked, "It's just a plane, right?

Josiah recognized what was happening. The young man was fighting his way through this flashback. Josiah nodded. "It's just a plane."

"It sure sounds like in-coming." Josiah marveled briefly at how JD was instinctively doing the right thing by acknowledging the fear.

"Just a plane," JD repeated, turning his gaze upward again. The plane was out of sight now but the sound, traveling slower than light, was only now beginning to fade.

Josiah squeezed the hand on his arm reassuringly, "You're doing great, JD."

"It was the sound, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, for me it was the smell; for you, the sound."

"Will it happen again?"

"Every time you hear that sound again, the effect on your mind won't be as bad but it'll take time before you get over it completely."

JD reached up to grasp his forehead with both hands and then slowly push his hands through the short hair on his head as he spoke. "Oh, God, will there be others?"

"I don't know. Everything you experienced has a set of sensory tags... sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. In theory, any of these senses could trigger both happy and bad memories. Happy memories we enjoy and our mind easily lets them in. The bad, the stressful memories, our mind treats differently to keep us safe. They could happen at any time," seeing the disheartened expression on the young face, "but we'll be here to help you through it."

"I already have nightmares, now a flashback. What else have I got to look forward to?"

"Likely not too much else, maybe repressed memories."

JD looked at him questioningly.

"There is a lot of dispute in medical circles as to the validity of repressed memories. I believe they occur. I think sometimes something so horrific happens to us that we can't deal with it so we file the memory away deep in our subconscious until we either feel ready to deal with it or it makes us so sick as it fights its way out that it forces us to deal with it."

"...makes us sick?"

"...sick in our hearts, sick in our souls... with symptoms like depression, self abuse, even suicide."

"Jesus, Josiah," whispered JD, incredulous at the thought. Knowing JD as he did, Josiah wasn't surprised that as a Catholic, JD was horrified by the thought that anyone would consider committing suicide.

"How long have you been having nightmares?"

"Since I started cutting back on the sleeping meds," JD replied looking down. "They wake me up sometimes." JD sighed and lifted his sling slightly. "I'm already feeling tired of not being able to do much. I'm tired of not being able to get a good night's sleep but I'm working my through it."

"I can't stress this enough, JD. Talking about it is the best way to work your way through this stuff."

"I know." JD said nothing else and looked out into the yard again. Josiah couldn't help but feel like there was more, but it didn't feel like a good moment to push.

"Am I ever going to get back to normal, Josiah?" The kid's expression was heart sick.

Josiah reached over to grab JD affectionately by the back of neck. "You will, my friend; it just takes time."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The next week followed pretty much like the previous. Everyone went to work and JD went for his walks.

Casey worked late Monday night and Buck was home late since it was the night before the bust, having checked and triple checked that everything was in place. JD spent the evening with the television and Jim Beam.

Tuesday night Buck was home late again, but this time it was because of a post celebratory drink at the Saloon. The bust had gone like clockwork. Team Seven had another success to add to their near legendary reputation.

There were some changes in JD's routine. He now took his walks without the sling, letting his arm swing as freely as was comfortable. He tested it periodically, slowly extending his arm out and up over his head to stretch the muscles slowly as instructed by Dr Chong. Wednesday, JD's route took him past the corner store. His arm was sore at night and a new twenty-sixer of liquor helped kill the pain, helped him fall asleep and helped him sleep without the nightmares.

In the early hours of Friday morning, he found Buck by his bed.

"What's up?" he asked rubbing sleep from his eyes, trying to ignore one whopper of a headache.

"What's up with you?" Buck countered.


"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." he replied irritably, wondering why the third degree at this hour of the morning.

"You cried out in your sleep," said Buck

"I did not," JD retorted.

"I'm not going to argue with you, kid. You were yelling loud enough to wake me up."

"Sorry, I don't remember doing that."

"Are you sure you're alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I didn't mean to wake you."

"That's alright. You know, kid," said Buck as he sat down on the bed beside him, "if you want to talk about something, anything, you know I'm here, anytime, night or day."

It was on the tip of JD's tongue to lash out at him angrily but he realized that would only pique Mother Hen's instincts even further and then he'd never let him go back to sleep without an explanation that satisfied him. The truth was he couldn't remember what he was dreaming about that had caused him to cry out. "I know and I appreciate it but I'm good, Buck, really. You have to work tomorrow, go on back to bed."

"As long as you're okay," said Buck rising from the bed.

"I am," said JD, using the little boy smile he saved for such occasions. "Good night."

"Good night," said Buck as he closed the door behind him.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

'That little boy smile and the 'I'm fine' bullshit!' thought Buck darkly as he stood outside JD's door. Buck wasn't a fool. He knew the signs too well. JD asleep most afternoons when he got home, breakfast... and if he ate lunch, lunch dishes left unwashed. The lack of hygiene, the fact he was no longer interested in supper or seeing Casey in the evenings, preferring instead to retreat to his room, all indications he was carrying on an affair with the bottle.

He'd bullied JD into taking a much needed shower. Then Buck had found a number of empty bottles while snooping in JD's room on the pretense of gathering the weekly trash. They only provided solid proof to what he already knew.

JD had a problem.

That meant they all had a problem.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck, Chris and Josiah looked at one another grimly after Buck finished his report.

"Josiah, how much longer before you hear from your friend at Brooks?"

"I didn't get an absolute timeframe, Chris," replied Josiah. "He warned me it would take time because of the sheer numbers of returning troops they're treating right now."

"Call him again, ask him to speed it up, bribe him if you have to, what ever it takes," came the rapid fire orders as Chris repeatedly pounded on his desk with two fingers. "I want those reports. I especially want the incident report. I want to know what the hell happened to him over there."

"I'm working on it."

"Don't just work on it! DO IT!"

Chris paused as Josiah looked steadily back at him. Chris swore to himself as he pushed his hand through his hair in frustration. "Josiah, I ahh, I apologize..."

"Accepted," replied Josiah quickly. "We're all worried about him, Chris," added Josiah quietly.

Chris sighed heavily, "We need answers. We need them sooner than later, I don't want JD to end up..."

"I'll lean on Tom as hard as I can, Chris."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD had been home for one month.

Casey thought it would be a nice idea to celebrate that anniversary. She was earning her own money and wanted to treat him to supper at Stelio's, a posh, reservations only, Greek restaurant. She had reserved a table on the balcony.

The evening started out encouragingly, but JD had taken exception to Casey asking him to slow down after he ordered his third drink before they'd been served their entrees... loud exception, that had embarrassed Casey terribly. Jeremiah Campbell had helped get these reservations and though she was worried about JD's behavior, she didn't want this evening to reflect negatively on a managing partner.

JD must have seen how it upset her, his next drink was water, until dessert when he insisted on trying ouzo.

JD was physically limp and weaving as he walked to the car. It had been all Casey could do to get him safely buckled up. In his inebriated state, JD had complained horribly about the service until he fell into a doze on the drive home.

Casey drove blinking back the tears, not just for the ruined evening but for the fact she was losing the man she loved. This was the first time they'd been out in public in more than two weeks and he'd gotten drunk. Many evenings through the week he didn't come to the phone because he was asleep. She took it upon herself to show up uninvited after supper one night. When she arrived she found Buck stuffing empty liquor bottles away in the garbage. She had confronted the mustached man and they had sat and talked for a long time. They hadn't come up with any answers other than Iraq, and that they both cared about him.

She felt so helpless. She didn't even know why she was losing him. How could she help him if she didn't know what the problem was?

She pulled to a stop in his driveway; shaking him, she ordered him loudly to wake up. The little snooze seemed to revive him. He got out of the car and then asked why she wasn't coming in. She complained of being tired. He countered that it was only ten o'clock. He must have realized why she was reluctant to stay the night because then he apologized for being such an ass at supper. He wanted the chance to make it up to her so the evening wasn't a total loss.

He turned those beautiful brown eyes on her, and that smile he knew would melt her heart. She couldn't resist him when he turned on the charm.

Buck and Belinda were there sharing a big bowl of popcorn and watching a DVD of old "I Love Lucy" episodes. They stopped the DVD and made a second round of popcorn. Buck dumped his beer down the sink and only offered soft drinks for everyone to drink.

Twenty minutes later, the couples were settled in each other's arms, enjoying an evening of the classic comedy.

At two, everyone agreed it was time to quit. JD seemed sober and attentive, more like his old self, so when invited to do so, Casey decided to stay.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck was sleeping soundly with Belinda in his arms when he awoke suddenly. Buck searched the darkness with his eyes, strained his ears listening, looking for the reason he'd been awakened. A shout, a second shout, this one was fearful. It was followed quickly by a grunt of pain, a thud, and then another thud. The second thud was against the wall downstairs; it was so hard Buck could feel it in the wall against which the head of his bed was set.

JD's room!

He was out of bed in an instant, grabbing his pajama bottoms and slipping deftly into them with much practiced skill. Two steps at a time he bounded down the stairs.

He hesitated outside JD's door long enough to rap his knuckles once. "JD, Casey, everything all right in there?" he asked as he pushed the door open.

In the darkness of the night, he could see there was no one in the bed.

He reached sideways and snapped on the overhead light.

He saw JD huddled on the floor against the wall that Buck had felt the thud. He took three steps toward him before he heard the moan.

'Casey!' Buck realized with alarm.

With one giant stride, he walked across the bed, the shortest route to the other side of JD's room.

Casey lay face down on the floor. The young woman was holding her head. He grabbed the cover off of JD's bed and covered her naked body with it before asking, "Casey, darlin', are you alright?"

She raised her head slowly and squinted up at him, "My head..." Tears gathered in her eyes, "He hit me. JD hit me. I heard him yell. I asked him what was wrong ...and he hit me."

Buck could see a bump beginning to form and, with it, Buck's anger. It looked like it was going to be a nasty bruise. Belinda was beside him now. Buck looked at her and she nodded, she would take care of Casey for him. "Okay, darlin' you go with Belinda now and get some ice on that bruise."

"What about JD?" Casey asked.

"Don't you worry, I'll look after him. Buck's here Darlin', everything's going to be fine now."

"C'mon, honey," said Belinda rearranging the blanket around her to maintain her modesty while Buck helped her up off the floor. Belinda then wrapped a sisterly arm around her shoulders and guided the younger woman out of the room. Buck watched them disappear toward the kitchen before closing the door.

He then turned to JD. Buck was angry with his friend. It was a conditioned response with Buck when it came to men hurting women.

JD hadn't moved. He was still seated sideways up against the wall, his arms wrapped around legs drawn up tight to his chest. Some of the bandages had come loose and were now hanging off his shoulder. Buck could see angry looking red scars in between the stark white of the bandages.

Buck tore the sheet roughly off of JD's bed and moved to stand beside JD, towering over him. He wanted to ask JD just what kind of coward was he to beat on Casey. The girl had showed him nothing but love and support ever since he'd come home.

It took a concerted effort on Buck's part to muzzle his anger. He reminded himself to 'work the problem.' He shifted his mental focus and suddenly noticed that JD was visibly shaking. Given the heat of the August night, it wasn't likely that JD was cold. Then Buck realized that JD was weeping quietly, his eyes starring blankly at his knees. The anger of a moment ago disappeared in an instant as Buck realized that JD was in shock.

"JD, it's just old Buck here with you," he said softly as he bent down and wrapped the sheet gently around him. Buck had picked it up initially to cover JD's nakedness, now Buck hoped it was enough to help keep him warm.

"Buck?" The voice was small and shaky.

"Right here, kid," replied Buck as he sat down on the floor moving in close beside him.

"Buck, I... killed... a man," said JD.

"I know..."

"Not the one I shot... I killed a man.... in a fight... He was choking me, he kept stabbing me. I tried to tell him that I didn't want to fight, I wanted to give up... he kept lifting that knife up so I could see it, see my blood on it. It was so big... he kept raising it and ramming down into me...," JD started to cry, "It hurt so much, I just wanted him to stop, I was going to die, Buck..." JD dissolved into tears.

Buck huddled on the floor beside him, put his arm around JD and pulled him in close. Buck could feel JD's body shake, at the mercy of his emotions. Buck felt his chest tighten, close to his own tears at the anguish of his friend. He gently cradled JD's head against his chest.

It was a long time before JD stopped crying. They sat in mutual silence for an even longer time. A deep sigh as JD stirred told Buck he was ready.

JD sat up and looked at Buck. The man could see that whatever the demon was that JD had been holding in was out now. "Tell me what happened, kid."

"We were on that last patrol, nearing the return point. Sarge, Randy and I, got separated from Lennie, Tank and TJ. There was an explosion... I don't know what it was but Randy's leg was torn open really bad... Sarge was hit too." JD put one hand over his eyes and shook his head as if trying to shake those images out of his mind. "There was a sniper on the roof of a bombed out house." Dropping his hand JD looked up at Buck with troubled eyes. "Lennie and the others, they had no cover. There was just me, Buck, just me." Buck understood what the kid was saying, two men wounded, three pinned down, it was left to JD to get them out of trouble. It made Buck angry; JD should never have had to deal with such a situation. Immediately, Buck pushed the feeling away, this wasn't the time or place.

JD shifted away from Buck to lean back against the wall. Buck hated to lose the physical contact he'd been using to comfort JD but he didn't want to interrupt JD's recounting of the events.

JD laid his head up against the wall now. "A second man never even occurred to me," he said, moving his head slowly from side to side. "I surprised the first guy. I didn't want to kill him but I had no choice, he went for his rifle."

JD began to shake again. Buck reached out and grabbed his right hand and held firmly against his own chest so JD could feel his heart beat. "It's okay, I'm here, you're safe."

JD nodded. "I turned the guy over, his chest was gone. When I realized he was dead... it was like relief and horror at the same time, he wasn't going to kill us I'd killed him." JD stared off into space without seeing. "I've never killed anybody before, not even in the line of duty."

Buck could feel the shaking grow worse. His concern must have shown on his face. "its okay, Buck, I have to get this out," said JD. Buck had to smile to himself, now JD was trying to comfort him.

"The next thing I knew this other guy was on top of me and my left arm was useless. He just wailed away at me with the knife." Tears gathered in his eyes, "I thought I was going to die." His chin trembled and Buck thought the kid was going to lose it again but he pushed on. "I reached out with my right hand looking for something, anything to hit the guy with. I found the sniper's rifle. I grabbed it and swung it hard against the side of the guy's head. He just stopped, stunned. I hit him with it again and again and again and again." JD shook his head as if he were reliving each swing of the rifle. "Blood splattered everywhere. It felt warm and sticky on my face. He finally just fell on top of me...dead."

Tears streamed down JD's cheeks. Buck squeezed the kid's hand, swallowing hard to keep himself from losing it.

"I couldn't move, Buck...this dead man laying on me, bleeding all over me. I couldn't feel anything, I didn't have any strength left, he stank, I just laid there, under that dead guy, until Lennie and Tank pulled him off of me."

JD stretched his fingers and Buck let go of his hand. Looking exhausted, the kid crossed his arms on bent knees and let his head fall forward to rest on his forearms. Buck shifted to sit against the wall beside JD, putting one hand to rest reassuringly between JD's shoulder blades. The shaking gone now, the tears had all been wept, the two friends sat in silence, the one silently comforting the other. There were no words for such a moment.