by BMP

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Twenty minutes passed before Doug’s cell phone rang. Gustin. Thank you, sweet Jesus. He answered it tersely. “What? I’m in a meeting.”

Brett looked at him curiously. Wilmington and Dunne looked perturbed at being interrupted. He held up a forefinger. A second later he reached for his pen and began scribbling.

“No kidding?” he asked. “Dumb shit. Tell Giordano to pick him right up. I’ll come down and sit on him till he gives up the answers.”

He hung up the phone and looked apologetically at Dunne and Wilmington. “Sorry,” he said. “Got a break in a pending case. Local DPD found our penny-ante witness. Boy’s in way over his head and don’t even know it.”

He looked over at Brett and then back at Wilmington. “Brett can stay,” he said.

Brett sent him dirty look.

Dunne looked from Brett to Buck and back.

“Why don’t we break for now,” Buck suggested.

Brett nodded.

Both agents from Team Eight grabbed their notes and pens and left, Stone in the lead, practically skipping as he headed for the elevators.

Predictably, Chris was leaning in his office doorway as his agents exited the conference room afterwards. He gestured to Buck with one hand.

Buck sighed. But did as he was bidden.

Plopping himself in the visitor’s chair he steeled himself to answer what the hell he thought he was doing getting into an actual argument with J.D. during a conference with another team. He supposed it wouldn’t fly to tell Chris that J.D. was the one doing all the arguing. Hell, it was only Team Eight. Like those boys don’t ever fight with each other in front of other teams. He glanced up as he realized Chris was still standing there, silent, with a flicker of a smile quirking up the left side of his mouth.

He handed Buck a stack of six manila folders. One for each agent. Each containing the official reports from yesterday’s bust. Buck looked questioningly back up at Chris.

“They need to be read, approved, and signed off on,” Chris said, the smile growing wider.

Buck winced. “Ain’t that your job, Stud?”

Larabee’s expression grew into a grin. And not a nice one either. “Yes,” he said smoothly. “But seeing as we’re beginning your training in earnest, and seeing as you were the team leader on the operation, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get your feet wet.”

“Just how I want to go out. Drowned in administrative details.” Buck said sourly.

Chris grinned so wide it showed his dimples. “Welcome to my world, Stud,” he said.

Buck looked at him with a pained expression. And Chris almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

“It won’t be so bad,” Chris said. “I’ve already read them over. I made some notes for you.”

He paused and looked slyly at his second in command. “I’ll sit with you and talk you through the whole pile,” he offered.

“If?” Buck asked. He knew that offer wasn’t coming free.

“You buy the drinks,” Chris finished.

Buck shook his head. Grinned. But still shook his head. “No way. Raine’s one tough cookie, an’ I ain’t takin’ on her and Nathan. You don’t drink yet. Sorry.”

Chris grinned back. Wild. Feral. “Who you more afraid of Buck?” he whispered.

Shit! Buck thought. He knew the smile on his face mirrored Chris’s. Couldn’t help but catch that damn grin. He looked down at the stack of folders in his hands. “Where?” he heard himself ask.

“Johnny Ringo’s,” Chris answered.

Buck shook his head. Ringo’s. Hadn’t been there in a coon’s age. Not since Sarah and Adam died. Chris stopped going there. Didn’t want anyone he knew watching him try to drown his rage in whiskey. But the flames in his memory refused to be extinguished.

Buck peered back up at Chris. Obviously the team leader had been thinking it over. He raised his eyebrows. “Why Ringo’s in particular?”

Chris shrugged. Sly. “No one we know there knows anyone we know here.”

Buck shook his head. Damn, Larabee, he thought. You are one sneaky piece of work.

“Deal,” he said finally. Consoling himself for giving in by remembering that he wouldn’t be suffering through the reports alone.

Chris’s voice stopped him as he neared the office door.

“You’re gonna have to stop arguing with him,” the voice said. Quietly.

Buck looked back over his shoulder. “I know,” he said regretfully. And he did know. Chris wasn’t talking about the meeting. That had been a mistake. One that he let continue a little too long. He knew that.

What Chris was talking about was the daily arguing. The day to day crap that kept the whole damn bullpen entertained sometimes. Even Chris. Yep, arguing with J.D. was one of Buck’s favorite pastimes.

Like Buck used to argue with Chris back when they were partners on the DPD. Not that Chris had ever really participated much, now that Buck thought about it. But at least he had put up with it. Even instigated occasionally. Until Chris quit on him. Stopped cold. Couldn’t tolerate the teasing any longer.

It had happened in the blink of an eye. And Buck could name the day. The same day Chris stopped smiling. Stopped talking. Stopped eating. And stopped caring whether or not he lived to see tomorrow.

Buck shuddered. He knew this was different, but damn it, he wasn’t going to give up being who he was. If arguing with J.D. made him laugh, then hell if he was going to give it up. But how the hell was he going to figure out where to draw the lines?

He glanced back up.

Chris’s smile had melted away. Something flashed across his face, as he met Buck’s eye. Fleeting. Something Buck seldom saw there. It stayed only a moment. Not long enough for Buck to put a name to it. Not until he was halfway back to his desk. Then he named it. Sympathy.

Buck plopped the folders into his lock drawer. On top of the book Chris had handed him. His mind mulling over this new direction. And not sure at all he wanted to go there.

Benedetto watched Travis, LaForce and Ramirez fighting hard not to lose their cool. Costas sat in his chair, eyes flicking back and forth between the directors and AD Travis, his face working through several expressions, conflicting each other, but each one darker than the last. Hofstader’s glances at Cranston were steadily growing in concern, as the voices around him grew steadily in volume. But Cranston’s attention was riveted on the AD at the other end of the table. And Benedetto followed his gaze.

Travis’s knuckles had turned white where he gripped the edge of the table, but his face remained composed.

“Just say what you’re afraid of,” Travis said, his voice quiet, holding a harsh edge.

LaForce paused in mid-sentence and blinked.

“Say it,” Travis repeated. “Say you’re afraid of a team that owes its loyalty to their leader.”

“That’s not…” Ramirez began, irritated.

Travis never raised his voice, but his words drowned him out, as if he had shouted. “You’re afraid of a team that isn’t loyal to you. And your chains of command. And your regulations.”

The AD’s grey eyes hardened with his voice. “You’re afraid of a team that doesn’t give a damn about policy or politics or you or all the brass in the whole damn world. You’re afraid. Because they’re loyal to Chris Larabee. They’d do just about anything for him. And that’s a threat to your superiority.”

“It’s a threat to the public safety,” LaForce bit out.

Benedetto saw the twitch in the corner of Travis’s lip. But the AD’s voice was calm and clinical. “In what way?”

LaForce practically spluttered, stabbing his finger down against the tabletop. “By Larabee’s admission, the team ran itself the same way it would have if he were there!”

Travis’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You believe that he would have taken his team AWOL?”

“In similar circumstances,” LaForce replied hotly. “Yes, I do.”

“As do I,” Ramirez agreed.

Benedetto’s eyes flicked to Costas. Now staring hard at the tabletop.

Travis’s lips twisted into a grimace. His palms flat against the tabletop. As if he were going to leap out of his chair. “You’ve got his records. So show me. Show me a similar circumstance. Show me where he took his team to conduct an unauthorized operation.”

He waited, while they shifted in their chairs.

Cranston’s voice floated down the table. “You know there are no similar circumstances,” he said softly.

Benedetto nearly snorted. Damn straight, he thought. Or this would’ve been one short inquiry.

“So you’ve suddenly got a problem with his ethics, then,” Travis snapped, sarcasm leaking through his voice. “Or are you just afraid of loyalty?”

Ramirez’s hand hit the tabletop. “You want to know what I’m afraid of?” He exploded. “Some half-cocked group of ATF-armed thugs exacting vengeance on whoever they want to in the name of what they interpret as their right!”

“It wasn’t a mission of vengeance!” Travis exploded. And realized, as six pairs of eyes jerked toward him, that he had said too much.

He caught his breath.

Cranston’s voice was hard now. “What would you call it?” he asked.

God damn it! Travis thought and fought his way up through the sudden wash of fear. Rocketing back to their faces. The week they came back. He should have known. Of all people, he should have realized what was about to happen. He had convinced himself that he had been too busy to notice. But now he knew. Some part of him had somehow deliberately cast a blind eye. He himself had given them the opportunity to go.

He forced himself to think straight. To follow his strategy. Heart pounding, and in it up to his waist now. Always had been. Just hadn’t shouldered his full share of the blame yet.

He was shocked to feel the corners of his lips unaccountably trying to twist upward. He fought it tooth and nail. Knowing if he threw the directors a smirk now they’d throw the book at all of them.

But some detached part of his brain wondered what that smirk would look like. Because from the inside for just a moment, he wondered if this was what it felt like to be Chris Larabee. He shook it away with dread. The last thing he needed right now was Larabee. The boy had gotten himself into enough trouble. Problem was he was never any good at getting himself out of trouble. That, and Travis thought as a chill went up his spine, he never really wanted to find out what it felt like to be Chris Larabee.

He leaned forward in his chair as he answered the question, letting his eyes get hard. Letting the anger crackle through his softly spoken words. “They carried out an investigation already connected with the events in Texas. An investigation into a known arms dealer, whom they have had under investigation for more than two years, and whom they had reason to believe had knowledge of the sale of rocket launchers to the militia.”

“This so-called investigation was unauthorized!” LaForce roared, incredulous that they could argue so simple a point.

“Because you wouldn’t authorize it!” Travis roared back.

“It was vengeance! Plain and simple,” La Force countered.

Travis’s eyes blazed. “It wasn’t vengeance. It was a failure of leadership!”

“We agree on that,” Ramirez said quietly. Deadly.

The glare Travis turned on him would have made a lesser man run. Further comment died in Ramirez’s throat, and Benedetto wondered whether Ramirez was even aware of the sudden silence that filled the room. Like the instant of pause between the click of the detonator and the coming explosion.

“Your failure,” Travis replied, the words thundering into the conference room. “Yours and mine. We failed them.”

LaForce opened his mouth to speak. Benedetto sneaked a glance over at Costas and Hofstader, both of whom watched with rapt fascination as the hard grey eyes turned to LaForce. And Travis continued speaking, as if LaForce were not even there.

“We failed them,” he repeated. “Buck Wilmington led them back here. Brought them home. Just like Chris Larabee would have. Brought them home and waited for us to lead them. And we refused.”

Costas stared at Travis. Eyes haunted. He licked dry lips and reached for his water glass. From the corner of his eye Benedetto saw the fingers tremble.

“We refused to hear their requests or their offers of assistance. We failed to recognize the leadership systems already in place. We failed to honor a good agent’s memory and tried to replace him over the heads and backs of his team. Without consulting them. Without giving them any regard whatsoever.”

“They needed to be brought under control,” LaForce countered.

“They were under control!” Travis snapped. His tone carrying more than just anger now. “We told them to come back. They came back. We told them to take a week off. They took a week off.”
He paused. Swallowed. Stared hard at each of them. “We shut them out. Told them that information about Texas was on a need to know basis.”

The directors looked at each other in consternation. “That decision had nothing to do with Team Seven,” Hofstader replied calmly.

“Texas had everything to do with Team Seven!” Travis shot back. “From the minute they came back, all we did was send them the message that we didn’t trust them. And didn’t give a damn what they wanted or what they thought.” His voice cracked. “Or what they felt.”

Travis glared at them. All of them, regardless of rank, role, or seniority. And found himself breathing hard. The only sound in the silence around the table.

He willed his voice to be steady. “And now you’re afraid you can’t control them.”

Benedetto watched the gray eyes narrow. The AD waited. Paused. Held their attention like a master. “And you can’t,” he bit off with utter finality.

A thin smile lifted the tight corners of Hofstader’s mouth.

Costas turned eyes toward Travis that focused a thousand miles away.

Ramirez and LaForce stared, questioning, waiting.

“You don’t control men like the agents of Team Seven,” Travis said, shaking his head sadly, as he saw the lack of understanding on Ramirez’s and LaForce’s faces. “You lead them.”

Ramirez shook his head in consternation. But he did not speak.

Benedetto smiled as thinly as Hofstader, flicking a glance toward the grizzled field veteran. “Like Agent Larabee?”

Travis looked up at him. “He brought them back here,” Travis replied firmly. “And they have owned up to everything they did. Doesn’t that speak volumes for his ethics? And the direction of his leadership?”

Benedetto did not answer. Instead he asked a question. “As directors,” he said calmly, his words belying his smile. “Do we not also have the right to lead them?”

Travis turned his glance to Benedetto. Eyed the thin smile and frowned. His shoulders twitched in a slight shrug. He gave the only answer he could. “I suppose that will be determined by this board.”

Benedetto inclined his head slightly toward the AD His eyes allowing a flash of something that to AD Travis looked suspiciously like pride.

Long after the AD had left. Been dismissed and left the board to their deliberating, Benedetto pondered those last words. A brilliantly noncommittal parry to his direct thrust. Deferentially leaving the decision to the board, yet rife with implications for the results of their decision.

When the board broke up for the evening, he returned to his office. It was already well after quitting time, when his director, his supervisor, and friend of many years appeared suddenly in Benedetto’s doorway like a gray shadow in his overcoat. Soundless. Wordless. Benedetto smiled to himself before looking up. With a gesture of his head, the man beckoned Benedetto to accompany him to his office, where Benedetto relaxed into a chair and began to fill his boss in on Travis’s final plays in the game of political chess and watched his boss’s expression glow his appreciation.

Buck waited anxiously by his stack of file folders, feeling somewhat foolish, as he gazed around the room. Already a half a dozen DPD officers had stopped by his table to offer exclamations of disbelief at seeing him. Here. Alone. Some of the offerings less friendly than others. He narrowed his eyes and eyed the door. Where the hell is Larabee? he asked himself for the third time.

The third time was the charm. The bell rang and in he came from the darkness outside. He had gone home to take care of the horses. He had changed his clothes but not his color scheme. Black jeans, black tee shirt, black windbreaker. Like a shadow that broke off of the night.

It took Chris a fraction of a second to spot Buck at a booth to the left of the door. He was stopped by the bartender, who stretched out both hands to him in an exclamation of delight that Buck could not quite catch due to the racket by the dartboard to his right. Chris’s own hand was lost in the bartender’s two-handed grip. The bartender called out to someone else, not letting go of Chris’s hand but pointing at him with the other. Buck craned his neck but could not see who it was that Chris gave an embarrassed, almost shy wave to, before ducking further into the collar of his black jacket and moving hurriedly toward Buck.

Buck grinned into his beer mug.

A moment later a waitress appeared with a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses.

Chris looked at her questioningly.

“It’s the good stuff,” she said with a smile and a wink.

Chris frowned at her. Buck frowned at Chris. Then he saw the bartender throw an OK sign in their direction.

“It’s on the house,” the waitress said with a shrug, eyeing Chris curiously.

Chris looked embarrassed as he thanked her. She bit her lip as she smiled back, then turned on her heel and strode away.

Buck grinned even wider, having an even harder time hiding it in his mug.

“Looks like I’m off the hook for the drinks,” Buck cracked, wiping the foam from his lip.

Chris gave him a mock glare. He admired the black label before pouring himself a neat shot. Before he could lift it from the table, a hand shot out and covered the top of the glass.

“You eat?” Buck said sternly.

Chris eyed his old friend, doing his best to hide his exasperation. “Yes,” he replied.

“All right then,” Buck responded, removing his hand from the top of the glass.

They waited until Chris had downed his shot. Slowly. In no particular hurry. Then he signaled to the bartender that it really was the good stuff, which made the pot-bellied old codger grin before returning to wiping down the long wooden bar.

Then Chris turned his attention to the stack of folders. Buck took out his pen and opened a pad of paper. They leaned over the reports together. Buck doing most of the talking and all of the writing.

They didn’t get quite as far as Buck had hoped. Chris didn’t even finish his second shot. He pushed it aside. And Buck could see from his eyes that it was because the blond was having trouble focusing.

Buck finally called it quits when Chris let loose a jaw-cracking yawn that he tried to hide by turning away. Buck shook his head and snorted.

“I’ll drive you home,” he said with a laugh.

“Sorry,” Chris apologized, looking down at the reports still left unreviewed.

“Not as sorry as I am,” Buck muttered. It was meant to be a joke, but he saw the look that flitted across Chris’s exhausted face. He sighed and clapped his old friend on the back. “Come on.”

“What about my car?” Chris protested.

Buck shrugged into his own jacket. “We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

Chris shook his head. “I can drive, Buck,” he said. “I didn’t have that much to drink.”

“I know,” Buck replied calmly. “But I don’t want you falling asleep at the wheel.”

Chris’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t offer any more excuses. Just jammed his hands into his pockets and followed Buck toward the door.

They stopped at the bar with the bottle. The bartender frowned. “Light night?” he asked.

“Excuse Chris,” Buck said with a grin. “He’s a bit of a lightweight tonight.”

Chris smiled down at the floor, as the bartender told him he’d save the bottle for their next visit. But the green eyes flashed up his gratitude, as Buck handed the man Chris’s keys.

They nearly got to the door, when suddenly it was blocked by a three-foot-wide wall of muscle.

Buck didn’t even let his eyes travel up to the face. He didn’t need to. It was like a bad dream repeating itself. Chris glanced over at Buck before giving a small sigh. He looked steadily at the floor, as if concentrating on the dust in the cracks between the floorboards. From the corner of his eye, Buck saw him shift his weight slightly.

“Well, well, well,” the man slurred. Swaying slightly.

Buck flicked a glance back to Chris. Chris said nothing. Still staring resolutely at the floor. He sighed and looked up at the red-faced man, knowing now that there would be no reasoning with him. He was drunk. And the drink had made him careless.

“Outta the way Wilmington,” the man growled. “I owe your pal there a new face.”

Buck looked back at Chris and grimaced.

Chris felt the stare. He sighed. Jim Todd. Biker. Jarhead. Ex-cop. Released due to too many complaints of excessive use of force. Gave himself the nickname Diesel. Idiot. And a mistake from Chris’s past.

Looking back, he liked to think that Diesel had had it coming to him that night. The last night he did his drinking and drowning at Ringo’s.

“Come on Jimbo,” Buck said quietly. “You don’t want to go there.”

“Jimbo” Todd had gained at least fifty pounds since Buck had last seen him, lying under a broken chair, writhing and holding his face. Chris sitting back against the wall of the now empty bar, staring at his hands, blood pouring from his nose and a cut above his eye. It had taken Buck nearly five minutes to convince Chris not to swing at him, too, before dragging his drunk friend out the door, peeling out of the driveway at the bartender’s insistence just ahead of the sirens wailing in the distance and coming closer each second.

In the middle of his reverie, Diesel reached out with a surprisingly swift backhand, catching Buck off guard and sending him staggering hard into the bar. Scattering barstools. Todd went after Chris, windmill arms swinging.

The instant he saw Buck hit the bar, ribs first, folding against the wood, Chris felt something inside him snap. He didn’t even know what happened until he saw Todd’s eyes, large, bulging above his collar, beneath him on a bench seat. His neck angled awkwardly against the wall, Chris on top of him, pinning him, one elbow across his throat, his right palm raised by his own ear. Poised. Stopped. An instant before he would have driven it right into Todd’s large ugly face. And probably killed the man.

He noticed the roar of his own hard breathing in his ears. And wondered vaguely what had made him stop. He regarded the frightened eyes. Heard the deafening silence of the bar. Felt Buck more than saw him. At his back.

He leaned into Todd’s face. “Don’t ever lay a hand on one of my men,” he whispered, the venom dripping from each syllable, his face close enough to smell the alcohol, the sweat, the smell of fear.

He felt Buck touch his shoulder. Lightly. And he knew what it meant. He paused only long enough to make sure he was understood. Then he removed the elbow. He scrubbed the raised hand back through his hair before shoving himself off of the man, off the seat. Away from the table. Without once removing his hard green gaze from Jimbo’s white face.

Chris shrugged his jacket back into place and moved toward the door. He looked up at the bartender, the regret written all over the fatigue lines in his face.

The bartender smiled tightly and shook his head. “He won’t be coming in here anymore,” he said solemnly, jerking his head at Diesel who was glaring at them both.

They climbed into Buck’s truck and locked both doors. Chris bent over double, arms wrapped around his middle and Buck had a long moment of panic before he heard the sound. Laughter. Hard. Choking.

Buck knew it was the stress of the last few weeks. The backlash to the sudden release of the pent up anger. The exhaustion. Medications and alcohol. But Chris’s laughter was as it always was for Buck. Utterly contagious.

The tears streamed helplessly down his cheeks and into his mustache, until they both were leaning back against the seats and struggling for breath. A second later, Diesel got hauled out the door by his big buddies, some of them cops Buck knew. Chris and Buck instantly ducked down behind Buck’s dashboard, all but holding their breaths while three men threw Diesel loudly and belligerently into the back seat of a big sedan and roared off into the night.

They raised their heads cautiously. Buck craned his head slowly around, pressing his face against the glass.

“They gone?” Chris asked. Almost whispered.

Buck nodded. And turned back.

They caught each other’s eye suddenly and in their guilty glances found the sudden ludicrous understanding of their own stupidity. Hiding in Buck’s truck like guilty twelve-year-olds.

It set them off again. They were out in the parking lot for another fifteen minutes, roaring with laughter and telling each other old stories about the good old days.

In the safe harbor of his own front hall, Chris closed the front door behind him and leaned back against it, a small smile still stuck to his face. He gave a sigh as he pushed off the door and went into the kitchen, flicking the kitchen light on. A plain brown paper grocery bag sat on the table where he had left it. He had found it on the porch when he got home earlier that evening.

For the second time he read the note taped to the top.

Dear Chris,

This is a little weird, but I thought you should have these.

They belong to the team, I guess. At least they sent them to us.

But I thought you should have them. If you don’t want them, I understand, and I’ll take it back.


A self-conscious postscript clung to the very bottom of the paper.

P.S. Either way, I’d rather you didn’t tell Buck.

He smiled to himself, carefully opening the bag, as he carried it up the stairs.

At first he didn’t understand what he was looking at. A small photo album with the odd title handwritten on the cover. Then he opened the cover to find the collection of cards. Each one carefully inserted with one side under the plastic sleeve on each page. So it could be opened and read.

He knew what the cards were the instant he’d laid eyes on them. He’d seen way too many. Sent too many. Received too many. Remembering the collection he had cast from his sight, but could not bring himself to throw away. They drifted into limbo in a box shoved somewhere in the back of a closet. Somewhere here in this house. And he refused to try to remember where.

He focused again on the album in his hands. He knew what they were, but he did not understand. Yet his fingers trembled as he slowly turned open the first pale pastel painted cover and read the words there. Uncomprehending he turned to the next card and the next, reading the names. “To Team Seven”, “To Buck, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, and J.D.” All the same. Or a variation of the same.

Almost as if unable to stop himself, he began to read the words. Preprinted lines chosen in card stores. Or carefully handwritten. Words people to describe him. Or to say… What? That they were sorry? Sorry for what?

He choked. Seeing another set of cards. Another funeral. What good did “sorry” ever do?

He closed the cover suddenly. Cold. Staring but not seeing until the words on the cover sank unconsciously into his brain. John 15:13. J.D. had written it. He was sure. Chris knew what it was. All he had to do was go look it up.

But his eyes fell on J.D.’s note, stopping him. He could understand giving the cards away. After all, what do you do with them when it was all some terrible mistake? An awkward situation if ever there was one, he mused, thinking it over with irony. But he couldn’t wrap his brain around why J.D. would want them back. But there it was. If you don’t want them, I’ll take it back. Or why he shouldn’t tell Buck. Of all people, Buck would get the joke, and God knew, J.D. loved a joke.

He was in the master bath brushing his teeth when the thought carried itself to a conclusion. J.D. loved a joke. And he would have told it to all of them together. To have a larger audience. Then when they had all groaned and thrown whatever was handy on their desks at him, he would have pouted and insisted it was funny.

But it wasn’t a joke. At least it wasn’t meant to be. J.D. hadn’t presented it in front of the team. Although every page of it had been put together with care, he had wrapped it like rotgut liquor, like low-grade pornography, in a plain brown bag and left it on the porch when no one was around to witness. Left it with a note to explain. Like an abandoned baby. With instructions to give it back rather than discard it. And a furtive request not to tell Buck.

He didn’t know why exactly, but if the secret was important to the kid, he could keep it. He put the book on the rocking chair by the window. Staring at the cover. Reminding himself to look it up tomorrow. And wondering if he really would. Wondering if he owed it to the kid to read the whole thing through.

It was late. And damn he was tired. For a second, he thought of just throwing himself spread-eagled on top of the bed with the lights still blazing, but he managed to get into a pair of soft sweats and a tee shirt and to turn off the lights. And to crawl under the sheets.

A second later he checked his alarm. Wouldn’t do to be late to meet Tanner for that hill. He fell asleep before the grin even left his face.

+ + + + + + +



“Donut? Chocolate? Frosted? Filled?”


Tanner’s cowboy boots echoed in the concrete cavern of the ATF parking garage, a staccato counterpart to the list of suggestions piling up against the stubborn refusals from the taller agent beside him.

“Tasteless Power Bar? I got it! Big ass cup of Tanner-style coffee?”

“Jesus, no.” This time the man actually blanched.

Vin opened his mouth one more time. But got cut off while still inhaling.


“Yer supposed to eat,” The Texan grumbled.


“Damn big hill takes a lot out of a man.”

More silence.

Vin scowled threateningly now. “Hard headed son of a bitch, I ain’t pickin’ ya up off the floor when ya pass out.”

“Fine,” the man in black snapped.

Tanner’s eyes narrowed, as he continued to mutter. “Leave ya there. Cover up the coffee stains.”

The green eyes turned on him then. “Get in the damn elevator and shut up.”

Lawrence Jameson and Brad Fraser from Team Five stood by the elevator doors and sourly watched the two men approach. Larabee, ramrod straight, striding down the corridor between the parked cars like he was freakin’ Moses. And his little Texas lap dog slouching along beside him. Arguing. At eight in the morning.

Fraser grimaced. What the hell was there to argue about at eight in the morning? He wasn’t even talking to Jameson this early. He eyed the man next to him. Hell, neither of them would be in this early except the boss had called an early meeting, on account of he was leaving early for a vacation and felt it would be better to inconvenience the whole damn team rather than sacrifice an hour of his precious vacation time.

Fraser turned to Jameson and watched the undercover agent watch the approaching agents from Team Seven.

“Jesus I hate those guys,” Jameson said finally, with a disgusted nod toward Larabee. “Look at him. You’d think he doesn’t know that he’s gonna have his ass handed to him.”

Fraser scowled. “Please,” he muttered. “God’s gift to the ATF?”

Jameson snorted. “Maybe he figures he’s kissed enough of Travis’s butt to keep him safe.”

Fraser snorted outright at that one. “Doubt he could bend over far enough what with that big stick up his ass.”

He paused, adding thoughtfully, “Hope he lands on it when they toss him out of here.”

Jameson burst out laughing.

The two agents from Team Five were still snickering when the doors slid open. They stepped inside. Brad made an attempt to get the doors to close before the other two arrived, but it didn’t pan out. Larabee and Tanner arrived in the nick of time.

Neither of the two new arrivals said anything. They pressed the button for floor eleven and stood glowering straight ahead at the doors, identical scowls plastered on their faces.

Fraser craned his neck to catch Jameson’s eye, mouthing the words “Lovers’ quarrel” behind their backs.

Jameson ducked his head and covered his laugh with a cough. Fraser was an ass. Pleased with his own wit and at getting away with it, too, already Jameson could see him winding up for his next trick. You could always count on Fraser to turn a winning hand into a losing one. He was just going to keep pushing it until one or both of the two agents from Team Seven turned around and throttled him.

Jameson grinned to himself. That alone would almost make coming in early worth the trip.

Sure enough, Fraser sidled up on the other side of Tanner and looked crossways over at Larabee. “Hey, Jameson,” Fraser said idly.

Team Five’s undercover agent blanched. The twit wasn’t supposed to incriminate him. He clenched his teeth, but Brad didn’t even notice that his teammate didn’t reply. He just continued blithely on. “Heard they’re lookin’ for security guards at the mall. Know anyone who’ll be lookin’ for a job?”

Jameson watched Tanner’s shoulders drop straight down. Loose at the joints. Rolling his neck slightly. The Texan said nothing. And neither did Jameson.

Fraser leaned around Tanner. “How ‘bout you Larabee?”

Larabee appeared to have gone deaf, for not a muscle twitched to indicate that he had heard.

Not that Brad would notice his good luck.

And he didn’t.

I’d shut up now if I were you, Fraser, Jameson thought, fully aware of the warning inherent in the silence. But then Team Five’s sharpshooter had never really been all that good at reading the signs. At least not before the shooting actually started. Truth to tell, Jameson wondered that any of them had survived this long with Fraser watching their backs.

True to form, Fraser did not know when to quit. Hardly even able to contain his laughter, he bit out, “’Course when ya fill out the application, ya might wanna leave out that part about givin’ the guy your gun while you run for cover.”

The laughter was short lived.

The elevator came suddenly to a screeching emergency halt. Red emergency lighting suddenly flowed down over them. Alarm bells started ringing somewhere beyond them. Jameson braced himself against the hand rail as the car jerked to a stop. Regaining his balance he glanced up at Brad. Who was now braced against the wall, as well, assisted by both of Tanner’s fists in his collar.

“Wanna go Brad?” the Texan drawled softly, a maniacal grin widening across his face as he added, “I’m sure yer buddy here will tell yer boss why yer late.”

Jameson’s glance flicked to Chris Larabee. Was he going to say something? Do something? Apparently not. The whole damn elevator car lurched, stopped. Bells were going off for Christ’s sake, and the guy’s just standing there. Hands in his pockets. Still glaring at the doors. Like nothing in particular was going on.

Disgustedly, Jameson turned back to Brad and Tanner.

Brad swallowed, as the blue eyes drilled into him. He wondering vaguely if there was any truth to the rumor that Tanner knew ten ways to kill with just one finger. He glared at Jameson. Thanks for the backup, asshole!

Jameson was contemplating exactly how to explain to Senior Agent Terry Jakes that Fraser was late for their meeting because he had to gather up his scattered internal organs from the elevator shaft, when Larabee finally decided to react. About damn time, Jameson thought, as the tall blond slowly turned away from the door and looked over at Tanner and Fraser. Casually. Almost disinterestedly.

Then he turned back to the control panel and flicked the emergency stop switch back into place. The elevator started up. He put his hands back in his pockets. The bells stopped ringing. The red lights faded, restoring normal lighting to the elevator, as they began to rise.

Security came over the speaker asking if everything was all right.

Jameson didn’t say a word. Fraser still stood up against the wall, Tanner’s fists against his throat. Unable to speak even if he had wanted to.

“Sorry,” Larabee said smoothly to the voice. “Everything’s under control.”

Incredibly. The voice accepted the idiot’s word and disconnected the speaker.

“Leave it,” Larabee said quietly, a moment later, his gaze never shifting from the numbers flashing on the panel above the door. And for a moment Jameson wondered who he was talking to. Then Tanner’s hands unclenched from Fraser’s shirt. And the wiry little Texan backed off exactly one half step. And stood there motionless, still drilling Fraser with a murderous glare. Even Jameson felt sweat break out on his forehead.

Vin turned the glare suddenly on Jameson, who although he felt that he would be perfectly justified in pointing out that he had not said one single word, decided, however not to speak at all. He turned slowly, discreetly away to face the other wall, leaving Brad to face his fate.

A soft ding announced their arrival at the tenth floor. The doors slid open. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jameson slipped out the doors, not even waiting for them to open all the way. He disappeared in the direction of his team’s bullpen, eyes fixed straight ahead.

Fraser’s eyes shifted nervously toward the open doors. Still held in space by the threat in Tanner’s blue eyes. He swallowed as the doors began to slide closed again.

Larabee inserted his right hand into the space between the doors, pushing the bumper. They slid open again, and Larabee smiled coldly.

This time Brad did not hesitate. He tore his eyes from Tanner’s face and sidled off the elevator. A trail of sweat trickled maddeningly down into his collar, but he did not give either of the men behind him the satisfaction of seeing him wipe it away. Instead, he hurried off, planning to redirect his anger at his bastard teammate who had abandoned him.

Tanner turned the glare back on his team leader.

Chris regarded Tanner from the corner of his eye, a little smirk escaping onto his lips, as he returned his gaze to the closing door. “Lotta paperwork for assaulting a federal agent,” he said with a shrug. “Know how ya hate paperwork.”

“Dumb ass,” the sharpshooter muttered.

Chris smiled tightly to himself, knowing damn well the Texan was no longer talking about Fraser.

The door opened onto the eleventh floor, and they strode side by side up the hall to their bullpen.

Fifteen minutes later, the doors slid apart again on the eleventh floor main corridor, spitting forth J.D. Dunne, propelled along by the long arm of Agent Buck Wilmington.

The young agent was still spluttering out some sort of response to something that had been said by someone who was now halfway to the twelfth floor without benefit of Dunne’s reply.

“Bastard!” J.D. shouted at the chrome doors, flinging his jacket against them.

Wilmington didn’t blink. He picked up the jacket and thrust it back into his teammate’s hands, turning the youth toward the bullpen doors.

J.D. stared at him incredulous. “How could you just stand there?”

Buck sighed. “I’ve heard worse.” He walked faster toward the bullpen, hoping to force Dunne to keep up with him.

J.D. was spluttering at him now.

Buck stopped and came back two steps, forcing himself not to roll his eyes. “Kid…,” he said.

“Don’t call me kid!” the youth snapped back, eyes flashing.

“Fine,” Buck replied, vowing to himself for the third or fourth time this morning that he was not going to raise his voice. Not going to shout, or holler or growl, snarl, or snap. And he was most definitely not going to hit anyone. Not today. Today he would be calm, cool, and in control. Stoic. Steady as a rock.

He lowered his voice and leaned in toward J.D. Keeping it even. “Every slug who’s ever had a grudge against Chris, or you, or any other member of this team is gonna come crawlin’ out from under their rock today to take a poke at you. So unless you want to spend your whole damn day thinking up snappy comebacks or smacking idiots in the mouth, you’d better just make up your mind to ignore ‘em.”

J.D. glared at him. Furious. He stalked away without another word.

Buck rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and took a deep breath, willing himself to think happy thoughts. The face of Jimbo Todd, came to mind, last seen the night before at Johnny Ringo’s, sprawled over the bench seat, Chris Larabee’s elbow in his neck. That did the trick. His composure restored, the tall mustached agent continued on toward the bullpen. Now, he reflected, if only he could just fix the hard, cold lump that had taken up residence in his stomach.

Vin was at his desk when J.D. entered the bullpen. That did not surprise him. He had seen the beat-up Jeep down in the parking garage. But he was not quite prepared to see Chris. Of course Buck had mentioned something that morning about leaving Chris’s truck at some bar last night. But J.D. hadn’t really listened. And it seemed such a backward thing for Buck to do, all things considered, that he assumed he just hadn’t heard correctly.

At any rate, he had forgotten it, especially after that cheap shot some agent he didn’t even know threw at them in the elevator. Forgotten until now. When Chris stopped short and pinned a thoughtful, penetrating gaze in his direction. Already angry and red faced, the young agent felt the burn crawl even higher up his cheeks.

He dropped his backpack at his desk, feeling foolish now. Certain that Chris’s searching look had to do with the album. A mistake, he knew now. Awkward. Both the album and the way he had left it, like a coward. A coward intruding where he shouldn’t have. Unbalancing what little balance they all had left. God! What Chris must be thinking this morning! J.D. chastised himself, avoiding eye contact with Buck or Vin, or most of all Chris, all the while knowing he would just fall through the floor and die if any mention of it came out of Tanner’s mouth as a joke.

A cup of light coffee appeared on his desk with a clunk. And a hand rested briefly on his shoulder. Then it was gone. J.D. looked up, furtively, against his better judgment, to see Chris walking away.

Then, as if he had somehow sensed the glance, the team leader turned and looked back, sending J.D. the smallest of smiles. But it was the rare light in the half-lidded green eyes that held J.D.’s attention. The leader inclined his head briefly toward his youngest agent, before turning away and going into his office.

Buck frowned at both of them.

J.D. ducked his head. Not willing to share his moment or the strange warm glow in the center of his chest with anyone. Not with Vin. Not even with his best friend.