by BMP

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J.D. chose that moment to make his entrance, thumbing his finger back down the hallway and then whirling to look again himself. “Did you see…? Was that…?”

“An Officer of the United States Air Force?” Standish interrupted him. “Why yes. I believe it was.”

J.D. gave him a dirty look.

“Tall guy? Looked just like Chris?” Vin asked.

“More stars and gold braid,” Nathan said thoughtfully.

“And the hair was wrong.” Josiah added teasingly.

You saw him, too? Chris thought acidly, smirking at his own joke. Guess it wasn’t my imagination then.

J.D. ignored his teammates’ teasing. “Chris, your father’s an Air Force general?” he asked astonished. Did they all know this? Should he have known this?

He missed the look that flashed across Chris’s face before he buttoned up his expression.

“Yep,” Chris said easily, aware that Buck was regarding him with narrowed eyes. “Stars and everything.”

“Cool,” J.D. said, grinning. “Where’s he going?” He wondered why Buck was glaring at him.

“Duty calls,” Chris answered, forcing a smile.

Buck’s second glare stopped J.D. from asking when the general was coming back.

Ryan Kelly had come by to say goodbye. He was taking a late flight back home and was looking forward to spending the night in his own bed. He gripped Chris’s bandaged right hand in his own, and smiled down at him.

“Now,” Kelly said sternly, “if you get into trouble between now and when they finally kick you out of here, you know which team to count on to find you and save your ass.” He smirked.

“I know which team can find me,” Chris said, with a smirk of his own. “But their damn team leader keeps losing me.”

“Shutup, Larabee,” Kelly growled, but couldn’t hide his grin. “I’ll tell the boys they saved your bacon.”

Chris still smirked, but it turned serious at the corners. “Tell ‘em I owe ‘em a round at the Saloon.”

Kelly’s grin grew broader. “That’s good,” he said. “’Cause you been buying the drinks since I called them last night.”

Chris laughed. He’d best hurry home or that was going to be one hell of a bar tab.

Kelly released his hand. “See you.”

Chris nodded. “Thanks,” he said, but his expression conveyed his gratitude far more eloquently than words ever could.

“Anytime,” Kelly said and meant it.

He shook hands with the rest of Team Seven as he went out the door, bag in hand. They watched him go then slumped back into the room, taking the chairs they had sat in all day, as if their spots were reserved. Buck at his right. Vin at his left. Josiah at his head. Ezra farther down his left side. Nathan off the right side at his feet, where he could watch all the equipment, read the chart, and keep an eye on everyone’s behavior, but especially Buck’s and Chris’s. He thought he was being subtle. No one was fooled. And finally, J.D., smack at the foot of the bed, where he stifled a yawn and put his head down on his arms, folded at the edge of the mattress.

Chris looked at them appraisingly. “Now what do I have to do to get rid of the rest of you?” he asked.
Buck gave him an exaggerated hurt look.

“Seriously,” Chris said. “You all look like hell. If Buck spends another night in that chair, he’s going to end up in traction.” He glanced down at J.D., who still had his head on his arms. He shook his head and added. “And J.D.’s liable to get an accidental boot to the head.”

J.D.’s head popped up. “I’ll move,” he offered quickly and scooted his chair back a foot.

Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head again. He looked to Vin.

Vin caught his look, and grinned that infuriating smart-ass grin back at him. Still he did as he was silently requested.

“I think what Chris is tryin’ to say,” Vin drawled, “is ‘Thanks boys for savin’ my sorry hide and hangin’ out all day keepin’ your grouchy ol’ boss company. Now why don’t you put yourselves up at a nice hotel and get some sleep’. That about right?” he said, smirking at Larabee.

“Just about,” Chris said, smirking right back at him, and thanking him as silently as he had made the request.

Tanner lifted one eyebrow slightly as he stood, as if to say “It’s nothing.” “Besides,” he said yawning thickly as he stretched his aching back. “These chairs are getting a mite hard.”

Buck shook his head at the unspoken exchange, and couldn’t help his smile. He wondered if Chris had any idea how long it had been since they had seen Tanner’s smart-ass smile. He wondered if Tanner had any idea how much they’d missed it. Knowing Tanner, probably not.

“But somebody oughta stay here,” J.D. said worriedly, breaking into Wilmington’s thoughts.

Buck rubbed his neck and eyed Chris thoughtfully. “Kid,” he said finally. “The militia isn’t after him. Richter’s learned his lesson. We don’t have any enemies in Texas—who know about us anyway.” He gave Chris another close look. “I think he can manage tonight.”

“But…,” J.D. protested. He looked around for support and his eyes fell on Ezra.

Ezra shrugged and drawled indifferently. “If knowing that Mr. Larabee has a loyal guard will help our young friend to sleep peacefully, then I believe I can sacrifice the pleasures of a motel mattress of dubious cleanliness as well as the stereophonic delights of Messrs Sanchez and Jackson’s synchronized snoring.”

Chris cocked his head to one side and skewered Ezra with a knowing look.

Ezra wore his indifferent mask to perfection.

“You’ll stay, Ezra?” J.D. asked, with obvious relief.

He raised his eyebrows. “I believe that’s what I said. Is it not?”

J.D. ignored the dig. “You’re sure?” the young agent pressed.

Ezra shrugged. The perfect picture of nonchalance.

It didn’t escape Chris’s notice, though, as first Vin, then Buck, then Nathan and Josiah, too, each touched the undercover agent’s shoulder as they filed out of the room.

Ezra noted, however, that Chris was still staring sideways at him, when the silence fell over the room. He cleared his throat.

Chris cocked one eyebrow. “Drew the short straw? Or couldn’t stand to leave me?”

Standish rolled his eyes. “Please, Mr. Larabee,” he scoffed, painstakingly straightening cuffs that still looked pressed despite the long day. He looked back up at Chris with an expression of disdain. “Have you ever shared a room with either Nathan or Josiah? One of them could wake the dead. Both together defy description.”

Chris grinned. He knew from experience that for once, the southerner was not exaggerating.

Shortly afterward, the long day took its toll. For the second time in two days, Ezra sat beside Chris’s bed and watched his team leader sleep. Ezra knew the day had worn Chris out. Too many visitors. Too much talking. Too much trying to piece together what had happened to him and to the team while he had been unconscious. Most of all, too much pretending that he was made of some indestructible, bullet-proof alloy and therefore felt perfectly fine.

God forbid anyone worry on your account, right Mr. Larabee? he thought acidly.

Chris’ s fever was up again slightly, which had made Nathan purse his lips in that too serious way, but the medic had held his tongue. And Ezra was glad. Otherwise they might never have left. And Ezra agreed with Chris. They needed to go, if not for their own sakes, then for Chris’s and if not for Chris’s sake, then Ezra just wanted them to go.

He was damn tired and grateful for the silence that fell over the room after they left. It wasn’t the talking that he thought of as noise, so much as the presence of them. The commotion they created even when they said nothing or hardly moved. The messages in the silences, the thoughts revealed on their faces. Navigating their fears, and their personal space. It was all too close. Too close when he was about to leave them.

Without conscious thought, his eyes swept the room, inspected Chris, fell on his face. Relaxed. Sleeping quietly, comfortably. Ezra smiled slightly since there was no one there to see him. Who would have thought that last night, in a hard plastic chair, slumped over crookedly against another person’s hospital bed would be the best sleep he’d had in weeks? And when he had seen Vin and Buck, in the early light, in equally awkward poses, he had seen the peace on their faces, too.

He knew the reason. Everyone on the team knew the reason. His lips twisted up into a grim smile as he regarded Chris. Well, almost everyone. The reason was they were together, complete, whole. Invincible once more. He had felt the bonds close around him, as they learned again how to joke, how to poke at each other’s sensitive spots without fear that the team would break. He had felt them each relax joyfully into familiar patterns. Felt them tug him comfortably back as they fell back into place.

It left a desolate hole in the center of his heart.

He had always felt that he had a special relationship with Luck. She was a fickle mistress, he knew, but it seemed she had always reserved her special regard for him. Still, sometimes her cruelty staggered him.

A scant few weeks ago, the one person who had given Ezra purpose and direction beyond himself, beyond material gain, who had looked at him and seen some mysterious potential, who had given him a second chance when he deserved none, died. Dramatically. In a proverbial blaze of glory. Taking with him forever, that sharp gaze that dared Ezra to do better—to be better—that bespoke its owner’s faith in him. Lost forever, the surprise of finding himself—even unwillingly—rising to the challenge. Terminated with vicious finality the secret he shared with no one—his childish joy whenever that same green-eyed gaze said silently but certainly, I knew you could. So in a moment of blind, burning, self-pity, Ezra had thrown it all—his career, his new-found friendships, his own sense of self-preservation, all that had been his life in Denver—on the funeral pyre beside his friend and his leader. Destroyed by his own hand. A fitting monument.

Then suddenly, miraculously, Fate had changed her mind. Death had opened its gaping, greedy jaws and spat Chris Larabee back out. Thrown him back into the waiting circle of his team, ready to resume, pick up where they left off, go along on the course they were charting together. All Ezra would have had to do was simply pick up his share of the load and resume the journey.

But Ezra had burned the bridge that would carry him safely back to them. He cursed the resignation he had written in anger. He thought briefly about begging Travis to take him back. But he knew that the manner in which he had resigned as well as the insulting insinuating tone he had used ensured that the brass would not take him back. Which was, perversely, exactly what he had hoped to accomplish.

Chris Larabee was dead.

Ezra’s career lay in ashes.

Only now Chris was not dead.

Absently, Ezra passed a deck of cards through his hands. The words came unbidden to his brain. Chris’s words: “Don’t you ever run out on me again.” He sighed and fought down the emotion that threatened to choke him. Looks like that’s exactly what I’ve done. What the hell was Chris going to say when he found out?

The undercover agent breathed out. Practiced his poker face and wondered again, as he had so often recently, when he had let this man, these men, come to mean so much.

Vin Tanner leaned against the white plaster hotel room wall with his thumbs through his belt loops and one eyebrow cocked knowingly at Buck.

“What?” Buck said exasperatedly, pulling on a clean T-shirt. He hated that look.

Vin grinned and narrowed his eyes. “Well I can figure all right why Chris was in a hurry to get some space, but I reckon I’m still wonderin’ how you let it go so easy.”

Buck narrowed his eyes back. That Texas drawl didn’t fool him one bit. He could tell by that look on Tanner’s face that he wasn’t “wonderin’” at all. He knew darn well. Buck didn’t reply. He picked up the hotel room phone and dialed the other room.

Josiah’s deep voice answered.

“We need to have a meeting,” Buck said into the phone.

“Be right there,” Sanchez replied.

A minute or two later, Jackson and Sanchez came through the open door. They were no more surprised than Tanner had been.

“Figured it was something like that, when you agreed to give Chris some space,” Nathan said, with a sly grin.

Buck did not return the grin. He ran a hand along the back of his neck and eyed his team.

J.D., seated on one of the double beds looked up at Buck with a slight squint. “I wondered what was up,” he said grimly.

“We need to talk,” Buck said without further preamble. “Travis will be here tomorrow. And I imagine he’ll have plenty to say to us.”

“I imagine much of it will be said quite loudly,” the big profiler said philosophically.

Nathan snorted sarcastically.

Buck grimaced and looked around at his team. “Look,” he said seriously. “Whatever Travis says stays between us and him. Chris doesn’t need to know.”

It was Vin’s turn to snort. “Just how you plan to keep him out of it?”

“I don’t know,” Buck snapped irritably. “But we sure as hell need to try.”

J.D. looked up at him crookedly. “You already told him what we did. Don’t you think he’ll figure it out?”

Buck grimaced again. “Hell, yeah, I think he’ll figure it out. But we did what we did all on our own. And if Travis or the directors want to read us the riot act, that’s our tough luck. Chris don’t need to come rushing in and take a career bullet.”

The sudden uncomfortable silence made him curse the unfortunate metaphor. But it was accurate. Chris had fought long and hard for autonomy in matters of discipline, and Buck had lost track of the number of times Larabee had faced down Travis or even a director, blocking them, resisting them tooth and nail, telling them in no uncertain terms that they may suggest whatever they like, but he alone would administer discipline to his team. There was no negotiation, and his hard line stance had earned him an unpleasant reputation among members of the brass and the rank and file as well.

But Chris didn’t care about his reputation. He cared about removing obstacles that prevented his team from doing their jobs. He cared about members of his team being able to exercise their good judgment without having to worry about agency politics. And he cared about clear and unconfused lines of communication and command. He had made this abundantly clear to Buck at the outset. He had told Travis that those were his conditions, take them or leave them.

Buck was pretty certain they were either going to be fired outright, or would face one hell of a disciplinary hearing from the brass. But Buck also knew with utter certainty that nothing would get Larabee out of bed faster than finding out that his team was standing unprotected before the directors. Bullet holes, infection, exhaustion, or the devil himself, nothing would stop him from being there to redirect the fallout—most likely down onto his own head. And Buck was not about to let that happen.

On the other hand, Buck had been trained by Larabee himself, and he was not about to let his teammates take the flak for decisions he had made as de facto team leader. “I called the shots. I made the decisions. I gave the orders. Let me do the talking,” he said firmly.

“We talked about this, Brother,” Josiah said. “We were all willing to take this road with you.”

“That’s not the point,” Buck said. “There’s no reason for us all to become martyrs. We did what we did. I don’t want anyone to lie. I don’t want anyone to hide anything. But I was the team leader on this mission, and I’ll take the flak, just like Chris would.”

He glared at them, each of them. Dared them to defy him. He saw their lips press together into thin white lines of disagreement, but they held their tongues. They knew he was right. There was a chance that some of them might still salvage their careers.

As for Buck, he had no desire to lose this job. He loved law enforcement. He loved his team. But if he were honest with himself—and he usually was—he knew he had made a serious error, and he was willing to pay for it. In his position, Chris would do the same.

A small smile twisted up his lips. He was pretty sure Chris would never find himself in quite this position. Not that Chris hadn’t pulled some damn stupid stunts in his life. He had. He might well have gone AWOL on some kamikaze mission to destroy the militia, but Chris wouldn’t have allowed the rest of the team to come with him. Buck knew from long experience; Chris would have simply disappeared somewhere between one breath and the next. And, just as he was, back at that damn clinic, he would have been surprised to find that anyone had come looking for him. Hell of a tactician, but still an idiot, Buck thought, and felt a small smile curl his lips.

He was brought back to reality by J.D.’s resigned “Okay.”

The dark-haired head popped up a second later. “We’d better tell Ezra,” J.D. said suddenly.

Buck grimaced. “I’ll tell him,” he replied, hoping J.D. would be satisfied with that. And drop the subject.

For reasons Buck didn’t understand, Ezra had not told the team about his resignation. Buck hadn’t even thought he was serious, when he said he was going to resign, but something about the hard glint in the undercover agent’s eye on the day they left had made him wonder. It didn’t take long for the note of resignation to attract attention. The buzz had reached Buck’s ears soon enough. But Ezra’s career path was not high on Buck’s list of priorities at that moment, and he had ignored it. Now the fallout was clear. Now that it was too late to do anything about it.

J.D. was looking surreptitiously at his teammates for a clue.

Buck sighed. They would all find out, of course, but it was not his place to bring it up. Ezra had yet to open his mouth. Buck might have failed to prevent his career suicide, but he could at least keep what he knew in confidence until Ezra chose to reveal what he had done.

“So,” Nathan said slowly and tried to phrase his question as neutrally as he could. “Whatever they ask we answer. We take our lumps. And until this happens, we tiptoe around Chris and try to keep this a secret?” He failed to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, and, uncharacteristically, also failed to tell his brain when to shut up. “Should be easy enough,” he continued, almost as if speaking to himself, his voice growing steadily harder. “After all, we managed to keep the whole Denver ATF in the dark about our plans. It was almost two whole days before they figured out we were gone. Fooling one guy in a hospital bed shouldn’t be too hard. Even though he’s our team leader. Like he won’t take one look at Vin or J.D., or hell, at the rest of us, and know we’re lying. Maybe we should just fly back now and avoid him all together.”

Josiah stared at him. Vin and J.D. stared at him.

“Finished?” Buck asked icily.

“Maybe,” Nathan returned stonily.

“You got a better idea?” Buck growled back.

“Yeah, maybe I do,” Nathan said.

J.D. and Vin’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two. They caught each other’s glance then slowly turned back to Buck and Nathan.

“I’m all ears, Jackson,” Buck snapped.

Josiah nearly stepped forward to intervene, but at the last instant, he didn’t. He halted. He watched the exchange with narrowed eyes.

“Why don’t we just tell Chris? And if he wants to ride to the rescue, let him. It’s what he would want, and we’re sure as hell going to need it. What’s so wrong with that?” Nathan said.

Buck glared at him.

Vin’s head slowly drifted over to one side as he regarded Jackson.

“You want to drag Chris through the mud with us?” Buck accused.

“Get real, Wilmington,” Nathan retorted, his voice rising in volume and pitch. “If we get the boot, his reputation’s in the mud anyway. He’ll be The Team Leader Who Let His Team Get Fired From Under Him and Didn’t Lift a Finger to Stop It. You think anyone will remember the circumstances? You think he’ll just hire himself a new team?” He glared at Buck now. “And once the brass gets finished with us, we’ll all have to stand around while Chris rips into us for not telling him. How is your solution any better?”

“Because,” Buck started, but something happened. He didn’t finish. He knew exactly why his solution was better. His solid arguments were all lined up. They died in his throat under the overriding truth that had suddenly popped into his brain. He glared hotly at Nathan and his hands balled up into fists.

“Because,” Josiah said softly, interceding, at last, his hand on Nathan’s shoulder, but his eyes coming to rest on Buck. “Because he protected us. Because we retreated and left him behind. Because we lost him. And now we have him back. Now it’s our turn to protect his career like we should have protected him back at that warehouse.”

Buck swallowed hard. That was why.

Vin turned his blue-eyed gaze to the wall. “I agree with Bucklin,” he said quietly.

Nathan glared around at all of them. “Bunch of damn fools with a martyr complex,” he grumbled.

Josiah gave the shoulder a squeeze. Nathan jerked away. “I heard you,” he snapped. “I just don’t know that it’s the best tactic.”

Unbidden, J.D.’s memory skipped back to the warehouse. He heard Chris’s last order in his headphones. Heard him order the team to retreat. The best tactic under the circumstances. J.D. hadn’t fully understood the consequences of that “best tactic”. Not until he had faced Buck’s sleepless nights. Until he had watched his team disintegrate. Until he had begun to understand what had passed from his own life. It was easy to forget it now that it was over.

He blinked back a sudden stinging in his eyes. Relieved that no one had seen. “I’m with Buck, too,” he said, his voice steady, mature, even to his own ears.

Nathan bit back the urge to mutter a sarcastic “Surprise!” He turned to Josiah, his only source of support, but saw immediately in his friend’s eyes that he stood alone. He shook his head at the floor. “If you guys would rather piss off Chris Larabee, just so you can face the brass alone, then there’s no help for you,” he said.

A moment of silence went by. Nathan felt his teammates’ eyes upon him.

“You with us?” Buck asked quietly.

“All for one. One for all,” Nathan said. “And all that other crap that’s only going to get me into more trouble.”

Josiah smiled grimly and whispered quietly, “You and the rest of us, Brother.”

Buck nodded, taking in all of them with his eyes.

“We’d best hit the hay,” he said as he dismissed them. “I have a feeling we’ll need to be sharp tomorrow.”

It was surprisingly early when Chris began to stir. It took him a few tries to get his eyes open. Then it took a minute to focus. When he did focus, he wasn’t sure he shouldn’t just go back to sleep again.

He regarded the figure of Orin Travis, looking as disheveled as the rest of the team had. He sat beside the bed, the gray light of early morning reflecting off his gray clothes, his gray face. Everything about him seemed gray, as if the color had leaked out of the world while Chris was sleeping.

Chris glanced once around the room. Where was Ezra? Had he left during the night? Knowing Ezra, he had had the instinct and foresight to just disappear the second he scented Travis somewhere on the floor. Chris hoped so. He hoped Travis hadn’t had a chance to talk to Standish first, or any other member of the team. At least not before Chris had had a chance to gauge his temper or how much he actually knew about what the Team had been doing. From the grim set of Travis’s face, he knew things were not good.

“Hey,” he managed finally through his dry throat.

Travis gave a small start, and then turned his eyes to meet Chris’s gaze. He gave what he evidently thought was a cheerful smile as he returned the greeting. But cheerful smiles don’t generally turn the eyes down at the corners. Chris regarded him thoughtfully.

“You look terrible,” Travis said lightly.

“You don’t look so hot yourself,” Chris replied, still staring at him piercingly.

“Turn down the eye beams, son,” Travis said with the barest of smiles. “I didn’t come to talk shop. I came to see how you are.”

Regret flashed across Chris’s face. He had not considered Travis’s position. He swallowed. “Heard you had to call The General,” he said.

Travis rolled his eyes. “Yes, a pleasant experience.”

Chris laughed and coughed. He reached across to the cup that sat on a nearby tray. Orin handed it to him, and while Chris’s attention was momentarily fixed on not spilling on himself, eyes that had too much practice at this sort of thing took in the Team Leader’s condition. Thin, Travis thought, seeing how much weight had fallen from the already lean frame. He thought back on his own son, another law enforcement officer, who had given his life in the line of duty.

He looked up to see the green eyes watching him. Caught in the act.

“I’ll be all right,” Chris said.

Travis nodded. “So says your doctor.”

Chris nodded back, seemed satisfied. He let a moment slide by, “They’ll be all right,” he said.

Travis nodded, his lips tight. We’ll see, he thought grimly.

Chris continued to look at him. He understood why new recruits whispered that Larabee could read minds.

He reached out and placed a hand on Chris’s leg, changing the subject. He didn’t even try to be subtle. “Mary sends her regards,” he said. “And Billy does, too.”

That wasn’t exactly what Mary had said. She would have to deliver her exact message herself. She had had hot words for her father-in-law when he had told her Chris was dead. Angry at Chris for not fighting harder. When he had told her that Chris had somehow survived, tears sprang into her eyes. She turned away, embarrassed that the AD should see his tough, newspaper reporter daughter-in-law, stoic widow of his murdered son, shed tears for someone she only admitted to a professional association with. Travis knew better. They were not exactly friends, Chris and Mary; in fact they bickered like cats and dogs, but somewhere between them was a stubborn spark of mutual caring. It didn’t hurt either that Billy was crazy about Chris.

The mention of Travis’s daughter in law and her little boy drew a faint smile from the team leader. Remembering suddenly his promise to his small grandson, Travis reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. Two other sheets fell out with it. He handed the drawing to Chris, but he put the other two papers back in his pocket.

Chris unfolded the childish drawing done in crayon. Navigating the awkward spelling, it bore the message “Get well soon. Your friend, Billy.” It had a house, a tree, and a horse on it. Two stick figures, a tall one and a small one looked to be riding the horse. Both were blond. He couldn’t help but smile, even as his heart turned back to another child’s awkward spelling and the way he drew horses on everything. “Thanks,” Chris said quietly.

“You’re welcome, son,” Travis said, giving his leg a pat. He slid his chair around to look Chris full in the face. “Now,” he said more forcefully. “You’re to do what the doctor says. That’s a direct order. Got it?”

A devilish smirk that lit up his whole face was Chris’s only reply. It was the same smirk he wore when he made the down payment on the telephones. Travis shook his head. He should have known. He smiled despite himself. The smirk told him more clearly than any doctor’s report that Chris would truly be all right.

“Come home soon,” Travis said quietly. “But take your time coming back to work.”

Chris nodded. He could see in the Judge’s gray face that the last few weeks had taken its toll on him, too. He wondered how much flak he had taken from the directors. But the AD didn’t seem so much angry as unhappy. That was probably bad. Angry might be righteous indignation. Might mean he’d go to the brass and tell them they were wrong. Angry might also mean that he was ready to rip right into the boys as soon as they set foot on the floor. Get it over with. Unhappy was worse. Deeper somehow, and it signaled a more deep-seated problem. It would take longer to resolve.

A short time later, after small talk had worn Chris out without telling him anything useful, as the AD was leaving, Chris wondered if Travis’s unhappiness had anything to do with the papers that had fallen out of his pocket. Chris had not had time to read anything, but he had recognized Ezra’s neat script signature at the bottom of one page. He made a note to himself that he was going to have to get the details out of Buck and soon. He needed to know exactly what they had done. What the brass knew and what they didn’t know. Otherwise how would he plan out a strategy for deflecting the fallout?

He did not know he had been outflanked.

Chris Larabee’s early awakening had given Travis just the opportunity he needed. He was waiting for them when they stepped off the elevator. They pulled up short, but he had to give them credit. They hesitated only a moment before Buck took his place at the front and they came to stand before him. Only five, though. Standish was curiously absent.

“Missing someone?” Travis asked. His tone was icy. He hadn’t meant it to be, not at the outset, but his irritation had risen in full force as he had recognized their bantering voices before the elevator door even opened.

They did not flinch at his question. Nor did they feign ignorance. He had expected no less of them.

“Ezra’s around here somewhere,” Buck answered evenly, no hint of fear or hostility evident in his tone.

Travis let out a grim sigh. “You’d better come with me,” he said, a stern gaze resting briefly on each member of his wayward team. “All of you,” he said for emphasis.

He requested and was given directions to a meeting room that was currently unoccupied. The five members of Team Seven followed him into the room. He closed the door.

After the initial reaming, the meeting was civil. They heard him out. Then they let Buck do most of the talking. They volunteered nothing, neither details, nor apologies, nor excuses. Unless asked a question directly, they deferred to Wilmington. And Travis knew they had prepared.

It made him furious. He could have made a case for them, that they had gone AWOL in a fit of anger. But they had clearly thought out what they were going to do. Just as they had clearly thought out how to face the brass. The directors wanted blood, and Travis had just about made up his mind to let them get it, to wring it out of Team Seven until they finally learned their lesson.

Another part of him, however, the part that had hired Chris Larabee to begin with, nearly stood up and cheered. Unrepentant of the stunt they pulled, a spectacularly stupid, career-ending, reputation-smearing, you’ll-never-work-in-law-enforcement-again kind of stunt, they stood together as a team, and awaited the outcome together. Chris had trained them well. Buck, as leader of this fiasco, stood before the team to take the heat. Just as Chris had always done. The rest of the team stood firm behind him, holding the line, adhering to the rules that Larabee had established.

The directors would not like it. They’d have a fit, to be exact, as it became abundantly apparent that their early fears were indeed grounded. Larabee’s autonomy had created a team that was not loyal to the ATF. It was loyal to itself. To Larabee. A cult of personality. Travis could feel the flames already.

The furious part of him won out. He pulled six plane tickets out of his briefcase. He gave them all to Buck, who passed them out.

Travis kept his glance stony. He kept his voice hard.

“Gentlemen, you are expected in the office on Monday morning, at eight-thirty A.M. sharp. Anyone who does not show at the appointed hour may expect to be immediately fired. You will wait in the 14th floor conference room waiting area. You will be called when the directors are ready to see you.”

They looked back at him. They did not look surprised. Nor did they look particularly angry. Nor did they look particularly resigned. They did not look particularly anything. He might have told them the sky was blue and the grass was green for all the reaction that showed on their impassive faces.

He closed his briefcase with a snap. “Any questions?”

As one they opened their plane tickets.

“These tickets are for today,” J.D. Dunne said with astonishment.

“That’s correct,” AD Travis replied.

Dunne’s voice faltered, but only for a moment. “But it’s only Saturday. What about Chris?”

The others turned toward Travis darkly, questioningly.

Travis resisted the urge to tell them this part wasn’t his doing. Instead he replied, “Agent Larabee will remain here until his doctors consent to release him or have him flown to Four Corners General. Until then, you will have to do without each other’s company.”

Dunne looked like he wanted to protest. He wasn’t the only one. They shared a look. But no one said a word.

That’s a start, Travis thought to himself.

“You have a few hours to say goodbye,” he said over his shoulder as he headed out of the room.

There was complete silence in his wake.

Then Buck let out a long breath. He turned in his swivel chair and regarded the others. “Well,” he said uncertainly, a brief impish smile pushing up one corner of his mustache and crinkling up his good eye, “that could have been a lot worse.”

Josiah’s deep chuckle resonated quietly across the table. “No one got shot or beat up,” he offered.

“We’re not fired,” Nathan offered. He added a belated “Yet.”

J.D. had a different assessment. “Oh man, are we screwed,” he said, putting his head down on the table.

Tanner shrugged. “Knew that when we left Denver.”

Buck grinned momentarily at the ex-Army Ranger’s cavalier attitude.

He looked around at all of them. He was proud to have led these men, this team, if only for a short time. Whatever the outcome of the firing squad they were about to face, this was one hell of a team.

Of course, Chris was probably going to go up one side of him and down the other, without mercy, when he was feeling well enough to realize how very far outside of the lines Buck had taken the team. And he would be right.

Damn, he thought suddenly. “Whatever you say,” Buck reminded them with a pointed look at Tanner and Dunne, “no matter what you do, don’t tell Chris.”

J.D. looked at him like he was crazy. “Sure, Buck,” he griped. “Should I tell him I’m flying back tonight because I’m sick of the cafeteria food, or should I just not show up on Sunday.”

Buck glared at him. “If you can’t keep your mouth shut, then you can go back to the hotel and pack up right now.”

J.D. blanched. Buck was serious.

“We’ll let Ezra tell him,” Buck said more gently. Buck did not add tomorrow morning. He was pretty sure Ezra would not be on that plane. Ticket or no ticket. He did say with all the certainty he could muster, “Ezra will figure out what to say.”

Then he glared over at Tanner. “And you keep your secret signals to yourself,” he said. He had meant it sternly. But he understood why the whole team broke up in laughter.

“Come on,” Buck said, rising from his chair. “If we don’t show up soon, Chris will think something’s up. And we can’t afford him getting suspicious so soon.”

Standing at the front doors of the hospital, awaiting his taxi, his fury slowly ebbing away, Travis replayed the meeting and considered the upcoming inquisition. Chris wouldn’t even be there, yet Chris was by no means free of the fallout. He had formed the team. He had trained them. He had instilled the codes, the rules, the procedures they ran by. He had assumed full responsibility for their discipline and their actions. He had stood by them, right or wrong, in every case, every action, every board of inquiry. He had set the precedent. The directors were likely to follow it. The actions of the team were a result of Larabee’s leadership.

He was reminded of his initial interview with Chris. His research into the agent’s background had all but convinced him to drop this one like a hot potato—no matter what politician wanted the team instated. He had no intentions of kowtowing to politics or patronage. There was too much at stake. As far as he was concerned, the interview was a mere formality on the way to writing a diplomatic letter of rejection.

He had asked Chris about his philosophy of leadership. A favorite question. A stumper. One he used to weed out candidates he felt were unprepared or unqualified. He scratched notes as he waited for a response.

Silence was not unusual after this question. Most candidates needed time to formulate a response to the question, especially since so few had ever bothered to think about it. This time the moment of silence stretched longer and longer until Travis raised his head.

He was about to advise Larabee that if he intended to lead a team he should take the time to think about his philosophies, when he realized that the agent before him was not thinking about it. He had clearly, at some point in his life or career, already given it lengthy consideration. He was sitting forward in his chair and waiting silently until Travis gave him his full attention. He got it. Travis never even felt himself put down his pad and pencil as Chris started speaking.

Typically, the response was succinct, but in its own way surprisingly eloquent. He told Travis that a leader serves the team, not the other way around. He said that a good team leader can expect the team to run itself in the leader’s absence, in the same manner as if the leader were there.

Jokingly, Travis asked if that wouldn’t put the team leader out of a job.

He had seen the hard, shadowed glint in the green eyes and the cold smile for the first time. “Lots of things might put the leader out of a job. The team will still finish theirs.”

The AD thought back to Buck, standing his ground before the others. His teammates lending him their unshakable support. Fully functional. Fully cohesive. Their essential teamwork undamaged. Maybe Chris had trained them too well. Maybe the brass did need to exert control. Undoubtedly, Chris would face his own inquisition, alone, as soon as he was deemed healthy enough to return to work.

Travis scowled. Scowled at the driver as he got in the taxi. Scowled at himself in the rear view mirror. Scowled at the entire city around him. And he told himself that he knew his duty. He knew what he needed to do. Trouble was, those two things were not the same.

Chris awoke again at mid-morning, thoroughly irritated with himself. Not only did the fact that he couldn’t seem to stay awake much longer than a couple of hours at a time interfere with his planning to contain the fallout once the team returned to Denver, apparently he had also missed his teammates as they came to wish him well. He woke up to discover himself and his hospital bed strewn with small folded notes. Most of them obnoxious. He wondered how the hell he had slept through it. Then they had gone. Back to Denver on an afternoon plane.

He smiled a deadly smile. They must think the doctors had removed his brain, if they thought he wouldn’t figure out what had happened. It would take a hell of a lot more than a few painkillers and sedatives to keep him from realizing that Travis had called them back, probably to face a board of inquiry, scheduling their flight for today on the mistaken assumption that they would not have time to meet to form a plan to deal with the inquiry. The fact that Travis had not mentioned it during his visit meant that he either wanted Chris to stay out of it, in which case Travis was deluded, or that the decision had been taken out of the AD’s hands, in which case Travis was likely to be pissed as all hell at them, too. Just came to see how I’m doing, my ass, Chris thought darkly.

Where the hell is Standish? He thought glowering at the door. A note bearing Ezra’s signature or handwriting was conspicuously absent. If he had not left with the rest of them, then the undercover agent was avoiding him, which was probably a good idea at the moment, for several reasons that Chris could think of and undoubtedly some he had yet to learn about.

By the time Standish got up the courage to show his face, Chris had eaten something completely tasteless and semi-solid for lunch, and had kept all of it down. He had also seen Doctor Kahar. The doctor had hid a small smile. (Apparently, he had been aware of the letter bomb that had exploded over his patient. Chris himself suspected that his five teammates had stood in the doorway pitching them at him and probably keeping score on the direct hits.) Then he had been gratefully unhooked from his various wires, tubes, drips, and monitors and wheeled to a new room.

He was now seated with his legs dangling over the edge of his bed, contemplating the distance to the bathroom. He was supposed to call for assistance if he wanted to get up. Like hell.

“Thinking of going somewhere, Mr. Larabee?” the Southerner drawled casually from the door.

He was met with a full-force Larabee glare, and was thus given to know that he was completely and totally screwed.

“Yes,” Chris said through his teeth. “Back to Denver.”

“Rather a long walk for a man in a hospital gown, don’t you think?” Standish said, stepping slightly backward from the door.

Chris’s glare intensified. “That’s where you come in,” he replied with a small malevolent smile.

Standish tried to change the subject. “If you are getting up, might I offer my assistance?” he asked with all the courtesy his Southern upbringing and largely European education could generate.

“No,” Chris said shortly. “You can go to the nearest store and get me some clothes to wear. Then you can go buy both of us plane tickets back to Denver.”

Ezra stared at him. Not that he was surprised. He had expected it. Just not quite so soon. After all, the man still had a slight fever, was barely able to stay awake for more than a couple of hours at a time, had only been unhooked from his machines for an hour now, and as far as Standish had been able to ascertain, had managed to keep down one actual meal. Apparently, to Chris Larabee, those were clear indications that he was ready to leave the hospital. Today. Now, preferably. Would teleport if he could.

Ezra cleared his throat. “Should I comply with your request, Mr. Larabee, I suspect that Mr. Wilmington will have my proverbial head.”

Chris snorted mirthlessly, sliding gingerly to the floor. He grimaced as his feet took his weight for the first time since the storeroom. His legs wobbled slightly. He forced them to obey him, and he ignored the stinging cuts in the soles of his feet, thankful for even the inadequate cushioning of the gauze pads covering the antibiotic gel the nurse had slathered them with.

He steadied himself against the bed and returned his glare to Ezra. “If I were you, I wouldn’t waste time worrying about what Buck’s going to do to you,” he said. “Because if I get there first, Buck had better run.”

It took all of Ezra’s might to resist making a crack about Chris’s ability to run on his lacerated feet. Apparently, it was not enough to resist speaking. One must also resist thinking. How had he forgotten this important rule in a mere three weeks?

Chris fixed him with a smile that made the hair stand up on Ezra’s neck and said, “I don’t need to catch him to shoot him.”

Ezra cleared his throat, hiding his smile behind his hand and smoothly replied. “What I meant to say was what size do you require?”

He wrote the answer down and slid the paper into his shirt pocket. He moved back out of the doorway, keeping one eye on Larabee’s first step away from the bed, as he looked up the corridor to see whether there was a nurse nearby or whether he was going to have to go in there and pick Chris up himself when he collapsed halfway across the tiny room. Fortunately, Chris didn’t collapse. He got all the way across the room. He shut the bathroom door firmly behind him.

Ezra lingered only long enough to make sure Chris emerged from the bathroom. Then he got the nurse. He stood uncertainly outside the hospital’s front door and briefly considered his predicament. How did he get into these situations? Better yet, how could he get out of them? He had resigned from the ATF in a fit of anger. And he had yet to tell his boss. Said boss had now ordered him to help break him out of the hospital. His abnormally temperamental teammates were likely to do him bodily harm if he did. His abnormally dangerous boss would probably shoot him somewhere inordinately painful if he did not.

Realistically, he decided his best bet would be to book a flight to Brazil without delay and without mentioning it to anyone. But when the taxi rolled up he climbed into the backseat and asked for transport to a reasonably inexpensive clothing store. He fingered what was left of the cash he had brought with him and wondered what the hell he should get Larabee to wear.