by BMP

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6 | Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9
Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12 | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15 | Page 16 | Page 17 | Page 18
Page 19 | Page 20 | Page 21 | Page 22 | Page 23 | Page 24 | Page 25 | Page 26 | Page 27

The doorbell had stopped ringing only to be replaced with an incessant pounding. Ezra Standish vowed that he would not answer the door. They could break it down if they had to. He would not even poke his head around the corner to see which of his teammates were standing there. Or perhaps this time it would be all of them. He told himself he didn’t care.

He sat in the hallway between the bedrooms because there were no windows there. And he could sit here and pretend he was not home, while his phone rang, and his answering machine picked up, and his teammates dropped by to talk to him—just as he had been doing for days, since he had last seen Vin, on the night that Buck and Chris had fought. The night they thought they would be hauling Chris back to the hospital again. The night Ezra had finally realized what the others had apparently known all along, that their leader was not simply being stubborn and pigheaded. He was both of those things, to be sure. But on top of it, he truly did not understand—or did not choose to understand—what they had gone through while he was gone. Or worse yet when they had finally found him, bleeding, out of his head, and looking like he might just leave them after all.

Gone, Ezra mused on the word. A pleasant euphemism. Like gone to the corner store to buy some milk. Or “I’ll only be gone for a few minutes, Ezra dear, just to have a few words with the headmaster. You unpack.” Gone was inappropriate here. Gone was different. Indefinite. Temporary. The right word here was dead. Dead. Deceased. Departed. Perished. Forever.

He shook his head to clear it and concentrated on the cardboard packing box between his knees. He had dragged it there so it could not be seen from the windows either. He was valiantly ignoring the pounding but having more trouble ignoring the thoughts running through his head.

Departing, Ezra thought again. Or in your case, Mr. Standish, running away.

He scowled at the box and then at the framed photographs piled up on the floor beside his leg, waiting to be wrapped in bubble wrap and exiled back to the cardboard cell it seemed that they had only just left.

Now the doorbell was ringing and someone was pounding. Perhaps there were two. Or more likely it was just their ambidextrous sharpshooter. Another one who was just too damn stubborn to know when to quit.

Quit. Quitter. I quit.

He swore to himself, mostly to break the cycle in his head. He glanced up into the darkened living room in annoyance. Why couldn’t they just leave him the hell alone? It wasn’t like they could make his decision for him. It wasn’t like they could even help him make up his mind. He needed space. Space and time. To think. To plan. To pack.

Ezra, you’re a coward, his own voice told him in his head. You’re a coward and if you run away, everyone will know.

I’m not running, he thought vehemently. I’m cutting my losses. There, that sounded good. Sensible. Clear headed. Reasonable.

He swore again and got up. He went into the master bathroom and started taking down the tiny framed watercolors he had purchased in Paris long ago. He tried to think about Paris, but that nagging voice wouldn’t leave him alone.

No one can make this decision for you.

His glance caught the picture on his bedside table. His mother. He always kept her picture there. Except when she came to visit, of course. No need to invite a lecture about the inherent danger of developing attachments.

Ezra, dear, said his mother’s voice from memory, smooth and cool as fine linens, sweet with the honey of her southern accent. You know better than to get attached. Attachments cloud your reason. We are business people, sugar. We must keep our heads always.

This she had said, as the car pulled out of the long driveway, leaving behind his third stepfather. The first one he had hoped to stay with. Never again had he dared entertain such hopes.

You’re afraid. So you’re leaving them. The thought ambushed him. He reacted angrily.

“Better I leave them, than they leave me!” He snapped. The echo in the tiled room told him that he had spoken the words out loud. He cringed. Afraid for a moment that whoever was at his door had heard him. Indeed, the ringing and pounding had ceased. Was he listening outside? Ezra held his breath for a long moment. There was silence. Then he heard a car door, and the roar of an engine leaving his driveway. He could not be certain which teammate’s car he heard. He relaxed against the doorframe, sliding down it with his hands over his face.

He fought to find his cold, calculating reason, his cultured cool, his famed detachment. Instead he found more memory.

In the back of the framed picture, he had hidden the piece of paper that very stepfather had pressed into his hand, as they shook their goodbyes like men. A phone number and a hastily written note: You always know where you can find me. Although he had never called, the door was left open. While so many others had slammed shut.

He sighed, thinking of it. And knew he stood before another such door now. It was his decision whether to shut it or keep it open. He could not decide. And he could not ask for help. They all had their own agendas. And he needed to know what he should do for himself.

Willfully, stubbornly, he fought to silence all the voices competing in his head. He knew now. He needed to find the quiet, steady voice inside himself. The one that he had spent so many years training himself to ignore. He needed to hear from that source that he had carefully walled off brick by brick, decision by decision. As he had so many times in his past, he stood at a crossroads, where he could trust himself alone. If only he could hear his own true voice.

It took a long time to tell the tale. That was because Buck spared no details. He kept his promise to himself that he would give Chris the truth, and he was completely candid about what had been done on his orders and what had been done by others on their own initiative with his consent and approval.

He watched the corners of Chris’s mouth become tight and grim, until his old friend stopped looking him in the eye and concentrated on the table top between them. Chris asked few questions, and he took no notes. There would be no records until the formal inquiry. Nevertheless, Buck knew that Chris would remember the details Buck had given him well enough to check the facts as the rest of the team gave their own unofficial statements.

When Buck had finished, when he had told about his fight with Richter, which he had intended to carry out alone, without an audience, when silence had fallen between them, the gregarious, boisterous agent waited wordlessly for Chris to speak. The blond remained utterly still for so long that Buck began to entertain the idea that he should probably call in someone to relieve him early and head out now.

When Chris finally did look up, the smoldering glare told Buck that that would have been a good idea. He steeled himself to endure whatever Chris was about to say, or perhaps do.

Chris glared at him silently for another long second, while Buck watched the wheels turn in his old friend’s head. Normally, the way he could actually see Chris thinking amused him to no end. Not tonight. Tonight, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the team leader’s thoughts. Worse yet, he knew from the pinching at the corner of Chris’s eyes that Larabee was trying to put aside his fury long enough to form a coherent rational sentence. Buck waited through the silence preceding what he knew was going to be one hell of a storm.

In the absence of words Chris’s hand tightened on his whiskey glass until his knuckles turned white. Buck was afraid for a moment that the glass would shatter in his friend’s hand. That shouldn’t have been his worst fear he realized, as a second later, the glass whizzed by his left ear to explode against the wall above the sink, showering both of them with shards of glass. Buck ducked, even as he knew it was already too late.

Chris was on his feet. “God damn it, Buck!” he hissed. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Buck opened his mouth. But Chris cut him off, shouting. “You could have gotten yourself killed. You could have gotten Ezra, or Nathan, or any one of them killed. What the hell were you thinking?”

Buck stared up at him. Recalled that he expected this. Remembered that he deserved it. Did his best not to get pulled into a rage-fueled shouting match with his oldest friend.

“You were in charge of the team! Didn’t that mean anything to you?” Chris grabbed Buck’s glass and smashed that against the wall, too, this time splashing them both with the remaining whiskey as well as the shards of glass. The tendons stood out on Chris’s neck. Buck stared, felt the blood drain from his face. Chris’s temper was legendary, but Buck could not recall when he had last seen Chris so close to losing it completely. Worse yet, Larabee was apparently waiting for some kind of response.

Buck kept his voice calm. “Yes,” he said softly. “It meant something to me.”

“Then tell me how the hell you could lead them off on a totally unethical, illegal mission. How the fuck could you put J.D. or any of the rest of them in that kind of danger?”

The team leader’s fists clenched and unclenched, and Buck could practically predict the number of seconds he had before those fingers were wrapped in his collar and he was thrown up against the wall like the glasses of whiskey.

“I wasn’t thinking about them, Chris,” Buck said, wiping the sweat off his lip. His eyes jerked away from the hot green glare.

“It was your job to think about them!” Chris exploded, sweeping a chair out from between them with his left foot. “You were the fucking team leader,” he shouted. “What the hell else could you have been thinking about?”

Buck flinched. He pushed back his chair, made ready to dodge, or flee, or at least attempt to defend himself. And while his mind was planning out several plans of escape he heard the words leave his lips. “I guess I was thinking about you.”

He glanced up, almost as surprised to hear the words as Chris apparently was. The blond had been about to speak. Instead he choked. As a dark red flush shot up his neck. The glare intensified. His fingers twitched again.

“I was dead, Buck,” Chris said, his voice quieter but somehow even more intense. “I was fucking dead. What the hell were you going to do for me?”

Buck went cold. He licked his lips. “I…” The words failed him. The thought itself failed him. He had no idea what he could say.

He felt his insides turn over. Pinned in his chair as the team leader stepped toward him, bending to look him right in the face. Look right through him. What the leader saw damned him all right. Chris shook his head, his fury cold.

Buck found his voice, as realization exploded in his head. He croaked out the words before they choked him. “You knew you weren’t coming out,” he spat. Meet you in ten, my ass. It had been a lie, from a man who knew he was about to die.

Chris’s eyes hardened. “I knew it was a distinct probability.”

The team leader saw Buck’s eyes get hard.

“I gave you a job to do,” Chris said through his teeth, cutting off Buck’s train of thought. “I expected you to look out for them. To take care of them. Not take them down with you. I trusted you.” Now he knew. He cursed his own blindness. Travis knew it, too. Must have seen it even if Chris didn’t. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have tried to bring in a new team leader.

Buck blanched. He flinched and looked away. Guilty as charged, he thought. He knew it. He’d seen it coming. He steeled himself as the possible consequences rolled through his mind. Consequences he should have considered back at that god damn warehouse, or any time after that, if he had had his head screwed on straight.

Chris straightened up suddenly. And he muttered a string of swear words that Buck couldn’t quite catch. Then he turned on his heel, yanked open the sliding glass door and slid out onto the deck, anger written in every short staccato motion.

Buck waited in the kitchen until he could stand it no longer. Quietly, he made his way to the glass door.

Chris was pacing the deck, his hands locked tight behind him. His head was down and his jaw was clenched. The pearly moonlight washing down onto the deck only made him look like a pale, vengeful ghost, his body all sharp angles in the shadows.

Buck waited. He didn’t know if he should speak.

“Chris,” he began tentatively, after several more seconds.

“Not now, Buck,” Chris growled.

Buck took a deep breath and stepped out onto the deck. “I know what I did,” he said evenly.

Chris halted in mid step, jerked upright. His back toward Buck.

“I accept the consequences, whatever you decide.”

Chris whirled on his heel and faced his old friend, the moon lighting up his face like a specter of retribution. “That’s mighty responsible of ya, Buck,” he spat sarcastically. “Maybe you shoulda fuckin’ thought of that and reined the team in before everything went to hell.” Chris actually flinched at his own words.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

Buck found a way around the lump in his throat. “Well, this time, I am thinking straight,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady. “And I don’t have to take the team down with me. I can resign.”

Chris’s face twisted and his eyes narrowed. He struggled to find a reply.

It was not what Buck expected.

Chris’s hand shot out so quickly that Buck didn’t even see it until his collar was clenched in his fist. “So now you’re going to give up on me?” Chris seethed.

Buck stared. Confused.

Both hands were now in his collar. Chris yanked him close enough that Buck could smell the whiskey on his breath. He couldn’t tear his gaze from the green eyes that seemed to bore through to the back of his skull. “Listen up,” Chris breathed. “And listen good. I’m in charge of this god damn team. You try to resign and I’ll rip your god damn head off. You got me?”

Off balance, the world starting to spin as the blood rushed suddenly to his head, Buck only nodded.

The hands twisted a little tighter, and Buck wondered if they would cut off his air supply soon. “Good,” Chris said. His voice got quiet, deadly. “You’re not going down for this, you hear? You’re too fucking good an agent to lose this way. You already fucked up once. You had your chance to save the team. You try some self-sacrifice bullshit to save the rest of them, I swear to God I will come after you. Whatever happens now, you follow my lead.”

Buck nodded again. His mouth was dry. He struggled to understand. Didn’t like the way it added up.

As the fingers loosened from his collar, he pulled the material away from his throat. “Chris, I don’t know what you’re planning, but I can’t let you…”

He had spoken way too soon, he realized, with only faint surprise, as with astounding speed, given his condition, Chris pulled the taller agent’s feet out from underneath him and slammed him down against the deck planks. Buck found himself looking up past the knee that was planted in his chest. Pinned. Literally this time.

“You’ll do what I fucking order you to do,” Chris snapped.

Buck realized there was no ultimatum, no threat, no alternative consequence. It was simply an order.

“Yes, sir,” he answered, the response coming unbidden, automatically, from some long buried military training. And even as he said it, he felt the power, the consequences, the control rush out of his hands. As simple as that. All his decisions were made. Guilt and relief suddenly threatened to overwhelm him.

Chris stared at Buck searchingly until he saw it. The change in expression. The retreat. The submission. The promise. He waited a moment more for the resolve to solidify. For Buck to realize this was the way it was going to be. And when he was certain of it, he removed his knee and stood up.

They stayed that way for another moment, Chris standing over him, until Buck found his limbs again, and rolled himself up to a sitting position. Chris moved just far enough to let him up.

On the heels of his warring guilt and relief, the fear suddenly gripped Buck that he may have sacrificed something else to his desire for vengeance, something worth far more to him than his career would ever be. He looked up at his old friend, his boss. He wanted to make a joke. Wanted to say something that would let him know if they were okay. But it was too early. The alpha wolf had put him in his place. His job now was to go off and lick his wounds. He would find out later how his place in the pack had altered.

Chris turned away. And Buck went inside.

After the glass door slid closed, Chris forced himself off the deck and out into the shadows. Cold inside. His fury subsided, dimmed. Replaced by a grinding in the pit of his stomach, a familiar feeling singularly connected to a dozen confrontations with Buck since Sarah and Adam. He cursed violently. Realizing he might just have blown it forever. God damn idiot, he thought bitterly. After everything. After all the shit I’ve pulled… You ought to know better by now, Buck. You should have cut loose when you had the chance.

Buck answered the door when the bell rang. Nathan was on the front porch. With Raine.

“Nathan,” Buck said quickly, turning hurriedly back into the kitchen where he had been sweeping up broken glass.

Nathan exchanged a puzzled, worried look with Raine. She hung up her jacket, while Nathan followed Buck into the kitchen.

Buck turned away from him, busying himself with a little hand broom and dustpan from under the sink.

“You okay?” Nathan asked finally. “You look a little pale.”

“Fine,” Buck said flatly, emptying the dustpan into the garbage. He walked to the living room where he had set his duffel bag. “Chris is outside. Should be coming in any minute.”

Nathan shot another puzzled look at Raine. They could see that everything was not all right. He left her standing perplexed by the door, and followed his teammate into the living room.

He paused in the doorway. Buck stood in front of his bags, his back to the hallway and the kitchen doorway. His hands were on his hips, but his head was thrown back to the ceiling. He stayed that way for a long moment. Like he was trying to collect himself.

Nathan frowned worriedly. “Can I help?” he asked finally.

A bitter laugh was the reply. Then Buck’s tone softened. “No,” he said finally. “Thanks for asking.”

He picked up his bags and took a deep breath. His voice and his expression were perfectly neutral, normal, conversational as he updated Nathan on meds and meals.

“He’s probably gonna ask you about what we did in Texas,” Buck said before he slipped out the door. “Just tell him the truth. The more he knows now, the easier it’ll go when it’s official.”

Nathan nearly swore before he remembered Raine was standing in the hall, too. She had already given him an earful about their “activities” in Texas. He could tell by the grim set of her mouth that she was trying hard to hold back another earful. Perhaps he had been wrong to bring her along tonight. He had merely thought that Chris would enjoy the change in company.

Before Nathan could finish his train of thought, Buck had gone. The door to his truck slammed and he pulled out of the driveway.

In the living room, the sliding glass door slid quietly open and then shut. Chris stood leaning back against the glass. He looked pale. Pinched. The tops of his cheekbones tinged with an unnatural pink.

Raine looked from Chris to the driveway and back. Then she glared hotly at Nathan. “This is what comes of revenge,” she said, so quietly only Nathan heard.

He flushed.

She pushed past him and stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. She cocked her head to one side and gave Chris a look that Nathan had been missing for the better part of a week now. And when the team leader looked back up at her, for just a moment, Nathan saw it. Raw. Open. Bleak. Then Chris caught a glimpse of Nathan and his expression closed down.

The blond pushed away from the door, running a hand back through his hair. Then he let it fall forward into his face anyway, as he moved toward the stairs. Nathan’s practiced eye noticed the team leader was moving slowly. He could tell by Raine’s appraising glance that she saw it, too.

“Chris,” Raine said, reaching out to touch his arm as he passed her. He stopped. But didn’t lift his head. He pulled his arm away but gently. Then lifted his head to meet her eyes.

“It’s not a good time to talk, Raine,” he said quietly.

“Let’s not talk, then,” she said with a shrug. “Are you headed upstairs?”

Chris sighed. Closed his eyes. Gave in. “Thought I’d turn in,” he said.

Raine smiled. She leaned forward and nearly whispered. “When I’m good and mad, I take a nice hot bath before I go to bed.” She grinned. “I tell you it’s saved Nathan’s life more than once.”

Chris shot her a look that would have made her laugh if he hadn’t looked so lost.

Nathan rolled his eyes and turned back into the kitchen.

Raine did laugh then. The laugh that sounded like silver bells to Nathan. That seemed to have wings. The one that eased his burdens from his shoulders at the end of the day. He looked for something in the kitchen to occupy his mind and noticed the sticky splat mark on the wall above the sink. There was glass in the sink, too. He touched the mark and smelled his fingers. Whiskey. He scowled.

He heard Chris and Raine go up the stairs. Anger boiled up inside him. He was surprised at its vehemence. Surprised to find it tinged with jealousy. Then again, why should he be surprised? He had hardly heard a civil word from Raine all week, let alone a kind one. There had been precious little laughter. He had brought her here hoping to cheer Chris up a bit. Now he realized what he really wanted was for her to cheer him up. Him. Her fiancé. But she was mad at him. She wasn’t mad at Chris.

Well she should be, he thought angrily. Neither he nor Buck had any business drinking. Both were supposed to be taking painkillers. No doubt they weren’t. Chris was supposed to be on antibiotics. He damn well better be taking those, Nathan thought as his scowl deepened.

He slammed a cupboard door looking for a glass as he heard the water running upstairs. God damn stubborn fools. Hope they beat some sense into each other. Wondered if, in fact, that was what had happened. He should have known better than to leave those two alone. He swore.

Then he realized she was standing in the doorway.

His face turned red.

Her head was cocked to the side, and she was looking at him with a sympathy that put a lump in his throat. He stiffened. It wasn’t sympathy he wanted. She dissolved the lump and his resistance by simply opening her arms and stepping forward, sliding them around his waist. He buried his face in her sweet-smelling hair. They stood that way for a long time.

“I love you,” she said finally. “I’m mad at you, but I love you.”

He nodded his head against her hair. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.” Sorry about so many things. So many things I can’t seem to fix.

She ran one hand up his back to his neck, gently stroking the tense, knotted muscles there.

“I know you are,” she said finally, pushing back to look him in the eye. She smiled sadly.

Nathan breathed in a shuddering breath.

“He’s going to be okay,” she said after a moment, squeezing his arms. She did not offer false hope. She was a doctor and, at Vin’s request as next of kin, she had reviewed the reports from Texas. Yes, Chris had left the hospital too soon, but he was doing just fine.

“I know,” Nathan said, pulling away from her, becoming the cool ATF agent again, the medic, so collected, so in control.

She sighed, feeling her anger begin to return. Wondered that he thought he could still hide from her. When she had heard his heart break over the phone, when he called her from the airport in Texas to tell her they were coming home—without Chris. When she had held him that night. And all the nights he had spent checking on the others, his friends, his crazy chosen family. And kept the faith while he went off to some secret mission in Texas. As if she wouldn’t figure it out. Revenge has a price, she knew. A price exacted on the one who took it. Nathan was figuring that out.

She resigned herself to it. They were not at home tonight. She would not argue with him in another man’s house. They poured two ice teas, and sat down in the living room to watch TV, each one keeping a trained ear out for sounds from upstairs.

It was the steady throbbing in his temples that told him that he had overdone it yesterday. Or maybe the day before. Or more than likely both days. Even the sensory deprivation of the pillow over his head did little to still it. He gritted his teeth and took a deep breath, feeling sore down to his toenails. Memory of the previous night returned along with a wave of accompanying anger. He yanked the pillow off his head, feeling the light lance through his eyelids like white hot needles. He jerked himself up to a sitting position and let the pain flood through him. Glad of it. Happy to be distracted from the memory of his “conversation” with Buck. He swore silently and repeatedly, then stood up. The room spun. He grabbed the bedpost. Felt his stomach lurch and willed the nausea away. He stayed that way until his eyes got used to the daylight and he felt steady again.

He brushed his teeth, washed the sweat off his face, dressed, and headed downstairs to find Nathan and Raine in the kitchen talking quietly. They both looked up at his appearance in the doorway and he knew he was being evaluated. He grimaced and muttered out a greeting as he turned away on the pretense of looking in the refrigerator, although he was quite certain he could not stomach anything yet. No one asked him how he was feeling, he noted sardonically. No doubt the answer to that question was written all over his face.

When Chris’s back was turned, Nathan and Raine exchanged a pointed glance. Nathan rolled his eyes and squeezed her hand, letting her know he’d handle it.

Nathan pushed back from the table and wandered to the refrigerator, leaning on the door. Chris scowled at him. Nathan reached for the coffee pot and held it in front of Chris.

“Coffee?” he asked.

Chris took the pot by the handle with a grunt of thanks. He flipped a cup over out of the dish drainer and filled it.

Nathan narrowed his eyes. “How much whiskey did you drink last night?” the medic asked, anger just under the surface of his tone.

Chris would have laughed if he weren’t afraid of the nausea he was currently holding at bay. “Not nearly enough,” he replied, his voice scratchy.

Nathan drew in a breath. About to launch into a lecture on the dangers of mixing alcohol and medications, when he caught the shake of Raine’s head. He stopped. Surprised. Nevertheless, he closed his mouth again.

She patted the chair beside her. “Come sit down,” she said cheerfully, finishing her piece of toast.

Nathan nearly laughed as his boss regarded his fiancée with suspicion.

“I’m not going to ask you any questions,” Raine said, a hint of iron in her voice. “I just don’t want to see you keel over on the floor.”

Chris narrowed his eyes, but a smirk turned up one corner of his mouth. He carried his coffee cup to the table and slid into a chair.

She regarded him with a sardonic smile. “I’d ask you if you wanted to take something for the pain, but I know you won’t.”

Nathan turned away to hide his own smile. People loved Raine for her sweet kindness, but only a precious few knew just how tough she was.

Chris watched Nathan turn away. Then while his formidable medic’s back was turned, the team leader grinned his best smart-ass grin back at Raine.

She narrowed her eyes back at him and shook her head. “Boy,” she said, her voice betraying the barest hint of her mother’s southern style. “You’d best not be thinking those words I think you’re thinking ‘cause I think my baby sister could take you out right now.”

The smart-ass grin sparked up into both of the blond’s green eyes. Try and stop me¸ he seemed to be saying.

She turned back to her own coffee, struggling to keep off the smile that threatened to crack her stern face.

He bent his head down, curling both hands around the cup, but the cup stayed on the table.

She resisted the urge to put her hand against his forehead. Instead she looked at her watch.

“I’m going in to the hospital today,” she said, directing her words to Chris. “Since you’re awake, do you want to ride in with me or with Nathan?”

A shadow of annoyance crossed his face. His follow up visit. Scheduled in collusion with Dr. Kahar. The annoyance was suddenly replaced by something that looked suspiciously to Nathan like an idea. Then it was gone, disappeared behind the team leader’s habitual poker face. Nathan glanced at Raine. She hadn’t seemed to notice.

“I’ll go with you,” Chris replied to Raine, taking a sip of his coffee, letting the bitter liquid calm his queasy stomach. He flicked a look back at Nathan. “I’m sure Nate will appreciate the break.”

Nathan snorted. You’re just trying to ditch me, Larabee, he thought sending a dirty look at the back of Chris’s head, and knowing Chris knew exactly what he was thinking and didn’t bother to deny it.

Raine glanced up at Nathan as Chris took another sip of the coffee, assuring him with a glance that she would get him to the hospital for his follow up visit and see him safely deposited with the doctor.

We’ll see, Nathan thought sourly. She didn’t know how slippery the boys of Team Seven could be—partly because around Raine, they tended to mind their manners. Perhaps the trend would continue. He could hope.

“All right, then,” he said as agreeably as he could manage. “I’ll run a few errands and I’ll pick you up at the hospital.”

He waited for Chris to give some sign that he had heard. It came in the form of a head nod. That was about all the acknowledgement he could expect.

For a moment, he considered bribing his leader into behaving. That’s what Buck would do, he reasoned. Then again, Buck could get away with it.

His forced smile faded as he thought back to last night. Evidently there were some things that even Buck couldn’t get away with.

He pushed the thought from his mind and emptied his coffee cup into the sink. “You two had better get going,” he said glancing at the microwave clock.

Raine followed his gaze and handed him her empty cup. She kissed Nathan once on the way to get her purse and once again on her way back. She waited by the front door.

Chris knew she was waiting for him. He got up slowly. His head was still pounding, but his stomach was steadier.

Raine handed Chris the keys and he headed out to her car without comment.

“I want to know what the doctor says,” Nathan said.

Raine frowned at him. “You know I can’t tell you that. Even if his doctor did tell me.”

“Whose side are you on?” Nathan retorted grumpily.

She resisted the urge to make a dig about knowing where her ethical boundaries were. Instead she kissed him again and gave him an estimate of what time she thought Chris would be finished.

She didn’t miss the worried look Nathan shot at his boss, as they watched him climb slowly into the passenger seat. Or the odd way Nathan glowered at the stacked bales of straw by the woodpile. She didn’t spend any time wondering about that, though. Instead she turned her car up the driveway, pulled onto the road, turned her favorite jazz station on low and left Chris to his poker-faced silence.

He waited in one of those uncomfortable plastic waiting room chairs, thumbing idly through a news magazine, aware that his left knee was jiggling up and down. He saw the feet stop in front of his chair and sighed as he recognized the battered cowboy boots.

He said nothing.

The cowboy boots walked two steps to the right, and their owner slid into a neighboring chair.

“Well good morning to you, too,” the Texas drawl said cheerfully.

Still no response.

“I’m feeling just fine this morning. Little tired from my workout and my barn chores, now that you mention it, but generally good. Thanks for asking,” Tanner continued.

Still silence. He waited for a response.

Chris looked up at him with a smirk. “I’d’ve said hello, but I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation.”

“Shut up,” Vin said.

Chris laughed and turned back to the magazine that he was barely even pretending to read.

Vin took advantage of the moment to check his friend over. Chris hadn’t let on, but based on the slight squint and the crooked posture, Vin was willing to bet that the blond was in some pain this morning.

“Ain’t ya gonna ask why I’m here?” Vin asked.

“Nope,” Chris replied. “I know why you’re here.”

Vin grinned.

“You all trust me so much, you send my next of kin along to find out what the doctor says,” Chris said matter of factly.

“Only ‘cause we care, Chris,” Vin replied calmly, picking up a car magazine.

It’s that caring that’ll get you in trouble, Cowboy, Chris thought silently.

When they finally did call his name, Chris followed the nurse to a room down the corridor. Vin strolled to the nearby desk, identified himself as family, and asked to be called when the exam was over. He wanted to be there when they discussed follow up treatments.

Forty-five minutes later, Vin arrived at the indicated room, to see Chris pulling on his flannel shirt. He caught a quick glimpse of the discolorations along his side and the puckered circle of the healing bullet wound.

The doctor glanced up as Tanner came in.

“Mr. Tanner,” she said, with a smile. “Glad you could join us. Have a seat.”

He grinned back, pleased to see that they had given Chris to someone who had dealt with the team before.

“As I was about to say,” the doctor continued. “Things are healing surprisingly nicely. The infections are clearing up. Your ribs are mending. Your lung sounds good. You’ll have a few scars you can talk about, but no permanent effects. We could start a short regimen of physical therapy for your arm, or I can give you a set of exercises to do on your own.” She eyed her patient seriously. “You’re a lucky man,” she said. “According to Doctor Kahar, he would have liked to have kept you a few more days. There could have been some serious complications.”

“But there haven’t been,” Chris replied evenly.

“No,” she agreed reluctantly. “There haven’t.”

He looked her straight in the eye. “I want to know what I can do to start getting back into condition.”

She exhaled. “Mr. Larabee…”

“Agent Larabee,” he reminded her.

She met the stubborn green-eyed gaze and knew if she didn’t prescribe some kind of plan, he would make up his own. And according to what little she had gotten out of him in answer to her questions, he had probably started overdoing it already.

“Why don’t you start with walking to the end of your driveway and back,” she said.

He grinned.

She couldn’t help but smile. “You’ve started that already, haven’t you?”

He admitted nothing, but the grin widened.

“Bet your driveway’s a half a mile long, too,” she said ruefully.

“Just seems like it,” Chris replied, meeting her halfway.

She shook her head. “All right,” she agreed. “I’ll give you some exercises to get your lungs back in shape. Follow the plan carefully. Don’t overdo it, and come back in if you feel any of the symptoms listed on the card I’m going to give you. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. You can expect to be on light desk duties for quite a while.”

He nodded. Giving every impression that he intended to obey her rules.

“I also want you to gain back that weight that you lost,” she said seriously. “You won’t be able to get back into proper physical condition unless you put it back on.”

She wrote some notes down in his file. Then she told him to wait until she came back with a printed list of exercise instructions and a card listing various signs and symptoms to watch out for. She handed both to him with the admonition to obey the instructions and to put the card somewhere where he could find it easily.

Her gaze encompassed both Vin and Chris, as she asked them if they had any more questions.

Both men shook their heads. She wrote out another prescription to extend his antibiotics and his painkillers—the ones Chris neglected to mention that he wasn’t taking—and sent them on their way.

“You overdo it, Cowboy?” Vin asked, as they meandered slowly into the waiting room.

“Got a lot farther to go, Pard,” Chris countered.

“It’ll come, Chris. You just gotta give it time,” the sharpshooter returned.

Chris’s mouth tightened grimly. Time. Another unknown variable to solve for. How much time would they give him to do his inquiry? How much time before they demanded the results? How many hours could he manage to pull off in a day? How many hours till Travis threw him out? Worse yet, what if he needed to lead a raid? Or operate undercover? To cover for one or more agents who might be absent for numerous unpleasant or perhaps even permanent reasons. His head began to pound again. And for the second time today, he was grateful for the distraction.

He was aware that Vin was staring at him. So he lifted his head, forced his hands to look casual jammed inside his pockets and assumed his characteristic lazy-looking walk to the elevators. Pleasantly surprised to notice that his feet hardly hurt at all anymore.

It was a ruse, and Vin knew it. But it didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate the attempt. It was somehow reassuring to see Chris walk like Chris again.

Nathan was already waiting with the car by the time they got the prescription filled. Vin waved as they drove off. Then he hopped onto his Harley and headed out to Josiah’s. The big profiler had promised some physical therapy of his own in the form of renovating the living room, which had apparently suffered some sort of retribution at the hands of the former preacher. Vin had readily agreed to the prospect of some hard work. He had already taken care of the horses at the ranch at least until the evening. The rest of the day stretched long before him. And if he didn’t find something to do besides worry about Chris and bang on Ezra’s door, he thought he might go out of his head.

Chris waited only until they got in his front door before he told Nathan they needed to talk.

Nathan sighed. “I know,” he said grimly, following Chris into the kitchen. “Buck said you’d be after some information about what happened after…” The words stuck suddenly. He stopped.

Chris ignored the words left unsaid. He replied, “I assume Buck told you that it would be best if you told me everything now. I don’t want any surprises when I conduct the inquiry.”

Nathan looked up at him, conflicting expressions crossing his face. Indignation won out. “I’ve never lied to you,” he said coldly, searching his leader’s face. “Nor would I hide important information. If you don’t know that, then…”

“That’s not what I meant,” Chris cut him off.

“Then what did you mean?” Nathan demanded.

Chris sighed. He pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, hoping that if he put himself on a lower level than Nathan that it might defuse the confrontation. “It just seems that the members of this team have decided that now it’s time to protect each other. No matter the cost.”

“Wonder where they get that from,” Nathan retorted sarcastically.

“Well it would have been better to think about that back when I was dead, wouldn’t it?” Chris snapped back.

Nathan stared at him. His jaw snapped shut and he sat down hard in a neighboring chair.

Chris closed his eyes, one hand moving unconsciously to rub his forehead. This was not going well. When he opened his eyes again, Nathan was staring at the wall. Silence reigned for several seconds.

“If I didn’t think you’d tell me the truth, I wouldn’t bother asking,” Chris said quietly.

A tiny sad smile lifted the corners of Nathan’s mouth. “If I didn’t think you’d believe me, I wouldn’t be working for you,” he replied.

“Fair enough,” Chris said, a flicker of a smile crossing his lips.

He waited a moment. But Nathan didn’t speak.

“I need to know what happened down in Texas,” Chris urged gently.

Nathan’s sad smile turned down at the corners. He exhaled, trying to keep his voice even. “What happened in Texas, Chris, is that we lost a good friend, a teammate, and a leader. And after that we went a little bit crazy.”

Chris sighed.

Nathan looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “I suppose you want specifics.”

“It would help.”

Nathan leaned back in his chair and fixed his gaze on the opposite wall. “I guess it started when they handed us the envelope,” he said slowly.

Chris leaned back in his chair. It took him a minute to figure out what envelope Nathan was talking about. Then it hit him. His badge and his gun.

Nathan went on, his voice far away, tinged with sorrow. “It just seemed so damn little. Senseless, pointless, stupid. And then coming home empty handed.” He paused and shook his head, his lips pulling into a thin, hard line. “I guess we wanted to somehow make it balance. Give it meaning. Next thing we knew we were plotting out a mission.”

He shrugged self-consciously. “Didn’t get to thinking about right and wrong until I was up a telephone pole waiting for the signal to cut the wire. Guess that’s when I finally had space in my head to think.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chris stand up. Turn away.

He waited for whatever came next.

Chris moved away toward the sink. “Jesus, Nathan,” he said finally, turning to face the medic. He stopped. “So when did it dawn on the rest of the team that they might have crossed a line?”

Nathan laughed a short, sharp bitter laugh. “You’ll have to ask them, but I think Vin mentioned that it was while he was up a tree sighting down his rifle at a little old man that Buck and I were strong arming information out of.”

Chris swore and jerked around to face the wall. Thoughts crashing together. He fought to untangle them.

Nathan looked down at the tile floor. He lifted his head again to see Chris staring at him, so intensely that Nathan looked away again. Chris returned to the chair beside him. Nathan could feel the stare. Knew Chris was waiting. He didn’t want to look up, but he couldn’t help himself.

Chris pinned him with the gaze. “This isn’t worth your career,” he said, the words shooting right through Nathan all the more sharply because the voice was so soft. “It sure as hell wasn’t worth your life. Or anyone else’s.”

Nathan jerked. He felt the heat rise in his face. “Easy enough for you to say. You weren’t there,” he snapped. His anger carried him to his feet. “You didn’t have to throw Vin down on the blacktop and hold him there while the building burned.”

His voice rose.

“You didn’t have to pin J.D. back against the van. You didn’t have to run around to everyone’s house at all hours of the day and night to see if they were all right. Or watch Ezra shut us out and Vin clam up completely.” He barely paused for breath, as his voice got louder. “You didn’t have to be the voice of reason when all you really wanted to do was walk into that god damn warehouse, grab those mother fuckers by the throat and make them give you your goddamn team leader back,” he shouted, the last words echoing in the tiled kitchen.

They stared at each other.

Nathan closed his eyes and took a long shuddering breath.

Chris dropped his head. His shoulders sagged.

“I’m sorry.”

The words were so quiet, Nathan almost didn’t hear them.

Nathan fell back into his chair, breathing heavily. The seconds filled with silence and the sound of Nathan getting himself together. “I guess that was a little harsh,” the medic said hesitantly, when his breathing was normal again.

A short, sharp laugh broke from the blond. “You said I could trust you to tell me the truth.”

“Can’t seem to help myself,” Nathan replied ruefully, his voice laced with regret.

Chris looked up. A depth of pain, of guilt, whirled in his green eyes. Nathan couldn’t recall ever seeing them so unguarded before. He put a hand on Chris’s knee. “Sorry you asked yet?” Nathan asked only half-joking.

“Oh yeah,” the team leader answered with a slight growl, as the pain gave way for a patent Chris Larabee sardonic gleam. The guilt remained. “Sorry I didn’t ask you before I lit into Buck.”

Nathan gave the knee a gentle pat. He didn’t ask what had happened last night. He simply told the truth. “Losing you all but killed him.”

Chris shook his head, refusing to believe it. “Buck’s a lot tougher than that,” he replied. Tougher than me, anyway. “He might be sorry, but he’d get over it all right.”

One side of Nathan’s mouth tilted up sadly, but he didn’t reply. He only thought the words he had already said. You weren’t there, Chris. You wouldn’t know.