by BMP

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Chris Larabee’s eyes opened on the unnatural darkness. Beneath the sound of his own breathing, his own heartbeat, he heard the undercurrent of noise and scowled. He pulled his head out from where he had buried it under the pillows and squinted in the daylight coming through despite the lowered shades. He lay and listened to the noises from downstairs, louder now. He jerked his arm down from where it had been flung over the pillows, holding them in place over top of his head. It had fallen soundly asleep, as Chris himself had been mostly unable to. He lay listening, picking out the individual voices even though he could not hear the words, as the tingling sensation announced the return of full blood flow.

Three days running. Three days of their suspension. Three days of almost constant bickering among themselves. Three days of hovering. Since he himself didn’t seem to be able to do much more than sleep—an annoyingly large percentage of the time—he had taken to burying his head under his pillows to drown them out. Nathan had said something this morning about smothering himself sleeping that way. He had kept his mouth shut, although his immediate thought was that he would never be so lucky.

He held his breath as he rolled over onto his back, the pain in his ribs stabbing at him but not so badly if he didn’t forget and try to inhale too deeply. His other arm, the one that was awake, the one with the hole in it, ached. This whole healing thing was taking entirely too long for his liking.

Two of the voices below grew louder. He heard someone tell both of them to keep it down, and he grimaced to himself. He preferred they keep it louder because if they knew he was awake and thinking about getting up—or God forbid—attempting to take a shower or walk down his own stairs in his own house, or any of a thousand other perfectly normal activities, today’s designated babysitter would be at his side in an instant. Worse yet, today’s designated babysitter was Nathan. And Nathan was harder to shake than a tick in a hound dog’s ear. Chris rolled his eyes and thought, Great. Now I’m startin’ to sound like Buck.

He scowled even harder as he remembered that he had been the one to say he could probably use a hand at the ranch. He was being truthful. He should have known better. He knew they would have been here, invitation or no invitation, but he sure as hell didn’t expect them to be here day and night, night and day. He had tried, subtly even, to inquire whether they didn’t have their own personal business to attend to. Nathan had a fiancée for God’s sake. J.D. had a girlfriend. And Buck hadn’t had a date since—well, since they had told him Chris was dead. Chris ignored the stab of guilt just like he ignored all the rest of the pain—and continued his thought. You’d think Buck would be out there making up for lost time. Josiah and Vin both stubbornly maintained that they didn’t have anything pressing to attend to.

And Ezra. Well, hell, Ezra. The one with whom he did have pressing business. With whom he did have to speak. Ezra was just plain avoiding him. He had been here, certainly. But never when Chris was awake. And had spoken precious little to the others. But he had left telltale signs. The thought made Chris grind his teeth together. His undercover agent was slipping away and this damn healing and sleeping was preventing him from gaining an opportunity to stop it.

The anger drove him to sit up. He reached for the well-worn gray sweatshirt that hung on the foot of the bed. Ignoring the pain in his ribs as he stretched for it, he slid it on over his t-shirt and felt its warmth. He had heard the weatherman say it was a good 75 degrees again today. Why was he so damn cold all the time?

The bickering voices rose louder again. Another voice joined the argument now. The voice that had told them to keep it down before, Nathan’s voice, now told them to take it outside. Buck’s voice shot back quite clearly that Chris wouldn’t hear a damn thing with the pillows over his head. Nathan’s voice rose up again as he was immediately engulfed into the argument. Chris smiled as his ears tracked them, moving from the living room down the front hall into the kitchen. Now was the time.

It took him a full five minutes, but he made it. He came down the stairs, moving as fast as he could. He carried his old running shoes in his hand, sliding silently on stocking feet down the rear hall, past the den, which had become his office, past the laundry, through the mudroom and to the back door. He pulled into the shadows by the boot bench to put on his shoes. Then he held his breath as he opened the door. The hinge had developed a little squeak recently. Luck was with him, and it was covered by the sudden clatter of pans falling onto the kitchen floor, which was followed immediately by a howl of angry protest and a lot of swearing. Chris grinned and hoped guiltily that someone had just dumped Nathan’s healthy nutritional broth onto the floor, sparing him from having to eat it for lunch again.

He closed the door behind him and sidled along the house, out of sight of the windows. Close enough to the corner that he could duck around it if someone came out the door. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes, feeling the sunlight warm his face, feeling the fresh air seep slowly into his lungs, breathing as deeply as he dared, hearing a distant bird, a lowing cow from a farther pasture and the sound of the breeze rattling the new leaves in the trees beyond the yard.

Most of all he heard the silence. Let it surround him. Felt it ease into him and wrap around him like a blanket. Careful not to break the spell, he pushed away from the white siding and made his way around the corner toward the front of the house. Toward the barn.

He remembered once, when Adam had just turned five, he had scolded the boy for some minor transgression. If he had expected the boy to be regretful, this time he was wrong. Adam’s small face darkened like a storm cloud. His auburn brows came together in the center of his nose between his green eyes, and the boy gave his father a glare that must have come with his Larabee genes. It was such a perfect vision of himself that Chris had laughed in spite of himself. He couldn’t help it. The boy fled.

Chris found him later in the hayloft, watching a spider spin a web under one of the windows. His anger was gone, but the tear tracks on his dusty cheeks showed Chris how the time had been spent. Chris had said nothing, just sat down cross-legged beside him, and slung one arm over the boy’s small shoulders, pulling him closer. Adam didn’t say anything either, just climbed into his father’s lap and pulled both of the man’s big arms down across his chest. They stayed that way for a long time, Adam nestled in Chris’s lap, wrapped in Chris’s arms, Chris’s chin resting on Adam’s head, the baby fine hair tickling his nose, the dust of the hayloft settling around them, hearts beating, breathing, just being, and watching that spider spin.

Chris stopped at the memory. Breathed again. Swallowed hard, glad of the physical pain to distract him. He wondered if they’d look for him in the hayloft. He knew where there was a spider—and a web. But it would be so empty watching it alone.

Instead he headed for the horse stalls. He could give Pony an extra carrot. A treat. A reward for not scolding him or nagging him or looking at him worriedly when he thought he wouldn’t be seen. He remembered why he liked horses.

He was so deep in thought that it surprised him to look up and see Vin. The Texan sniper was halfway down the stalls and sweeping. Tanner hadn’t seen him. He pulled back. But it was too late. Tanner turned, gave him a searching look, and went back to sweeping up loose hay.

Chris sighed and ambled into the row of stalls. They were empty. No doubt Vin and Buck had turned the horses into the pasture. He should have thought of that earlier—and found somewhere else to hide. He sat down on the three legged stool he kept by the tool and tack room and shoved his long legs out in front of him.

Vin and his broom both leaned up against a nearby stall. Vin grinned at him crookedly. Sympathetic and mocking all at the same time.

Chris’s answering smile was rueful but defiant.

Neither man said a word.

Vin had come for the silence, too.

Chris had been scolded roundly for his unaccompanied trip to the barn. He brushed it off. Vin had been there. Vin had walked back with him. No damage done. No harm. No foul.

The following day it was the shower and his attempt to do some housework. When he woke that afternoon the kitchen was mysteriously spotless. He headed for the laundry room. Nathan reamed him out as he bent to lift a pile of darks. He dropped the laundry. Spots actually danced in front of his eyes before he stood up, but hell, Nathan didn’t need to know that.

After dinner that evening (his second at the table, sitting upright in his own chair and eating fairly normal food), he told them all he was a big boy. He was not at death’s door. He was not stupid. He knew what he could do and couldn’t do. He would not drown taking a shower or sitting in his hot tub off the side porch. He would not try to drive himself to work. He would not do barn chores. He would take his antibiotics on schedule, change his bandages regularly, and he would eat whatever he felt like eating whenever he damn well pleased. Thanks for your help, but you have to go now and live your own lives.

Silence and angry looks met his pronouncement, which to his own ears sounded rather more like a plea. At that moment, Raine had phoned for Nathan. Her voice was strained. The kitchen faucet had sprung a leak, and she wanted him home—now—to fix it. The “I told you so” never left his lips but was clearly heard by everyone in the room. The uproar was sudden and decisive. Like a large family of overgrown children. By the end of it, they were all standing, yelling at each other. Yelling at him. Nathan slammed the front door on his way out. Two glasses slid off a pile of clean dishes in the drainer and smashed on the kitchen floor. J.D. yelled at Buck for stacking the glasses that way, kicking off another round of accusations, blame, and pointless nitpicking.

Chris slouched down into his chair. You guys are going to kill me¸ he thought. He leaned his head into his palms and breathed hard, hoping the carbon dioxide would calm his pounding pulse. The sweat broke out across his forehead. He gritted his teeth and held on. He had to. If he lost his dinner now, they’d never leave.

Silence made him look up. They were all staring at him. Tense. Anxious. And suddenly he couldn’t stand it anymore. He swore, stood up, picked up his plate, carried it into the kitchen, put everything in the dishwasher and stalked toward the front door, stepping over the shattered glasses still lying on the floor.

He pulled the door open to see Ezra’s startled face on the doorstep, hand poised to ring the doorbell.

“Mr. Larabee,” he drawled, covering his surprise. He noticed the dark scowl. “It appears that you are feeling better.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed. Here Ezra was, finally, and he was awake. And pissed as all hell. Now was not the time to try to convince Ezra to stay.

“Ezra,” Chris growled and stormed out into the darkening evening, a flash of lightning silently lighting up the distant hills, as he stalked across the driveway and toward the pasture.

Ezra watched, transfixed by the length of the stride. So different from a mere five days ago. He turned back to the house, astonished, in time to see Buck fill up the doorway, angry, swearing, grabbing his jacket. Vin appeared behind him like an apparition and grabbed his arm.

“Let him go,” Tanner said.

“Like he needs pneumonia,” Buck growled grabbing another raincoat from the hall closet and shoving Tanner away from him and into the opposite wall with a hard thump.

“Get out of the way Ezra,” Buck snapped, pushing the undercover agent roughly to the side.

“Buck,” J.D.’s voice called from the dining room. “Dammit, will you listen for once?” He started for the door.

Josiah reached out and pulled J.D. back. Buck stalked up the driveway in the direction Chris had gone, rapidly growing flashes intermittently lighting up the gathering gloom as the two men headed across the wide yard. An ominous distant rumbling rolled along the hills.

“Well,” Ezra said calmly, regaining his poker face. “Mr. Larabee is walking well.”

“Shutup,” Vin growled, shoving past Ezra and out to the barn.

Ezra sighed. Despite the fact that it had taken considerable resolve to arrive on the doorstep ready to do battle, this did not seem an auspicious evening for discussing his resignation. Apparently Lady Luck was not done punishing him yet. He stepped inside the house, only to find J.D. kicking the back of a couch and swearing. Accenting each assertion with a new blow to the upholstery.

Josiah was calmly clearing the table of the remains of dinner, nodding his head and offering his moral support at each declaration.

“God damn stubborn…”


“Blind stupid…”

“Also true”


“Yes indeed.”

“Can’t tell him anything.”


“Idiot!” J.D. yelled in frustration, throwing a pillow across the room.

Ezra sidled closer to the profiler. “Precisely which of our teammates might he be talking about?” he inquired.

“Take your pick,” Josiah replied with a shrug. He balanced an enormous stack of dishes in his two hands and headed for the kitchen.

Ezra eyed the remains of dinner and was glad he had eaten at home. He eyed J.D., still in mid-tirade, and followed Josiah into the kitchen.

The profiler set the enormous stack of dishes on the counter, nearly losing a few in the process. Ezra eyed the shattered glasses on the floor.

“Anything happen while I was away?” the southerner asked tentatively.

Josiah shook his head and frowned thoughtfully. “Nope. Nothing unusual,” he said finally.

Ezra rolled his eyes and thought about just getting back into his car and driving away again.

“Will you listen to me you god damn stupid fool?” Buck roared. The wind had picked up, shaking new leaves down from the tree limbs at the edge of the yard. The first big raindrops began to splatter around them.

Larabee stopped, and threw his head back at the sky for a moment before turning to face his oldest friend.

“Go back to the house, Buck,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.

Lightning flashed again, lighting the area white around them. Several seconds passed before the thunder rolled, echoing across the hills beyond the ranch. It was getting closer.

“Go back to the house?” Buck said in disbelief, drawing closer, his head forward against the wind.

The next flash showed Chris’s scowl under the darkening sky. The rain was falling more quickly now, the drops faster and thicker, announcing itself as a roar. They heard it coming toward them across the trees, overtaking them. The skies opened up and poured the water down upon them. Cold. Hard. Making it hard to see.

Neither man paid any mind.

“Gonna stay out here? Gonna catch pneumonia on top of it all?” Buck shouted, showing a savage scowl of his own.

Chris’s lips curled up in a snarl. He glared hotly for a minute. Then he got a hold of himself and turned away before he said something he’d regret.

He hadn’t gone two steps, when a hand on his shoulder whirled him around, throwing him off balance. He stumbled to catch himself, landing hard on the ball of one foot. A stinging pain lanced across the sole of his foot. But he was distracted as Buck reached out, twisted a hand into his collar and yanked him forward.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me!” Buck snarled.

“Let go of me, Buck,” Chris snapped, slipping on the grass as he tried to catch himself. He gave Buck a shove, trying to release himself from Buck’s grip.

Despite the downpour and the dying light, Chris saw the blue eyes blaze.

“Fuck you!” Buck yelled suddenly, shoving Chris backward. Away from him. “Fuck you! Fuck the rain. What do you care? Get fucking pneumonia. Die out here. Don’t let us help you. Doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. You couldn’t care less. Well, the hell with you, Larabee! Here’s your jacket. I’m done.”

He threw the soaking wet jacket at Chris with full force. Chris ducked, but not before the zipper snapped him just outside of his right eye.

“God damn it!” Chris snapped, pressing his fingertips against the stinging spot beside his eye. He saw blood before the rain washed it down his arm. “What the hell is your problem!” he snapped.

“My problem?” Buck roared over the rain, water pouring off his hair and running in rivulets down his jacket and his pants. “You’re my fucking problem, asshole!”

Chris stared at him. Glared at him. But a small part of him had to wonder what the hell he was talking about? He had not seen Buck this angry in a long time. And certainly not at him. He knew he had to tread carefully. That meant keep his temper. God, how he was bad at keeping his temper. Especially where Buck was concerned. He failed this time, too.

“Then go back into the goddamn house and leave me the hell alone,” he shouted back.

He saw Buck’s face contort and knew he was an idiot for sure.

If his feet hadn’t slipped in the soaking grass, if he had remembered that he wasn’t in top form, if he hadn’t misjudged his own weight so badly, he would have gotten away clean. He ducked the left jab to his head grabbing it as it went by, and pulling Buck forward with his own momentum to stumble harmlessly aside and away from him. At least that was what it would have looked like, had it worked. Instead, Buck’s momentum pulled Chris off balance. His feet slipped out from under him and Buck plowed right over top of him. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs into the mud and water. Chris’s head slammed back against the ground. It took him a moment to distinguish the darkness of the sky coming into focus out of the blackness of the tunnel that had closed out his vision for just a second.

“Jesus!” Buck exclaimed, pushing himself onto his hands and knees, scrabbling to get off.

No wonder I can’t breathe, Chris thought fuzzily, feeling the weight leave his chest and water running down his face. He felt like he had been kneed in the stomach. He might have been. He couldn’t quite remember.

Hands in his collar pulled him up to sitting.

Here we go again, Chris thought and started to curl up, knowing he wasn’t going to dodge the blow this time.

“Shit!” Buck snapped. “Shit shit shit!” The next flash of lightning lit up his face. Eyes wide. Horror struck. “Chris?” His voice cracked.

Chris stared at him for a second, trying to comprehend the alarm he saw on his friend’s face.

“You all right?” the soaking blond croaked out finally, finding his breath, finding something of his voice.

“Am I what?” Buck returned, his voice rising in disbelief.

“Are you all right?” Chris asked a little more slowly a little more clearly. What the hell was wrong with Buck? It was a simple enough question.

Buck shook his head. Said nothing. Either to say no. Or in disbelief. Chris wasn’t sure. But he looked him over in the lightning as the big agent stood up, and decided he looked okay. Then he pulled himself painfully out of the puddle of mud he was sitting in and grabbed Buck’s proffered hand. On his feet, he peered more closely into his friend’s face. Satisfied, he nodded.

“Jesus,” Chris said, shoving his streaming hair back out of his eyes. “That look on your face scared me half to death.”

Buck’s face twisted into a strange expression. And without warning Chris found himself engulfed by two impossibly long arms, hard enough to push the air out of him.

“I ought to shoot you,” Buck growled, his voice rough, pushing Chris away again.

Chris shrugged the arms off, amazed at the weight of his soaking clothes.

“Can I get into dry clothes first?” he asked, trying not to sound like he had lost his wind, but the cough betrayed him.

Buck did not laugh at the joke. Instead, one large Buck Wilmington hand snaked around the back of Chris’s neck and propelled him firmly toward the house.

Chris rolled his eyes, but kept silent and let Buck push him back across the yard. After all, a little rain wasn’t going to hurt him. He’d spent enough damn time in it to know.

His thought was silenced and his evening got suddenly worse when he saw Nathan’s car parked in the driveway. God dammit, he thought bitterly. Can’t I even catch a little break?

He was back because he had forgotten something. He took one look at Chris and Buck coming back through the door, sopping, muddy, at least one of them bleeding, and threw his hands in the air in frustration. “What the hell is wrong with you people?”

“Don’t you have a faucet to fix?” Chris growled.

Nathan narrowed his eyes. “Looks like I have to fix your fool head.”

Too late, he had forgotten the blood trickling slowly down the side of his face. He had thought the rain would wash the evidence away.

“What happened?” Nathan demanded.

Chris and Buck very obviously did not exchange a glance or say a single word. They kept their mouths shut. Did not give anything away. They did not have to. Their blabbermouth teammates were apparently all too ready and willing to tell Nathan everything they had seen from the sliding glass doors to the porch. The accused had no chance to say anything before Chris was whisked soaking wet upstairs and Buck, still dripping on the hardwood, suddenly found himself surrounded by the executors of the inquisition.

Seated on the bathtub in the master bath, in warm, dry sweats and a t-shirt, with new bandages on his arm and knuckles, Chris held an antiseptic-soaked gauze pad against the cut on the side of his head and strained to hear the voices in the living room below, rising and falling, back and forth, all at once. His efforts were impeded by Nathan, who kept asking him questions.

“Nathan,” he said finally, pulling the pad from his head and tossing it into the wastebasket, “Nothing happened. I don’t have pneumonia. I don’t have hypothermia, and I didn’t break anything open.”

“That’s not the point!” Nathan snapped.

Chris cocked an eyebrow at the medic. “It’s not?” he asked.

Nathan glowered at him. “All right. Yeah. It is the point—but did you have to make him mad enough to hit you?”

Chris shrugged. “It’s a gift,” he said with a grin. “Besides,” he pointed out, “he missed.”

“He fell on you!” Nathan protested. “Coulda sent those ribs right back through your lung!”

“Nathan,” Chris interrupted before Nathan could work up a full head of steam. “They’ve been healing for four weeks now. And Buck ain’t that heavy.”

Nathan eyed him doubtfully.

“Now if it were Josiah…” Chris cracked.

Nathan snorted. “You got a death wish?” he growled. “Cause if you’re gonna get Josiah mad enough to hit you, I’m quitting.”

Chris laughed, ran a towel over his hair and pulled on a nice warm sweatshirt.

“You sure you feel all right?” Nathan asked, serious again.

Chris sighed. He supposed he at least owed the medic his honesty, whether he wanted to tell the truth or not. “I’m sore,” he said. “And tired. And sick of being sore and tired. And I’m sick of people hovering over me and treating me like I’m made of glass. I’m not going to do anything stupid. Please just let me get on with it.”

“Not do anything stupid?” Nathan said tartly. “What was this?” He threw the sopping wet clothes into the bathtub and Chris threw his towel down on the puddle they had left on the tile floor.

“That was me, fresh air, and a misunderstanding between myself and Buck,” Chris replied pointedly.

“It was pouring!” Nathan snapped.

“Not when I went out,” Chris snapped back.

“He tried to hit you!”

“Nathan…” Chris said through his teeth. “Haven’t we already talked about this?”

Nathan halted. Chris was right. He was hovering. Chris might not be one to take all his meds, get extra sleep, or take his time in healing, but he wasn’t stupid. And Nathan knew for sure that Chris had no plans to continue feeling like this. But still he couldn’t stop thinking about the storage room, the blood on the floor, the bootprint shaped bruises, the medical reports, and worse, the two weeks Chris had spent alone. Strapped down and pincushioned with machines and tubes and wires. And not one of them had been there beside him. Not one.

Chris was looking at him. Head to one side. Whatever he was thinking he kept to himself. His lips quirked up. “Are we done? I gotta go save Buck.”

“Fine,” Nathan snapped. Smart ass. He refused to smile. There was nothing funny about this. He turned to put the antiseptic bottle back under the sink. Then Chris was gone.

“You had to hit him. You couldn’t just walk away?”

“You couldn’t just leave it alone. You had to go after him.”

“What were you thinking?”

“Lay a hand on him again, and I’ll break your fucking neck.” This last was Vin. His eyes were blazing.

He and J.D. were right up in Buck’s face, double-teaming him. Wilmington stood uncomfortably next to the stairs, a gathering puddle at his feet, trying hard to control his temper, while rain water dropped steadily from his hair, running down his neck, dripping off his pantlegs, and the bottom of his slicker.

Josiah stood over all three of them as if he were a referee. Ezra was in Chris’s recliner, feet up, one hand holding his right temple. He was the first one to see Chris come down the stairs.

The others didn’t notice him until he spoke, his voice low, serious.

“Leave him alone,” Chris said.

Vin and J.D. looked up, both still hot.

Chris looked at Buck. “Go get changed,” he said, tilting his head toward the upstairs and escape. Buck moved around behind him and went up the stairs, Chris’s eyes challenging any of his teammates to try to follow him.

Josiah shot Chris a grateful look.

Vin gave Chris a look that could have melted lead and turned on his heel. He slammed the door to the den so hard it made Chris wince.

J.D. shook his head in disbelief. “He hit you!” he finally stuttered.

“He didn’t hit me,” Chris said evenly.

“Not for lack of trying,” Ezra muttered from the chair.

Chris ignored the undercover agent and maintained his fix on J.D. “Leave him be,” he said firmly. Clearly. An order.

“He hit you! For no good reason!” J.D. sputtered again.

Chris nearly grinned at the outburst. Caught himself at the last second. “J.D.,” he said patiently. “It’s not like I’ve never hit Buck for no reason.”

J.D. halted. He didn’t know how to answer.

Chris continued. “Buck and I have been beating the tar out of each other almost as long as you’ve been alive. Reason or no reason,” he said. “Just stay out of it.”

“Isn’t that touching?” Ezra mumbled from the chair. He looked away as Chris looked up at him. He could feel Chris’s gaze from across the room and against his will turned back to face him.

You and I have something we need to discuss, the green gaze said. Almost as clearly as if the team leader had spoken the words aloud.

I should have left when I had the chance, Ezra chided himself. He still wondered why he hadn’t. He had very good reasons. One of which was the spectacle he had just witnessed through the porch door. They had all just about leapt through the glass when they saw Buck go down on top of Chris. They stopped breathing until Chris got up again. Ezra didn’t even think his heart settled back down into its proper appointed position inside his chest until now when Chris came down the stairs. The truth was, he just didn’t know whether he could endure this again.

With the clear-eyed sobriety his mother had impressed upon him from early on, he realized that his resignation was an easy exit. An open door. And it had already been handed in. Why then, couldn’t he just cut the strings? Tell them all that it had been interesting and professionally productive, but he was moving on. He had done it before. Why was it so damn hard now?

Ezra lifted his head from his hand and looked at Chris guardedly. Shields in place. “Shouldn’t someone go check on Mr. Tanner?” he inquired. A poor ruse, by which he simply hoped to gather time to escape.

Larabee didn’t bite, of course. “I think that will hold until Vin’s cooled off some,” Chris said with a grim smile. “I go in there now, Vin’s liable to take my head off.”

“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra began, with a tired sigh. He paused, his brain flying through his options for telling Chris something, anything, to hold him off. The truth was out, of course. What would he say?

In my utter stupidity, I have managed to run out on you, yet again, Mr. Larabee. And, no, I can’t think of a single good reason for you to fight the powers that be to get me back—aside from my inherent charm, of course.

He grimaced as he imagined how that would play. Besides it might be true. Maybe Chris wouldn’t see a reason to fight the brass either. Not after the letter AND invading Bautiste’s home.

More words popped into his head. I’ll come back if you can guarantee I’ll never have to live through another disaster like this.

He shuddered inside. Too close to the bone. Too much given away. And there were no such guarantees.

At last he considered the simple, ‘I don’t believe I am ready to discuss my career just yet. I still need time to consider my options. Followed by a quick exit.

That would work.

Ezra watched the blond head tilt sideways, expectantly, fix him with that familiar mind-reading gaze. But he didn’t have the urge to try to beat it today. Didn’t want his thoughts read. Didn’t want to share his fear, his stupidity. He felt naked, exposed.

Just say it, Ezra, he told himself. Say your lines. It’s not that hard.

He cleared his throat, “The truth is, I don’t believe I am ready to discuss my career just now. I still need some time to consider my options.”

He was aware as he rose and headed toward the door how harsh it sounded as it left his lips. It had played better in his head. But that was not to be helped.

“Ezra,” Chris said softly behind him. “Travis gave me the letter.”

It was all he could do not to stop dead in his tracks. He forced himself to keep going. Chris had read the letter. Then what, pray tell, did he think he could do to mitigate the obvious insubordination, intended insult, and let’s not forget the not-so-subtle accusation that the brass had actually fabricated accusations against him in the past? What good would it do the team or Chris Larabee to throw himself back in front of the proverbial firing squad anyway? And how on earth could Ezra let him throw his own career to the wind to protect them again? He had some personal integrity, after all.

At the continued silence from his talkative undercover agent, Chris exhaled. A sound that Ezra was very familiar with. It was the sound of Chris Larabee controlling his formidable temper. Ezra was nearly to the door when he heard the footfall right behind him. Surprised at the speed in which he had covered the distance.

The hand on his shoulder turned him around. He expected to face the infamous Larabee glare. And he steeled himself to not look away. But the look he got was different. Intense. It shot right through him. He realized he’d prefer the glare.

“Ezra,” Chris said quietly, but with a force that caused Ezra to back up one step. “I can’t fix this if you won’t let me.”

Ezra’s eyes lit on the brand new cut on Chris’s temple. Thoughts of the letter fled from him. The letter was not the problem.

Chris saw the sea-green eyes of his undercover agent fill with anger. Saw the brows come down in a scowl.

“How are you going to fix this?” Ezra hissed, incredulous. He waved his hand behind him toward the door and the yard beyond. “Please don’t patronize me by telling me you can make it all better. Maybe you could, but you won’t.”

Chris flinched at the words, but he didn’t show it. What the hell was Ezra talking about? The resignation was an easy fix. He just needed Ezra to rescind it.

He pursed his lips. Was there some other problem he didn’t know about? “Unless you tell me the problem,” he said calmly. “I can’t do anything about it. You’ve tied my hands.”

Chris’s continued calm had its usual effect. Somewhere in the pit of Ezra’s stomach, he felt a fuse ignite. Felt it begin to burn. Didn’t know whether he could control it this time.

Ezra stared at Chris, from the new cut on his temple to the bruises to the fading pink lines where parts of his face had been stitched back together. To the bandages on his knuckles, one showing blood where he had popped a stitch. Again. Ezra could still envision the stitches in his team leader’s arm. It all replayed in his mind’s eye with an attention to detail that he had trained and cultivated from early childhood. The infected bullet holes. The livid bruising. The harsh breathing and the smell of the fever. Buck, shaking with fear, dragging Chris through shattered glass, banging his head against the metal cabinet. Calling him back. The scene switched to an imagining of tubes and wires and straps holding Chris down unconscious for nearly two weeks. Could again hear the sorrow in Vin’s voice as he mumbled an apology in the darkened hospital room. An apology for not being there, an apology for leaving him behind.

Ezra’s stomach churned. Fire rushed up from his belly, consuming him. He felt the roots of his hair catch flame. His eyes were ablaze. He lost his control.

“Tell you the problem?” he nearly exploded. A voice in the back of his head told him to regain control. Get his wits about him like his Mother had taught him. He ignored the voice. “I shouldn’t have to tell you the problem. You created the problem. You are the problem.”

Next thing he knew he was shouting. He didn’t care. “You did this to us!”

Chris stared at him in astonishment.

He stared back at Chris. The tirade stopped. Died. Cut off. A strange bleak look washed over Standish’s features.

“You don’t understand,” Ezra said softly. Hollow. He squinted at Chris again. Then shook his head. He repeated his words with firm, regretful certainty. “And you never will understand.”

It wasn’t so much Ezra’s words that stopped Chris from formulating a response as the strident tone, the distress behind them. But there was no time to ponder it. Standish had pulled open the door and disappeared into the storm. The wind as he opened the door nearly wrenched the door out of Chris’s hand. He wanted to go after the undercover agent. Pin him down. Order him to stop. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Ezra’s words were still ringing in his ears. You did this... You are the problem.

The Jaguar’s engine purred to life and roared into reverse. Turning. Fleeing. Away from him. Away from the team.

He swore viciously. Some of it aimed at himself. Some of it aimed at Standish. He had no delusions. He had known that he had played a large part in Ezra’s resignation. He had simply hoped that the team would keep Ezra here long enough to figure out how to patch up the holes. He had failed at that strategy, too. And now that Ezra was gone, he didn’t know if he could get the stubborn, temperamental, slippery undercover agent back.

Behind him he heard the den door close again. Vin. Witness to it all. Maybe he’d walk next. Maybe they all should walk.

Chris closed his eyes, suddenly off balance, suddenly aware of the cut on the side of his head, his aching ribs, his stinging feet, the hollow pain in his arm. Suddenly aware of all of it. Angry. Again at that familiar crossroads where he had no one to blame but himself.

Josiah came back from checking on Buck and found his team leader at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee untouched before him, his head in his hands, the bottle of prescription painkillers in the center of the table. The profiler poured himself a cup of the steaming brew, pulled out a chair and slid silently into it, regarding his team leader thoughtfully.

A long moment passed before Chris raised his head.

“Nathan go?” Josiah asked.

“Yup,” Chris grimaced fingering the bottle in front of him. The medic had slapped the painkillers onto the table in front of him. Had tried to initiate a conversation and found his team leader hostile. With an angry scowl of his own he said something about needing to attend to his own problems instead of all the stubborn fools in the world.

“Ezra, too,” Chris said tightly, his grimace deepening.

“I heard,” Josiah said lightly.

Chris nodded. Said nothing.

“Vin still in the den?” Josiah asked.

Chris shrugged. He thought so. But there was a back door after all. He wouldn’t blame the sharpshooter for using it as an escape route.

“I left J.D. upstairs with Buck,” Josiah said to the unasked question.

Chris nodded. “They okay?”

“They’re okay,” Josiah answered.

In actuality, he had found Buck in the guest bathroom staring at his hands. In a voice so soft Josiah could hardly hear him, he recited a litany of what might have happened out in the yard. Josiah had to interrupt him to remind him that it didn’t happen. That everyone was fine. Then J.D. entered, and Josiah watched Buck swallow everything he was about to admit, pulling the wounds closed, to be the mentor, the invincible big brother, the seasoned agent that nothing rattles, everything he thought J.D. would need him to be. Josiah left, grateful that J.D. knew Buck too well to fall for that.

Josiah admitted none of this. He knew better than to add fuel to the fire. “Thinking of taking those?” he asked instead, nodding at the bottle.

“Thinking about it,” Chris said quietly.

“For the pain or as punishment?” Josiah asked. His voice held no recrimination, but still he saw the anger flash across Chris’s eyes if only for a moment. It was followed immediately by a different expression. Something old and unpleasant and familiar. And silence.

Josiah sighed. He waited as the silence deepened, and he knew that it would be up to him to carry this conversation. “I’m asking if you’re okay,” he asked finally.

Chris smiled a bitter smile. Who was Josiah trying to kid? He was a profiler. He could read the signs. He wouldn’t need to ask. But if he wanted Chris to play, he could sure as hell make the effort. Maybe he would manage not to piss off EVERYONE tonight. “In what way?” he asked resignedly.

“Any way you care to talk about,” the profiler replied easily, taking a sip of coffee. It was strong and dark. The way he liked it.

He watched the look of regret cross Chris’s face. The team leader took a deep breath.

“I know this hasn’t been easy on anyone.” He hesitated. “And I haven’t exactly been easy to deal with either.” He stopped. Stuck.

Josiah pressed his lips together in thought. “You think you’re the reason everyone’s at each other’s throats?” he asked, plunging right in.

Chris didn’t reply, but Josiah could read the answer in his face. “You think we’re all angry at you?”

Chris shrugged. Yeah. Vin’s reaction at the bottom of the stairs told him in no uncertain terms how Vin was feeling. He’d made Buck mad enough to try to deck him. He’d never seen J.D. so argumentative in the whole time he’d known him. Nathan was at the end of his patience. And Ezra wanted to quit the team because of him. “Yeah I think you’re all angry at me,” he said hotly. “And you have a right to be. I...”

Josiah cut him off before he could say anything else. “If you are about to confess that this debacle is all your fault,” the profiler said sternly, “I think there are a few things you need to understand.”

Chris glared at him, surprise warring with his anger.

“First, we might well all be dead if you hadn’t redeployed us back at that warehouse.”

He saw Chris blanch, read his shift in his chair as a prelude to retreat.

Josiah hurried to his next point. “The second is that you’re right. We have a right to be angry.” He leaned forward to get Chris’s attention. “In fact it’s perfectly normal. I’d be more worried if we weren’t all at each other’s throats right now.”

Chris continued to look at him, uncomprehending.

Josiah shook his head in disbelief. Some people needed to be beaten over the head before they could see the obvious. And sometimes Chris Larabee was one of those people. “Don’t you recognize it? This anger?” he asked softly. “It’s part of the grieving process.”

Chris jerked backward in his chair as if Josiah had hit him. “Grief?” he choked. “Grief about what? In case you hadn’t noticed, nobody died.” He knew he was being sarcastic, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Fortunately, Josiah had a thick skin. The big man shook his grizzled salt and pepper head. He reached across the table and placed a hand on Chris’s arm. Holding him down. “Just because what you were grieving is removed, doesn’t mean you can stop the process in its tracks. It takes time.”

Chris stared at him, comprehension dawning slowly, then in a rush. “Shit,” he spat vehemently. Standish’s words in his head. You did this to us.

He tried to pull away, but Sanchez tightened his hold. Unable to retreat, he avoided the profiler’s eyes.

“Don’t you go blaming yourself, Brother,” Josiah said softly, firmly.

Chris looked back up at him incredulously. “Who the hell else am I supposed to blame?” Chris snapped.

Josiah shrugged. “Richter, the militia, God, the President. Whoever you have to.” He poked a finger at Chris’s chest. “Just not you.”

Chris stared at him bewildered.

“You saved us,” he said more forcefully.

Chris scowled. “I didn’t save you,” he snapped. “I did my goddamn job.”

“At the warehouse, sure,” Josiah said, smiling slightly at Chris’s confusion. He would have disagreed, but chose to stick the road he began on. “But that’s not what I meant.”

Chris glared at him. Josiah read the anger and confusion. “Make sense, preacher man, I’m a little low on patience,” the team leader growled.

“You saved us by surviving,” Josiah replied. “By coming back.”

Chris managed to pull his arm back, but only because Josiah was afraid he’d pull out the stitches if he held too hard. He could see Chris trying to digest the words. Then he watched his friend and leader reject them, push them away. Saw the green eyes flick toward the door.

Josiah moved his hand to Chris’s shoulder, firmly, pinning him down. “Don’t you know by now?” Josiah asked, softly, intently, his tone carrying the weight of his words. “You built this team. You’re the lynchpin that keeps it together.”

“Bullshit,” Chris responded automatically, heatedly. If that was true, if Josiah was right, if his team depended on him to keep it together, to keep running, then his entire leadership strategy had failed. Miserably. No wonder the team was falling apart.

He swore again then jerked roughly out from under Josiah’s arm, sliding his chair back, upending it as he gained his feet. He threw one last peculiar burning glare at the profiler and he was gone.

Josiah did not follow. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” he quoted into the empty kitchen, although the person who needed to hear it most was well out of earshot.

It was late by the time Ezra made the decision to turn his car toward home. He had driven it aimlessly, angrily, breaking speed limits until he had to pull over off the highway to calm his shaking hands. His head was whirling and inside it, many voices clamored to give him advice, voices that sounded suspiciously like a mixture of his mother, his teammates and even one or two of his many stepfathers. He valiantly ignored them all. When he turned in his driveway, though, one of them got a lot harder to ignore, since it had parked its beat up, paint-peeling, topless, soaking wet, eyesore of a jeep in his driveway. Worse yet, the owner of the voice was sitting on his doorstep, heedless of the downpour, and giving him the evil eye as he turned in.

Ezra considered not getting out of his car at all, but realized that wasn’t really an option. He sighed, turned off the ignition, and vowed to keep his dignity through at least one conversation this evening.

“Mr. Tanner,” he drawled, pulling up the collar of his coat.

“Ez,” Vin returned.

Ezra stopped in front of the soaking sharpshooter. “You are aware that it is raining?”

Vin’s lips turned up in a snide smile. “I noticed. Are you gonna let me in?”

Ezra looked down at him thoughtfully. “That depends. Did Mr. Larabee send you?”

Vin snorted. “Hell no,” he said. “He tuckered himself out hollerin’ at Nathan and Josiah after you went stomping out into the rain like a damn fool.”

Ezra raised his eyebrows at his sodden teammate and then his jeep, the one that had no top. The one he couldn’t drive all winter because it filled up with snow. The one with a puddle ankle-deep forming behind the driver’s door.

Ezra put his key in his lock. “Just how long have you been lurking on my doorstep?”

Vin looked at his watch. “Couple hours,” he said calmly.

“And yet no one called the police?” Ezra muttered, keying off his security system, and motioning to Vin to stay on the doormat.

“Who says they didn’t?” Vin grinned, toeing off his wet boots. He pulled his badge from his pocket and waved it at the undercover agent. “I just flashed ‘em my Get Outta Jail Free card.”

Ezra rolled his eyes. “So much for this being a safe neighborhood.”

He disappeared into the dark interior and came back a moment later with a stack of towels. He thrust two into Vin’s arms and spread the rest on the floor.

“I guess you ain’t gonna invite me to set a spell?” Vin asked, smirking.

“Not on my furniture,” Ezra replied. He went into the kitchen to make tea.

Vin stripped off his soaking jacket, pulled off his socks, and leaned back against the wall.

“Tea, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked with feigned politeness.

“Got anythin’ stronger?” Vin asked.

Ezra rolled his eyes. “Shall we dispense with the small talk and come to the point?” Ezra said. “Why are you here?”

Vin grinned to himself. “Thought you’d never ask.”

He pushed off the wall, and moved into the kitchen, following the trail of towels on the floor. “I came to tell you to stop bein’ a damn fool and just come back.”

Ezra stared at him. “I beg your pardon.”

“So yer mad. But you got no call to blame Larabee because you wrote some damn letter of resignation. It ain’t his fault.”

Ezra narrowed his eyes. “Does everyone know about my letter?” he asked.

Vin shrugged. “Don’t know. But when ya don’t talk so much, you hear a lot more.”

Ezra understood the dig. He gave Vin a poison glare, but did not rise to the bait. “It’s not about the letter,” he said. “And what I am angry about is between Mr. Larabee and me.”

Vin shrugged, but he never took his eyes of Ezra’s face. He weighed his next words carefully. “What do ya want from him Ez? 'Cause I don’t think he can give it to you.”

Ezra blanched but recovered quickly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, suddenly giving more attention to the proper brewing of his tea.

“Maybe you don’t.” Vin said quietly. “But I do.”

He was still staring at Ezra. Ezra glared back. “Really?” he drawled slowly, dangerously. “Since you have apparently acquired supernatural talents, please enlighten this poor ignorant fool.”

Vin regarded him silently. “I will if you want me to, or you can just stop bein’ an ignorant fool and admit it to yourself, so you can stop actin’ like an idiot.”

“Idiot?” Ezra snapped, putting down his spoon. “In case it escaped your notice. I am not the one who spent two hours sitting in the rain.”

“A little rain ain’t gonna hurt me,” Vin replied. “It wasn’t gonna hurt Chris either, an’ if Buck hadn’t lost his head, Chris mighta just turned around and come back when it started rainin’.”

Ezra stared at him. “Whether Mr. Larabee has the sense to come in out of the rain or not is not of my concern,” he said coldly.

“Sure it ain’t, Ez.” Vin said lightly, indifferently. “That’s why it’s got ya all riled up.” He turned suddenly toward the door. But he paused and looked back.

Ezra felt the blue-eyed gaze go right through him.

“I’m angry, too,” Vin said. “But at least I got the sense to know what I’m angry at.”

Ezra’s eyes narrowed. The blue eyes stared, challenging, unrelenting. Ezra moved out from behind the kitchen counter and Vin tensed. But he turned all the way back around to face his teammate, wondering whether Ezra was angry enough to resort to violence.

Ezra’s first instinct was to deny it. To say, he wasn’t angry, but he knew how ludicrous that was. He was angry. He was angrier than he could remember being in a very long time. He paused. That wasn’t strictly true. He had been this angry. Just four weeks ago. It had just been followed by a long period of being numb and trying to stay that way. He stared at Vin. His throat was dry.

The blue eyes softened. “Hell, Ezra, I just thought you should know you ain’t alone.”

Ezra unclenched his fists and turned back to the counter to retrieve his tea. He recovered his voice and his unflappable face. “Alone in what, Mr. Tanner?”

Vin smirked. “We gotta do this the hard way then?” he asked.

Ezra took a long sip of his nice, hot tea before he replied calmly. “We don’t have to do this at all. Whatever this is.”

Vin’s smirk grew wider, and Ezra had the sudden urge to wipe it off his face.

“You were right, you know,” Vin said.

“Well mark it on the calendar and call the President,” Ezra said snidely. “Vin Tanner has declared that Ezra P. Standish was right.”

Vin ignored him and continued. “He doesn’t understand. And he probably ain’t ever gonna understand.”

Ezra moved off into the living room. Away from the conversation. Vin followed to the edge of the carpet.

“Ya can’t blame him fer what he’s just too blind to see. An’ if yer lookin’ for a guarantee that he ain’t never gonna do it again, yer just foolin’ yerself.”

“Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said with a sigh. “I really don’t think that…”

Vin advanced onto the carpet, ignoring the southerner completely, coming toward him, still talking. “He ain’t never gonna put himself before us. He ain’t never gonna stand by and let somethin’ happen to his team if he can prevent it.”

Ezra talked louder. “Mr. Tanner…”

Vin kept coming. “He’s still gonna take chances, while he’s reaming the rest of us out for takin’ chances.”

“Vin,” Ezra said even more loudly.

The Texan was relentless. He didn’t stop until he was standing at the couch, facing Ezra, from two feet away. “He’s still gonna think that getting’ himself hurt or killed is a small price to pay for keepin’ the team alive and together. An’ he’s probably still gonna think that when that happens we’ll all just go on with our lives like nothin’ happened.”

“Stop!” The word echoed in the corners of the living room, as the tea sloshed over the undercover agent’s hand onto the carpet. The burnt hand went to his eyes. “Stop,” he rasped.

“You wanted the truth,” Vin replied.

Ezra dragged the hand down his face. It came to rest over his mouth, and he regarded Vin slowly. The blue eyes were grave, serious. But they held something else. Something Ezra wanted and couldn’t get to.

“And you accept that?” he asked finally.

Vin shrugged. “I don’t know if accept is the right word. But I came to realize somethin’.”

“What was that?” Ezra asked, a note of sarcasm edging defensively into his voice.

A corner of Vin’s lip quirked up into a half smile. “I realized I can’t change anyone but me.”

The other corner quirked up suddenly, too. “Besides, that’s what makes him who he is. Don’t know if I’d work for him if he were different.”

Ezra stared at him.

Vin shrugged again, embarrassed. “Don’t think he’d be the friend he is.”

Ezra felt his own face turn red at Vin’s admission. Yet he didn’t know why. It wasn’t like there was anyone on the team who didn’t know that Tanner would give his right arm, both kidneys and his liver to Chris Larabee if the man asked him for them. Even Buck knew it, though he sometimes pretended not to notice. Ezra felt suddenly like he was walking where he did not belong. Still Vin had opened the door.

Ezra sat down on a couch. “That might work for you,” he said slowly. “But I can’t do this again.” What happens next time? Ezra thought. Next time when it’s you, Vin, or Buck, or, God forbid, J.D.? When it’s Josiah or Nathan? I can’t do this. I can’t.

Vin watched the expression in the sea-green eyes grow slowly bleaker. He looked down at his feet and noticed the wet carpet. Perhaps he had made a mistake in coming here. Perhaps Ezra knew his own limitations.

The undercover agent didn’t talk about it, but Vin was a shrewd judge of people. Growing up on the streets he had learned the hard way. He had realized right off that Ezra hadn’t had too many friends in this life. He was scared of what attachments might cost him.

Vin shook his head sadly. “Look, no one can promise it won’t happen again just this way. Or even that next time it won’t be for real. But like Nathan once said, ‘Just ‘cause you lose someone, does it mean you’re sorry you ever had ‘em?’”

Ezra rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, and the corners of his mouth turned down. “Mr. Jackson ought to know that quoting Mr. Larabee is a dangerous habit,” he replied.

“Only if he hears you, Ez,” Vin said.

He turned on his heel. “I’ll let myself out,” he said. “Sorry about the mess.”