by BMP

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It had taken the silent plea in the blue eyes and the earnestness in the Texas drawl to convince the nurse to call Dr. Kahar at home. She knew the doctor had had a long day. She made the call anyway. She explained that she was talking to Agent Tanner of Denver ATF. She was surprised when Kahar agreed to come back to the hospital.

She smiled at the agent when she told him Kahar was coming. He smiled at her—a nice smile, she noted—and said a quiet, courteous “Thank you.” And called her “Ma’am.”

She watched him walk off. His other friends were not all so polite.

One of them was being roughly escorted across the floor by a tall African-American man, who was shoving him toward the ER doors, berating him all the while. For his part, the one being shoved was howling his protestations, while holding a giant ice pack over the entire left side of his face.

“Dammit, Nathan!” he cried, clipping a doorframe as Nathan shoved him onward without pity.

“Dammit, nothin’,” the medic said fiercely. “You’re goin’ back there. An’ your gettin’ your face looked at. An’ you’re gettin’ it stitched from the looks of it.”

He raised another protest and was silenced.

“Then you’re gettin’ your ribs taped. And THEN,” he said, yanking the taller man firmly toward the doors by the neck. “When you look human again, we’ll tell you where they put Chris.”

“Look human again?” Buck roared, insulted.

“It’s your own damn fault,” Nathan snapped back. “Stop arguing.”

A doctor stretched out his hand and took Wilmington’s elbow. Buck twisted to glare back at Nathan, but he twisted on the wrong side and let out a yelp.

Nathan shook his head, scowling. He called after the doctor. “If you gotta give this fool stitches, make sure they’re big ones.” The door swung closed, leaving Nathan muttering to the air. “Big ugly ones. Leave a damn nasty scar. Fool,” he repeated.

He was still muttering when he returned to the waiting area and dropped into the plastic chair he had been pacing agitatedly in front of when Josiah had finally shown up with Buck.

“Stubborn, mule headed, ornery…”

He looked up to see Josiah grinning at him.

“What are you grinnin’ at?” he demanded. “You’re no better than the rest of ‘em.”

“No, Son,” Josiah agreed, slouched down in his chair, long legs splayed out before him. “Looks like we’re all alike in that regard.”

Nathan gave him a sour look and returned to his muttering, unperturbed at Josiah’s quiet mirth.

J.D. was pacing a steady line back and forth across the front of the ER doors.

“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra said finally, sifting a deck of cards impatiently through his fingers. “Would you mind taking a rest? I believe you are making the good patrons of this establishment sea sick.”

“I can’t sit,” J.D. said earnestly. “I just…” He trailed off, distractedly.

Ezra looked at J.D. closely and realized it was entirely true. My Lord, Ezra said, rolling his eyes heavenward. Sit? The boy can’t even finish a sentence. Did no one remember to keep him away from the coffee?

“Then go pace somewhere else,” Ezra suggested aloud. “Somewhere out of my line of vision.”

J.D. complied. He went to the rear of the waiting room and paced along the wall behind Ezra’s head, where the sensitive—some said paranoid—undercover agent could feel his presence, every step, back and forth. He clenched his teeth together.

“That’s splendid, Mr. Dunne. Thank you,” he said sarcastically.

J.D., who missed the sarcasm entirely, replied, “You’re welcome.”

Vin chuckled.

Ezra turned his head at the sound of it. “I’m convinced he does it on purpose,” Standish whispered confidentially.

Vin snorted, and grinned mischievously back at him.

Ezra turned back to his cards, hiding his delight that he had been able to provoke such a response from the teammate whose sharp wit had been much absent the past few weeks.

Leaning against a wall to the side, Kelly watched them. For a few short hours, he had been among them. Been one of them. Filled in a gap. But they were reclaiming their rituals now. The shared habits that bound them together as a team. He was glad to see it. Relieved. And yet it made him feel oddly homesick.

They were here waiting on Chris. Their missing piece.

He was waiting on the piece of dirt who had been willing to sacrifice a fellow agent—a damn good one—to his own ambition. Kelly had called Travis and gave him the facts, most of them anyway. Some details would serve no purpose but to stoke up the fire. He didn’t think anyone needed that right now.

Travis had then called Richter’s AD. She had thanked him for the information but had no plans to come pick her agent up. Kelly doubted that Martinez would show either. He had disappeared by the time Kelly had brought Richter down from the roof. So Travis had given Kelly the distasteful responsibility of seeing that Richter at least got home all right, that is if the hospital decided not to keep him.

Looking over at Team Seven, he hoped for Richter’s sake that the doctors would not be keeping him here overnight.

Doctor Kahar had arrived. He had nodded to the agents in the waiting room and disappeared beyond the Emergency Room doors. Team Seven relaxed visibly. And Kelly grinned. He wondered if Kahar could be transferred to Denver. Anyone who had a way with Team Seven would be of invaluable use to their local hospital.

This time, with the legal next of kin present and with the identity of the patient known, Kahar was able to get important medical history information faxed to him from Four Corners General. He was not at all surprised to hear that Agent Larabee’s file was thick enough to occupy two file folders. He smiled to himself. Agent Larabee clearly had a very interesting history.

After looking at the patient’s medical history, and at Agent Tanner’s request, Kahar went lightly on the sedatives, leaving it up to the painkillers to keep the man out for the night. The largest of the agents had smiled gently at that and said that the presence of friends was sure to do more to guarantee a peaceful night’s sleep than any drug could. Kahar was not, therefore, surprised when six ATF agents, including one with a newly bandaged face followed him up to Chris Larabee’s room. He brought them extra chairs and left instructions at the nurse’s station to let the men stay as long as they wished. He explained everything in the plainest terms he could, getting Agent Jackson’s promise to clarify anything they still didn’t understand. Then Doctor Kahar left them outside the door.

“How many stitches, Buck?” J.D. asked softly, looking at his friend’s face, and actually remembering to keep his voice down.

“One,” Buck said sourly. Then he brightened. “But the nurse told me that even if there is a scar, it’s sure to be a cute one.”

J.D. made exaggerated gagging noises.

The figure in the bed inside the room stirred softly.

They stole into the room. Each of them laying a hand carefully, almost unconsciously, on their leader.

Kelly found them like that hours later after he’d put Richter in a police cruiser, with instructions to get him settled before the cops left him. The police had promised they would. After all, to them Richter was a hero.

Now Kelly stood in the doorway and looked at the members of Team Seven, in uncomfortable chairs, all pulled up close to the bed, as if they were still assuring themselves that he was really there. J.D. Dunne slept with his head on his arms at the foot of the bed, one hand on Chris’s shin. Buck Wilmington was sprawled on three chairs, his feet propped up. The bruises that stuck out from the bandages were shiny in the lamplight. Someone had covered him with a blanket, but he would have a sore neck in the morning. His left arm and hand rested on the edge of the bed beside Chris’s. The sight of Standish sleeping at Chris’s other side made Kelly laugh softly. So neat and impeccably attired at all times. Some of his teammates—and Kelly could easily guess who—had waited until the undercover agent nodded off, then adorned his head with a hat made of folded newspaper. Kelly did not fail to notice that in sleep, one of Standish’s hands lay across Chris’s arm. And Nathan Jackson, the medic, next to Standish, chin on his chest, legs stretched under the hospital cot. One hand on the edge of the bed. Sound asleep.

Only Tanner and Sanchez were awake. Josiah sat near the head of the bed, legs crossed, reading a book under the night light. His lips were moving, and Kelly wondered whether he was reading aloud. Tanner was pulled up on the right, on the other side of Standish. Hands folded under his chin, he stared, just watching the steady, rhythmic ventilator-less rise and fall of Chris’s stomach.

Josiah looked up as Kelly stepped softly into the room. Kelly nodded silently, questioningly toward Chris.

“He’s doing okay,” Josiah replied quietly. The sleeping agents stirred. Dark blue eyes cracked open at him, then closed again, as Buck adjusted his head to a more natural position.

“Fever’s coming down already. And he’s quiet.” Josiah said, satisfaction in his voice.

Kelly smiled. “Glad to hear it. He know you’re here?”

Josiah looked over at his team leader, a smile sliding across his face. “We told him. He talked to us. But I don’t think he’ll remember.” He shrugged and smiled fondly. “Like Buck said, we’ll just keep telling him until he gets it through his hard head.”

Kelly studied the expression on the clean-shaven, sleeping face. It struck him, as it had at times in the past, how different sleeping looked than unconscious. Asleep Larabee looked relaxed. Peaceful.

“Deep down, I think he knows,” Kelly said.

Josiah nodded silently. He looked back up at Kelly, realizing again the debt they owed him. “Do you want a chair?” he asked.

“No thanks,” Kelly replied. The room was already crowded. He felt strangely awkward. The way he had felt once as a child on a camping trip when he had walked accidentally into another family’s tent.

Josiah seemed to sense his discomfort. “We owe you, Ryan,” he said quietly, seriously, his eyes lending force to his words. “We won’t ever forget it.”

He meant to say something glib, smart, cavalier, but the words stuck in his throat. He just nodded. Gave another long look at his friend, his colleague who had fought harder than hell to come back to a team that had fought harder than hell to get to him. He smiled softly to himself and then headed for the elevator, his hotel, a shower, room service, and his bed, in that order. He had no intention of getting up tomorrow until he darn well felt like it.

Darn, he noted suddenly to himself. Pleased. His language was improving already.

It took several tries, several patient explanations and re-explanations of the same information, but by mid-afternoon, Chris finally seemed to be aware of what was going on around him. Now he went to work trying to fit together the indistinct pieces of memory that floated through his brain.

Buck eyed his old friend closely, although he attempted to do it in as subtle a way as possible. Not subtle enough apparently.

“Stop it,” Chris growled.

“Stop what?” Buck grinned innocently. He couldn’t help it.

“Looking at me like that,” Chris snapped back.

At a noise from the hall, Chris shot a glance toward the door.

“They’re still here, Chris,” Buck said, still smiling. He knew Chris was looking for them, his other five agents. He had watched the green eyes take attendance every time Chris woke up since the early hours of morning. “They just have to eat, have to move, have to take care of personal matters.” He waggled his eyebrows.

“I know that,” Chris muttered irritably.

Buck was still grinning at him patronizingly. “I know,” he said. “You’ll just feel better when you can see them all together in one place.”

“Shut up,” Chris retorted. Buck was right. God knows he didn’t expect them to spend all their time here. Hell, HE didn’t want to spend any more time here. He was faintly surprised, somehow touched, to see that they had spent the entire night. It had taken him a little more time to absorb how dog tired they all looked, some falsely cheerful, some strangely silent, and he felt vaguely guilty about that, that somehow it was his fault, although he was still not sure what he had done.

He shifted uncomfortably in the bed. His head hurt. His arms and hands hurt. His chest hurt. His ribs hurt all the way around. Even the bottoms of his feet hurt, although Josiah had told him that was because he had walked barefoot over broken glass. When had he done that? And why?

He continued to take stock of the pains, the sharp shooting ones, the dull throbbing ones, the indistinct diffuse ones that spread through his insides. In the end he concluded that everything hurt. It hurt to talk, hurt to breathe. It even hurt to think too hard.

Well then, he counseled himself in a voice that sounded strangely like Buck, just take the painkillers. But he couldn’t bring himself to do so because more than anything, he desperately wanted the fuzziness to clear out of his brain, so he could start to feel like himself.

Buck knew that Chris was already trying to figure things out. Could tell from the pinching at the edges of his eyes, a frown here and there, and most tellingly the way he had cocked his head slowly to one side, as J.D. had tried lamely to tell a truly terrible joke. Buck wanted to smack the kid upside the head. He had told him to act natural, not pretend that everything was dandy.

As for Buck, he was doing his best to slow Chris down. He had banned Josiah’s newspaper from the room, from the vicinity, from the floor if possible, and he told the nurses that no one was to bring newspapers to Larabee’s room. They hadn’t even really had a chance to talk to him about what happened yet. Buck sure as hell didn’t want him reading about his own miraculous resurrection—or worse yet, ATF Agent Matthew Richter’s stunning capture of four militia men and the subsequent release of information leading to the confiscation of another large cache of weapons early this morning.

Chris had yet to completely absorb the idea that nearly three full weeks of time were missing from his memory. Winter had ended and spring had come since Chris had been unconscious. Even in Denver. But the change was more pronounced here in Texas. It was not lost on Chris. And Buck’s heart hurt to glimpse the brief bewilderment that flashed across his friend’s features when he looked out the sunny window for the first time and saw flowers lining the courtyard walkways.

He had yet to be told what Team Seven had been up to in his absence.

The sounds of cheerful banter came up the hallway, accompanied by an irascible crack that elicited irritated commentary from someone with a southern drawl. Buck saw the recognition and relief cross Chris’s face even before J.D., Ezra, and Vin appeared in the door. J.D. and Vin were grinning. Ezra rolled his eyes, but couldn’t hide the smile that broke over his face.

“Good Lord, Mr. Larabee,” said the southerner with mock astonishment. “They have let you sit up.”

“Progress, Ezra,” Chris returned. His voice was still rough and his throat still felt like he had swallowed ground glass, but at least his brain felt like it was beginning to catch up.

Buck passed him a cup of ice chips.

Ezra looked like he wanted to say something else, but then his face closed up again and the moment slid away.

“Hell Cowboy, you look a sight better than you did when we left,” Vin said, swatting Chris on the leg as he entered the room.

J.D. gasped softly at the sound of the smack.

Chris’s eyes flicked to his youngest agent. “I’m not going to break, J.D.” he said with the barest of smiles.

J.D. flushed. “I know that,” he said covering his embarrassment.

Chris’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he returned his gaze to Vin.

“Besides,” Vin drawled, a toothy smart-ass grin lighting up his features. “Even half outta yer head, ya seemed to have no trouble takin’ on Texas’s finest. Course ya did put yer arm through a glass cabinet.”

Chris’s gaze flicked down to his bandaged arm and the stitches in his knuckles.

Buck swore silently to himself. Great, Tanner. Now we gotta explain that. Chris looked back over at Buck as if he had heard the thought. Probably did, Buck thought sourly. It was hell having a boss who knew him inside and out.

Chris was still looking at him.

Damn, Stud, he thought. I don’t think you’re ready for the whole story.

The blond head was cocked thoughtfully to one side, and Buck knew if he didn’t start telling Chris something that Chris would just ask J.D. And J.D., being honest, and not having the sense to know any better, would just tell Chris everything. Whether Chris was ready to hear it or not. He took a deep breath.

“J.D.,” he said cheerfully. “Can you go get me a really big coffee? Chris an’ me are gonna have a talk.”

The young agent looked hurt. He was being dismissed. He glared at Buck. No, not dismissed. Shielded. Again. And that bothered him even more.

“Sure, Buck,” he said with false cheer and turned to leave.

Ezra muttered a quick, “I’ll join you,” and hurried out on J.D.’s heels.

Chris frowned, puzzled. “You leavin’, too?” he asked Vin.

“Hell, no,” Vin said, perching backwards on a chair. “It’s a good story. Lotsa suspense. Tragedy. You oughtta hear the whole thing some time.”

Buck shot him a truly dirty look.

But Chris had heard the anger in Tanner’s voice. He stared at him, tried to fathom it out.

Buck cleared his throat and Chris turned toward him. “I’ll just give you the highlights,” he said. “Then later on, you can ask questions and we’ll try to fill in the details. All right?”

No, it wasn’t all right. But it was the best offer he was likely to get. He could continue working on fitting the pieces together afterward. And, he reminded himself, if all else failed, he could always ask J.D.

“Good,” Larabee said, looking over at Buck. “You can start with what happened to your face.”

“Got in a fight,” Buck said simply and began to fill Chris in.

Buck was good. Vin had to give him that. He listened to him deftly, glibly, humorously glide right over the part where the whole team thought Chris was dead. And then sail smoothly right on to the part where they found out he wasn’t. Buck was good, all right, but no one was THAT good.

“Stop,” Chris said suddenly, holding up his hand.

“What?” Buck asked innocently, attempting to resume where he had left off.

Chris gave him an exasperated look.

Further words died in Buck’s throat. He looked at Vin for an escape.

“Don’t look at me, Bucklin, the Texas sharpshooter responded sourly. You think you know how to handle Chris. You handle him.

Sure, Buck thought, staring daggers at the blue-eyed Texan. Tell him how he put his arm through a glass cabinet; then clam up on me. Thanks for nothin’ Junior.

The two glared at each other over top of Larabee’s bed.

Chris looked from one to the other. “Back up,” he said quietly, rubbing his forehead, where yet another dull ache had begun to blossom. He looked up again at their faces. “You thought I was dead?”

Buck and Vin exchanged a look that passed so quickly Chris hardly had time to read it, but the sentiment was plain as day. Chris’s whole body stiffened.

Buck cleared his throat. “We don’t have to do this now,” he said softly.

He ought to have known better.

Anger flashed through Chris’s eyes. “Now, Buck,” he snapped.

Vin looked away at the wall.

Buck sighed. There was no escape and no hope of rescue. Best just to give in. “We thought you were dead,” he said simply, honestly.

Chris’s piercing gaze tried to read the eye that wasn’t swollen almost shut. Vin wouldn’t even face him.

“Who told you that?” Chris demanded, his anger rising.

“No one told us that,” Buck snapped back, more harshly than he intended. He heard his next words but couldn’t stop himself. “You never came out of the warehouse. It blew up. Killed a hundred people. We waited around for six hours till they brought us your stuff.”

The blood drained from Chris’s face. “My stuff?”

“You know,” Vin said icily. “Your melted badge. Your mangled gun. Your vest.”

“Vin,” Josiah warned from the doorway.

Chris’s head snapped up. They were there. They were all there. He hadn’t heard them arrive. He stared up at them, white-faced. Mouth open. He struggled to speak, but Tanner was just picking up steam.

“Vin, nothin’,” Vin snapped back at Josiah, suddenly furious. “He wants the story. Here’s the story.” He turned back to Chris, his eyes blazing like Chris had never seen. “They found your badge and gun underneath the burnt up body of the guy who was wearing your vest and your coat. We identified all the pieces. We took your badge and gun home in an envelope.”

“We super-glued your door shut,” Ezra offered, hoping to derail what was clearly a train-wreck in the making.

Buck shot the undercover agent a grateful look, but the comment accomplished only one of its intended effects: Tanner halted. Then he got a good full look at the horrified expression on Chris’s face, swore twice and fled the room.

“Vin!” Chris called, lurching forward to grab Tanner’s arm, a shirt tail anything. But all he succeeded in doing was stretching his bruised and cracked ribs. He swore, swore again, and flung his cup of ice chips at the wall, sending stabbing pains through his whole left side. “Fucking stupid,” Chris cursed furiously, curling up into a ball. “Goddamn fucking idiot.”

“Great idea, Buck!” J.D. snapped, flying to Chris’s side. Talking softly.

Buck threw himself out of his chair, ran his hand over the side of his face without the bruises, then turned and kicked his chair to the wall.

Nathan knelt beside J.D. He was asking Chris if he wanted the nurse. Chris shook his head, squeezing his eyes closed against the pain. Nathan gestured to Ezra to get the nurse anyway.

“I’ll do it,” Buck spat. “This was my brilliant idea. I’ll get the nurse.”

“Let Ezra do it,” Josiah said calmly, gripping Buck’s arm firmly. “One of you two story-tellin’ fools has got to stay here.”

Buck stared at Josiah like he had three heads. Josiah nodded his head at Chris. “You don’t think it’s Tanner he’s cursing out over there, do you?”

Buck looked at Chris again and saw the guilt written all over his pain-wracked features.

“Shit,” Buck said, getting his breathing under control, his face twisting over with his own guilt. “Guess we’re both a couple of fucking idiots.”

The nurse made Chris take the painkillers this time. The only choice he had was how he wanted them. She settled him back into the bed, spoke a few reassuring words and shot a warning glance at each of the six men in the room before she left again.

“Jesus,” Chris said again, his eyes still tightly closed. The virulent stream of curses had stopped, interrupted by Chris’s unwillingness to vent his rage in front of the nurse. He pressed his bandaged hands against his forehead as if he were trying to hold his head together. The green eyes opened and he looked at his men. “I fucked up, didn’t I?”

It was supposed to be an apology. Not much of one, he knew, but he had to start somewhere. Figure out how to make it right. It came back to him that he could never make it right. His stupidity was so obvious that he could not understand the blank looks of disbelief they gave back to him.

He dragged the hands down over his eyes.

Ezra frowned. “Well, I don’t know,” he said finally, breaking the dumbfounded silence. “I suppose that depends on what it is you think you did.”

Buck looked up at the undercover agent and over at Chris.

J.D. was in the doorway, looking like he wanted to flee, but standing his ground.

Nathan was perched on the bed and Josiah had resumed his chair, protectively settled at Chris’s head.

“How exactly do you think you failed us?” Josiah asked, gently removing both hands from Chris’s face. But his own hand remained lightly on Chris’s head. He watched discreetly, as Chris struggled to hide the shame that glimmered in the green depths of his eyes.

J.D. spoke up. His voice trembled slightly, from anger or sorrow, Buck couldn’t tell. “Who was the guy? How did he get your jacket and gun?”

Chris rolled his eyes upward toward the wall behind him, encountered Josiah there and rolled them quickly away. There was nowhere to hide. Time to face the music. He owed them that much.

“Let me up, Josiah,” he said quietly. An order. Josiah lifted his hand, and Nathan helped him adjust the head of the bed back up to a sitting position.

He looked at each of them. Wished Tanner had returned. He didn’t want to have to say this twice. He bit off his pride. He’d say it as many times as he had to. For what he now knew he’d done to them, it was a small price to pay.

“He was one of the militiamen,” Chris said, taking a deep breath. He rushed the words out, partly to get them out before the painkillers knocked him back to la la land, and partly just to get them into the air, so his men could do what they wanted after that. “Right after I ordered you out, they started to break ranks. I knew something was up, so I stuck tight behind a crate and tried to figure it out. Some of the militia lines began to break and run. There were no cops, no agents anywhere in sight and they were running for the doors. That’s when I knew it was going to be bad. I decided to just make a break for it, when suddenly there’s this guy in my face. I never even saw him coming—then suddenly there he is, screaming at me to hand over my vest and jacket. My badge and gun.”

“So you gave them to him,” J.D. said in shocked disbelief.

“Well no,” Chris said, awkwardly. “First he knocked me into a stack of crates and cracked my head on the concrete floor. Then I played possum and let him have whatever he wanted.”

J.D. continued to stare, open mouthed.

Chris swore to himself again. He couldn’t expect them to understand. “My gun was empty. I couldn’t shoot my way out. If he thought he could get by the ATF in disguise, he could try. I figured you guys would know he wasn’t me, as soon as someone notified you.” He stopped, his tongue growing heavy. “Only I guess it didn’t happen that way.”

“How did you escape?” Nathan asked. Chris hadn’t said it, but he had looked at the charts. He knew enough to piece together a good part of the story. He knew that Chris had acquired his two bullet holes well before he tried to leave the warehouse. Well before Pirelli and Walsh had found him. The militia had had access to armor piercing bullets. The Kevlar had little effect but to slow one bullet slightly. Still it had been close enough range to go right through him. The other bullet, a different kind and caliber never even touched his vest, slamming into his unshielded right arm and taking out a chunk of bone and muscle. The militiaman had found Chris wounded and fought him for the disguise he thought would save him. He had left Chris on the floor to die.

Chris yawned, as the painkillers started to take effect. “When he left, I took his camouflage jacket. Figured if it would work for him, it might work for me. Figured I could identify myself as soon as I got picked up. Then I saw the rocket launcher, so I dove for the nearest concrete bunker. Turned out to be the dumpsters.”

They stared at him. No one said anything for several minutes.

He felt himself beginning to drift. “It was night by the time I woke up. You know the rest,” he finished lamely.

Right, Nathan thought bitterly. For six hours we stood around doing nothing, while you were lying bleeding under a dumpster. And when you finally did walk out of there, you got yourself beat up. And you think you failed us?

“Damn, Stud,” Buck said quietly.

Chris didn’t look up, afraid to meet their eyes, expecting recrimination for the apparent havoc his last ditch and totally unethical escape plan had caused.

Josiah shifted in his chair and scratched his head. “Let me see if I understand this. You let the guy have your empty gun, badge, and vest, so you could get out of the way of an incoming missile. That about right?”

The tiniest smile of irony tugged at Larabee’s lips. “Yeah,” he said, his eyes drifting closed. He knew what Josiah was trying to do. He was grateful.

He did not see the long look the others exchanged. But Ezra’s words echoed in his brain as the painkillers sent him drifting away.

“My dear Mr. Larabee,” his problematic undercover agent said with quiet wonder. “At long last, you have developed an instinct for self-preservation.”

The first words he heard on awakening in the late afternoon were “I oughta kick your ass.”

He cracked his eyes open. Tanner was standing over him, hands on hips.

“Probably wouldn’t be too hard right about now,” Chris cracked back, the words garbled by the wad of cotton he was sure someone had stuffed in his mouth while he was sleeping. The pain had dulled to a muffled ache. Still everywhere. But distant.

Tanner glared at him. “Ain’t you even gonna ask why?” he said, sounding sort of disappointed.

“Okay. Why?” Chris asked still feeling a little fuzzy.

“The boys told me your side of the story,” Vin replied, still angry.

Oh, that’s why, Chris thought. He struggled to sit up to resume his attempt at an apology. Or so Tanner could kick his ass. Either one.

Vin put a hand in the center of his chest and pushed him back down, pinned him with the blue-eyed glare. “Surviving ain’t fucking up.”

The force of the words hit him. He looked up at the angry eyes. Not angry, he decided. Frightened. Fierce.

“I must have put you through hell,” Chris replied quietly, earnestly.

“Pirelli, Richter, and the militia put us all through hell,” Tanner snapped back. “They just took you along for the ride.”

Chris laughed at that, ended up in a spasm of coughing, and Vin thrust a cup of water with a straw into his hands.

“Besides,” Tanner said with an ironic grin. “I reckon you ain’t gonna be too happy with us when Buck gets around to telling you what else happened while you were away.”

Chris raised a questioning eyebrow.

Tanner grinned and remained resolutely silent.

Vin took the cup back and Chris’s eyes drifted slowly closed again, pulled him toward sleep. As he drifted off, he marveled at the forgiveness his team had given him. Again.

Later, in the early evening, he enjoyed a blessed hour to himself. He was feeling more like himself now. And had already begun quietly pumping his agents for information. Separately. Carefully. He had talked to Ryan Kelly. Had even gotten Kelly to give him a copy of the ‘squelched’ police report detailing his own assault. With his wits about him now, he hid the police report under his pillow and cajoled his agents into going to dinner somewhere reasonably nice. He promised not to get up. Promised not to do anything stupid. Even promised to call a nurse and take his medicine if he felt pain or just felt like crap. He had J.D.’s cell phone on his nightstand. They swore they’d be back in an hour, two at most. He told them to relax. They all looked at him doubtfully, but in the end, they went.

So far, he’d been very good. Except for the meds, but dammit, he couldn’t think with that crap fogging up his brain. And he needed to put the pieces of his memory together. At least now he remembered how he managed to put his hand through a glass pharmacy cabinet and why he had tried to shoot another federal agent. He felt a little bit bad about it, but after considering the police report again, he decided that as long as he didn’t actually kill Pirelli, he could put that guilt aside. Besides, at the time, he had believed that Pirelli had killed his teammates. The thought made him feel cold. He shoved it back down.

The team took the two hours, but Buck came back earlier to find that someone had given Chris a small hand mirror and he was examining the bruises on the side of his face. Buck grinned at him from the doorway. The man just didn’t know how to work a good thing. He had used his own livid bruises to garner sympathy and attention from the young and attractive females on the wait staff at the restaurant.

“Hey, hardhead,” he greeted from the doorway. “See somethin’ you like?”

Chris grinned, suddenly embarrassed.

Buck sauntered in, that gangly, long-limbed walk that Chris hadn’t seen in what seemed like ages. He squinted down at the piece of paper poking out from Chris’s pillow. Chris figured out he was caught a second too late. Buck had it in his hand. Storm clouds gathered on his face as he read it. Then he glared at Chris.

“Where’d you get this?” he snapped.

“Doesn’t matter,” Chris said tiredly.

Buck glared at him for a moment more, then plopped himself down in a chair. He sighed. “So you got it all figured out yet?”

“Mostly,” Chris said. “Still got some blank spots.”

“Shoot,” Buck said, giving in.

Chris looked at him suspiciously.

Buck shrugged. “I promised you could ask.”

“What happened to Pirelli and Richter and the others?” Chris asked.

Buck was surprised that was his first question, but he answered. “Treated and released. Next.”

“What exactly have you boys been up to in my absence?”

Buck hooted with laughter. The first question was bait. This was real gold.

“Oh not much,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck ruefully. “Ran your three replacements off the floor—and probably right out of the ATF. Went AWOL. Misappropriated some surveillance equipment, dressed Ezra up as a priest, broke into Samuel Bautiste’s house, extorted information from him at gunpoint. That’s it, really.”

Chris gaped at him. “Think you might have gone a bit overboard there, Buck?”

Buck shrugged, chagrined. “It seemed reasonable at the time,” he replied.

Chris shook his head in disbelief. “Anything else I should know?”

“Yes,” Buck said brightly. “Dowd sold the rocket launchers to the militia, and Travis’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Great,” Chris said through his teeth. “Wait till he finds out I handed over my badge and gun to a known militant.”

Buck snorted. “Son, I think the ass-chewin’ will be for the rest of us. You just keep your head down.” Then he grinned. “By the way, he got your insurance reinstated and your records restored.”

“Shit,” Chris groaned, leaning his head back on the pillow. He hadn’t even thought about the paperwork involved in being declared alive again.

“Now if I can just convince that guy we sold your house to, to give it back.”

Chris’s head snapped around to look at him.

“I’m kidding, Stud,” Buck said, laughing at the horror he saw on Chris’s face. Then he sobered. “Never even read your will, actually,” he said wincing. “Couldn’t bring myself to do it. And I’m pretty sure no one else wanted to hear it either.”

It was Chris’s turn to wince.

Buck forced a cheerful grin. “Next question.”

“An easy one,” Chris said, changing the subject back.

“Good. Shoot.”

He brought the mirror back up. “Any idea how I got these bruises on my chin?”

He had meant it as a joke. He knew he had made a mistake when he saw Buck’s forced smile melt away.

“That was me,” the big man said quietly. “I was trying to get your attention.” He lifted his eyes to his old friend’s face. “I thought you were going to quit on me.”

Chris’s gut clenched at the sorrow that crossed his oldest friend’s face. “Sorry,” Larabee said, even as he realized how totally inadequate it must sound.

“Don’t be sorry,” Buck replied evenly, giving Chris’s leg a squeeze. He stared directly into his old friend’s eyes as he delivered his message. “Just believe me when I tell you that the two weeks you were dead were the worst two weeks of my life.”

Chris cocked his head to the side and regarded Buck through narrowed eyes for a moment. Buck nearly smiled. God he had missed that mind reading look.

“You did what I ordered you to do,” Chris said finally, his voice soft, gentle. “Exactly what I needed you to do. You protected the team.”

“I know,” Buck answered quietly, looking up at eyes he knew as well as his own, eyes he had long ago learned to read on account of their owner being so damn tight lipped. “But that don’t mean I didn’t hate myself for leaving you.”

Chris reached out and gripped Buck’s arm. He didn’t say anything. What could he say to answer the pain he had caused?

A shadow crossed the door. They both turned to look.

“Damn,” Buck said, astonished.

“Damn is right,” Chris grumbled back. “Who called the Air Force?”

“Travis probably.” Buck shrugged and turned to regard his friend seriously. “He had to tell him you were dead.”

Chris rolled his eyes disgustedly. Buck was not fooled. He got up from his chair.

“Don’t go,” Chris said suddenly. Almost pleading.

“Sorry, Stud,” Buck said. “You’re on your own this time.”

“Shit,” Chris swore.

There were few things on this earth that could make Chris Larabee nervous, and one of them had just arrived in the doorway.

Buck moved casually toward the door.

The tall, dark haired officer in the doorway regarded him silently with a thin-lipped grimace. An identical twin to Chris’s own.

“Wilmington,” The General said coolly, his dark eyes narrowing into a penetrating gaze.

“General,” Buck replied in kind.

“I’d like a moment alone with Christopher,” he said, in a tone that showed he was accustomed to being obeyed.

“Sure,” Buck said lightly, but the pleasantry did not reach his eyes. As he stepped toward the door, he spoke again. “Play nice,” he said, his voice low and warning.

The glare he received in return was pure Larabee, through and through.

Buck took up station next to a major outside the door.

“Why don’t you go get yourself some coffee,” the major suggested, eyeing the scruffy, battered man before him. He assumed the man was ATF. General Larabee appeared to know him.

“Don’t think so,” the man said calmly, leaning on the door frame.

The major pursed his lips, containing his irritation. “The General specifically asked for privacy. It’s his son. Surely you can respect that.”

The agent’s smile was anything but pleasant. He leaned forward to squint at the Major’s nametag, and gave a flick to the gold braid that marked the major as the General’s aide. “Major Swann,” he replied. “You watchdog your Larabee. I’ll watchdog mine.”

They fell into stony silence, watching the identical profiles, alike except for their hair and eyes. Those Chris got from his mother.

General Matthew Larabee grimaced as he regarded his battered middle child. He was a man who prided himself on being able to handle the most difficult situations. He had fathered seven children, raised six to adulthood. Had served his country with pride. Had fought wars. Had sent men into battle and brought them home again. There was not much he looked back on in his life and regretted. But of those few things he did regret, almost all of them revolved around this one. This boy.

This one confounded him. It seemed no matter how he tried, he couldn’t seem to bridge the gaps. Gaps he wasn’t even sure how he created. Or when. He watched Christopher’s eyes slide away from him and steeled himself to try again.

“You all right?” the General asked, placing his hat on the nightstand and straightening his meticulous uniform.

“Fine,” Christopher answered automatically. He eyed the uniform and General Larabee watched the shields come down over the boy’s eyes. That look. The one that Christopher was so good at. The one that told his father absolutely nothing. He regarded his son silently.

“You all right?” Christopher asked after a moment.

“A lot better since they bothered to tell us you’re alive.”

Christopher winced and Matthew Larabee kicked himself. That was not what he wanted to say. Why he couldn’t say what he wanted to say, he would never know. He had spent almost three weeks regretting the words he had never spoken. And now he had another chance. A miraculous gift, this boy, alive again, and he still couldn’t say it. He took a breath.

“What’s with the uniform?” Christopher asked. A strangely troubled look passed across his father’s face and he recognized it.

Matthew snorted to himself. Typical with this one. Two minutes in and Christopher had nailed him already. “I can’t stay,” he said regretfully.

“Of course,” Christopher said, looking away again.

Matthew cursed to himself. “I can’t tell you what’s going on, but believe me I’d rather be here.”

Christopher nodded and looked back up at him with those green eyes. His mother’s eyes. Matthew swallowed. He’d missed those eyes.

“Take care of yourself, old man,” Christopher said quietly. Releasing him. Letting him go.

Matthew smiled. He reached out and touched his son’s face. Flicked back a stubborn lock of blonde hair. “Get a haircut,” he said fondly, a lump in his throat.

A corner of Christopher’s mouth quirked up into an almost smile.

The General paused. Licked his lips. And opened his mouth to speak. Then his aide’s cell phone rang.

“Dammit,” The General barked, whirling toward the door.

“Sir,” said the aide, covering the phone. “We have to go.”

“Can’t this wait?” General Larabee snapped. But he already knew the answer, or his aide wouldn’t have spoken.

“Duty calls,” Christopher said, a smirk twisting up his lip and twisting up his father’s gut. He knew this boy too well.

“I’ll call you,” the General promised.

Christopher nodded. And Matthew saw that his son didn’t believe him at all. He regretted suddenly every moment the Air Force had stolen from him. Every moment he should have spent with this child instead. Every moment he would never get back.

He turned and walked out the door, feeling Buck Wilmington’s eyes on him. The General glared at the mustached agent. He wanted to tell him off. Wanted to tell him he didn’t understand what it was like. To mind his own business. Instead he put out his hand. “Take care of him,” the General said.

“I always do,” Buck Wilmington replied, taking the proffered hand.

“I know,” General Larabee said quietly. “And thank you.”

Buck nodded. He watched the General go. They were so alike, he and Chris. Yet they couldn’t seem to reach each other at all.

“You okay, Stud?” Buck asked coming back into the room.

Chris shrugged indifferently. “Same shit, different day.”