by BMP

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Chris slept right through the landing. Didn’t notice when the barely touched apple juice was removed, or when Ezra put up his tray table and checked his seat belt. He stirred only slightly, when the attendant, with Ezra’s help, pushed his seat up into the upright position. Ezra waited until they were the last passengers left on the plane before he attempted in earnest to awaken Chris. Something he looked forward to doing about as much as he would want to awaken a sleeping bear.

“Mr. Larabee,” he said quietly. There was no response.

He shook Chris’s arm.

The eyes snapped suddenly open and he looked around confused.

“We have arrived,” Ezra said calmly.

It took a second for Chris to catch up.

“Oh,” he said, stifling a yawn. He rubbed his eyes with his palms and shook his head in an effort to clear it. In addition to the sundry aches and pains clamoring to make themselves known, he added a stiff neck from sleeping awkwardly against the bulkhead.

Ezra was already out of his seat and unfolding the chair in the aisle by the time Chris had thrown back the thin blue blanket and attempted to stand. Burning pains stabbed through the balls of his feet. He had forgotten. Stubbornly he sidled into the aisle anyway. Perhaps if he just ignored the pains, they would all just go away.

Ezra pushed up the armrests so Chris could get by and waited for him to take his seat.

Chris sat without a word. The chair was starting to wear on him. But since he had no shoes and he could hardly walk, he gritted his teeth and maintained silence.

With the help of the attendants, whose sympathetic glances Buck would have worked to his advantage like a master, but which only made Chris feel like he was under a giant magnifying glass, Ezra maneuvered the chair out of the plane and headed up the ramp.

Chris rubbed his neck and slowly eased his head from side to side.

Ezra chattered something about luggage and airline food, but Chris didn’t catch much more than “deplorable” and “highway robbery”. Another water bottle was shoved into his hand. He hadn’t even realized he was thirsty until he started to take off the cap. He wondered how Ezra had known.

Ezra surreptitiously eyed Chris as he drank the water, wondering how much was too much and should he stop him. As far as he knew Chris had had nothing to eat. He had had some coffee, some water, and some juice. Thankfully, everything had stayed down since leaving the hospital. He did not want to risk another episode like the one in the hospital room, especially in a public airport restroom. Yet, he also knew that Chris had to drink something or he would end up in Four Corners General for sure. And they’ll probably all blame me, he thought grumpily.

In the end he decided that Chris would know when to stop himself. He was certain that Chris had even less of a desire to repeat this morning’s performance than Ezra had to go through it again. As they arrived at the baggage carousel, he fingered the instructions in his pocket and remembered with a shock that he had not given Chris his medication. He glared at the back of his boss’s head, believing that the man had likely already figured that out and was just seeing how long he could get away without taking any.

Twenty minutes later they stood outside the door of an airport shuttle bus. The driver unbuckled his belt to get up and lower the wheelchair access lift. Chris rolled his eyes. “Don’t bother,” he said curtly, got up, and climbed the three steps into the bus, rolling around the pole in his left hand and plopping himself in a seat that an attractive young woman promptly vacated for him.

“Thank you,” he said to her, unclenching his teeth, long enough to favor her with one of his fleeting smiles.

“You’re welcome,” she replied with a shrug and a smile, admiring his green eyes.

Chris’s face cracked into another smile as he glanced back at her before turning away, suddenly glad that Ezra was here and not Buck. This way he wouldn’t have to listen to anyone make embarrassing overtures on his behalf (“My buddy here’s lost his phone number, and he wants to know if he can have yours,”). Or cringe in further humiliation while his oldest friend listed his “selling points” (“He’s too modest to brag, but he’s the head of an elite team of law enforcement agents, totally available and owns a fantastic little horse ranch outside the city.”). Or worse yet, endure an inquisition as to why he had not taken advantage of her moment of weakness (“What the hell’s the matter with you? You coulda had her phone number in a heartbeat! All ya had to do was flash them pretty greens one more time and you coulda sealed the deal?”).

He felt a little guilty for feeling that way as he reflected on his oldest friend, a man who had stuck by him through times that Chris looked back on with shame. A man who knew Chris at his worst but steadfastly refused to focus on anything but his best. Yeah, he loved Buck like a brother, and he sure as hell didn’t deserve the friendship the big man so freely offered, but still he could honestly say that sometimes Buck Wilmington was not the best man for the job.

No one gave up a seat for Ezra, so he stood beside the empty chair and stared out into the parking lot, watching from the corner of his eye as the young woman attempted to engage Chris in conversation. She failed miserably, except for one small but genuine smile that showed Chris’s dimples and lit her up. For a moment Ezra felt sorry for her, another victim of Chris’s obliviousness. Then rational thought returned, and he remembered to be thankful that he was babysitting Chris and not Buck and therefore was spared from listening to endless, sickening, flirting and sympathy-garnering rhetoric parlayed into phone number exchanging, and date setting, which would inevitably be followed by self-congratulating and bragging later on at the Saloon. Sure Larabee was irascible, stubborn, hot headed, and cantankerous, but that special Buck Wilmington charm could drive a man to violence.

It was with no small relief that Ezra saw his Jag sitting safe and sound where he had left it nearly a week ago. He never left his car at the airport. He wondered what he had been thinking. Then he remembered and swallowed hard. He had been thinking only of his anger and his plans for retribution.

“You parked the Jag in airport parking?” Chris asked quietly, reaching the bottom of the bus stairs stiffly.

“Yes,” Ezra said tightly, motioning Chris to get into the chair. It might only be another couple of hundred feet to the car, but he’d rather it didn’t take all evening to get there. And he was anxious to make sure no idiot had dinged his car while he was away.

“What were you thinking?” Chris said with a slight chuckle at Ezra’s expense.

“None of your business,” Ezra snapped.

“Hey,” Chris said holding his hands up in surrender. “I was kidding.”

Ezra rubbed a hand across his face. “I’m aware of that Mr. Larabee,” he said with a sigh. “Forgive my display of temper. I think perhaps I am overtired.”

Chris lowered his head with a sigh. “Listen, Ezra. I appreciate your going out of your way like this. Just drop me at the ranch. We can talk tomorrow about what you want to do.”

Chris was surprised to hear the snort of derision. “You’re not going to the ranch, Mr. Larabee.” Surely you don’t think I am that easily fooled. “I have plenty of room at my house, a nicely appointed guest room, and a little bell you can ring should you require anything.”

“You don’t have to put yourself out,” Chris said. The chair halted and he waited while Ezra inspected his car for dings, dents, or perhaps just dust marring the perfect finish. He cocked his head to one side.

Ezra could feel him thinking from ten feet away.

“I know you hate this,” Chris said bluntly, the little smirk on his lips daring Ezra to deny it.

Ezra glared back at him. What I hate, Mr. Larabee, is you in that chair. “You don’t get out of this that easily,” he said, putting the luggage in the trunk and wheeling Chris to the back door where he could sit with his feet up across the back. “You’re coming back to my house. You are taking your medicine, which is now late. You are going to eat something. And you are going to bed early.”

“I can do all of that at my own house,” Chris said pointedly, climbing into the car.

Certainly you can, Ezra thought, but you won’t. “Yes, you could,” Ezra replied. “But my house is closer to the office if you still plan to make that meeting on time.” And much more convenient to the hospital, too.

Chris’s eyes practically danced with mischief. He opened his mouth and Ezra put up a warning finger.

“I suggest, Mr. Larabee, that you do not take this opportunity to remark on my morning punctuality. I know a longer way home with a lot of potholes.”

Chris’s smirk broadened into a grin. He hid it in his collar. Sometimes Ezra was way too easy a target.

He sobered again as he realized he still had to convince Ezra to come back to the team. There was one bright spot. If he could get Ezra to come to that meeting tomorrow, then the rest of the team could have a crack at convincing him to stay. Chris was certain they could succeed if he couldn’t.

Ezra felt Chris’s silence in the back seat. He sat with his head bowed into his collar and his arms wrapped around his middle. Ezra was driving slowly and carefully from the parking lot. Still he knew that the few bumps and twists had to be hell on those bruises and ribs. He headed for the highway. There would be more traffic, but there would be fewer twists and fewer potholes.

They had barely made it in the front door when Ezra’s phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket. Buck.

“Standish,” he said, going into the kitchen.

“Howdy, Ez,” the familiar voice said.

Ezra sighed. Ez. Ra. Ezra, Mr. Wilmington. Must we go through this again? “Greetings Mr. Wilmington. Are you all safely returned to Denver?”

“Safe and sound, Ez. How’s Chris?”

“Resting,” Ezra said. He grimaced and peered around the corner. The light was on in the guest bathroom down the hall. He didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.

“Any changes?” Buck asked.

“No,” Ezra replied. “No changes since the doctor saw him this morning. Nothing to write home about anyway.” Traveled across state lines. Beat up a reprobate at the Starbuck’s stand. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Buck grunted noncommittally. “How’s he feeling?”

“Better, I think,” Ezra said, wishing Buck would hurry up and get off the phone before some incongruent noise put Buck’s formidable investigative instincts on the alert.

“You need anything?” Buck asked. For the first time Ezra noticed he sounded tired.

“Thank you, but I have everything I need,” Ezra replied. Except milk and fresh eggs, he noted, perusing the inside of his refrigerator.

There was a silence.

When Buck’s voice came back on it was quiet, contemplative. “I want to thank you for staying behind,” Buck said. “Especially after I told you what Travis said.”

Ezra did not have a chance to reply.

“I promise that whatever I can do to keep your job, I will do. You’re part of the team, Ezra. You acted for the good of the team. You won’t be hung out to dry.”

Ezra found it hard to talk over the lump in his throat. “Thank you, Mr. Wilmington,” he said softly. “Your assurance means…Well, it means a lot.” Although you might change your mind come tomorrow morning.

There was an awkward pause before Buck changed the subject. “How long do you think you’ll be down there?”

“Oh, not long,” Ezra said lightly.

“Good to hear,” Buck said. “How about Chris?”

Ezra snorted. “You know Mr. Larabee,” he replied. “He’ll be back before you know it.”

Buck laughed affectionately. “Probably before it’s good for him.”

“Probably,” Ezra laughed back. He peered around the corner again. The light was now on in the bedroom. He poured a glass of water and emptied some pills into his hand.

“Listen, Buck,” Ezra said hurriedly. “I’m heading up the hall to see him now.” All the way up the hall to the bedroom. “Should I call you back later?”

“You don’t need to,” Buck said. “I know you’ve got everything under control.”

“Indeed, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra replied. One of us has things under control, but I’m not sure that it is I, he thought as he hung up.

He found Chris seated on the edge of the bed in the guest room, his knees drawn up until his feet rested on the edge of the box spring. His head in his hands. The team leader had gotten as far as removing his shirt, and from the door, Ezra got a good full look at the purple and green blotches running up his left side.

“Pills, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said from the doorway.

Chris looked up somewhat blearily. “Which pills?” he asked.

Ezra looked down at the multicolored collection in his hand and sighed. “How about antibiotics?”

“Guess I can’t skip that one,” Chris said ruefully, plucking the indicated pill from Ezra’s palm and taking the glass of water.

“If it were me,” Ezra said smoothly. “I’d want the analgesic.”

“Can’t think straight on painkillers,” Chris said, shaking his head.

“You’re going to need a good night’s sleep,” Ezra said in his most convincing voice.

“I’m going to need to be clear headed in the morning,” Chris argued back.

Ezra shrugged and closed his palm again. He could try again next round. “Are you hungry?” he asked changing his tactics.

“Why? Are you going to grind up the pills and hide them in my food?” Chris snapped.

That’s a thought! “No,” Ezra said dryly. “Not unless you give me a reason to. I merely noted that it has been nearly nine hours since breakfast, assuming you had breakfast. And you skipped lunch.”

I skipped breakfast, too, and what did that get me? Chris mused with aggravation. To tell the truth, he was hungry, but he was more afraid of losing it all again. And now his head was pounding. One more bout of dry heaves and he’d have to take the pain pills for sure.

Ezra looked at him closely. “What do you think you could eat?”

Chris looked doubtfully back at him.

Ezra sighed, impatient. “I am an excellent cook. And having worked with the members of Team Seven for more than three years, now, I am well-versed in many versions of the fine cuisine known as hangover food.”

Chris laughed. Hangover food? Then this has to be the worst bender I have ever come off of.

“What’ll it be, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra said with mock seriousness. “Toast burnt to charcoal a la Josiah Sanchez? Burnt bacon a la Vin Tanner? Greasy burgers and onion rings a la Buck Wilmington? A very healthy ayurvedic cup of hot water and honey a la Nathan Jackson? Or my personal favorite: fried ham, egg, and cheese on a hard roll.”

Chris grimaced at every single suggestion.

“Or…” Ezra prompted letting the question hang as he realized he didn’t know Chris’s choice of hangover food.

“I don’t eat hangover food, Ezra,” Chris said with a sardonic smile. “I smoke a few cigarettes until my stomach settles. Then I drink some Vin Tanner style coffee and get my ass in to work.”

Ezra made a face. “I think you need to eat something,” he replied firmly. “What do you think you can keep down?”

A distant memory floated back to Chris and Ezra watched his face take on a far away look. A second or two passed before Chris blinked and turned back to Ezra with the barest of smiles. “You got potato chips?”

“Potato chips?” Ezra asked. It was not what he was expecting.

Chris shrugged. “It’s the salt, I guess.”

Ezra shrugged back. “Potato chips it is,” he said, turning on his heel and heading back to the kitchen. Back in the kitchen, he dialed his cell phone.


“It’s Ezra,” he said almost in a whisper.

“What happened?” Buck said alarmed.

“Nothing happened!” Ezra said hastily. “I just have a question.”

“Jesus, Ezra,” Buck snapped, but he didn’t stay aggravated long. “What’s your question?”

“Mr. Larabee seems to be having trouble keeping his meals down,” he began, only to be cut off by Buck’s snort.

“No surprise there, Ez. Happens every time.”

Ezra paused. “Really? How had this escaped my notice?”

Buck laughed shortly. “Because you’ve never had the true joy and pleasure of taking care of him after he gets himself racked up.”

There’s always a first, Mr. Wilmington, Ezra thought.

“It’s why he hates hospitals. All the meds get him screwed up. He thinks if he just crawls under his pillow for two days, and no one bothers him, he’ll come out straight in the end.” Buck paused. “Sometimes I think he’s right.”

“Be that as it may,” Ezra said, clearing his throat, “I was wondering what I might get for him that the hospital would not provide that might, shall we say, prove more digestible.”

Buck sighed. “Ask him what he wants and then get it for him. It ain’t the first time he’s been here. He knows what’ll stay down.”

“I did that,” Ezra said perplexed. “He asked for potato chips.”

“Figures,” Buck said with a quiet laugh. “Must be the salt.”

“Anything else?” Ezra asked impatiently.

Buck laughed. “Yeah, but don’t tell the staff. Strong hot coffee and a big slab of dark chocolate. The darker the better.”

“You must be kidding,” Ezra replied.

“Hell no,” Buck laughed. “The first year he and Sarah were married, he came down with the stomach flu from hell. She was at her wits end. Finally, he called me at work and begged me, I mean begged me, to go down to the store and buy him the biggest slab of Hershey’s special dark they had. I bought five. I thought she was going to kill me. He ate nothing but chocolate and coffee for three days. Nothing else would stay down. She swore up and down that I saved his life. He said the whole thing would have gone by a lot faster if she had just listened to him in the first place.”

“Very interesting to know,” Ezra said with feigned politeness. Why it was that the majority of his teammates couldn’t answer a simple question without attaching half a mile of parables or reminiscences, he would never know. “Dark chocolate and strong coffee. Anything else?”

“Nope,” Buck said. “That should keep him alive until they release him.”

If you only knew, Ezra thought. “Thank you. And I shall endeavor not to disturb you any more tonight.”

“Anytime, Ez,” Buck replied. “Tell old hard-head we’re thinking about him.”

“I’m sure he’ll be gratified to hear it.”

He hung up again. Dark chocolate? Then he remembered where he had a large stash hidden away. The expensive kind. A gift from his mother. That would probably do nicely.

When Ezra brought in the tray, Chris had looked at him with a sort of shock. Realization slowly dawned.

“You called Buck,” he said with a knowing smile.

“I did,” Ezra admitted. “But rest assured he still believes you to be at the hospital. He sends his regards.”

“I’ll bet,” Chris said, with a grin of his own.

It was like giving a car gasoline. No sooner had the caffeine and sugar had time to hit Chris’s system, than Ezra could practically see the wheels start turning slowly in Chris’s head, rapidly picking up speed. Ezra watched the green eyes narrow, the lips purse, the whole process a familiar scene that never failed to fascinate and frighten him at the same time.

“You’ll need to wake me by seven,” Chris said out of the blue.

Here we go, Ezra thought with a grimace. “Seven?” he asked with a sudden shudder.

Chris looked thoughtful, as if he hadn’t heard. “I’ll have to borrow the Jag,” he said.

“Over my dead body,” Ezra blurted out before he could stop himself. “There is no way you can drive in your condition.”

It was all Chris could do to continue to look like he was thinking carefully. “Can we call a cab, then?”

Ezra had a sudden, vivid, and totally irrational vision of Chris shuffling through the front doors of the federal building, leaving a garish trail of bloody footprints in his wake, then passing out in the elevator before he got to the 11th floor and security taking him for a derelict and evicting him from the building. “I’ll drive you,” Ezra said, patiently.

“You don’t need to do that,” Chris said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You’ve done a lot already.”

“Mr. Larabee,” he snapped. “I am not putting you in a cab at eight o’clock in the morning. We will go to the office together. And you will use the wheelchair.”

Chris’s eyes raised in surprise. “If that’s how you want it,” he replied.

He stared at Chris. And realized he’d been played. This was how Chris wanted it.

“Eat your dinner,” Ezra snapped. He turned on his heel and left the room.

When he peeked into the silent room forty-five minutes later, he was relieved to see that some of the coffee, a good-sized handful of potato chips, and several squares of chocolate had actually made it into Chris’s stomach—and apparently stayed put. Chris was sound asleep, half-curled onto his right side and stomach, sheet, comforter, and extra blanket, pulled up to his neck, and—as Buck had predicted—his head sandwiched between two pillows.

Ezra retrieved the tray and turned off the light. He paused a moment in the doorway and listened to the sound of deep breathing. Then he pulled the door almost closed. He took the tray to the kitchen, and as he set it down, fatigue settled like lead filling his bones. Suddenly his own bed sounded very inviting. He left the tray and barely managed to drag himself into pajamas before falling asleep, deeply, gratefully, atop his still immaculately made up bed.

The men who filed into the conference room were quiet but not exactly subdued. They took their seats, arranged in a line, facing the dark wooden conference table. Six directors before them. AD Travis at their left, at the table, but not exactly with the directors. It did not escape Buck’s notice. He wondered if Travis had already been raked over the coals or whether that depended on him.

The members of Team Seven had held a long meeting at the ranch the day before. It lasted well into the afternoon. They had argued until Buck had his way. He was the leader. He had decided to pursue Chris’s killers. He had called the shots. He would stand in front and take the heat. He had ordered the others to tell the truth. He had ordered them to save their own careers if they could. The fire in his eyes as they sat down told them he still meant it.

Travis looked them over one by one. Wilmington, returning his level gaze, uncharacteristically grim, but resolute. Prepared. Tanner beside him, still hard-eyed, unrepentant. He’d go down fighting. Sanchez, impassive, almost serene. At peace with his actions and his motivations. Jackson next, head up, the look of a man who was ready to accept his fate. And finally Dunne, who looked a little scared at first, whose head went down only very briefly as he entered, but he picked it back up again and adopted and sought to maintain the demeanor of the men at his side. Standish, missing.

Travis’s mouth settled into a grim straight line and he stared hard at the empty chair and then at Buck. He had given Wilmington a plane ticket for Standish. He had made himself clear. Where was the undercover agent then? Was he flouting authority? Had he gone through with his resignation? Even now that Chris was alive, didn’t that make a difference? His thoughts were interrupted as the directors called the meeting to order.

Meeting? Travis thought soberly. More like an inquisition, if the look in the eyes of the six assembled directors was anything to go by. They had practically fought tooth and nail to decide who was going to be on this board. They had different reasons. And different agendas. None of it made Travis comfortable. This would be an examination of his own leadership as much as an examination of the men before him. All their careers were at stake. He was aware of that. He had spent the night pondering whether he had made a mistake in giving Larabee his head. But then his own bosses had agreed to it. Until now. Now they were mad as hell and seemed to have forgotten their own decisions.

Travis sighed, silently, and released the thought from his mind. Memos and documents would be for his own inquisition. For now, he was expected to sit beside the directors, a witness to the prosecution. He was not expected to contribute unless asked. He wondered what they were going to do when he finally did lose his temper. He knew it would only be a matter of time.

As the most senior of the directors, several levels above Travis, slate eyed Jefferson Cranston, a man whose imprint in a man’s mind gave him an air of gigantic height, took the lead. He glowered darkly at the agents before him and intoned an introduction of the directors present. They shuffled their papers into order and each glowered at the men in turn as his name echoed onto the expectant air of the conference room.

Cranston asked each agent to state his name and his official role on the team. One by one, they spoke and returned to silence, their glances never wavering from the directors before them. Cranston stared down at them, his expression stony and unreadable. “Thank you,” he said, in a way that made it clear he was not thanking anyone. He let an authoritative silence fall, as the directors gazed back at the agents, their eyes hard. Then he began.

“This board of inquiry has been called to obtain a complete accounting of ATF RMET Team Seven’s activities, official and unofficial, following the events of…”

That was a far as he got.

The giant oak conference room door banged against the opposite wall with a dull clank that startled everyone in the room. Travis gave the men of Team Seven credit when they did not turn around or even break focus, even as the heads of the directors snapped up and a strange silence fell onto the room.

That didn’t last long either.

“I assume my invitation was misplaced,” the voice said, low, even, and quiet. Even so it carried clearly across the room to the directors’ table. Travis watched Buck and Vin exchange a flash of a glance, but he couldn’t read it. Nathan and Josiah flinched. But only Dunne’s head jerked toward the door. But he snapped quickly back around to face forward, hiding any surprise he must have felt.

Travis suppressed a smile as he saw three of the directors’ postures shrink back. He saw Cranston take a breath, provoked, uncertain.

Standing crookedly in the doorway, eyes narrowed and the force of his glare undiminished, his anger palpably crackling into the conference room stood Chris Larabee, resurrected, and looking the part, from the black suit that hung from his gaunt frame to his bandaged knuckles and the bruises on his face. Travis couldn’t help but wonder briefly, what Cranston’s secretary, guardian of this conference room had said and thought when he laid eyes on the man. Probably nothing. He probably didn’t have a chance. Or more likely, he probably didn’t feel it was worth the risk.

Cranston cleared his throat.

Larabee took advantage of the moment Cranston took to regroup his thoughts. He came into the room, and Travis was startled at the even purposeful stride, as he came around the chairs behind Wilmington. Travis couldn’t see the look Chris gave Buck, but it was the first time he saw Buck’s resolve break. The tall, lanky agent opened his mouth. Then shut it. Chris’s eyes shifted down the row and rested palpably on each man. Their eyes locked on his. J.D. Dunne turned bright red but did not look away.

Chris turned back to Buck, took Wilmington and Tanner in with a single glance and inclined his head very slightly toward the door. Without another word, Dunne, Sanchez, and Jackson rose from their chairs and moved toward the door. Buck flicked his glance once at the table. Chris’s eyes narrowed. Wilmington and Tanner stood up. They passed a message, the three of them, without saying a word. Then Tanner and Wilmington went out the way Sanchez, Jackson, and Dunne had gone.

Travis watched in fascination. He had forgotten this. This control. This understanding. This magic. He had forgotten something else, too. He remembered it with admiration as Chris calmly picked up Buck’s chair in one bandaged hand. He set it forward a few more feet, moving it away from the other five chairs and closer in to the conference table. Then the Team Leader sat down, calmly crossed one leg over the other and folded his hands in his lap. He gave a brief nod to Travis and regarded the six directors coolly, waiting for them to continue, as they backpedaled, uncertain, unprepared for this new development. In a simple move of a chair, Larabee had changed the dynamic of the meeting. It was no longer quite certain who was in charge.

In the outer office, beyond the conference room, J.D. Dunne sagged against a wall, his relief written all over his face and in every line of his body. Nathan plopped himself into a chair and tried not to show the “I told you so,” expression that threatened to leak onto his face. Sanchez seated himself opposite the coffee table from Nathan, still looking impassive, but for the tiny secret smile that rested on his lips. Buck and Vin spotted Ezra the moment they left the conference room and made a beeline for him.

Ezra saw them coming and knew instantly that he should not have stuck around.

“I told you to stay with him,” Buck growled, furious. “What the hell were you thinking bringing him back here?”

Suddenly, inexplicably, words failed the notoriously glib Southerner. He only stared helplessly, as he watched the blood rise into Buck’s face and knew that he was about to be punched. Unjustly. Unreasonably. Unfairly. As if he alone could have had the power and fortitude to keep Chris Larabee in Texas when he was determined to come back here.

It was Vin Tanner who came to his rescue. “I reckon it wasn’t Ezra who was calling the shots,” Vin said, staying Buck’s rising arm with the mere tone of his voice.

Buck turned and glared at Vin.

Tanner shrugged. It was clear that he was trying to suppress a smile.

Buck’s eyes narrowed, but the fury began to dissipate.

Ezra found his voice. “Mr. Larabee was determined, to say the least, to return here,” he said, holding up his palms in supplication.

“You lied to me on the phone,” Buck growled, not willing to let the anger ebb completely.

“Um, yes,” Ezra said. “An unfortunate requirement.” He talked faster. “You are aware of how persuasive Mr. Larabee can be when he has made up his mind. I felt it better to accompany him than to stand aside.”

“How about stopping him?” Buck growled. “Did you consider that?”

This time it was Sanchez that answered. “Surely you recall how difficult that can be,” Josiah said, without even glancing back.

“After all,” Nathan added, philosophically, “two bullet holes, infections, a recently punctured lung, diaphragmatic contusion, fever, confused medications, multiple bruises and lacerations, and the lingering effects of two weeks of sedation were not enough to spare Agent Pirelli from being partially impaled in a glass pharmacy cabinet.”

J.D. looked up at that, as if he hadn’t heard the list before. Perhaps he hadn’t. Not like that. A look of utter admiration that irked Buck to the core dawned on the young agent’s face.

“Kinda makes you feel sorry for the directors, doesn’t it?” Sanchez replied to no one in particular.

Vin snorted. Then J.D. laughed nervously, and at the sound of it, Buck couldn’t keep the smile from cracking through his anger and spreading across his face. Nathan dropped his exhausted head into his hands and laughed, trying hard to cover the noise. Josiah’s deep chuckle sounded across the room. Ezra’s and Vin’s, and then finally Buck’s laughter joined in.

Buck suddenly motioned them all to silence and jerked his head toward the doors. They stuffed their laughter into their hands. Choked it down, red-faced. Then they crept toward the doors, straining to listen in.

Cranston’s secretary watched them. The six of them. They were crazy, Team Seven. He knew that now. He had no intention of trying to stop them from doing anything they wanted to do. He had work that needed his attention, so he very purposefully collected his papers and headed off to the copy room. He hoped they would all be gone by the time he finished his errands.

Inside the conference room, Travis watched with fascination, having to remind himself several times to focus. This would have a bearing on his career after all.

“Agent Larabee,” Cranston began patiently. “Although there will certainly be another inquiry, at which you will have the opportunity to speak, we felt it could wait until you had more fully recovered.”

Larabee’s eyes narrowed. “Considerate,” he said slowly. “Shall we postpone this meeting until then?”

Cranston looked carefully at his fellow directors then back at Chris.

“This is an inquiry into the actions of your team, not your own actions,” he said evenly.

One corner of Chris’s lip twitched upward, minutely. Travis flicked his gaze along the table. The directors had not seemed to notice, he realized. These men did not know Larabee. Few had ever dealt with him directly. They did not know how to read the signs. A morbid and completely unprofessional fascination suddenly took hold inside the AD It was all he could do not to begin to smirk, as he watched Chris’s head tilt slowly to one side.

“The actions of my team are subject to my orders and my authority,” Chris said evenly.

“In this case…” Cranston spoke up.

“Whether I am leading the operation or not,” Chris continued over him, ignoring the interruption completely. He leveled his gaze at Cranston and held it there.

Cranston shot an irritated look at the other directors.

Ramirez stepped up.

“Agent Larabee,” he began. Chris’s hard green gaze settled on him. Ramirez licked his lips. He continued. “Clearly it would be farcical to hold you accountable for the actions of your team during your—er—absence.”

Chris’s eyes stayed locked on Ramirez, unblinking. “I have been accountable for the actions of my team since its inception,” Chris said, his voice flat. “My team is accountable to me. I am accountable to AD Travis, and he is accountable to you. If there is to be an inquiry into the actions of my team, I will conduct it and await your disciplinary recommendations.”

There it is. He’s thrown down the gauntlet. Travis thought, with a slight shake of his head. The directors looked at each other in consternation. Except for LaForce. He turned red to the roots of his hair, perhaps the only one to recognize the challenge for what it was.

“Perhaps that’s the problem,” he snapped, leaning forward and glaring at Chris. “It’s time for those rules to change.”

A smile snaked across Chris’s lips.

Despite himself, Travis felt a cold pleasure creep up his spine.

Director LaForce continued. Either he did not see the smile or his fury had made him reckless. “From now on, Agent Larabee,” he growled in a voice that brooked no argument, “your team will be accountable to us. Along with AD Travis, we will expect direct access to your men in matters of policy and discipline. If you want to continue your leadership of this team, you will consent to our oversight.”

Travis looked down at the table. LaForce couldn’t possibly believe Larabee was going to roll over that easy.

Only Cranston and a director at the far end of the line seemed to pause to think as this pronouncement dropped. The others nodded their heads in firm agreement. They began to speak, to lay out details.

Chris Larabee held up his hand, and Travis watched in admiration, as the directors stopped speaking, in spite of themselves.

“We continue our arrangement as before,” Chris said evenly.

Travis resisted the urge to shake his head. Not even a hint of cooperation from his senior agent.

LaForce’s face turned an even darker shade of red. “Or what?” he returned, knowing even as he said it that he had just been suckered into letting Larabee call the shots.

Chris shrugged. Smiled unpleasantly. “I’m sure I can find employment elsewhere.”

The words hit Travis like a blow to the chest.

Ramirez opened his mouth to call Larabee’s bluff. A sudden silence reigned. They all realized in the instant. He was not bluffing.

Travis wasn’t sure what he had expected. But he hadn’t anticipated that Chris would try to bring this to a head right here and now. No sooner had the thought occurred to him than he realized he should have known better. Chris was willing to die for his agents. He would consider his career as nothing next to the survival of his team.

The silence continued as Chris simply looked back at the directors and waited.

“A moment please,” Cranston said finally. Part of being a good administrator and politician was knowing when to retreat and regroup. They had no battle plan for this. They had not had time to consider the fallout, which Cranston was experienced enough to realize was potentially the dramatic, very messy, and very public loss of at least one whole ATF team, under circumstances that were likely to play very well to public sympathies.

They had lost control of the meeting. But they didn’t have to hand it over gift-wrapped. Or let it turn into a train wreck. He conferred briefly with his fellow directors, quietly, while Larabee waited, one leg still crossed over the other, fingers interlaced calmly in his lap.

After a few minutes, Cranston cleared his throat and turned back to Chris, “Perhaps this is not the best time to begin these proceedings,” he said, but there was a definite warning in his voice.

Chris’s lips twitched into a familiar smirk.

Travis didn’t know whether to grimace at the Team Seven leader’s audacity or to let himself enjoy the very large point that Chris had just won. He was saved from having to do either, as Cranston continued as if he had not noticed the silent challenge on the agent’s face.

“We will let you know when it is necessary to reconvene,” Cranston said. “I assume AD Travis will know how to reach you during your convalescent leave?”

Travis cleared his throat. “Yes” he said quickly, doing his best not to throw a glance or, Heaven forbid, a grin at Chris. “Yes I have his contact numbers.”

“You may go,” Cranston said, jerking his chin imperiously in the direction of the doors.

Chris nodded, once to Cranston. And then once to Travis. Then he got up and walked unhurriedly back out of the conference room the way he came in.

The six agents melted back from the door as he came out again. He glanced at five of them. Annoyed. Then his eyes fell on Ezra.

He stopped.

Ezra looked back at him confused. Then suddenly jerked in remembrance. “Of course,” he blurted out and hurried out into the hall, shaking his head. He had forgotten. In the moment, Chris’s act had convinced him, too. He returned with the chair, unfolded it, and waited while Chris seated himself as if it were some sort of command console on a cheap science fiction space ship, irritation written in every inch of tension in his neck and shoulders.

“Where to, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra asked with mock servility.

Chris’s reply was surly. “My office,” he said. “Better use it while I still have one.”

Ezra gave Chris a mock salute and turned the chair smoothly on the industrial carpeting. They moved off toward the elevator bank, five other agents trailing behind them.

Nathan knew that his “I told you so” was written all over his face now. Josiah grinned at him, but Nathan did nothing to hide his expression.

J.D. started up some kind of banter with Buck, but the big agent didn’t bite. The look he exchanged with Tanner was grim.

Chris was relieved that the outer office was empty when the elevator arrived. He had not anticipated his co-workers’ reaction to his appearance until the grouchy security guard downstairs had given his chair an enthusiastic thump and wasted precious seconds simply repeating “Well don’t that beat all? Yes, sir, don’t that beat all!” The last thing Chris wanted to endure was any more attention from any of his colleagues and co-workers. The whole damn thing was awkward and embarrassing. For everyone, he was sure. He was dead. Now he’s not. Couldn’t everyone just accept that and move on?

Sensing his discomfort, Ezra wheeled him speedily down to the bullpen. J.D. sprang ahead to hold the door open.

They stopped short as they entered. They had not stopped there on their way in. None of them had been there since the day they left. Left Henderson typing in this office. Left for revenge. Left to dump their careers down the toilet in search of a balance for the pain, a way to plug the hole. Stupid, they realized now. There was no way to plug the hole. No way save for the man in the wheelchair before them.

Ezra did not pause. He wheeled Chris straight inside and up to the couch. Chris raised his eyes in mock question. Ezra nodded firmly at the couch. Chris grinned. It had been a long morning. And as the anger dissipated, so did the adrenaline. Fatigue and pain settled back on him, irritating like a swarm of stinging flies. And he slid onto the couch. He hissed as he popped off the shoes Ezra had procured. He shucked the jacket and tie, remembering at the last second that Ezra had purchased them and so they were probably expensive. He laid both over the back of the couch, unbuttoned the first two buttons of the dress shirt and lay back with his head propped on the rolled arm that served as a pillow.

Ezra suddenly appeared at his elbow with a blanket. His blanket. He glanced around the room and at the five agents who crowded the doorway, watching him. “Where’s my stuff?” he asked, yawning suddenly.

They looked at each other, a strange look, that started off as stubborn and angry, then moved to guilty and finally settled on conspiratorial.

“Oh, it’s here somewhere,” Vin said, one side of his mouth quirking up, teasingly. A taunt. Aimed at his teammates.

Chris let his eyes drift closed. Still seeing them on his closed eyelids. Still hearing the strange dynamic of his team, bristling, argumentative, challenging each other, stretching and wearing at the bonds, testing always testing, but growing tighter all the time.

Buck saw the contented smile stretch briefly across Chris’s face. Saw it turn into a smirk.

“While you’re looking for it,” Chris said softly, casually, eyes still closed. “See if you can find my door.”

They laughed as they moved away. Each one silently wondering how much their team leader already knew about what had taken place in his absence.

By the time Chris woke up, the bookshelves on the wall at his feet again sagged with his reference books. Among them sat a wooden-framed picture of Team Seven and a single antique cowboy spur. His worn U.S. Navy mug mat sat on the right side of his desk, in front of a small silver picture frame that held his favorite picture of the family he now held only in his heart. Where he could look at them every day and memorize the faces he had known so well. He smiled again and turned his brain toward his next move. An hour later, he realized he had fallen asleep instead.

It was quiet in the bullpen, so quiet that at first, he had thought it was late and everyone had gone home. But as he made his way painfully to his doorway, he saw them. They were working. Diligently. He leaned on the doorframe to ease off one foot at a time and wondered what on earth they could be working on.

Vin was the first to notice him standing there. “Feel better, Cowboy?” he asked, casually. He didn’t look up.

“Better,” Chris said.

“Travis stopped by,” Buck said. He didn’t look up either, and Chris could not read anything in his tone. “He’d like to see you, when you are available.”

Chris didn’t answer.

Chris scrubbed a hand over his face. Why didn’t someone just wake him up? He stared at his agents curiously and tried to decipher the strange atmosphere. They had seemed so normal, so like themselves when he had fallen asleep. He couldn’t put his finger on the curiously unpleasant tinge in the air. Had the directors made some sort of decision? Was that it? He guessed he had better go see Travis. He took a step away from the doorjamb toward the bullpen door. Buck’s voice stopped him.

“I don’t imagine you want to walk too much on those feet.”

Chris stopped. At least Buck was looking at him now.

“He said he’d come down when you’re ready.”

“Oh,” Chris said, feeling vaguely foggy. He turned and went back into his office. Only this time, he chose his desk chair. He sat there for a moment and collected his thoughts before he picked up the phone and dialed Travis. He got Travis’s assistant. He gave her his message. Then he turned on his computer and began to check to see if his files were still there. He looked up as Nathan’s familiar form filled his doorway.

“Did you take something?” the medic asked.

There was no point lying, Chris knew. Nathan would figure it out. “Could use some aspirin,” he admitted.

Nathan pursed his lips. He knew Larabee was in pain, but still, he couldn’t help but be mildly disappointed that he wouldn’t get to launch into the lecture he had prepared.

“What meds are you on?” he asked.

Chris shrugged. “Ezra’s got ‘em. I haven’t really looked.”

The stern medic launched into a different but equally prepared lecture on the importance of knowing what medications one is taking and when and with what. Then he noticed Chris was looking at him. Patient. Waiting for him to stop talking and just go get the damn aspirin.

Same as always, Nathan thought to himself, but he didn’t let himself smile. Instead, the medic muttered something unkind as he turned away to find Ezra, the medications, and a nice safe painkiller that Chris would be willing to take.

At least that’s normal, Chris mused, as he watched his team medic walk away muttering in aggravation.

When Travis arrived, Chris was feeling nearly like himself.

“Come in,” Chris greeted the former judge. “I’d invite you to close the door,” he said with a smart-ass grin, “but apparently it’s out being repaired.”

Travis grinned in spite of himself. He seated himself in one of the chairs across from Chris and looked his agent over. After this morning’s performance, and seeing the man now at his desk, it would be easy to forget that he was hurt. Easy except for the weight he had lost. Except that Travis had swung by and caught Chris asleep on the couch. Asleep, unanimated by this morning’s anger, his face devoid of the crackle of his presence. Asleep, Travis again saw the pallor, the bruising, the dark circles under his eyes, the hollows in his cheeks.

“We’ve made a decision,” Travis said finally, keeping his voice professionally low to compensate for the lack of a door.

“We?” Chris cracked with a sardonic raise of one eyebrow.

“We,” Travis emphasized.

Chris’s face turned serious. “Go ahead.”

“First, I am ordering you to take at least the next two weeks off on medical leave. I don’t want to see you here. I don’t want to hear that you have been working on anything at home. Is that clear?”

Chris nodded. At least that meant he wasn’t fired. Now what about the rest of it?

“Second, when you return to work, expect an inquiry into your actions during your absence. Specifically, I will want to know how your vest, badge, and gun came to be found on a dead militant.”

Chris smiled slightly. He caught the intimation. Travis would be conducting his inquiry.

Travis continued, “I will also want to know the details of your assault on Agent Pirelli.”

Chris looked at the AD thoughtfully.

Travis shrugged. “Forewarned is forearmed,” he said. He didn’t really expect AD Rivers to pull anything funny. After all, she knew that her agents had trod on some mighty thin ice. It was only Chris Larabee’s silence that would keep that ice from cracking beneath Richter and Pirelli’s jackbooted feet. But he still wanted to be prepared.

Chris nodded again.

“Third, there will be an inquiry into the actions of your Team during your absence.”

Chris raised an eyebrow.

This time the AD could not suppress his smile. “You many conduct it after your return. In the meantime, the directors strongly recommend that you suspend the team for a period as punishment for going AWOL.”

The smile spread to Chris’s face. “Did they ‘recommend’ how long?” he asked, a slight emphasis on the word ‘recommend’.

“Be careful, Agent Larabee,” Travis teased. “Gloating is never an attractive quality.”

Chris’s grin widened.

“I recommended two weeks,” Travis said. “That should allow you to all punish each other.”

Larabee laughed. And Travis laughed with him, if only at the pleasure of hearing the sound again, so rare before, but after being almost extinguished, it sounded almost beautiful to the AD’s ears.

“Do I run the risk of gloating if I ask what made up their minds?” Chris asked.

Travis grinned broadly. “In the short version, LaForce suggested that they fire you for gross insubordination. Costas said that would play badly with the rest of the agents. Ramirez answered that as directors, they could impose whatever rules they wanted. Costas reminded everyone that if they did that, you would quit, to which Ramirez replied that they should let you, since that would avoid the problem of the reaction among the other agents. Then Hofstader said that if you quit or we fired you we’d just have to find someone to replace you and then we’d be right back where we started.”

Chris grinned. He could hear Hofstader saying just that. Of course it would be liberally sprinkled with creatively coarse adjectives. Hofstader was a tough former agent himself. Real old school. Rough around the edges. Chris liked him.

Travis continued. “So Cranston decided that if you wanted to handle it yourself so badly, we all ought to let you. For now.”

Chris grinned knowingly. For now, he thought. Saving face? Or betting I’ll change my mind? It didn’t matter, though. He meant what he said. He was accountable for the actions of the team. He would still mean it a day, a month, a year from now.

Travis reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Now about this,” he said slowly. “I took it down from the cafeteria bulletin board. Obviously it needs to be addressed.”

Chris took the paper and unfolded it and stared at the 18-point, bold-face type. It took him a moment to get over his initial astonishment, but by the time he finished digesting the tone and import of the letter, and Standish’s choice of public venue, his astonishment had become aggravation. Of all the idiotic moves, he thought with familiar exasperation. What the hell were you thinking? he thought angrily, glaring past Travis to Ezra Standish’s desk. If Ezra felt the glare from twenty-eight feet away, he gave no sign.

“Has it been accepted?” Chris asked quietly. He needed to know what kind of fight it would be to get Ezra back. Assuming he could convince Ezra to come back.

“Accepted by whom?” Travis retorted. “Certainly not by me. I told him that his resignation needed to be submitted to and signed off on by his immediate superior. I took this off the bulletin board on Tuesday. The directors authorized Ezra’s plane ticket along with everyone else’s, so I would guess that word never reached them.”

Chris paused in his thoughts and his mind took a new tack. “The directors included a plane ticket for Ezra?” he asked.

“Yes,” Travis nodded.

“And he was supposed to be here with the others?”

Travis nodded again.

Chris shook his head. Damn stubborn fool, he thought.

“I’ll talk to him,” Chris said, refolding the resignation and placing it in his shirt pocket.

Travis nodded and smiled. “Good enough,” he said, climbing to his feet. “Now get out of the office. And take this bunch of ruffians with you.”

Chris grinned. He moved slowly after Travis. He eyed the distance to the conference room, squared his shoulders and set out across the floor, his grin fading.

“Conference room,” he snapped as he passed them. He detoured into the break room. And realized he had no coffee cup. Who the hell had taken his cup? He swore and searched for a Styrofoam one. Found it. Filled it. And entered the conference room to find everyone in their regular chairs.

He glared at all of them. Still angry. But not sure why. Was it because they risked their careers for no good reason or because they tried to keep him out of it? He wasn’t sure. He announced that they would be suspended two weeks without pay, beginning immediately. His glare softened then. He said he would be at the ranch and could probably use a helping hand.

Buck looked around at his teammates. Their paychecks had already been suspended while they were in Texas. Another two weeks without pay wasn’t going to be that easy for any of them.

He looked back up at Chris. And decided he could live with it just fine. The crime had been more than worth the punishment.