by BMP

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By the time Vin returned from the showers in the basement of the federal building, wearing a change of clothes he kept stashed in his locker down there for emergencies, smelling like soap now instead of rotting trash, the boys were all at work. Busy. The bullpen filled with the hum of report writing.

Well not all of them, he realized as he entered. J.D. was standing at his Josiah’s desk performing what could only be his interpretation of Vin’s takedown of the fleeing perp. Vin scowled. And J.D. must have caught a warning signal from Josiah, because he turned swiftly toward the bullpen door to see Vin standing there. Sleeve rolled up. Road rash clearly visible across his elbow. J.D. turned bright red. Cleared his throat, muttering to Josiah to excuse him and returned to his own desk.

Vin could almost feel Larabee’s eyes behind him, taking stock of his elbow. The man said nothing, although he had seen Vin come in. And in fact had been silently watching J.D.’s hysterical dramatization. Without a single word.

Vin stubbornly said nothing in return. He knew he was going to catch hell as soon as Buck told Larabee how he had crossed Wilmington’s line of fire. Without checking. Without thinking about it. He knew it had been stupid. Hell, he had realized that immediately after he had left the windowsill, but by then it was too late to stop. Besides if Larabee was going to light into him about it, too, then Chris was in for an earful of his own. ‘Cause if they gave out awards for stupid behavior that can get you fuckin’ killed, then Larabee’d be sittin’ in there holdin’ the grand prize trophy right now. He was still scowling as he slid into his desk and entered his password to start writing his report.

The afternoon wore on. And Chris said not one word to him about the incident except a passing suggestion that Nathan put a bandage on his oozing arm. Vin sent the team leader a nasty look as the medic started in on him, still cranky. Chris didn’t seem to notice. And Vin’s scowl got deeper the farther on the afternoon went. Slowly cursing Chris out in his head. For dragging it out. Knock off the mind-game shit, you bastard. Just call me into the office, holler at me, and get it done with already.

He finished his report, last again. Except for Buck, who had to file extra ones on account of the busted arm Vin gave that last guy. But the team leader always had to file extra reports, Vin thought. He flicked a glance toward Chris’s office door. A strange unpleasant feeling settling into his stomach. He shook it impatiently away, and took his printout over to Chris’s office.

Chris glanced over it. Gave a nod. Put it in his outbox. Vin waited. Normally, once the draft was approved, he took it out to one of the typists on the floor. To make a final copy. Chris looked up at him, questioningly. And Vin knew the draft was going to stay in the outbox.

In fact there were several papers in the outbox. And Vin realized with a start that at least some of them were reports from today’s bust. He gave Chris a questioning look of his own. But the return glance told him to head back to his own desk unless he had something he wanted to say. Which he didn’t. Wouldn’t give Larabee the satisfaction. It was almost 5:30. The others had gone. ‘Bout time for him to head on home, too.

It didn’t work out that way.

“You an’ me gotta talk about today,” the voice said, softly, firmly.

And Vin frowned at the speaker. The wrong speaker. The wrong face. The wrong voice. And the wrong pair of eyes holding his. Serious, regretful, and more than a touch angry.

“It’s quittin’ time,” Vin returned just as quietly.

“In the conference room,” Buck replied. Still soft, still firm, ignoring Vin’s challenge.

Vin turned instinctively to look back toward Chris’s office. The blond continued to work away at his computer. Without a glance their way. Although Vin was damn sure he had heard. Larabee heard everything that happened in the bullpen. Especially when you didn’t want him to.

Vin narrowed his eyes. But he followed Buck to the conference room.

He took a seat across from the door. Buck took one nearby.

And Vin realized that Chris was not going to be the one to ream him out for today’s bust. Buck was. For a second Vin felt like someone had just thrown a jug of ice water in his face. A moment later, he was just plain mad.

Buck had gotten halfway through a very calm, rational explanation of why he knew Tanner knew that what he had done was careless and stupid. He had started in on why it was extra important to stay sharp right now, when he saw the fuse light. Ignite. Spark up into the sky blue eyes. Tanner’s whole face flushed. And his whole upper body went rigid. Fists clenched on the table top.

His voice was soft and deadly. “I know how to do my god damn job.”

“Then act like it,” Buck shot back.

Vin’s eyes blazed. “Fuck you, Wilmington, you’re not my boss.”

The dark blue eyes went hard. “I am when I’m leading an operation,” he snarled back.

Vin’s hot retort died suddenly as he glanced up. Over Buck’s shoulder toward the door and saw Chris. Standing there. Silent. And one look at the set of his jaw and the look in his eye told him he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Chris was backing Buck.

Vin’s left eye twitched slightly. Buck saw the glance over his shoulder. He did not turn to look. Damn you, Larabee, I don’t need your help, he thought savagely, expecting an interruption. There was none.

Like a shadow in black, Chris moved out of the doorway like he had never been there at all.

“I know you know better than to cross a line of fire,” Buck said, starting again. Regaining his calm with an impressive effort. “My problem is with your attitude.”

Apparently Vin had no intention of following Buck’s lead in remaining calm. His eyes blazed immediately at the comment. “You’re gonna tell me about my attitude?” he snapped in disbelief, his voice growing louder.

The next words left his mouth before he could even stop them. Hadn’t even really thought about ‘em. Just a pat smart-ass remark. Way overused. Not even very creative.

But Vin wished he’d thought about it. Just this once. And he knew his own face was a mirror of the cold shock on his teammate’s face as the words hung in the air between them. Repeating in the silence.

Who died and left you in charge?

Shit! Larabee thought, stopping dead in his tracks in his office door. He gripped the frame with both hands. Willing himself not to turn around. Not to go back. He forced himself into his office and down at his desk. Buck needed to handle this. He needed to know how to lead the team. They needed to recognize his authority. In case… Chris smiled grimly at the irony. But there was no escaping the truth, he decided, finishing his thought. In case Buck is left in charge when this is all over.

Yeah, he knew they all said they’d quit if he got fired. It was a nice gesture. But not one he’d hold them to.

The silence in the bullpen was deafening.

Christ, but Vin has a talent for hitting a nerve, Chris thought, closing his eyes momentarily. Glad he couldn’t see Buck’s face.

It took all Vin’s will to force his stubborn jaw to move, to get his goddamn pride out of his own way and try to fix what he just did. “I didn’t mean that,” Vin said. Choked. Like it had been forced out of him.

Buck’s eyes were hooded. Dangerous. “You sure ‘bout that, Pard?” he asked. Real quiet. “’Cause it sounded like you meant it.”

Vin stared at him. Buck wasn’t going to let him off. Not this time. Not after his flip attitude at the bust. Not after his outright denial of Buck’s authority. Christ! What was he thinking? He knew Buck had been in charge. If Chris wasn’t in charge, Buck was. That was the rule. Same as it ever was. So why the hell was he so mad about it now?

The answer hit him like a lead weight dropping through his stomach.

Because it was Buck here disciplining him. Buck instead of Chris. The same as it might have been after Texas. Same as it still could be after the inquiry.

He reminded himself that he had promised to quit if they got rid of Chris.

It didn’t help.

He forced his dry tongue around his dry mouth, and found his voice. “I didn’t mean it,” he repeated firmly. He felt his face burn. And it wasn’t with anger this time. “I was out of line,” he said quietly.

He looked back up at the familiar blue eyes. Still holding his. Not backing down an inch. “Shit,” he said, unclenching his arms, his shoulders, his neck. Unclenching them all. “I was way out of line.”

Buck regarded the sharpshooter silently. The corners of his mouth tight.

Vin took another breath. God, the man was asking a lot! He swallowed his pride. Real hard this time. And it took more than one try to put himself back in his place. Back on the totem pole where he belonged.

“You were right,” he said, softly. One hand still gripping the table top too tightly. “Damn stupid way to get yerself killed. An’ I shouldn’t a flipped off on ya either.”

Buck cocked his head sideways and gave Vin a penetrating stare. Looking so much like Larabee in that instant that Vin forced the thought aside to avoid cracking a smile. Or worse. Making some smart remark that would put him right back where he started. Rendering his apology null and void.

“And what else?” Buck asked, knowing he was pushing it now. But hell if he didn’t go all the way, then what happened to his authority next time? Next time. He didn’t want to think about next time. Not after what Vin just said.

Vin licked his lips. Winced. “Hell, Buck,” he said, nearly squirming in his chair. “I know you were in charge. Guess I just forgot in the rush.”

Buck’s mouth twisted sourly. But his eyes stayed hard. “Next time you forget, you’re stayin’ home,” he said flatly. And he meant it. He didn’t need to ask if Vin understood.

The dark blue eyes bored into Vin’s sky blue ones.

Vin’s head bobbed once. He got it.

Buck got up and left the conference room. Leaving Vin alone to feel that horrible sinking feeling coalesce and settle into his stomach like a big, cold rock.

Guess you don’t got the market cornered on stupid, Larabee, he thought. Best move on over, ‘cause I’m down there in the doghouse with ya.

Chris’s door was only half open. And through the opening he saw Buck leave the bullpen without a word. Angry as hell. He could tell by the hunch of the shoulders.

Vin came out of the conference room a long time later. Moved slowly through the bullpen to get his jacket.

He lingered in his leader’s door.

Chris looked up. There was no anger. No reproach. Not even a smirk. As if he had not heard or seen a thing.

Vin recognized the invitation. And grabbed for it with both hands. “’Night Cowboy,” the sharpshooter said simply, managing even a small smile. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“’Night Cowboy,” Chris returned with a small smile of his own. A tinge of affection coloring the way he said the nickname. “See you tomorrow.”

Vin shrugged into his jacket and left. Standing at the elevators, mulling over his strange relief, marveling at the way the rock in his stomach had broken up at Chris’s quiet good night. Telling him without saying it that things would be all right. They just had to keep holding on until the next tomorrow.

The thought rolled into his head not for the first time how stupid people were about Chris. He was legendary for his lack of diplomacy. Guess they ain’t seen ya lead a team, Vin thought.

Buck returned, more than an hour later, a sixteen-inch sub tucked under his arm like a small torpedo. He sighed when he saw from the hall that Chris’s office light was on. Not that he was surprised. He wasn’t. Just disappointed that he wouldn’t have the chance to nurse his anger and his ego in peace.

He paused in the bullpen doorway, trying to determine what attitude to take as he crossed Chris’s door on the way to his desk. He was reminded again that he had never been much of an actor, as his confident walk halted itself and his feet carried him right to Chris’s doorway. He stood there looking in.

Chris’s computer was powered down. And the team leader was on the couch. Head resting on the arm, one hand under his head, as he read. Buck couldn’t quite see the title of the book he held, but knowing Chris, if he was reading it in his office, it was probably some horrible tome intended to add to his “professional development”.

Buck waited. Standing silently. He knew Chris had seen him. And as he waited for the blond to look up he realized suddenly how disappointed he would have been to find that Chris had left, that he was not here waiting for him. A smile quirked up the mustached agent’s lips unwillingly. And he was in the process of searching for some smart comment to make about moms and waiting up at night, when Chris turned his keen green glance toward the doorway.

He sat up. And put the book down. Leaning forward until his elbows rested on his knees. And Buck came into the office. Passed the visitor chairs, plopped his sandwich down on the immaculate desk top and sat down next to his leader on the couch.

Chris ducked his head, turning it to look up at Buck, seated beside him. The green eyes questioning. “How’d that go?” he asked.

Buck blew out an angry breath. “You tell me,” he snapped. And Chris recognized the hard edge of self-recrimination in his voice.

The team leader’s lips twitched up as he leaned back against the back of the couch. He shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I think, after you tell me what you think,” he said.

Buck looked at him sourly. “I think you stay the god damn team leader and I’ll just follow your orders.”

Chris snorted. “Doesn’t work that way, Stud,” he replied.

Buck sighed. “Hell, Chris. I’m a good second in command. I know I am.”

Chris nodded. That was obvious. Otherwise he wouldn’t hold the position.

“But I don’t know if I’m cut out to be the team leader.”

Chris squinted. That should have been obvious, too. If he weren’t cut out to lead, Chris wouldn’t have made him second in command.

The blond blew out a breath. Stared at Buck closely for a long moment. Silent. As if carefully measuring what he wanted to say next.

Here it comes, Buck said. Here’s where Chris tells me he knows it, too.

“Don’t think you’re cut out for it? Or don’t want it?” Chris asked finally.

Buck looked from Chris to his hands. Wasn’t that a good question? What the hell was his answer?

The silence stretched while Buck considered it. When he looked back up at Chris, the leader could see that his second had not yet figured out the answer.

Good, Chris thought, with relief. Unsure he could deal with. Hell of a lot easier than trying to change Buck’s mind.

“It ain’t easy,” Chris said, shaking his head.

Buck stared at him as if that were the dumbest thing Chris had said this year.

Chris grinned.

He coughed, clearing his throat. “My opinion?” he asked.

Buck nearly smiled at that. Realizing Chris was asking his permission to put in his opinion. Buck nodded his head.

“I think you handled it okay,” the team leader said. A corner of his mouth cocked up. “Not great,” he said, and Buck gave a rueful laugh. “But he was out of line. And you put him back.”

“You were standin’ in the door,” Buck replied.

Chris ducked his head. “For a second or two,” he admitted. “But you handled it. Not me.”

Buck regarded his friend silently.

Chris reached out and squeezed Buck’s knee, then reached past him to pick up the book he had discarded at the other end of the sofa.

He pressed the fat, oversized paperback into Buck’s hands. And Buck read the title. Fundamentals of Naval Leadership. He looked up at Chris with a pained expression.

Chris laughed. “You don’t have to read the whole thing. I marked some sections for you.”

Buck turned the book edgewise and saw the dog-eared pages, folded down, meticulously marking passages of particular relevance.

“My favorite sections,” Chris said with a sly grin, as Buck turned back to him.

Buck shook his head, fanning the pages and looking at the dense print. “Don’t suppose there’s much steamy sex in here, is there?”

Chris laughed. “No, but if you work real hard, maybe you can find some new theoretical applications for ‘small group dynamics’.”

Buck shook his head. “That’s stretchin’ it, Pard,” he said.

Chris stood up, extended his arms over his head and yawned. One shoulder popped satisfactorily, and he rolled his neck till it cracked.

Buck hefted the book experimentally in one hand. Solid. Deceptively heavy.

“Why now?” Buck asked quietly.

He wanted to hear Chris say it. That he thought the board would fire him. That he wouldn’t let the team quit. That he wanted Buck to stay and take charge. He wanted to hear Chris say it. Then he would deck him. For not believing in him. For thinking he could make Buck let him take the fall again.

The blue eyes blazed.

Chris looked at him curiously. He frowned and cleared his throat. “Going forward,” he said firmly, still trying and failing to figure out why Buck was looking at him like that. “We need to spend more time and effort on developing your leadership skills.” He paused a moment, then spoke again, his voice low, contemplative. “I think I’ve been remiss on that. I think that was part of the problem.”

“What problem?” Buck asked, still frowning.

Chris shifted his feet and leaned back on the desk. He looked back up at his oldest friend. Frankly. He owed Buck no less than the truth. “Why you took the team AWOL.”

Buck gritted his teeth. “Beats me how the hell you can take my stupidity and make it your fault,” he snapped. “You must have one hell of an ego.”

Chris’s mouth turned down at the corners, but he ignored the comment. “You told me you weren’t thinking about the team,” he said.

Buck’s eyes narrowed as he shot Chris a dirty look. “I wasn’t,” he snapped back.

“You’re going to learn to,” Chris replied. “You’re going to learn to think about the team. To put them first. Whether they like it or not.”

Buck glared at him.

Chris held the gaze unflinching. He knew damn well what he was saying. And furthermore he knew Buck did, too. Put the team first. Like you did when I told you to get out of the warehouse. You just forgot it when you got back home.

Buck did not reply. But he folded the book up against the inside of his wrist. And gave Chris a look. Anger. And remorse.

Chris’s stomach turned. He hated that look.

“When do we start?” Buck asked after a long moment, his voice carefully neutral.

“Two or three years ago would have been good,” Chris snorted, looking suddenly down at his shoes.

Buck exhaled quietly. Maybe it wasn’t all about what happened in Texas then. Or was it? Seemed like everyone on the team had realized an awful lot of things since that damn rocket exploded.

He eyed Chris curiously. Wondered what Chris was coming to realize, besides that he needed to train his second in command more thoroughly.

“So, you gonna send me my course syllabus?” Buck asked, with a smirk he didn’t quite feel.

“Soon,” Chris said quietly. “But you can start reading anytime you want.”

Buck snorted.
Chris reached for his jacket on the back of the door. Sliding into it. Arms outstretched.

And Buck noticed that there was no wince in the stretching of ribs. Nor had there been a moment ago, when Chris had reached toward the ceiling. Chris had stopped limping some time ago, too. And his face had even acquired some color.

“What?” Chris asked. Suddenly uncomfortable under the stare.

“You look better,” Buck replied, appraisingly. “Still too damn skinny, though,” he added after a second.

Chris glowered at him. “I’ve always been too damn skinny,” he retorted. But he couldn’t stop the flush that climbed up his cheeks.

“Just sayin’,” Buck said with a small smile. He held up the book in a short salute as he left the office, grabbing his sandwich from the desk.

He turned back on impulse. “Got a real big sub here. I could share.”

Chris looked at him in exasperation. Knowing damn well he couldn’t eat half of that sub if he tried. Whatever Buck and Vin thought, he was not a bottomless pit. Gaining weight was going to take time. Even Raine had said so.

“I had a big lunch,” Chris offered. His excuse. Lame.

And he could see it in Buck’s face. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and slid his jacket back off again.
“I can’t possibly eat half of that…that…” words failed him as he caught a glimpse of the sheer size of the sub as Buck unrolled it from the paper. He broke out laughing. “But I’d pay money to see you eat the whole thing!”

Buck got a glimpse of it for the first time, unwrapped. “Damn!” he whistled, craning his head to take in the entire view. “No wonder it was so expensive.”

There must have been two pounds of cold cuts dripping off the edges. Plus all the other fixings. He hadn’t been paying attention when he ordered it. Probably nodded his head at everything the girl behind the counter had offered. He couldn’t remember. He had been too busy being mad. And reaming out Tanner in his head.

Chris was laughing so hard, he broke out in a coughing fit.

Buck tried real hard not to notice.

Raine had warned him. Said that even healed, Chris’s injured lung was going to be a magnet for every cold, cough, and niggling little virus that came round next winter. Best thing he could do would be to start getting back into shape. But Buck didn’t tell Chris that. Nor did he tell Raine that Chris was already working on it.

Buck shrugged, shoved away the thought. “Haul out your wallet, Stud. ‘Cause here goes nothing,” he declared picking up the first half and opening his jaw so wide it cracked. And Chris seated himself in Vin’s chair, watching in amusement. Wondering if he couldn’t manage just a bite or two himself.

+ + + + + + +

Early morning again. Dawn turning the eastern sky pink. A few birds were making a racket in the trees by the house. A pair of robins flew in and out of the slender maple that stood near the end of the little plot where Sarah’s flower garden used to be. Chris listened to the sounds of the world waking up around him, as he stretched out and went over this morning’s attack plan for his run. Today he wanted to get past the hill. Wanted to start on that next leg through the tunnel of trees. So he needed enough wind to get to the downhill.

He was considering his walk run pattern, when motion on the road above the property caught his eye. Tanner’s jeep flashed into view. Winking in and out behind the trees like a mirage, until it left the cover and turned onto the stretch of road offering a panoramic view of the ranch.

Chris frowned. It was way too early for Tanner to be here for barn chores. He hadn’t even had his run yet. And he sure as hell wasn’t about to put it off now that he was stretched out and had a plan. He watched the jeep come down the gravel drive.

He scowled. Barn help was nice, especially in light of the fact most of his teammates also had a horse boarded in his barn. Putting in barn time was supposed to be part of the deal. But if this was some ploy on Vin’s part to prevent him from getting in his run, Vin had another think coming. He didn’t need the help that bad. Didn’t really need it all, come to think of it. Not because he wasn’t up to it anyway.

He walked slowly out to the Jeep as Tanner braked it to a squealing stop. He jumped out. “Thought I mighta missed ya,” he said hurriedly, reaching into the back of the battered vehicle.

“Almost did,” Chris replied calmly. “And might yet.”

Vin apparently found what he was looking for. And held them up with a look of triumphant glee. His own pair of battered running shoes.

“Thought I’d run with ya, Pard,” Vin said.

“No,” Chris said flatly, and began moving up the driveway.

Vin grinned. Toed off the sneakers he had on and took his time lacing up his trainers. Knowing he’d catch up with Chris in one good sprint.

Chris knew it, too. And wasn’t surprised to find Tanner suddenly jogging at his side. He gave him a glare.

“Don’t need a pacer, Vin,” he growled. “And you sure as hell aren’t here for the workout.”

“No,” Vin replied slyly. “But I was curious how an old man like you was gonna make it up that there hill with one bum lung.”

“Fuck you,” Chris said hotly. And picked up the pace. Throwing his whole attack plan right out the proverbial window.

He was gasping hard by the time he hit the top of the hill. But he didn’t stop, pause, or reverse direction. He was going down that winding road between the trees, come hell or high water. They could pick him out of the ditch if they had to, but he was sticking to the plan.

Tanner followed right at his heels.

They waited on a corner for a dump truck to rumble by.

Damn Chris could dig his heels in, Tanner thought irritatedly, listening to the hard, rasping breath. Larabee’s gray tee shirt was already damp with sweat.

Already Tanner regretted his smart ass-comment. Ought to know better than to throw a challenge in Chris’s face. ‘Specially when he’s down. Should tell Chris he doesn’t have anything to prove. Not to me. Not to anyone. But, hell, if anyone oughta know that, it was Chris, Tanner told himself. The man never went out of his way to impress anyone.

He realized suddenly he was jogging alone. Chris had crossed the street, while Vin had been thinking, and was now moving down the road. Unreasonable bastard, Vin grumbled, crossing over and starting on the gentle, winding downhill.

He watched the back of Chris’s tee-shirt. Chris was moving slow as hell. At least in comparison to normal. But Vin had to give him points for keeping a steady pace. Rock solid. Even after that beast of a hill, which had even taken Tanner by surprise.

Hell of a way to start out every morning, Cowboy, he thought. No wonder yer so damn cranky all the time.

Vin set himself a nice, easy pace. It didn’t take long to catch up.

Shoulder to shoulder. He matched his steps to Chris’s

“How far we goin’?” Vin asked, the road winding away ahead of them, twisting around corners like some giant drawing of a snake.

Chris glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Why?” he asked mockingly. “You tired?”

“Just curious,” Vin shrugged.

“If you’re gonna run, then run, Tanner,” Chris replied irritatedly. Meaning shut up. He sure as hell didn’t have any extra breath left for conversation this morning. Christ, even Vin oughta know that.

Vin shut up. Grinned even. For a guy who had a reputation for not talking much, his teammates sure did tell him to shut up a lot.

He glanced back over at Chris. Still keeping his pace. And still breathing hard, but no longer harsh. Not like at the top of the hill.

Better know your limits, Larabee, Vin thought grouchily, as they rounded the next curve, side by side. I sure as hell ain’t carryin’ ya back.

Thirty-five minutes later, Chris was lying on his back in a patch of sunshine on his side deck. Lazily stretching his hamstrings. Feeling his heartbeat slowing down again, a little at a time. And listening through the screen door as Tanner rifled the kitchen in search of cereal with a satisfactory sugar content. Eventually the sharpshooter gave up and came out. A cup of chocolate pudding in one hand and a spoon in the other.

Chris grinned up at him.

Tanner grinned back.

“I’m impressed, Cowboy,” the sharpshooter said around a mouthful of chocolate.

Chris gave him a mock glare. “Yup,” he smirked back. “Pretty soon I can run in the eighty-year-old division, ‘stead of the one-foot-in-the-grave set.”

Vin glowered back at him, pointing his spoon. “That ain’t funny,” he said. “Besides,” he added, wounded pride showing in his face. “I was serious.”

Chris wrinkled his nose, trying not to look disgusted with himself. “I know you were,” he said, rolling to a sitting position, and rising to his feet. “That’s what makes it so pathetic.”

“It takes time,” Vin pointed out.

And Chris grimaced. “Do you have any idea how tired I am of hearing that?” he asked.

Vin shrugged. “Don’t make it any less true,” he commented.

“I know,” Chris sighed, pulling open the screen door.

He stopped, one foot still on the threshold. Looking back at his friend. A man he trusted completely. With his life. And other things infinitely more important to him. “Not that I don’t appreciate you’re coming out here,” he said quietly.

Vin’s guffaw startled him, as the sharpshooter spit out a mouthful of pudding onto the grass.

“All right, fine,” Chris groused. Damn mind-reading sharpshooter. “I don’t appreciate it. But I was tryin’ to be polite.”

Vin snickered. “Don’t bother. It ain’t natural on ya.”

“Shut up,” Chris retorted but he couldn’t help smiling, as he turned and went back into the house.

Vin stayed in the chair, finished his pudding. Practically licked the cup clean. Then went to join Chris at the barn. Noting triumphantly that Chris had not told him not to come back tomorrow.

AD Travis rubbed his scratchy eyes with his palms. Reviewing his notes. And his tactics. Only two hours to go before they reconvened for what promised to be the most brutal day yet of this inquiry. Brutal, lengthy, and, no doubt, to be filled with rancor and discord, elbow deep in the thick of the thorniest issue. Disobedience. Insubordination. And general disregard for procedures and regulations.

And what was Travis supposed to say to that? He couldn’t exactly deny it. Larabee did indeed have a penchant for disregarding rules, regulations, procedures, and direct orders. It was well documented by the official reprimands in his personnel file. And backed by a number of unofficial reamings and reprimands as well.

But still, Travis could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times his loose-cannon team leader had actually been wrong. Worse yet, Larabee knew it, too. In fact, Travis had personally seen the agent sit through a dressing down from hell, biding his time until he could say coolly, struggling to keep the smirk off his face, “But I was right.”

Fact was, Larabee trusted his own judgment over set strategies and time-honored tactics. And especially over bureaucratic procedures. And Travis knew full well why. He had been a cop. But he wasn’t a cop. Not at heart. At the core, Larabee was a soldier. A tactical team leader heading up an elite squad. Like he’d never left the SEALs. Only now the war was against gunrunners, kidnappers, and a host of other criminals who preyed on innocent people, or viewed them as acceptable casualties in the drive for quick and easy money. And if Larabee had to break some rules to meet the mandate under which RMET Seven had been founded, he would. Better rules broken than lives lost. Or ruined. Those consequences Larabee could live with.

And up until now, the ATF had tacitly agreed. Given Chris his head. Until now. Until they got a glimpse of what Larabee’s legacy might be. Until they got scared. Thought maybe they had let Larabee and his team drift too far from their control.

The problem was, Travis knew deep down, that they were looking at the issue from the wrong angle. Like the optical illusions Travis had loved as a child. Is this a picture of two faces or of a vase? Do you see a beautiful young woman or an old hag? And it was up to Travis to turn the picture around for them. Make them see what he saw.

He sighed. Two hours before they reconvened. Two hours to keep endlessly rolling the evidence around his brain and looking for a way into the directors’ heads.

Vincent Benedetto chose a large, dark hot chocolate for his caffeine high this morning, topped with a mound of whipped cream. There’d be plenty of time for half-rancid ATF coffee during the all-day session of the inquiry, coming up in an hour and a half. He reviewed his notes. Considered the IA recommendations again. Drumming the fingers of his left hand, while holding his hot chocolate in his right hand, he assessed and re-assessed the evidence before him. Forming a picture of Team Seven. Fitting the patterns and pieces together and pulling them apart. Switching directions. Shifting facets. Changing perspectives, as the hour slipped by.

Then he packed up his papers and his notes, the ones he made during the inquiry sessions. And the ones he had scribbled this morning.

“Bound to be an interesting day,” Benedetto told his assistant with a grin as he passed.

She gave him a slight shake of her head and a smile. And returned to her work without comment.

They took their places at the long wooden table, quietly, with few greetings and even less discussion. Travis noted immediately that they all looked tired. Strained. Grave. Mirroring the tension he knew was evident in his own face.

Cranston brought the meeting to order with a brief review of the notes from the last meeting. Asking if there were any issues to be revisited. Or requests for clarification. Careful, Travis observed, to keep his summations objective, factual. As if they were meeting minutes. Probably were. Probably typed up late last night by an assistant earning some nice, fat overtime.

Travis took stock. On the issue of Agent Larabee giving his badge and gun to a known militant: Guilty as charged. Mitigated by issues of self defense. One down. On the issue of Team Seven going AWOL: Guilty as charged. Disciplinary action to be taken as a result: Tabled. On the issue of Larabee’s penchant for disobedience and insubordination: Guilty as charged. Might as well give that one up. The fallout of his maverick streak: Remaining to be judged.

By ten thirty, Benedetto noted, Director LaForce already had his hands clamped around his temples. He was glaring at Travis and talking between his teeth. “Might I ask, Assistant Director Travis, just how it is that a Senior Agent and Team Leader regards regulations and procedures with so little respect? That alone smacks of ingrained insubordination.”

Travis sighed. “I would say that it is not an ingrained lack of respect, Director LaForce, but rather a belief that rules and procedures are not an end in themselves. They exist in service of the Bureau’s mission. And the mission should take priority over procedure.”

“So in essence, Agent Larabee has earned his reputation for blowing off rules and supervisors to get the job done,” Hofstader said succinctly.

“If you are saying that Agent Larabee has a higher respect for the mandates of his mission than for the procedures of the Bureau, then I would have to agree.”

“The ends justify the means?” Benedetto asked sharply. “That’s a slippery ethical line.”

Travis raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps it is, but you’ve examined my agent’s record. Has he slipped off the line?”

“What do you call strong-arming information out of Samuel Bautiste?” LaForce asked, his voice rising in disbelief.

“I call it vigilantism,” Ramirez muttered none too quietly.

“If you recall, Agent Larabee did not participate in that action,” Costas pointed out, making an effort to keep his voice even.

“But would his team have behaved that way had Larabee shown more of a regard for rank and procedures?” LaForce snapped back.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Cranston said sternly, calling the directors back to order before they began shouting at each other.

“Surely we all agree that the attitudes and behaviors of the team are greatly influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of the team leader and his chain of command,” Benedetto said smoothly.

Heads bobbed in silent agreement around the table.

Ramirez tapped his pencil on the table top. “You would agree then,” he said thoughtfully, turning toward AD Travis, “that, as the team leader, Agent Larabee’s predilection for disregarding regulations and procedures and disdain for chains of command influenced his team to behave in the accustomed way in the team leader’s absence.”

Travis hedged, slowly replying, “It is Agent Larabee’s goal that his team run in his absence as efficiently as it would in his presence.”

At Benedetto’s right, Costas clamped his teeth together and quietly inhaled. Hofstader narrowed his eyes.

“In the same manner as if he were leading them?” LaForce clarified, paraphrasing Chris’s own statement.

“Ideally,” Travis answered, the corners of her mouth tight.

Ramirez put down his pencil and looked at Cranston. He turned back to Travis. “Therefore,” he said carefully, “In effect, Agent Larabee has trained his team by example to disregard regulations and chains of command that appear to interfere with getting the job done.”

Benedetto eyed Travis at the sharpness of the retort. And found himself willing the gray-eyed AD not to lose his cool now. He nearly smiled at himself for his lack of objectivity.

“One way to look at it?” LaForce asked, still hot. “Given Agent Larabee’s own adamant—and might I add startlingly arrogant—past assertions and demands, that he be allowed to set the standards for his team and that he alone enact discipline, then maybe he alone should be held responsible for their actions.”

By the looks on their faces, Ramirez and Costas seemed to be judging the merits of that suggestion. Hofstader was staring down through the table top.

Travis’s teeth clamped together, as he forced himself to calmly reply, “If that is the decision of this board of inquiry.”

He knew he was glaring at LaForce. He couldn’t help it. But really it was Chris he was glaring at. In his mind’s eye. For forcing him to do this. To put him on the hook for the team’s actions. Now he had just had to figure out how to get him back down.

Cranston exhaled slowly, refusing to give in to the temptation to call a recess.

Benedetto looked at Travis curiously. “You said that was one way to look at it?” he repeated.

Travis blinked up at him. And saw the director give him a barely perceptible nod. “There are other ways to view the situation, of course,” he said, clearing his throat. He pulled himself up a little more authoritatively in his chair. “For example,” he began. “You make it sound like he led lambs to the slaughter.”

Costas and Hofstader were both eyeing him now.

“You could make the case that individually, the agents of Team Seven would be a discipline problem on any team.” He paused and looked around the table. “Or should I say on any other team.”

Cranston regarded him with interest. The senior director cracked a smile. “Would you be intimating that Larabee’s leadership strategy actually keeps his agents in line?”

Benedetto tried hard not to smile himself, as Cranston’s eyes flicked to him with an expression that rested halfway between amazement and indignation.

Travis seemed to sense the thin line he was walking on, but he forged on ahead. “Yes,” he said. “Not merely intimating, but saying it outright. That Agent Larabee may have his faults, but you can’t deny that he has control of his team.”

“So this departure from good solid police work is because Agent Larabee temporarily dropped the reins,” LaForce snapped back, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

"Had the reins pried from his cold, dead hand, is more like it,” Hofstader retorted.

This time the smile did flash across Travis’s face. So quickly that Benedetto figured he was the only one who saw it.

“Like it or not,” Travis said, trying to control the tension in his voice, “despite individual reprimands, the team’s records show that their work has been within the bounds of proper law enforcement. Considering the casework they have been assigned, their work has been very clean.”

Hofstader raised an eyebrow at Travis. “Within bounds perhaps,” he conceded, “But a better word to describe their work might be exuberant.”

Travis’s mouth formed a straight line. And Benedetto couldn’t be sure whether that was a grimace or an attempt to suppress a grin. From what Benedetto knew and from what he had been reading in preparation, exuberant was a damn good word to use in describing these agents’ approach to catching criminals.

“Nevertheless,” LaForce interjected trying to get his arguments back on track. “It gives me no comfort to think that RMET Seven is a loose cannon only being held back by the force of one man. That they esteem the personal agenda of one man more highly than the mandates of the entire organization that employs them or the rules and regulations that govern them.”

Ramirez looked from LaForce back to Travis. “I have to agree,” he said calmly. “Team Seven’s prevailing attitudes are reflective of Larabee’s. And their actions likewise showed a complete disdain for law enforcement procedures.”

For the first time, Travis’s cool exterior began to crack. Heat flamed up into his gray eyes. “And you won’t concede there were extenuating circumstances?”

Hofstader looked at Ramirez, who shifted in his chair and tried to use a conciliatory tone, replying, “Yes, I agree the circumstances here were a bit unusual.”

Costas stared at Ramirez. “Unusual?” he asked, his voice suddenly cold and brittle. “That’s an interesting word choice. I don’t suppose YOU have ever lost a comrade in an armed conflict.”

Hofstader actually reached down the table and laid a hand on Costas’s arm.

Ramirez stared at the unexpected interruption. “My point was,” he continued, struggling to return to his train of thought. “Our interest here is not in the unusual. It is in the question of whether the prevailing attitudes of the team are an ongoing problem. And is it the result of Agent Larabee’s continued leadership?”

Benedetto flicked a glance down to Travis and then back at Cranston.

Travis’s eyes narrowed. “So,” he said smoothly, a hard edge in his voice. “If I may paraphrase. Is RMET Seven a bunch of mavericks? And is Agent Larabee to blame for it?”

Ramirez flinched. “That’s not how I’d put it,” he returned.

Travis opened his mouth to let fly a retort worthy of Buck Wilmington, when Cranston stretched his hands across the table top, palm down.

“Gentlemen,” he intoned. His voice was neutral, but his glance held a warning. “Please remind yourselves of where you are and the purpose you serve.”

There was silence. The accusation was left hanging. No one took it back. No one denied it.

Benedetto crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. All the cards are on the table now, he thought, regarding Travis through partly hooded eyes. The die is cast. The Rubicon is crossed. How will you play this out?

Larabee’s got a headache. He must have. I know I do, Doug Stone thought sourly. That or the twitching in his left eye means he’s about to shoot those two idiots in the corner.

He turned and regarded Wilmington and Dunne. Arguing.

“You’re saying I screwed up the surveillance!” Dunne shouted in outrage. “You were there, too.”
“I never said anything of the kind,” Buck snapped back. “I said we missed Falco’s exit on the left.”

“Right,” J.D. retorted hotly. “I heard what you said, but what you meant was J.D. missed it. He was watching the left.”

“I said ‘we’ kid. Not ‘you’. How the hell could you think ‘we’ means ‘you’?”

“By your tone of voice,” Dunne snapped. “And stop calling me kid.”

Brett turned to look helplessly at Doug.

Larabee’s hard gaze had been riveted on both men during the course of the entire argument. Unbelievably, he said nothing. Didn’t move a muscle, except for that damn twitch in his left eye. Doug wondered whether he was going to have to shoot them himself. That would probably get a rise out of the Team Leader.

Larabee’s gaze flicked to Stone. And for an absurd, uncomfortable second, Doug thought maybe he had said that part out loud.

Wilmington leaned suddenly forward in his chair and took Dunne by both shoulders. And said something that no one in the room heard except J.D. Dunne. The kid glared daggers back at Wilmington but settled down into his chair. His face a mask. All business now except for the red flush and the black looks.

“Anyway,” Buck said smoothly to Doug and Brett, as if no argument had taken place. “Falco got away. We didn’t see him leave. We assume it was to the left outside our camera angle. The evidence left behind was inconclusive.”

In mid-nod, Doug noticed that Larabee was gone now, too. Just like Falco, he thought. No one had seen him go.