by BMP

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Chris moved slowly back up the stairs, as Buck promised he’d continue to work on the problem. Then Buck glanced at the clock. It was goin’ on eight and he had to call them anyway. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity, and call the cavalry while Chris was asleep, before he had a chance to return to his usual ol’ stubborn, ornery, I-can-do-it-myself self.

He waited to give Chris time to fall asleep. Then he slipped silently up the hall in his stocking feet to peek in the door and make sure. The blond had his head between the pillows. The quilt covered the rest of him. Buried. So far down that Buck actually craned his neck to make sure Chris was really in there and hadn’t tried to skip out. He chided himself for being paranoid, as he shut the door firmly behind him. He hurried down the stairs and around the corner into the den. Then he shut that door and started dialing the boys. Beginning with Nathan.

That chore finished, he opened the front door, leaving only the screen, making sure no one did anything stupid like ring the doorbell. He had told them all they were meeting while Chris slept. Still, some of his teammates had a penchant for being noisy. Then he gathered pencils and paper and settled down to wait.

He didn’t have to wait long. He didn’t know why it should surprise him, but it did, as he realized that some of them had apparently already been on the way. He should have known. In a way, he wished Chris were awake to witness it.

They gathered in the den. Behind the closed door. Ranged across the desk, the chairs and the old sofa, wherever there was room. J.D. took a seat on the floor.

“Listen,” Buck began, keeping his voice low. Their eyes were all glued to him. Their faces serious. Reminding him suddenly of the Texas hotel room. And before, in the bullpen conference room. When they had planned their unauthorized mission. Together. For Chris.

He took a deep breath. “Everyone here has seen Travis. And so far everyone has done exactly what Chris wanted.”

He could see the expectancy and the doubt in their faces. Could hear them thinking But…

He pursed his lips. “Oh hell,” he said suddenly. “Chris has a game plan. You’ve followed it perfectly. But now we want a new one.”

“A new game plan?” Josiah asked.

“It’s a bit late in the game to change the plan, is it not?” Ezra asked.

Buck glared at him exasperated. “Yes,” he retorted. “So we’d better come up with one fast.”

“Why now?” Nathan asked. If Chris wanted a new game plan, then Chris would get a new game plan. No argument from him. Just why so sudden?

Buck chewed his lip, musing on his reply, gauging their reaction. In the end, there was no good way to say it, so he spat it out. “He realized that he doesn’t want to get hung out to dry.”

J.D. scowled his protest. “We didn’t…”

Josiah interrupted. “Hold on there, son. No one here has hung Chris out to dry.”

“That’s right,” Buck agreed, grateful for the big profiler’s intercession.

“Chris set himself up to take the fall,” Vin said. It wasn’t exactly a statement. Nor was it exactly a question. He waited for Buck to confirm. Unflinching.

Buck dropped his head. “Yes,” he said.

He could feel J.D. staring at him. Accusing him.

“That’s a heavy burden Brother Chris has been carrying around,” Josiah said quietly, looking at J.D. He turned back to Buck, although his words were still directed at J.D. “Must have been hard to be the only one to share it.”

“Damn fool,” Vin growled. He looked up at Buck. “Think ya coulda waited a little longer to let us in on this idiot idea o’ Larabee’s?”

Buck glared back at him. Tanner should talk. Of all of them, he was the one who gave Chris the closest run for his money for sheer stubbornness and refusal to ask for help.

“I’m askin’ ya now,” Buck said, keeping his voice even. He blew out a breath, gathering up his resolve. “Fact is, we went AWOL. We conducted an illegal surveillance. Chris can’t cover that up. But he can keep IA from finding out exactly what this illegal surveillance entailed. And so far, he’s succeeded. But we can’t get out of this scot free. He’s got to give IA something. Something they can dig up. Something they can chew on. And punish.”

“He’s handing them the existence of our illegal surveillance on Bautiste,” Josiah said calmly.

“Bautiste is never gonna confirm that,” Nathan said scornfully.

“Right,” Buck smiled. “So they’ll spend a lot of time digging around and then end up with what Chris has already handed them.”

“A diversion,” Ezra said. “Which will allow us to slip out the back door with the real crime unnoticed.”

Buck winced at the undercover agent’s choice of words, which, as usual, was excruciating in its accuracy.

“So what’s the problem?” J.D. asked.

“The problem is punishment,” Buck answered. “You heard Chris at the first inquiry. He worked too long to keep us out of the brass’s direct line of fire to let that change now. He won’t give us up that way. So he thought maybe he could somehow convince the brass that we went AWOL because of his leadership style.”

“Lack of discipline,” Josiah nodded.

“Lack of ethics,” Nathan agreed tartly.

Ezra gave the medic a long-suffering look.

When the undercover agent turned back to Buck, his gaze was sharp. “That sounds like another diversion?”

Buck smiled tightly. Damn, Ezra was good at this political strategy. “Yes. The brass wants their pound of flesh. They want an example. And they want to do it in a way that is not going to be politically embarrassing. That means, if they can get around Chris, they’ll want to punish the most politically vulnerable target they can legitimately pick.”

Buck saw Ezra drop his head. But he continued. “By offering them a bigger fish to fry, Chris thought he could keep them from trying to go around him.”

“Bigger fish?” J.D. asked, shaking his head.

“Me,” Buck said. “I authorized the illegal surveillance.”

“That’s not fair!” J.D. exclaimed.

Five voices urged him to be quiet.

“Of course it’s not fair,” Buck replied. “Do you think they’d buy it if it were easy?”

J.D.’s face turned suddenly red. Before he could voice his protest again, Buck went on.

“And then I’m supposed to tell the brass that I just did what Chris would have wanted. I blame Chris. And Chris agrees.”

He took a breath.

“Of course, then there’s the matter of how the militiaman got his badge and gun. But that’s a red herring.”

Vin looked at him curiously.

“The real question is whether Chris’s insistence on autonomy has made us a rogue team. One that answers to Chris and not to the brass.”

“And if they decide we are?” Vin asked, feeling the room suddenly growing warm.

“Well you know that Chris has always made it a point that he is responsible for the actions of his team,” Buck said evenly. “He’ll try to convince them that he is really to blame for what we did.”

Vin swore. He had known the answer, of course, but somewhere inside he had hoped he might be wrong.

“And us?” Nathan asked.

“No point punishing people who don’t know they’ve done anything wrong,” Ezra replied, his voice cold. “You kill the beast by cutting off its head.”

Vin swore. If that’s what Chris had wanted him to do, boy had he done it. He had pretty much handed Chris to the brass on a silver platter, when he flew off the handle at Costas.

Buck was watching him closely.

Ezra was shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I was a party to this ridiculous plan.”

Buck’s lips tightened. “He just wanted to protect…” he paused.

Ezra glared at him. “His politically vulnerable agents.”

Buck nodded.

Vin swore.

J.D.’s face was red. His eyes wide. “He coulda told us!” he said in disbelief. “We woulda done what he asked.”

Ezra laughed derisively. “Good God, Mr. Dunne,” he exclaimed. “You must have a high regard for your own acting skills. You’re precisely one of the people he needed to protect.”

J.D. opened his mouth to protest, but Ezra interrupted. “As am I. The least we can do is try to figure out how to get Mr. Larabee’s head off the chopping block, now that he’s come to his senses.”

Josiah shook his head sadly. His hand went to his breast pocket. “It’s happening again, and we still couldn’t see it.”

J.D. stared at him.

Buck shrugged. “At least this time, he’s askin’ us for help.”

Josiah gave Buck a penetrating look. “Is he? Because we seem to be holding this meeting in secret.”

Buck gave him a helpless look. He didn’t know quite how to answer that. Chris was asleep. He needed to sleep. But the truth was, Buck was afraid he’d balk once he gained a little strength and a little resolve.

“I can answer that,” a quiet voice said. The door came slowly open to reveal Chris. Haggard and pale in the dim light of the den. He looked around at his men. He hadn’t meant to listen in, but he had awakened from that damn dream and staggered out into the hall. Then he had heard their voices through the heating vent. It took him a while to realize that he needed to be down there, not hiding in his own hallway, wondering how much damage he had done to them.

Vin stood up. Then moved down to the floor next to J.D. Leaving a space on the sofa.

“Sit down, Chris,” Nathan said, moving closer to the arm.

He picked his way past them and settled into the seat Vin had just vacated. Smack in the middle of the couch. Between Nathan and Ezra. Josiah in the arm chair. Buck leaning on the desk. Vin and J.D. on the carpet. All looking at him expectantly.

He swallowed his pride. “I owe you all an apology,” he began.

Buck and Josiah both hid their grins as Nathan, Vin, Ezra, and J.D. all immediately shouted him down.

“Perhaps you were not aware that this is a team, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said sternly, his voice rising over the others’.

“And you’re one of us,” J.D. insisted.

Chris swallowed. Hearing his own words now coming back at him.

Vin just shook his head. And Chris knew he was in for an earful later.

Buck grinned. “Well, boys, you know the stakes. You know where we are. We got a lot of thinking and maneuvering to do before I have to go talk to the brass tomorrow.”

“Right,” J.D. confirmed.

“We might as well make their suspicions of collusion true,” Ezra sighed.

J.D. grinned. “Let’s start from the beginning. What do the brass have and what don’t they have?”

Chris looked at Buck uncertainly. “Listen,” he said calmly. “If you hold this strategy meeting and anyone finds out…” he trailed off.

J.D. grinned up at him. His face full of resolve and assurance.

Chris grimaced. “You don’t have to do this,” Chris said simply. “Any of you.”

“And you didn’t have to save my career,” Ezra replied. “Repeatedly.”

Chris ducked his head, the dim lamplight all but hiding the slight red flush that crept into his pale face.

A hand squeezed his shoulder. He looked up to see Buck reaching across the sofa. As always. “All for one and one for all,” he mouthed.

Chris smiled. Buck took a seat on the arm of the sofa beside Nathan. And Chris watched in admiration, as without anyone taking over control, the team together began to move toward a plan of action.

It slowly unraveled as the evening went on, short skirmishes erupting followed by loud arguments. The phone rang, just as Nathan and Ezra had both risen to their feet, shouting either at each other. Or possibly at J.D.—it was hard to tell. Josiah was trying to recall some order to the room, and Buck had risen partly off the couch. Chris, holding his head with one hand and hoping no one would notice was the first to notice the ring. Without a word or pause he fled into the front hallway to answer it. The others barely paused to acknowledge his exit.

In the relative peace of the hallway, he checked the caller ID. And winced. He picked it up just a moment before the answering machine would have.

“Hi,” he said quietly, guiltily.

“You forgot,” Raine said.

He was caught. Fairly.

It was a simple statement of fact, but her picture rose before him, and he could see her standing there, hands on her hips, giving him that same look she had given him this morning. He wandered into the living room and sat down heavily on the arm of the sofa.

“Sorry,” he said with a grimace.

It would have been too easy for her to take advantage of his momentary guilt and twist the knife, but that was not why she had called. “I just wanted to check on you,” she said.

The kindness in her voice made him close his eyes. “I’m okay,” he said quietly.

She shook her head, but couldn’t help smiling. She let his self-diagnosis slide. “Did you get some sleep?”

“Yeah,” he replied with a chuckle, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “A lot.”

“Good,” she replied. “And dinner?”

“Yes, I had dinner,” he replied, starting to sound a little prickly.

Safe on the other end of the phone line she smiled. “What did you have?” she asked. And acknowledged that she really couldn’t resist twisting the knife a little. After all, she had spent part of her morning dodging Nathan’s questions. It might not have been an official visit, but Chris still had a right to confidentiality.

Chris hesitated, but he answered, realizing even as he did how stupid it sounded. “A glass of milk and a peanut butter sandwich.”

Sounding grumpy now, he added, “And before you ask, I took the painkillers.”

Sure, Buck had given them to him, crushed up and hidden in the applesauce he made Chris eat on the pretense of making him have something in his stomach to go with the aspirin. But Raine didn’t need to know that.

She laughed, and he didn’t know whether to be suspicious or not. But she didn’t ask about his other meds. He had been quite definite and specific this morning that he had taken all of his pills except the “damn painkillers” faithfully.

“That’s a start,” she said evenly.

“I see it’s getting late,” he replied. “You probably want to talk to Nathan.”

“You’re trying to ditch me, Larabee,” she said sternly, sounding so much like Nathan that he winced. But she laughed. “I would like to speak to him, if you don’t mind.”

“I’ll get him,” Chris said, getting up.

“Chris…,” she began. She hesitated.

It took her a moment to realize his silence meant that he was waiting. But she didn’t really know what she wanted to say.

“They worry, you know,” she said finally.

Chris stopped in the hall. Head down. “I know,” he said softly. He remembered the look on Buck’s face this morning by the roadside. The second before he closed down his expression. His own surprise at Raine’s arrival. And the realization that Buck had called her—behind Nathan’s back.

Raine stopped short of saying more. It wasn’t her place. Instead, she let a note of wry reprimand enter her voice. “You’re stressing out my fiancé,” she said, only half joking.

“I know,” he said, and this time she recognized the dry humor that crept into his voice, as he said, “Right now he’s taking it out on Ezra.”

She laughed. “You’d better get him then,” she replied.

He slipped back inside the door of the den to see that Nathan had been moved aside and Vin now stood shoulder to shoulder with Ezra, both of them shouting down a red-faced J.D. Buck had left his seat on the arm of the sofa and was trying to get all three of them to stop shouting at each other. Chris took advantage of the opportunity to hand a surprised Nathan the phone.

“Raine,” he mouthed.

Nathan took the phone out into the hall, throwing a quick glance behind him before he shut the door. Chris had taken up a position leaning against the edge of his desk, arms crossed, head tilted to one side, watching and listening intently, but by the look on his face, Nathan knew Chris was beginning to come to a decision on his own.

He closed the door behind him and crossed through the living room into the quiet of the kitchen. He slid into a chair as he took his thumb off the mute button and answered the phone. She sounded tired as she returned his greeting.

He hedged when she asked when he would be home, stumbling, before finally giving a sigh. “Raine,” he began. “I have to ask you this. Because it’s not my future. It’s our future now, and I need to know if you’re behind me.”

She did not reply. Too preoccupied by the sudden sinking in the pit of her stomach. He continued, and she could hear the barest hint of an edge in his voice.

“I told you we were meeting to discuss how to handle this mess we made. Turns out I was right about draggin’ Chris down with us,” He frowned, hesitated, but forced himself to continue before he lost his nerve. “Chris thinks he can save the team if he takes the blame.”

She bit her lip.

Only her soft grunt let him know she was listening.

“We came to figure out another solution,” he repeated. The edge in his voice took on a note of frustration. “Only we’re not getting anywhere.”

“I see,” she replied, slowly. Carefully neutral.

She heard the long, deep breath and steeled herself. She knew only too well that whatever Nathan was going to say would not make her happy.

When he spoke again, the edge in his voice had transformed itself into something stronger. Something surer. “They’re gonna want to blame this on someone. Chris thinks that it ought to be him. But he doesn’t want to get fired.”

The sinking feeling in her stomach grew cold. “Do you think they’ll fire him?” She asked. She didn’t want to know the answer.

Nathan exhaled. “I don’t know, but if Chris thinks so, then he’s probably right.” He winced. The words began to tumble out. “I can’t do it Raine. I can’t stand here and let him take the fall for something we did, while he was…” He stopped. Short.

He can’t say it, she realized. “While he wasn’t there,” she finished for him. A nice neutral expression. He grunted in acknowledgement.

It was Raine’s turn to exhale. Reluctantly, she asked, “What do you want to do?”

She steeled herself for the answer.

“If they fire Chris, I’ll resign,” he replied.

She heard the resolve in his answer. She respected him for it. That resolve. But she loved him for the small note at the end, the one that swung upward, that told her he was waiting for her. Her opinion. To wade in and weigh the consequences.

It was the consequences that pressed her suddenly into a nearby chair. Her mind reeling. They had a house. They were saving for a wedding.

“You couldn’t have discussed this with me first?” she snapped. Angry.

He didn’t blame her. He had blindsided her with this. But it was decision time. And the decision had come to him. He was careful to keep his reply calm and neutral. “I’m discussing it with you now. Talk to me. I need to know what you’re thinking. It’s our future. Not mine. Not yours. Ours.”

She scowled. How dare he throw that at her, when she knew his mind was already made up. In the silence, he began outlining his reasons. Predictable. Her scowl deepened.

“How many times has Chris stood up for us?” he asked. “How many times has he saved one of our lives? My life? He’s been a good friend to both of us, Raine. I can’t let them hang him out to dry.” Buck’s words. Accurate.

Financial figures whirled through Raine’s head. They were just about to get his first paycheck, restored to him after more than a month without one. A month without his income had been hard enough. Now this?

“God,” she groaned quietly.

“You don’t have to agree,” Nathan said quietly.

She snorted derisively. “Right. And if I say I don’t want you to do this, what would you do?” she asked.

She answered for him. “You’d keep finding arguments to convince me until I agreed.”

He did not answer. She was right, and she knew she was. She needed no confirmation from him.

He heard a sound like something had been set down sharply. Her voice trembled when she answered and he didn’t know whether it was anger or something else.

“It’s not fair to put me in this position,” she snapped. “What kind of wife would I be? What kind of person would I be if I asked you to go against what you believe? To ignore your conscience?”

She took a breath. “And what kind of friend am I, if I tell you that despite everything he’s done for you—for us—that I don’t want you to do this. That quitting won’t change whether they fire him or not. What does that say about me?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and ran a hand across her forehead. It didn’t help. Her eyes burned, and she fought the rough edge that came into her voice.

“I’m not saying not to,” she said. “I’m just saying it’s going to be hard to make ends meet on just my income right now. We have loans. And a mortgage.”

Nathan swallowed.

She could hear him thinking, but she also knew that he had already reached his decision. While he was giving her his good solid arguments. The decision was made. The only one he could live with.

She fought down her anger. “Nathan, I love you,” she said firmly. “This is who you are. Hero. Martyr. Fool. I’m not sure which, but…” She took a deep breath, her hands now assuming the tremble she tried to keep out of her voice. “I support you. You have to follow the dictates of your conscience.”

She heard his relief in his “Thank you.” The rest of the conversation was a blur. Half unheard. Lost in wondering whether she believed that the team—or rather Chris Larabee—was worth possibly losing her house. Her new home. And if not, did that mean he was not worth Nathan’s loyalty?

She felt like kicking herself. She knew how much the team meant to Nathan. How important his teammates were. In many ways they were more like family to him than his own blood kin. Not to mention that Chris had been a good friend to him. Had opened his home to Nathan and then to her. Had, in fact saved Nathan’s life, more than once. He had to do this. He had to stand up for Chris. For the team.

She heard her own words repeat back to her, as she stared at the phone, returning it to its cradle. I support you. Her lips curled up bitterly. I’m scared, but I support you.

Scared. That’s what she had told Buck had Chris so wracked up. Not eating. Not sleeping. Scared of the same thing she was. Scared of losing something important to him. His job. His team. His family. She was furious at him now. Even though she knew it was unfair. Even though she knew that Nathan’s decision was not something Chris was asking. And the part of her brain that still demanded that she be fair, reminded her that Chris would probably try to talk Nathan out of it. The unfair part of her didn’t care. She wanted to blame him, too.

She stood up angrily and was ambushed suddenly. Attacked by memory. Nathan. Home again from Texas—the first time. How silent he had been. For hours after she had brought him home from the airport. Then suddenly, haltingly, told her how Chris had made them leave. How they had escaped and left him. Then she saw his joy when he had returned home the second time—and the fury that came with it.

She swore. Decided to let herself be furious. To blame Chris for getting killed and for worrying himself and the rest of the team half to death. To cuss Nathan out but good for his loyalty. For going along on a plan for vengeance. To call both of them and all the others every bad name she could think of. Right up until Nathan got home.

Because then she had to live up to her promise to support him. He was going to need her to be strong. And to have her head in the game. Especially if they had to figure out how to stretch her one income to pay off student loans, car loans, and the mortgage, plus all their other household needs.

Her glance fell suddenly on a pile of wedding planning books. Practicality stunned her. The wedding plans would have to be cut first. The tears that came were a mix of anger and grief. And guilt.

Nathan slipped back into the den, unnoticed amid the din. His teammates were no longer shouting at each other, but they were still arguing. Still adamant. Still stubbornly sticking to their own convictions. Chris was silent. Still leaning on the desk where Nathan had seen him last.

The team leader turned his head to look at Nathan. His expression unreadable. Then he shot a look at Buck, almost as if he had simply been waiting for Nathan’s return. The look Buck gave back to Chris fairly bled frustration. Chris remained impassive. He unfolded his arms, stuck two fingers in his mouth and let loose a shrill whistle, earsplitting in the closeness of the small den.

The voices died. Five agents turned to stare at him. Buck lowered his head and walked away. To the sofa, taking a seat. His mouth drawn tight.

Chris looked at the floor for a moment. Then raised his head to face them, his expression circumspect. Carefully grounding his comments in practicality.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” he said.

“We just need more time,” J.D. said, his request dying out as Chris cut him off with an upraised hand.

“Could be there’s just nowhere to go,” he said impassively.

They stared at him now, silent. Nathan and Josiah caught each other’s frowns. Buck folded his arms and glowered at the floor.

“I don’t see any other feasible possibilities here,” Chris said. He shrugged. “Really, it’s going to come down to the directors and their decision.” He looked at each of them. Except Buck, Nathan noticed.

“It’s okay,” Chris said firmly.

They looked at him doubtfully.

One corner of his mouth twisted up in a small tight smile. He looked down at the floor before facing them once more. “It means a lot that you came here and tried,” he said, struggling to keep the emotion out of his voice, and succeeding as he said calmly, “I’m aware of the possible outcomes. And I’m prepared to face them.”

Buck’s head shot up.

Vin glared at Chris hotly.

Nathan took a deep breath. His turn. “I’m ready to face them, too,” he said.

Chris’s eyes flashed toward him. Penetrating.

Nathan pretended not to notice. “You might have given that guy your badge and gun. But you did not lead us into going AWOL. You did not set a poor ethical example. And you’re a damn fine leader. I’m proud to be a member of this team. But if they let you go, then I will quit.”

There, he said it.

When he risked a glance around the room, he was shocked to see Josiah’s blue eyes gleaming with an expression that looked like it might be pride. And Buck. Smiling. Smugly. Right at Chris.

J.D. stared at Nathan.

Ezra shrugged. “Well said, Mr. Jackson,” he said. He turned back to Chris. “Despite that rather—er—provocative conversation we had at my residence,” he said. “And your formidable powers of persuasion, you may just have to keep my letter of resignation handy after all. For all the reasons Mr. Jackson mentioned, of course.” He paused. Considered. Added, “And a few others of my own.”

A gravelly Texas drawl added, “Me too, Cowboy,”

Josiah simply said, “Amen.”

Chris stared at them. Watching his team unravel. Right before his eyes.

J.D. must have felt it, too. He stared at his teammates. Men who had become like family. Looking at them, as if he had never seen them before. One at a time. And finally at Buck. Who raised his eyebrows.

The boy’s face wore his surprise and his wonder. Was it really that simple?

“Well, hell,” he said, facing Chris suddenly with a grin. “Count me in—er—out. Er whatever.” His face reddened. Not exactly eloquent. His eye caught Buck’s. The blue eyes sparkled back at him, as the tall agent gave him an approving nod. He could almost hear the words. Ya done good, kid.

Chris began to shake his head slowly. Staring at Buck. As if he expected him to stop this. To bring them to their senses.

“Don’t look at me, Stud,” Buck grinned. “I kept my plans to myself.”

In the back of the dark blue eyes, Chris saw it. The barest beginning. The far-off return of a twinkle.

Buck shrugged nonchalantly and looked at his teammates with mock apology. “Can’t help it. Where Chris goes, I go. It’s been a good plan so far. An’ I’m stickin’ to it.”

Larabee stared at them. As they looked at him expectantly. Like he was supposed to say something now. Approve this stupid idea. Christ, Nathan and Raine just bought their house. They were planning a wedding. J.D. never had two extra dimes to rub together. Most of Buck’s pay went into perfecting his classic truck. And “entertainment.” Josiah, well, Josiah gave all his money away anyway. And Vin, well, hell, who knew what Vin did with his paycheck? It sure as hell didn’t go into rent on his shit-hole apartment in Purgatorio. Ezra was the only one Chris was reasonably sure had any financial sense whatsoever. Including himself. And his damn horse habit.

He swore.

Here he was, ready to chuck up his whole career and his reputation to boot to save them and they were just going to quit? And destroy the team? This was mutiny. Plain and simple. Stupid bastards.

He opened his mouth to tell them so. Then the dream slapped him upside the head.

Sarah. Crying because he had walked away from her. Without a thought.

He felt the blood drain from his face as the whole dream rose up before him. Overlaid over their faces. His team. And he realized his first thought early that morning was wrong. He had done it. Exactly that. Only not to Sarah. To his team. To Buck. To Vin. To all of them. He had walked away from them when he ordered them out of that warehouse. Thinking he was probably going to die there. He had forgotten. Forgotten something important. Something only Sarah could have taught him. And she did. When you marry, you stop being an I. You become a we.

Ezra and J.D. had hit it right on the head. This was a team. He was part of it. A we. Not an I. And they were standing right here, telling him that he was part of that we. That they did not believe it existed without him.

He stared at them. His vision clearing. Were they right? They couldn’t be. They were supposed to go on without him. It was Josiah’s voice that prompted the next question to go echoing round his head. Some esoteric philosophical assertion that a person’s reality depends largely on what they believe. Does it matter if they’re right or wrong, if that’s what they believe?

He noticed suddenly, that Buck was half out of his seat. Nathan was coming toward him with one arm outstretched. Shooting a worried glance at Josiah.

Chris shook his head. He opened his mouth. And shut it.

Vin squinted at him. Then suddenly grinned.

He elbowed Ezra, who seemed to catch the grin, drawling out, “I do believe our leader has been rendered speechless.”

“Shoot, Ezra,” J.D. said with a laugh. “Chris not talkin’ ain’t nothin’ new.”

“Just used up his quota for the day, that’s all,” Buck said, rising all the way from the sofa and hitching his thumbs nonchalantly into his belt.

“The day?” Vin snorted. “Hell, probably for the rest of the month.”
J.D. laughed giddily. “Guess Travis is out of luck then,” he said. He was rewarded with laughter from his teammates. They slapped him on the shoulder and pulled him in close among them. His head spun pleasantly at the warm feeling that filled his insides, as they slowly, unconsciously formed a half-circle around Chris.

Their leader ducked his head, his face turning slightly red. He cleared his throat. But didn’t look up. “You’re all fucking crazy,” he growled, his voice gravelly.

“It’s your own fault,” Buck said, with a dramatic, bored stretch. “You set a lousy example.”

Then suddenly, someone had him by the shirt front. They pulled him into the half circle and closed it around him briefly before Nathan swung his part of the circle open and propelled Chris toward the door.

“We’ll see ourselves out,” Jackson said. “It’s late.”

Chris looked at him exasperated.

“Go,” Buck said gleefully. “Dr. Raine says you need your beauty sleep.”

“Need a hell of a lotta that,” Vin snorted. The others laughed.

Tanner slipped out the door behind Chris, as the others dissolved into conversation. Neither man spoke, but at the foot of the stairs, Vin put a hand on Chris’s arm, stopping him.

“That was a shit-for-brains plan, Larabee,” he said.

“It’s still the best plan we came up with,” Chris countered.

“You know what I mean,” Vin said firmly, eyes narrowed.

Chris sighed. As close as Vin was going to get to an apology. Because he knew. Sure as he was standing here. Sure as his own heart was beating within his chest, Chris wasn’t sorry. He would have gone down for the team. Just like in Texas. Only this time, he couldn’t send them away. And Buck had forced him to tell the truth.

“Damn close, Cowboy,” Vin said finally.

Then he walked away. Leaving Chris to wonder exactly what he meant by that. Or if he really wanted to know.

Buck came out of the den, one arm around J.D. in half a headlock. He shot a glance up at Chris that so reminded Chris of his own father, that he found his feet moving instinctively up the stairs toward his room in a hurry.

“’Night, Chris,” J.D. said, his voice partly muffled by the arm around his neck.

Ezra flipped the ascending team leader a two finger salute and a nod. He smiled when Chris nodded back.

Alone in the den, Nathan watched Josiah thoughtfully finger a paper that poked out from his breast pocket. Again. The profiler’s expression was far away.

Nathan frowned, as curiosity finally got the best of him. “What the hell you got in that pocket?” he asked.

Josiah smiled at his friend. Benignly. Enigmatically. And gave the pocket a pat.

Nathan started suddenly. Remembering. “What did you mean the other day? When you said we’ve already survived.”

Josiah smiled the same quiet smile he had that day. A tinge of sadness ran through it. Suddenly. Fleetingly. Then it was gone. Replaced. With assurance. Or perhaps faith.

Josiah pulled a paper from his pocket. And opened it. It was a plain piece of notebook paper, but Nathan could see that it had been unfolded and refolded many times. It was soiled and had begun to tatter at the edges. He wondered how long Josiah had been carrying it around.

He refolded the paper, and looked Nathan in the eye as he put it back in his pocket and answered the question. “We survived the worst,” Josiah said. “No matter what the directors do or decide, we still have our brother.”

Nathan shook his head at the floor. Momentarily unable to speak. Finally raising his head, his voice took on an accusing note. “That why you’ve been so damn calm all week?”

“It’s all a matter of perspective, Brother,” Josiah replied sagely.

Nathan gave him a sour look. Perspective. While the rest of them were going crazy, there was Josiah. Cool. Collected. The realization sank in. He could be calm. Because the worst that could happen was behind them. All punishments would pale in comparison.

Nathan felt a smile suddenly break his exasperated frown. “Ya coulda shared some of that ‘perspective’,” he growled.

Josiah slung a long arm across his younger friend’s shoulder. “Perspective grows,” he replied. “It cannot be bestowed.”

Nathan looked up at the profiler. “You still didn’t tell me what’s on that piece of paper,” he reminded him.

“Ah,” Josiah replied. “That’s where the perspective comes from.”

He turned his head to face Nathan. “It was going to be my notes for Chris’s memorial service.” His smile widened. “Now it’s a reminder.”

Nathan frowned. Grim.

Josiah jostled him. “A reminder,” he continued, “of what I still have. Of my blessings, so to speak.”

The frown turned slowly to a smile. Not a bad idea that. Counting one’s blessings. Raine’s beautiful face popped into his head. And he sighed. He still had some problems to deal with at home. Depending on what the directors decided.

Josiah watched his friend’s smile turn downward slightly. He gave Nathan’s shoulder a squeeze. “Perspective,” he said.

Nathan sighed. He wondered what Raine would have to say to that.

Buck saw the last of his teammates out the door. Then he went up to check on Chris.

He found him sitting on the edge of his bed. The green eyes flicked toward him, but he could see that the blond had been far away at that moment.

“Care to share?” Buck asked, plopping down beside him, and stretching his long legs out in front of him.

A tiny smile quirked up the corners of Chris’s mouth. “Nope,” he replied.

He looked up at Buck. The smile melting. Turned serious. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Buck shrugged. “Don’t,” he said.

But Chris wouldn’t let him get away with it. “I mean it,” the blond said.

Buck looked at the serious green eyes. The face, still pale. Still too thin. He patted his friend’s leg. “I mean it, too.”

He got up and moved toward the door. “I’ll set the night alarm, on my way out,” he said.

“How you getting home?” Chris asked suddenly.

“J.D.’s waiting outside,” Buck replied.

Chris nodded. Of course.

He was still sitting on the edge of the bed. Gone back to thinking. Buck left him that way. He set the alarm, locked and bolted the door, and took a deep breath of the night air before descending the porch, giving the place a quick check as he did so.

Damn fool, he thought as he climbed into the driver’s seat of his beloved truck. Thank you, Buck snorted in disbelief as the words echoed in his head. Where the hell you get off thanking me, Stud? he asked silently. First off, I got you into this mess. Second, he paused in his thought. Nearly laughed. There was no second. He had simply done what needed to be done. Chris needed it. He got it.

He wondered when Chris would catch on. Would finally learn. Figure out how this worked. Realize his importance. He had known Chris more than twenty years now. More than likely, he’d never get it. Josiah had once said it might be the Lord’s way of keeping Larabee humble. Buck snorted and started the engine.

He realized suddenly that J.D. was leaning against the passenger side window, watching him. Waiting for Buck to make the usual cracks about J.D. driving his truck.

Buck smiled to himself, turning on the headlights and swinging the truck around smoothly. But he didn’t speak to J.D. Instead he spoke to the truck. He had already apologized to her and was expressing his sincere hope that J.D.’s driving hadn’t frightened her too badly before J.D. caught on. A moment later, Buck was rewarded with an irate protest and a set of smart retorts from the seat beside him. He grinned to himself. Relaxing in the moment.

Tomorrow would come soon enough. Right now? Right now they were okay. They were seven. And that was enough for him.