After Words

by BMP

MAIN CHARACTER(s): Buck, Chris

WARNINGS: Language, subtle innuendo. (Although it´s so subtle, you really have to look hard to find it…) Takes place about a year after the team was formed.

DISCLAIMER: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, we´d let YOU play in it…) That said, this story was written purely for self entertainment (and the possible entertainment of me, thanks BMP!) and no money is being made, has changed hands, or has been paid out for the contents therein. I want to thank MOG for the ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets other play there.

~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author

~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows

It had been one hell of a week, one long, blistering hell of a week. Not a damn thing had gone right all week long, and now as far as the tall ATF agent could tell, everyone on his whole team was mad at him. But he didn´t care. At least that´s what he told himself as he carefully groomed his mustache in the bathroom shaving mirror. He told himself he didn´t care because it was Saturday night. And it being Saturday night, he had a date. A date with one marvelous Ms. Lila Foxwood, a statuesque brunette he had met in the elevator on Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, he mused. Well, one thing had gone right this week.

There she had been, cup of steaming hot coffee in hand, staring absently at the numbers on the elevator panel as they went out one by one. She did not notice the tall, handsome ATF agent in the jeans and t-shirt who was admiring her appreciatively from her immediate left. At the 4th floor, two FBI agents shoved past her, jostling her elbow and spilling her coffee. Jerking her coffee away from her as it spilled onto the floor, she seemed just about to let out a most unladylike curse when she caught the eye of the man to her left and clapped her mouth quickly shut. She blushed bright red.

“Pardon me,” she said looking at the floor. And he, so charmed by a woman with such grace and restraint, stepped gallantly into the opening she left for him.

“Well that´s alright,” he drawled smoothly as the elevator doors closed again, leaving him alone with the siren that had stolen his heart. “I´d have cussed, too. You need a good cup of coffee on a day like this.”

She smiled at him, and he felt his heart melt. “I guess I´ll have to make do with office coffee,” she said ruefully. “Lest my coworkers suffer the consequences,” and she added a little laugh that trilled off her tongue like birdsong.

“My,” he said practically purring. “I can´t allow that to happen,” he said. She turned to look at him quizzically.

“I´m a federal agent, Ma´am,” he said, “And it is my sworn duty to protect the innocent, even from the unprovoked rampages of a caffeine-deprived co-worker.” He held out his double tall Americano and tipped an imaginary hat. “Take mine.”

She stared at him, smiled, laughed that laugh again and reached for his cup with her left hand as she extended her right hand toward him. “Lila,” she said. “Lila Foxwood.”

He clasped her hand in the hand he had been warming on his coffee cup. “Buck,” he said. “Agent Buck Wilmington. And if a beautiful woman like you isn´t doing anything this Saturday night, I´d like to right that injustice, if I may?”

By the time the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he was alone again, wearing a smug but dopey smile, and imagining where he was going to take her on Saturday night.

His blissful daydream lasted approximately 15 seconds before his boss bellowed his name down the hall so loudly that Buck swore he could hear the windows rattle.

He moved himself into the hallway with a loud sigh. “Yes, master,” he said with resignation and came up the hallway toward the bullpen where his team had their offices. Others in the building referred to their bullpen as the Lion´s Den. The place where the most maverick, and yet most successful, ATF team in the Western region planned out missions that no one else wanted to take. They were serious about their work, but serious about their play, too, a good deal of which happened at the office. But when Buck entered, he noticed that everyone was very, very busy working away. Working very, very much too hard, he noted.

He turned to his boss´s office. The door was closing behind Agent J.D. Dunne, by far the youngest member of the team and Buck´s best friend and roommate. Buck stared at him. The kid looked like a puppy that had just had its nose whacked with a newspaper. He looked up at Buck and his face turned red, so many emotions crossing through his young face that Buck didn´t have time to decipher all of them.

“Sorry, Buck,” J.D. said quickly. “He wants to see you now.”

J.D. sidled around the tall mustached agent and headed for his desk. Four pairs of eyes glanced up at J.D., and then looked quickly back down at their desks. Buck snorted in annoyance. Whatever had happened, looked like no one wanted to back him up—again. Some lion´s den, he thought. From what he could see, there were only 5 little tabby cats and one big mean grizzly. And the grizzly was waiting for him behind the office door.

“Chris,” he said in greeting as he opened the door. He suddenly wished he had saved the coffee to bribe his boss.

“Shut the door, Buck,” the blonde senior agent and team leader said tersely from behind his desk without looking up.

Buck shut the door, keeping one eye on the top of his boss´s head as he shuffled through all the reasons that he might be standing here right now. He could think of six, but he was pretty sure that Chris would have no way of knowing about four of those.

It seemed like several seconds before Senior Agent Larabee looked up at him. Buck didn´t have to think much to decipher the emotions he saw there. Chris was steamed. He and Chris had known each other for over twenty years, worked together in one capacity or another for ten of those, off and on, give or take. There had been a time when Buck had thought they were closer than brothers. But on a brilliantly sunny autumn morning, a single horrifying crime had blown that all to hell, taking Chris´s wife and son, and destroying the only family Buck had had in a long time.

Buck suddenly realized that while he had been musing, Chris´s eyes had been taking in his appearance. Unbidden swear words leaped into his brain as he jerked instinctively upright. He glanced up at the clock on Chris´s office wall. This time he did swear out loud.

“I´m sorry, Chris,” he blurted out. “I forgot.”

“Clearly,” Chris growled, green eyes glittering dangerously. Buck waited for the explosion he knew was coming. In the past twortwo years, since that sunny morning from hell, Buck had been on the receiving end of Chris´s volatile temper many times. Drunk, sober, words, fists; Buck had received it all. So he waited with the forbearance that he always used with Chris.

While he waited for the coming explosion, Buck began to wonder what J.D. had done to give Chris opportunity to vent his anger first. It was a long second before Buck realized that Chris hadn´t said anything. He was just sitting there glaring.

Buck shifted his weight uneasily, feeling his own anger rise. After all, he had been ready for the famous Larabee temper. He wasn´t going to just sit here and get cussed out. But if Chris wasn´t going to say anything, how the hell was he going to retort. Buck glared back.

Chris narrowed his eyes.

“Well what do you want me to do?” Buck finally bit out exasperated.

Chris´s lips curled up in a bitter smile. “Nothing,” he snapped. “Go to your desk.”

Buck flinched. “Go to my desk? Is that like go to my room? Am I grounded?” he snapped back.

Chris´s head jerked back like a snake ready to strike and Buck actually saw him clamp his jaw together. Buck went out the office door, slamming it behind him for good measure. He cringed momentarily, wondering if Chris was going to come flying through that door after him. When he heard nothing from the office behind him, he straightened his shoulders and determined not to feel responsible for the reprimand he had just been given—or more precisely, not given. Chris had said nothing at all. And somewhere in the back of his mind, Buck knew that had to be bad, but he refused to give into that nagging voice.

He slid into his desk chair scowling, his perfectly good mood ruined. He turned on his computer and noticed J.D. was looking at him.

“Where the hell have you been?” J.D. whispered but none too quietly.

“It´s 8:30, Kid,” Buck retorted irritably. “On the dot. I´m here right on time.”

“You had a meeting at 7,” J.D. snapped back, his eyes darting to Chris´s door.

“I´ve been reminded,” Buck snapped. “And you don´t have to whisper,” he said sourly. “Last I checked, Larabee ain´t got super hearing or x-ray vision. Regardless of what he thinks.”

“He´s pissed,” J.D. said, slumping back in his chair.

“So what?” Buck snapped back. “He´s almost always pissed about something. Guess it´s my turn.”

Chris´s office door opened and he stalked out again, a short stack of file folders under his arm.

He strode over to Buck´s desk. “Where´s your report from yesterday?” the blonde asked. It was clear that he was making an effort to keep his voice even.

Buck picked up a closed folder from his desktop and handed it over, wearing his best congenial “screw you” smile. Chris snapped the folder up without so much as a thank you and headed for the hall. Barely slowing his stride, Larabee threw a look back over his shoulder toward Ezra, who closed up his briefcase and stood up without a word.

The undercover agent was dressed impeccably as ever in a gray silk suit, but what impressed Buck is that he was here, already—and working—something that almost never happened before 9:30, at least.

On the way past Buck´s desk, Ezra paused ever so slightly and leaned over just a bit. “As you say, Mr. Wilmington, it appears to be your turn,” the southerner drawled. “But it might not have been if you had remembered your meeting, dressed presentably, and not managed to make your boss look stupid. Twice. All before 9 A.M. Well done.”

And with that the undercover agent was gone, heading down the hall toward the elevator.

Buck scowled after him. He then turned to J.D., the only other person in the room who had spoken to him today. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Twice?” he asked.

“The meeting,” J.D. said, continuing to work.

“Yeah, I got that one,” Buck growled, but the fire was leaving his temper.

“Well, Chris took me up to try to cover the information, since I seconded you. But I couldn´t give them the information they wanted.”

“So what´d you do?” Buck asked, swearing to himself. He had been standing in line for coffee at the time his best friend and roommate was getting roped into a meeting with the brass. Their own brass was bad enough. But this meeting had brass from their sister feds the FBI. Feds that were none to happy about the way the bust had gone down the other day. At the time they demanded the meeting, Chris had told the team not to worry. There was not a damn thing he would change if they had it to do over again. Perhaps he had changed his mind.

J.D. shrugged. “I told them everything I could. Chris said that you were probably held up somewhere and asked to reconvene after you arrived.”

“He yell at you?” Buck said narrowing his eyes.

“No,” J.D. said. “But the two directors from the Feebs tried to rake me over the coals.”

Buck swore.

“That´s when Chris asked to reconvene.” J.D. kept typing. “Travis was not pleased.”

“I´ll bet,” Buck mused, thinking of the stern gray-haired Assistant Director who had Team 7 under his dominion. Trouble was, he wasn´t quite sure who Travis was less than pleased with at the moment.

J. D. looked over at him suddenly and sighed. “Aw, Buck,” he said. “Why the heck did you decide to wear jeans?”

“I was tired,” Buck said. “And don´t you start in on me.” He paused and looked at his watch. “When were we supposed to reconvene?”

J.D. sighed again in exasperation. “You can´t meet with the brass in jeans,” he said. “He took Ezra up instead.”

“Ezra?” Buck snapped. “Ezra wasn´t in the communications van! How´s he going to tell what happened?”

J.D. cocked his head to the side and looked at Buck strangely. “That´s why Chris took your report,” he said.

“Well, hell,” Buck said jumping up out of his chair. “I´ll just borrow a jacket and get on up there.”

J.D. continued to look at him strangely. Buck gave him his best smirk and went to ask Josiah, the team profiler if he could borrow his jacket. Tweed wouldn´t have been his number one choice, and the jacket was bound to be too big, but everyone else´s would have been way too small.

“Buck,” J.D. said, as Buck came back with a well-worn tweed hanging loosely off his gangly frame. Buck scooped a pad of paper and a pen off his desk.

“Buck,” J. D. repeated, trying to get the mustached agent´s attention. “You can´t go up there like that.”

“I got a jacket, Kid,” Buck said.

J.D. sighed in exasperation. Again. Buck frowned slightly. Kid was startin´ to sound like Chris.

“Your jeans, Buck,” he pointed out.

Buck looked down. His blue jeans were a little faded, but they were clean, fit properly, and didn´t have any rips. “They won´t notice,” he said easily.

“Buck,” J.D. said again, cocking his head and looking at him appraisingly. Buck swore silently. He was startin´ to look like Chris, too. Best nip that in the bud, he thought.

“Alright,” Buck said, turning back toward Josiah´s office. “I´ll be right back.”

“I heard you, and the answer is no,” Josiah´s deep rumble sounded from his office at the back of the room.

“Come on, Josiah,” Buck said. “Yours are the only ones that are big enough.” He waggled his eyebrows at his unspoken joke.

His reasoning did not impress Josiah. “Precisely,” the profiler said. “And one good reason why I´m not going to sit here in your tight jeans while you go off to a meeting you should have been at an hour and a half ago.”

“Come on,” Buck said again, as if that would change the big profiler´s mind.

“No,” Josiah said with finality.

Buck turned away trying to figure out what to do, when his eyes lit on Nathan.

“Oh no,” said the team medic.

“Come on, Nathan,” Buck said sidling up to the medic´s desk. “It´s only until the meeting´s over. I´ll give you my jeans.”

“Great,” Nathan said ungratefully.

Buck gave the medic his most ingratiating grin. “It´s for the good of the team.”

Nathan snorted. But he stood up and started to undo the buttons on his dress pants. “Alright Buck, you win,” Nathan said. “But don´t piss Chris off again.” He handed the pants over and slid into Buck´s jeans.

“Don´t you worry,” Buck said smoothly. “I know how to handle Chris.”

Nathan winced as Buck pulled the pants on. They were way too short.

“And don´t ruin my pants,” Nathan said.

Buck tipped his imaginary hat to Nathan as if to say, “You can count on me,” and headed stiffly out the bullpen door, too-long jacket dangling off his wrists and too-short pants riding up the ankles of his cowboy boots.

Wafting after him came a low snicker from the team´s laconic sharpshooter., Vin Tanner´s first sound of the day.

Feeling faintly irritated, Buck chose to ignore him completely.

He gave Travis´s secretary his best lady killer smile and entered the room. All heads turned to look at him as he entered the upstairs conference room. He felt their eyes rake over his too short, too tight pants and too big jacket, but he smiled at them confidently as if he had no idea what they were staring at and took his place at the table, nodding a greeting to Travis, Ezra, and Chris. Travis started and got a little red around the gills. Chris glanced at Buck only once. He twitched one eyebrow only very slightly, but his expressionless face betrayed nothing. Ezra diligently studied the folder on the table in front of him.

“Agent Wilmington,” Buck said, stretching out one big hand across the table. “Sorry for the delay. I got held up behind a traffic incident.” He shook his head with sincere regret and was rewarded as Chris and Ezra exchanged a nearly imperceptible eye roll.

The FBI brass exchanged a less subtle look and began to fire questions at Buck, which he fielded with impressive expertise.

The meeting ended an hour later. Buck waited until the FBI had left, before he stood up uncomfortably. The pants had been way too tight, and it had taken all his willpower not to wriggle in his chair like a little boy. But he had done it. He had pulled it off. Even Ezra ought to have been proud. AD Travis and Ezra each looked him over once, and left the room without a word, shaking their heads.

Buck beamed smugly at Chris. Chris looked him over one time, slowly, glaring, but Buck had known him long enough to see the dark mood begin to grudgingly slip away.

“Forgiven?” Buck asked, smug smile still planted across his face.

A wicked gleam lit up Larabee´s green eyes, and one corner of his mouth twitched up in a smirk. “At least now we both look stupid,” he growled as he brushed past Buck.

“Ungrateful bastard,” Buck retorted as he followed Chris, stiff legged back to the elevator, still grinning smugly. Yep, he had been forgiven.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the FBI brass had officially declared that Team 7´s maverick style had ruined their perfectly good bust. And Chris was steamed again. He had apparently spent some of that anger yelling at Travis that his team was not going to take a black eye for the FBI. The FBI wanted the ATF brass to reprimand Ezra and Josiah personally. Chris reportedly shot back that the brass goes through him. Period. No one bypassed him in dealing with his team. AD Travis was familiar with Larabee´s policy that no one gets direct access to his men but him—especially where discipline was concerned. He was also familiar with the directorship´s opinion that this was simply Larabee´s plan to buck the rules and ignore agency policies without fear of punishment. Travis was also well- acquainted with Larabee´s lack of diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, it was not a wise idea to yell at one´s boss and Larabee got an unofficial dressing down for his efforts. That disgruntled the team leader further, which kept Team 7 tip-toeing around the office.

Not that they blamed Chris. After all, he was willing to face down agency brass to defend his team´s autonomy. Still, there was no point riling the team leader further. Let the innocent equipment in Chris´s office take the brunt of his anger.

Buck sighed and chewed on the end of his pencil as he looked up at Chris´s office door, which rattled on its hinges as he slammed it.

He shook his head and turned to J.D. “Back in the old days, he´d a never let this rattle him,” Buck said. “You shoulda seen us back then.”

J.D. looked up from his computer.

“We pulled some wild stunts,” Buck mused, leaning back fully in his chair and lacing his hands behind his head. “When we were DPD, The brass called us in a lot—and I mean A LOT. But Chris used to just give ‘em that cocky grin until the captain looked like he would blow a gasket. The captain hated that grin, but he loved our arrest record. I remember once when we were investigating a…”

He launched into a story, which J.D. doubted was wholly true, but he listened anyway.

When he finished the story and began to launch another one, Ezra cleared his throat.

“Fascinating, Mr. Wilmington,” the southerner drawled, still typing away. “But if you tell all the stories today, what will you use to get out of working tomorrow?”

Buck threw a paper wad at Ezra´s head. It missed and bounced on the desk beside Ezra´s keyboard. The Southerner flicked it into the wastebasket without sparing Buck a glance.

Chris´s mood had not lightened when the team gathered at their favorite bar after work. They affectionately called it The Saloon, and Buck never missed the opportunity to flirt with Inez, proprietress, chief cook, and bartender all rolled into one sassy Latina ball that repelled Buck´s advances as deftly and cheerfully as he made them.

The team had traded jibes for a while, until Chris´s simmering anger had finally managed to sour the mood. He seemed to sense it too, because he finished his beer and announced that he was heading home.

“Drive carefully, Cowboy,” Vin said easily, the nickname an affectionate source of mock sparring between the sharpshooter and the team leader.

Chris didn´t even respond with the expected mock glare. He grunted something no one understood over the noise in the bar, laid enough money on the table to cover his beer and the tip and slid out into the night.

Buck shook his head and watched him go. “You know, he used to be fun, once.” Buck said. He didn´t know why he said it. He knew darn well, when Chris had stopped being fun. It was when that sonofabitch had killed Sarah and Adam. Still, it was nights like this he missed the sharp sense of humor that Larabee used to employ as efficiently as he now used his gun.

As if to prove his point, he leaned forward and began another story about Chris and his adventures, while J.D. listened with rapt attention.

Not long after, the party broke up and the men headed home.

On Thursday, Chris called Ezra and Josiah into his office and shut the door. They both came out with dark looks and pieces of paper.

The other team members looked up at them.

“Reprimands,” Josiah said stonily. “Nice and official, in triplicate.”

Buck scowled. “I can´t believe it.”

Nathan shook his head. “Wonder what they shoved down his throat to make him issue those.”

“Don´t know,” Josiah said. Then he and Ezra shared a flickering conspiratorial grin. “But he did tell us where we could file our copies.”

“We have chosen a less career-threatening course of action,” Ezra drawled, putting his through the office shredder.

“Damn,” Buck muttered. “I can´t believe he knuckled under.”

“Musta had no choice, brother,” the big profiler said easily, preferring to shred his reprimand by hand.

“There´s always a choice,” Buck retorted in defense of his teammates. “Those go in your record. Did he mention that?”

Ezra eyed him calmly. “This isn´t exactly the first official reprimand to grace my employment files,” the undercover agent said dryly. “I doubt our fearless leader is keeping track.”

Josiah chuckled. “He ought to,” the graying profiler said. “Every one we get figures into his yearly evaluation.”

It was Buck´s turn to snort. “He never cared about reprimands before.”

Vin´s raspy Texas drawl sounded suddenly from his office. “If yer gonna start another damn story about the good old days, I´m goin´ out to lunch.” The sharpshooter set the security on his computer and pulled on his leather jacket.

Buck grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Sounds good, Junior, where we going?´

Vin shrugged but didn´t pause in his journey toward the elevator bank.

On Friday, neither Chris´s mood nor Buck´s attitude had improved. They argued their way through what was supposed to be a routine meeting between the leader and his second in command. It had ended in a shouting match. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Buck demanded.

Chris´s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Apparently not who you think I am,” he snapped.

“Damn right, pard,” Buck said, voice laced with anger and disdain. “Not anymore you´re not.”

For a split second Buck thought Chris was going to leap over the desk and throttle him. A year ago, he might have.

He didn´t.

“Get out,” the blonde grated through clenched teeth. “Go to lunch. You can come back when you remember who´s in charge of this team.”

Buck knew better than to argue with that tone. But he refused to be chagrined—at least until he left Chris´s office. Judging from the attitudes of the others, outside the door, they had heard every one of his shouted words. He muttered several unkind words about Chris´s parentage and character and slid into his desk. No one said a word.

That afternoon, J.D. made an error in a report, provoking their leader to jump down his throat.

“Damn it, J.D.!” he snapped, slapping the document back on J.D.´s desk. “Do you read your reports before you hand them in? This one makes you sound like a god damn rookie.”

Chris stabbed a finger down on the offending paragraph. “Pay some god damn attention to what you write.”

With that, the blonde senior agent whirled on his black-booted heel and stalked back into his office.

J.D.´s cheeks flamed bright red as he reread the paragraph. The young agent swore under his breath.

Buck leaned over to see the report, but J.D. pulled it out of his sight.

“He didn´t mean it, kid,” Buck said softly.

“How do you know?” J.D. snapped back, face still red. “Maybe I deserved it,” he said softly a moment later.

“Maybe you made a mistake, but that don´t give him the right to come out here and insult you.”

J.D. ducked his head.

Buck sighed in frustration at his best friend´s shame. He knew damn well that Chris Larabee was a legend in J.D.´s eyes. He was the sole reason the boy had come here looking for a job. Chris was J.D.´s hero. And Chris just plain didn´t seem to care.

“He doesn´t mean to be such a bastard,” Buck said with a sigh. “Deep down somewhere he really does care. About you. About all of us.” Buck said the words, but he wondered whether he was reassuring J.D. or himself.

“I know that,” J. D. gulped but he didn´t lift his head. Buck could see how horrified the boy was at a display of emotions he thought none of the others ever showed.

“Back before,” Buck began and paused. It was hard for him to voice exactly what had happened to the woman he had loved as a sister and the boy he had called his nephew, so he divided the time into “Before” and “After,” and J.D. seemed to understand. “Before he was different. He used to be a lot more,” he paused looking for the word somewhere in the air around him, “compassionate,” he decided. “He used to care about people´s feelings.”

Before, Chris and Sarah´s life together had been characterized by a thousand small acts of kindness, which had included and enfolded Buck as a part of their family. After, Chris had kicked Buck soundly out of his life, so he could continue with his hell-bent, alcohol-fueled mission of self-destruction.

“He cares,” J.D. said with a confidence Buck knew he didn´t quite feel. The boy continued on doggedly. “It would have been worse if he´d filed this report and let me look stupid.”

“Yeah, well, back then he would at least have had the good grace to call you into his office.”

“He´s had a bad week,” Nathan intervened through his open door.

“So he takes it out on the kid?” Buck shot back.

“Buck, don´t,” J.D. pleaded, and this time, Buck got a good look at the mixture of shame and determination on J.D.´s face as he doggedly defended his goddamn hero. A hero worship that man had not done a damn thing to earn or deserve, as far as Buck was concerned.

It took less than a second for Buck to make up his mind. He stalked into Chris´s office slamming the door behind him.

“What the hell was that?” Buck demanded. “You yell at the kid in front of his teammates over a typo?”

Chris´s eyes glittered angrily. “Hell of a typo,” he snorted, reminding Buck that he didn´t have all the facts.

Buck felt his ears go hot as a red flush crept up his neck.

“Vin´s reports are filled with typos. Let´s see you yell at him.”

This time the red flush crept up Chris´s neck and the blonde pushed his chair back from the desk.

“J.D. ain´t Vin,” Chris said, clearly struggling to keep his tone even.

“Ain´t that the truth,” Buck snapped. He knew he was treading over the line. He had practically accused Chris of practicing favoritism.

To make matters worse, even though Chris had never mentioned a word, Buck knew damn well that Vin took his reports to be typed up in the secretarial pool because Vin´s dyslexia hampered his writing skills. Still, he was too caught up in a full head of steam to pull back now. No matter that he had forgotten whether he was defending J.D. or venting his own spleen.

“What the hell does that mean?” Chris demanded.

“Why don´t you tell me?” Buck retorted.

This time Chris did stand up. “You got something to say, say it,” he said.

“Alright, I´ll say it,” Buck said, leaning his fists on Chris´s desk and putting his face right up next to the blonde´s. “I don´t know who you are, but you sure as hell ain´t the guy I used to know.”

Buck got the satisfaction of seeing Chris recoil at his words. A split second later, the blonde´s expression closed down completely. Somewhere in the back of Buck´s brain, a voice raised an alarm.

When Chris spoke again, his voice was quiet and as flat and expressionless as his face had become. “That´s right,” he said, pressing his face closer to Buck´s with every sentence. “I´m not your old buddy. I´m not the guy you went through SEALs with. I´m not your DPD partner. I´m not even the guy you dragged stinkin´ drunk out of bars after my life went to hell. But I am the guy you answer to around here. Get used to it. Or find another job.”

It was Buck´s turn to recoil. Find another job? Could he really mean that?

Before Buck could think of a reply, Chris had yanked his black duster off the hook on his door and stalked out past him. He barked at the 5 faces that stared at him that he was leaving early. No explanation. And he swept out to the elevator bank.

The 5 men in the bullpen exchanged glances and looked questioningly up at Buck.

Still angry, and deprived of the last word, Buck kicked his rolling chair across the floor to collide with Ezra´s metal desk.

Ezra looked up annoyed. “Don´t take your lack of tact out on my office equipment,” the southerner snapped.

Buck gave him a sour look.

“What the hell´s his problem?” he demanded of no one in particular, sweeping his arm in the direction Chris´s retreating back had gone.

The question hung in the air for a long time before Vin´s voice broke the resounding silence. He said it quietly, but not so quietly that his teammates didn´t hear. “Awful hard to spend 8 hours every day with a body who wishes you were someone else.”

“What´s that supposed to mean, Tanner?” Buck demanded, rounding on the sharpshooter.

Vin´s blue-eyed gaze looked impassively back at him as he added in his peculiar soft rasp, “I ain´t never met this ‘old Chris´ you keep goin´ on about, but me and this Chris get on just fine.”

Buck glared hotly at Vin.

He turned angrily at Ezra´s choked off chuckle

“Something funny, Standish?” Buck demanded, his hands flexing into fists.

“No not particularly funny,” Ezra sighed. “But I think I speak for everyone when I say we´ve all grown a tad tired of hearing about the good old days.”

Buck´s eye´s narrowed and he opened his mouth to say something he knew he would well and truly regret later.

“Stop it all of you,” J.D. suddenly started up, laying a hand on Buck´s arm. “Chris was right about my report. And I don´t need you to defend me. Now let´s stop fighting each other and try working like a team.”

Josiah seconded the motion from his office. Nathan provided his calm support of the suggestion.

Buck forced himself to resume his seat and take a calming breath. But he noticed that no one had bothered to agree with him. The air simmered all afternoon with quiet tension.

Buck half-heartedly suggested a trip to the Saloon that evening, but everyone had demurred. Nathan had a class. Josiah had an appointment with a noted visiting philosopher at the University. Vin wanted to head out to his trailer in the woods for the weekend, and Ezra just flat out declined. Of all things, J.D. wanted to finish fixing that damn report so Chris would have it on his desk first thing Monday morning.

Buck muttered a curse and headed home to a beer and an early bed. When J.D. finally did come in that evening, he told Buck that he didn´t need to defend him. If a battle needed to be fought, he would fight it, even with Chris.

Buck began to offer an excuse, but J.D. stood pat, and waited for Buck to accept what he said.

“Yeah, I see,” Buck muttered. Try that on Chris, he thought darkly as he handed J.D. the TV remote and headed off to bed without even a good night.

Buck planned to make amends with his roommate first thing in the morning, but J.D. had left early to pick up his college student girlfriend for a motorcycle ride and a picnic. His cheerful note, however, showed that, as always, the young agent held no grudges.

There had been a time that Chris hadn´t held anything against him either, Buck mused. But those days were gone. Buck had prevented Chris´s self-destruction after Sarah and Adam´s deaths, and Chris refused to forgive him for that. He reached for a cup of coffee to clear his head.

Then he remembered his date for the evening. Brightening considerably, Buck headed out the door to run some errands before he had to get ready for thethat evening.

At long last, there he was, seated across the white-clothed restaurant table from the enchanting Lila. She was beautiful—no, resplendent—in a simple black evening dress and pearls. Her creamy skin glowed in the candlelight, and she laughed that musical laugh as Buck smoothed on the charm.

With great appreciation, Buck noted that not only did she have that magical laugh; she had a quick, warm sense of humor of her own. Intelligence shone in her clearwarm, brown eyes, and she seemed knowledgeable about a refreshing variety of subjects.

She was lapping up his cheerful banter, as he helped her relax and feel comfortable. And bBy the time their meals were finished, Buck was feeling very optimistic, indeed, about where the evening was headed.

In the second hour, after wine, perhaps Ms. Foxwood had relaxed too much, and Buck discovered he had a woman with a heartache on his hands. He knew he´d regret it, but he couldn´t stand seeing anyone in pain, so he invited her to talk about it over dessert.

He had been right about her. She was very nearly perfect—but she had one big glaring flaw. Some guy named Rick. A schmuck of a fiancé who had cheated on her and broken her heart. Yet, to Buck´s amazement, she was still counting up his good points. Over the course of her story, Buck´s own feelings about Rick had taken a decidedly different turn.

That´s when realization hit him right between the eyes—with a resounding smack.

After dessert, he escorted her home, with apologies. But there was something he had to do.

It was late when he pulled into the long curving driveway, but the porch light was on. Buck paused as he also noticed the lights on in the barn. He closed his door behind him and headed for the barn, his hands in his pockets.

Chris was sitting astride a horse stall, struggling with the hinge on the door. The horse was tied patiently down the row a ways. Josiah´s horse, Buck noted. Buck´s own big gray whickered at his approach.

Chris looked up at Buck. He bobbed his head once in silent greeting and turned back to his work. If he wondered what Buck was doing here at this hour, he did not show it.

Buck rubbed his horse´s nose affectionately before turning to Chris. “Need some help there, pard?” he asked, eyeing Chris´s scraped-up knuckles.

“Thanks,” Chris said simply, nodding at a tool kit that balanced precariously on the corner of the stall.

Buck grabbed a sturdy screwdriver and jammed it between the stall and the door, making a space for Chris to get his fingers in to rethread the hinge. They worked in silence for a while until the hinge snapped together.

“Still make a good team,” Buck said with a rueful grin.

Chris looked up at him. “What´s on your mind, Buck?” Chris asked. Right to the point, that was Chris. No quarter asked; no quarter given.

“I reckon I owe you part of an apology,” Buck said, glancing away from Chris.

The blonde snorted, wiping his bloodied knuckles on a towel and stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans. “Part of an apology?” he asked and climbed off the stall door.

Buck grinned sheepishly. Chris knew apologizing didn´t come easy for him. He was just twisting the knife.

Before the big mustached agent could speak again, Chris moved past him to get Josiah´s horse. “You don´t owe me anything, Buck,” he said softly but matter of factly.

Buck stared after him, trying to work out what to say.

“I reckon I ain´t exactly been fair,” he said finally.

Chris came back leading Josiah´s horse. Buck held the door, while Chris led the big mare into her stall. He spoke some soothing words, forked in a couple extra forkfuls of hay, and closed up the stall door nice and tight. Buck admired how well Chris handled the horses. Time was, he handled people as kindly, too. The thought brought Buck back to what he wanted to say.

Trouble was, the words got stuck in his throat.

Chris was staring at him, head cocked to one side, eyes narrowed slightly. It was a look that made people feel like he could read their minds. And sometimes, Buck almost believed he could.

He was waiting. Buck could feel it. They were standing in Chris´s barn at nigh on 11 PM. And Chris was waiting patiently for Buck to say what he wanted to say. It was a courtesy, Buck knew. Chris was not normally a man of great patience. At least not these days.

Buck´s confusion must have shown on his face because Chris suddenly grinned mischievously and glanced at the clock on the barn wall, beside the radio. “Thought you were on a date, Bucklin´,” he said. “You finish early?”

Buck felt a similar grin spread across his face at the intended jibe. He hadn´t even known Chris knew about Lila. And yet without apparent effort, Chris had given him just the opportunity he needed.

“Funny thing about that,” he started, before he could start to second-guess himself. “Seems we both made that date, but one of us was the wrong person.”

Chris quirked an eyebrow in response and waited to hear the rest.

Buck blew out a breath. “You ever spend a date with someone who won´t talk about anyone but their ex?”

“Ouch,” Chris said in sympathy.

“Yeah, well,” Buck said, staring suddenly at his feet. “I reckon that´s what I been doin´ to you.”

There was a long silence, and Buck looked up to see if Chris was still listening. Chris´s hands were jammed into his pockets and he was gazing down at the dirt. But his expression was far off. Thinking.

The rhythm of their long years of friendship told Buck that it was his turn to wait. So he did.

When he spoke, Chris´s voice was low and filled with an unaccustomed emotion. “I know you miss your old buddy,” Chris said with a sigh. When he lifted his head, Buck saw regret etched in the green depths. Chris took a deep breath and finished firmly. “But he´s gone, Buck. He died in that fire.”

It was as close as Chris liked to come to talking about what happened to Sarah and Adam.

“He ain´t gone,” Buck protested. “I know he´s in there somewhere.” He reached a hand out to prod Chris gently in the chest.

Chris grimaced and shook his head. “I´m not him, Buck,” he said with gentle force. “Things like that change a man. He´s not coming back.”

Buck knew the sense in those words. But he didn´t believe them. Because sometimes, in a glance of pride at the team, or at a teammate´s hospital bedside, Buck saw him. In Chris´s dogged determination to protect the innocent, in his willingness to stand up and take flak from the brass or even a bullet to defend his team, he rose up again, the ghost of Buck´s old friend, resurfaced in unguarded moments.

Buck shook his head. “You´re wrong, pard,” he said. “I still see him sometimes.”

Chris inhaled to reply, but Buck continued, slipping into the space, making his apology, clumsy and halting.

“It´s just that sometimes I resent that you´re walking around with his face and his memories and you won´t let him out.” He surprised himself. That was not what he wanted to say.

He had surprised Chris, too, apparently, because he could see the blonde mentally backpedal to catch his balance.

Another thought chased that one into Buck´s mind and he continued without waiting for Chris´s reply. “You shut me out,” he accused. “You didn´t want to remember, so you shut me out.”

Chris couldn´t deny that, but Buck wasn´t just talking about the horrible year that passed after Sarah and Adam´s deaths, when Chris had systematically pushed Buck away using whatever he could find for leverage, blame, guilt, harsh words, and when that didn´t work, fists. He was talking about now.

“You invited me to join this team. I was the first one you picked, but you´re still shutting me out.”

The guilt that chased the surprise across Chris´s face told Buck he´d hit home.

Chris dropped his eyes and looked at the floor. Buck waited while Chris figured out what to say.

“You´re right,” the blonde said finally. He blew out a big breath. When his green eyes met Buck´s again, Buck could see the thoughts chasing each other around in circles. “It´s not that I don´t want to remember,” he said slowly. “It´s just that…” He halted. Words had never been Chris´s strong suit, and Buck could see how hard Chris was working to get this out.

The blonde started over. “There was a time that I thought the memories would eat me alive,” he stated simply. “I can´t go back there.”

A lump formed in the back of Buck´s throat. He remembered only too well how the grief and guilt over his family´s death had threatened to devour Chris whole. Buck would have reached out and pulled his old friend into one of his trademark embraces, but Chris´s stiff stance told him the gesture would not be welcome.

“I guess I thought we could start fresh,” Chris finished.

Buck shook his head. “You can´t throw out 20-odd years of friendship, old buddy. It means something to me,” he said. “Something important. I don´t want to forget it.”

Chris shook his head testily. “I didn´t ask you to forget it. But you don´t always have to be the official keeper of my past.”

“Well that´s what I got left since you made Vin the official keeper of your present.” Buck snapped. As soon as the words were formed he wanted to take them back. The words hung between them like cannon smoke as the impact reverberated in the air around them.

Chris´s eyebrows came down in a glower, when suddenly he snorted. It was almost a laugh. He shook his head at the floor and fixed Buck with that mind-reading gaze.

“You think Vin has taken your place,” Chris said matter- of-factly, but there was an edge of wonder in his voice.

Buck´s whole face flushed. He didn´t say anything for a long moment.

Chris quirked an eyebrow sardonically as he waited for a response.

If Buck had thought about hugging Chris before, he was considering punching the bastard´s daylights out now. Mostly because Chris was right.

Vin HAD taken his place. Since they had played football together in high school and straight through their days in Special Forces and the Denver Police, Buck and Chris had had an unspoken understanding. Chris was a loose cannon, and it was Buck´s job to be right at Chris´s back. Thick, thin, hell, high water, whatever the day threw their way. But Tanner had joined the group team with his easy-going outward manner and a preference for nonverbal communication that matched Chris´s own, and the two of them had developed some sort of instant understanding. They seemed to have entire conversations without even speaking. A series of glances, head nods, and expressions, and things seemed to have been decided. Tanner planted himself at Chris´s back and stuck there. Pushing 20 years of friendship right off the pedestal.

Chris saved Buck the effort of either finding his voice or slugging him, when he took a deep breath and spoke again, a bitter smile curling up at his lips. “You didn´t get replaced, Buck,” he said, holding Buck´s eyes. “I did.”

Buck´s eyebrows came down in confusion. “I never…,” he started.

Chris cut him off. “You didn´t do it,.” he said. “I did it.,” he said The blonde leaned back against a stall door as if he suddenly needed extra support. Pony´s black head shoved him in the shoulder fondly and Chris crooked an arm absently across the faithful gelding´s nose. He stayed that way for a second before he looked up again.

Buck was staring at him—waiting for an explanation.

Chris took a deep breath. “I´ve known you for more than half my life, Buck. I know you like the back of my hand. I know you better than I sometimes know myself. You need someone to take care of.”

Buck flinched. “What´s that supposed to mean?”

Chris held up a hand in a conciliatory gesture. “It means just what I said. That´s you. You take care of people. You´re a big tough guy, with a big soft heart.”

Buck narrowed his eyes, but Chris continued. “It´s not a bad thing, Buck. It´s what makes you the friend you are. It´s what keeps you coming back for old friends—even when they treat you like shit.”

The bitterness in Chris´s words tinged the air, but Buck let it slide without comment.

The blonde exhaled again, as if letting out a breath he had been holding a long time. “When you agreed to help me start up the team, I could see how thrilled you were that your old friend had come back. And I knew that you were going to fall right back into the role of Chris Larabee´s personal caretaker. But I´m not your old friend come back. I needed you to back off. I needed us to start over on an even footing.” He looked up at Buck, his expression intense, as if he could make Buck understand by simply burning the words in with his eyes.

Then he looked away again as he continued. “But if there´s one thing I know, it´s that Buck Wilmington needs someone to mother hen. So when J.D. came around, green as all git-out, I saw a perfect fit.”

“Don´t get me wrong,” Chris said hurriedly. “I hired J.D. on the basis of his skills, same as everyone else, but it was clear that he needed more mentoring than I could give and that you needed to be more protective than I could stand. You needed each other. You were perfect together. So I put you together…and I got out of your way.” He looked up at Buck for a brief second. A look of intense loss flashed through Chris´s eyes. Then he looked away again, checking a stall door that didn´t need checked.

Buck stared. Thunderstruck. Trying to digest what Chris had said. Events of the past year replayed across his mind, uncoupling, fitting together in new directions. He could feel that his mouth was open, but he didn´t care. The sounds of the ticking clock and the shuffling and snorting of horses bedding down for the night filled the air around them, as Buck struggled for something to say.

When he found his voice, he wished he had the eloquence of Ezra or Josiah. It sounded clumsy even to him, but he finally blurted it out. “You can´t replace people, Chris,” Buck said. “J.D. may be like a little brother to me. He may even be just what I need. But he don´t share the history that you and I got behind us. He ain´t you.”

That bitter smile returned to Chris´s lips. “But you´re still looking at me like I´m who I used to be,” Chris said, a raw edge in his voice. “You´ve got to get used to who I am now.”

Buck sighed. “Fair enough,” he said. “Maybe I have been spending a little too much time in the past.”

He ran a hand through his hair and paused to carefully phrase what he wanted to say next. “I know something like that changes people,” Buck said. “I never expected you to go through what you went through and come back exactly the same. But,” he said, bending a little to peer straight into Chris´s eyes. “I do know you. Probably better than you know yourself. And you´re a damn sight better than you think you are. So why don´t you stop tearing yourself up about the past and just accept that I am still your personal watchdog.”

A smile cracked Chris´s face. “Damn big watch dog,” he muttered.

“Yup,” Buck said smugly. “That´s why I´m the Big Dog.” Chris shook his head at the affectionate nickname that seemed like part of a long-ago past.

Silence hung again for a moment. “An´ I´ll tell you what,” Buck said finally. “I won´t tell all of your secrets, if you´ll let my old buddy out a little more often.”

The smile turned sad. “Don´t know if I can,” Chris said.

“Sure ya can, Stud,” Buck said, a grin perking up his mustache. “He´s a lot closer than you think. Hell,” Buck said. “You might even like him.”

“Don´t push your luck,” Larabee mock-growled.

Buck laughed. Chris laughed. It rang in the barn, irritating the sleeping horses and soothing Buck´s frayed nerves. Then he did it. He reached out and pulled Chris into a Buck bear hug—and for once, Chris didn´t resist.

On Monday, the atmosphere in the office was all business. The seven members of ATF Team Seven sat around their gleaming black conference table and shared intelligence on their next target. Chris´s clipped, official tones assigned each member his next task and brought the meeting to a close.

A box of donuts meant for Buck slid down the table and bumped Chris´s arm. The leader flicked his glance over at J.D., the source of the offending matter. Buck´s long arm reached out and smoothly ensnared the misguided missile.

“Now, J.D.,” he said, a twinkle in his blue eyes. “You know Chris is on a diet.”

It was a long-standing joke between them. In all the time Buck had known Chris, the blonde´s lean frame had never held an extra inch of fat. Once he had been almost scrawny. But hard years and hard training had turned to hard muscle.

Chris turned his glare on Buck, but looking up at the gaze, Buck saw nothing but bemusement in the green depths.

“Gimme a break, Buck,” J.D. said in disgust.

Buck let his lips twitch up into a smirk, as he cradled the box under his arm and walked around the table to sling the other long arm across the youngest agent´s shoulders.

“It´s true, kid,” he purred smoothly, turning his head to wink at his boss. “When he turns sideways the bad guys won´t be able to see him.”

J. D. punched Buck soundly in the ribs in fond exasperation.

Chris gathered up his things without a word. But a smile creased his face.

He looked up in time to see Buck hand the box of donuts to the young agent. And when J.D. had both hands full, Buck closed his arm into a headlock. Ignoring J.D.´s loud protests, Buck swung around in the doorway to face Chris.

Chris shook his head. “Shoulda seen that comin´, kid,” he said, sliding past them out the office door, and grabbing the box of donuts from the young agent´s hands without even a pause. He saluted Buck with the box and continued on out to his office, his voice carrying back to them. “Shoulda seen that comin´ a mile away.”

Buck tipped an imaginary hat at the retreating back of his leader, his boss, and his friend. A man who knew him only too well.