by BMP

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The sun had barely risen. Was still pink, the clouds blushing as they moved away from it, ranging low across the eastern hills. He stood with a cup of coffee in his hand, barely touched, staring up the driveway to the hill that rose up steeply on the left. Thinking, heedless of the fragrant steam rising up to his nostrils, feeling the slight breeze against his cheek.

His eyes slid over to the barn and to the horses, nickering quietly to each other in the early morning paddock, picking at the grass, and the two blacks that jostled each other irritatedly, both determined to occupy the same dewy patch of grass that would soon have fingers of morning sunlight stretched across it. The barn chores had been light this morning. They were done. And there was time, lots of time, left in the damp morning. With the clouds burning off above him, promising a blue spring sky and heat later. But the breeze was chill now and the shadows cool.

He put the cup of coffee down on the porch railing. And stepped off into the driveway. Walking. Slowly. Then picking up speed almost without him willing to, until his feet were pounding a hard jog toward the mailbox.

And then, there stood the hill, waiting, beckoning. An old nemesis. An old friend. He stared at it a moment as it rose up, looking like half a mountain today. Damn but that’ll hurt, he thought, his lungs already protesting this much exertion this early. But his grin was wide. Too damn bad, his answering thought. Then the running shoes made the decision for him, and carried him up, steady, hard, and away.

Not that it was a very good run. Not that a good portion of it was a run at all. Half walk, half jog, he made it to the top of the hill, where he thought his heart might burst right out of his chest, but once at the top, there was no choice but to carry on. And he did. Across a short flat stretch, irritated at the burn in his side. God but it had been a long time.

He stood at the next corner, running in place, staring almost longingly down the road that would normally be the next leg of his morning run. Somewhat narrower, sheltered by overspreading trees that some person or some organization had planted here long before he ever thought to run on its shoulder. The limbs reached for each other across the road, heedless of power lines, and one day would join and make this a tunnel. Still all but untouched by daylight, the road wound dimly, crookedly down a gentle incline before rounding a curve onto the next uphill, the trees receding. Farther on, he would break into full daylight and run along the side of the hill, winding back, through a series of uphills and downhills until he broke back onto the highway, this highway, a mile back from where he started. Anticipating the last curve, where his own land, his house, his fields would heave into view from the trees, laid out before him as if for inspection. As it did every evening when he drove home in his truck. Slower on foot, he had time to think about what he saw before him.

There was a time, a long time, when he avoided the view. Couldn’t stand the burn of the thoughts and memories it brought him. The memory of what was no longer and the wife and child who would never again greet him when he finally reached his own front door. But slowly, slowly, as the months bled by, he began to use the view to note repairs that needed to be made, chores to be done, fences that needed to be mended, trees that ought to be cut, paint that needed to be applied. Until, almost without him noticing, his thoughts began to turn once more to his land, and his house and his future. Different to be sure. Never again would it be the haven it had been. But it was safe. And he had slowly begun to see the collection of buildings nestled snugly down the hilly pasture as his home again. And to see himself a part of it once more.

He traveled the road in his mind. Turned his thoughts on his home, coming around to the end of his five miles. Full circle back to his door. Still jogging in place on the corner, staring at the roadside trees as the sunlight began to creep farther and farther forward under the green canopy.

He heaved a large sigh and turned his running shoes back toward the hill he had just come up. Across the level stretch again, and down again, slowly. Remembering how hard it was to control speed on a steep downhill. His legs were on fire by the time he reached the driveway. But he forced himself to keep jogging, to even out his gait, refusing to stumble. Pouring on speed until he had reached something resembling an actual run. A smooth pounding lope that would eat up miles. Relishing the familiar feel, until it ended suddenly at his front porch.

Gasping, panting, burning from the soles of his feet up, his lungs heaving, stretching like a balloon confined inside a cage of bone and muscle. He stretched, head down, feeling the blood and heat pour into his face. And he grinned. Took his time. Took extra. Before grabbing his cold coffee from the railing, and moving slowly into the house to begin the day in earnest.

Less than two hours later Senior Agent Chris Larabee was standing in the elevator, watching the numbers ticking up to the eleventh floor, conscious of Nathan Jackson, wearing his medic face, and looking him over from just behind his right shoulder. Chris grinned to himself, knowing the medic could not see. But he said nothing.

The elevator dinged softly to announce their arrival at the eleventh floor and the doors slid open. Chris was striding up the hallway before the doors had opened all the way. Much faster than Nathan was prepared to follow this morning.

Ahead of him, the lights came up in the bullpen automatically, as they sensed movement. Chris went into his office. Arriving several meters behind, Nathan heaved his briefcase onto his desk, and moved tiredly into the kitchenette, in search of the supplies to get the coffee started. Trying not to think about the board of inquiry that would meet this afternoon. The same board of inquiry he had tried not to think about as he lay awake for most of the night. The same board of inquiry that ruined what little sleep he actually got.

He sneaked a glance back at the team leader’s office. Through the open door, he could see Chris, reading the interoffice memo in his left hand, while he moved his mouse through the motions of logging onto his computer. Nathan glowered. It was unfair; that’s what it was. Why did he look so damn calm this morning?

But then Nathan knew Chris well enough to know that the Team Leader could keep an awful lot of stuff hidden away inside. Until it built up enough steam to explode. Or implode, as the case had been. Like it had the day they had come to the ranch to meet. To solve the problem.

Only they hadn’t solved the problem. The solution was the same lousy solution they had started with. It hadn’t changed.

Yet something had changed in Chris.

Yeah, Nathan thought bitterly. He gave his stress to the rest of us, so now he can relax, while the rest of us worry.

A moment later he felt guilty for thinking it. But something about it stuck in his brain. Flipped over. Inverted itself.

Or, he thought to himself slowly, as the coffee finally began to drip into the carafe. Maybe we took our share of it back, so that he could do his job.

He was still allowing himself a self-deprecating smile at his fatigue-induced bitterness when Chris came in with his deformed coffee cup. He looked at Nathan curiously. But he didn’t ask. And Nathan was grateful not to have to explain what he had been thinking.

The team leader seated himself on the small table, holding his cup in both hands. They waited in silence for enough coffee to drip into the carafe to make a decent sized cup. In the silence Nathan could feel the calm, the acceptance wrap around him. Understanding there was no need for words.

He looked up at Chris, who gave him a small nod and the barest flicker of a smile. And suddenly in that expression and in the look in the green eyes, Nathan understood. It was out of their hands, that they would deal with whatever happened when it happened. And until then, there was no point beating their heads against the wall.

Nathan turned back to the coffee machine. Silent. Believing that Chris would know what to do when the time came. And he marveled at that, as the silence continued. Was this understanding what it felt like to be Vin? To need no words, to just understand by a look, by a nod? Or was this what it felt like to be J.D. or maybe Josiah? To not always understand, but to believe anyway?

Then suddenly Chris slid off the table. He emptied the half full carafe into both of their cups, giving Nathan a curious, enigmatic smile, as if he had read Nathan’s thoughts. Then he disappeared back into his office. Without a word.

Not long after, the others began to arrive. J.D. came in grousing at Buck about some minor violation of the rules regarding the use of hot water as it relates to roommates and showers. Buck’s reply was terse. And definite. Josiah was unusually contemplative. And Ezra had apparently given a hapless clerk at Starbuck’s the benefit of the full range of his vocabulary regarding what constitutes competent customer service in the food service industry. Vin arrived with a bag of donuts, and spoke only once. That was to tell J.D. in mid reach that if he attempted to steal one of his donuts, he would find his hand permanently attached to a region of his anatomy, which would prove to be both uncomfortable and incredibly inconvenient. Nathan grinned to himself. Childishly happy to see that his teammates were on edge, too.

Two floors away, Orin Travis downed another strong, black, cup of coffee and shuffled his notes. Nathan Jackson was not the only one who had been up most of the night. First there had been a long-overdue discussion with Evie, which had gone reasonably well considering its serious nature and how long he had kept it from her.

He rubbed his forehead. He could not blame her for being furious. When his work came home to affect their lives together, he was supposed to, by previous arrangement and long custom, either consult her, or if that was not possible, at least give her advance warning to prepare. In this case, he had had ample opportunity to do both and had chosen to do neither. Although she had accepted and trusted his judgment, it would be somewhat longer before she would forgive him for being a stubborn, old fool.

Truthfully, it was the “old” part of that description that had bothered him most. An unpleasant adjective that had only begun popping up in the last couple of years, and only when Evie was well and truly furious.

He pushed his guilt from his mind, forcing himself to concentrate one hundred percent on the task at hand. Defend Team Seven in the inquiry. As he had been rehearsing, visualizing, and practicing immediately after Evie had had the last word and on into the very early hours of the morning. He had his strategy ready. He could only hope it worked out.

Travis choked down as much lunch as he could get past his tight throat and the butterflies that fluttered in his gut. He returned to his office early, rifled the e-mails, memos, and messages that needed to be dealt with immediately. Then collected his briefcase and walked with purposeful dignity up the stairs to Director Cranston’s conference room. He arrived at roughly the same time as the assembled directors, the same group that had met once before, only to be interrupted by the astounding and unanticipated arrival of Senior Agent Larabee. Put on hold for nearly three weeks, they were prepared now to visit the question before them from a different angle.

Cranston’s assistant unlocked the large oak door, and they all moved into the room. The chairs were all arranged around the long table. Travis noted that one was set somewhat apart, at one end, back to the door, while the other six were ranged farther toward the opposite end. He said nothing. Took his seat as directed. And waited for the inquiry to begin.

Jefferson Cranston, in place at the head of his own conference table, faced Travis directly from the other end of the table, calmly, determinedly, but not hostile, Travis noted. The first good news of his day.

Cranston introduced the other directors again, the same group as before, Ramirez, LaForce, Costas, Hofstader, and Benedetto. He tallied up their positions as he could recall them, which side they lined up on.

First there was Ramirez, who had stated at the original inquiry that he felt it was ridiculous to hold Larabee responsible for the actions undertaken by his team in his absence. But who had also made it clear that agents of the ATF need to adhere clearly to the rules and regulations set for them. Costas held similar concerns for rules and chains of command. Both directors felt they existed for a reason. Team Seven and Chris Larabee had shown a clear disregard for both. And LaForce counted into the same camp. He had clearly expressed his displeasure with the insubordinate attitude Larabee had displayed in the few moments that the original inquiry lasted.

In the other camp, he counted Hofstader, Benedetto, and Cranston himself. Hofstader, clear-eyed realist, field-hardened agent. Cranston politically savvy but also a product of the field. Their experiences as agents would help mitigate the emphasis they placed on the much of the behavior that Ramirez, LaForce, and even Costas found offensive. Benedetto was not a product of the field. He came into the bureau through administration and management. His concern was for the organization as a whole. Curiously silent throughout the intense debate following Larabee’s dismissal from the conference room in the original inquiry, he had nevertheless made one comment that gave Travis a place to gain a foothold, mentioning that it would be hard to justify reining the Team in now, since they had allowed the Team’s autonomy thus far.

Cranston completed his introductions and called the board to order. Travis listened as the slate-eyed director outlined the purpose of this inquiry. It sounded even worse to hear it delineated, set forth plainly for the first time. He forced himself to remain still as Cranston set forth their collective intention to raise and rule on the question of RMET Team Seven Team Leader, Senior Agent Chris Larabee’s professional conduct during their assistance of the militia raid in Texas, specifically with regard to his disobedience of direct orders from the mission commander and the surrender of his badge and gun to a known militant. That was the easy part.

Travis steeled himself for the second part, the related question centered on the unauthorized activities of Team Seven following the raid. Larabee had gotten his way, again. The first time they met it was a board of inquiry into the actions of his team. But the senior agent had put himself right in their path, blocking access to his team, and unbelievably enough, the wheels of bureaucracy had given way. IA had been chosen to deal with the team’s actions and discipline would be rendered through the team’s usual chains of command.

The board of inquiry had instead found a new focus: the question of whether Larabee’s leadership style and autonomy fostered insubordination and blatant disregard of rules and even laws—and worse yet, whether they were potentially dealing with a cult of personality. In short had Larabee created a maverick team that owed its allegiance to Larabee himself and not to the bureau they worked for, the laws they had sworn to uphold, or the public they had promised to serve? And if so, how would the board of inquiry propose to fix this problem?

The directors and Travis straightened their notepads before them. Poured themselves water from the pitchers on the table. Settled in for the duration. He had done his homework. Now Travis was ready to play the game, as Cranston turned toward him, indicating Hofstader and Costas, and declared the inquiry ready to begin.

Vincent Benedetto had not chosen to be a member of this board of inquiry. Rather, it had been asked of him, and he had consented. He knew that directors on a much lower level were scrambling to get their teeth into what they suspected was going to be a world-class pissing contest between a set of grizzled directors like Cranston and Hofstader, rising stars like Costas and Travis, and one hotheaded, troublemaking Senior Agent, who, if rumors were to be believed, could dig his feet in as if they were set in concrete and could give a pit bull a run for its money in plain stubborn, intractability once he got his teeth into an issue. Benedetto had no use for contests like these. They merely demeaned the men who got into them. Nevertheless, when asked by his own supervisor to take part, he could hardly refuse.

Once involved, however, he had to admit he was curious about Agent Larabee. And his reputation. Both among his fans and his detractors. Seen through the cold eye of reason, Larabee was not a director, not even an assistant director. He was a team leader, for God’s sake. Organizationally speaking, he should be easy to rein in. Yet he had proven to be anything but easy to control—especially with regard to chains of command and matters of discipline within his team. From what little Benedetto had seen, he wouldn’t characterize the man as an egomaniac or as particularly unethical, so there had to be a reason for his refusal to give even a little leeway in this matter. Even though he knew his team’s actions had been at best unauthorized and at worst illegal. Even though it could cost him his job or worse his career in law enforcement. Benedetto was curious to find out what Assistant Director Travis would reveal of his senior agent’s motivations.

He was also curious to see AD Travis in action. He knew the man had been a judge prior to becoming an AD with the Regional ATF office. Prior to that, Travis had been a successful lawyer with the District Attorney’s office. He knew his way around prosecution, and he knew his way around defense. Benedetto knew that Travis would be putting forth his best effort on behalf of his team leader. That alone spoke volumes about Agent Larabee, if the other directors had the sense to notice.

No, he hadn’t exactly volunteered for this assignment. And he hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about accepting it. But now that he was here, he felt there was a great deal to be learned. Which was, of course, precisely why his supervisor had wanted him here.

Slouched into an extra chair in Team Seven’s conference room, Ryan Kelly pretended to look at the documents in front of him. Really he was staring at Chris Larabee, who was watching Ezra Standish talk Doug Stone through yet another set of reports. Apparently what these reports had to do with arms dealer Dowd was rather a convoluted story and difficult to grasp, based on the pained expression on Doug’s face. Kelly had long ago lost track of the twists and turns. And he found himself now wondering how Team Seven and their leader could be so damn focused on this briefing. As if handing over the files and caseload concerning Dowd for two years back wouldn’t be unsettling enough, everyone who had paid the least amount of attention in the past week knew that up on the fourteenth floor, six directors and AD Travis were meeting to decide whether Larabee would still have a career in law enforcement come the end of the week. Yet Chris was calmly reading over documentation and throwing in a word or two edgewise to assist Standish, or perhaps to assist Stone. Standish had a vocabulary that could perplex Webster himself.

As for the rest of Team Seven, Standish looked faintly amused, which was not unusual. He generally looked faintly amused whenever he was called upon to explain something to someone else. Something which pissed off nearly everyone who came into contact with the man. Doug had already sworn that he was going to knock the man’s lights out. And Kelly had calmly reminded him that he didn’t have to work with Standish, just get his reports.

Buck Wilmington was in the corner of the conference table explaining something allegedly having to do with surveillance to Brett Jordan. It didn’t take longer than a glance to see that both men had gotten off the topic of the investigations at hand some time ago and were animatedly discussing something involving a lot of hand gestures. Kelly coughed slightly. His agent turned a slight shade of pink and resumed his serious face. Wilmington never missed a beat, or took a breath. He just kept right on talking, only now it was about established audio-video links in suspected warehouses. Larabee never looked up, yet Kelly could swear he saw a slight smile flicker across the man’s face.

Jackson and Sanchez were sitting together before an enormous stack of file folders with Kirk Gustin. J.D. Dunne sat at Gustin’s side, presumably offering interpretation and moral support. Presumably. But it didn’t seem like it was helping. Gustin looked like he had an enormous headache as all three members of Team Seven leaned in simultaneously to impress upon him something that was obviously of extreme importance. Gustin grimaced and looked up at his team leader. Kelly looked away. Gustin had insisted that he could meet with the three together. Let him figure it out.

He looked back up at Larabee, who was now watching him intently. Kelly’s eye wandered over to the clock on the wall. Wondering whether the clock had stopped or this was really the slowest afternoon on earth. As if he had read his mind, the corner of Larabee’s mouth quirked up in a tiny knowing smirk, and then he turned his attention back to his agents. Kelly shook his head. In five minutes, he was going to call a break. Before Stone throttled Standish and Gustin blew his own head off, taking the nearest member of Team Seven with him.

Benedetto shifted positions in his chair. Directly across the table from him, LaForce was getting hot under the collar. Again. Travis was unfazed.

“Larabee’s badge and gun were taken from him at gunpoint,” Travis said, almost as if he were tired of repeating something so obvious. “Your suggestion to suspend him for that is duly noted. And I will do so, if you want to send the message that the directors would rather said militant had killed him first, in which case the man would have taken the badge and gun anyway. But at least that would be an acceptable excuse.”

Hofstader suddenly felt the need to cough into his hand.

LaForce stumbled. “That’s not what we’re saying,” he replied, clearly irritated, trapped by his own words.

“That certainly sounds like what we’re saying,” Hofstader answered for Travis.

Costas had apparently grown tired of the entire badge and gun issue, which had gone on for much longer than Benedetto deemed necessary. “How about we just give him a warning on that? Tell him it wasn’t a good idea and move onto the larger issues of disobeying orders and suborning disobedience in his team,” Costas suggested wearily, eyeing the clock. Benedetto could almost hear him wondering whether this inquiry was going to take up the rest of this week and the next one.

Cranston was apparently as tired of this topic as Benedetto and Costas. He jumped on the suggestion, gave it his support, and inquired whether any of the assembled directors needed more time or information on this topic. LaForce grumbled but let it drop.

Benedetto tried not to be amused. He knew as well as Travis did that LaForce felt that Larabee had not taken the issue seriously. And who could blame LaForce for thinking that based on Larabee’s own admission, quoted by Hofstader, with equal parts annoyance and relish? The man didn’t exactly sound repentant. But then again, by that point in the inquiry, one could have expected him to be a little perturbed. People generally did get defensive when having their actions second-guessed by other people who were not there when the fur was flying and decisions had to be made.

Travis had managed to spin attention away from Larabee’s cavalier attitude. And Benedetto admired his technique. He knew he would enjoy watching the AD when they got to the weightier, more difficult issues.

J.D. brushed past Ezra diving for the door and Josiah Sanchez’s heels, nearly knocking Ezra’s last cup of coffee—and an unusually late one at that—all over the well-dressed agent’s shirt front. Standish’s protest was lost on the young agent as he bolted out the door calling the profiler’s name.

“Well,” Ezra drawled indignantly, sopping up a stray drop with a napkin. “Mr. Dunne appears to be in an extraordinary hurry.” As usual, no one was listening to him. He watched with interest as Buck and Vin eyed the clocks on their computers and shared a glance across their desks.

Buck yawned and stretched dramatically. “Another work day done,” he said loudly.

Ezra had to hide a smile. Subtlety was not Wilmington’s strong suit.

Tanner’s eyes sparkled with mirth.

“Whatcha doin’ for dinner, Tanner?” Buck asked, still too loudly.

“Oh I don’t know,” Vin drawled loudly and lazily. “Got a lot to do for my slave driver boss. Thought maybe I’d order in.”

“Now that’s a great idea!” Buck nearly shouted.

“God damn it,” the voice growled from the office. “Don’t you two ever give up?”

Buck turned and grinned at Ezra, throwing the southerner a conspiratorial wink.

“Ain’t tired,” Vin groused loudly back, “But I sure as hell am hungry.”

“How ‘bout it, Stud?” Buck said lazily, getting up from his desk.

“I have work to do, Buck,” the team leader said pointedly, his voice betraying his irritation.

“Oh that’s all right,” Buck said grinning broadly, “We’re ordering in.”

Ezra leaned back in his chair to see the Team Leader throwing a truly nasty look out the door at his second in command. Trapped. And he knew it.

Standish almost laughed at that. Until Larabee leveled that infamous glare at him.

“I see you have a new co-conspirator,” Chris drawled, unblinking.

Ezra feigned innocence.

“You mean, Ez?” Vin asked still looking at his computer. Suddenly he looked up at Ezra, his blue eyes alight with mischief. “It was his idea.”

Ezra stared back at Tanner and then turned back to Chris’s scathing glare.

“Mr. Tanner is lying,” he stated succinctly. “I am here to complete my reports for Team Eight. And that is all. Whatever Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Tanner have up their proverbial sleeves has been done without my knowledge, let alone involvement.”

“Sure, Ez,” Tanner whispered so loudly, they could have heard it in the hallway. “Good cover.”

“Coward,” Buck snorted.

Wilmington was laughing, but Chris knew he was deadly serious when he pulled out a file folder of menus from his desk. He brought the whole folder into Chris’s office and slapped it down on the desk.

Chris looked up at him exasperated. Buck plopped himself into a chair, heedless of his old friend’s irritation.

“I’m all right, Buck,” Chris said vehemently, but too quietly to be heard in the bullpen where Vin was attempting to goad Ezra into an argument.

Buck nodded his head. And opened the file folder, spreading the menus out for easier reading.

Chris glared at him.

Buck was impervious. Chris could glare at him until his hair caught on fire and his face melted, for all he cared. Raine had said take medicine, eat meals, and gain weight, and Buck aimed to see that Larabee did all three. Chris had more than used up his chances this round. And worse yet, he’d added more than his fair share of worry lines to Buck’s face in the last month. So now he had Buck to deal with. And Wilmington’s big foot would stay planted on Chris’s skinny tail until Buck was convinced that Chris was back, one hundred percent. Well.

And then, Buck fumed. Then, they’d have a little talk about Chris’s idiot ideas about his own expendability.

Buck realized suddenly that Chris was looking at him and trying very hard not to laugh. And Buck discovered by the dull ache in his brow just how hard he had been glowering back at the Team Leader.

“What are you laughin’ at, Larabee?” Buck growled.

“You practice that glare in the mirror?” Chris asked, with a grin, as he pushed a pizza menu toward Buck.

Buck made a face back at him and took the menu. Pleased that Larabee was giving in.

Buck was pretty sure Chris would not stay docile for very long. He and Tanner had started making plans. But Chris had the devil beat for slippery.

Just ask the board of inquiry, Buck thought bitterly, leaving the office to phone the chosen pizzeria. Six directors were right now meeting to determine whether Chris should be held responsible for activities that had occurred without his knowledge or consent. No matter that for all practical purposes, Chris was dead at the time.

Buck’s jaw clenched. If Chris really had been killed, the whole question would have been ridiculous. Met with outrage. But somehow Chris had made the ludicrous seem plausible. Seemingly successful at diverting the blame back onto himself.

He went back to work after making the phone call. And ignored the pointed faces that Vin and Ezra both leveled at his head.

It took Nathan so long to get the idea that J.D. wanted to speak to Josiah in private, that J.D. feared he would actually have to ask his teammate to leave. Now he finally had Josiah’s attention. Alone. In the parking garage, and he felt so stupid about what he was going to say that he was having trouble stringing together a coherent sentence.

Josiah was looking impatient. And distracted.

“J.D., son,” he said finally. “To the Lord, a million years may seem like a mere second, but to a man my age, each one of those seconds starts takin’ a mighty big chunk outta the time I got left.”

J.D. stared at him, uncomprehendingly.

“Spit it out, son,” Josiah said shortly. “What do you want?”

J.D. looked at the garage floor. “It might not be my business,” he said. “An’ if it’s personal, it’s okay to just tell me…”

Josiah sighed in exasperation and interrupted him. “You’ve already mentioned that. Twice. I’ll be happy to let you know if you’ll just tell me what you want…”

J.D. exhaled in a rush. “I wanted to see that paper,” he said, nervously. “Your notes, you know, for the memorial service.”

He winced. God that was awkward.

Josiah peered at him. But he did not ask why. He simply reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved the folded paper. He held the paper out to J.D., but did not relinquish his hold.

“Some of it bears explaining,” the profiler said quietly.

J.D. blushed. He began to stammer out again that if it was too personal, Josiah should just say so.

Josiah cut him off. Not wanting to go there again. “I’m happy to share it with you, son, but it’s notes. My own notes. And some of it you might not understand.”

He did not bother to say now that some of it was not exactly complimentary. Or would not be seen to be complimentary were it actually said during a service. J.D. would see that soon enough.

What he wanted was the chance to explain how people get distorted through the lens of memory. How in our haste to expunge the sins of the dead, we expunge them of the personality that animated them in life. Josiah did not want that to happen to Chris. These were his notes. And this was how he wanted to remember a man that had been such an integral force in his life. Whose faults made him no less important to his friends. And in some ways bound him more tightly to them.

He wanted a chance to explain that. He hoped J.D. would understand.

J.D. nodded. They were Josiah’s notes. He could agree to Josiah’s conditions. “Where should we go?”

Josiah smiled tightly. There seemed one place that was appropriate. He just hoped J.D. wouldn’t find it odd. “Follow me,” he said, tilting his head toward his Suburban.

J.D. nodded and mounted his motorcycle hurriedly.

Chris worked away in his office, utterly silent, until the security guard called Tanner to say that pizzas had arrived for them. At the sound of the conversation, Chris suddenly volunteered to go downstairs to get them.

Ezra laughed heartily at that. “I think your jailers would have other ideas,” Ezra said.

He grinned all the way down to the security desk. Knowing it was childish, but he did so love to see someone else get the upper hand at Larabee’s expense. Perhaps none of this had really been Chris’s fault, but some small, shallow part of Ezra’s psyche was still convinced that Larabee had much to atone for in getting himself killed and now for risking getting himself fired. No one had asked him to do either one. And he had done both without even the decency to warn them in advance. Besides, he still looked terrible. Served him right to be at Tanner and Wilmington’s mercy. Ezra hoped they sat on him for a good long time.

If J.D. thought their destination was odd, he didn’t say. He simply dismounted from his motorcycle and followed Josiah up the steps in the dying light of early evening.

“St. Mark’s has been here more than one hundred years,” Josiah said.

J.D. made a noise that he hoped would indicate that he was appropriately impressed.

Josiah pulled open one of the massive front doors.

It took a moment for J.D.’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. He looked around. Saw the last rays of sunlight illuminating the bottom corners of leaded stained glass windows, as all the upper colors darkened into purple and black. Alcoves along the side aisles were lit with flickering devotional candles. Prayers. He remembered. It had been a long time since he had attended a service. But when he was small, his mother had made him go. The habits remained. He genuflected as he followed Josiah into a pew.

They sat in silence for a moment before the profiler said quietly, his voice rumbling in the tall, empty sanctuary, “It’s very beautiful in the daylight.”

J.D. nodded. And wondered if Josiah saw him.

Sanchez turned and looked at the youth beside him. “This is where we were going to hold the service,” he said calmly.

“Oh,” J.D. said quietly. Noncommittally, he hoped.

“It was Sarah’s church.” Josiah said with a sigh. “He married her here. And, well, you know how the story ends.”

An ache formed suddenly in J.D.’s throat. But he forgot it as a thought struck him. “Chris is Catholic?” he asked in wonder.

Josiah snorted. “I think he would say ‘was’ Catholic. Seems that he and God parted company many years ago. He was married in a church. Had his son baptized. And from what I gathered, let Sarah drag him here for Christmas services, but that’s about it.”

J.D. stared at the ornate altar and its crucifix. He wondered how Josiah had gotten that information. From Buck maybe. Or hell, for all he knew, maybe Chris actually talked to other people sometimes. He suddenly felt stupid. He was on the verge of calling it off, when Josiah reached into his pocket, and handed the paper over. Just like that.

J.D. took it. Hesitated.

Josiah nodded his head, and J.D. unfolded it carefully.

He was not surprised to feel the stinging in his eyes as he read. But he was surprised when halfway down the list he burst out laughing.

The young agent turned back to Josiah, tears unshed sparkling in the hazel eyes.

Josiah shrugged. “Perhaps I should explain now,” he said.

J.D. shook his head. Momentarily unable to speak he held up his hand. “No,” he said when he found his voice. “Don’t explain.”

He stared at the paper and then back up at Josiah in wonder. “Would you have said that at the service?” he asked.

Josiah shoved his large fists into his pockets and slouched his giant frame down in the pew. Eyes fixed on the altar, he didn’t seem to need to consider the question. Seemed like he had already considered it. “If it were just us, yes,” he said quietly, looking straight ahead. “Stuff like that’s not for the public, though,” he continued.

J.D. nodded. “Don’t think they’d understand,” he said. He couldn’t imagine how it would have played at some official service if someone stood up to give the eulogy and actually called the dearly departed obstinate, irascible, truculent, hotheaded, and harder to budge than two mules in a corn crib.

Josiah shrugged and smiled. “Don’t care if they’d understand,” he replied. “I just don’t think Chris would like us standing around talking about him to strangers.”

J.D. snorted. Truer words had never been spoken.

Josiah turned to the young agent. “I wanted to remember him the way he was.” He paused, wondering if the young agent would really understand. “The way I knew and loved him.”

J.D. nodded. “You mean before the legend takes over?” he asked almost bitterly.

A smile quirked Josiah’s lips. “The legend?” he asked.

J.D. winced.

But Josiah only nodded to himself. “I like that better,” he said quietly. “I was thinking that nostalgia would rub off all the hard edges and we’d be left with some soft, fuzzy, watered down Chris Larabee to talk about.” He grinned. “But a legend, now that might be a different story.” He mused. “Sort of blow all his bad points and good points way out of proportion.” The profiler smiled. Satisfied.

J.D. couldn’t help but smile, too, as he turned back to the list.

Josiah watched him curiously as he finished reading, and stared thoughtfully at the flickering votives in the alcove. He folded the paper and handed it back to Josiah.

“Thanks,” he said quietly.

“You’re welcome,” Josiah nodded. He looked at the young agent. “Did I miss anything?”

J.D. looked back up at his teammate. Flattered that the older man would ask. “I’ll think on it,” he said.

Josiah smiled toothily at the promise. And hoped that J.D. meant to keep it. He put an arm across the young agent’s shoulder. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked.

J.D. nodded absently. “Yeah,” he said.

They sat silently for a few more moments. Then Josiah got up and put money in the poor box and lit a candle. They moved out into the night-darkened streets again.

As they descended the steps, Josiah heard the sexton locking the door behind them. Last penitents of the night, Josiah grimaced. Wondered how the Lord felt about the churches closing up at night. Turned his thoughts to Father Eli. And felt perhaps he owed the man a call. Tell him things had turned out better than he thought.

In the first pearly gray rays of dawn, the hill rose up, still in shadow, glowering down on the driveway like some primeval gatekeeper. Looking even steeper in gray shadows. But Chris was ready. This morning would be better than yesterday morning. Because this morning he had a plan. 200 steps jogging, 50 walking. 200 jogging. 50 walking. As far as he felt he could go before he would have to turn around.

And he had plenty of time, he realized, smiling, as he mounted the foot of the hill. Run first. Then the barn. Just in case. Buck had promised that one of them would be out to help with barn chores this morning. Chris hoped they’d change their minds. Or forget. But he wasn’t about to lay odds on that.

Both of them seemed plenty determined. Vin was about as stubborn as a person can get, and Buck, well Buck had a one-track mind. It usually ran to women and sex, but lately he seemed to have made Chris Larabee his personal pet project. Chris grimaced. He knew he was being unfair. But he didn’t want to entertain any of the reasons why Buck was sticking so close on this. He just hoped his friend would eventually lose interest and drift on back to women.

In the meantime, he was running this damn hill. And no one needed to know. The sooner he got back into condition the better. And the faster he could schedule his requalification tests. Assuming of course, he had a job to requalify for.

Roughly thirty minutes later he stood head down on his porch. Successful. Hill conquered. More run than walked this time. Much more. In fact he had stopped counting on the way back. And had achieved something resembling a real run on his way back down the monster hill. Which, of course, he realized now had been a mistake, as he considered whether he could unlock the door in time to lose his medication and the water he drank in the proper porcelain receptacle. Or whether he should just heave into the bushes and have done with it.

The decision was made for him. Razor sharp instincts for danger caused him to lift his head and see the car up the right hand slope just rounding the curve. About to see the ranch in full panorama. He knew instantly that it was Tanner’s jeep. Arriving early.

Chris swore violently, fumbled open the front door and slammed it behind him. He staggered up the stairs toward his room. Breathing hard. He ended up in the master bathroom. Where, as predicted, he lost his pills, and the water. Still swearing, he kicked the bedroom door shut and sank down onto the floor. Pulse pounding, heat pouring off of him, sweating on the hardwood. Trying to calm his breathing, without feeling like the left side of his chest might explode. And waiting to find out if he had been caught.

As he heard the front door open, he realized he ought to take off the running shoes. And probably his soaking wet sweatshirt. He could fling them all into the closet. Of course he would be hard pressed to explain the rest of his soaking wet clothes. Or his red face.

“Goddammit, Larabee,” he muttered to himself. “Look at you. You’re hiding in your room. From Vin, for God’s sake. How pathetic can you get?”

“Chris?” the voice came floating up through the floorboards.

He swore again. “I’m upstairs!” he hollered back, peeling himself off the floor, and moving his heavy limbs back toward the bathroom. He bent over the sink to splash cool water on his face. At least he didn’t have to look like he was going to have a stroke.

Apparently he had forgotten to add that he would be down in a minute and that Vin should just go ahead out to the barn and get started. He had expected Vin to know that. Mind reading, my ass, he grumbled, as heard the knock at the door.

In the middle of Vin’s grateful thought that Chris seemed to have gotten some extra sleep this morning, the door swung open to reveal Larabee in workout clothes and running shoes. Vin took in the sweat darkened t-shirt and the wet hair. And the defensive glare. And grinned.

“How much buys my silence?” he asked.

Chris didn’t say a word, but his reply was crystal clear, nevertheless.

Vin laughed as Chris went to pull on chore clothes.

“Was it a good run?” the sharpshooter asked cheerfully, leaning against the wall outside the door.

The grunt he received in reply was noncommittal. Depends on what you call good, don’t it? Vin thought in answer to his own question.

“You take on that hill yet?” the sharpshooter asked, sly grin still plastered on his face.

Chris glared at him.

I’ll take that as a yes, Vin thought. He smirked. “Gonna cost you to keep this from Nathan.”

Chris smirked back at him.

And Vin read the thought loud and clear. Go right ahead, but the next time you get hurt, your ass is mine.

He shot Chris a dirty look. Damn ornery Cowboy. “Oughta know by now ya play dirty,” he grumbled, pushing off from the wall.

Sharpshooter silenced, Chris’s smirk settled into more of a self-satisfied smile. Dressed for barn work now, he came out into the hall.

Vin held up a brown paper bag. “I brought bagels,” he said with a smile. “Ya want ‘em now or after chores?”

Chris grinned back. “You eat yet?” he asked.

Vin shrugged, smiling. “Could eat again,” he said.

“I’ll bet,” Chris laughed. Tanner was a bottomless pit.

He led the way to the kitchen. At least if they ate first, he could take another round of aspirin. To make up for the ones he’d lost.

Vin didn’t say anything else about food, medication, or exercise. And for that Chris was grateful. In fact, he was grateful that it was Vin who showed up this morning and not Buck. Not that Vin was any easier to shake than Buck. He wasn’t. The sharpshooter just seemed to understand when to stick close and when to back off. But then Vin would understand. He and Chris were alike in that regard. Both preferred to be left alone when sick or hurt.

Buck and J.D. liked to complain. Liked to be worried over, comforted, mothered practically. And Chris couldn’t handle it. When it came to colds, flu, and the irritating little illnesses in life, he was a rotten nurse. With a lousy bedside manner. According to Buck anyway. Sarah had thought otherwise. But then, things were always different when it came to Sarah. For one thing she didn’t whine. It was downright embarrassing, for God’s sake, how a simple cold could turn a full-fledged, tough-as-nails federal agent with a license to carry and fire a weapon into a quivering, whimpering, blob of jelly, curled under an afghan. And Chris had seen it enough times to know.

Injuries were a different story, apparently. He knew, because he’d been groused at, cussed out, made fun of, and even called “mother” behind his back, that when one of his teammates was down, his full-on, protective instinct went into high gear. It was not one of the traits he liked best about himself. But he couldn’t help himself. Any more than Buck could help it now.

He sighed. You’d think twenty-odd years of friendship and loyalty would buy the man a little patience and gratitude. Particularly if Chris would stop to think about all that Buck had been through on his account—which he wouldn’t. He sighed again. Pettiness was also not one of his better traits.

He poured himself a glass of orange juice, swallowed it with his aspirin and remaining medication and settled into a chair, watching Vin slide bagel halves into the toaster.

AD Travis arrived at his office early. Hoping to get work done before the inquiry consumed the remainder of his day. He found a status report from Larabee regarding the progress of briefing Team Eight. He grunted sardonically to read it. Efficient as usual. Terse as always. A string of less pleasant adjectives also flowed through his head as he pictured Team Seven’s stubborn leader. He shook his head.

“If you weren’t worth it, Larabee, I’d have kicked you out on your ear a long time ago,” he grumbled.

And scowled.

Because the man was worth it. Had proven it a long time ago and more times since than the AD cared to count. He was damn good at his job. And Team Seven was a damn fine team made up of a damn fine group of agents. And none of that would be worth a lick if he didn’t somehow show that this mess was not entirely the team’s or Agent Larabee’s fault.

It would have been easy to get Chris off. Play the “dead” card. He wasn’t there. He had no knowledge. Ramirez had said that from day one.

The problem was, Chris had gone to a lot of trouble to somehow make it his fault. If Travis tried to undo it, responsibility would fall back on the team, thus earning Travis the number one spot on Larabee’s shit list. Not that he was worried about that. After all, he was the one in charge, here. And Larabee had been pissed with him before. But never had there been a breach of trust. And to undo Larabee’s politically suicidal, crazy, ludicrous wish to take the blame for his team would constitute a serious breach of trust.

So Travis had to take the hard road. Take a cue from Larabee and keep rolling the blame up the chain of command. He was pretty sure he could roll it off of Larabee’s shoulders. The only problem was if he didn’t succeed at rolling it far enough, or if the directors refused to accept the handoff, he would be the one left holding the bag. And he hadn’t yet made up his mind if he was ready to accept that.

He sighed. And realized he had better make up his mind. There were only three options. Leave Chris with the blame. Give it to the directors. Or take it himself. Only one of those options was completely out of the question. Although he had no doubts about Chris’s willingness to let the blame rest with him, Travis could not see how, in all good conscience, he could do any less for his Team Leader than the Team Leader had done for his team.

Naturally, given that it was Larabee and Team Seven he was talking about, he could do only one thing. Choose the boldest, brassiest, most audacious, outside the box strategy he could come up with. Blindside the whole board of inquiry. And then somehow end up standing when the ceiling fell in. He almost smiled at that. No wonder Team Seven was a damn legend. And the fools didn’t even know it.