by BMP

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Wednesday morning was clear and sunny, perfect for a long motorcycle ride. Thanks to Josiah’s ready generosity in staying on another night, the youth had had a long night’s sleep. As he felt the vibration of the road and the rush of the wind ease off his remaining tension, he began to ponder, not for the first time in the last few days, the idea that there were people in the world who had their days free. Every day. Stretching out before them filled with the luxury of deciding how they most wanted to spend their time. Of course, he realized, those people also had the problem of money covered somehow. He did not. And coming to the end of four straight weeks without pay was starting to have him concerned about the state of his bank account. Lost in his thoughts, he very nearly passed the driveway, heading instead to the next one, farther on, to the place he had been spending the majority of his enforced free time. He braked sharply, and swerved hard into the correct driveway. Gaining his balance he looked up to take in the view of the well-organized ranch before him unprepared for the spectacle that met his eye.

A free-for-all brawl. In the front yard. Five of them. From the looks of it Vin and Chris were getting the worst of it. Josiah had Vin in a full headlock and was pressing him down into the dirt, while Buck was wrestling Chris down into the grass. Between the combatants, he could see Nathan, arms spread, shouting. He gunned the motor, flying down the rest of the drive and skidding to a halt on the pavement. He leaped off his bike almost before he shut the engine down, tearing off his helmet as he raced to stop them.

He was nearly there when the sound finally reached his brain. In the absence of the motorcycle engine he could hear it clearly now, shouting, teasing, and above it all, laughing. Well, Nathan was only partly laughing.

“Stay away from those ribs, Buck!” Nathan called in warning.

Chris muttered something under his breath that made Buck release his hold long enough to slap him in the back of the head, which gave Chris the opportunity to scramble halfway out from underneath of the taller agent, only until Buck grabbed his back belt loop and dragged him back across the stubbly grass. This prompted Chris to say something else that made Buck laugh so hard, he actually fell over Chris in a heap. And Chris smacked Buck across the head.

Atop the slight sharpshooter, the giant profiler was quoting scripture, drowning out the threats being hurled at him by the young agent beneath him. He looked up casually to see J.D. standing there, helmet dangling from his left hand, staring at them as if they had all gone mad.

“Good morning to you, young Mr. Dunne,” the profiler boomed out cheerfully.

The other agents all looked over at him, red faced, gasping.

“J.D.” Vin said as casually as one could when being sat upon by a man the size of their profiler.

“Mornin’, kid,” Buck said boisterously, still pinning Chris down with both hands and both knees. “Heard you wimped out of duty last night.”

J.D.’s face turned completely red. “I had some business to take care of,” he murmured lamely.

Buck waggled his eyebrows suggestively at Chris, implying what he thought J.D.’s ‘business’ had been about.

“Knock it off,” Chris retorted, his former laughter turning into a cough. Buck got off.

J.D. stared at them all, a dark frown slowly gathering on his face. His gaze traveled from Chris, still lying on the grass, breathing hard, to Buck and Josiah getting to their feet, to Vin who rolled to a sitting position and gave Josiah a mock glare. To Nathan, who was muttering under his breath. And back to Chris, his thin gray t-shirt falling against his back as he rolled slowly over, showing his ribs faintly under the folds.

“What the hell are you doing?” J.D. exploded finally. He glared at Nathan, with an expression that clearly said I expected you to know better. Nathan hadn’t been given that look in nearly fifteen years. He felt himself grow indignant. Of course, he did know better, but that didn’t mean he had been able to stop the four hooligans who started the fight. He shook his head and scowled. What am I doing? he asked stopping his train of thought in utter disbelief. I don’t have to answer to J.D.!

“Easy kid,” Buck said, frowning.

“He’s just mad ‘cause no one invited him,” Vin muttered, brushing the dirt off his arms. His face had the imprint of grass in it. He spat a few pieces back onto the lawn.

“If he’d a shown up when he was supposed to, we’d a gladly kicked his ass, too,” Buck replied.

“Kicked his ass, too?” Chris retorted indignantly. “Whaddya mean, too? Looks to me like Josiah had your partner well under control.”

“He cheated,” Vin pointed out. “And he weighs a half a ton.”
“Excuses, excuses,” Chris muttered.

“Is this what you call recovering?” J.D. shouted at their leader.

To his credit, Chris merely raised an eyebrow. Buck opened his mouth to placate his young friend, but J.D. cut him off.

“Don’t you know no matter how careful you think you are, accidents happen.” He glared at Buck. “You especially,” he said, “After last weekend, you think you’d use your head.”

Buck quirked an eyebrow at his roommate but clamped his mouth shut on the retort he was about to make. Instead he turned back to Chris. Little help? his expression requested.

Chris sighed. He extended a hand toward Buck, and Buck pulled him to his feet.

“It’s alright, J.D.,” the blond said, dusting off his jeans and moving toward his youngest agent.

J.D. stared up at him. His expression still saying he clearly thought otherwise.

Chris looked back at Buck and Vin, apologetically. “Can you guys finish the barn?”

“Ain’t that where this whole ‘discussion’ started?” Vin said sarcastically.

Chris gave him a wicked grin. “Yeah, but now I got somethin’ else to do besides let Buck kick my ass.”

Let me?” Buck said indignantly.

Chris ignored him and told J.D. to meet him in the house in a tone that told J.D. he was expected without delay.

Josiah had moved to J.D. “God be with you, Brother,” the profiler rumbled, placing his hand on the young agent’s shoulder, and looking gravely down into the hazel eyes.

“Cut the crap, Josiah,” Nathan said, elbowing the large profiler.

Josiah smiled easily. “Just tell him the truth, and it’ll be over quick.” He turned toward his ancient and recently resurrected vehicle.

“What does he mean?” J.D. asked Nathan.

The medic stood looking down at him, brown eyes sympathetic. “Just what he said,” Nathan replied. “Just tell him the truth about what happened.”

J.D. shook his head. “I don’t follow you,” he said finally.

Nathan looked back at Buck. “You didn’t tell him?”

Buck looked suddenly embarrassed. How was he supposed to know that J.D. didn’t know that the interrogation was part of the “babysitting.” It wasn’t like he had seen much of the boy in the past week. He just assumed everyone knew by now. “Hell, Nathan,” he shot back, covering his mistaken assumption. “I didn’t think he needed a warning. It’s not that bad compared to the one he’s gonna have with Travis.”

“Says you,” Nathan retorted. By the time he got back to his house after his “interview”, he had briefly thought about beginning a remodeling project a la Josiah Sanchez.

“Yeah, says I,” Buck snapped. “I don’t expect ol’ Chris to knock him on his ass. So it should be pretty easy.”

Vin headed for the barn, Buck’s words ringing in his ears. He had suspected something had happened during Buck’s “interview”, when Chris had called and asked if Vin could postpone his turn for a couple of days. Vin hadn’t asked why at the time. Then some thinly veiled jokes between Chris and Buck had led to this morning’s tag team wrestling match on the front lawn—that and a crack about Josiah bein’ too damn old to participate. He smirked to himself. His grin broadened as he remembered Josiah’s pious retort aimed sharply at Buck and Vin but for different reasons, that it would seem that size does in fact matter. Nathan had run out onto the lawn just as the teams had chosen themselves. Buck had enlisted him as referee, and then immediately pounced on Chris.

Behind him Vin heard Buck telling J.D. what he should have told him before. “Chris is gonna ask you to tell him what happened in Texas. Just tell him what you know. No surprises.”

“But the inquiry isn’t supposed to be until…” J.D. started.

Buck gave him that look, the one he hated, the one that labeled him a kid, a green, inexperienced kid. “This is the inquiry before the inquiry,” Buck replied. “The one that lets Chris know what to expect during the official inquiry.”

J.D. licked his lips. “Can he do that?”

Buck snorted. “He’s in charge. He can do whatever the hell he wants.”

The young agent nodded his acceptance. He grabbed his backpack and slung it up onto his shoulder. “All right,” he said, more to himself than anyone. “I can handle this.”

Buck smiled to himself as he watched the youth square his shoulders and draw himself up straight before entering the house. He shook his head and looked at the dirt, his smile fading. The boy had yet to find out how scary Chris Larabee could be. It wouldn’t be today, though. That much Buck knew.

Ol’ Chris didn’t get real scary until you let him get close. That was when he started reading your mind and you started thinking crazy things like chucking up one career after another just to work with him. Or stepping in front of a bullet to protect him. That was when he stopped pulling his punches and started telling you how it was going to be. And you started doing crazy stuff like following his lead, even though you suspect he’s the kind of crazy that becomes myth—or urban legend. That was when the real roller coaster started up.

That was when Chris Larabee started scaring the pants off of you. By making you believe that looks really can kill when he levels those twin green rays of death in your direction. By making your heart stop every time he casually places himself in harm’s way. By knowing deep in your gut, and having to learn to live with the knowledge, that if Chris got his way, he planned on walking out of this life well before any of the men on his team. And you start thinking that maybe you ought to just keep an eye on him. Just to be safe. Just to make sure he doesn’t just slip through the crack between this world and the next before you even have a chance to notice. Like he was never there to begin with. Which is how it would go, if Chris got his way.

J.D. still had a ways to go before he had to face that kind of scary.

“That it?” Chris asked, pinioning J.D. with a look that made J.D. feel like he’d been turned inside out like a pocket and was about to be shaken to see if anything else would fall out.

He managed not to squirm, replying calmly and firmly. “Yes. That’s all.”

Chris nodded. He drummed his fingers slowly, thoughtfully against the tabletop.

“What did you do with the surveillance pictures?” he asked.

“They looped back into my laptop,” J.D. replied.

“Nowhere else?” Chris asked.

“No,” J.D. replied insulted.

“Where are they now?”

“I destroyed them,” J.D. said, the tone of his voice showing that any other possibility was out of the question. “I’m not stupid enough to leave something like that lying around.”

He stopped suddenly. His face grew red with the realization that he just told his boss he willfully and knowingly destroyed evidence. He suddenly felt like a small fuzzy bunny looking up at a big, black, hungry eagle.

Chris smiled a slow, secret smile that made J.D. go cold. “Was that your idea?”

J.D.’s hackles went up. He wasn’t about to let Chris pin this on Buck or anyone else. He had done it on his own. He hadn’t asked for advice—or permission. “Yes,” he replied. “I took care of the surveillance. I destroyed the pictures.”

Damn! Our boy’s all grown up, Chris thought, but he kept it from showing on his face. He narrowed his eyes instead. “And you’re sure that they are well beyond retrieval?”

“Absolutely,” he replied. He had wasted a perfectly good spare mother board to wipe any trace of those images from his computer. A mother board he had got on the cheap, but still a perfectly good one.

He looked back up at the chilling smile. But he did not flinch. He had done what he had done. And he was prepared to take his lumps just like everybody else.

“I’m impressed,” Chris said finally, nodding his head.

J.D. gulped, unsure if he had heard correctly. Unsure what response would be appropriate. “Um, thanks,” he replied tentatively, feeling another blush burn up his neck and into his cheeks.

Chris ducked his head to hide his grin, afraid he’d leave J.D. with the impression that this was not serious or that destroying evidence was something to take lightly. Neither was true. What was true was that J.D. had acted to protect his teammates. Still, clearly there had been another gaping failing in his leadership, and they would have to have a serious talk about ethics later on. But after the inquiry. Now that there was one less piece of evidence for Chris to have to consider.

Chris leaned back in his chair and fixed J.D. with a stern gaze. “That’s it, then,” he said after a moment. “You can go.”

“Go?” J.D. asked confused.

“Go,” Chris repeated.

“I’m supposed to stay,” J.D. replied. “It’s my turn to…” he stopped. He couldn’t exactly tell Chris that he was supposed to babysit him.

Chris grinned evilly at the words J.D. didn’t say. He knew what the agent had been about to say all right.

“I didn’t mean…” J.D. hesitated.

Chris put up his hand. Put an end to the conversation. J.D. sunk back in the kitchen chair, relieved. Rescued. There was nowhere he could have gone with the idea that wouldn’t have gotten him deeper into trouble.

“I don’t think I’m really the company you wanted to be spending this evening with,” Chris drawled lazily, quirking up an eyebrow at his youngest agent. “Am I right?”

J.D. blushed again. He wished he could stop that. No wonder people thought he was a kid.

He licked his lips. Hesitated to step back into the mess he had just left. “Doesn’t someone have to stay here to…er…”

Chris waited, feeling the smirk growing across his face. Unable to help it. Morbidly curious to hear exactly what J.D. was going to say.

“You know,” J.D. stuttered. “Make sure that…”

He stared at Chris helplessly.

“Go, J.D.,” Chris said finally, taking pity on his youngest. “Vin and Buck’ll be here almost all day, and I’ll get another babysitter tonight.”

J.D.’s face turned completely red. He cleared his throat. “Chris,” he said tentatively. “You know we don’t…”

“Trust me?” Chris asked filling in the pause.

J.D.’s face fell, unexpectedly. “That’s not what I meant,” he said.

“It was a joke, J.D.,” Chris said gently.

The hazel eyes lifted, serious, holding his gaze. “It’s not a joke,” J.D. said finally. “There wasn’t anything funny about it,” he snapped.

Chris frowned. “I’m guessing we’re not just talking about my last comment,” he said after a moment.

The look that J.D. gave him then shot right through him. “You guys think I’m so naive. That I don’t know what’s going on? Well, you’re wrong,” he snapped.

Chris lifted both palms out. “Whoa!” he said. “No one ever said you don’t know what’s going on. And if they did, they’d have to answer to me. You’re a top-notch agent, J.D. That’s why you’re on the team.”

J.D. looked at him exasperated. Not that he hadn’t wanted to hear those words. He had. And for a very long time. But Chris had missed the point entirely. “It was hell, you know. Buck didn’t sleep or eat for days,” he snapped. “Vin wouldn’t talk to anyone. At all. They brought in a new team leader.”

Chris dropped a hand onto J.D.’s arm. J.D. pulled it away, but he was not fast enough. Chris closed his hand hard around the arm and pushed it down against the table, needing to interrupt the young agent before he got a full head of steam. “I know,” he said firmly. “I heard.”

J.D. stopped. Took a deep breath. Closed his mouth. Realized he was about to holler at his boss. He dropped his eyes to the table.

Chris released his arm.

“I just thought…” J.D. tried again. He hesitated then looked back up at Chris. “It was a lot of people, you know,” he said, knowing that he wasn’t making sense, but trusting Chris to figure out what he meant. “It wasn’t just us.”

Chris gave him a sad smile. “I appreciate that,” he said gently. “And I’m sorry for what you went through.”

J.D. stared hard at Chris. Knew the apology was sincere, but not at all sure that his message had gotten through. He thought about showing Chris the cards. They were still in his backpack. He wasn’t quite sure why he still had them. Maybe it was because he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He couldn’t exactly send them back and say, “Thanks for your thoughts, but we don’t need ‘em anymore.”.

He gave a sigh and let the thought go. It wasn’t really his place after all. “I can really go?” he asked, fingering his helmet beside him on the table.

Chris grinned and jerked his head toward the door.

J.D. didn’t waste a second. And Chris knew the boy would be next door in a matter of moments, revving his bike at the Wells’s door, and asking Casey to head out for a ride.

He, on the other hand, was going to attempt to do some minimal barn chores. He rose from the table, stifling a groan. He was sore all over, since he had started his conditioning program in earnest. But it was the good kind of sore. Muscle sore. Workout sore. Not the kind of sore that was likely to get him in trouble. Nevertheless, he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut about it.

He wandered out to the barn, where Buck and Vin were painting the side that had taken the worst beating from the icy blast of a succession of winter storms. He picked up a roller and dipped it into a pan of white paint.

“How’d that go?” Buck asked, sidling up to him and beginning on the section next to Chris.

Chris shrugged. His interview with J.D. was between him and J.D. He had not shared what anyone had told him. Nor did he intend to.

Buck eyed him, nudged him with his elbow. “Better than mine?” he asked with a grin.

Chris leveled a mock glare at his oldest friend. “Anything would have gone better than yours,” he replied.

Buck grinned, but the grin was rueful. He rolled his shoulders to ease the tension out of them. “You know, Chris, when we realized that you…”

“Save it, Buck,” Chris said suddenly. “There’s a whole barn that needs to be repainted. And if you want me to help, we’d all better start working instead of talking.” His words encompassed both of his agents, including Vin, who sat on a sealed paint can, and had not said a single word. The sharpshooter hid his smile.

Buck closed his mouth. Took a sidelong glance at his leader and realized that Chris had probably heard as much as he could take about what the team had undertaken in an act of revenge over his death. And probably more than he could stomach about how his agents had reacted to losing him. Buck made his face carefully neutral, and after a few minutes of concentrating on painting, began to whistle some song from his childhood.

Chris gave Buck a sidelong glance, grimacing at that damn song. Not that Buck couldn’t whistle. He could. He just never whistled a whole song. Just an endless loop of the same refrain. Over and over again.

Truthfully, Chris was glad of the distraction. Twice now he’d been told that Buck had taken it hard. Twice he refused to hear it. Still didn’t want to hear it. Ignored the instinct to judge by evidence. After all, if anyone knew him it was Buck. Knew where he’d been. What he’d done. How he’d failed. And what a bastard he’d been. Buck would know better than anyone why he wasn’t worth that kind of trouble. Regardless of what Nathan or even J.D. seemed to think.

He pushed the thought away. And began to whistle a clashing melody. Buck gave him an irritated glance and Chris almost laughed when a second later, Vin started a third. The three of them worked away in the cool breeze under the steadily climbing sun, each one whistling a separate tune, as loudly as possible.

Following the painting, they had an early lunch, consisting of a little of everything that had been left in the refrigerator since the first day of their suspension. A lot of which Chris hadn’t actually eaten. It seemed like he was making up for it now.

“Damn, Stud!” Buck teased, poking his head under the table, as Chris finally pushed back his plate. “You know your hollow leg looks just like your real one!”

Chris made a face at him. Vin laughed, leaning back.

“He’s right!” the sharpshooter said eyeing Chris’s empty plate. “Where you puttin’ all that?”

“You should talk, Tanner.” Buck cracked. “You an’ J.D. eat more ‘n any six people I ever met.”

“Well, Buck,” Vin drawled, patting his lean, flat belly for emphasis. “Reckon our metabolisms’ll slow down when we get to be your age.”

Buck glared at him.

“Hey!” Chris intervened, balling up his napkin and Tanner’s and flinging one with each hand. Both hit their intended targets, one bouncing off each agent and back onto the table. “You can fight after we clean up,” he said with a smirk.

He got up from the table and carried his plate to the dishwasher and a small armload of other items to the refrigerator.

Vin and Buck’s heads swiveled, watching him, matching grins on their faces.

He turned, exasperated to see them staring. “You gonna work or you gonna watch?” he asked.

“Hell,” Buck said with a grin. “If that’s the choice, I’m gonna watch.”

Chris made a face at him. He put another few items away. “The rest is yours,” he said, and moved off into the living room.

He sank down onto the sofa. Painting seemed to have taken a lot more out of him than he had expected. Although he had accomplished so little compared to Buck and Vin. Frustrated, that he still couldn’t stretch very high, he had had to let Vin finish up his section. The smallest section. And Buck had sent him in to heat up lunch to distract him from being frustrated. Smart, he had to admit, but not very subtle.

He toed off his boots, feeling fatigue sink into him like liquid lead. Every limb felt heavy. He barely managed to lift his feet up onto the couch. He considered for a moment trying to find out what was on TV. And was asleep before he even finished the thought.

In the kitchen, Buck and Vin finished up the dishes quietly. They threw a blanket over the sleeping figure and headed back out to continue the painting.

“Better tell Josiah to bring more food tonight,” Vin said dryly, resuming his spot on the paint can, while Buck took a turn up the ladder.

“Reckon so,” Buck chuckled. “If he’s gonna eat like that.”

“Thank God,” Vin muttered under his breath.

Buck looked down at the slight, wiry Texan. He knew how worried Vin had been. Tanner looked up suddenly and grinned that famous Tanner shit-eating grin. “Damn skinny cowboy was startin’ to make me feel fat.”

The thought made both of them laugh.

“Whaddya want we should do with this one?” the voice asked in a preposterously overdone film noir gangster accent.

Fuzzy, Chris wondered if he had left the TV on. But the voice sounded too familiar. He cracked his eyes open.

“Never mind,” the voice called cheerfully to some unknown person.

Chris blinked and rolled over onto his back to see Buck leaning his elbows on the back of the sofa and looking down at him.

“Well hey there, Stud,” the mustached agent said amiably. “Glad you decided to join us. Me an’ Vin got that whole wall done and we’re ready to set up poker night.”

Poker night? Now he was really confused. He didn’t remember falling asleep on the couch. Let alone inviting anyone for poker night. What the hell time was it?

Buck watched Chris blink at him for a minute and then sit up slowly.

“What time is it?” Chris asked, his voice slightly raspy.

“Goin’ on four,” Buck replied with a grin. “You had a nice long nap after lunch. Thought me an’ Vin were just gonna have to carry you upstairs out of the way.”

Chris rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hand. Still groggy. Still slow. But coming around.

He peered up at Buck and noticed his hair was wet. Then he remembered they had been painting. Painting the barn. He looked around for Vin and heard dishes rattling in the kitchen.

Buck watched bemused as his usually razor-sharp leader tried to put the pieces of the afternoon together.

“We figured it was high time we held poker night. An’ since we been’ spendin’ all this free time takin’ care of you, we thought it only right that you should host the party,” Buck added by way of explanation.

Chris said nothing. Buck wondered if it wouldn’t be better if the blond just went right back to sleep, until he muttered, “What the hell are you gonna play with? No one’s been paid in a month!”

True, Chris wasn’t exactly joking, but Buck laughed anyway. Guess Larabee was done being disoriented now.

“Josiah’s got about a hundred old rolls of pennies in his basement. He’s bringing them over. Boring, I know, but it’ll have to do for now.”

Chris stifled a yawn. Glad they were taking their financial straits in stride. He himself felt guilty as hell about it, as he continued to collect his sick pay. He shoved the blanket aside and stood up slowly. He felt stiff and knew he needed to take a walk now or he’d never get himself awake enough to play. He didn’t want to get fleeced his first night. He would trust any one of his men to watch his back in a firefight, to protect his career in a case review, to take care of his life, limb and property when he was hurt, and to watch over the people he cared about if he couldn’t. But asking them not to take advantage of inattention or just piss-poor play at the poker table? That was asking way too much. Everyone on the team had learned that lesson the hard way.

“Where you going?” Buck asked, as the blond made his slightly unsteady way around the couch.

“Walk,” Chris said tersely. “Gotta wake up.”

“Not too far,” Buck said, the words coming out before he had time to think about it.

Chris gave him a glance of annoyance. “Yes, Mom,” he retorted.

Buck grinned. He’d been called worse.

The front door opened and closed.

“Where’s he going?” Vin asked, poking his head around the corner to peek out the glass in the front door.

Buck shrugged. “Taking a walk,” he replied. “Don’t imagine he’ll go too far.”

Vin snorted. “Maybe not today, but we don’t look out and he’ll be joggin’ up that hill.” He was referring to the long uphill just left of Chris’s driveway. And the insane way the team leader liked to start out his mornings. On a hard uphill leg of a five mile run.

Buck sighed and ran a hand through his hair, still damp from the shower. He seldom ran with Chris. Learned a long time ago that the man was a complete masochist when it came to workouts. Larabee had managed to work out a circular route from the ranch and back to it that ran five straight miles, up as many hills as possible, starting with the biggest one. “I hate to break this to you, Junior,” Buck replied, “But if he actually can jog up that hill, then he’s probably ready to do it.”

Vin gave Buck a sour look, but in it Buck could see the sharpshooter acknowledge the truth in that statement. Buck knew damn well that the young Texan and Chris Larabee had similar ideas about what constituted a “good” workout.

The doorbell rang promptly at six. Nathan and Josiah did not wait for someone to answer it. They simply walked right in. They were deep in discussion as they each carried an armload of food into the kitchen. Buck rubbed his hands together with glee as he opened the bags they set on the table.

In the living room, Vin arranged chairs around the card table. The coffee table had been pushed over to the hearth to make room for the card table and the chairs. Chris put out several large bowls filled with chips and pretzels.

Vin leaned two extra chairs against the wall—just in case. J.D. was out with Casey, and he didn’t expect that poker night would be a strong enough draw to change his mind. And Ezra… Vin had left a message on his machine, but had not received a reply. Not that he expected to get one. Until Chris had barged his way in there yesterday, Vin had been the only one of the Seven who had managed to actually talk to him. The others had been met only with a wall of silence. Chris hadn’t said a single word about what he had said—or perhaps done—to Ezra yesterday. And he didn’t seem inclined to give an opinion about whether Ezra would show up.

It didn’t seem likely. Poker night had never been Standish’s favorite team event, and he generally needed to be cajoled into coming on the best of nights. He said it seemed pointless to take money from people who never had any. Tonight, the caustic remark seemed particularly accurate.

Josiah heaved two large money bags onto the old card table, which looked like its legs just might give out under the insult of this new weight. He moved one to the floor. Then he reached into the bag on the table and began pulling out neat rolls of pennies and stacking them in the center of the table.

“How many you think we’ll need?” Josiah asked Chris as he passed by.

Chris eyed the bag. “Jesus, Josiah,” he replied finally. “That might be two weeks pay right there.”

Josiah grinned. “Might be, brother, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get rid of a large quantity of pennies.”

Chris sat down at one end of the table and began sorting the rolls out to each place around the table. Little by little, the others drifted in along with the faint smell of something heating in the oven. Buck put shot glasses on the table and poured a round of whiskey for everyone. Nathan glared at the glass in front of Chris. Chris grinned evilly back at him. They looked to Josiah to make the toast when the doorbell rang.

They waited for whoever it was to come in. When no one came, Vin squeezed himself out of his chair, around an end table and the arm of the sofa to go to the door.

He was caught off guard to see their missing undercover agent on the porch, holding a bag of food and two six packs of good beer. He looked chagrined and complained that he was about to drop one of the six packs. Vin hurried to take both of them before anything happened to them.

“What are ya ringing the doorbell for, Ez?” the sharpshooter asked. “You lose yer key?”

Ezra smiled self-deprecatingly. “Temporarily, I assure you,” he replied. Lord only knew which of those boxes he had thrown it in. Or why he had thrown it in one to begin with. If he had quit, he wouldn’t have needed it anyway. He thought back to Chris’s comment on the lack of reason to his packing and nearly smiled. Larabee had nailed it all right. As if to add insult to injury, immediately after the man had left, Ezra had to look for and locate two items he had somehow thrown into boxes despite the fact that he was still using them.

Tanner jerked his head toward the living room, as he emptied the bags on the kitchen table. “Go on in,” he said. Yet it seemed less of an invitation somehow than a challenge.

The undercover agent assumed an air of relaxed nonchalance and ambled into the living room.

Three voices greeting him with surprise and pleasure.

“Thought you hated poker?” Buck teased.

“No,” Ezra corrected slowly. “I have nothing against the game of poker. It’s gambling I abhor.”

Josiah grinned knowing what was coming, even as the undercover agent continued with his slow southern drawl. “Playing against the five of you, however, hardly seems like a gamble at all.”

Three voices at the table rose in mock indignation.

The fourth person said nothing, but there it was in the green gaze and the tiniest of head nods. Like finding water in the desert. I knew you could.

Ezra Standish felt a real smile lift his lips for the first time in days.

The moment didn’t last, it was interrupted by Tanner returning. “Nachos are almost ready,” he announced. “An’ Ezra brought some fancy crap that no one can pronounce. Or stomach.”

Ezra glared at him.

Josiah looked up at Vin. “Do I have enough time to make that toast?” he asked.

Buck poured another shot and handed it to Ezra. They all raised their glasses.

Josiah threw a devilish smile at his companions. “You’ve all heard this before,” he said. “On our last trip to the Saloon.”

Buck’s smile widened.

“But I think the one person who really needed to hear it missed out,” Josiah said.

They all looked suddenly at Chris as Josiah held his glass aloft.

“To Chris,” the big profiler intoned. “Our leader, our brother, our protector, our friend. May his light never leave us.”

“Hear hear!” shouted the agents of Team Seven as the unflappable Chris Larabee turned scarlet.

They proceeded to hoot and holler until he, too, had downed his shot.

He was saved from further discomfiture by the beeping of the timer on the stove. Four agents rose like a starting gun had just gone off. They disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Chris and Ezra to stare at each other across the table.

A slow smirk spread across Ezra’s face. “Not a bad toast,” he drawled thoughtfully. “But it loses something the second time around.”

Chris intended to send him one of his patented vengeful smiles, the kind that promise painful retribution when least expected. But he couldn’t. He was just too damn relieved and happy to see Ezra there.

After Chris started yawning and his attention began to wander from the cards, the team magnanimously decided to call the game. Ezra had been the evening’s biggest winner, but the prize money was not much to brag about. In fact, he had actually given the pennies back to Josiah along with everyone else. Josiah had looked at Chris and said pointedly, “See what I meant?” prompting Chris’s lips to twitch faintly in that familiar, fleeting ghost of an expression that passed for a smile.

It was early yet, but despite the long afternoon nap, or maybe because of it, Chris was clearly giving into fatigue. Josiah was adamant that they could clean up their own mess in the kitchen, and that Chris could stay parked in the living room. Four of the six moved into the kitchen to clean up. Buck made a great pretense of staying behind to clear away the card table and the chairs, but so far, nothing had moved, including Buck and Chris.

“Flip you for it?” the sharpshooter spoke suddenly to the undercover agent as they loaded the dishwasher.

Ezra turned to see an evil grin resting on the sharpshooter’s face. “For what great prize exactly are we competing?” he asked coolly.

“Who stays the night,” Vin replied, still grinning.

“And would that be the winner of said coin toss?” Ezra asked. “Or the loser?”

Vin’s grin broadened, but all he said in reply was, “There’s only two of us who ain’t been interrogated yet, an’ one of us has got to stay the night.”

Ezra cast an uneasy glance into the living room. Buck was slouched back in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, actually poking out from under the other side of the table, his chin nearly touching his chest. Chris was bent over, forehead resting on his folded arms. Neither man looked at each other. Neither looked animated in the least. Yet, Ezra could tell, even if he couldn’t hear, that they were discussing something. He looked over at Josiah and Nathan who were also deep in discussion as they worked.

During the time he had been busy keeping his teammates at bay, he knew they had been here, at the ranch, taking care of business. And that Buck had been busy taking care of the team. And that the team, had been busy pounding on his door and ringing his phone. All the while, Chris had been spending his awake time trying to assess the potential damage the team had done themselves when they went AWOL in search of revenge. He sighed. He knew he had not done his part. But he was not ready to be interrogated yet.

Vin regarded the undercover agent closely, from the corner of his eye, wondering if he had misjudged Ezra’s presence here tonight. “It was J.D.’s turn,” Vin continued nonchalantly. “But Chris let him off.”

Vin snorted. J.D. trying to rein in their leader would have been a disaster and the young agent knew it. And Chris would do just about anything to have a whole night to himself at this point. But Nathan and Buck had both vetoed that idea, and after today, Vin had to agree. He was better, but without someone here to rein him in, he was likely to take on a great deal more than he was ready to do.

“You don’t have to do much,” Vin assured the undercover agent. “He’s pretty much okay. You just gotta sit on him a bit.”

He hoped that sounded convincing. It was close to true. He wasn’t sure how successful Ezra would be at sitting on Chris. After all, Chris had managed to convince the undercover agent to take him out of the hospital and bring him back to Denver. On the other hand, Vin didn’t know what Chris had said to Ezra the other day, but if Ezra had come tonight, it must have worked—at least for the moment. Tanner couldn’t put his finger on it, but somewhere in his gut was a vague misgiving that if Ezra went back home tonight, whatever Chris had done would be undone. Vin had lived too long by his gut instincts to ignore them now.

The sharpshooter jammed another two plates into the dishwasher rack, with a clank that made Ezra wince. “Nathan’s got a top secret list of do’s and don’ts,” he grinned. If Chris had known that, he would have blown a gasket by now. “I’ll be by in the morning to take care of the horses. He’ll probably still be asleep. Lazy bastard,” he added with a grin.

Vin waited only a heartbeat, a pretense of waiting for a reply. Then he narrowed his eyes in sudden consideration. “Course if you got plans…” he trailed off.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the southerner replied in his best disarming drawl. He knew the sharpshooter was trying to play him, but what the hell, he thought. Against the voice of self-preservation, before leaving home this evening, he had taken a deep breath, shored up his courage, and prepared for this inevitability. “My bag is in the car,” he said with a charming smile that covered up his smirk. “I assumed I couldn’t avoid my nursing duties forever.”

Vin grinned. Shoulda known, he thought with a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.

As it turned out, Tanner had not exactly told the truth. Not that Ezra would call him a liar, not to his face anyway. One who values one’s limbs and prefers that said limbs stay in their customary locations would not lightly accuse the temperamental ex-Army Ranger of prevarication. Nevertheless, Ezra had risen somewhat earlier than his customary hour, showered, dressed, and prepared to begin a day of professional and competent boss-sitting to discover that his miraculously resurrected team leader had apparently flown the coop some time earlier that morning. It had to have been that morning, Ezra reasoned because the man had been soundly asleep when Ezra had unaccountably felt the ridiculous urge to check in on him before he himself retired to the guest room with a good book.

He could give no good reason for the urge to check on his boss last night. Nor could he give any logical reason for the momentary panic that gripped him now at the sight of the empty bed. He would have liked to have chalked it up to the idea that his teammates would call him incompetent and would likely blame him if something untoward had happened. But he knew that was not it. It was the silence. The same complete and utter silence that had reigned in the house when he had last stood in this doorway.

That had been the day they had returned from Texas. Without Chris. By evening, most of the team had been arranged in the chairs in the living room below. No one had said a word. No one had looked at each other. No one sat in or looked at the empty recliner. The silence had been oppressive. So Ezra had sought refuge upstairs, on the pretense of using the “facilities.”

Unexpectedly he had found himself in this very doorway. Staring at the empty room. And noticing suddenly a myriad of small, personal details about the space. Details that had made it belong to someone, like clothes draped carelessly over a chair, mud spattered running shoes lying on top of each other, abandoned in front of the closet, a basket of folded laundry waiting to be put away, and a pen lying across a note that had been scribbled as a hasty reminder of an errand that would never be run.

In the middle of these thoughts, the silence had intruded, and he was suddenly seized with the thought that for all he knew the others had got up and left. Left him. Alone in the house. An intruder in a place that somehow no longer belonged to his world.

His throat had closed up. He had stumbled through suddenly blurred vision toward the stair and was almost relieved to hear the voices rise suddenly up from the floor below. Voices he knew, distorted nearly beyond identification by the stridency. By the anger in the threatening words, shouted out into the yard outside from Vin Tanner. By the fear rising in the voice of J.D. Dunne, trying to intercede. Then had come the incredible calm, placating tone from Buck Wilmington. And the sudden realization fell on Ezra that everything had changed. Utterly and irreversibly.

He had excused himself. And driven off.

Now here he was standing in the door again. And he knew that Chris was around somewhere, had simply sneaked by while Ezra had been in the guest bath shower. He was absolutely certain that was the case. Yet he couldn’t stop the rising panic. The irrational idea that it was happening again. That he had awakened from a dream of the promise of returning to normal, to the same reality that had smacked him hard in the face the minute they stepped off the plane from Texas, Buck still clutching the envelope he had refused to resign to the overhead bin or even to let go of for the entire flight.

Forcing himself to turn calmly, to breathe normally, Ezra adopted a suitable unhurried pace and moved toward the stairs. As a betting man, he decided to begin his search in the barn.

As if by some secret signal, both men looked up to see the undercover agent standing there. By the tool and tack room. Watching them. His face revealing nothing of his thoughts.

“Mornin’ Ezra,” Chris greeted him, looking up from the hoof he was cleaning. He said a quiet word to the horse as he put the foot down and stroked the leg. He gave a nod to Vin.

“Mornin’,” Vin echoed, leading the horse down to the end of the barn and out the large doors that had been thrown open onto the paddock.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Ezra said coolly.

Chris and Vin exchanged a glance, but Ezra could not be certain what it had meant. Both men had a singular preference for non-verbal communication, and in the time that they had worked together, Ezra had become fairly adept at reading their moods and their intentions. After all, it was extremely difficult to miss the intention or meaning of any signal Chris Larabee sent directly to you, many of which were likely to make your hair stand on end. However, Ezra still had difficulty in deciphering signals that were not meant for him.

Instead he narrowed his eyes, and gave Chris a mocking smile. “I assume you are cleared for barn chores, then?” he asked.

Chris gave him a mocking smile right back. “Don’t know,” he said smoothly, as the smile grew into a smirk. “Is it on Nathan’s list?”

Vin flinched. But Ezra did not give Chris the satisfaction of seeing his surprise. He shot a glance at Tanner, who shrugged slightly. From the look of chagrin and dread in the blue eyes, Ezra knew immediately that Vin had truly thought the list to be a secret.

“If you are referring to the list of exercises on your refrigerator door, then I would say, no,” Ezra answered innocently.

The green eyes telegraphed back to him that Larabee didn’t believe the bluff for a moment, but could well admire the smooth delivery of the attempt. Ezra gave him the briefest of nods in recognition that he had been caught. Chris was not much more than merely competent at penny ante poker with the boys, but when it came to real-life high stakes, he was a true pro. Ezra had come to enjoy the inherent challenge in trying to con a boss who hid his “tells,” and spotted other people’s bluffs a mile away. It made him sharper. Taught him that he wasn’t always as good as he thought he was. Made him appreciate that he sometimes needed to work harder to hide things he did not want seen. Now was one of those times.

“I confess that I wondered where you had gone off to,” he said idly, running a hand down the smooth neck of a beautiful cream-colored mare that he had slowly come to view as his favorite, in part because it was smart as well as beautiful, and in larger part because it frequently took it into its equine head to flout Larabee’s authority.

“I thought you might enjoy the opportunity to catch up on your sleep,” Chris drawled, “seeing as how you’ll have to start getting up for work in a few days.”

Ezra narrowed his eyes at both the jibe and that knowing tone in Larabee’s voice. “I am staggered by your thoughtfulness,” he replied, “and your disingenuousness.”

Chris’s lips took on that cold grin. The one that made bad guys and, occasionally, undercover agents dearly want to shoot him.

Vin watched the exchange from the corner of his eye as he sent another horse out into the paddock. He gave no sign that he had heard, nor did he attempt to intercede. He was hearing plenty right where he stood. So far, he had gathered that Chris was strong-arming Ezra back into the fold. That was all right with him, except he hoped that Chris realized that the more a body tried to force Ezra Standish to do one thing, the more likely he was to do the opposite.

Then again, Chris was one of the best readers of people that Vin had ever met. It was an instinct, a gift. It was what made him the leader he was. It was why he had a reputation for reading minds. Chris had to know that about Ezra. Didn’t he? Vin found himself unsure.

Let Chris handle Ezra. That’s what Josiah had been saying all along. Trouble was, who was going to handle Chris?

He released himself from his worry and went out into the paddock with the horses.

Behind him, neither man had given an inch. Ezra still glared at Chris through narrowed eyes. Chris still had on that infuriating smile.

“Should I have left you a note?” Chris said, his voice quiet and sarcastic.

“That would have been civil,” Ezra replied, his southern accent grown artificially pronounced.

Chris’s smirk broadened into a grin.

Clear as day Ezra knew Chris was calling his bluff. He knew what had driven Ezra outside. Ezra made a face back at the team leader just to show him that he may have called his bluff, but he had not yet won the game.

Chris laughed, revealing the deep dimples on either side of his mouth. The green eyes sparkled with genuine humor at his undercover agent’s silent display of sour grapes.

“Vin and I are taking the horses up to the near pasture,” Chris said, not so much changing the subject as letting Ezra know that this round was in fact over. “You want to come?”

Ezra felt himself relax.

“If we are leaving the horses in the pasture, how did you expect us to return?” he asked lazily.

Chris grinned. “Well, since you’re here, you can drive the Cushman. Otherwise, we had planned to walk.”

Ezra snorted. He glanced out the doors, past the paddock toward the specified pasture. It was not that far, but certainly a lot farther than the distance to the mailbox and back. He glanced at Chris. “It seems a mite further than the mailbox, if you ask me,” Ezra drawled, aiming and hitting his mark.

“Well, I’ve got all day,” Chris drawled back sarcastically, and very nearly imitating Ezra’s tone of voice.

Ezra laughed. “A fair point, Mr. Larabee,” he replied. “In that case I believe I would rather return to the house, and take advantage of the opportunity to catch up on my free time.”

Chris grinned to himself, as he watched Ezra walk away. So, this is how Ezra planned to punish him. The cold shoulder. Fair enough. He didn’t mind really. Not that Ezra needed to know that. He figured he deserved some punishment. After all, he had apparently put the team through hell. He could take whatever Ezra wanted to dish out, so long as Ezra kept dropping hints that he was planning to stay.

“Ready Cowboy?” Vin called from the fenced enclosure outside the barn.

“Ready,” Chris called back. He opened the door to Pony’s stall, and led the gelding out between the row of stalls and out into the sun-dappled paddock. Talking softly, he led the horse to the fence. He would use the rails to mount.

They intended to forego saddles because they were too heavy to carry back. It would not have been the first time he had mounted the black bareback, but he also knew that he would not be able to swing himself up, yet. Not easily anyway, and Pony was temperamental. The black would not stand still for nonsense. If truth be told, it was one of the reasons he liked the horse. They understood each other.

Vin stood in front of Peso, a horse more ornery than even Pony. He scratched his horse behind the ears like a dog, as he watched Chris lead Pony to the fence.

“Damn ornery horse’s like to throw you right off,” Vin called. “Why don’tcha ride Buck’s grey. She’s easy and you can trust her.”

Chris almost laughed at that. It explained a lot about Buck’s attachment to his horse, he thought philosophically.

He shook his head at Tanner’s suggestion. But he addressed his next words to his horse. “He thinks I oughta throw you over for a girl. Don’t reckon you’d think much of that,” he said quietly, as he climbed the rails and stood facing his mount. The horse regarded him with liquid brown eyes, then nudged him once, hard in the shoulder.

Chris caught himself with the rail tucked tightly between his shins. He grinned and rubbed the long nose. “Didn’t think so. Me an’ you go too far back to let any ol’ girl get in the way, right?”

Without Chris even giving a command or a signal, Pony stepped up alongside the fence, presenting his side, and Chris mounted easily. The blonde leaned forward over the horse’s neck, talking softly. The ears twitched as if in response.

Vin grinned to himself. Like he had really expected Chris to ride some other horse.

“You’d better be nice today,” he said to his own horse as he swung himself up onto Peso’s back. Peso tossed his head as if to say he wasn’t making any guarantees.

The small herd fell into order as they headed for the pasture, Pony in the lead, Peso bringing up the stragglers. Vin watched Chris and Pony from the corner of one eye. If he had doubts about Pony’s temperamental nature, they were rapidly disappearing.

In the years he had worked for Team Seven, since he had acquired Peso, and had been riding the ranch, he had had ample opportunity to see how his friend handled a horse in a bad mood. Much like he handled his agents. He understood the problem, but he didn’t give an inch. Vin had seen Pony try to throw Chris off and attempt to brush him off on low-hanging branches or bare tree trunks. He had frequently seen Chris wrestle the prancing, sunfishing horse in the direction he wanted to go, and he had even seen Pony take a nip out of Larabee’s hide. Once, in a truly rare mood, Vin had seen the black gelding try to roll. Chris must have given the horse hell for that one, he was sure. He had sent Vin on ahead that time, saying that he and Pony were going to have a “talk.” Vin was not sure what that had entailed, precisely, and Chris never said, but Vin had never seen the horse try it again.

Today, Chris’s first day on a horse since his return, and bareback no less, Vin had to admit, Pony seemed to know his business. He had never seen Pony’s gait quite so toned down or seen the horse pick out his trail quite so carefully. He grinned. Ornery or no, Pony was Chris’s horse. The ears swiveled when Chris talked to him. And he greeted Chris with a nicker he gave to no one else. No doubt the horse would have been insulted if Chris had chosen another mount today.

Vin leaned over and asked Peso to take a lesson. Peso tossed his head again, and it was only the sharpshooter’s quick reflexes that kept him from getting smacked in the mouth.

“Damn ornery horse,” Vin growled affectionately.

It proved a long, slow walk back to the house, after seeing the horses safely pastured. They took one brief rest stop under a shade tree. Then Chris sucked up his determination, picked up his pace, and started off for the rest of the way home. Vin shook his head, as he caught up. Sometimes he didn’t know whether to admire Chris for being so stubborn or just haul off and slug him. Often, it was a toss up.

He kept his mouth shut, though. He knew his turn to sound off would be coming up soon enough.

He was not disappointed. He hung around doing chores for the entire morning, making an effort to stay out of the house. He didn’t want Ezra thinking that he didn’t trust him. It wasn’t that exactly. He was just afraid that it all might still blow up in their faces. He believed Josiah when the big profiler said that Chris was the best qualified to handle the undercover agent’s resignation. But still... He forced his train of thought off the tracks and concentrated on the barn wall he was painting. If he weren’t careful, he mused with wry self-deprecation, he was going to run out of jobs to do, and then what excuse would he give for hanging around all day?

He was surprised when he heard the voices on the porch. The brief discussion was followed shortly afterward by a car door shutting, gently to be sure, and the purr of the Jag’s well-maintained motor. He came around from behind the barn to see Ezra’s taillights heading up the driveway. Early. It was not yet one o’clock. Was that good or bad? From across the yard he could feel Chris’s gaze.

“Guess I’m the only one left,” Vin said. It came out harsher than he had meant it to.

“Come on in,” Chris said evenly. If he had heard the edge in Vin’s voice, he gave no sign. Time to face the music, Chris thought, and was almost surprised at the apprehension he felt, now that he had pretty much completed the entire picture of what had happened in his absence, and had a pretty good plan in place for how to deal with the results of the official inquiry. He could not fool himself about the source of his apprehension. He knew in his gut, that this conversation would not be about what the team had done while he was away. It would be about what he had done to his team, when he had made the decision to order them out.

Vin changed out of his paint-splotched clothes and cleaned off his hands before he took a seat in the kitchen.

“Hungry?” Chris asked.

“I’m a might thirsty,” Vin said. “Gets hot workin’ out there all day.” He hadn’t meant it the way it sounded.

Chris looked at him exasperated. “I told you…”

Vin waved him off. “I know,” he said. “But there’s work to be done, an’ you can’t do it. But I can.”

Chris sighed and dropped into a chair across from Vin. He pushed a glass of iced tea toward the Texan. They stared at each other for a minute. Chris looked tired. Maybe they shouldn’t have pushed that walk this morning.

Vin let the first few gulps of tea slide down his parched throat. Then he set the glass back on the coaster and began. “What’s left that you don’t already know?” he asked, seriously, looking Chris right in the eye.

A corner of Chris’s mouth twitched up in a sad smile before he answered. “Are we okay?” he asked.

Vin sat back. He hadn’t expected this tactic. He hadn’t prepared a response. He squinted across the table at the blond. Saw no deception there. No strategizing. That was in fact what Chris didn’t know. And that was what he wanted to know first.

Tanner swore inwardly. Outwardly he dropped his eyes to the tabletop and ran his hands through his long, tangled hair. It was a long moment before he looked up. He owed Chris his honesty. It was a point of honor. Vin didn’t feel that he had many such points.

There were a lot of things in his life that he did not look back on with pride. On top of that, his solitary nature and his direct manner had earned him few friends. Even in his Army unit, he had chosen to be a sniper. Sure they worked in pairs, but a sniper was always quintessentially alone. His team depended on him. He depended on himself alone. He was comfortable with that.

But Team Seven had changed him. He needed the team. He needed his friends. And he needed the leader, who had pulled him into the fold, had given him these friends and something Vin considered immeasurably more valuable, his own implicit trust and his friendship. Gifts that Vin had come to understand were offered to few. He knew better than to question why they had been given to him.

He answered slowly. “I don’t know, Cowboy.”

Vin saw the regret lance through his friend’s face and then be replaced by thought. Typical Chris, he thought. Take a hit and come up planning what to do now.

He struggled to clarify what he meant. “Sometimes I think we are. I mean, I don’t hate you or anything…”

An expression of undisguised relief flooded through Chris’s face. Vin stopped. Interrupted. Could Chris really have thought… The train of thought ended, crashed, muddled up in a knot of derailed cars. He shook his head. Why the hell would Chris ever think that he could hate him?

He stared hard at his leader. We’re the ones who fucked up, Chris, he thought. You’re the one who should be mad as hell.

Chris ran his hands through his hair and Vin saw the fatigue press him even lower in his chair.

“Listen,” Vin said suddenly, firmly. “Forget I said that.”

Chris looked at him quizzically.

“What I meant is, I’m still mad.” There that was better. More accurate anyway. Except that he didn’t have any idea where he got off having the right to be angry. He didn’t have a leg to stand on there. Still, that was how he felt and there was no getting around it.

The shrug of Chris’s eyebrows and the twist of his lips said it all. No shit, Tanner.

Vin almost smiled. Of course Chris would know he was mad. They had been tiptoeing around each other, nicely, almost politely, since Chris had come back from Texas. But all along, both had been feeling their way along what this disaster had done to their friendship.

It was not like Chris and Buck. They had known each other too long. Weathered storms as bad, and maybe even worse than this one. There were no pretenses left in their relationship. Few little courtesies had even survived the long succession of careers that they had worked together in. In fact, there were days and weeks when the two long-time comrades could hardly manage a civil word to each other. Yet there was the enduring comfort of perspective, the understanding that everything would one day be simply more water under the bridge. And that mutual respect and affection would outlast it all.

Had he not learned long ago not to judge himself or what precious little he could call his own by other people’s standards, Vin might have been envious of that friendship. But he knew better than to fall into that trap. He simply admired it, and hoped that one day he could call something like it his own.

Lost in consideration of how he could explain himself more clearly, he almost did not hear Chris’s words. “You’ve got a right to be angry.”

Vin’s head shot up at the realization of what he had heard. He stared at Larabee, bug-eyed, suddenly awash in a variety of conflicting feelings that all urgently demanded to be released. They won, all rushing simultaneously up Vin’s throat.

With a disbelieving shake of his head, he blurted out with vehemence that surprised even him, “No I don’t. I don’t have a right to nothin’ except to realize how damn lucky we all are.”

Chris stared at him.

But the gate was open, and nothing Vin thought or did could hold it back now. He half rose from his chair and stabbed his finger down on the table for emphasis. “Don’t matter though whether I got a right or not, I’m still pissed.”

He pinioned Chris with a hot glare, steamrolling to the point that really pissed him off. “I can see a lot from those damn rafters, you know. That’s why you fucking put me up there.”

It took a second for Tanner, red-faced, chest heaving, to catch a breath. And Chris realized in that space just what Vin meant.

Vin saw the realization hit.

“That’s right,” he growled. “I saw that goddamn bullet hit you.”

Chris stared at him. Have I got your attention now, Larabee? he thought angrily. Good, ‘cause I ain’t finished. Not by a long shot.

He dropped his voice, brimming over with fury, as he laid out the rest. “An’ I know you took the second one right after. Right before you fuckin’ lied to us about comin’ out in ten.”

He saw the expression come into Chris’s face. As good as a confession. Yeah, Tanner thought. He had known he was lying. He had had no thoughts on how to get out of there. He had just wanted them all to go.

Chris made no attempt to deny it. Vin knew he wouldn’t.

Instead, Chris sank farther into his chair and took a long hard look at his sharpshooter. While Vin glared daggers at him.

Chris exhaled. He spread his palms across the wooden tabletop. Laying his cards down. “I didn’t have much choice, Cowboy,” he said softly but firmly.

Vin snorted. “Fuck you, and your no choice,” he snapped. “You coulda spotted me a target. You coulda given Buck and the others your position.”

Another thought suddenly occurred to him. Another piece fell into place with a sickening clank. “You turned off your headphones so J.D. couldn’t get a line on you!” And then another piece. “So we couldn’t come back for you.”

Chris flinched. Caught.

Tanner’s eyes flashed fire. “You son of a bitch,” he bit out, rising to his feet. Out of breath. Hands clenched rigid at his side. Willing himself not to deck Chris right now.

Chris pushed himself up to full sitting height. He pressed his palms down against the table and willed himself to think and speak clearly. He looked the furious sniper full in the eye.

“And if I had done as you suggest,” he said calmly. “If I had done any of those things, who would be dead right now?”

Anger flashed through Vin’s eyes. He had no reply. Knowing the reasons why didn’t make him any less angry.

“You didn’t think we’d figure it out?” Vin spat back.

Chris stopped himself from shrugging. Forced himself to remain still. “You’re the first,” he said evenly.

Vin’s glare was hot and deadly.

“So it’s all right, as long as the only one who gets killed is you?” he demanded.

Chris’s surprised ears heard the answer hit the air a moment too late to stop it. A simple word. “Yes.”

He didn’t know why he had said it. He sure as hell hadn’t meant to. And he was angry that he had. Wished there were a way to take it back.

Not that it wasn’t true. He knew in the bottom of his gut and down through his entire being that it was true. But he also knew down to his toes that no one else needed to know it. And there were some who should never know it. He swore silently.

Vin’s next words caught in his throat. He choked on them. Stunned. Just like that. He had never expected to hear it. The truth in that one word. He sat down abruptly.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“You asked,” Chris said suddenly, dryly, regretfully.

“Shit,” Vin said vehemently. Then he swore several more times repeatedly. In words that made Chris flinch.

He leveled a finger at Chris. “You listen to me, you stupid bastard,” he said. “Come Monday, you’re my boss again, but today I figure we’re on an even footing.”

There was no mistaking the Texan’s tone. And Chris listened. He knew he had no choice.

“You got six men who’d give their lives for you,” Tanner growled. “Who’d follow you to hell and back and fight the devil himself on your say-so. But I’m gonna knock you on your ass the next time I hear you say somethin’ like that. You made Buck and me fuckin’ leave you behind. You made us hate ourselves and each other for doin’ it. I’m not goin’ through that again. You plan on dyin’ on a bust, you just get it through your god damn thick skull right now that I’m goin’ right down with you.”

The words echoed in the kitchen. And inside Chris’s head.

He ran a hand over his face, suddenly feeling like he was a hundred years old. Sometimes he really hated being in charge.

“It ain’t gonna be like that, Cowboy,” he said softly, evenly, firmly. Tanner still breathing hard, still seething across from him. “It’s my job to take care of the team.”

He saw the protest start and interrupted it. “My job is to take care of the team,” he repeated, firmly.

His gaze bored into Tanner’s. “And you’re job is to watch the team’s back,” he said, scanning the sharpshooter’s angular face for signs that he disagreed. There were none. “So long as it is in my power to protect this team, I’m going to do just that. And if you’re not going to follow my orders, then I need to know. Because my orders aren’t open for discussion.”

His tone was flat. And Vin knew that he had been wrong about the even footing. Not in this discussion.

He dropped his eyes. “Regardless of consequence to yourself?” he growled.

Chris could hear the shreds of rebellion in the tight tones. But he could also hear them breaking up.

“Regardless,” he repeated firmly.

Vin swore again. At length. Then he fell silent.

“I need to know, Cowboy,” Chris urged gently. “This one’s up to you.”

“God damn it, Chris,” Vin seethed. “Do you know what you’re asking?”

Chris’s gaze did not waver. “I’m asking you to trust me.”

Vin’s laugh was short and bitter. “There’s not a damn thing on this earth that I don’t trust you with,” he replied. “Except yourself.”

Chris managed to hold back his own bitter laugh. He had heard that before, in one form or another.

When the blue eyes returned to his, there was a request in them. A plea. Something he thought he’d never see in the proud, stubborn Texan. Cold, guilty fingers clenched on his heart.

“I can’t make that promise, Cowboy,” Chris replied to the unspoken question. “All I can give you is the truth.”

Vin struggled to swallow around the lump in his throat. He forced the words out. “And that is?”

Chris smiled slightly, but his eyes remained earnest. “I’m not looking for death,” he said. He gave a self-deprecating shrug. “I’ve discovered I have a lot to live for.”

Vin’s mouth turned down at the corners. “It’s taken you a hell of a long time to figure that out,” he snapped.

“Three years,” Chris replied.

Vin searched the green gaze for signs of deception. This was the truth. All that Vin had told Ezra was true. All that he had feared was also true. Chris was not looking to die, but if he had to, to save the team, he would. Simple. An acceptable exchange—to Chris.

Vin’s thoughts shifted, turning to Buck.

“Losing you will kill us,” he said matter of factly. Certain now. And knowing that Chris needed to know that his death would not save the team.

A logical maneuver, Chris thought. A last ditch effort to point out the error in his reasoning. The flaw in the maneuver was that this had nothing to do with cold reason and everything to do with who he was at heart. The self that he had lost, and whom he had found again thanks to a tenacious good friend who forgave without condition or limit; a straight-shooting Texan sharpshooter who didn’t need words to demonstrate his great integrity and compassion; a cynical profiler who nevertheless refused to let cynicism interfere with his belief in the basic goodness of mankind; a healer who never gave up and never gave in and had the courage to continue to care, sometimes in spite of the men he cared for; an undercover agent who believed that as long as he held himself separate he would never be vulnerable, but who, despite himself, had come to care, making himself vulnerable, and in the process found himself to be a better man than he had ever expected; and finally, an idealistic youth, who had joined them to fight crime, to take bad guys off the street, to become like men he admired almost too much for his own good, but whose spark of idealism and forthright good nature, reminded them all again and again why they were on the job. To protect the innocent. Which sometimes included each other.

Chris and Vin locked eyes for a long time.

Chris did not bother to deny Vin’s assertion. He did not believe it. But he had begun to see that Vin was not the only one who felt that way. Only time or bad luck would put that belief to the test. But his faith in them was implicit. They would survive. Could survive anything. So long as they had each other.

Vin broke off his gaze. Submitted. It was not his call to make. And as he had told Ezra, he could not change Chris. It was part of who Chris was.

Come Monday, they’d be back in the bullpen, and facing the official inquiry. But today and for the rest of the weekend, they were just seven twisted, messed up guys, who had taken some bad licks from life and had somehow found each other. He turned his eyes thoughtfully back to Chris. No, not somehow, he amended his thought. On purpose. In some strange way, Chris had known what they needed and given it to them. Given them the gift of each other.

The silence went unbroken until Vin’s stomach growled suddenly.

Both men smiled. Identical smart-ass grins.

“You got anything to eat around here?” Vin asked grouchily.

“You know where everything is,” Chris retorted. “Get it yourself.”

“Yer a piss poor host, Larabee,” Vin said moving to the telephone.

“What are you doing?” Chris asked suspiciously.

“Orderin’ pizza,” Vin retorted. He gestured at the refrigerator. “You don’t think I’m eatin’ that crap again do ya?”

Chris listened to him order and state his name, repeating back a dollar amount and a length of time. He hung up.

“Yer drivin’,” he said to Chris, wearing that shit-eating grin.

Chris got up. By the time they got to the place, the pizza would be done.

“Yer buyin’, too,” Tanner said.

“Don’t push your luck,” Chris retorted.

They were still arguing when they got in the car.

“You just wait, Larabee,” Vin said. “Payback’s a bitch.”

He heard the laugh, real and deep. “Don’t wait too long, Tanner. I plan to be fully requalified before the month is out.”

“That I’d like to see,” Vin shot back.

Chris grinned as he pulled out of the driveway. He knew the unvarnished truth when he heard it, even when it came from a smart-ass Texan.