by BMP

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Long after the door closed, long after the jeep and its holey exhaust system roared away, long after the sharpshooter’s words stopped rolling around in the undercover agent’s head, long after blessed silence had fallen both in the house and inside his head, Ezra Standish stayed sitting on the sofa, motionless, tea forgotten, staring at the wall.

“I just don’t think we should have left him,” J.D. said, a new variation of the same thing he had said five times on the ride home.

Buck gave an exasperated sigh, as he hung up his wet coat. “For the last time, J.D., we talked about this. If I thought there was something to worry about, I’d have stayed. Vin’ll be back there in a couple of hours. Nothing is going to happen to him.”

“You don’t know that Buck,” J.D. retorted.

Buck stopped what he was doing and turned to face his roommate, giving him a long look.

“Quit lookin’ at me like that,” J.D. snapped. “I just said I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Buck squinted at him harder. He pursed his lips, looking like a cat trying to hide a mouse in its mouth. “This thing’s really got you rattled,” he said matter of factly.

“I’m not rattled,” J.D. retorted, picking the remote out from behind a cushion and dropping onto the sagging couch. He clicked on the TV.

Buck came around the couch after him and turned the TV off again.

J.D. sighed in exasperation.

Buck regarded him for a moment before quietly asking, “Did ya buy the whole Larabee myth?”

J.D. looked away. Buck ought to know he wasn’t in any mood to be taunted.

Buck dropped into his chair. The one that had finally been moved away from the window and back into its place between the couches.

“Which parts did he ruin for ya?” Buck asked. “The part where you think he can repel bullets with his thick skull and tough hide, or the part where he can leap tall buildings in a single bound?”

“Shut up, Buck,” J.D. said resentfully. “I’m not in the mood.”

“I’m serious, kid,” Buck said, a small sad smile flickering across his face. “Hell, it’s easy enough to want to believe it.”

“I’m not stupid,” J.D. shot back.

“Never said you were,” Buck said evenly. He continued unperturbed. “What about the part about being a cold-hearted, arrogant, self-serving, vigilante bastard?”

J.D.’s eyes blazed cold fury as he opened his mouth to reply.

Buck cut him off with a casual wave of his hand. “So you didn’t buy that one. What makes you think the other parts were true then?”

J.D. stared at him.

Buck sighed.

“He ain’t a superhero, kid,” Buck said tiredly. “He’s just a man.”

Conflicting emotions ran across the youth’s face.

Buck continued with a small smile. “Granted he’s one of the six best men I know. And hell if I don’t half believe the part about him being just too damn stubborn and ornery to kill.”

He smiled and eyed J.D. “When he took you on, you hit gold. On your first time out, too. Someday you’ll realize that. I’ve been around the block enough times to know there’s no one I’d rather have at the helm or at my back. But don’t make him out to be more than he is.”

J.D. stared at his feet, his lips tight, turned down at the corners.

Buck reached out and patted his leg. “I’ve known him more than half my life, kid,” he said with a knowing grin. “I’ve seen his best and his worst. And I know him almost better than I know myself. If you let yourself believe the myth, you might miss out on the man. And that would be a damn shame.”

“I got it already,” J.D. said irritatedly. “I heard you. He’s just a man. Don’t make him out to be a hero.”

Buck snorted. “Don’t you listen boy?” he said, shaking his head. “He don’t need you to make him a hero. He’s a goddamn hero, all right. I said he ain’t no superhero.”

J.D. stared at Buck in disbelief. “What?” he asked, completely uncomprehending.

Buck laughed and got to his feet. “Boy, you have a lot to learn.”

He laughed all the way to the stairs before J.D.’s voice stopped him.

“You shouldn’t have tried to hit him,” J.D. said.

“I know,” Buck said resignedly.

“Why did you?” J.D. asked.

Buck smiled. “Sometimes I do that when he scares the hell out of me.” He looked down at the floor. “Old habit, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’s what Chris tried to tell me.” J.D. shook his head. “Sounds pretty stupid to me.”

Buck’s gaze was far away, and he smiled as he answered. “Yup.” He turned his focus back on J.D. “Wanna see something?”

J.D. shrugged and moved toward the stairs.

He followed Buck to his room and waited patiently, hands in his pocket while the big agent dug in the back of the top shelf of his closet.

“Sarah thought it was pretty stupid, too. One time when we were in the DPD, Chris and me came back from a bust that went really bad. We were mad at each other. Mad at the bad guys. Mad at everyone and everything. We didn’t even get out of the locker room before we started whaling the tar out of each other. The captain had to come and break us up. Chris and me both got stitches and Sarah had to pick us up at the hospital. Man, she was steamed!” He shook his head and grinned at the memory. “So she decided to teach us a lesson.”

He paused to reach a little farther back on the shelf. J.D. saw the satisfied smile on his face. Then he pulled down a flat cardboard box. He carried it to the bed and sat down. J.D. came over and sat down beside him.

“Anyway,” Buck continued. “She made us stand in the hall while she took photos of our black eyes and our stitches. If we were so damn proud of them, she said, then we ought not to mind putting them on display for the whole world. Later on, after she calmed down, she asked us what the fight had been about.” He smiled, remembering it like yesterday, as he told J.D. the punchline. Both men had pointed at the other and replied in unison, “He almost got himself shot.”

“She made us a photo album,” Buck said, slowly taking the cover off the box. “Course it didn’t work out like she hoped. We were supposed to be embarrassed. But we liked it too much. And in the end, we just kept adding to it.”

He pulled a small photo album from the box, ran a hand over the cover and handed it to J.D. It was designed to be a wedding album. And there was a space in the front cover for a photo of the happy couple. Instead, a neat, hand-printed title adorned the cover: “Punch Me in the Face and Tell Me You Love Me: Understanding Larabee/Wilmington Fist Dialect”.

Buck watched J.D. laugh as he opened the pages, a younger Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, smirking back at him, unrepentant through stitches and black eyes, wearing slings and bandages, walking on crutches. Wrestling each other into headlocks. Boxing. And sparring in karate tournaments.

“It wasn’t all from fights,” Buck explained. “When he found out Sarah was pregnant, Chris decided we ought to set a better example.” He sighed sadly. “Guess we don’t have anyone to set an example for anymore.”

The last page bore a picture of the two of them pretending to choke the living daylights out of each other. J.D. smiled and closed the album.

Buck put it back into the box, placing a small, brown teddy bear, whose fur had worn bare in spots on top of it.

“Adam’s,” Buck said quietly. “I gave it to him when he was born. He took it everywhere. Wore the fur right off.”

J.D. nodded and watched Buck replace the cover carefully. He wanted to ask Buck how come he had these. Why they were in the back of his closet instead of at the ranch. But he didn’t want to intrude.

Buck seemed to read his mind, as always. “When he kicked me out of his life, I took ‘em,” he said. “I wanted something to keep the memories.”

“Does he know you have them?” J.D. asked.

Buck smiled bitterly. “I doubt it,” he replied, placing the box back on the shelf where it had been. “You gotta understand. After they died, he packed up a lot of stuff and put it out of sight. Like he couldn’t stand to lay eyes on it. But he couldn’t get rid of everything. So he moved out for a while. Lived in a run down little apartment. I guess he forgot I still had a key. So I went back and found these stuffed in a box in the hall closet.”

“You figured he’d never notice,” J.D. finished.

Buck grinned and scratched his head. “I left a note,” he said. “I figured if he ever came to his senses, he might want to know what happened to the album.”

“As for the bear,” Buck said quietly. “He had already offered it to me. I was just late in collecting it.”

J.D. rose from the bed and clapped Buck once on the shoulder.

He smiled. “Thanks,” he said quietly, and left the room. He was halfway down the stairs when the barest beginnings of a question crept into his brain.

It was late, very late, when the throbbing in his ribs and in his arm and in his head finally drove him to get up and find the painkillers. The house was dark and silent. They had gone. All of them. He wondered if he had finally pushed them so far they had to leave. At that moment, he wasn’t sure whether he felt guilty or relieved. He only knew he didn’t want to think about it. Knowing he’d be sorry in the morning, he emptied the prescribed dosage of pills into his hand, drank the prescribed amount of the prescribed liquid, and limped back up to bed. Maybe Buck had fallen on him harder than he thought. He gritted his teeth. Surely no one needed to know that. Least of all Buck.

He opened his eyes to see bright sunlight lighting up every corner of his room. His throat felt like sandpaper. But if he didn’t move right away, didn’t breathe too hard, just stayed frozen in that moment, he discovered nothing hurt enough to bother him. But it was too good to last. He lifted his head to look at the clock and the sudden intake of breath brought pain back into his ribs. He groaned, not so much because of the pain, but because of the realization that it was nearly 11 AM. He put his head back down. He stayed that way for several seconds before slowly, gingerly pushing the covers off, and pushing himself to a sitting position with the arm that didn’t hurt.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair and over the two days of stubble covering his chin and yawned. He felt leaden. Slow. Off balance. Out of focus. He remembered the painkillers and realized why. At least he hadn’t thrown up. He smiled ruefully at that. Sometimes you just had to take the good news no matter how small.

Then his eyes lit on the tray. It had been set carefully on the chair near the bed. He eyed it, amused. It contained a bowl of applesauce, a glass of milk, a glass of juice, a vanilla yogurt, some lime jello, one of Vin’s private stash of chocolate pudding cups, and a folded piece of paper. Chris stood carefully and took the three steps over to the chair.

He reached for the note and recognized Vin’s spidery uneven handwriting immediately.

Hey Cowboy,

Reckon you got your head out of the pillow long enough to figure out it’s daytime. Didn’t know what you’d want for breakfast. Take your pick. I’m around if you need me.

Chris shook his head and smiled. Even in writing, Vin was a smart-ass. It was probably just the painkillers messing with his head, but he didn’t know which touched him more, that Vin was offering one of his secret pudding stash or that he had actually written out the note.

Vin had a hell of a hard time writing and his handwriting showed it. Hampered by dyslexia his entire life, he had invented a hundred ways to hide his so-called weakness. The team knew about it, but precious few others did. As a result, he hardly ever wrote anything down. And handwritten notes from Vin Tanner were few and far between. It was a mark of trust that he wasn’t embarrassed to write one now.

Chris had managed to get into the hot tub on the back porch and was contemplating just falling asleep when he was aware that someone was standing over him. He cracked one eye open.

“Comfy?” Vin asked plopping down on one of the deck chairs.

Chris closed the eye again and let his head settle back against the edge of the tub. “It’s quiet,” he mumbled a moment later.

Vin grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “We all took a vote and figured you only need one babysitter. Buck and me’ll take care of the barn. But I figured for the first day, you’d like someone who didn’t talk all the time. Or dog your every step.”

Chris cracked open the other eye and grinned evilly. “So you’re gonna shut up an’ leave me alone?”

He was rewarded with a face full of water. Which only made him grin wider.

He closed both eyes and settled in to get real comfortable. He heard the screen door open and Vin was gone. The grin melted down to a smile that stuck there, as he thanked whatever fates had decided to go easy on him today, that Tanner had taken the first shift.

J.D. leaned on the doorbell trying to be as obnoxious as possible. Then perhaps someone would put down whatever power tool they were using and open the door. His impatience was rewarded after only a few more seconds, but the man who opened the door was not the person he had expected.

“Hi, Nathan,” he said, staring at the medic, whose face was liberally dusted with fine white plaster powder, except for a wide brown dust-free circle that marked where he had been wearing the dust mask that now hung around his neck. J.D. tried to peer around him and tried to hide his disappointment on seeing the medic. “Josiah here?”

Nathan opened the door a little wider to reveal the giant figure of Josiah Sanchez, standing behind a sawhorse holding a power saw and staring impatiently at the door. J.D. noticed that the sawhorse was standing between a heap of splintered furniture and the remains of at least one partially dismantled wall.

“J.D.” Josiah said by way of greeting. He wore a dust mask, too, it muffled his voice but did not disguise the fact that the profiler was not in a good mood.

J.D. shifted his feet nervously. And decided it was best not to comment on the mess. “Hi Josiah. I—um—wanted to talk to you about something. But it can wait, if this isn’t a good time.”

He eyed Nathan nervously. The medic had not said one word so far and clearly he was not in a good mood either.

Josiah shrugged and put down the sander. “Now’s as good a time as any,” he said.

Nathan rolled his eyes and replaced the mask over his nose and mouth. He walked across the debris-strewn living room. When he reached the wall that separated the living room from the kitchen, he bent down and picked up a sledgehammer. With a wide swing, he smashed another hole in a wall that he had clearly already begun working on. Evidently, he was enjoying the demolition.

Josiah grinned as he saw J.D.’s wide eyes.

“Every man needs his own kind of therapy,” he said easily. He looked around. “See anything you want to break?”

J.D. laughed. “No thanks, but if you need some help, I’m there.”

Sanchez clapped him across the shoulders. “Glad to hear it. Let’s talk about your problem first.” He steered J.D. around the piles and into the kitchen.

“It’s not a problem,” J.D. said hurriedly. “I just need your thoughts,” he said.

Josiah grinned. “Well then, if it’s not a problem, feel free to sit down and stay a while.” Sanchez folded his legs under him and settled his giant body onto the kitchen floor, leaning against a cabinet.

J.D. looked around. Confused. What had happened to Josiah’s chairs? He didn’t ask. He just stripped off his backpack and took a seat in front of an adjoining cabinet. He stared at Josiah for a moment, unsure where to begin, what to say, how to start something like this.

Josiah folded his hands calmly in his lap and waited.

Behind them, the sound of Nathan’s demolition filled the silence.

Finally, J.D. cleared his throat. “This is gonna sound kinda stupid, maybe, but Buck said some stuff last night that got me thinking.”

Josiah couldn’t help but grin. “Now J.D.,” he said in his best priestly voice. “Sometimes the things Brother Buck says…”

J.D. gave him a sour look, and Josiah could see that the young agent was not in a mood to be teased. “I’m sorry J.D.,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make light of your question. Please continue.”

J.D. saw the serious look settle back onto Josiah’s craggy features. He nodded his head to show he accepted the apology and began again. Unfortunately, it was no less awkward the second time around.

“He was talking about Chris,” J.D. said. “And about the way things were before…,” he squinted at Josiah. “You know… before…” He trailed off. Somehow Buck’s dislike of discussing what had happened to Chris’s family and Chris’s own avoidance of the subject was now preventing him from talking about it.

Josiah nodded, “Before Chris’s family was killed,” he prompted gently.

“Right,” J.D. said gratefully and hurried on. “Anyway, he said that I… well, that if I…,” he paused, stumbled.

The big profiler waited.

“Ah hell, Josiah,” he said frustrated. Turning red. How the hell do you say that your best friend just told you that you don’t really know a man you’ve worked for for three years, and you just figured out that he might be right? He stopped. This was a bad idea, coming here.

Josiah narrowed his eyes but his look was kindly. “J.D.,” he said patiently. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you need.”

J.D.’s head lifted in surprise. “That’s what Chris said to Ezra,” he said, then turned another shade of red. At the sound of the argument, he and Buck had both flown to the top of the stairs. Every ear in the house had been tuned to Chris and Ezra, although at that moment, neither man appeared to notice or care. Still, it had been between Chris and Ezra, and J.D. knew he had no business, leaning over the railing the way he did to get a clear view. And to discover that Ezra was thinking about leaving the team. He pushed the thought aside.

Josiah grinned. “Yes,” he said calmly. “During that rather loud and public discussion they had before Ezra drove off and left us to deal with the aftermath.”

J.D. shook his head sadly. “Is Ezra coming back?” he asked.

Josiah squinted at his young friend. “Is that what you came to ask me about?” he asked.

“No,” J.D. replied.

“Then let Chris worry about whether Ezra is coming back and let’s worry about what you want.”

J.D. shrugged, agreed, but couldn’t let it drop just yet. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

Josiah looked at the earnest expression on J.D.’s face, could see how hopeful he was, how much he wanted their strange, eclectic little unit to be right again. Jaded as the years had made him, Josiah couldn’t help but realize that he carried the same hope and the same need. It just couldn’t work its way through the layers of experience, betrayal, fatigue, and loss to make it onto his face. The profiler sighed. He managed a smile. “Well, if anyone can convince him to come back, it’s Chris.”

J.D. nearly smiled at that, felt his confidence returning. Then he remembered why he had come. He took a deep breath and forged ahead. After all, if he never asked the question, he’d never get his answer. Just like Josiah said.

This time he spat it right out. “Buck said something that made me think that maybe I don’t really know Chris. You know, as a person.” He didn’t feel any less stupid when the question hit the air. And he wished to hell that he could stop blushing.

Josiah grinned. But it wasn’t a patronizing smile. Or a sympathetic smile exactly. It was almost conspiratorial.

The profiler leaned his head back against the cabinet and looked up at the ceiling. There was another long moment filled with the sound of falling plaster before Josiah answered.

“J.D.,” he said finally, pursing his lips, in a way that made J.D. think that Josiah was going to launch into a lengthy parable that he wouldn’t really understand. It was almost all he could do not to squirm.

Josiah fixed him with a penetrating look. Several stories popped into his head. But J.D. had come looking for his advice, not the wisdom of tradition, so he avoided them and said simply. “Chris isn’t exactly the easiest person in the world to get to know.”

The simplicity of the statement surprised J.D. As did something else about it. Was it an admission?

Josiah continued. “It’s not exactly that our leader deliberately seeks to deceive,” he said. “It’s simply that he gives so little away and then others feel compelled to fill in the gaps.”

J.D. lowered his head. That was true. He had heard no end of nasty rumors, gossip, and innuendos since he began with Team Seven. He hadn’t believed any of them. Then again, he had heard a lot of other stories, too, the kind that would make you think that Chris Larabee was somehow more than only human. He hadn’t believed those either. Not exactly.

Now that he thought about it, a good number of those stories had come from Buck. And had been told—repeatedly—mostly in the Saloon, when the gregarious agent had had a drink or two. When Buck’s tongue was loosened by beer, he was given to exaggerating, especially where it would make him look good. However, since he and Chris had worked together for so many years, the exaggeration often extended to Larabee as well.

As for Chris, no matter what sort of whopper Buck told, Larabee seldom, if ever, bothered to correct his old friend. So long as there was nothing in the story he really didn’t want told, the team leader usually preferred to just slouch back in his chair, turning his glass around in his fingers, and smiling secretively down at the table.

Josiah leaned forward. “If you want to try to understand Chris Larabee, you have to stop listening to the words. You must learn to hear what isn’t said.”

J.D. sighed. Not a parable perhaps, but still cryptic. He should have expected no less from Sanchez. “So ignore what other people say?”

Josiah grinned. “What most other people say,” he corrected.

The big profiler pulled his long legs closer in and leaned forward. “Learn to read the signs,” he advised. “The proof of man’s character is in his actions, not his words. In our leader’s case, there’s far more to hear in what he doesn’t say.”

“That reminds me,” Josiah said suddenly, sitting up. He pulled a small, dirty, folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and groped up behind him on the counter for a pen. He found one. Then he unfolded the paper and smoothed it against his knee before writing down a few words. J.D. watched him curiously.

“What’s that?” he asked finally, as Josiah folded it carefully back up and put it back in his shirt pocket.

Josiah smiled grimly. “It was going to be Chris’s eulogy,” he replied.

J.D. suddenly felt as if a fist had thunked him soundly in the chest. He grimaced. “But you don’t need that anymore, right,” he asked, aware that his voice sounded tinny. He knew it was ridiculous. But Buck and the rest of the team had an irritating habit of sheltering him. What if Chris was hurt that bad? What if he was sick? Would they hide something like that from him?

Josiah had been on the verge of making a joke, a bad one at that, that given Chris’s leadership style, it might be good to keep it handy, but the sudden change of expression on the young agent’s face made him swallow his words.

“No, J.D.,” he said calmly. “It’s not needed anymore. But I’d like to finish it.”

“Why’s that?” J.D. asked, making his voice normal, casual.

Josiah smiled again, one of those strange world-weary sad smiles he had. “Every man needs his own kind of therapy,” he repeated. He was still looking at J.D. but his focus was far off. “I’d like to remain mindful of what I almost lost. For those times I am tempted to forget.”

J.D. let those words sink in. They were still sinking when he found himself on Josiah’s doorstep again, facing a beautiful sunset. Then he was on the road again. His bike humming beneath him and the road curving beautifully away. It was a perfect evening for riding, and he turned his bike toward Casey’s, relishing the long ride ahead. Turning the words over in his head.

Vin didn’t see Chris again until late afternoon. The team leader was sitting on the deck, cleaning and inspecting his gun. It was his personal sidearm, but it was nearly identical to his officially-issued service revolver. The one that had been destroyed in the warehouse.

Vin put that thought aside and grinned as he plopped down onto the deck steps. He let out an involuntary sigh as he felt his muscles relax.

Chris eyed him and then returned his attention to the gun. “Working awful hard there, Pard,” he said quietly without looking up.

Vin shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. He didn’t deny it, but he didn’t miss the way Chris pressed his lips tightly together.

“Shoot,” Vin drawled. “I’ve worked a lot harder than this.”

Chris didn’t look up, but he shook his head slightly.

Vin sighed. “Of course I also spent two hours sittin’ in your recliner and drinkin’ your beer this afternoon.”

Chris’s expression did not change.

“Hey,” Vin said, finally, reaching up and slapping Chris hard on the knee. “I don’t mind a little hard work. You can’t do it. An’ I consider it helpin’ out a friend.”

Chris completed his cleaning and inspection of the gun. Only then did he look up. Vin read the expression in the green eyes.

The blue eyes glinted back in exasperation. “I ain’t doin’ it ‘cause I feel obligated,” he said, his drawl tinged with annoyance. “Quit bein’ such a damn hardhead and accept some help from your friends.”

Chris scowled. He began loading bullets into the magazine.

“Yer welcome, Larabee,” Vin said grouchily. He eyed the gun. “What’re you plannin’ on doin’ with that?” he asked casually.

When Chris looked up, the green eyes sparked. A dare. “Now that you mention it,” he said slowly. “There is something you could help me with.”

Vin rolled his eyes, but he didn’t say no. So Chris continued. “I need you to stack up some bales of straw against the woodpile.”

Vin snorted. “You gotta be kiddin’.” But he knew from the glint in his friend’s eye that he was not.

“Gotta requalify,” Chris said with a shrug. “Gotta practice.”

Vin squinted at him with one eye. “An’ if I hadn’t been sittin’ here, would you‘ve tried to stack up the bales yourself?”

Chris laughed. “I may be a hardhead, but I ain’t stupid.” Truthfully, he had considered it, but wasn’t sure whether he could even lift one good size bale, let alone swing five or six out of the loft and stack them up by the wood pile.

Vin laughed and got up. “Better get movin’ then, ol’ man. I’ll probably have ‘em all stacked up by the time you get your gimpy ass back out here with a target.”

Chris gave him a mock glare, but it was more of a smirk.

Vin tried watching the target practice.

At first Chris’s stance was off as he shifted his weight around trying to find a way to stand solidly on his sore feet. He tried using his left hand to support his right arm, but his left arm was unsteady. He shot left-handed for a few rounds. The gun was surprisingly heavy, and the healing muscles in his upper arm quivered as they protested its weight and especially the kick.

He turned to a sideways stance and held his right arm straight out to his side, sighting along his arm and began to fire round after round into the unoffending silhouette of a man tacked up onto the hay bale. He fired until the sweat began to pour off his forehead. Until the magazine was empty. He eyed the pattern. Better, but off center.

Then he put in a new magazine, put the gun purposefully into his left hand, gritted his teeth, extended his arm, levered his arm straight with his shoulder blades, jammed his sore feet down against the ground, held it steady, and fired again and again. The reverberations traveling down through every rib until he felt like they were humming with the vibration. Still he kept firing, and the pattern slowly crept closer and closer to the center.

He ignored the throbbing in his arm and in his feet and in his side as he reloaded. Then he put the gun back into his right hand, adopted the textbook stance and took aim. The world disappeared. The pain disappeared. He fired three rounds into the chest of the silhouette. And proceeded to empty the magazine.

The moment Larabee’s stubborn determination kicked in, Vin saw it. He saw Chris’s face pale. Saw the sweat break out across his forehead. Saw the arm quiver and the shoulder shake. Then he saw the set of his jaw. Saw him grit his teeth and pull everything back in line. Force the pain out of his way. Force his limbs to obey. Force them to hold steady. Force that pattern back to center. By the time Chris loaded the third magazine, Vin turned on his heel and went into the house.

He listened to the steady sound of gunfire as he found, opened, and heated up cans of soup. He glanced up as the last report died away and silence fell onto the yard. Forty-five minutes by the clock on the microwave oven. Thank God Nathan wasn’t here.

It was another ten before the front door opened and shut.

The moment Chris entered the kitchen, Vin knew something had changed. He was so damn tired his entire left arm trembled as he lifted it to open the refrigerator door. And Vin grinned as the blond stuck his head into his refrigerator and scanned the contents.

“Supper’s almost ready,” Vin said, hiding his smile. “Get yerself some crackers for the soup.”

Too late he remembered the crackers were in the top of the cupboard. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Chris reach for the box. Watched him jerk back in pain. Heard the soft irritated swear as he went to get the stepladder. Saw the whole stepladder rock as Chris climbed it unsteadily and came back down with the entire box. He set it on the counter. Picked up the stepladder, snapped it closed and carried it away. He returned, and without another word, he pulled out two bowls and two spoons and set them on the counter. Then he stood there and stared at the soup as it finally began to bubble.

“Microwave would’ve been faster,” he said after a moment.

“You in a hurry, Cowboy?”

“Just sayin’,” Chris replied with a shrug.

He ate the whole bowl of soup and a stack of crackers almost the size of Vin’s forearm. Vin said nothing as he cleaned up. He saved his grin for the empty kitchen. About damn time.

His grin as he was leaving told the just arriving Buck everything he needed to know. But the shredded target silhouette Vin handed to him as he went by said plenty more.

Buck found Chris in the recliner under an afghan reading a book. He waved a half gallon of chocolate marshmallow ice cream in front of the team leader’s face. “Brought dessert,” he said.

Chris grinned up at him. In the dying sunlight coming through the glass porch doors, Buck could hardly even see the bruises anymore.

“Good day?” he asked.

“So far,” Chris drawled, his grin taking on a mocking tilt.

Buck couldn’t help but grin back as he went in search of the ice cream scoop.

Buck stuck close. A lot closer than Vin had, that was certain. But Chris had to give his old friend credit. He was doing his very best not to hover or fuss and was actually managing surprisingly well.

Chris showed his appreciation by pausing at the front door, a letter in his hand. “Thought I’d try walking all the way out to the end of the driveway. Want to come along in case you need to carry me back?” he joked. But it was only half a joke. He had forgotten how long his driveway was until this morning.

Buck looked up from the breakfast dishes. “Sure thing, Pard. Should I drive the truck behind like in a marathon?” Buck cracked.

Chris sighed. “Bud, I don’t think it’s possible to drive a truck as slow as I’m movin’.”

“Give it time,” Buck said gently, opening the hall closet and handing Chris a jacket. They stepped onto the front porch. A slight breeze stirred the morning air, promising another pleasantly warm spring day.

From the corner of his eye, Buck watched Chris slide on the jacket. He did not comment. To look at him, the tall agent thought a good stiff breeze might still blow Chris over. But he had been up, showered, shaved, and dressed in time for breakfast. Buck had ensured that when he announced last night that he was making his Artery Clogger Special: loads of bacon, with hash browns cooked in the grease and blueberry pancakes smothered in butter and syrup. There weren’t that many things that Buck could cook, but the few meals he did make, he made with justifiable pride.

Chris was right about the driveway. It was a long, slow stroll to the mailbox at the end, and the blond was winded by the time they returned to the house. He looked at Buck from under a raised eyebrow. “Think you’ll be up to another lap this afternoon when the mail comes in.”

Buck smirked at him. “I can make it, if you can.”

Later that day, Chris resumed practicing with his pistol.

He was still out there firing, when J.D. arrived on his motorcycle. He paused only long enough to nod his head at J.D. Helmet under his arm, the young agent paused to watch. He looked questioningly at Buck.

The tall agent waited until the silence between magazines to try to talk.

“Don’t think he’ll have any problems requalifying,” Buck said matter of factly. From looking at the target, stamina would be the issue, not aim.

“Should he be doing that?” J.D. asked.

Buck shrugged.

J.D. sighed in exasperation.

Buck squeezed his shoulder. “Let him be, kid,” Buck said. His voice held a note of caution. “Best to stay out of the way.”

J.D. scowled at him. “I wish people would stop telling me that. And I’m not a kid.”

Buck shrugged again, raising his eyebrows at his young friend. “I’m just givin’ you some advice,” he said. “You can take it, or you can learn the hard way,” he said.

“You said you wanted help with a fence,” J.D. snapped, changing the subject. “I’m here. Where’s the fence?”

Buck grinned. He hollered over to Chris, waving his arms to get the blond’s attention.

Chris put on the safety, stowed the gun in his shoulder holster, and took out his ear plugs.

“Goin’ up to the far pasture to mend the fence. I’m takin’ J.D. You got your phone?”

Chris gave Buck a thumb’s up. Then he put his ear plugs back in, took out the gun and clicked off the safety and started working on pulling the gun from its holster.

“Don’t shoot yourself while we’re out,” Buck muttered.

“Real funny, Buck,” J.D. retorted, with a scowl.

Buck rolled his eyes and handed J.D. a tool belt. They loaded some lumber and supplies onto the small Cushman Chris used to haul hay and materials around the pastures, climbed on and took off for the back pasture, still hearing the gunshots as background to the motor.

They struggled with the replacement boards, but working as a team it only took them a few hours to replace the boards and make the other repairs needed so they could pasture the horses up here in the morning. Then they sat in the shade and drank the water they brought with them.

Buck gave J.D. a sidelong glance. “We’re not off the hook, yet,” he said without introduction or preamble.

J.D. looked at him uncomprehendingly.

“This little unpaid vacation is for going AWOL,” Buck explained. “Chris is still going to have to launch an official inquiry when we get back.”

J.D. lowered his head. He had forgotten. How could someone forget something like that? Should he be working on a plan?

“Listen up,” Buck said seriously and J.D. lifted his head to look at him. “When Chris calls you in to discuss your role in what we did, you tell him the truth. You answer every question he asks. You tell him the whole truth. Anything less, and he’s gonna know, and you’re gonna be in even bigger trouble. You got me?”

J.D. stared at him.

“I plan on doing the same, so don’t hold back on my account, or you’ll be in trouble with me, too.” Buck said grimly.

J.D. looked away. He was silent for a long moment. His voice was quiet when he asked, “How bad is it going to be?”

“I don’t know,” Buck replied honestly. He paused. Hoped J.D. would understand what he was about to say. “We put Chris and Travis in a bad spot. We owe it to both of them to come clean. Regardless of the consequences.”

J.D.’s head shot up and he gave Buck a penetrating stare. It was written on the older agent’s face for J.D. to see. Buck knew what he had done. And he might well get fired for it. By the very friend he had done it for.

“Doesn’t seem fair,” the young agent muttered, plucking a dandelion head and flinging it away.

“We did what we did, kid,” Buck replied matter of factly. “Can’t change that. I’m willing to accept the consequences for what I did. Just wish I’d thought about the consequences for what you all were going to do.”

J.D.’s eyebrows came down in a fierce glare. “We knew what we were doing,” he said. “And I can take the consequences.”

Buck smiled sadly. “Even if Chris has to fire you?”

J.D. held his ground. “Even if,” he said firmly.

Buck’s smiled broadened. He clapped J.D. across the back. “Well, hell, we might all be looking for work together.”

J.D. plucked another dandelion head. “Yeah. One ATF team, slightly used, on offer to highest bidder.”

Buck laughed.

Then quiet fell again, as each man disappeared into his own thoughts.

J.D. gave Buck a sidelong glance. “You regret it?” he asked quietly.

“Nope,” Buck answered without hesitation. Then he winced. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t do a few things differently if I had to do it again.”

J.D. crushed the flower head in his hand. “I don’t even want to think about it happening again,” he bit out.

Buck reached out suddenly and ruffled his young friend’s hair affectionately. He eyed the sky and the late afternoon light and got up with a slight groan.

J.D. hung his head a moment before he got up. “Doesn’t seem fair to make Chris do the inquiry,” he said.

Buck sighed, examining the grass at his feet. “That’s how Chris wants it. He does his own dirty work.” He looked up at J.D. “Better him than the brass anyway. He’ll do what he has to, but he won’t let them break you or destroy the reputation you’ve already earned. He’ll protect us as much as he can.” He sighed. “Knowing Chris, if push comes to shove, he’ll go down right beside us.”

J.D. climbed to his feet. He shook his head and Buck winced at the sadness he saw in his face. A promising career and it might already be over.

J.D.’s stomach hurt, as Buck’s words sunk in. He wondered why he hadn’t realized it before. “We did it for him, you know?” J.D. said quietly, his voice deep with regret. “And now he’s going to have to pay the bill.”

Buck grimaced. He should have known J.D.’s sadness wouldn’t be for the damage he had done to himself. It would be for his friends.

He squeezed the back of J.D.’s neck. “He knows why we did it. He just don’t think it was all that bright an idea.” He smiled ruefully. “He’s pissed, you know.”

J.D. stared at Buck. That couldn’t be right. Their volatile team leader had been impressively calm since they had found him. If you didn’t count the fight with Buck out in the yard. But even that had been inconsequential. You didn’t take an angry Chris Larabee lightly. J.D. had seen him dismantle an entire office once out of spite. And once after a bad bust, Chris had thrown another team leader to the dirt and threatened to break his head open. It would be hard not to notice if Chris were really pissed.

“It’s true,” Buck said with a grin, guessing J.D.’s thoughts. “He’s just got it on a low burn.”

“I guess we can’t blame him.” J.D. replied grimly. “We put him in this position,”

Buck shook his head. “No,” he corrected. “He’s pissed because we put ourselves in this position. For no good reason. According to Chris.”

J.D. stared at Buck and blurted out, “We thought those bastards killed him!” he blurted out. “That seemed like reason enough.”

The sad smile returned. “I know that, and you know that. Hell everyone in the whole ATF knows that. ‘Cept Chris. He don’t get that. Doesn’t see how he’d be worth it.”

“Well he’s wrong then,” J.D. retorted hotly.

“Yeah, he is,” Buck agreed, clapping J.D. on the shoulder. “He just don’t know it.”

J.D. was silent on the trip back to the house. Buck had changed the subject and was off on some tangent involving girls and hot cars or possibly hot girls and old cars. The young agent only listened with half an ear. That same half formed thought was turning itself end over end in his head again, though he still couldn’t quite grasp it. Reluctantly, he let it go and watched the red sun approaching the horizon, holding on as the tiny truck lurched over the hilly pasture back down the slope toward the neat buildings laid out below.

J.D. had gone and supper was over. The coffee was poured and the dishes were done. Then Chris eyed Buck seriously and said, “We have to talk.”

Buck nodded. “I know,” he said. He had known that Chris would want to find out what had happened before the inquiry became official. He would have bet a week’s pay—if he had been getting paid—that Chris had already started pumping the members of the team for information. He would want to know the details up front, so he could start figuring out what to do about it. He didn’t want to be surprised in the interview process. Anything he found out now would be off the record until it became known in the formal inquiry.

“Where do you want to do this?” Buck asked.

“I don’t know,” Chris said, narrowing his eyes. “Am I going to have to shoot you?”

Buck smiled ruefully but the dark blue eyes were serious. “Probably,” he replied.

Chris sighed. What little Buck had told him in Texas was enough to let him know that the team had gone off the deep end this time. Now he needed to know how far they had gone, and he needed to know before he had to make it official. He needed to figure out what to do about what he was going to hear during the formal inquiry, to mitigate the fallout.

Chris knew he was walking a thin ethical line. And he knew he would eventually have to ask himself, when it came time to step off that line, which direction would he step? Not that he planned to cover up what his team had done in his absence. He wasn’t even sure he could, but he had to admit to himself that the failings of his team were the result of his own failings in leadership. Whatever they had enacted in his absence was due to the failure of his own policies and practices to instill in his team a proper sense of where the lines were that could not be crossed.

He told himself that he shouldn’t have been surprised. His example had been far less than stellar. He had crossed many lines and bent and broken many rules in his own careers. Not that it was any justification, but his own transgressions had been largely in the service of a personal code of ethics. The code he lived by. The code that led him to serve his country in the first place. And the code that eventually led him to resign from a promising career serving his country in the SEALs and find a new career in law enforcement. He had sacrificed careers, years of his life, more than one relationship, his happiness, and when demanded, his own sweat and blood to that code. Now he found himself wondering: Would he be prepared to violate that code, to serve his team. And if he did choose to violate it, what would that leave him to rely on going forward?

He abandoned that train of thought. He and his future were not what was important here. The leader’s job is to serve the team. He had to figure out what was best for them. Even if they weren’t going to like it.

Buck eyed his old friend, his boss. He knew Chris would accept no less than the truth. And he knew that he would give him the full honest truth and trust Chris to decide what would be done about it. He also knew that he would not like the consequences. But he could live with that. He had been prepared to face any fallout to make some good come from Chris’s senseless, violent death.

But Chris was not dead, and that put events in a new light. In this new perspective, Buck had slowly come to realize a fact that bothered him far more than the rules, policies, and procedures he had violated or that he may have just ended his own career. What bothered him most was the realization that in leading the team in enacting a plan for revenge, he had discarded the leadership principles that Chris had set. He had completely disregarded his job as Chris’s second in command. He had failed his leader and the team. He was not sure what punishment could balance those scales.

Chris caught Buck’s eye, but his gaze lingered on the bruises across Buck’s face. He shook his head slowly. Richter had gotten in a lot of good punches. He had heard, when they thought he wasn’t listening, that Buck had cracked a few ribs in the fight. It didn’t seem to be slowing Buck down any, but then maybe that was just his Wilmington pride. At least he had had the sense to call in J.D. to help with the fence. Chris scowled. How the hell had he found out that fence needed repaired anyway? He caught himself and forced the scowl away.

“You taking any painkillers?” Chris asked.

Buck shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Prescribed yes. Taking no.”

A wry smile quirked up the team leader’s lips. “So you wanna do this cold sober, or should we have a couple of drinks?”

Buck’s smile mirrored Chris’s. “I guess that depends if you’re going to shoot me or not. I wouldn’t want you to miss and hit something painful.”

Chris grinned. “I won’t miss,” he promised. He found two glasses, went to the liquor cabinet and poured two straight up doubles of good Tennessee whiskey. He handed one to Buck.

“Start at the beginning,” he said. “I want to know everything I need to know before I have to make this official.”

Buck took a big gulp, feeling the familiar comforting fire slide down his throat. He pushed his coffee aside, laid both hands on the scarred wooden tabletop, and began the story from the time the team arrived back in Denver and began turning their minds toward revenge.