by BMP

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The telephone rang, and Buck leaped for it out of the shower, slipping across the tiled bathroom floor. The cordless handset clattered off the sink, where he had left it, and he caught it before it hit the floor. Impressed with his own prowess, he answered it, “Wilmington. Miracles performed daily,” a puddle slowly gathering at his bare feet.

“Hey,” Chris’s voice replied listlessly on the other end.

“’Bout time you called Pard. Thought maybe you were gonna sleep all day.” Buck’s cheerful tone belied the frown on his face.

A derisive snort was the only response. Buck’s eyes narrowed.

Chris pushed the plate away from him. He had choked down about as much as he could manage. What he really wanted was to put his head down on the kitchen table and stay that way for another hour or two. Maybe he should go back upstairs and go to sleep.

He pulled himself together.

“Where’s my truck?” the voice in Buck’s ear asked, gathering strength.

“Well now, you were in no shape to drive,” Buck began smoothly.

“No shit. Where’s my truck?” the voice repeated, with more resolve.

“I’ll pick you up,” Buck answered. “I’m just getting out of the shower now.” He grabbed his towel and started to dry off.

There was a sigh. He frowned even harder. “What? You think IA is gonna figure we cooked up a whole defense and hid all the evidence during the forty-five minute drive to work?”

He didn’t get an answer but in the silence, he could almost hear Larabee thinking, They might. Yet he knew that Larabee wasn’t exactly being excessively paranoid. After all, that was why Buck brought the house phone into the bathroom instead of his cell phone. If IA wanted to look for conspiracies, it would be harder for them to get records from the house phone than from their ATF issued cell phones.

The silence continued.

“So now you gotta stop talkin’ to us, too?” Buck snapped, irritated.

Chris swore quietly. Then there was another silence before he said softly. “I wish to hell this were over.”

“Me too, Pard,” Buck said gently. “We just gotta hang tough a little longer.”

There was a quiet sigh. When next he spoke, Chris’s tone was cool and even. His usual self. “I’ll see you when you get here. Just don’t make me late.”

“I’ll be out the door in fifteen,” he replied, running the towel over his hair and dropping it in a corner.

Chris gave some sort of affirmative to that and hung up.

Buck threw himself into some clothes, swearing quietly the entire time.

He pulled the big, black truck in as close to the front door as he could get, and swung it around so it was ready for a quick get away. Before he even reached to shut the engine off, he saw Chris coming out the front door. Watched him check the locks and give the house a quick glance over as he came down the steps. The mustached agent clamped his jaw down on any comment he felt like making as Chris got into the passenger side, without a word.

Buck headed the truck up the driveway, resisting the urge to give his old friend the once over. He had already seen plenty. Chris looked like ten miles of bad road. He was pale and still way too thin. Add to that the tense hunch of his shoulders as he fastened his seat belt. As soon as they hit the road, the blond leaned back against the headrest and shut his eyes.

Buck turned on a soft country station and resisted the impulse to sing along. Risking a glance at his friend, he couldn’t tell whether Chris was asleep or not. The tension in his face hadn’t eased. Perhaps it had become permanent. A stoplight turned green, and Buck pulled through, tapping one finger to the music as he contemplated the differences between driving Chris’s big black truck and his own prized red rebuilt classic pickup.

The sudden gasp from the passenger’s side startled him. The truck swerved, as he glanced over to see Chris bolt upright, eyes wide. Staring out the windshield. Breathing in huge gasps. Pulling the truck straight into the lane where it belonged, he tried to keep one eye on the road and one on Chris.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Pull over,” the strangled order came.

“What?” Buck asked, his own voice rising.

“Pull over,” Chris ordered stridently.

Buck found a spot on the shoulder. He hadn’t even stopped the truck before Chris had undone the seat belt and was fumbling with the door lock. Buck slammed on the brake. Chris bolted. Out of the truck and down the embankment through the weeds.

Swearing violently, Buck searched for the hazard lights then threw himself over the passenger seat out the door after Chris.

He found him thirty feet farther down. Seated, hunched over, head between his knees.

Buck approached cautiously. Squatting slowly down in front of the blond.

“Hey,” he said easily. “My driving ain’t that bad.”

There was no response but hard breathing from the man before him.

Buck chewed his lip. “Chris, look at me,” he said. When Chris did not move, he repeated the command more forcefully.

The blond slowly raised his head. Buck steeled his expression in the nick of time. Damn, Pard, he thought. I’ve seen addicts less strung out than you.

He stared at Chris, trying to read the expression in the red-rimmed, glassy eyes. Wondering whether he should be grateful or worried that Chris seemed to be letting him.

Then a tiny, sheepish, hint of a smile ticked up one corner of the pale face. The eyes were bleak. “I think…,” Chris said softly, hesitantly, his voice a near croak. “I think I need a new plan.” Words rose unbidden, repeating in his throbbing head, I don’t want to lose this…

Buck reached out and grabbed his boss, his leader, his friend around the back of the neck, pulling him tight against his shoulder. “’Then we’ll get a new plan,” he replied firmly.

Traffic whirred through the intersection above them. They stayed still as statues for a moment until Chris’s voice broke in. “Let go, Buck. People will talk.”

Buck grinned, pushing the blond head back. “I expect they already do, Pard.”

He pulled Chris to his feet and walked behind him up the embankment. While Chris climbed in the passenger side, Buck flicked open his cell phone as he walked around the rear of the truck to the driver’s side.

“J.D.,” he said into the phone. “Tell the boys that I’m gonna be late. And Chris ain’t comin’ in today.”

He paused. “How the hell should I know what Travis is gonna do? I’ll be there when I get there.”

He paused and listened again, then laughed grimly. “Oh no, boy. You’re goin’ to work today. An’ if you ain’t there on time, I’ll kick your ass when I get in. I can do that, since I’ll be in charge.”

He hung up the phone. Boy had a lesson to learn. Do the crime. Do the time. Get yourself drunk and hung over, get to work anyway, and keep your mouth shut about it.

He got back behind the wheel and swung the truck around. Chris had pushed the passenger seat all the way back and had both hands over his face.

Buck patted his leg. “First things first, Pard,” he said. “Let’s get you fixed up.”

A short, bitter laugh answered him.

He sighed to himself. Humor was a good sign, at least.

Buck pulled the big truck back into the driveway, back into the spot he had just left. He eyed Chris, who was slowly getting out the passenger’s side, wondering whether he should go around and help. In the end, he decided that as long as Chris seemed to be moving toward the door, he wouldn’t interfere. He followed the blond into the house and watched him struggle out of his jacket, finally hurling it across the living room with a curse.

“Easy there, Stud,” Buck said, stripping off his own jacket.

“I don’t have time for this,” Chris growled, dropping onto the nearest chair and dropping his head into his hands, again.

“Head hurt?” the tall agent asked.

A muffled noncommittal grunt was the only reply.

Buck nodded to himself. The answer was pretty obvious. Not that Chris would admit it. Buck wondered why he had bothered to ask.

Chris pulled his head out of his hands and leaned it back against the back of the chair in exasperation. He gritted his teeth and cracked one red-rimmed green eye at Buck, who was still standing over him.

“It’s the eleventh hour, Buck,” Chris grated out. “We don’t have time to come up with a new plan. And I don’t have time for a sick day.”

Buck shrugged, never taking his eyes from the haggard face. “First things first,” he repeated. “I’ll get you some aspirin.”

He walked away. Chris stared after him, something niggling at him, something he ought to know. He closed his eyes again, and Buck’s face floated up into his imagination. He realized suddenly that it was the look. The twinkle. The quirk of a smile. All absent. They had somehow disappeared from his friend’s face. And he had not even noticed when they had gone. He swore to himself. A long litany of curses. How had it taken him this long to notice what had been happening to his team?

What the hell kind of team leader am I? he thought angrily, heat rising in his face. His head throbbed mercilessly.

Safely upstairs, Buck rifled the medicine cabinet with one hand, while he dialed Nathan’s cell phone with the other hand. On the last number he stopped. Short. And swore. He couldn’t call Nathan.

The medic was probably just about at the office by now. Not that Jackson wouldn’t come. He would. He’d come racing. And then he’d go ballistic. Up one side of Chris and down the other. He didn’t think Chris needed to be reamed out right now. Nathan would hear that Chris wasn’t coming in, when he arrived at the office.

Buck chewed on his lip, hesitating. Finally, slowly, he dialed Nathan’s home, hoping Raine would answer. She did.

She sounded hurried. And surprised.

“Raine, it’s Buck.”

“Nathan’s not here,” she answered, confused. “He left for the office about twenty minutes ago.”

“I know,” Buck said. “I was calling for you.”

He could almost hear her suspicions rise on the other end of the line.

“What’s happened?” she asked.

He fidgeted. He felt almost like a school kid again, caught breaking the rules.

“Chris ain’t feelin’ so hot. Can you come over and take a look at him?”

Raine sighed. “Buck, I’m on my way to work,” she said almost sternly.

It was the almost that gave Buck hope.

“I’d feel a lot better if you came by,” he said hopefully. At least he hoped he sounded hopeful, rather than pleading. He was never much of an actor.

She sighed again. He heard the sounds of dishes clanking together and a door opening in the background.

“I can’t come over and give him an unofficial checkup,” she replied. “There are rules about these things.” He could hear her frustration over the line. “If you’re that worried, maybe you should take him to Four Corners General.”

“Where you’d be happy to check him out?” Buck snapped.

He ran a hand over his face. He hadn’t meant to take his frustration out on Raine. He guessed maybe he was getting to the end of his rope, too.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. After all, Raine was a lady. She didn’t deserve to be spoken to that way. And she wouldn’t put up with it either. That was one of the things Buck liked about her.

“I understand you’re worried…” Raine began hesitantly, her resolve slowly cracking. “Nathan’s practically up a tree…” She stopped.

Buck inserted his last ditch plea into the silence.

“I ain’t askin’ you to write a prescription or anything that goes against your better judgment,” he replied. “I’m just askin’ ya, as a friend. A friend who won’t take any of Larabee’s garbage, an’ who’ll tell me if I need to take him to the hospital.”

She sighed. Then sighed again. “All right,” she answered, a note of iron creeping into her voice to cover up the softness that made her give in. “I’ll tell the hospital I’ll be late. But you owe me one.”

“I owe you a dozen, darlin’,” Buck replied, his relief evident in his voice. “I won’t tell ol’ hardhead you’re comin’.”

Raine smiled in spite of herself, as she hung up. Chris had earned the nickname a long time ago, apparently, but from her point of view, the description “hardhead” could fit any one of the men on Team Seven.

Buck tapped two aspirin out into his palm and headed back down the stairs. Chris was on the couch. Curled in a tight ball. And wrapped up in the blanket like it was a spider web. Tied up until the spider came back to finish him off.

The blond didn’t move, as Buck came down the stairs, causing the taller agent to wonder whether his friend had gone to sleep, was trying to go to sleep, or was just in some kind of holding pattern, staving off the pain. Buck didn’t know. He continued on into the kitchen to get water for the aspirin and found the empty coffee mugs and the coffee machine, still holding the dregs in the bottom of the glass carafe. He put out his hand. It was cold to the touch. The burner was cold, too. He shook his head. Then he took the glass of water and the aspirin out to Chris.

He was pacing the front hall by the time Raine’s car pulled into the driveway. He had watched Chris take the aspirin, made him drink the entire glass of water, and convinced him to go upstairs to his bedroom. He had gone without a word, the blanket still wrapped tight around him. Twice Buck had checked on him. Not surprised to see his head sandwiched between the pillows.

Buck opened the door before Raine could ring the bell.

“Hi,” he said softly.

She attempted to glare at him, but it held no heat. She craned her neck to look into the living room. “Where is he?” she asked.

Buck helped her off with her coat, reassured to see that maybe she planned to spend a little time.

“I convinced him to go upstairs. I hope he’s sleeping.”

Raine frowned. Clearly not very happy about being called here. “You’ll have to wake him up if you want me to take a look at him,” she said.

Buck nodded, as she brushed past him.

He reached out and grabbed a hold of her arm. She turned back to face him and in the instant read the sudden sorrow that flashed in his blue eyes.

“Listen,” he said, without a trace of the Buck Wilmington charm, she had become so used to in the past few years. It was strange not to hear it.

“I’m listening,” she said gently.

“Can you go a little easy on him?” he asked, feeling almost stupid.

“Is that why you called me instead of Nathan? Because you thought I’d go easy on him?” she asked, narrowing her eyes, and Buck felt again like a child, caught in a tall tale.

The mustached agent grimaced. His discomfort would have been amusing to her, if she didn’t already know how tense and upset Nathan was. She laid her hand over his big one, still holding her sleeve.

“He just doesn’t need anyone else on his case right now,” Buck said quietly, earnestly. He almost smiled as he said, “I suspect he’s already got Chris Larabee on his case. And that’s enough for anyone.”

She smiled gently. “I’ll go easy,” she promised.

He looked so relieved it was all she could do not to smile. He started to tell her which room it was.

“I know the way,” she said with a reassuring smile, pulling his hand from her sleeve. “You wait here.”

He settled down into a chair that gave him a good view of the stairs. Satisfied. And reassured that Raine would go lightly. Chris could use a gentle touch right now. God knew he didn’t know how to go easy on himself.

He studied the floor and the carpet, listening hard to try to catch the conversation upstairs. He could catch nothing except an occasional distant, muffled voice.

He had been listening so hard, he actually jumped when his cell phone suddenly rang. He jerked his glance to his watch. Nine o’clock.

“Wilmington,” he answered.

“What’s goin’ on?” Vin’s voice asked, tense.

“Nothing,” Buck replied defensively. Probably too defensively. He didn’t want to start Tanner’s wheels turning.

“He just doesn’t feel well,” Buck continued before Vin had a chance to ask anything else.

“Should someone come check him out?” Vin asked, a note of anxiety creeping into his voice.

“I’ve got someone,” Buck replied. There was silence and Buck had time to wonder whether he should have given away that much. Chris had spent two days pretty much behind closed doors and Nathan had made no secret of his suspicion that Chris was just plain avoiding him. Anyone who’d had a glimpse of the team leader could see why he might be avoiding the medic. Still, it would have been better politically, tactically to not let on that he had been concerned enough to call someone in.

As the silence continued, Buck realized that Vin was waiting for an explanation. “Raine’s here,” he said.

“Oh,” Vin replied. And in his mind’s eye, Buck could almost see him moving away from the medic’s watchful eyes.

“Just don’t tell Nathan. Not yet,” Buck said. “I want to hear what Raine says and then I’ll call him.”

“Sure,” the Texan said lightly. His voice betraying no concern.

There was long pause. Then Vin spoke again, his voice low, tense, all business. “You gonna be in?” The sharpshooter must have moved to a different place.

Buck ran a hand through his hair. “Depends on what Raine says.” So long as he was giving the truth away, he might as well let someone share the anxiety with him.

“How do ya want me to hold off Travis?” Tanner asked.

Buck blew out his cheeks in frustration. “Ask him to give us some time.”

He could almost hear Vin shrug. It was always odd talking to Tanner on the phone. So much of what he had to say was not said in words. Even when he was on the phone. Like Chris. Sometimes Buck felt like reminding him that he couldn’t see him over the phone lines.

“Don’t think it’s Travis’s call,” the sharpshooter said uneasily.

Buck blew out the breath again. “Well ask. If he can’t hold off, you go ahead.”

“Before I talk to Chris?” Vin asked. Buck could almost hear him wince.

Buck shifted uncomfortably. “It ain’t the same topic, exactly. So it shouldn’t matter, right?” He hated how uncertain he sounded.

He reverted to the same advice he’d been giving J.D.—and everybody else—all week. “Just tell ‘em what you saw.”

Vin snorted. Maybe it was a laugh. “Right,” he said, his tone empty, flat, noncommittal. Then he was gone.

Typical. No sign off.

Buck shifted his feet to another uncomfortable position and wondered when Chris’s living room had started to feel like a hospital waiting room.

After fifteen minutes, more for something to do than any other reason, Buck called Ezra at the office.

“Agent Standish,” the cool tone answered.

“Ezra, it’s Buck.”

“Mr. Wilmington,” Standish drawled. “How charming of you to deign to spend some of your valuable time on those of us at lower levels of the food chain. We who actually have to appear at the office to keep our jobs.”

Buck actually bit his tongue in his haste to cut off a smart remark concerning Ezra’s punctuality. “Ezra,” he said sternly, with as much self-restraint as he could muster.

“Relax, Mr. Wilmington,” the Southerner drawled, placatingly. “And before you ask, our good medic is nowhere in sight—or earshot for that matter.”

Buck squeezed his temples with one big hand. Larabee had just about used up all the patience he had this morning. He had very little left for the temperamental undercover agent.

The southerner spoke again. “I understand our fearless leader is unwell?”

Buck frowned, not quite able to read the expression in Standish’s voice. He chose not to answer that question, instead moving on to why he had called. “I called about J.D. Is he there?”

“Ah yes,” Ezra replied, and this time the smug tone was all too clear. “He is here and looking a strange shade of pale green.”

“Good,” Buck retorted to both pieces of information. “I want you to do me a favor.”

Ezra did not answer. He was waiting. So Buck went on. “I want you to keep him busy. Go hard on him.”

The southerner’s drawl clearly showed amusement now. “Hoping to instill a valuable lesson about the evils of alcohol and the responsibilities of the work place?” he asked, pointedly.

Buck grinned evilly into the phone. “You bet I am,” he replied. “He committed the crime. Now he has to do the time.”

Ezra laughed. “Well, then, consider the time served,” he said cheerfully.

“Knew I could count on you, Ez,” Buck said.

“Always, Mr. Wilmington. Always.” Ezra touched a finger to the brim of an imaginary hat in salute as he hung up the phone.

He glanced over at the pale, hunched form of the young agent. At his desk. Hands up to his head. Doing his best to go unnoticed.

Ezra contemplated a few moments how best he could administer said lesson. He decided on an opening gambit.

“Did you hear that, J.D.?” Ezra asked, smacking his palm loudly down on his desktop.

The young agent jumped. “What?”

“What?” Ezra repeated in exasperated disbelief. “That phone call. The conversation I just had.”

“Um, no,” J.D. said.

He looked utterly miserable.

Ezra hid his evil grin.

“Well that was I.T. They need someone to come down and pick up the transcripts, and surveillance tapes for the briefings with Team Eight.”

J.D. looked at him with a pained expression. Ezra shrugged. “They need to be signed for. And you’re the only surveillance operative in the office right now.”

He received a dirty look for his effort, but J.D. slid out of his chair and headed unsteadily down the hall.

“That was a dastardly ploy,” Josiah said, as Ezra moved past him toward the kitchenette.

“Not at all, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra countered. “That was merely a valuable lesson on why it is important to keep alert to one’s surroundings.”

Josiah’s deep chuckle made Ezra grin to himself as he headed for the coffee pot.

Thirty-five minutes passed before Raine came quietly down the stairs. The tall, lanky agent practically leaped to his feet. She gestured to him to follow her as she headed toward the front door. He took her coat out of her hand, as she removed it from the hall closet. He helped her put it on. Waiting. Anxious.

Finally he could stand it no longer. “So he’s all right?” he prompted.

She turned to face him. “I don’t know about all right,” Raine answered. “But certainly eight straight hours of sleep would help.”

She could almost see the relief flood through the big man’s dark blue eyes. She sighed. “He needs to sleep. And eat meals,” she emphasized sternly. “And if he wants to get himself back to normal, he also needs to take his medicine, and gain some weight.” She looked at Buck sharply. “And it wouldn’t hurt either if he went easy on the job right now.”

Buck’s smile did not reach his eyes. “Don’t ask much, do ya?”

She smiled ruefully. She licked her lips uncertainly. “That’s my opinion as a doctor.”

He squinted at her and tilted his head sideways.

“But you didn’t call me here as a doctor,” she said calmly, tying the belt of her coat.

Realization dawned in Buck’s face as he understood. “What’s your opinion as a friend?”

A frown flickered across her face. She settled on one of the many answers she could have given. The one she didn’t know if Buck would come up with on his own. She was uncertain how it would be received. “As a friend, I’d say he’s scared.”

Buck rocked back on his heels, his hands diving suddenly into his pockets. A strange expression passed over his face, but she noted with interest that it was not surprise.

“Sleep, huh?” he asked suddenly.

Changing the subject. She followed his lead. “Sleep seems to have been a problem lately.” She paused. “Something can be prescribed, of course, but you’ll have to bring him in to see a doctor.”

Buck shook his head.
Raine looked at him appraisingly. “If you have something else in mind, I don’t want to know about it.”

Buck grinned. “Nothin’ that don’t already have a doctor’s say so.” He smirked.

She shook her head again. Nathan’s crazy family. Soon to be hers as well. What’s a girl to do with them all?

Buck’s eyes softened. “Thank you,” he said.

She reached up impulsively and touched his cheek. “You’re welcome,” she replied.

As she went out the door, she turned back over her shoulder. “What should I tell Nathan?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Buck said uneasily.

She grinned and raised her eyebrows. “Why don’t you let me handle Nathan? I think you’ll have your hands full enough.”

He smiled suddenly down at his shoes. That was a better plan.

“Chris is supposed to call me later and let me know how he’s feeling,” Raine called back. “See that he doesn’t forget.”

“I’ll make sure he remembers,” Buck promised.

He stood in the doorway until her car turned out of the driveway again. Then he turned back into the house, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling as if he might somehow acquire the ability to see through it and into the master bedroom on the next floor. Eight hours sleep, he mused. Those painkillers would do the trick. Would knock Chris out good. The question was how to get him to take them.

The wiry sharpshooter took his seat calmly enough. He gave both directors a look that might have made lesser men believe Tanner had x-ray vision. Then he turned his attention to Travis and waited. Whether he was disappointed or even disconcerted that no delay had been granted on account of Agent Wilmington’s delay or Agent Larabee’s absence, could not be discerned from his demeanor. What could be easily discerned, however, was the hostility that emanated from his gaze.

The AD breathed deeply in and out to quell his rising irritation. This mess was not of his making. Nevertheless, it was clear that he was being regarded as the enemy. As if he had somehow betrayed them. He had not. They had betrayed their duty to the ATF. And this inquiry was partly to find out whether Chris’s particular leadership style had caused or contributed to that problem.

That was the part that stuck in Travis’s craw. He had no problem with inquiring how the dead militiaman had acquired Chris’s badge and gun. That was certainly an offense and should be dealt with. It was this secondary reason that felt to him like an ambush. Like scapegoating. A witch hunt. At least he had been able to warn Chris that it was coming. What Chris had done with this information, seemed to be anybody’s guess.

Travis realized the directors were looking at him. He gave them a nod. Ready to begin. It started off normally enough. But when it started to go downhill, Travis was the only one to notice.

As the sharpshooter, Tanner had taken an assigned position in the rafters.

Hofstader began by asking the young agent to relate his version of the events in the warehouse, both directors listening carefully for the places where his version of the story diverged from that of his teammates. Tanner obliged, his account becoming slowly more colorful each time Costas interrupted him for clarification.

“By the time the next fifty crawled out of the woodwork, the other two teams had cold feet and were halfway out the damn doors.”

Travis gritted his teeth at the expletive.

“Are you saying the other two teams positioned in the warehouse retreated?” Costas asked calmly.

Tanner looked at him disdainfully. “No, I’m sayin’ they turned tail and ran, leavin’ us holdin’ the line.”

“Who gave the order to retreat?” Hofstader asked.

Tanner frowned. “Don’t know, but by the time he gave it, we were the only ones still stupid enough to be sittin’ inside.”

Costas and Hofstader exchanged a glance.

“Go on,” Hofstader urged, making a note to return to this information. But first he wanted to hear the rest of Agent Tanner’s account.

Vin went on. His eyes focused farther away as he continued. “Once we heard the order to pull back, Larabee told us to get out.”

“Told us to get out?” Costas repeated thoughtfully.

Vin glared at him now. “Yeah. Told us to get out. As in save your sorry hides.”

Travis could see a red flush slowly working its way up Tanner’s neck.

The sharpshooter continued. “Buck asked him to give his position, so we could cover him. He ordered us out. He took a hit in the vest and then another one. The second one threw him back. Looked like it mighta gone through.” Tanner swallowed suddenly. He knew now. It had.

“And how did you react?” Costas asked.

Travis nearly interceded then, as it looked like Vin might come right out of his chair. He held his ground but his voice was hard, almost malevolent. “I started pickin’ off the bastards that were closing his position.”

Hofstader nodded. Tried to hurry the narration onward to a conclusion.

The tactic seemed to work. Agent Tanner regained some of his discipline. His narration becoming more official sounding.

“Agent Larabee repeated his order to retreat. He took another shot in the arm, and went to cover. I lost sight of him. He told us to regroup at the van. He thought he could get out another way and he’d meet us at the van in ten.”

This time when Tanner looked up, he caught Travis’s eye. It was written all over Vin’s face. He had known then that Chris might not make it out of the warehouse.

“Another way out of the warehouse?” Costas asked suddenly. “At the time what did you think he meant?”

Tanner jerked. His hands locked down on the arms. His legs twitched, as if he wanted to leap out of the chair. But he didn’t. “Why don’t you just ask the question you’re really asking?” he snarled.

Costas was unintimidated and undeterred. “All right, Agent Tanner. Do you think that Agent Larabee was at that time planning to pose as a militia member in order to escape?”

Hofstader cursed silently. He would have saved that question for later. Too bad Costas didn’t agree.

Tanner’s laugh was ugly. “Yeah, sittin’ under a pile of wooden crates, bleedin’ like a stuck pig, with a hundred militia guys no one told us about takin’ free shots at him while his team went out the door without him. Yeah, I think he was wonderin’ how he could get his hands on one o’ them cool camo jackets. Figure he just needed to raise his hand and ask one of ‘em to stop shootin’ long enough to trade.”

Costas glared at the agent. Reminded him of his place.

Hofstader redirected in a hurry. “How did Agent Larabee choose your position?” he asked.

Tanner looked at the older of the two directors with exasperation. He willed himself not to make a smart-ass remark. He replied frankly, trying to regain his calm. “Agent Larabee and I looked over the blueprints of the warehouse and cross-checked them with the team’s positions…”

Costas interrupted. “The new positions assigned by Agent Larabee in violation of the orders of the mission commander,” he clarified.

The glance he received in return was pure venom. “Yes. Those positions.”

Travis swore. Give Tanner a few more years under Larabee’s command, and Chris will have spawned a double, he thought unwillingly. Had he been in a laughing mood, he would have enjoyed contemplating the repercussions of that situation. He was not in a laughing mood, and the two directors with him couldn’t even see the storm brewing. He battened down his own hatches and let it ride.

“So you assisted in choosing your position,” Costas affirmed.

“No,” Tanner disagreed. “I chose my position by myself. Larabee just gave it his okay.”

Hofstader’s eyes narrowed. The two directors exchanged a glance.

Costas continued. “When you chose your position, were you aware that you were now directly violating the orders of the mission commander?”

Tanner looked irritated. “Yes,” he replied.

Costas looked at him searchingly. “You knew you were violating the mission commander’s orders?”

“Yes,” Tanner repeated. His tone growing disdainful.

“Why did you go ahead then?”

“Cause it was a shit-for-brains plan that left our team too strung out to cover each other and wide open on our flank. And Chris told him so.”

“It wasn’t Agent Larabee’s call to make,” Travis interceded, hearing the tension rise in Agent Tanner’s voice. The foul language evidence enough of his increasing anger.

“The hell it wasn’t,” Tanner snapped.

“I beg your pardon?” Costas retorted, his voice soft, cold. A warning.

Travis closed his eyes momentarily. Tanner didn’t like to be threatened. This was not going to go well.

“I said, ‘the hell it wasn’t’,” Vin repeated, mockingly. “It’s his call if his team’s on the line.”

Costas stared at him. Travis and Hofstader both flicked their glances back and forth between the sharpshooter and the director.

The director’s face had become slightly pink. “So,” he answered, controlling the anger in his voice with limited success. “Are you saying that where his team is concerned, Agent Larabee believes his own authority to supercede the mission commander’s authority?”

Tanner laughed again. Hard. Mean. “I don’t know what the hell Larabee believes, but Mission Commander Agent Thackeray couldn’t out-strategize a team of pre-schoolers or find his own ass with a map, a compass, and a guide to help.”

Travis realized the moment to intervene had passed.

“What did you just say?” Costas roared in disbelief.

Hofstader rose abruptly from his chair and went out into the waiting room, looking like he had just swallowed a bug. It didn’t prevent him from hearing the rest of the inquiry. Tanner shouting at the top of his lungs that he’d follow Chris Larabee into hell if he asked.

Hofstader went back a moment later, and declared the interview over, talking right over Tanner, sensing that the young agent was about to tell Director Costas where to go and what to do when he got there. Together, he and Travis got Tanner out the door.

Costas was seething with rage. Red faced. The tendons standing out on his neck.

“I think we’ll take a few minutes before we go over our notes,” Hofstader said calmly. He and Travis left Director Costas to collect himself in the privacy of Travis’s office.

Vin reentered the bullpen looking somehow furious and shell-shocked at the same time. He slouched into his chair. Did not say a word. Just closed his eyes and shook his head. No one asked him how it went. They knew him well enough to know that now was not the time to talk.

They were saved from the uncomfortable silence by J.D. bursting into the bullpen. “Do you have any idea where all I’ve been sent this morning chasing those damn audios. They’re not even done!” he all but shouted in his exasperation.

“Shh! Mr. Dunne,” Ezra hissed petulantly. “Do keep it down. I have a bit of a headache.”

Three years of working for Chris Larabee had made Ezra impervious to the glare he received from J.D. He continued working on his next mission for the young agent.

He floated gently upward toward consciousness, bobbing to the surface like a cork. He remained there, eyes still closed. His head, blessedly, peacefully empty of thought and, for the moment, memory. He sank into the feeling, enjoying it, even as he knew that it would not last long.

After a moment, his eyes opened. His own bedroom. Facing the corner. Idly noting the long shadows and realizing it must be late afternoon, heading into evening. He tried not to think about the implications of that, either. Then it invaded his consciousness. The presence of someone else.

Suppressing a sigh or any other excess noise, he turned his head slowly to the right to see Buck. In the old rocking chair. Dressed for work, apparently. But now his sleeves were rolled up, his collar open, and his shirt untucked. Stocking feet. Brow furrowed, he was apparently working on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Chris very nearly laughed at that. Sarah had loved to do crossword puzzles. Buck, on the other hand, for most purposes, could hardly sit still long enough to help Adam do a dot-to-dot. Let alone the New York Times’s best.

Apparently, the motion had made a noise, because Buck raised his head. And gave a grin.

“Hey there,” he said quietly. The blue eyes raked over Chris’s face but good.

Since the jig was up, Chris began to push himself up to a sitting position, seeking out the digital alarm clock that would tell him what time it was really.

Disappointment crossed over Buck’s face. “There’s no hurry, Pard,” he said easily. “You could sleep a while more if you wanted.”

The green eyes flicked over to him suspiciously. He sighed. Chris had slept for a long time. Nearly eight hours in fact. Watching how long it had taken his friend’s features, the shoulders, the too-thin frame to relax even in sleep, Buck had begun to hope it would be something more like ten or twelve. He had done the chores. Straightened up a few things. Made himself a couple of meals. Watched some TV. Seen to the horses. Even attempted to do some work. But mostly he had parked himself in this chair, contemplating how far he had let Chris twist himself up. And what exactly it was that was twisting him up the most. A dozen or more possibilities presented themselves. All of them a long time coming. A number of them at least partly Buck’s fault.

Chris stared thoughtfully at the numbers on the alarm clock. Buck could see the wheels turning. Slowly. Chris raised his eyes again to level his gaze at his friend in the rocking chair.

“You slipped me a mickey,” he accused. There was no heat.

“You needed the sleep,” Buck replied. No reprisal.

Chris rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t exactly disagree. He smiled slightly. Buck Wilmington had to be the only person he knew who would drug Chris Larabee and then wait around for him to wake up and figure it out.

“How ‘bout some food?” Buck asked.

Chris shook his head. This morning’s scene played embarrassingly through his head. He pursed his lips and stared at Buck. He spoke hesitantly, almost unwillingly. “I think we gotta talk.”

Buck nodded. “That we do, Pard,” he agreed. “But first how ‘bout some food?” The tall, lanky agent didn’t wait for a reply, either agreement or disagreement. He simply stood and headed for the kitchen.

Chris shook his head. At the good fortune that had brought Buck Wilmington’s friendship into his life to begin with. And then at the mystery that kept it here, still solid, dependable, even though Chris knew he didn’t deserve it.

By the time Buck had figured out what to make and loaded it onto a tray, he caught Chris coming slowly down the stairs. Buck detoured back to the kitchen, balancing the tray and sneaking an appraising glance at his friend. Chris looked tired. Still sleepy maybe, but a lot less downright scary than he had at the side of the road—when he had taken another five years off of Buck’s life bolting out of the truck like that. The man was still rubbing his eyes as he came a little unsteadily into the kitchen, and Buck wondered whether the painkillers had entirely worn off yet.

Chris slid into his usual chair, slouched down. He was wearing the wind pants that Ezra had procured in Texas and a long-sleeved T-shirt. He yawned when he thought Buck’s back was turned.

Buck slid a peanut butter sandwich on a paper plate across the table to him along with a glass of milk. Chris looked at him funny.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said dryly, a smile grudgingly creeping across his face.

Buck shrugged. Raine had said eat meals. Not just potato chips, coffee, and chocolate. That was for emergencies.

Chris’s smile grew a little wider, when Buck sat down in front of his own peanut butter sandwich. He shook his head.

Buck shrugged again, and took a drink of his milk.

They ate in silence. Chris, surprised at how empty he felt. Especially when he couldn’t even choke down toast this morning. He turned his mind back to the thoughts that had been occupying him since two that morning, since Monday, since the week before, since he couldn’t remember when he had not been chewing on the same decisions over and over again. The sandwich hung neglected in his hand.

Buck frowned.

“What?” Buck said exasperated. “Do you need me to cut the crusts off?”

Chris looked at him blankly.

Buck swore. Goddammit, he thought. Is it too damn hard to just eat?

“You know, Stud, it might be a hell of a lot easier to come up with a new plan if you put some fuel in the tank,” he grated.

Chris swore and put the sandwich down completely. “We don’t have time for a new plan,” he snapped.

Buck stared at him. “All right,” he said. “Just how much longer you think you can last on this one?”

Chris blanched, as if Buck had just sucker punched him.

The tall agent swore to himself.

“Come on, Chris,” Buck said, putting down his own sandwich to lean forward. “Talk to me. Whatever’s going on in that thick, hard head, let me help.”

Chris stared at him. Then pushed back as if to leave the table.

Buck clamped a big hand down on Chris’s arm, and yanked him back down to a sitting position. “You took five years off my life bolting out of the truck like that.” he said quietly. “Now talk to me.”

Chris flinched. Buck had nailed him all right. A runner. He always was. Probably always would be. But he didn’t have to run now. He could take this for the team. It had to be easier than dying right? And he’d been prepared to do that back in that Texas warehouse. How hard could it be to take the fall for them? It was just a career. Just a job. Right?

Buck saw his friend’s expression harden. Saw the game face come up.

“Goddammit,” he swore, his hand clenching on Chris’s arm. “Do I have to take you outside and beat the truth out of you?”

He got that cocky smile as a reply, the one he loved when Chris gave it to the bad guys or flashed it at the brass, the one he hated when Chris directed it at him. Angry now, he made one last plea.

“Earth to Chris,” he snapped. “Remember me? Buck? The big dog? The guy who’s watched your back for over twenty years? You want to stand up in front of us and take the heat, that’s your choice. You’re the boss. But how am I supposed to watch your back if you won’t tell me where the fire is coming from?”

Chris stared at him. Blinked. “Shit, Buck,” he said, slumping against the chair back as if someone had just let the air out of him. “Maybe you should just get the hell out of the way of the fire instead.”

The hand on his arm clenched hard enough to hurt. Chris was forced to look up. The blue eyes that bored into him were utterly devoid of humor. Hard, grim, and sad all at the same time.

“I did that once,” the man replied. “In Texas. I’m not doing it again. You don’t want to tell me your game plan, that’s fine. But know this: I’m with you. Right to the end. And if you get yourself fired to save our asses, I’ll be right beside you when you’re lookin’ for your next job.”

Chris stared at him. Mouth dry. Buck would leave the team? How the hell could Buck think he’d expect that?

Buck held his gaze until he saw that Chris knew he was serious. Dead serious.

It hit Chris then. What Chris expected didn’t enter into it. It was simply what Buck would do. He’d be there. Like he was always there. Like he had always been there. And no matter how this ended up, no matter how far out on the line he was willing to hang his own ass, he was never going to be out there alone. Firefights or firing. Even when they had left him in Texas, they had never quite let go.

He stared. The room closed in. And Buck saw the veins in the bloodshot green eyes grow slightly redder as Chris sucked in a deep breath. It took him a second more to choke the words out through his tight throat. “I don’t want to take this hit,” he confessed.

Buck stared at him. “Then don’t,” he answered quietly.

Chris closed his eyes a moment, a bitter smile flickering across his face. “I have to. Josiah and Nathan’ll be okay, but J.D. and Ezra can’t afford a hit. They’re too vulnerable. And I’m not so sure about Vin. You and I are the only ones who can take the heat off of them.”

He opened his eyes again. Guilt leaked out of them. His voice was intense. Asking Buck to understand. “I can’t keep you from taking a hit, Buck. But I won’t let them take you down.”

He looked away, suddenly afraid that Buck would see it sitting there in his face. The truth. He’d do whatever he had to. To keep the team together. And to protect Buck. Whatever the cost, he would pay it. He knew he owed the man that much. And more.

Buck’s hand fell onto his shoulder, calling him to look back up. “So that’s your plan? You’re gonna throw the game?” he asked, a deep, angry frown furrowing his brow. “Give yourself up? That ain’t like you.”

Of course, he had known that Chris was willing to do it. Throw his career away. He had said as much that night on the porch. Whatever happens now, you follow my lead. Hell, Texas had proven he’d throw more than that. For the team.

Even knowing that, Buck had agreed. Despite himself, he had followed the plan—whatever it was—blindly, faithfully. Given his complete loyalty. All he had left to give. All the while hoping another way out would present itself.

He stared at Chris now. Had they come down to it then? Had they hit the worst case scenario?

Buck shook his head. “This ain’t one of your better plans,” he said finally. “Not to mention the rest of the boys ain’t gonna be too crazy about it either when they figure it out.”

Chris sighed. “What choice do I have?” He should have known Buck wouldn’t understand.

The mustache twitched upward. “Change the game,” he suggested. “Make ‘em play by your rules. Ain’t that what you’re famous for?”

His grin widened, as he added, “Two smart guys like us oughta be able to come up with a plan that’ll give you some cover.”

Chris looked at him doubtfully. Buck gave his arm a little squeeze and winked. Brash. Cocky. “’Course, ya mighta mentioned all this before you shot out of the truck like a scared rabbit.”

One corner of Chris’s mouth quirked up. Embarrassed. “Guess I could have thought of askin’ before it got this bad,” he mumbled.

Buck smiled back. “It’s like Ezra said, Stud. Self-preservation is a new concept for you. Can’t expect to be good at it right off the bat.”

Without warning, the hand moved off of Chris’s sleeve and pushed him hard in the side of the head.

“Finish your sandwich,” Buck ordered. He grinned mischievously. “And when you’ve cleaned your plate and drunk all your milk, then we’ll take a hard look at how to get all of us out of this mess—including you.”

In spite of himself, Chris smiled and picked up the sandwich.

Buck picked up his own sandwich. “And if our two brains aren’t enough,” he cracked, “I know five more of the slipperiest, trickiest, wiliest ATF agents to ever keep AD Travis up all night.”

Chris’s smile grew a bit more. “Wondered how you kept ‘em away all day.”

Buck grinned back. “Threats mostly,” he replied. “But if I don’t call ‘em by eight, they’ll be knocking down the front door.”

Chris eyed his watch and reached for his glass. “I’d better get this milk finished then. And then we had better get to work.”

We. Buck nearly blew out a breath. He knew Chris was right. It was the eleventh hour. But at least this time they had a chance to get Chris out of the way before the rocket launcher got lined up.

They settled into the living room, laying out a strategy over the coffee table. Buck sipped his coffee and noted that it wasn’t long before Chris began to yawn.

Chris cursed his luck. He should have known. It might have been the novelty of a full stomach stealing the blood from his brain. It could have been the sheer relief that maybe there was another way out of this stealing the adrenaline from his bloodstream, or it might have been the damn sleeping pills still working their magic. But whatever it was, he suddenly felt as heavy as lead. And his attention was wandering. He looked up at Buck apologetically and discovered that Buck’s face held more wry amusement than frustration.

Wilmington shook his head and chuckled.

“It’s not funny, Buck,” Chris growled, but it lacked the force of any actual anger. He was too damn tired for that.

Buck only laughed harder. “All right, Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “We’re not gonna get anywhere right now. You go back to bed and sleep on it.”

He thought suddenly. “Didn’t you tell me once that dreamin’ on a problem can help you solve it?”

Chris went suddenly cold. Buck noted the change in his expression. But the blond shook his head, and it was gone.

“Yeah, maybe,” Chris grunted noncommittally. “Maybe I’ll just dream up the answer.”