by BMP

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Occasionally, the wheels of bureaucracy could move with amazing efficiency, Director Benedetto reflected over top of his very large coffee cup. In this case, it was hardly nine fifteen A.M. and the board of inquiry had gotten right to the meat and potatoes of the matter at hand. Disobedience. His eyes flicked down to AD Travis at the foot of the table, watching him scribble notes and try to control his own facial expression, as Costas neatly outlined the situation, as expressed during the interviews.

“There is no doubt,” Costas explained succinctly, “that Agent Larabee knew Mission Commander’s Thackeray’s final decision. And that he also deliberately chose to disregard clear orders and deploy his team in a manner he deemed, upon his own authority, to be preferable. No evidence or opinions were offered to the contrary.”

All eyes turned down toward Travis. To hear the other point of view, Benedetto noted, with a suppressed smile. Already the directors had accepted the rhythm that Travis was there, not as the AD who would be offering discipline along with them, but almost as Team Seven’s lawyer. And Travis was working both sides of the table very hard to make sure it didn’t become adversarial.

“That is correct,” Travis replied.

Benedetto found it a lot harder to suppress his smile when Ramirez and LaForce actually relaxed at hearing Travis’s agreement.

Cranston flicked a glance at Hofstader, who shifted in his chair.

Travis noted the shifting. He added to his statement. “However, it should be noted that it was the original positions for the Team that were overrun when unexpected reinforcements arrived for the militia.”

Hofstader shifted again, still under Cranston’s gaze. “Correct,” he agreed.

Benedetto sipped his coffee.

“But,” Costas demurred. “We don’t know that the position would have been overrun if Team Seven had occupied it in full force.”

Travis turned a baleful glance at Costas. “Can’t we be pretty sure?” he asked. “Reports from Texas indicate that at least 50 and probably twice that number of unreported troops entered the warehouse before the retreat was ordered.”

Cranston flicked his glance back to Hofstader, who nodded. “That’s correct,” he concurred. “According to Texas ATF’s own reports.”

Benedetto looked over at Costas and Hofstader. “Just curious,” he said smoothly, in a voice that clearly indicated that his question would be more than just idle curiosity. “Is Texas ATF taking any responsibility for the error in intelligence?”

Costas shook his head. “They admit their information was flawed,” he said, with no small sarcasm, “But preliminary investigations reveal no breakdowns in their intelligence gathering process.”

It was all Benedetto could do not to roll his eyes toward the ceiling. No small irony, there. Texas was covering its agents’ asses. And he wondered whether Denver was smart or stupid not to follow the example.

“They do admit to a communications error when calling the retreat,” Hofstader offered.

The other directors looked up at him curiously.

A sour expression turned down the corners of his lips. “When they gave the order the first time, they forgot to broadcast to Team Seven.”

Ramirez’s head snapped up. “Forgot?” he asked, his voice showing his appalled disbelief.

“They remedied that within seconds, however,” Hofstader replied blandly.

Cranston shook his head. “Seconds,” he muttered to himself and shared a look with Hofstader.

“Are they taking any responsibility for that?” Benedetto asked.

Hofstader shrugged. “Communication error,” he said with a tight, unhappy smile. “Could have happened to anyone.”

The directors all shifted uncomfortably, irritatedly in their chairs.

Benedetto grunted, changed course. “What reasons did Larabee give for blatantly ignoring the chain of command?”

He aimed his question at Travis. Not sure why he was suddenly taking such perverse pleasure in playing into the illusion that Travis was responsible for explaining away Team Seven’s transgressions. Seemed that was the way the man wanted it to look, and it might turn out to be a damn good strategy if the AD could lull the directors into falling into a rhythm that offered him a last word and a rebuttal for every charge levied against his Team Leader. It was a hell of an idea. The least Benedetto could do was show his respect for it by playing along.

He waited for Travis’s answer and was not disappointed, when he consulted his investigation notes, pointed his finger to the correct lines, and said, as if he were quoting an indisputable expert in the field, “The assigned position gave his agents insufficient cover. He repositioned his team to accomplish the mission commander’s objectives with a minimum of exposure to his team.”

Benedetto tapped the end of his pencil on the tabletop, gazing thoughtfully at the Assistant Director.

Travis cleared his throat. His first sign of hesitation. “Agent Larabee took one of the original positions.”

“Hmm,” Benedetto grunted, leaning back in his chair. He eyed Ramirez and LaForce. Then turned back to Travis. “If the positions were so exposed, why did he take it?”

“He believed it was necessary in order to accomplish the mission objectives,” Travis answered.

Ramirez frowned. “So would I be correct in interpreting this testimony to mean that Agent Larabee himself recognized that Mission Commander Thackeray’s original orders were in fact necessary to accomplish the mission?”

Travis fought to control his own frown. “I don’t think Agent Larabee ever disputed that Commander Thackeray’s orders would have accomplished the mission objectives. He preferred to accomplish those objectives with minimum of risk to his team.”

It was Benedetto’s turn to frown. “Is there a chance,” he asked, “that the mission could have been accomplished more efficiently from the original positions, thus mitigating the problem of the extra militants?”

Hofstader and Cranston both turned toward him and looked at him as if he had just fallen out of the sky.

That’s what I thought, Benedetto thought, keeping the tight little smile carefully off his face. He didn’t need to wait for the answer.

“With all due respect,” Hofstader said quietly but with an odd intensity in his voice, “I doubt any efficiency could mitigate fifty to a hundred extra militants.”

He leaned back and took a breath. “Also,” he said with a bit more detachment. “We can’t forget there were two Texas teams in the warehouse who were also unable to accomplish the mission objectives. Team Seven’s primary objective was to preserve the weapons cache for recovery and, if possible, separate the leadership from the troops. It wasn’t their job to watch the doors.”

“Oh,” Benedetto said evenly. “So the extra militants proved to be more than the other two teams could handle. Thus the order to retreat.”

“Thus no one was watching Team Seven’s back, to paraphrase Agent Standish,” Travis replied.

Hofstader smirked as he interjected, “What Agent Standish actually said was a good deal more colorful and long winded.”

Travis barely restrained his irritated glance at Hofstader.

Benedetto watched with mild amusement, as Travis added, “But the essence of his statement was that backup was inadequate, to say the least.”

He noted suddenly that the AD had turned partially hooded gray eyes in his direction. Benedetto was careful to allow nothing whatsoever to show on his face.

“In any case,” Travis added smoothly. “As I indicated previously, it was Agent Larabee’s position that was overrun when the additional militia troops entered the area.”

There was silence while the directors scribbled notes.

Costas shifted in his chair. “It is clear,” he said, “that Agent Larabee showed a complete disregard for orders and chains of command,” he said. “But it should also be considered that the entire team might have been overrun if he had not redeployed them.”

Cranston and the other directors looked at Costas with generally pained expressions.

“Perhaps,” LaForce conceded. “But this isn’t the first time Agent Larabee has violated orders and regulations in preference for his own methods and decisions.” He turned toward Travis and pointedly asked, “Is it?”

Travis’s mouth formed a perfect straight line. “No,” he replied.

Benedetto sensed the AD’s effort to restrain himself from adding something else. He stared, curious what it was that Travis wasn’t saying.

LaForce seemed not to notice. Having made his point, he added, “Thus the reason we are holding this inquiry.”

Ramirez nodded his head grimly. In agreement.

So the man disdains the rules, Benedetto thought, scribbling on the corner of his notepad. He wondered how Travis felt about rules and regulations. It was clear that the AD had never asked for help in reining in a maverick. Was that because he didn’t consider Larabee’s attitudes and decisions to be a problem? Or was that because he didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t handle his men? He eyed Travis, pretty certain that the man could hold his own in any test of wills. He made a note to himself in the margin and turned back to the table.

Hofstader was rubbing his forehead with one knuckle. The body language of indecision.

Cranston was watching him. Then flicked his gaze back up to the clock on the wall.

He suggested a fifteen minute break, and there was a collective sigh of relief, as the directors secured their notes and rose from the table. Eager to get out of the room, and almost desperate to talk about some innocuous everyday topic. Preferably one that did not incite any strong feelings whatsoever.

They disappeared in different directions. Presumably to check in with assistants and other staff. After all, how could the ATF still be running with so many directors away from their desks? Benedetto thought sardonically. Dutifully, he pulled out his own cell phone and checked in with his boss.

At ten A.M., Ryan Kelly called on Larabee’s line and asked to borrow Team Seven for backup. He was apologetic. And careful. He could almost hear Larabee’s teeth grinding over the phone. But he had no choice. They were the only ones currently unassigned. Any word from IA was still pending, so technically, they were on duty, even if Travis had only given them deskwork. Besides, they knew the storefront neighborhood where Team Eight had set up their sting. They were the best option for backup. And Travis had given it a terse nod via e-mail.

“I don’t need all of them,” Kelly offered, when Chris’s end of the line was still silent. “I can leave you a couple at the office.”

He grimaced to himself. Nothing like rubbing it in, he thought. Chris was still not cleared for field duty. Still not cleared to fire his weapon. Travis had made that clear also. Larabee would be staying at his desk.

He knew because he kept his ear to the ground, that the Team Seven Leader was still not cleared to take his qualifying fitness tests. Although Kelly had seen him at the firing range. And was pretty sure that Larabee had already taken one of the required tests. He wondered if Travis was withholding permission to score it. And why?

Chris swore so quietly that Ryan thought he must have actually covered the phone.

“You can have as many as you need,” Larabee said evenly. “I’ll send them over to be briefed.”

Kelly winced. It was evident that Larabee was making an effort to be cooperative, polite even. But he still requested the whole team. If Larabee didn’t need ‘em, he could sure use the help.

“I’ll send them,” Chris replied. Trying, but not succeeding at keeping the edge out of his voice.

Chris hung up the phone. “Buck!” he hollered a lot louder than was necessary for the small office. His hands went reflexively to his own forehead, where there was still a dull ache that had set in this morning somewhere between his run and losing his first dose of aspirin. And had refused to go away. He pulled his hand back instinctively before Buck entered the office.

“Take the team to Team Eight’s conference room for a briefing. They need you to back them up on a bust.”

Buck stared at him. “Are we clear for that?” he asked.

Mistake, he realized as a burning green-eyed glare shot from his Team Leader’s face. He didn’t wait for another word. Let alone to be told that if Chris was ordering it, it needed to be done. But Chris’s voice stopped him at the door.

It carried with it a strange note. Fierce. A warning. Perhaps a threat. He wasn’t sure. “You’re the leader,” he said. “Remember that.”

Buck felt his face flush. Had this been another time or place he would have gone back in and punched him for the cheap shot. Instead he snarled his retort under his breath. But quiet as it was, he knew that Chris had heard it. From experience he also knew better than to expect either an excuse or an apology. He simply continued into the bullpen and gathered the troops.

From his office, Chris watched them leave. And thirty minutes later he watched them return to gather their equipment. Buzzing. Stoked up. It wasn’t going to be much of a party, playing backup to Team Eight, but it was easy to see in their excitement how badly they needed to get out from behind their desks and out of the office.

He found himself leaning on his doorway, arms crossed. Clenched across his chest.

His eyes fell on Buck. Directing the traffic. He grimaced. His comment had been a cheap shot. He hadn’t even realized what it sounded like until it was out. It took Buck’s retort to make him realize that maybe just maybe, in part, that was what he meant. It was even a cheaper shot because he knew Buck felt bad about this whole fiasco. It took a great effort not to run a hand over his face. Two months ago, he probably would have gone back into his office and forgotten the entire conversation had ever happened. Because Buck would have let him. And now he couldn’t even let himself.

He swore to himself. God damn the whole fiasco. He had tried so hard to make it seem like nothing whatsoever had changed. That “the incident” never happened. It shouldn’t have been so damn hard. After all, it was plain as day that he wasn’t dead. And was standing here calling the shots. But he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get them to let go, shrug it off, get back to business.

At least once a day, some comment or look from J.D. showed him where some of the kid’s cockiness had chipped away. Rattled. Chris knew the signs. And he knew it would take time back in the field to restore the boy’s faith in his good luck, skill, and possible immortality. Standish and Jackson were both angry. Both simmering under the surface. Standish didn’t even know he was sending Chris black looks pledging retribution for something. Tanner was a whole lot less subtle. Irritatingly cheerful as hell, but with a lot more bite under his comments. Every one of them a warning. Sanchez, saint-like, in what Chris knew was forbearance plain and simple. And Buck. Smothering him. He swore to himself again. And repeated the list of expletives for good measure. He had heard more than he ever wanted to hear, think about, or believe about how Buck had taken the news of his death. And what he had done afterward.

He swore again. Out loud. And apparently with enough violence and creativity that the team stopped and turned. Looked at him. Six pairs of eyes. Expectant.

“Buck,” he said, uncrossing his arms and pushing away from the doorway. Biting the bullet. “I’d like to see you before you leave,” he said. It was an order. But he didn’t phrase it that way. Not in front of the team. Not while Wilmington was in charge.

Buck nodded.

He’d be in when he had a chance, Chris knew. But he was going to have to wait. And Buck made him wait, all right. In fact, he sent the team out before he came in. They hurried out, without a word. J.D. looked like he wanted to say something, but Buck moved him along. Chris nearly grinned. Wilmington knew how to make a point, too.

Buck stood in the doorway. Waiting. Impatient to get going. And suddenly Chris didn’t know what he had wanted to say. Well, he did. But he didn’t know where or how to begin.

Buck stared at him until one corner of the mustached mouth twitched up with a smirk. “I think the phrase you’re searching for is ‘sorry for takin’ a cheap shot at ya,’ Pard,” he said.

Chris’s attempt at a return smile didn’t reach his eyes. Same old Buck. Let me off easy. Stupid fool.

He looked hard at his oldest friend. “Come back safe,” he said firmly. The rest of it stuck in his throat. He hoped Buck could read it in his face.

The other corner of Buck’s mouth twitched up. Not exactly an apology. Not even an acknowledgement of the low blow. Well, not exactly. Not unless you knew how to listen. Same old Chris. Stubborn ass.

Buck only nodded. Did not say that he got the message. Hell if he’d let Chris off the hook that easy. And moved off into the hallway with the team.

Chris watched him go, glowering. Buck’s words echoing in his head.

No, he thought slowly. I think the phrase I wanted was ‘take care of them’. His mouth tightened grimly. That and ‘don’t get hurt’.

Not for the first time in his life he wondered what was wrong with him that he couldn’t ever manage to get the right words out at the right time. It didn’t help that he would now get to spend the next hours torturing himself over what was happening out there with Team Eight, while he was stuck here in an empty bullpen, unable to call and check on them.

Not that he didn’t trust Buck. He did. Otherwise he wouldn’t be the second in command. Although he’d just blown a real good opportunity to let him know that.

There’ll be other opportunities, he thought.

A cold chill hit him hard. Right in the stomach. And the thought rose up in his brain unbidden, unwelcome, choking off his air supply until he couldn’t breathe. What if there aren’t? What if you lose him today and that was your last shot?

He could have run screaming from the office, from the floor, from the parking garage, from the whole damn building. Except that he was hyperventilating. White-knuckled against his desk. Trying to tell himself to get a grip. It’s a back up job. Team Eight are pros. And a thousand other good reasons why there was nothing to worry about.

Except bad intelligence maybe. Bad luck. It’s happened before...

He swore.

Calm down boy. It’s nerves. They haven’t been out of your sight in a while. That’s all. Buck’ll get the job done.

He tried embarrassing himself into pulling it together, telling himself he was reacting like Sarah the first time they left Adam with a babysitter.

Of course, you could call a babysitter when you got worried. And you didn’t have to worry about blowing their cover. Or giving away their position. Or distracting them when they need to concentrate on avoiding bullets being sprayed at their head.

Not helpful, Larabee, he snapped. Just breathe. Get a grip.

He let go of the desk and put his head between his knees.

I should be there…

The accumulation of carbon dioxide slowly began to quiet his breathing. Rational thought returned. He nearly laughed.

God help me if the boys find out I had a full-on panic attack over them going on a simple backup job without me.

…I hate this fucking job.

The directors reconvened in exactly twenty minutes. Seated. Ready to proceed. That was one of the nice things about working with directors, Benedetto considered, pouring a glass of water from the pitchers in the center of the conference table. They know the value of time. Their own and that of other people.

Without further ado, they jumped right back into the problem they left off with. Larabee’s track record on obeying rules and regulations.

Benedetto regarded AD Travis from the corner of his eye. This was going to be a hard one to spin. Everyone at the table already knew that Larabee liked things his way. And was prone to just ignoring other suggestions, regardless of how iron-clad, or time-honored the reasons, or the rank of the person making the suggestion. But, he was curious to know, how much of that reputation was earned on solid facts and how much was just plain fiction.

Cranston reiterated the question before them and the directors all turned to Travis.

The gray-haired AD cleared his throat. “I concede that Agent Larabee does have a tendency to bend the rules.”

Hofstader ducked his head to avoid smiling at the obvious understatement.

“And I admit,” Travis continued, “that we have not always been vigilant in seeing that infractions are appropriately dealt with.”

We, Benedetto noted with interest. Meaning: I am not solely to blame here. But ambiguous enough to let the directors draw their own conclusions as to who else was responsible.

Travis gave a keen glance to each director at the table. “Perhaps we have to ask ourselves why that is. And whether our own willingness to look the other way has sent the wrong message.”

LaForce, Costas, and Ramirez all flinched. The other directors and AD Travis all altered position slightly in their chairs. Benedetto did not let his smile show. An unexpected chess move. Blame the directors. Although, he gave Travis kudos for including himself. As if to say, “See, although you were in charge, I am willing to shoulder the blame with you.” The directors’ sudden discomfort in their padded chairs showed that at least subconsciously, Travis’s words had hit a nerve.

A second later, curiously, Travis passed up the opportunity to drive the point home. He switched gears instead.

“We should also recall that RMET Seven’s mandate for existence was somewhat different from that of our other ATF Teams. Experimental,” Travis reminded them.

Costas nodded suddenly. Consulted his notes. As if he remembered.

Hofstader stroked his chin. “We did purposely leave some ambiguity in the rules and regulations that governed their performance of duty. Some leeway was allowed in the accomplishment of sensitive missions and the release of sensitive information.”

“But not in adherence to overall policies,” Costas replied.

“And certainly not in obedience to federal, state, and local ordinances,” LaForce added.

Travis nodded, seemingly unfazed by the argument. He paused. Looked at Hofstader. “I don’t believe it has been insinuated that Agent Larabee had violated any federal, state, or local ordinances during the mission under consideration.”

“No,” Ramirez replied. “But his team did.”

Travis nodded thoughtfully. Looked up at Cranston. “Would now be an appropriate time to refer to the IA report and recommendations?”

Benedetto nearly grinned. Damn but Travis was good at switching directions. So Larabee is, in fact, something of a loose cannon, he thought, but let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about the Team. And clearly, Travis believes that IA report is going to help him make his case. Benedetto forced down his tactical appreciation and made sure he was wearing his sternest mask, as he took a copy of the report and passed the stack on to the next person.

Cranston called for another brief time out for everyone to read the report thoroughly. So they could all be on the same page, as it were, when they began to discuss it. Two directors took the opportunity to leave, to find somewhere quiet to read, where they wouldn’t be elbow to elbow with someone else. Benedetto spread his on the table, pencil in hand. Staying. Hoping he’d get a chance to hear any on-the-spot commentary from the directors gathered around him. He knew Travis was hoping for the same thing. A chance to gauge the opposition.

Chris went to the cafeteria for lunch. He had never actually been to the cafeteria. In the whole time he had worked in the building, he had never even set foot in the place. But he was getting damn sick of the four walls of his office and the utter silence of his bullpen. He was prevented from doing much work by the urge to fling himself out of his chair and pace, brought on by unpleasant worries that kept grabbing at his insides until he wanted to hurl everything in his office through the plate glass window behind him. All right, he conceded that was a bit of an exaggeration. But damn wouldn’t it feel good?

The problem was, no matter which direction he turned his brain, there was something unpleasant waiting for him. The directors and the board of inquiry. AD Travis and the board of inquiry. Requalifications. Back to the board of inquiry. Buck. His stupid cheap shot, his bad attitude in general, and of course the board of inquiry. Team Eight and Dowd, back to the board of inquiry. In fact, no matter what he tried to consider, everything came back to and hinged on that damn board of inquiry.

So he decided to leave the room. Get a change of scenery. But not too far. Since the team might have to call. The cafeteria seemed a good choice. Completely new. Unexplored. Virgin territory. Surely that would offer some distraction.

He took his cell phone. He took the elevator. He read the menu and knew he was not going to be able to squeeze anything past that big irrational knot in his stomach. Plus, there were agents, some he actually knew and some whose faces bore a vague familiarity, who kept glancing at him sideways and over their shoulders. Indicating him with a head nod. Talking together in quiet tones. Or worse. The ones who came up and spoke to him. About the damn board of inquiry. He swore he might strangle the next well-meaning bastard who offered him words of encouragement.

He looked around at the various offerings in the various stations. And realized that there was nothing whatsoever that appealed to him in any way. So he chose what Nathan would have chosen for him. Thinking he sort of owed it to the medic for all the shit he’d put up with the past month. Not that Nathan would know.

He paid, and fled back to his office. To eat at his desk. After all, they might have to call.

All the while telling himself what an idiot he was being. And had been. And in so many ways.

“Does anyone disagree with IA’s recommendation not to pursue a full-scale investigation?” Cranston asked wearily. It had taken them all some time to wade through the full report and then return to discuss it.

In Benedetto’s opinion, the brief digression into a much less speculative matter was a welcome change. The question before them was concrete. Here is what Team Seven did. Here is the evidence we have that proves it. Here is our recommendation for further action. Cut. Dried.

No one disagreed. And Benedetto was grateful. There was precious little to go on. No doubt an investigation would turn up something. After all, he was pretty sure if IA investigated anything long enough, hard enough, and with enough money and equipment to back it up, they’d find some skeletons in anyone’s closets. Nobody’s perfect. Least of all when they’re stressed out, angry, or under fire. All of which Team Seven had been in the time preceding their unauthorized mission. In his opinion a full-scale investigation with so little evidence to warrant it seemed a waste of resources better spent fighting real bad guys.

Cranston nodded. Scribbled a signature on a final copy of the report. He flipped through to the next pages of recommendations. Looking grim.

Benedetto skimmed through the list again and cleared his throat. “I recommend we table a discussion of disciplinary measures until the conclusion of this board of inquiry,” he suggested.

The other directors looked at him, considering. Benedetto looked back at them impassively. “If we are giving consideration to Agent Larabee’s influence in the Team’s activities, then the amount of that influence should be taken into account in determining the disciplinary measures. Correct?”

Costas and Ramirez both shrugged. Seemed to make sense.

Plus, thought Benedetto grimly, our decisions may change the matter of who is around to do the disciplining.

The other directors muttered either their assent or their indifference.

“Suggestion taken,” Cranston said, putting the report aside.

The successful completion of a successful bust would normally have brought Buck Wilmington a pleasant end to his adrenaline rush, including wisecracking, high fiving, and generally stupid behavior, which Chris would have ignored, had he been here. Partly because he would have been busy getting everything stowed, cleaned up, and otherwise secured. But Chris wasn’t here. So the stowing, cleaning up, and securing was Buck’s job. Plus supervising.

J.D. was doing some giddy and hilarious touchdown dance in the left hand alley, where Vin was still sitting among the garbage cans where he took out the last fleeing member of their little counterfeiting group, on a world-class flying tackle that painted six straight inches of road rash on his left elbow and could’ve got him shot. Nathan was cleaning the injury. He probably would have been a whole lot gentler on his patient if the sharpshooter hadn’t started in with the usual complaining shit. Josiah and Ezra loaded the last prisoner into an ambulance with a guard from the DPD.

Seems the man broke his arm being tackled by a flying Texan. There’d have to be a report on that. No use of exceptional force, and so on. Buck knew the drill.

He turned back to Ryan Kelly, who was talking to him. Still. He’d lost the train of thought twice now. He only hoped Kelly couldn’t tell. Notes for reports. Quantities of false weapons licenses, dealer licenses, and import licenses secured. Number of prisoners. Positions. And another lead to one of those cases that Team Seven was so generously handing over. He grimaced as Kelly walked away.

“J.D.,” Buck hollered. “Knock off the damn touchdown dance, and get the van secured.”

Doug Stone and Brett Jordan turned in mid conversation and stared at him.

What’re you lookin’ at? Buck groused silently. All you had to do was catch ‘em and turn ‘em in. I gotta get this bunch back and get about a half a dozen reports started.

J.D. left off the dance and came back to the van, but he threw Buck a dark look.

All right. So I didn’t have to shout it down the whole road, but Jesus kid, there’s four million dollars worth of equipment in there. It’s your job to take care of her.

He stalked back to the alley to see how Nathan was faring. He had put that off until his heart stopped beating in his mouth. He had drawn a bead on the fleeing counterfeiter and ordered him to stop. He swore the kid had reached for a gun. Then suddenly, this blur came out of a street level window, like some damn wild animal leaping out of a tree. Buck almost dropped his gun in his hurry to let go of the trigger.

Running into the alley, he lit into Vin but good. Right there. Within hearing of all the neighbors. Like he was some goddamn rookie. “What the hell was that? You never cross someone’s line of fire!”

But Vin only grinned at him, over his shoulder, astride the wriggling, howling, bucking piece of trash, held up his cuffs and said. “Could ya maybe help me out here.”

And to Buck’s great chagrin, as he clamped his teeth together, all he could think was Wait ‘till Chris hears what you did. What was he? Eight? Tattling? Worse yet, given Chris’s parting shot, it wouldn’t help him out much to tell Larabee that he almost shot Vin.

He looked now at the long-haired sharpshooter, grousing at the medic.

You got way too much faith in your team’s reflexes, Buck thought at the young agent. Shaking his head. And he knew he’d have to tell Chris. They couldn’t afford to let anyone get sloppy.

Nathan finished up and closed up his med kit. Crabby now. Thanks to Vin.

Buck turned back toward the van to see Josiah, Ezra, and J.D. talking together. Casual.

Kelly returned from securing his men and his team’s equipment. He shook Buck’s hand. “Thanks for the backup. Good work.”

“Any time,” Buck said with a cocky smile. “Only next time make it more of a challenge.”

Kelly grinned and laughed. Piled his agents into a vehicle and they were gone.

Buck sauntered slowly over to Team Seven’s van.

“Van’s secured,” J.D. said.

“Bad guys off to jail,” Josiah grinned.

“Stubborn fools fixed,” Nathan grumbled, arriving with Vin.

“Stubborn, flying fools,” J.D. snickered.

Buck gave him a look.

And he sighed. He knew that look that J.D. gave back to him. He’d given it to Chris often enough. The words in J.D.’s head were probably different, but the meaning was the same. Don’t know what bug you got up your ass, but leave me out of it.

Christ, but leading this bunch had been easier in Texas. He was immediately ashamed for thinking it.

“Let’s get back to the office,” he said, and climbed into the passenger side of the van.

Josiah climbed into the driver’s seat.

A moment later, they were all settled into the van. And the chatter started up. The post-bust, still-got-my-adrenaline-running, we’re-all-here, nobody’s-goin’-to-the-hospital, we’re-invincible chatter. He leaned his head back against the headrest and listened. Grateful. After what Chris said. He clamped down on a shudder just in time. Refusing to imagine Chris’s face if he were sending someone to the hospital. He tuned back into the high spirits in the back.

“God Vin, you stink!”

“Mr. Tanner, kindly move your malodorous person to the other side of the van.”

“Stop playing with the tape. It’s there to hold the gauze down. Now knock it off.”

“Where the hell’d you put those Twinkies? I’m starvin’?”

Josiah was quietly humming to himself.

Everything was perfectly normal. He stared out the window, noticing for the first time what a nice day it was outside.

“Hey Buck?” J.D.’s voice piped up.

“What?” he asked.

“You call Chris?”

Buck turned and looked back at the four agents behind him. “No,” he said, slowly. “We’ll be back at the office in fifteen more minutes.”

There was a pause. Then a quiet, mutter in a Texas accent. Nonchalant. “Prob’ly climbin’ the walls by now.”

Buck swore. Fifteen minutes, dammit! But I gotta check in because ol’ hardhead’s probably having kittens. But even so, he knew he wasn’t being fair. Especially since on every single bust he had had to sit out for, he had made Chris promise to call him and let him know everything was all right. And every time Chris had said solemnly “I will,” all the while looking at him as if to say “Do you really need to ask?”

Okay, so the simple truth was he forgot. With everything he had to keep track of, he just forgot. Okay?

He pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

“Larabee,” the voice answered gruffly. Typical. No phone manners whatsoever. Even Sarah had noticed.

“All done,” Buck said cheerfully, as if reporting from the dentist’s office. “Everything went fine.”

“Good,” Chris replied.

Buck rolled his eyes. Sure as hell didn’t sound like a man who was having kittens. But that was Chris. Could be falling apart on the inside, but hell if he was gonna let anyone know.

“We should be back in the bullpen in about fifteen minutes.” Buck reported dutifully.

There was a pause. He could almost see the grim smile on his leader’s face as he said. “You’ll probably want to take a detour through some fast food drive-thru. Unless you want to listen to Vin and J.D. complain.”

He checked his watch again. Chris was right. It was well past lunch and no one had eaten. Except the counterfeiters who were sitting down to lunch when Team Eight burst in.

Buck tuned into the backseat chatter long enough to hear that his two youngest agents were now fighting over a box of Twinkies. The van stash. Which they pretended not to know about, and Chris pretended not to see, although everyone who had to work in the confined space, spent a good deal of time kicking the damn box around, trying to get it out from underfoot.

Buck said a terse goodbye and looked at Josiah. ”McDonald’s,” he said quietly.

Not quietly enough.

Forcing them all to endure Nathan’s diatribe on eating healthy and spending money wisely and Ezra’s plain old pain-in-the-ass whining about the low quality of fast food in general and this reprehensible chain in particular.

“Have a goddamn salad, Nathan,” Buck finally roared out. “And Ezra, either eat or starve. Your choice. Now shutup.”
There was a full second of silence.

It was broken by that damn quiet, Texas drawl. ”Didn’t see ya there, Larabee. When’d ya grow the mustache?”

J.D. didn’t stop laughing until they actually pulled into the drive-thru lane and he had to start thinking about what to order.

Buck hoped Vin realized how lucky he was that Buck couldn’t actually turn all the way around and reach him.

The bullpen was silent as a tomb. They must have felt the silence seeping out into the hall. It stifled the chatter. And they came creeping in like bad little boys out past curfew. Pausing before crossing his door. And then hurrying along to their desks. It almost made Chris smile. But he kept right on working, consulting the set of reports next to his desk. Consolidating and cross-referencing the important information, as the remembered details of each bust played across his mind. Some carrying smiles. Some more like nightmares.

He looked up, as Buck’s lanky frame took up residence in his doorway. Filling it. Both arms out and pressed against the frames.

“How’d it go?” Chris asked.

“Okay,” Buck shrugged. He smiled mockingly. “Were you worried?”

“Nope,” Chris replied.

“Where’s Vin?” he asked a moment later. And Buck grinned. He knew he’d ask. Knew that he had taken stock of each of his agents as they entered the bullpen.

“Showers,” Buck answered. “He had a wrestling match in a pile of garbage.”

“Oh” was all the team leader replied. Simply. But he saw something else in Buck’s eye. He put down the pen in his hand and scanned his old friend’s face. Finding a question. Unvoiced and unasked.

Chris nodded toward one of the chairs opposite him.

Buck pushed the door shut and took a seat and a deep breath before giving his boss a rundown of the day’s bust.

Beyond an occasional nod or noncommittal grunt just to show he was listening, Chris displayed very little reaction to Buck’s narrative. And he said even less.

Buck told him everything. Left nothing out. Despite the fact that no incident had actually occurred, and therefore no incident would appear in the official report, he still detailed to Chris, behind the closed office door, how Vin had crossed his line of fire. And how very nearly Buck had almost shot him. He fought down his fury at remembering the young agent’s cavalier response.

Larabee did not go ballistic.

He could surprise you that way, Buck reflected suddenly, watching him lean back in his chair, lace his hands behind his head and stretch his long legs out under his desk.

“That’s a problem,” Chris said quietly. Agreeing with words unspoken.

He regarded Buck through lazy, half-lidded eyes.

To anyone else, the whole picture would have looked like casual disregard. Apathy. Or worse, callous indifference. His whole body saying, this isn’t my problem. But Buck new better. The lowered lids, the long, stretched frame, utterly still in the chair, all heralded the process of deep consideration.

Buck waited.

“What did you do about it?” Chris asked finally.

Buck winced. And told him how he had shouted at Vin like the sharpshooter was a rookie who didn’t know how to do his job. And how Vin had been completely impervious.

Chris just nodded.

Buck hadn’t really expected Chris to be surprised at the news. Vin’s attitude problem was nearly as legendary as Chris’s. But neither did the second in command expect what the team leader said next. Quietly. And seriously.

“How do you plan to handle it?”

Buck stared for a long moment. Unsure what to say. Chris was right, of course; it needed to be handled. But this seemed somehow all wrong.

The barest hint of a smile played across Larabee’s lips, as he noted Buck’s hesitation. “You started it,” he said calmly. “You finish it.”

Buck frowned.

Chris tilted his head, the corners of his mouth twitching upward. “I’ll help if you need it,” he said quietly. And the smile ticked up a little more as he added, “But only if you need it.”

Then he gave a nod. A prompt. And Buck knew he had been dismissed. Dismissed with orders. Finish the mission.

He glanced back over his shoulder as he left the office. And suppressed a grin. He knew Larabee too well to expect him to apologize for his remarks. For his bad behavior. For his vindictive streak. For pettiness. Apologies from Chris Larabee were rare creatures. Elusive. Almost mythical.

But Buck could easily accept what he got instead: Chris’s statement of faith. Go handle it. I’ll back you.

Then Buck’s eye fell on the dirty paper plate and crumpled napkin. Standing there on the corner of the team leader’s immaculate desk. He turned away and this time broke into a grin.

Wrong again, he thought. Lunch had been Chris’s apology. The statement of faith was free of charge.

Buck passed close to Nathan’s desk on a roundabout trip to the kitchenette. He eyed the medic’s own salad. Now open on his desk. Carefully dressed.

“Looks like the cafeteria’s serving salad today, too,” Buck said to the medic as he passed, just loudly enough for his words to carry back to the office.

A secret, satisfied smile lit Nathan’s face.

Still grinning to himself, Buck returned to his desk with a cup of nice, hot, fresh coffee. As he sat down, he saw Chris sweep the debris, plate, napkin, plastic fork into his wastebasket with the back of his hand. His eyes caught Buck’s, carrying the slightest of gleams.

Buck shook his head.

You’re welcome, Larabee, he thought with fond exasperation. After all, Stud, if you’re gonna actually apologize, you oughta at least make sure the message gets delivered.

The board of inquiry must have recessed for the day. That or reached an impasse and gone up in flames. Or, possibly…

Chris barred the thought from his mind and looked up at AD Travis, darkening his doorway. He looked dour, but he didn’t look like he was weighed down with bad news. Nor did he look particularly livid. He just looked businesslike. And tired.

Chris put his pencil down and waved his boss toward a visitor’s chair.

The AD sat down as if he had walked a mile in too-tight shoes. And Chris was sorry for what the board of inquiry was costing the man. Costing the team. Costing everyone.

But Travis hadn’t come to talk about the inquiry. Or he would have shut the door.

So Chris waited until the AD got settled.

“I came to check in about Team Eight’s bust,” Travis said. He sounded relaxed—or perhaps just relieved to talk about something routine. Something normal.

Chris eyed him, expression guarded. But his voice was even as he replied. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m not the best person to ask. Seeing as I wasn’t there.”

Travis looked exasperated.

Chris inclined his head toward the door. And the bullpen beyond. Toward Buck. “There’s your leader,” he said pointedly.

Travis narrowed his eyes. But Chris refused to bite. Or budge.

“I’ve already been briefed,” he said calmly, picking up his pen once again.

Travis rose from his chair, slowly, and gave Larabee a long, appraising look before he turned toward the door and Agent Wilmington, working at his desk only a few yards away. If the mustached agent had overheard the conversation, he gave no sign.

Travis moved toward the door. But on impulse he stopped. Turned back. The thoughts chasing each other around his brain.

Neither man had mentioned the inquiry. One because he had nothing yet to report. The other because he simply wouldn’t. Would never ask. But he had to be wondering. Wouldn’t be human not to be concerned.

“Don’t give up,” Travis said quietly. Hoping to provide some sort of assurance to questions unentertained, fears unacknowledged.

Chris flashed him a cocky, vaguely threatening smile. That one. The famous one. It was gone in an instant, lasting only long enough for Larabee to reply just as quietly, “I never give up.”

Then he went back to work.

Travis felt a grin split his face for the first time in two days.