by BMP

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J.D. hardly spoke at all for the rest of the day. Chris disappeared for two hours at lunch time, not telling anyone where he was going or when he’d be back. They almost didn’t see him leave. After lunch, he called Ezra in behind closed doors.

Standish went in, cool, unruffled, almost disdainful. He came out again an hour later, looking the same way.

J.D. glared at the undercover agent. He felt Buck’s worried glance fall on him. Again. He did not speak. At five he announced that he was leaving. He turned to Buck and said only, “I’ll see you at home.”

Vin glanced over at the closed office door and then back up at Ezra. “How’d that go?” he asked, casually.

“As expected,” Ezra replied curtly.

“You sang like a bird?” Vin retorted, a grim half smile on his lips.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ezra snapped. His lips curled up into a smirk, as he leaned forward and dropped his voice. “I very grudgingly gave up the information he wanted.”

A desk away Buck wished dearly that J.D. had hung around long enough to hear Standish’s comment. A reminder. How to play the game. Of course, Buck thought bitterly, none of us really knows what game we’re playing. He stared at the closed door and bit back the thought that maybe Chris didn’t know all the rules either.

Chris was still at his desk after the others left. He had refused to leave. They turned out the lights. They unplugged the coffee machine. He gave them an exasperated glare and told them he had work to do. Buck made a move back toward his own desk, but a nasty look from Chris stopped him. “Go home,” the leader said curtly.

Buck clenched his jaw on his retort, as the others filed out past him. Felt his stomach burn. Déjà vu, this tone and look. This anger.

“I’m not leaving,” Buck said from the door.

“Go, Buck,” Chris growled, the temperature of his glare rising another few degrees.

“Not till you tell me what’s so all-fired important you have to do it tonight before you fall over.”

The smile Chris gave him was feral, flickering with a cold malevolence, a loathing that Buck realized he had not seen in a long time.

“I’m sure J.D. gave you an earful,” Chris replied, his voice casual, conversational belying the tension in his face.

Buck rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t agree or disagree. He just looked back up at the blond with a sigh. “You’ll have to mend some fences there,” he said softly.

“First I have to save his job,” Chris snapped. He glared at Buck.

Buck swallowed. He put his coat back on the hook and took two steps to lean in the doorway.

“You gotta give me up to save him, don’t you?”

Chris’s jaw tightened. His throat worked. Suddenly dry. All moisture sucked out of it somehow. “I’m not giving you up,” Chris grated out, his voice harsh. The look he gave Buck burned.

He couldn’t explain. If he did, then IA would somehow know. Know it had gone too smoothly. Too expertly. Too easily. Maybe if he had a team full of Ezra Standishes he could pull it off. But he didn’t. They weren’t all so practiced and smooth in their deceit. They weren’t shrewd manipulators. Some of them were Nathan Jackson, and J.D. Dunne, in whom truth glowed out of their eyes. So it needed to look real. It needed to be messy. And it needed to look like it hurt. That part was easy. It hurt like hell. Just ask J.D.

Now there was Buck standing in his doorway, his face so loaded down with regret that it made Chris squirm to look at it.

It had been that way once before. After Sarah and Adam. When he couldn’t stand to look at Buck’s grief and wanted no witnesses to his own. Wanted to replace the regret, the concern, with something he could handle. So he battered Buck with everything he could throw, words, fists, recriminations, bottles of whiskey. To make him angry. Push him away from him. Out the door. So he could self-destruct without the guilt of taking someone else with him. Out of the path of the rocket launcher of Chris Larabee’s rage. Chris went cold at the comparison.

He stared up at Buck. God he didn’t want to go back there. Wouldn’t make it this time.

Buck saw the green eyes refocus. Saw the expression. That one. Saw the rage and grief coming like a whirlpool to suck them both down. Just like after Adam and Sarah. Only that time, the last time, he and Chris had just about drowned each other, stepping on each other, trying to escape it. This time was different. This time when the familiar green eyes looked at him, they betrayed their owner’s intention. Maybe on purpose. Maybe despite him. Maybe Chris didn’t even know. But Buck saw it. This time they were asking him for help.

He took two steps into the office. He didn’t sit. He leaned over the desk. Like he had leaned over J.D. in the conference room. Forcing Chris to lean back to look him in the eye.

The tall mustached agent spoke quietly, earnestly. He spoke with his whole body, the way only Buck Wilmington could. “I’m in this with you. If we go down, we go down together.”

Chris blinked at him. Words unspoken threading through his eyes. Read there by a man who knew the language well enough to read it. A denial. A protest. Buck waited. Watched stubborn refusal reanimate the eyes. And tell him that Chris hadn’t given up yet. Watched the half smirk kick up the corners of the thin lips.

“You need to know that,” Buck said pushing off the desk, his own smirk mirroring Chris’s, although his eyes remained earnest.

The smirk melted into a grimace. Buck cut off the protest before it could even be voiced. With a hand gesture once made in jest to a nervous young man fidgeting with his tux in front of a bathroom mirror in a church basement, two minutes before it was time to take his place a the top of the aisle. His feet fidgeting ludicrously toward the outside door. Buck dangled his car keys from two fingers. Giving them a jingle. I got the car keys. You just say the word.

Chris almost grinned in spite of himself. The directors might throw the book at him next week. And take the whole team down after him. But Buck would still be driving the getaway car. Damn fool, Chris thought with fond exasperation and a sort of wonder. What the hell makes you think I’m worth this kind of trouble?

Buck waited until he saw the resignation. And something else. Was it relief? He smiled, careful to keep it to himself, as he turned back for his jacket and went out the door.

He was there again, when Vin arrived early at eight A.M. At least Vin believed it was again. From the pale, drawn look on his face, the slight hunch of the shoulders, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that he had never left. He was still dressed in his usual black, so that gave no hints, and Vin knew that Larabee kept a change of clothes in the filing cabinet anyway. He must have stared a moment too long.

“You got somethin’ to say, or are you just gonna stand in my doorway,” the gravelly voice grated out.

“I got lots to say, Cowboy,” Vin retorted. “But you don’t wanna listen.”

“You’ll get your chance to say plenty,” Chris snapped back.

Vin swallowed his retort and turned away from the door. Not even eight-thirty, and Chris was already in one hell of a mood. No point rilin’ up a rattlesnake, he thought, heading for the kitchenette. The coffee machine was still unplugged. He shook his head as he started up the coffee. Maybe Chris would feel better with some caffeine in his bloodstream.

Vin was already back at his own desk with a mug full of satisfyingly strong hot coffee, by the time Buck and J.D. arrived.

“Mornin’, Pard,” Buck said cheerfully, passing by the office doorway. He didn’t pause, but Chris glared darkly as the words. “You look like shit,” rolled casually back to him.

A moment later, Buck reappeared, a printed schedule in his hand. “Potential briefing time slots,” he said casually. “J.D. can start with tapes anytime. The rest of us can start to slot in earliest tomorrow. Ezra’s work is still TBD. He needs to do wrap up on some associated cases from before we went to Texas.”

Chris gave the paper a cursory scan and then handed it back to Buck with a nod. “Take it up to Ryan and get the first briefings scheduled. Have J.D. get copies of surveillance tapes. You do the first briefing with him.”

“What time didja get home last night?” Buck asked, totally ignoring the instructions he’d just been given, to focus on the dark circles and the pale, thin face.

Chris glowered up at him, but did not answer.

“Did I mention you look like shit?” Buck asked with a smirk.

“Yes,” Chris replied through his teeth.

Buck opened his mouth to make another smart remark, but Chris interrupted him. “Didn’t I just give you something to do?”

“Yes, sir,” Buck said, still smirking. He leaned closer. “Nathan’s gonna go up one side of you and down the other,” he said.

Chris’s only answer was a cold smile filled with the same poisonous loathing, he had glimpsed yesterday.

Buck’s smirk died. He looked at his friend closely. “You do remember, don’t you, that this wasn’t your fault?” he asked.

“The hell it wasn’t,” Chris retorted icily. He flicked a glance toward the bullpen door, where Nathan and Josiah were just entering. “Shut my door on your way out.”

At nine, Travis’s assistant summoned J.D. up to Travis’s office, requesting him to bring the audio from the warehouse. The young agent cursed furiously.

“Just tell the truth. It’ll be all right.” Buck reminded him.

The look the youth gave Buck was almost despairing.

“All right?” he snapped. “You mean like it was all right in there?” he snapped, jerking his head at Chris’s closed door.

Buck sighed. He had spent more than an hour last night trying to tell J.D. that Chris was doing his damnedest to save J.D.’s job. To trust him. J.D. had been adamant that if saving his job meant betraying his friends then he didn’t need the job that bad. And was more than willing to tell Chris to his face. Buck had barely managed to convince him to wait for the results of the inquiry before running off half-cocked.

“Just tell the truth, J.D.,” Vin interrupted exasperatedly. “You do anything else, Buck and Chris will have your head. And Travis’ll have your badge.”

“Great,” J.D. retorted. “Either way I lose.”

“There ain’t no winnin’ this one, kid,” Vin snapped. “Just tell the damn truth. Least that way it’ll match the tapes.”

J.D. opened his mouth to reply but shut it again. He scooped up the tapes from the warehouse in Texas, and stalked out the door.

Buck glowered at the reticent sharpshooter.

“What?” Vin asked grouchily. “You looked like you needed backup.”

“Great,” Buck replied. “You tryin’ to save him or kill him?”

Vin shrugged. “Hard to tell the difference since our leader won’t tell me the game plan.”

Buck snorted. You know the game plan, Junior, he thought. Same as it was in Texas. Chris on point and us with no intelligence. Only he couldn’t say it out loud. Because Chris wasn’t telling. He just held onto his faith that Chris’s plan would work. They needed Chris’s plan to work.

Ezra arrived at nine thirty.

“So much for turning over a new leaf,” Nathan commented sardonically.

Ezra ignored him, choosing instead to scan the visible occupants of the bullpen. “My, don’t we all look particularly grim this morning,” he said pleasantly.

No one answered him.

“Where is Mr. Dunne?” he inquired.

“Travis,” Vin replied.

“And two directors,” Josiah put in.

“Mr. Wilmington?” Ezra continued.

“Setting up briefings with Team Eight,” Nathan replied.

Ezra nodded his understanding. “And Mr. Larabee?” he asked.

“Hiding in his office,” Vin muttered in reply.

“Can’t say that I blame him,” Ezra replied, sipping his Starbuck’s with satisfaction, and realizing that first sip was likely to be the most pleasant moment of his entire day.

+ + + + + + +

Listening to the audio again was excruciating. Despite his best efforts to remind himself that it had not happened as it appeared on the tape, the sounds rocketed him back to the close confines of the van, positioned at mid-distance in the parking lot. He could feel the adrenaline coursing up his veins again, taste the bitter oily coffee from the early morning briefing. Hell, he could even smell the stale old sweat of too many busts spent in that van, eyes and ears for the team, central nervous system, with tied and useless hands.

Again he heard the pre-raid check. Saw Chris, silent, tight-lipped, tense. Heard Chris go over their new positions one last time. Background chatter buzzed. He heard himself and his teammates check in, as they arrived at their positions. Ready. Then the tense cheerful banter of cocky agents who couldn’t see what was coming.

The gunfire began suddenly, as it had in the warehouse, crackling across the audio feed. Strident voices raised up, calling warnings, orders, reports back. Swearing.

He felt the sweat well up on his neck, under his arms, as he heard the sound of Chris and Buck’s nearly simultaneous realization that intelligence had sorely underreported the sheer number of militia.

Travis saw the young agent’s knuckles go white on the edge of his chair as they all heard Chris give the order to retreat. Heard him say that his position was overrun. That he would find another way out and to regroup at the van. Agent Dunne’s eyes focused far away. His face drained of color. Unconscious now of the three senior ATF officers in the room, his vision blurred with moisture as, again, six members of Team Seven checked in, regrouped. Agent Dunne’s voice reported that Agent Larabee’s headset had gone offline. They heard Buck Wilmington order the team to wait—as ordered.

The next ten straight minutes of background of gunfire and crackling reports from other positions, sirens, ambulances, juxtaposed against a foreground of tense, utter silence was too much to bear outright. The relief was evident in the young agent’s face as they forwarded the tape, but his relief was short-lived.

He heard his own voice report that ten minutes had passed and that Larabee’s headset was still offline. For the first time now the three directors heard the startled exclamations, the identification of a rocket launcher. Shouts, automatic gunfire. Approaching sirens. Then the roar of explosion and fire.

Then the screaming.

Suddenly the room was too small as the four men in it stared at each other.

“Turn it off,” Travis snapped suddenly.

Caught in his own flashback to a war on foreign shores, Director Costas reached hastily, clumsily to stop the recording. Silence fell suddenly. Hard. Heavy.

“Thank you, Agent Dunne,” Travis said clearing his throat and forcing himself not to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Blank eyes, still horrified, turned slowly toward him, as he continued. “We have a few questions regarding the events on the tape. We will remind you to speak from your own point of view, what you actually witnessed. Refrain from speculating on what you did not actually observe. You are reminded that as a federal agent, you are bound by duty as well as moral obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Consider yourself under oath.”

The young agent nodded, but Director Hofstader noticed he did not unclench his hands from the arms of his chair.

Costas began. “Did Agent Larabee give you any indication why he changed the deployment of his agents?” He added. “In direct violation of the orders he’d been given.”

For the second time in two days, J.D. felt his stomach sink into his toes. Again he was being asked to betray his teammates. Angry and tired to his toenails, resignation fell on him with the realization that they had beaten him. They held all the cards. He had none. Nor did he have the strength or cunning to outmaneuver them.

One open door yawned wide before him. Like Buck had been saying all along. One way out. One clear escape route that he knew Chris and Buck would never take. But he did. Hating himself, he opened his mouth and bled out whatever they wanted to know.

At the end of an hour and a half, they kept the tape, and he found himself in the hall outside Travis’s office, staring blankly at the elevator panels. Wondering if he could just leave the building and not come back.

He knew Buck would be waiting to hear how it went. Would Chris ask him, too? He would want to know, of course. If positions were reversed, J.D. would want to know. He hoped Chris was too busy to ask. J.D. did not want to have to tell him how he told the directors that Chris changed the team’s positions against direct orders from the mission commander. Or that he could not say for certain whether the repositioning did or did not contribute to the failure of the primary mission. Nor could he say whether if they had maintained their original positions, they may have been able to hold a defensive line against the militia, as the mission commander had intended. Worse yet, was the question, why he, Agent J.D. Dunne had followed Larabee’s orders over the orders of the mission commander, as outlined in their pre-raid briefing. He winced, recalling his own answer. “I believed he knew the situation better than the mission commander.”

“Even after the mission commander denied Agent Larabee’s proposal?”

J.D. had felt his face grow hotter. “He’s my team leader, and I followed his orders.” He realized only after he saw the grim “I told you so” pass between the two directors that he had given up too much.

The elevator bell dinged. He shuffled angrily inside and wondered what the hell he was going to say when they asked him what happened up there.

He thought perhaps no one would notice when he entered the bullpen. But then, he realized, no one ever entered the bullpen without being noticed. Not even Vin, who could move like a shadow and who had a way of scaring the wits out of a person by suddenly appearing where he had not been a mere moment before. At least Chris’s door was still firmly closed. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

J.D. slid into his desk, pretending he didn’t see the glance that passed between Vin and Buck. Neither one said a word. Vin’s silence relieved him. But Buck’s unnerved him. J.D. raised his eyes to meet the cobalt blue ones regarding him intently across his own desk.

The door to the team leader’s office opened, causing J.D. to jump.

Chris leaned in the doorway, his gaze falling on J.D. like a searchlight. J.D. looked resolutely down at a pile of papers on his desk, pencil poised in his shaking hand, pretending to work.

He didn’t see the grim regret that flashed across the team leader’s face as Chris noted his computer expert’s pale, tight expression. He scanned down to the shaking hands and back up to the face that didn’t look back at him. There had to be a better way to do this. One that didn’t shred his men like this.

Perhaps if he called J.D. in. Told him that he had done just right in putting the responsibility back on Buck. Hoped that in his anger, J.D. had thrown the rest of the blame back onto him, onto the team leader where it belonged.

Standing there, it occurred to Chris that maybe he was wrong. Maybe he could just tell them what he intended. Trust them to understand the reasons why he had to give IA something they could uncover. Something they could punish. Why he had to force the shit to roll back uphill and away from his most vulnerable agents. Away from J.D., who was too young, too inexperienced, who had not yet overcome the prejudice of his own youthful looks and optimism. No matter how many times he proved his worth in the field. Away from Ezra, with black marks against him before he even arrived, with enemies in political places, and an attitude that only made things worse. Who could not escape the suspicion of corruption and treachery, no matter how many times he had proven his loyalty. Away from Vin, whose innate reticence simply made other people uneasy. Never mind that he had never yet proven himself to be anything but totally trustworthy.

Chris opened his mouth to call a meeting. But a glance from Buck stopped him. A tiny shake of the head. An instinct left from a thousand undercover operations, a thousand interrogations, a thousand stings. Let it ride.

So he said nothing. He turned and went back into his office, closing the door again. He never saw the hand that Josiah laid firmly down on Nathan’s arm, holding him to his chair. Nor did he hear the softly uttered words. “Let him be, Brother.”

Only after the door closed, did J.D. look up at Buck, covering his expression with a mask of anger.

It was Ezra who interrupted. “You sang like a bird?” the undercover agent drawled casually from his desk, without even looking up, a dry parroting of Tanner’s own words to him. He was surprised at his teammate’s reaction.

J.D. rocked back like Ezra had thrown a tub of cold water in his face. What the hell did that mean? Do you think I went in there willingly? That I wanted to give him up? The recriminations foundered and went under. Truth rushed up his throat.

“Yes,” he snapped, his anger shredding his caution. “Yes I did. Are you happy? I gave Buck up to Chris. And I gave Chris up to Travis and two directors. So now you can go ahead and say whatever you want. And don’t worry. Because J.D. Dunne cracked first.” He finished on his feet. Fists clenched. He was suddenly aware that he was shouting. Straining forward. Suddenly noticed Vin and Buck were both wrapped around him. Pulling him backward to his seat. He wondered dimly how they had gotten around their desks so fast.

The undercover agent looked back at him, an infuriating smile covering over his momentary surprise. “Good man,” Standish said calmly. When his own phone rang suddenly, he left for Travis’s office, still smirking. Leaving J.D. seething behind him.

Buck threw J.D. back into his desk chair. Vin pinned him there.

“Calm down,” Buck ordered, his teeth clenched.

“Calm down?” J.D. roared. He bucked. Tried to come right off the seat. Vin slammed him back, hard.

“Calm down,” the sharpshooter repeated, steel in his voice.

J.D. turned toward him in disbelief. “You fucking calm down. Don’t you get it? They asked me the questions. And I told them just what they wanted to hear.” His angry sudden gesture encompassed Travis ensconced in his office suite a floor away and Chris, locked up inside his own office not twenty feet away.

“You told them the truth?” Buck asked.

“What the hell difference does it make?” J.D. snapped, aware now that all other activity in the bullpen had stopped and that Nathan was now staring at them, a peculiar look on his face. He didn’t stop to wonder about it. He had a full head of steam. His face was hot. Red. And he could feel his heartbeat throbbing in his temples.

“What the hell difference does it make what I told them?” he shouted. “Don’t you get it? We’re finished. Toast. History. Chris violated orders. He handed his badge and gun to a known aggressor. They want to make it his fault the bust went bad. Then we went fucking AWOL. And Chris wants to pin it on you!”

The rest of his words were lost, as Buck’s large clammy hand suddenly clamped down over his mouth. J.D. didn’t silence his protest until the hand squeezed hard enough to cut his cheeks on the edges of his teeth.

“Stop.” Buck hissed.

J.D. stared up at him. Confusion now leaking through the anger in the hazel eyes. Confusion and something else. That ugly expression. Familiar and angry. Out of place on J.D.’s face. Buck knew in an instant where it belonged. In green eyes. Under shaggy blond hair. Bitter, all-consuming. An expression of loathing that Chris reserved especially for himself.

“God dammit,” Buck swore suddenly, sending a dirty look to Chris’s closed office door. He turned away. You’re like a damn disease, Buck thought angrily. Kid looks up to you. Gonna teach him this, too?

He returned to his chair. “Let him go,” he spoke to Vin. Suddenly spent. J.D. could do whatever he had in mind to do. If Chris wanted to do everything himself, then let him. Let him contain the fallout. Let him live with the consequences of what he started.

Just like I’m gonna live with the consequences of what I started¸ Buck thought angrily, forcing himself back to work.

Nathan and Josiah stared at each other. “We gonna survive this, Brother?” Nathan asked softly. He was surprised to see a quiet smile light into the big profiler’s eyes, and turn up the corners of his mouth slightly.

“Already have, brother,” the profiler replied cryptically, patting his breast pocket. “We already have.”

Nathan fought down the urge to sigh in exasperation. He may not have understood Josiah’s words, but he understood the quiet confidence in the tone. He willed himself to be patient a while longer.

J.D. excused himself for an early lunch. Buck rose to go with him, but he was refused, with a coldly burning glare. J.D. went out alone.

An hour later, he did not return. Ezra reappeared from Travis’s office. And a close look told Buck how thin the mask was that covered Standish’s anger. Nathan and Josiah left together, bound for some vegetarian place. Vin went out to run some errands, including picking up sandwiches for himself and Buck. And for Chris, too. Although Buck noticed, Vin had never asked Chris what he wanted. Or if he even wanted anything. Ezra had simply disappeared.

Another thirty minutes passed before Buck started to get antsy. He shot a glance at Chris’s door. Still closed. God knew what Chris was doing in there. He hadn’t said two words to anyone since Buck had left his office at eight thirty that morning.

After another twenty minutes, now starving and worried, the tall mustached agent made up his mind to get his coat. The phone rang.

The phone rang in Chris’s office. He did not move to answer it. At the second ring, he snaked a hand out gingerly to answer it. Trying to move nothing else. His head ached so much his teeth actually hurt. Hearing Buck’s voice on the other end did not help. He recognized the brittle edge to the cheerful tone. And dreaded the earful he was about to get.

“Well, hey there, Stud,” the voice boomed cheerfully. Chris winced. “So you are still here.”

Chris did not reply. His jaw had been clenched so long that a dull burn had begun to spread along the muscles on both sides. He was not about to unclench now, since he knew from experience that anything he could say would clearly be wrong. He just waited for Buck to clue him in on what they were talking about.

The silence was apparently okay with Buck, as he simply plowed right on. “I got a call from Inez.” He interrupted himself casually. “Hey, did you know that J.D. just took a two hour lunch?”

Chris grimaced at the non sequitur. Knowing it was just Buck winding up to hit him with both barrels. He’d done this dance before. He had about two seconds to figure out where the fire would be coming from and duck the best he could. He had never yet succeeded in dodging the blow completely.

Already it was too late.

“Seems Inez would like someone to come pick him up.” Buck paused. Lining up his next shot. The real one. “And she suggests that he probably shouldn’t return to work.”

Chris cursed silently. The thought alone sending stabbing pains through his temples. He tried to avoid thinking about what Buck meant even though it was entirely too clear.

“She thought I would want to come get him myself,” Buck said casually, cheerfully, and Chris knew that he still had some ammo left.

Buck loaded. Lined up his shot. Chris expected to take a small caliber zinger right in the teeth. He realized an instant too late that distracted by the small shot, he had failed to notice the Howitzer cannon being dragged up beside him. Until the direct hit.

“I figured this was more your area of expertise,” Buck said so coldly, Chris actually felt ice sinking into the acid pit of his stomach.

He still said nothing. He reached over and hung up the phone and dragged himself into his jacket.

For a second, Buck thought that he was going to have to knock down the office door and tell him again. When the door opened, he realized he had been wrong. Larabee was on the move. Just real damn slow. And pain was written over in every inch of his face and form.

Buck stood up. To take it back. To say he’d go. But he shut his mouth at Chris’s glance.

“I got it,” Chris hissed, pulling himself fully upright and forcing himself to walk normally.

Like a robot in a Chris Larabee costume. The thought came unbidden.

Buck sat back down again. Staring out the bullpen door. Chris’s words floating back to him. He smiled softly to himself. Chris Larabee could say more in three short syllables, than Ezra Standish or Josiah Sanchez could say in a page.

When Vin returned and threw a sloppy, still-warm Reuben down on the desk in front of him, Buck discovered that his empty stomach was too tied up to eat it.

Inez looked up when the front door opened. And down again, as she recognized a nurse from the pediatrician’s office down the road. She waved a young waiter over to take care of the customer and returned to the busy work she had been doing behind the bar for the last twenty minutes.

She had been expecting Buck Wilmington at any moment since she had called his office. When the man had answered, she had expected some smarmy comment about his animal magnetism causing her to finally call him. His serious tone had taken her off guard. But he promised someone would come by to get J.D.

As for Agent Dunne, she had been keeping an eye on him. He had walked in angry. Now he sat at the end of the bar. One of her new employees had already poured him three or four drinks before she caught sight of what was clearly going to be a train wreck. Not that she had never seen the young ATF agent drink or get drunk. She had. Team Seven often blew off steam in her bar. She had even seen him angry drunk. But she had never seen the team let him drink angry and alone and in the middle of the day. She didn’t profess to know the men of Team Seven all that well, but she was certain that Agent Larabee would have the boy’s head for drinking on a duty day.

The bell on the door announced its opening again. She drew back in surprise. It was not who she was expecting. He looked gaunt. Pale. Almost frightening. She didn’t let it show on her face.

His eyes fell immediately on the object of his search. He nodded once at Inez, conveying simultaneously his gratitude for the phone call and his wish that she should leave the two of them alone.

She moved back into the kitchen to supervise the clean up from today’s lunch crowd.

“Leave me alone, Buck,” the boy snapped. His words slurred.

“Can’t do that,” the man beside him said with a sigh.

The young agent rounded angrily. Then his eyes flew wide in recognition and fear.

“Chris,” J.D. gulped.

The team leader smiled a tight smile. He eyed the half-empty whiskey bottle that sat behind the bar, slightly apart from the others on the shelf. He knew on instinct that the bartender had been keeping it handy. It was good stuff, too, he noted and for a moment felt a twinge of envy. How long would it take them to figure it out if he just joined J.D. instead? The pure misery in the boy’s face brought him back from the thought.

Chris looked J.D. over thoughtfully, and J.D. steeled himself to face Larabee wrath of the first order. Chris didn’t yell, and at first, J.D. thought that had to be really bad. Instead, the team leader sat slowly down on the next barstool over, hands shoved into the pockets of his black jacket. Looking at J.D. through partly hooded eyes.

“What can I get for you, sir?” a young bartender asked, whipping a white cloth across the dark stained wood. He looked hardly old enough to drink, let alone serve the stuff.

Chris indicated the half-empty bottle with a jerk of his chin. “That what my friend’s been drinking?”

The bartender’s eyes slid sideways to J.D., who was slowly sinking down onto the bar. “If this is your friend, that’s what he’s been drinking.”

From the corner of Chris’s eye, it almost looked like the young agent was melting, would slowly drip down the sides of the stool like molasses to wind up in a sticky pool at the bottom of his chair. Chris shook the thought away. Either he needed a lot more sleep or he was finally cracking up. Either option seemed likely.

Chris reached into his coat.

“My God he’s going to shoot me,” J.D. thought numbly. Stupidly. The thought of it alone made him laugh. He wished Buck were here, so he could tell him the funny joke.

Chris pulled out his wallet. “I’ll take the rest of the bottle.”

The bartender looked surprised, but shrugged and rang it up. “You can’t carry an open container out of here,” he said.

Chris looked back over at J.D. “Guess we’d better finish it then,” he said with a wolfish grin.

J.D. blinked at him, as Chris took the bottle and two shot glasses in one hand and J.D.’s elbow in the other and guided his computer and technology expert clumsily to Team Seven’s regular booth.

He poured two shots. He slid one across the table to J.D. and kept the other one for himself.

J.D. looked at him suspiciously. Well, as suspiciously as one can, through glazed, slitted eyes.

Chris clinked his glass against J.D.’s and tossed the shot back. The burn was comforting. All the way down. Heat rose up almost immediately and he felt the pleasant gentle spin of all the rough edges inside him softening suddenly. Then he remembered that he hadn’t eaten. He smiled a moment, remembering a time when it wouldn’t have mattered. So much the quicker way to get started on his drunk. This was not one of those times.

J.D. downed his drink. Getting sloppy, Chris noted. Part of it ended up dribbling down his chin and into his collar.

“Have another,” J.D. slurred, attempting to pour another shot for Chris.

“No thanks,” Chris replied evenly, putting his hand over J.D.’s and setting the bottle back on the table. “I have to drive.”

“Oh,” J.D. replied. He stared at his own glass. “Guess I gotta get back.” He blinked up at Chris. “You’re gonna kill me.”

Chris grinned at that. “I doubt it, J.D.” he replied.

At the questioning look in the glazed hazel eyes, he said simply. “I’d have to answer to Buck if I did that. And I’ve had my quota of that this month.”

J.D. stared at him. Chris watched the eyes struggle to focus and waited, thinking about how much less his own head throbbed now that he’d had that first shot.

“If I tell you a secret,” J.D. said, “Promise you won’t get mad.”

“No,” Chris replied. “But I promise not to go ballistic.” It wasn’t a lie. Right now he didn’t have the energy to go ballistic. He didn’t even want to think about how to drag himself back out of this booth. The whiskey bought him an hour or more. He wouldn’t drive until he was sure it was out of his system.

J.D. seemed to consider Chris’s words as if they were dickering over a sale price. “Okay,” he said after a moment. Offer accepted.

Chris smiled slightly and wondered if he had been like this at twenty-five and drunk. Probably not. By that time he was an officer in the Navy SEALs. He had already faced battle. Had already seen men wounded or dead under his orders. By that time he had already begun to promise himself a career where he wouldn’t have to lie to people about how their loved ones got killed. A career where he never had to leave anyone behind. Or put his friends in danger.

He sighed. Just another one in a long string of promises broken. What was the phrase that Mary Travis used? Oh yeah. Another black spot on his less-than-stellar reputation. If only she knew…

J.D. was looking at him with undisguised impatience.

“Your secret,” Chris prompted, as if his attention had never wavered.

J.D. grinned and wiggled forward in his seat. “I emptied all the bottles in the cabinet.”

“What?” Chris asked.

“Yeah,” J.D. replied, his voice low, conspiratorial. “I emptied all the whiskeys, an’ filled ‘em with water.” He stopped and raised a finger to his lips. “Buck doesn’t know.”

It dawned on Chris that J.D. was talking about the cupboard where he and Buck kept the liquor at the townhouse they shared.

“Why would I get mad at that?” Chris asked confused.

J.D. looked at him exasperated. And let out a long burp. “Cause Buck said thass what he did to you.”

Chris went cold. He remembered that. He had come out of a three day bender with his head ringing so hard he thought his nose would bleed, looking for some hair of the dog that bit him, only to find all his whiskey bottles filled with water. Buck was nowhere. He had done the deed and fled.

He forced the memory—and especially the reason why he had been on a three day drunk—away. “That was a little different, J.D.” he said mildly.

“Nuh-uh,” J.D. retorted. He sat up straighter and stifled a snicker. He crooked a finger at Chris and waved him closer. Reluctantly, Chris bent closer, the smell of metabolizing whiskey almost too much for his head and stomach.

“He doesn’t know, yet,” J.D. whispered, loudly. Bobbing his head for emphasis. Then he snickered again.

Chris leaned back again. Confused. “Well, I won’t tell him,” he offered. Not knowing what J.D. expected him to do or say.

J.D. waved a hand unsteadily in front of his face. “’Sall right now,” he said. “You’re not dead anymore.” He giggled.

Chris closed his eyes suddenly, as the room spun away from him. When he opened them, he was startled, alarmed, to see tears pouring down J.D.’s face. His shoulders were shaking.

“I’m sorry, Chris,” the boy slurred. “I didn’t mean to do it.” Both hands flew up to cover his face.

Bewildered, Chris pushed the unfinished shot and the bottle away from J.D. He leaned forward and pulled the hands down.

“What J.D.?” he asked as calmly as he could manage. “What did you do?”

“I gave you away.” A shuddering breath ran through the boy. “They’ll fire you.”

Chris got out of his seat, headache all but forgotten, and moved around the booth, forcing J.D. over with his hip, he sat down on the end of the booth.

“Are you talking about the directors?” Chris asked, holding J.D.’s hands down away from his face and trying to get the boy to look at him.

J.D. nodded. “I told them everything they wanted to know.”

The hazel eyes held a depth of sorrow but something else. Something sharper and harder that caught Chris by surprise. He swallowed. Fought the urge to shake the boy until that expression fell out onto the floor. Where he could pick it up and drop kick it into the nearest dumpster. He swore to himself.

“Look at me, J.D.,” Chris ordered. His voice hard. A command.

Almost despite himself, J.D. turned his streaked face up to Chris.

“Did you tell the directors the truth?” Chris asked. His voice working on J.D. Dunne like a needle full of truth serum.

The shaggy black head bobbed slowly up and down. “Yes,” he croaked. Mesmerized by the intensity of the glare. Boring down through him.

“Then you did what I needed you to do,” Chris replied, his voice softer, but no less intense.

“But…” J.D. protested.

Chris cut him off. “Whatever you said is fine, so long as it’s true,” Chris replied. Hidden from his face was the thought that that might not be strictly true, but then, he had known from the start that he would not be able to contain all the fallout. Just mitigate it. Try to get it to come crashing down in the places where it would do the least damage.

“And Buck?” J.D. mumbled. Tears still floating on the hazel surfaces of the eyes that still held onto their innocence despite all they had seen.

Chris clamped a hand onto the top of J.D.’s head. He could see the eyes unfocusing, twitching, as the room began to spin around the boy.

“I’ll protect Buck,” Chris promised with a lopsided smile.

“Chris,” the boy rasped suddenly. And Chris knew what was coming. He barely got out of the way as J.D. climbed over him and ran, staggering toward the men’s room.

Chris returned to his other seat, where he could see the restroom doors, and leaned his head against the back of the chair. He let his eyes drift closed for just a moment. Feeling the pounding begin anew.

A sharp thump brought his eyes open to face Inez’s blazing glare. A large glass of water, two aspirin, and a bowl of soup with soda crackers sat on the table in front of him.

“Eat it,” she ordered, sweeping the whiskey disgustedly off the table. “I’m sure you’ll have time while you’re waiting for Agent Dunne.”

Chris glowered at her. He made a move to get up and see to J.D.

“I’m sending the bartender in,” Inez growled, blocking him, as if reading his mind. “The boy has a lesson to learn about when to stop serving.”

“Now eat,” she snapped, stalking away again across the floor, muttering.

He laughed softly to himself as she walked away. But he did as ordered, beginning with the aspirin and half the glass of water. He kept an eye and an ear on the men’s room door the whole time.

When another hour had passed and neither J.D. nor Chris had returned, Buck began pacing the bullpen. Swearing to himself. His own lunch still largely untouched and lying on his desk. He could feel the others watching him. He swore more savagely.

Then his cell phone rang. He scooped it off his desk. “Where the hell are you?” he snapped.

There was a slight pause, during which he had time to consider that he had forgotten to check who was calling. Even that didn’t account for his relief when he heard Chris’s calm reply.

He ducked into Larabee’s office and away from the prying ears.

It was evidently a short conversation, as he emerged quickly, looking no less perturbed.

“Well that didn’t take long,” Ezra commented as Buck returned.

“Musta been Larabee,” Vin cracked. He looked up at Buck’s anger-shadowed face. “What’s up?” he asked.

“J.D. and Chris are both taking half sick days. They’ll be out the rest of the day,” Buck replied.

Nathan muttered a “Hallelujah!” that was only partly sarcastic.

“How clever of them,” Ezra muttered under his breath, a twinge of envy making it through his irritation. He wished he could go on a two hour drunken binge at lunch and get the rest of the day off for a reward. He didn’t mention what he knew, it being imprudent to reveal a valuable information source.

“Well, Bucklin,” Vin drawled with a grin. “Looks like you’re in charge.”

Ezra glanced up, a caustic comment on the tip of his tongue. A sharp look from Josiah had him swallowing it, feigning innocence. He thought it to himself alone. And look how splendidly things went the last time you were in charge.

Buck slid into his chair, glowering at his computer. Command had never been something he sought. He was good at second in command. He was comfortable there. God and the whole ATF knew what had happened the last time he took charge. He would be happy enough if he never had to lead the team again. He wondered how Chris would react if he told him that. He wondered who Chris would make the new second in command.

Buck jangled the keys in his lock extra noisily, as he opened the door. Experience had taught him that it was always a good idea to let Larabee know you were coming. Especially when he’s edgy. He pushed the door open and began to holler out that he was home. Then he caught sight of Chris on the couch. One arm flung over his face. The tattered afghan J.D. refused to part with twisted around him. Out.

Craning his neck to peer down the hall, Buck could just see J.D.’s feet and the end of his bed. He put his keys down noisily, and stomped up the stairs. He flung his jacket and briefcase onto his bed. Then he stomped back down the stairs, considering which of the two he should wake up first, the drunk one or the stupid one. He thought he could start with the one he was angriest at, but then he realized it was a toss up.

His decision was made for him as he came back down the stairs to see Chris, sitting up and scrubbing his hands over his face, attempting to wake himself up completely.

Buck stopped at the couch, jerked his head toward J.D.’s room at the end of the hall. “Drunk? Or did you beat him up?”

Chris glared at him over his hands and Buck noted that despite the bloodshot eyes, the blond looked a little better than he had at the office.

“You been asleep all afternoon?” Buck asked incredulously.

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

“You check on the kid?” Buck asked.

Chris glared at him indignantly. If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was make sure his drunken friends didn’t vomit themselves to death in their sleep. He did not say that to Buck. He simply retorted, “Yes. Several times. He’s sleeping and he feels like crap.”

“Bet he’s not the only one,” Buck snapped, slapping his palm against Chris’s forehead.

“Get off,” Chris growled.

“You been drinking?” Buck accused.

“No,” Chris snapped. He glanced back up. “One,” he amended.

The palm left his forehead long enough to slap him hard on the side of the head.

Chris swore and glared harder.

“That’s to make you think about what you’re teaching that kid,” Buck retorted.

“You should talk,” Chris snapped. “You had a drink lately?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Buck snapped.

“Nothing,” Chris retorted. He didn’t really want to go there. He was sorry he brought it up. “Just drop it.”

“No,” Buck said hotly. “I haven’t had a drink since poker night.”

“And before that?” Chris accused.

“You got something to say, Larabee, just spit it out,” Buck snarled.

“God damn, Buck,” said the strangled voice from the hallway. “You make more noise than a parade of elephants in tap shoes.”

Both men turned to stare. J.D. Dunne wavered unsteadily in the door, one hand pressed against the side of his head, glaring at them as if he wanted them both to spontaneously combust.

Chris smirked back at Buck. “A parade of elephants in tap shoes,” he repeated with precise enunciation. “And you worry about what I’m teaching him.”

“Shut up,” Buck said. He refused to be sidetracked. “I’m not through with you yet. Don’t move.”

He turned toward J.D. and began a slow stalk down the hall.

Chris counted the seconds before J.D. realized he was trapped. It wouldn’t be long.

“Well hi there, J.D.!” Buck boomed out cheerfully, his voice filling the small hallway. “You have a nice afternoon?”

Chris winced as J.D. clutched both sides of his head. He silently welcomed the young agent into the fold.

Buck continued to carry on a one-sided conversation very nearly at the top of his lungs until J.D. finally pushed by him and fled into the downstairs bathroom. Buck hollered needless advice after him about how many aspirin to take and how much water.

He turned back to see that Chris had resumed his position on the couch. Arm back over his eyes.

“Get up,” Buck snapped, kicking the back of the couch once, right about where he judged Chris’s tailbone to be.

“You do make more noise than a parade of elephants in tap shoes,” the blond muttered.

“You an’ me were having a set-to,” Buck reminded him.

Chris lowered his arm to peer over it. “We were discussing that last time you went on a bender,” he replied.

Buck went cold. He paused. Then answered, his voice a low growl. “While you were gone.”

“I heard,” Chris responded.

Buck came back around the couch, shoved Chris’s legs over and sat down heavily. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

“Did you at least teach him a lesson about drinking on duty?” Buck asked, cracking an eye open and looking down at the team leader.

A rueful smile spread over Larabee’s thin lips. “I think I’m the one who got taught the lesson,” he replied.

Buck waited for Chris to elaborate. As usual, he didn’t. Buck shook his head in exasperation. He reached down and swatted Chris on the leg. “What do you want for dinner?”

Chris snorted. He felt damn lucky the soup had stayed down. But he didn’t want to tell Buck that.

As usual, Buck was way ahead of him. “Potato chips, coffee, and a bar of dark chocolate?” Buck asked pointedly.

The thin smile widened. “Ask J.D. what he wants.”

Buck grinned evilly back at his long-time friend and went to rap on the bathroom door. He began calling out suggestions like eggs over easy, chili cheese dogs, pork lo mein, nachos, and meatball subs. The only reply was a loud thump as something heavy was thrown at the door.

Buck and Chris exchanged identical grins.

It was twenty minutes later that Buck nudged Chris awake again. The mustached agent set a plate containing potato chips and a pile of chocolate onto the coffee table beside a tall mug of steaming black coffee. He watched as Chris peeled himself up to a sitting position. Saw him locate J.D. through the kitchen doorway, forehead against the tabletop, both arms on top of his head. The blond gave a sigh.

Buck was watching him guardedly. But not guardedly enough that Chris couldn’t read the worry there. Chris closed his eyes. He was too damn tired to run tonight. His head felt better, though, and so did his stomach after he had spent the larger part of four hours asleep on Buck’s well broken-in couch. The hot mug was pressed into his hands and he breathed in the fragrant steam for a while before taking a sip.

Buck patted his knee. Then the couch shifted slightly, as Buck’s weight left the cushions. A minute later he heard noises in the kitchen. There was a quick short rap that he interpreted as the sound of another mug of coffee being set down next to J.D. He didn’t open his eyes to look and had to catch himself before his own mug slipped out of his listless fingers. The hot liquid splashing down onto his leg roused him more fully awake. He pulled himself straighter up, took another sip from the mug, set it down and started on the first potato chip.

After serving out the meager dinners, Buck took his reheated delivery pizza upstairs into his bedroom. He dialed Nathan.

“I thought you were never gonna call,” the medic said irritably. “How are they?”

Buck grinned evilly, sticking the pointed end of a melted, cheesy, meat-laden pizza slice into his mouth, realizing only now how empty his stomach felt. “Well,” he said, his mouth full. “J.D.’s got the hangover from hell.”

“Good,” Nathan replied. “And Chris?”

Buck sighed. “He’s moved back a couple o’ squares.”

Nathan swore under his breath. “Damn stubborn fool,” he said. “How many interviews left to go?”

Buck put down the pizza slice he was working on. “Chris has to interview Vin an’ me before he turns it over to IA. Then Tanner and I gotta talk to Travis. Then they’ll wanna talk to Chris. Then we wait for follow ups and fallout.”

Nathan sighed.

“There’s nothing we can do, Nathan,” Buck said into the ensuing silence. “Nothing except hold the line and follow orders.” We been there before, Buck thought acidly.

“And put the pieces back together after this is over,” Nathan added firmly.

“Right,” Buck agreed. But to himself he thought, If we still have them all.

“You got it covered over there?” Nathan asked.

Buck smiled at the medic’s concern. He’d probably been steadily reaming Chris and J.D. out in absentia since he had arrived home. And his pretty fiancée was probably listening patiently to a litany of both men’s faults. Nevertheless Nathan would be over in minutes if Buck said either one of them needed him.

“Got it covered, Nate,” he replied, starting on his second slice. “Gonna see if I can get Chris to stay.”

“Good luck,” Nathan snorted.

Buck grinned at that. Yeah, he knew it was a long shot. But it wouldn’t be like him not to give it a try.

Chris found himself staring at the ceiling at two A.M. Right on schedule. Only this time there were a few extra questions floating around in his brain. The first one was answered. It was his own bedroom ceiling. He had spent enough early morning and late night hours staring at it to recognize it.

The next question was harder. How did he get here? He knew the dull ache in his head wasn’t a hangover. Therefore he hadn’t been drunk. So that possibility was out. It took another few seconds for the events of the day to start to replay themselves. He remembered Buck trying to convince him to stay at the CDC, as the other team members affectionately and not-so-politely referred to the townhouse that Buck and J.D. shared. He also remembered handing Buck several lame lines about why he couldn’t stay. At the time he had thought they were too lame to convince himself to even get off the couch, let alone convince Buck to send him home. He frowned. That’s where the memory ended.

Knowing from recent weeks and past experience that attempting to go back to sleep while questions and concerns were swirling around in his brain, would be pointless, he reached for the bedside reading lamp. The white light exploded like shards of glass into his head, as he flipped the covers back. As his eyes adjusted, he realized that he was still wearing the clothes he had worn to the office yesterday, minus his jacket and shoes.

He staggered into the bathroom. He hoped to hell that no one had let him drive. Or if he had, that he hadn’t hit anyone. Surely he’d remember that? A note was taped to the mirror.

Call me when you’re conscious.


Ah, Chris thought rubbing his eyes. That explained a lot. Giving a sigh, he pushed aside the questions about how he had gotten home. He changed into a pair of sweats, padded down to the kitchen and went to work on the other questions, the same ones he’d been trying to figure out, since he woke up in a Texas hospital room surrounded by his team. All alive. All well. And all in a heap of trouble.

Odd things float into a man’s head when he’s sitting alone in his kitchen at two in the morning. Chris knew this well. He also knew well that sometimes, those strange, disconnected thoughts can offer a clue to whatever it is that put him alone in his kitchen at two in the morning. Josiah had said it had to do with freeing up one’s subconscious. With letting ideas that one wouldn’t consciously connect with a problem float in, be tried on for size. Thinking out of the box. Clearly, Josiah had spent more time studying the matter, so Chris believed him. But even though he had never studied the matter, Chris had always known instinctively to let the ideas come. Not that he believed it had to do with any inherent wisdom on his part. More like he had already exhausted all avenues of logic and reason without success, or he wouldn’t be up at two in the morning, still worrying the problem to death. So it was time to pursue other options.

Now, as he slouched in the hard oak chair, an article he read years ago about dreams helping people solve their problems bobbed up to the top of his thoughts. The article had given several examples of famous inventors who found ideas or figured out how to get past obstacles from their dreams. He thought about his nice comfortable bed upstairs and wished with every aching bone in his body that he could go dream away his problems. But then, a person had to actually be able to relax and sleep in order for that plan to work, he thought sardonically.

In that instant a fragment of a dream floated up from somewhere in the back of his brain. The dream that had awakened him. He had been with Sarah. But she was crying. She was crying, and he didn’t know why. But he knew it was his fault. He concentrated on the fragment, trying to pull the rest of it out of his brain.

Then he remembered. He had gone away with Buck. Forgot to tell her. Forgot all about her, in fact.

He went cold.

That never happened, he told himself. I would never do that.

His stomach tightened.

He lurched out of his chair, moving anywhere. Anything to break the chain of thought, send the dream out of his head.

His eye fell on the coffee pot. He’d been drinking way too much of that stuff. But it was better than drinking whiskey. Nathan would let him have it for drinking too much coffee. But Buck would knock him into next week if he started drinking now.

It was hell having a friend who knew your bad habits. Made it too damn hard to run away. An unpleasant smile tightened his face. Wondering how it was that Buck always knew when he had one foot out the door. Or maybe it was that Buck expected him to have one foot out the door at all times. God knew that’s how he had lived most of his life.

Except those six years. The six years he hadn’t wanted to be anywhere else.

He put the coffee pot down. Suddenly there wasn’t enough air inside the house to breathe. He left the filter and the coffee and the water sitting on the counter, and staggered through blurred vision toward the sliding glass doors. He slipped out onto the deck, barefoot on the damp boards under the moonshine, breathing in great gasping gulps that made his chest hurt.