Ninety-Six Hours – The Aftermath

by Angie

Big, huge thank you to Katy for her quick beta work and her suggestions. This fic takes place immediately after the events in Ninety-Six Hours of Darkness. This probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read it first.

This fic contains references to, but no graphic description of, prostitution.

Size: Approx. 210K

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“You okay, Buck?” Chris spoke softly as he cocked his head toward his friend.

“I will be, pard, I will be.”

Taking one last look at the haystack and the disturbed earth, Buck shook his head and started for the house. The rest of the team closed ranks around him as he walked up the hill.

The long week at the hospital had been emotionally draining on the team. Buck had been catatonic when they pulled him from the box. Being buried for four days had worked tortures on the ladies man. When he finally did begin to come around, he was wracked by night terrors. Worse than ordinary nightmares, night terrors had to be allowed to run their course. Dr. Flagston wanted to use restraints and Chris made good use of the Larabee glare to dissuade him from the idea. Dr. Franklin agreed and vetoed the order.

Dr. Franklin was the psychiatrist sent to counsel Buck before he left the hospital. A petite woman with a shock of dark ringlet curls and bright blue eyes, she had most of the staff wrapped around her little finger. She was not above standing on the hospital bed it that’s what it took to get someone to talk. But Agent Buck Wilmington was a real challenge.

Reviewing the patient chart, she could see what meds had been added or withdrawn from his treatment. The blood thinner had been metabolized but the psychotropic drugs were still clearing his system. He refused the sedatives until the night terrors started. She preferred counseling over drugs and had cleared large chunks of her schedule to accommodate the ATF agents. Her initial diagnosis was PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The day before Buck was discharged, he awoke to find the brunette studying his hand. Her hands were soft and her gaze so intent on the lines in his hand that he had to look for himself.

“What are you looking for?” Buck asked as he studied his palm.

“Oh, nothing really. I just tend to notice hands. I was surprised by your hands. They are softer than I expected,” she explained. “By the way, I’m Dr. Emily Franklin. You and I will be spending a lot of time together over the next few weeks.”

“We will?” Not that he minded, she was pretty.

“Yeah, we need to work thru what happened to you, okay?”

The relaxed look fell away and he withdrew from her. The tension radiating from him was almost palpable as the desire in his eyes was replaced by fear. She let him pull away as she sat on the foot of his bed with her feet crossed. Her gaze was soft as she waited to catch his eye.

“I’ll be fine. I don’t need to talk about it,” he replied petulantly.

“Okay, but since I have to meet with the whole team anyway, I’ll be seeing you too. I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself.”

“The whole team? Why do you have to meet with them? We’ve been thru worse than this without ‘talking’ about it.”

“It’s a new program. Pilot project. Anyway, I met with the others and I’ll be dropping in on you for the next few weeks. Agent Larabee has promised me a trail ride.”

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s bags were dropped in the guest room. Josiah and Nathan started the grill and threw on some steaks. They hadn’t bought any beer since Buck couldn’t have any alcohol while he was taking the meds. The ladies man was quiet and subdued as he sat on the deck staring out at the mountains. His body was exhausted but he resisted sleeping because of the dreams.

They had begun while he was hallucinating in the box. At first the dreams were benign and entertaining. The team was hired to protect a little backwater town in the old west. The longer his ordeal continued, the more horrific they became. He kept seeing his friends dying in the old west setting. The worst were the dreams where JD or Chris was killed. The sedatives kept the dreams away but they left him feeling foggy.

“You want to talk about it?” Chris asked as he dropped onto the chair next to Buck.

“Not yet, Chris. I just need to think it thru a few times,” he answered softly.

“We’re all here for you, you know that, right?”

“Yeah, thanks Cowboy,” Buck said with a slight smile.

Dr. Franklin told them to go on as they would have if Buck had been shot or physically injured. She wanted him to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible. Any other time one of them was discharged from the hospital, they spent a few days at Che` Larabee getting pampered and fussed over. The barbeque was a given any time the group came together.

After getting nudged a few times, Vin, JD and Ezra took the Frisbee out on the lawn and played keep away, throwing the Frisbee just over JD’s head forcing him to jump for it. When they loosened up, their laughter was irresistible and Buck moved to the rail to watch. Finally, an errant throw sailed up on the deck and drew Buck into the game.

The mouth watering smells from the grill soon had all of them clamoring to eat. Josiah brought out a large pot of corn on the cob, swimming in butter. Ezra had stopped at an organic food store to pick up several melons and fresh strawberries. JD had surprised them by making potato skins. Nathan brought the fixings for a salad and assembled it between rounds on the grill. Vin’s contribution came in the form of several gallons of sun tea.

After sating themselves at the picnic table, they chose up sides for football. Ezra begged off, offering to clean up and put away the leftovers instead. From the kitchen window, the southerner watched the team play. Vin put up a beautiful spiral that landed securely in JD’s arms. As the young dynamo turned, he was tackled by his roommate. JD went down laughing as Buck tickled him until he was helpless. Nathan picked up the loose ball and ran for a touch down.

Rolling onto his back, Buck stared up at the fluffy clouds overhead as he listened to the kid trying to catch his breath. Josiah came over and pulled his teammate up from the grass, dusting JD off as he complained to Chris and Nathan that tickling was the same as illegal holding.

As the sun set, a bonfire was lit in the fire pit and the men collapsed around it. A cooler was passed around with flavored tea and bottles of Yoo Hoo. JD and Vin began making s’mores and passing them around. Buck eased back against the old log and stared into the flames until he dozed off. Chris nudged Nathan and pointed toward Buck.

“Should we wake him and move him into the house?” Chris asked.

“Nah, let him be for now. It’s good for all of us just to be together,” Nathan replied.

An hour later, the entire group was sitting quietly around the fire. The youngest had gotten their fill of s’mores and were leaning against each other, asleep. Josiah’s chin rested on his chest and the firelight danced on his graying hair. Next to Buck, Ezra sat fighting off the urgent sleep messages from his brain as he watched over Buck.

As Buck was gripped by a night terror, Ezra tried to wake him, paying for his efforts when Buck landed a hard right to his stomach. A few seconds later, he found himself caught in a bone crushing bear hug, as Buck’s tears soaked the shoulder of his Polo shirt. Dr. Franklin had warned them of the mood swings, but swing implied, to Ezra anyway, a gradual shift, what they were experiencing was 180-degree switches.

Slapping Nathan on the thigh, Chris got to his feet and began to toss sand onto the fire. Ezra reached over and nudged JD before getting to his feet. Chris reached over and gently jarred Buck from his slumber. The deep blue eyes were confused at first and Buck wavered unsteadily on his feet.

“Come on, Bucklin. Let’s get up to the house,” Vin encouraged.

“Shoulda let me sleep,” Buck grumbled.

“Wrong season to be sleeping under the stars. You’ll thank me in the morning,” Chris teased.

Buck headed up to the guest room while the rest of the team bedded down on the couches and on pallets on the living room floor. Everyone settled into beds, couches and pallets on the living room floor. Before going to bed himself, Chris followed Buck up to his room and set his pill on the nightstand with a glass of water. He waited for his friend to come out of the bathroom and looked pointedly at the small, blue pill.

“I’m okay, Chris. I’ll just drop right back to sleep,” Buck protested.

“Dr. Franklin said every night for the first week. I can’t have you charging around in here at night and breaking something.” Chris picked up the pill and the cup and held them out, allowing no further argument.

“Like my neck?” Buck asked as he took the pill and glass.

“Actually, I was thinking about that handrail Josiah worked on for so long, but yeah, your neck too,” Chris teased.

Buck drained the glass and set it on the nightstand before sprawling out on the bed. His arm hung off of one side and his foot was off of the other.

“You need a bigger bed for this room.”

“The bed’s fine, Buck. You just stretch out too much when you sleep! See you in the morning, okay?”

“Thanks, Chris. I’m sorry for being so much trouble,” Buck whispered.

“It’s no trouble. All part of the service. ‘night.”

He’d been around Ezra long enough to know how to palm a pill. He dropped the little round tablet into the drawer of the nightstand and tried to sleep. He knew the low watt bulb in the lamp was just for him, he couldn’t stand to close his eyes in the dark. Nuzzling into the pillow, Buck tried to sleep.

The chime of the grandfather clock told him that it had been over an hour since Chris had left the room and he still could not sleep. The dreams, the ones about JD dying, were becoming more and more stressful. As often as he reassured himself that the kid was okay, an image of his battered, broken body appeared in Buck’s mind. Sighing, he tossed the blanket aside and rolled over again.

+ + + + + + +

The whisper of an arm moving against the nylon cover of a sleeping bag told Ezra that one of his compatriots was not resting. As tired as he was, the southerner could not get his mind to shut down. Every little sound seemed magnified. Finally, a soft sound told him which of the bodies on the floor was in difficulty. Easing out from under the hand-stitched quilt Chris had thrown over him, Ezra got on the floor and crawled to Vin’s side.

It was the dream about finding the box! Vin’s heart pounded as his mind replayed the rescuers prying the heavy plywood lid off of the box. He could see Buck, half naked and out of his mind, wet and covered in vomit and blood. In the dream, there was no motion when the paramedic touched Buck. In the dream, the man lifted his head and shook it sadly. Instead of just covering his body with the blanket, the man covered Buck’s face.

“No, not like this,” Vin’s voice pleaded in a whisper.

“Mr. Tanner? Vin? You’re dreaming. Buck is alive and well and, at the moment, sleeping better than either you or me. Would you like to discuss what has so disrupted your slumber? It might help,” Ezra offered.

A hand waived thru the air and Ezra caught it and pulled the Texan into an upright position. In the dimly lit room, Vin looked around and his gaze rested on JD. The two young men had been inseparable while Buck was in the hospital. Only the kid knew about the nightmares that stirred Vin into a cold sweat.

“Would you prefer to move onto the deck? That way we will not disturb Mr. Dunne’s rest.”

Taking a sleeping bag and a quilt, Vin and Ezra moved to the chaise lounges on the deck. The pale light of the new moon provided enough light for them to see each other and Ezra settled in to wait for Vin to speak.

“It’s the dream, Ez. I been havin’ it since we found him. I keep seeing the medic shakin’ his head and drawin’ a blanket over Buck’s face. I know he’s alive, why am I havin’ these dreams? I wake up sopping wet and feeling sick all over. JD’s havin’ ‘em too. Wakes up screaming for Buck. Damned near got hisself shot the first time!”

“We have all been deeply affected by the events of the past two weeks. It’s only natural for your mind to struggle with it. Both you and Mr. Dunne should make use of the time Dr. Franklin has allotted to help us.”

“Don’t tell the kid I said anything, please?”

“Your secrets are safe with me. Do you think, perhaps, that you might be able to rest now? Or should we remain out here for a while longer?”

“I think I can sleep now, thanks Ez.”

With a strangled gasp, Buck bit back the scream that was building in his chest. He sat up, struggling with the quilt that was tightly wrapped around his hips. His shirt was stuck to him like a second skin. His heart was pounding so hard that he could feel it in his fingers and toes. Drawing great, ragged breaths, he shifted his feet to the floor.

He was just going to look and make sure that the kid was all right. That was all. Perfectly reasonable thing for him to be doing at, he looked at the clock, 3:15 in the morning. Silently, stealthily, he crept down the stairs to the living room floor. JD lay near the fireplace, on his back with one arm tucked under his head. He looked 12 years old laying there like that. An urge to reach out and draw the blanket higher on the kid’s chest was forcibly quashed.

A familiar scent interrupted JD’s sleep. The smell was so familiar that he turned on his side toward the source. He nuzzled against the pillow and the scent remained. It was associated with warmth and family. Suddenly, the pleasant images in his mind were replaced by the nightmare. In the dream, when the rescuers lifted the heavy lid of the box, there was a casket inside. The lid was opened to reveal Buck laid out in his one and only tuxedo!

“No, Buck?” JD whimpered as he rolled onto his back again.

The ladies man had just started back up the stairs when he heard the small cry. He crossed the room and knelt at JD’s side as he debated waking him. The youngest member of the team tossed his head from side to side as if to shake the image from his mind. When his eyes popped open and he drew a deep breath, Buck quickly covered JD’s mouth.

“Easy kid. Let’s not wake the whole house, okay?” Buck whispered. He waited until his young friend nodded before lifting his hand. JD instantly sprang up and buried his face in Buck’s shoulder. As Buck passed his hand up and down JD’s back, he felt the shudders that wracked the young man.

“Buck! What are you doing down here?”

“I came down to get a drink and heard you call out,” Buck lied. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just a dream. I’ll be okay. You go on back to bed, I’m okay.” JD insisted.

JD watched until Buck reached the top of the stairs before he was able to lie back down. He wondered what had caused his dream to change so completely. As he rested his arm across his eyes, he caught the familiar scent again. The sleeve of his pajama shirt was damp with sweat. Buck had been wringing wet when he had embraced him. Rolling onto his side, JD kept the sleeve under his head as he went back to sleep.

Exhaustion finally won and Buck fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The sun came up and shone thru the patchwork of light, fluffy clouds that dotted the sky. A gentle breeze stirred the pines and created waves in the hay field. The rooms with windows on the east side of the house warmed.

Josiah rolled over and inhaled the scent of fresh brewed coffee. The thin curtains did little to block the bright sunlight. Across the room, Nathan lay with his back to the window and his pillow over his head. Debating for several minutes whether or not to get out of bed, Josiah’s nose also detected the odor of biscuits. He sighed as he scrubbed at the itchy growth of beard and decided to grab a quick shower and shave.

The two sleeping on the living room floor twitched as their noses detected the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen. Vin rolled over and caught JD’s eye before bolting for the bathroom. He knew that the kid took as long as some women in the bathroom. JD smiled as he stretched in the sleeping bag. The events of a few hours ago held the vague fuzziness of a dream and he wasn’t at all sure that he hadn’t dreamed it.

Household sounds carried into the master bedroom and Chris punched his pillow a couple of times before settling his head in it again. ‘The price of having a group of early risers,’ his mind said sarcastically. Since his windows faced the west side of the house, it was still pleasantly dim in the room. Sleep beckoned and he surrendered willingly.

After his shower and shave, Josiah made his way to the kitchen for some of that coffee that had wakened him. Ezra was puttering around in the kitchen, stirring a cast iron skillet of potatoes and another of milk gravy. As the older man helped himself to coffee, he cast a questioning glance at the undercover agent.

Ezra was still somewhat an enigma to the men he worked with. You just never knew which facet of his personality would appear. Sometimes he would be aloof, other times most tender, sometimes irritating but always fiercely protective of his teammates, even to his own detriment. He occasionally surprised them with some previously unknown skill. It was after Chris and Vin had both been injured, early in their developing relationship, that they discovered that he enjoyed cooking.

“What’s for breakfast?” Josiah asked, knowing that there was more than he could see.

“There’s fresh fruit in the refrigerator and I found some smoked ham that I will heat for anyone who wants it. The biscuits are almost done and I couldn’t decide whether or not to stir sausage into the gravy, so I made both. I can fix eggs any way you want them.”

“Sounds good! Vin must be in the shower. Do you want me to wake the others?”

“No, let them rest. Everything will keep warm and they can eat at their leisure.”

The team trickled in and everyone ate before wandering out to greet the new day. Only Buck remained in bed as the last of breakfast was cleared away to make way for lunch. JD, Vin and Chris were in the corral working with the horses. Josiah and Nathan were going over the tack while Ezra groomed Chaucer. The day was just warm enough to work in shirtsleeves without being either too warm or too cool.

A phone ringing off in the distance finally drove the last sleeper from his bed. Buck scratched and groaned as he waited for the shower water to warm up. His nose told him that someone had been cooking and he hoped they had saved some for him.

The house was quiet when he reached the kitchen. The microwave held a plate with an abundance of food. He nuked it for a minute, while he poured a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice and set them on the table. Even reheated, Ezra’s cooking was good! Buck put the dishes in the sink and headed outside. Chris had his newest acquisition on a long lead and was trotting the mare around the corral. JD and Vin were grooming their horses while Ezra leaned against the corral watching Chris. He looked toward the barn where Josiah and Nathan were rubbing down the saddles.

As he watched Nathan cleaning the new saddle the guys had gotten him for Christmas, an uneasy feeling accompanied by warning signals in his chest left Buck gasping for his breath as he swayed on his feet. The doorbell rang and jarred his out of the panic attack he was having and he turned to go back into the house.

Vin looked up from where he was filing Peso’s hooves just in time to see Buck going back into the house. He dropped the hoof and set the file aside as he turned to the corral.

“Hey Chris, I heard a car door. I think Dr. Franklin might be here.”

“Shit! I forgot to tell Buck that she was coming! Is he even up?”

“I just saw him headed in from the deck.”

Ezra climbed over the rail and took the lead rope. Chris slapped Ezra’s arm in thanks before racing into the house.

Buck opened the door and froze. Dr. Franklin stood there with her hair pulled back in a clip on the back of her head and a leather bound notebook clutched to her chest. She smiled brightly as soon as she saw him but her smile quickly faded as she noticed the angry look on his face. Before she could question his reaction, Chris barreled in from the other side of the house and called out warmly.

“Dr. Franklin! You’re early!” Chris prayed that she would play along.

“I made good time, traffic was light and your directions were perfect,” she exclaimed as she stepped past Buck. “This is a really beautiful place you have. I’m really looking forward to spending some time up here with all of you.”

“Come on, let me show you around. This is the living room and …”

As Chris showed Dr. Franklin around, Buck seethed. He wondered why they hadn’t told him she was coming. Closing the door, he drifted back into the living room and sat down. The uneasy feeling started up again and he just barely made it to the bathroom before his stomach tossed back breakfast.

They saw Buck bolt into the bathroom and Chris looked at Dr. Franklin. Her face held a sympathetic expression as Chris steered her back into the living room. She sat on the end of the couch and sighed at the awkward silence.

“I didn’t get a chance to tell him you were coming. He slept late and we were all out back with the horses. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’m going to hope that’s a food reaction and not a reaction to me,” she said a little louder as Buck came out of the bathroom looking slightly pale.

The ladies man said nothing as he walked past them and headed for the stairs. Two sets of eyes followed him until he closed the door. Chris dragged his hand thru his hair as he counted slowly to ten.

“Do you want me to go get him?”

“No, it’s obvious that he isn’t ready to talk to me. How about I just talk to the others today. No pressure, just whoever wants to talk,” she offered.

After Chris left the house and headed back toward the corral, Emily looked around the room again. From the file she’d read, she knew that Larabee was a widower. She knew that his wife and young son had died a few years ago. The woman’s influence was clear in the tasteful decoration of the room. The Indian and southwest motif created a comfortable, homey feeling. On the mantle above the fireplace, pictures told the story of two lives interrupted. Coming to her feet, she crossed the room and studied the photos that stood in a variety of frames. On the far left end was a picture of a very happy couple.

“That was Sarah,” Vin said softly.

Emily, startled at his silent approach, whirled quickly. “Mr. Tanner! I didn’t hear you come in. Would you like to talk?”

As he moved into the room, she studied his body language. Tall and thin, he moved with the silent stealth of a cat. His eyes, the color of the summer sky, were carefully hooded, revealing nothing. She thought that she detected a little tension in his shoulders as he sat in one of the recliners. He kept his head down, his long hair hiding his expression. His hands, laced together, hung between his knees.

“So, is it true that you can shoot the wings off of a fly in motion?”

His eyes came up, puzzled. Dr. Franklin had seated herself on the hearth, leaning against the fireplace. Her knees were drawn up and her hands dangled loosely from her arms, which were resting on her kneecaps. She smiled, completely disarming the sharpshooter.

“We can talk about something else if you would prefer. Why don’t you tell me about your horse or your Jeep. That is your Jeep out front, right?”

“I, I thought, I mean … don’t you want to talk about what happened to Buck? Isn’t that what you’re here for?”

“It doesn’t always have to be about what happened to Buck. I’d like to get to know all of you, get a feel for how you interact. There’s more to how everyone feels than just talking about the past two weeks, right?”

Anger caused Buck to clench his fists as he sat on the edge of the bed. After several minutes, he crossed to the window and looked out. The bright green Suzuki Sidekick was parked behind Ezra’s Jag. A bright yellow smiley face covered the entire hood. He smiled in spite of himself. He just didn’t want to talk about what happened.

+ + + + + + +

His mind took him on a trip down memory lane in spite of his resistance. He was back on that day when Mrs. O’Neill was shot. The silent alarm in the bank had been activated at 11:16 in the morning. The entire area was cordoned off and the SWAT team had set up their command center just up the street.

Sweat trickled down and stung his eyes as he remained kneeling behind the squad car. Whoever decided to make Kevlar vests black was a damned idiot! He was baking in the hot summer sun. The only shade was the small amount afforded by the brim of his baseball cap. His hand was stinging from lying on the trunk of the car holding the 9mm.

In his ear, he could hear the chatter of the snipers as they set up and announced what they could see from their various locations. The front of the building was mostly glass and the glare of the sun made it impossible to see inside. Buck swiped his forehead on his sleeve, taking his eyes away for only a moment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chris in a similar position against another squad car.

The hostage negotiator arrived and began to talk to the gunman. As the time ticked by, the negotiations were not especially successful. One of the gunmen, a wiry, small built black man paraded before the window carrying a screaming toddler while one of the others restrained the hysterical mother. The body of the guard was tossed out with a bullet in his head. For the young father of three, his ordeal was over.

A hand gripped Buck by the shoulder and he was motioned to follow the SWAT officer. Behind the large black van, a small group of men assembled. Attached to the van with large magnets was a blueprint of the bank building. The exec in charge explained that they were going up the fire escape and into the building in an attempt to take out the gunmen.

It was warm inside of the bank. They had cut the power and the phone lines. Each man was given the pass codes to the electronic locks on the stairwell doors. Buck and another DPD officer, Wayne Johnson, crept down to the main floor. When they reached the first door, Wayne went high and Buck went low as they opened the reinforced steel door and peered into the main lobby. They had come out behind the cubicles in the personal banking area. From that vantage point they could see most of the hostages.

The negotiations went on for a couple of hours before the gunmen began to behave erratically. The larger of the two white men began to pace angrily, lashing out with his feet and fists when he passed the hostages. The snipers announced that they had positive locks on the black man and the smaller white man but they couldn’t see the third man. Buck retreated into the stairwell to report that he could take out the third man. The exec told him to get into position and wait for word.

Negotiations continued for another half hour. The gunmen were getting hot and tired. Finally, the larger white man grabbed a hostage and began to scream that he would kill her unless they dropped back. Each of the other gunmen took a hostage and began to make the same threat. The snipers radioed that they had contact with two of the targets but still could not see the third man. The exec’s voice in Buck’s ear gave the order.

“Wilmington, take the shot, take the shot.”

All hell broke loose as the snipers opened fire a split second before Buck squeezed the trigger. Two of the enormous glass panels shattered into millions of tiny pieces and rained down on the floor. The hostages began to scream and run. The tiniest tremor caused the big gunman to flinch a split second before Buck’s bullet reached him. The young woman jerked away from the shattering glass and right into the path of the bullet.

Buck watched the gunman go down, taking the woman with him. He remained crouched behind the desk until the exec called the ‘all clear.’ There was considerable confusion as the hostages tried to flee the building before the SWAT team confirmed that the gunmen were down. Forty DPD and SWAT officers poured into the building, putting everyone on their knees until they verified identities.

Lieutenant O’Malley kicked the gun from the hand of the third gunman and nearly slipped in the growing puddle of blood. His eyes widened in horror as he realized that the woman was holding the side of her neck as her lifeblood poured thru her fingers. He keyed the mic and called for an ambulance.

Two hours later, Buck sat on the bench in the police locker room. Having been relieved of his weapon and placed on paid leave until the investigation was concluded, the ladies man was in shock. A firm hand grasped his shoulder and he looked into the hazel eyes of Chris Larabee.

The two weeks following the shooting were the longest of his life. The media crucified him and most of his friends distanced themselves, not wanting to be pulled down with him. Only Chris and Wayne stayed at his side. When the shooting was deemed to be unavoidable, he was returned to work. It didn’t stop Graham O’Neill from going on his personal vendetta but it did give Buck the backing of the DPD. Wayne died in the line of duty a couple of years later.

+ + + + + + +

Wiping the tears from his cheeks, Buck noticed that the doctor was leaving. As she turned the little Suzuki around in the driveway, he saw the same smiley face on the back hatch; only that one had crossed eyes and its tongue stuck out. He took a deep breath and headed back downstairs.

The living room was empty when he reached the bottom of the stairs. Buck crossed the room and moved out onto the deck. Chris looked up from his seat at the end of the red wood picnic table. He looked embarrassed and uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry,” they both said at the same time.

“I meant to tell you she was coming,” Chris continued.

“I’m just not ready to talk about it,” Buck said defensively.

“That’s okay, she’s here to work with all of us.”

“All of us? What do you mean by that?” Buck felt the queasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach again.

“Buck, what happened to you affected all of us. Vin and JD are still having nightmares. Ezra’s claustrophobia is back with a vengeance. And I felt …” The team leader hesitated. He didn’t want to add to his friend’s burden of guilt. “I felt like I’d failed you somehow. If I hadn’t had that water line put in, …”

“He would have buried the box some place else and I would have died. Chris, I don’t blame you for what O’Neill did.”

“You’ll have to talk to her eventually, Buck. You can’t go back to work until she clears you. The whole team is on hold until she clears us,” Chris explained.

“No pressure, huh?”

Vin came up and sat on the deck next to Buck. The pale blue eyes were haunted. A thousand words scrolled thru the gaze that was fixed on Buck as Vin’s hands fidgeted with a smooth stone. Chris sensed that the Texan needed some one on one time and he slapped Buck on the knee as he stood and walked away.

“What’s on your mind, Vin?” Buck asked.

“I just wanted to talk to you about what happened to you.”

From the tense set of his shoulders, Vin was deeply troubled by what had happened. Buck drew a deep breath and dragged his hands thru his hair. His eyes were focused, not on the young man sitting nervously beside him, but on the mountains in the distance. He opened his mouth to try to say something, anything, and found that he could not.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Vin. Not yet, okay?” Buck placed his hand lightly on the denim-jacketed shoulder. He hoped his young friend could understand. “But Chris tells me you’ve been having nightmares?”

Guilt washed over Vin in slow, agonizing waves. He hadn’t meant for anyone else to know about it! Fixing his eyes on the squealer, Vin bounced off the deck. Ezra was just straightening up from cleaning the mud from Chaucer’s shoes when he was shoved, hard. Looking up from the ground, the startled southerner sputtered.

“Mr. Tanner? Am I in some danger that I am, as yet, unaware of?”

“You said you wouldn’t tell!” Vin hissed as he vented his barely controlled rage.

“And I haven’t,” Ezra defended.

“Then how did Chris and Buck find out?” Vin began to pace and Ezra decided against coming to his feet at the moment.

“Mr. Tanner, I assure you that our conversation has remained a secret. I have no idea how Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington discovered the situation!”

Chris had noticed Vin launching himself off of the deck and hadn’t been quick enough to prevent the confrontation but he caught the end of the conversation.

“Vin Tanner! Ezra didn’t tell me anything! I was there when you had the first nightmare, remember?”

The Texan’s face colored as he remembered the first night they had left the hospital. Since Josiah’s place was closest, they were taking turns getting cleaned up and catching some sleep there. Vin had wakened screaming in terror at the dream he was having.

+ + + + + + +

It was a dream that had disturbed him before. It was from one of the first times he had tried to bring in a bounty. The prisoner had somehow managed to overpower him and forced him into a closet after shooting him in the leg. He had moved the bed against the door so that Vin could not get out. It was dark and close and that was when the young Texan discovered the true terror of claustrophobia. He had begun to think that he would die in there. Fortunately, the housekeeper found him the next morning and called the police. Seeing Buck in that box had awakened the terror again.

+ + + + + + +

As soon as Vin’s face reddened and his shoulders dropped, Ezra eased himself up from the ground. He dusted off the seat of his pants and looked around to see where the others were and whether they were looking. Josiah and Nathan had moved up from the barn, but not too close. JD’s head was hanging as he leaned against the corral. Buck stood on the deck watching the entire exchange.

Vin stepped forward and offered his hand to Ezra.

“I’m sorry, Ez! I shoulda known that you wouldn’t say anything. Forgive me?”

Eyeing the trembling, outstretched hand, Ezra nodded. Flashing a warm, dimpled smile, he shook Vin’s hand. He then tossed his head toward where JD stood. Vin nodded and moved to talk to his young friend. He wanted to make sure that there were no hard feelings.

“You okay, kid?”

JD looked up before scuffing the dirt with the toe of his shoe. His chin dropped and he hoped Vin would move on. When he didn’t, JD glanced around to see where the others were before walking away.

The sun was still dancing with the light fluffy clouds when Josiah and Nathan put the last of the tack away. Every bit of leather had been cleaned and checked for wear and damage before being returned to its place in the barn. JD had returned from taking a long walk. Ezra and Vin disappeared together. Chris and Buck sat on the deck as the grill warmed up.

The team leader noticed the direction of Buck’s gaze and was compelled to question it.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“I was just realizing that I’m fouling up the whole team. Vin’s picking at Ezra, JD’s all long in the face, Nate and Josiah haven’t said ten words to me all day and you …”

“I what, Buck?” Chris had been trying not to upset his friend.

“Nothing.” Buck shrugged his shoulders and hoped Chris would let it drop.

Standing near the stream that cut across the Larabee ranch, Vin and Ezra were enjoying the peace and quiet. Realizing that it was nearing suppertime, the southerner decided to see if Vin was ready to head back.

“Was there something else you wanted to discuss?” Ezra asked after they had been standing for several minutes.

“No, yeah, I don’t know. I just feel terrible about jumping you the way I did. If I’d been thinking right, I’d have realized you always keep your word.”

“No hard feelings, Vin. We have all been thru the proverbial wringer and I suspect that sleep deprivation is not improving any of our better personality traits. I should have confided in you that I, too, have been the victim of some pernicious nightmares as well.”

“But you never make a sound!” Vin declared, amazed.

“Necessary defense mechanism, I assure you. If I were not able to control my emotions and contain them, my cover might be blown at a most unfortunate time.”

“I never thought of that. I did take your advise about talking to Dr. Franklin. She’s real easy to talk to. She just sat there and I was able to say what I was thinking without feeling uncomfortable.”

“I’m pleased to hear that. I shall have to make an effort to sit down with her myself. Perhaps we should head back, I think I smell steaks grilling.”

They made enough food that they could have leftovers later. No one mentioned Dr. Franklin in Buck’s presence although they all found an opportunity to talk with Vin about her. JD admitted that he was afraid to talk with her for fear she’d find something wrong with him.

An all out, no holds barred, cutthroat game of Risk sprang up after supper. Josiah had brought the game from home. It was a special edition set with metal pieces instead of plastic ones. Nathan sat out, preferring to catch up on some of the latest medical journals.

A couple of hours into the game, Vin had chased Buck’s armies until all he held was the tiny island off the coast of Africa. When he passed the dice to Chris, Buck protested.

“Come on Vin! If you’re going to wipe me out, why not just get it over with? What am I supposed to do with one little country?”

“Go get us a soda? No one else can get to you right now,” the Texan teased.

The game continued for another hour. Vin would pull back just enough men to allow Buck to take a country and then take it back from him on the next turn. It allowed each of them to draw a card in hopes of making the next trade for more armies. Nathan, tired of reading, became bartender.

The team took a break when Chris eliminated JD by taking Great Britain from him. Leaving the game on the table, they grabbed plates and warmed up the leftovers. After everyone had eaten, they returned to the game.

It was nearly midnight when Buck eliminated the last of Josiah’s armies, leaving only his and Vin’s on the board. The Texan tossed a coy look across the table before offering his hand.


“Oh, what the hell! Yeah, truce.”

Josiah and Chris both stared, open mouthed, before they launched into protest.

“You can’t do that!” Chris protested.

“That isn’t how the game is played, son,” Josiah reminded Vin.

The blue-eyed Texan only grinned as he swept his armies together and into a box. He then swept the other pieces into a box. Glancing around the room, Vin smiled broadly and pointed. Ezra was sitting on the couch with his feet out on the edge of the coffee table next to the game board. JD was asleep on the couch with his head resting on the southerner’s thigh and his feet in Nathan’s lap. The team medic was also asleep, his head hanging back and his mouth open.

Indulgent smiles lit the faces of the other three men as they took in the sight. Buck got up and went for the digital camera as the others sat quietly. After capturing several shots of the group, Buck set the camera aside and reached out to waken the kid.

At the light touch on his shoulder, JD bolted upright and cried out.

“Buck! NO!”

Catching the flailing arms, Buck caught the top of Ezra’s head against his chin as the southerner responded to the cry of fear from JD. Nathan also groaned as the kid kicked him in the groin. Josiah reached out to pull the medic off the couch and restrain the flailing feet of the startled young man.

JD’s eyes were unfocused and he was shaking in terror as he latched on to Buck. Ezra placed his palms on the kid’s shoulders to try to help calm him. Vin and Chris exchanged knowing glances, they knew Buck would feel guilty about being the reason for JD’s nightmares.

+ + + + + + +

It was nearly two before Chris turned out the light on his nightstand. The jolt of adrenaline from JD’s outburst had charged everyone. JD was embarrassed almost to the point of tears in spite of the words of comfort lavished on him by the others. Buck had finally retreated to the guestroom but his body language was screaming guilt.

The numbers on the clock read 3:17. It had been 3:16 an hour ago, or so it seemed to Buck. He had not been able to get JD’s cry of fear out of his mind, nor had he been able to fall asleep. In the drawer of the nightstand were now two of the little blue sleeping pills. It had been easy to palm it in front of Josiah.

His heart was pounding furiously when he wakened. The remnants of the nightmare clung to him like his sweat-soaked nightshirt. No one had ever questioned why Ezra was claustrophobic, it never really mattered.

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