by BMP

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It took another half hour of messy proposal and counterproposal, reminding Travis of watching Evie haggling over prices in the foreign bazaars that they had visited in their youthful travels. Back when they were young and unfettered by career baggage and as yet had no children—either biological, or the many unruly semi-adopted ones that were right now turning Travis’s already gray hair to silver. In the end, he knew Team Seven would be unhappy with the arrangements, which is what would allow him to sell the proposal to his chain of command.

Chris and Buck would be required to take an official ATF-prescribed leadership course. Officially, both men would be taking it because of a deficiency in leadership regarding knowledge of ATF objectives, methods, and regulations. Unofficially, Travis had no idea what would be the result, since Chris had agreed to it way too readily.

In addition, all seven members of the team would be forced to sit through an academy lecture course on ethics in the law enforcement profession. They would be required to turn in all assignments given by the instructor. And they would not be eligible for promotion rosters again until they had demonstrated satisfactory completion of the course requirements, as determined by the instructor. And Travis knew just the instructor to ensure it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.

“That’ll work,” Chris said, when the terms were set. “Everyone’ll hate that.”

Travis shook his head. “Fine,” he replied. “You’ll receive official notification of the agreed-on terms by close of business. Then you may inform your team.”

Chris nodded. Ready to leave, but Travis stopped him. “Now to discuss the terms of your requalification,” Travis said smoothly but with a grin that was decidedly smug.

For the first time all day, he had the upper hand. And he was satisfied to see Larabee’s famous composure start to crack at the edges, as the team leader frowned suddenly in genuine consternation.

Chris recovered his poker face quickly, while his mind raced through several possible tracks for this conversation to take. After all, he had known that the AD was withholding permission to take the requalification tests, but he had felt reasonably certain that it wasn’t something Travis would hold over him as punishment. Now looking at that grin, he was not so certain. Conditions were going to be attached before he could resume work. Before he could get back to what he did best. Before he would be allowed to return to his team wholly and completely.

He waited. Ready to accept whatever Travis handed him because he knew deep down they had gotten off easy. They were still together. Still employed. He was still in charge. Sure they’d be watching him more closely, but they’d kept his autonomy in discipline intact. No doubt he’d be called on the carpet a hell of a lot more often, and probably by more people than just Travis. But he could handle that.

As for the other punishments levied by the directorial board of inquiry, they were plenty severe all right, limiting his team’s access to promotions and withholding the merit pay increases they had surely earned. But these were not the sort of perks that mattered much to his team.

He knew they would hate having to attend training classes—like a bunch of green recruits. And do homework—Christ! But not as much as they would hate losing someone from among their ranks. And not as much as they would hate being left at the mercy of any damn member of the brass who felt like taking a look into any and every operation they ran and coming down on them for every infraction. No, he’d still be there to shield them from that. He’d just be taking more heat himself. Considering the alternatives, they could certainly live with that. So long as Travis just let him come back…

“I’ve given strict instructions that you are to be barred from all requalification tests,” Travis said, watching Larabee’s eyes. “Until you have had a complete physical examination and have been deemed medically qualified to serve as an ATF Team Leader.”

The AD knew he was being petty, as the satisfied smile spread across his face at the first flinch from his team leader all day. He twisted the knife with glee unbecoming a man of his years and position. “By complete, I mean complete. Including full bloodwork, a complete roster of applicable immunizations, and any other exams deemed necessary by the physician I have selected.”

Satisfaction glowed within him, as he actually saw the unflappable Chris Larabee pale. He didn’t even feel the least bit guilty. After all that Larabee had put him through, he could exact a little vengeance. And if he had to take advantage of Chris’s loathing of doctors, hospitals, and all things medically related, to pull it off, well an AD had to do what an AD had to do.

He felt the smirk spread across his face. Openly now, as he pushed a form across his desk toward Chris. Along with a pen.

“This is a release form authorizing my selected doctor to discuss with me any results pertaining specifically to your employment by the ATF,” he stated. “Of course, all information not directly related to your employability remains subject to strict confidentiality between physician and patient.”

Chris tried so hard not to scowl at Travis that the AD almost laughed. He watched Larabee slowly pick up the pen. The Senior Agent read through the form carefully, slowly, and Travis wondered for a moment if the paper might not burst into flame under the heat of his glare. But Chris swallowed his pride and he signed.

And Travis had the satisfaction of knowing, as he watched his agent leave, that just once, for just this brief moment, he had taken the wind out of Chris Larabee’s sails.

He actually whistled on his way out to a long and early lunch.

The agents of Team Seven gave their leader’s office a fairly wide berth after Larabee growled at them that terms had been decided that were guaranteed to piss them all off, and he would give them specifics as soon as he received the goddamn memo. They had waited until he went into his office before they exchanged long-suffering glances and went back to the dull tedium of doing clean up for Team Eight on a caseload that used to be theirs.

He left again after a short phone conversation, returning a half hour later. Smiling—sort of—as he handed them a stack of file folders for two cases that had gone cold assigned to teams that were unable to make headway on them. Chris hadn’t said a word as he read through the reports in Travis’s office, while Travis watched him closely. Observing the wheels turning in the blond head.

At long last Larabee looked up at the AD and said seriously, “I can think of a few avenues worth pursuing on these.”

Travis looked irritated. “I’d like these put to bed,” he said shortly. “They’ve hung around too long already it is.”

“We’ll do our best,” Chris said, but couldn’t keep the smirk off his face. The same smirk he wore now as he watched them open up the files.

“Jesus!” Buck groaned reading over the file. “What the hell were those boys doing for the last six months?”

“No doubt, solving other teams’ impossible cases will increase our popularity exponentially,” Ezra drawled sarcastically.

“Best quit jawin’ and get started,” Chris growled, but he couldn’t hold back a grin as he said, “The trail ain’t gonna get any warmer.”

The six agents practically jumped to get down to preliminary and background work. With gratifying speed. No shortage of cockiness. And perhaps just a touch of relief.

From his office, one ear always tuned to the bullpen, Chris had to admit that he was glad to hear the chatter begin. Slowly at first, stuttering out a bit at a time like a small engine, low on gas, and struggling to get running, then winding up to a steady hum. Calling information to each other across the bullpen, sending requests for backup files. The usual sounds of Team Seven at work. Almost. When he heard the taunting and the jibes begin, he let out a long breath, as if he had been holding it for days on end. And in that sudden minute he felt like he could lay down on that long couch behind his desk and sleep for a week.

He didn’t, of course, because almost in the next second he realized his official notification had arrived. The messenger’s arrival was heralded by a sudden silence in the bullpen. They eyed the nervous-looking boy like a bunch of hungry mountain lions.

The messenger could feel their eyes on him. Every one of them. None of them friendly. All of them waiting. He turned instantly toward the Senior Agent’s open door, hoping to get his unpleasant errand over with quickly.

After knocking briskly on the door frame, he had expected the Senior Agent to ask him to come in. Instead the man looked at him, utterly silent, with glittering green eyes and a face completely devoid of expression. Nonetheless, he felt impatience crackle in the air around him, and he realized that he had hesitated too long.

Taking a long step into the office, he placed the folder down on the desk in front of Team Seven’s Senior Agent. He began to reach a finger out to show the man where to sign. He was stopped by the cold glance. The instructions he was about to give died in his throat.

He was not invited to sit. So he stood uncomfortably, trying not to fidget, while the Senior Agent read through the memo without comment or change in expression. He initialed it in the proper places. Likely, based on reputation anyway, the young staffer decided that this was not the first disciplinary memo that Senior Agent Larabee had received.

Agent Larabee handed the folder back. The young staffer completed his duty by saying an electronic copy would arrive via e-mail. He was dismayed by the ridiculous squeak his voice had acquired.

“Yes,” the Senior Agent said frostily, then returned to the work on his desk, as if the messenger had already gone. To his credit, the young staffer, realized instantly that he should have done exactly that and made haste to do so immediately, still feeling their eyes on him as he went out the bullpen door. Unable to shake the feeling even after he stepped out of the elevator onto his own floor.

The e-mail arrived twenty minutes later. Chris gave a fatalistic sigh and forced himself out of his chair and into the bullpen, which had been devoid of unnecessary chatter since the messenger boy left. Six pairs of eyes turned toward him. He held up the printed hard copy of the disciplinary memo and jerked his head toward the conference room.

Without a word, they rose from their desks and took their accustomed places around the long black table.

Six pairs of eyes followed Chris to his place at the head of the table. He did not sit. He put the memo down on the table in front of them and outlined the terms of their “parole,” as Ezra put it, in his one and only comment an instant before he was silenced by a glare of the first order.

They read the letter to be placed in their files without comment. Each man carefully reading the attachment. Each face darkening in memory as they reached the director’s memo. Each one initialing the document in the appropriate spot.

Josiah grimaced at the clean, clinical, comfortable white-noise of bureaucratic memo-writing “the manner of Agent Larabee’s replacement”, “during Senior Agent Larabee’s absence.” Sanitized sentences. As if bureaucratic bleach could wash the bloodstains out.

Chris ignored the expressions that flashed across their faces. Waiting patiently for them to look up again so he could continue.

They took the news that they were temporarily ineligible for promotion with good grace. They were somewhat disgruntled at the news that they could kiss any bonuses for their previous good work goodbye. He recognized their relief to know that there would be no further investigation into their activities while absent without authorization. And their chagrin when he told them that the actions of the team would be scrutinized more closely in the immediate and foreseeable future. But he saw their teeth grind when he told them all they were taking the ethics class. All seven of them. All together.

Something close to desperation rose up suddenly into Vin’s throat at the realization of the amount of reading and writing the ethics course would entail. He’d barely made it the first time.

As if he’d read the sharpshooter’s mind, Chris announced with a low growl that since every man among them had six potential study partners, he would personally and severely punish every single one of them if they did not all pass the course on the first try.

A quick glance around the table told the former Ranger that several of his teammates were decidedly uneasy about taking the course, too. It was gratifying to note that apparently he wasn’t the only one who would be relying on a study buddy.

“All things considered, we got off easy,” Chris finished, letting his stern glower rest on each of them. They did not reply. Glancing away at the table or the walls.

What do you mean ‘we’ got off easy? Nathan thought bitterly. All you did was ride to the rescue.

He didn’t have time to dwell on it, as Chris altered his stance somewhat, and told five of them tersely that nothing further in the memo applied to them. Dismissed. Just like that. Except for Buck.

They got up slowly. Reluctant to leave. Moving almost hesitantly toward the door. J.D. was the last to go, sending Buck his best supportive look, before shutting the conference room door behind him.

“Go ahead, Pard,” Buck said after the door had closed, the confidence in his voice belying the nerves that had taken up residence in his stomach.

Chris pulled out his chair and sat down. He reiterated the consequences for Buck’s promotion potential and pay. Wilmington didn’t blink. His expression composed. Promotions and pay. Two punishments that hardly even mattered. He knew that there would be more. He gritted his teeth as Chris went on.

And tried not to be too hopeful as he watched Chris try hard not to smirk, failing miserably, as he said, “You and I have been found to be deficient in our leadership.”

Buck raised one eyebrow.
“So we’re being sent to the academy leadership class.”

Buck raised the other eyebrow.
“Together,” Chris added.

To Buck’s credit, Chris noted that he managed to look suitably regretful—for a couple of seconds at least—until his face suddenly brightened as a thought occurred to him.

“Guess you’ll want that big ol’ book back,” Buck said, an evil gleam in his eye.

He got the same gleam right back. “Oh you’ll need that,” Chris said nonchalantly. “To follow the syllabus I set up for you.”

Buck winced. “Don’t you think one leadership course at a time is enough?” he asked.

“I do,” Chris agreed. “But they’re forcing us to take the academy class.”

Buck suppressed his groan as he sat back, reading clearly in his old friend’s face that there was more that he needed to know. His instinct told him that he probably wouldn’t like it. “What else?” he asked.

“You’ll be taking the lead a lot more,” Chris informed him.

“Why?” Buck asked suspiciously.

“Because you need to,” Chris answered. “You can’t learn to lead standing behind me. You’ve earned it. You deserve it.”

The cobalt blue eyes regarded him narrowly. “That the only reason?” he asked.

The smirk was unsettling. “The only reason that counts.”

“And what about you?” Buck asked slowly. “What does that memo say about you?”

Chris grimaced. And Buck read the tell tale signs that Chris didn’t want to tell him. Several unpleasant possibilities flooded his mind.

Chris sighed. He gave in. “Only that I’ll be held a lot more closely accountable for the actions of the team.”

“Which will be scrutinized much more closely,” Buck added. He eyed his leader and oldest friend. “They’ll be wanting to see that we’re adhering more closely to the rules, right?”

Chris scowled. “The hell with what they want,” he snapped. “You still answer to me. You get the job done. Get it done right. Same as always. I’ll worry about the brass.” He fixed Buck with a piercing gaze. “Nothing’s changed.”

Buck sighed but he knew better than to argue. He’d be having a word with the team later, though. Whether Chris liked it or not.

“Is that all?” Buck prompted.

Chris shrugged, a rueful smile crossing his face. “Except for Travis’s cruel and unusual sense of humor, yeah that’s all.”

“Spill it,” Buck said frowning impatiently.

He had to give Chris credit in his attempt to gloss right over his additional punishment, but Buck stopped him.

“You have to qualify to requalify?” he asked, not quite sure he understood. “Qualify how?”

Chris moved backward in his chair, a sure sign that he would rather not answer the question. He answered reluctantly in a voice so quiet that Buck almost wasn’t sure he heard.

“Did you say medically?” the mustached agent asked in disbelief, a smart-ass grin spreading itself across his face.

Chris glared at him. “It’s not funny.”

“I ain’t laughing,” Buck retorted. And he wasn’t. At least not the way Chris meant.

He stared at Chris for a moment. “Who gets to decide that?” he asked.

The question made the blond decidedly agitated. He muttered back. “Travis picked the doctor.”

It felt like an eternity passed while Buck stared at him.

“Well, hell,” Buck said finally with a grin. “Good for ol’ Orin.”

Chris gave him a truly dirty look. “Whose side are you on?”

“Yours, Pard,” Buck replied, his comic hurt look belied by the seriousness in his eyes. “Always yours.”

Wilmington clapped his boss once on the shoulder and rose from his chair.

Chris glowered, watching him head for the conference room door. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

Buck concealed his smile. Looked innocent. “Was there something else?”

“No,” Chris conceded unhappily.

Buck nodded and turned back toward the door, commenting offhandedly as he reached for the knob, “Just remembered I have to talk to Nathan.”

“Traitor,” Chris hissed at him under his breath.

“Bastard,” Buck shot back. Grinning to himself on his way to Nathan’s desk. Knowing the medic, above all, would appreciate the shrewd AD’s decision.

Watching Buck leave, Chris estimated a time lapse of two minutes before the entire team would know the conditions of his return to the team. Knowing Buck and J.D., he gave it about twenty minutes before everyone on the entire floor knew it. And only until quitting time before he would have to endure the gloating.

He missed his last guess by one minute. Precisely one minute after quitting time, Nathan paused by his door. The tall medic said nothing. But triumph was written all over his face.

Chris also said nothing, but his glower told Nathan just how unhappy the team leader was with the decision.

But Nathan was not sorry.

The last to leave, Vin slouched into one of the two chairs across from Chris’s desk, sticking out his booted feet and folding his hands across his belly.

Chris eyed the conspiratorial gleam in the blue eyes.

The sharpshooter gave the team leader a sly grin as he asked, “So when’s yer appointment?”

A smile cracked Chris’s face, as he replied. “Soon as I get out of here.”

Vin shook his head slowly. Not surprised.

He rose lazily from the chair. “Goodnight, Cowboy,” he said over his shoulder, pausing in his retreat through the office door.

Chris looked at him in mock surprise. “What? No one’s riding herd on me tonight?”

Vin grinned. “Nah,” he said easily. “We all know how bad you wanna get back. Gotta eat and sleep to get there.”

Chris snorted. Tanner had him pegged all right. He wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Vin was not alone in taking the leader’s measure. Every one of them knew that it would be too much to hope for to get the go-ahead right away. But there was no discounting that famous single-minded Larabee stubbornness. He’d probably be cleared to requalify in record time. The dates on the bets already laid in Ezra’s new betting pool testified to Team Seven’s confidence in their leader’s tenacity.

Tanner stopped in the door again on his way out of the bullpen. “Run tomorrow? Same time?”

It never hurt to hedge one’s bets.

Chris grinned at him.

It was all the confirmation Tanner needed. He moved toward the hall. Getting out of the way. So Chris could get to his appointment on time.

+ + + + + + +

It was late when Chris finally returned to his silent home. Much later than he had expected. And he was grouchy. Between the vials of blood drawn by a vampire with bad aim—honest to God, how hard was it to find a vein in a white man? You could see them for God’s sake!—and the sheer number of booster shots that damn sadist with a medical degree deemed necessary, he felt like a walking pincushion.

He did not bother to turn on the lights. But set the security alarm and headed straight up to bed. Wondering faintly if maybe it was all the blood he’d just lost to the medical lab that was making him so tired.

He did turn on the bathroom light, so he could see how much toothpaste he was putting on his toothbrush. The album, still sitting on the rocking chair caught his eye. He pondered it. Wondering what to do with it. Especially since J.D. didn’t seem to want anyone to know about it. He snorted, laughing at himself. Not like he’d leave it lying around either.

As he spit into the sink, the perfect answer came to him. Floating up into his brain. He rinsed, smiled, scooped up the book, and carried it to the hall linen closet.

It took a little searching, but there it was. Right where he’d left it. He reached into the back of the little closet up to his shoulder, forcing his hand under the tablecloths and linen napkins Sarah had made the summer she decided suddenly that she ought to learn to sew. That was as far as she got before she gave up in disgust. She never used the napkins because the seams were crooked, but the very suggestion that she get rid of them if she wasn’t going to use them had earned him a hurt glare and a surprisingly solid sock in the arm. He smiled suddenly to himself at the memory of how hard he had worked—and how much fun it had been—to make it up to her later.

His hand latched onto the box he sought, and he pulled it out. It was light. Slightly crushed by the weight of the fabric that had been stacked on top of it. He shook it once and heard the faint flutter of the piece of paper inside. The sole occupant of the otherwise empty box. The note that Buck had left when he took the photo album. And the bear. All those years ago.

Chris carefully pulled off the top of the box. Read again the note. Buck’s handwriting hadn’t changed much—or improved either, he thought as he read the words again, terse, written in equal parts grief and anger.


They were a gift. Both of them. And someday you’ll figure that out. I have the album and the bear. They deserve better than being stuffed away in some dark closet. When you come to your senses, call me. I’ll be waiting.


Chris grimaced, running his finger over the edge of the paper. It had taken him a long time to come to his senses. It had taken him longer to call. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Buck had been right. He had tried to stuff everything into a dark closet somewhere deep down where his heart used to be. Buck was right, too, about Sarah and Adam being a gift. Chris had known that from day one, but he hadn’t expected to have all the light in his life snuffed out so soon, all at once, or in front of his horrified eyes.

He had let Buck keep the album because he had been right. She had made the album for both of them. Because she loved them. In honor of their friendship and words neither one of them could say. The album and Adam’s worn bear, tattered from being dragged all over creation, all the more special to the boy because it came from his beloved uncle and godfather, deserved something better than the back of a dark closet. And a man who couldn’t bear to lay eyes on them. And after so much time had passed, it didn’t seem right to ask for them back.

Instead he kept the box and the note. To remind him of Buck’s loyalty. And how he had abused it.

With a sigh, Chris placed the new album in the box. Brushing a piece of lint off the white cover. Away from the careful hand lettering. Amused at how well it fit. Almost precisely the same size as the original.

He was in the process of replacing the cover when he remembered something. He rose from his knees, left the box where it was and went swiftly down the stairs. Turning the lights on in the front hall, he rifled through yesterday’s mail.

Underneath today’s bills which he hadn’t even opened, he found the small white envelope. And carried it back upstairs with him, pausing to read it again as he reached the upstairs hall. His eyes running across his father’s neat, careful handwriting. The painstaking words. Never a strong suit for either of them.

A lot of it was a long apology. For what? For ignoring him most of his life? Chris frowned. At himself. He was a grown man for God’s sake. He’d had a child. He knew how impossible it was to do everything right even with one. Let alone seven. At least one was bound to get lost in the commotion. Especially after the number went down to six.

He swallowed hard. Getting himself under control. And telling himself irritatedly to let it go. It’s in the past. You’re not a child anymore. Stop feeling so goddamn sorry for yourself and forget it. A litany he repeated to himself after nearly every encounter with his father and at least half of his surviving siblings.

He concentrated instead on the two lines in the letter that had meant the most.

I did not often say it Son, and I was not often there to show it, but never doubt you are loved…

And in closing…

I am proud of the man you have become, the work that you do, and the company you keep.

He grinned at that. Was almost tempted to show it to Buck. The Colonel had never liked Buck. Even after Chris had left home, and both he and Buck were battle-tested Navy SEALs, Chris’s father, by then The General, was loathe to change his opinion of Buck. And he had certainly never approved of Buck’s mother’s “profession.”

Not that it had mattered that much. By the time he became a teenager, Christopher Larabee was already in the habit of keeping his own counsel and his silence—especially about those aspects of his life that were really important to him. He had long since learned that if he kept up his grades, avoided the principal’s office, politely if a bit vaguely answered the Who’s, What’s, and When’s his parents occasionally asked him, gave the appearance of conforming to house rules, skillfully concealed his occasional cigarette, and avoided drugs and alcohol, the rest of the time he could pretty much do as he pleased, and no one would be much the wiser. He did. And no one was.

He had come to realize when Sarah got pregnant, how stupid both he and his parents had been. Even before Adam took his first breath of ordinary air, while he was still just a “lump” in Sarah’s belly, Chris already knew there was nothing he could give his child that would be more important than his time and his attention. And the words “I love you,” given freely without reservation or conditions attached. Good day or bad, good behavior or not. He was relieved when he found it to be a whole lot easier than he had expected. Just like Sarah had told him it would be.

Sitting in the upstairs hall, he smiled to himself. He had always had one consolation. Their lives together may have been short. But at least he could always be sure that his wife and son had known he loved them. Because he had been sure to tell them, one way or another, every day they had been together.

He swiped the back of his hand impatiently across his eyes. Glad there were no witnesses. And he stuck the card, now back in its envelope, between two empty pages at the back of the album. He replaced the cover on the box, gently pulling up the crumpled corners.

Then he pulled out one of the napkins, inspecting the seams and smiling to himself. Yeah, they were crooked. But hell, he thought, who was really going to look? He pulled out the whole stack and made a note to himself to put them in a kitchen drawer, where he’d at least remember to use them once in a while.

This time he put the box back on top of the tablecloths, where it wouldn’t get crushed. And found himself wondering whether it wouldn’t hurt to spruce up the dining room table once in a while. On holidays. Or maybe just on Sarah’s birthday. Or their anniversary. He shut the hall light off with a smile.

He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The two men sat on uncomfortable wooden chairs, hunched over a scarred wooden tabletop in the kind of hole-in-the-wall restaurant you already had to know about to find. Six people besides themselves sat in the dank dark cellar room which made up the bulk of the place. A fire roared in the huge brick and stone fireplace despite the warmth of spring on the streets above. Most of the room’s occupants sat over glasses of wine or exotic liqueurs, speaking more or less bastardized versions of the language of a mother country some of them had never seen.

A woman past middle age, long gone soft around the middle, but still flaunting the beauty that had made her vain in youth, stopped at a nearby table to trade jibes with a patron, speaking rapidly in the strange mixture of Slavic languages, liberally sprinkled with Yiddish and English that had become the local dialect of the tiny room.

She came to their table next. Presumably asking them if they wanted another bottle of wine. Vincent Benedetto’s companion did not look up from the chessboard between them as he placed his order. She threw a jibe at him that was too fast, or perhaps too colorful for Benedetto to catch. The other man only smiled slightly, crookedly, as she walked away.

Benedetto didn’t bother to ask his boss what she had said. In the years that they had been coming to this tiny place hidden beneath a brownstone style apartment building in an all-but-forgotten ethnic enclave of urban Denver, he had come to understand a little bit of what he heard all around him. He never asked his old friend, a man he had followed off and on, for many years, and through a number of professional arenas, where he had picked up the various elements of the strange patois that murmured around them.

There were a lot of things he never asked his boss. In many ways the man’s past was closed. Too many things of which he would not speak, perhaps from professional obligation or that sense of duty as solid as a brick wall. Or as Benedetto often suspected, his more personal reluctance to revisit the past.

Despite the fire roaring in the nearby hearth and the springtime outside, the man had not removed his long grey overcoat. And the cuff of his sleeve trailed slightly among the pawns as he reached to move a knight.

Benedetto pulled at his lip but raised his eyes to his friend.

Another bottle of wine appeared on the table between their elbows. He waited until the woman moved on again before he spoke.

“You didn’t tell me your thoughts on the inquiry results,” Benedetto said, giving his companion a quiet but none-too-subtle nudge.

The man raised his head and smiled slightly, a sly gleam in his left eye, his right eye long ago lost on a foreign shore under circumstances never spoken of. In public, he usually hid the empty socket and the awful scars under a grey patch, more to dissuade the stares of the morbidly curious than out of any self-consciousness on his own part. In private, in the office, and when at ease, he generally chose not to wear it. And didn’t much care who was uncomfortable with the glaring disfigurement.

Benedetto was long familiar with the scars. So long now that he had to think to remember what his friend had looked like with two eyes. It was not the only set of scars that bore witness to the man’s service in his country’s interests.

Typically the man in grey did not offer any answer beyond the smile.

Benedetto shook his head. “So about like you hoped, then,” he replied to his own question. Reminding his boss with fond exasperation that most people preferred to hear an answer in words in order to consider it a real conversation.

The man smiled that crooked, disarming smile that had once been his trademark, long ago when they were both young and arrogant and had believed themselves to be both handsome and immortal. Time had taught them both some cruel lessons.

Benedetto made his move on the board and refilled his wine glass. “You realize it’ll be a cold day in hell before Larabee gets any kind of promotion,” he said, taking a sip of a very nice red, properly and expertly served at room temperature.

The man shrugged.

Benedetto narrowed his eyes. “It won’t play so well for Wilmington or Travis either when they are ready to move up.”

The man shrugged again, and smiled. He looked down at the board, as if contemplating his move. “Then I guess we have them right where we want them,” he replied quietly. “Doing what they do best.”

Benedetto raised an eyebrow.

The man in grey did not have to look up to know what was coming.

“What the hell were you going to do if they fired one of ‘em?” he asked.

The man smiled enigmatically. “That’s why I sent you,” he replied.

Benedetto frowned. “You know I would never have used your influence to convince them to see it your way or used mine to force my personal preferences on them.”

“I didn’t expect you to,” the many in grey snorted none too politely. “I expected you to use your prodigious powers of persuasion to broaden their minds.” He shrugged. “Turns out you didn’t have to. Lucky boys to have a lawyer like Travis on their side.”

Benedetto eyed his old friend.

The man’s lips twitched as he felt the unspoken question in the air.

So what’s next?

He could always count on Vincent to be looking for the next move, and the next mission. He raised his head to his old friend, out of courtesy and a long-held respect. “For now we just let it ride. Status quo.”

Then he did grin as he added. “After all, we know where to find them when we need them.”

Benedetto’s own smile was hidden by his wine glass. Not surprised at the answer. Always looking at the long haul. Thinking seven generations ahead, as the saying went.

One hell of a strategist, Benedetto thought, raising his glass in silent salute.

He looked back down at the board and moved his bishop. But I can still beat you at chess, he thought as he good-naturedly announced, “Checkmate.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris slid his eyes slowly to the right, where J.D.’s left knee was jiggling so hard Chris wondered whether the whole van might be moving. The young agent was leaning forward squinting at something on his monitor.

“Vin, on your left!” he cried out suddenly.

“Where?” the sharpshooters’ voice came back. “I don’t see him.”

“On your left behind the stack of three crates,” he answered keeping his voice calm, despite the fact that he was practically out of his seat and jabbing his finger at the screen.

Chris saw the motion on his screen this time, too.

“Nathan,” Chris said into his mike.

“I got it,” Nathan replied calmly. Chris saw him move slowly behind the crates, calling out to the unknown person to freeze, identifying himself, his gun held carefully out in front of him.

Chris saw it a moment before the medic’s horrified swearing filled up their radios. Accompanied by Vin’s loud laughter.

Over Ezra’s mike, they dimly heard one of the storage facility’s security guards say irritatedly, “I told you there was nobody back there.”

“Nobody but the rat!” Vin hooted.

“Yeah? Well that’s gonna be one dead rat.” Nathan snapped back.

“Boys,” Buck said exasperatedly. “Open up the lockers on the warrants and get the weapons. You can shoot all the rats you want on your own time.”

J.D. laughed but stopped suddenly as he shot a look over at Chris. The team leader’s arms were crossed over his flak-jacketed chest. His head was down, and it took J.D. a moment to realize the team leader was trying not to laugh.

There were no further encounters with rodents, and the rest of the mission was completed cleanly. And quickly. One shipment of illegally imported arms off the market. One distribution point shut down. No casualties. No shots fired.

All missions should go this smooth, Chris thought sardonically, watching his team secure the contraband.

Their intelligence had been accurate. No one had been inside the closed facility at this late hour, except for a pair of security guards, who had stood aside the moment they saw the badges. No resistance was offered—if you didn’t count the rat, which wasn’t likely to show up in anyone’s report.

Although, for just a second, Chris thought about daring Ezra to include it in his write up. But then, since it was the first raid that Buck had planned himself, from start to finish—with Chris’s tactical assistance and advice—Buck was also going to have to manage all the reports. And deep down, Chris knew it wouldn’t be fair to give the man a hard time. He grinned to himself. Not yet anyway.

He climbed stiffly out of the van, kicking aside the brand new box of frosted, filled chocolate cupcakes that he nearly tripped over getting to the door. Standing in the warm night air, under the yellow parking lot lights. A breath of breeze hovered lightly around him like a harbinger of the oncoming summer. The rest of the team emerged from the facility little by little. Until they gathered at the side of the van and started in on Nathan about whether he was gonna read the rat his rights first or just shoot him.

Buck came last, supervising the clean-up crew in loading up the weapons cache to be carted off to lockup. He came toward the van, throwing Chris a questioning glance. The team leader stepped away from the group.

“Nice, clean grab,” Chris said approvingly.

“Yeah,” Buck replied, hands on hips.

Chris’s eyes narrowed slightly. He waited.

Buck squinted at him. “It’s Friday night. And it’s late.”

Chris smiled. “What?” he said lightly. “You got plans?”

Buck scowled at him. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “They can do the reports Monday morning.”

Chris shrugged. “They could,” he said noncommittally, refusing to give his second in command the instructions he was looking for.

But glowered back at the blond, sighed in exasperation, and trudged toward the van.

“Nice job, boys,” he said, as he arrived at the van. His tone clipped. “Good, clean,” he threw a backward glance at Chris, “and almost textbook perfect.”

Chris grinned down at his shoes. Damn but they had been good boys all month. It was starting to make Travis nervous. Chris wasn’t placing any bets on how long it would last. But he sure did enjoy telling Travis that it “must be those academy ethics and leadership courses.” He had doubly enjoyed the suspicious dirty look he got in return.

“I know it’s late,” Buck was saying to a chorus of groans. “But Monday is a long way away.”

He turned to J.D. “We got surveillance tape?” he asked.

“Taped and saved,” the young agent replied. He looked to Chris for confirmation. Chris nodded back.

“Audio?” he asked.

“Taped and saved,” Chris said with a slight grin.

J.D. grinned back.

Buck nodded. “Then we’ll do a set of drafts back at the bullpen, and you can polish them up on Monday.”

They all began to protest. All except Chris.

Josiah was the first to notice the blond’s silence. He swallowed his own protest. “The faster we get started, the faster we get done,” the profiler said resignedly, moving around to the driver’s side.

“Right,” Nathan agreed, pulling open the rear passenger door.

“Right behind you,” J.D. said, following him into the van.

“Hate those damn reports,” Vin muttered climbing in behind J.D.

Ezra shrugged at Chris. “When in Rome…” he drawled, stepping up into the dark interior.

“How the hell do you do that?” Buck groused, scowling at his friend and leader.

Chris shrugged. “It’s a gift,” he said with a shrug and moved to the front passenger seat.

He turned back and looked at Buck. “Nice work,” he said quietly, sincerely. It had been good work. And it would look good to the brass, too. He’d make sure they noticed.

Buck was grinning at him.

“What?” Chris asked frowning.

“Nothing,” he replied. His grin broadened. “Just glad you could make it.”

Chris swatted him affectionately. Then climbed into the front passenger’s seat. He turned to Josiah. “Back to the bullpen,” he said, listening to the commotion in the backseat of Vin searching for the box of cupcakes. And Nathan wondering aloud how the hell a man could eat that crap at this hour of night. And Josiah quietly humming to himself as he drove the van back toward the federal building.

They worked silently on their reports for the better part of an hour. Until Buck could stand it no longer. “Ah hell,” the mustached agent said, levering his lanky frame out of his chair. He stood and looked around the bullpen.

Vin looked up. “Just savin’ my draft now,” he offered.

Buck grinned and rubbed his hands together. “It’s poker night, boys,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”

“And here I thought you had a hot date,” Chris said playfully from his office.

Buck ignored him. “Save your drafts, and call it quits,” he ordered.

“We reconvene at my place in thirty minutes,” Buck said. “All snacks have been provided. Just bring your money and prepare to lose.”

Ezra snorted but closed down his computer and began packing up his briefcase.

Inside of ten minutes, the Team Seven bullpen had been shut down, secured, and cleared out. Before the stipulated thirty minutes had passed, all seven men were seated around an ancient rickety card table in Buck and J.D.’s less-than-spotless apartment, shouting and picking at each other and howling with laughter at J.D.’s very best bucktoothed, nose-twitching rat face. While Chris held the last remaining bowl of potato chips out of Tanner’s reach, with a little help from Josiah.

Buck sprang up suddenly from the table, nearly collapsing it to an uproar of loud admonitions to watch what he was doing. He ignored them.

“Gentlemen,” he said, over top of their protests, raising his hands to call for silence. He settled for somewhat quieter.

“Gentlemen, tonight is a special night. And to celebrate our successful, by-the-book bust AND, at long last, the complete qualification and return to duty of our fearless leader...”

“Hear, hear,” Josiah interrupted.

Buck flicked an exasperated look at the profiler.

“I believe, etiquette requires that you reserve that for the end of the speech,” Standish whispered none too quietly to the benignly smiling Sanchez.

Chris smiled back at the profiler.

“And to celebrate,” Buck repeated a little more loudly. “I propose opening up a bottle of twelve year old single malt Scotch that I have been saving for just the right occasion.”

“Hear, hear,” Josiah called out with a wink at Ezra. He was echoed by Nathan.

Buck grinned almost from ear to ear. “Come on kid,” he said to J.D. “You can get the rocks glasses while I get the bottle down.”

“I brought cigars,” Nathan added, reaching into a bag on the sofa behind him.

In the general riot of approval at the suggestion, no one noticed, except Chris, that J.D. had gone suddenly pale. He rose slowly from his chair and moved hesitantly toward the kitchen, a strange, pinched look on his face.

Chris stretched, grabbed an empty potato chip bowl and headed for the kitchen, too, leaning over and saying something quietly to J.D. as he passed, that to Ezra’s eyes, though he could not be sure, looked suspiciously like “I’ll cover you.”

The conversation in the living room stopped abruptly as J.D. bypassed the kitchen and went straight out the front door.

Buck’s puzzled voice called out to him.

“Where are the rocks glasses?” Chris’s voice rose over Buck’s.

“You know where they are,” Buck snapped, still preoccupied with J.D.’s departure.

“If I knew where the damn glasses were, I wouldn’t ask,” Chris snapped.

Buck swore. “The goddamn glasses are in the same goddamn place they’ve been for the last twelve goddamn years. Where the hell did he go?”

“Like I know where you keep your crap,” Chris groused back at him.

At that, Vin and Ezra exchanged a wry glance and Nathan and Josiah shared a grin.

Buck swore irritatedly at Chris—and with much more detail. The muttering that followed was all but covered by the sound of glasses clinking noisily against each other before thunking onto a counter top.

A second later the four amused men in the living room heard Buck’s confused voice say, “Why is this open?” It was followed, according to Ezra’s watch anyway, by seventeen seconds of absolute silence. Then an immediate and virulent set of curses and a growled out, “I’m going to kill both of you.”

Buck bolted out the front door hollering “J.D.!” so loud they heard the upstairs neighbor’s startled shriek from her balcony.

Ezra sighed. He reached into the inside of his jacket, still pressed, still impeccable, loosened his tie, and pulled out his trusty silver flask. He grinned his gold-toothed grin, as he unscrewed the top and took a sip. He raised it, as Chris reentered the room, his face revealing nothing of what had driven Buck shouting out the door.

The Senior Agent took his seat and accepted the proffered flask with a calm and straight-faced nod of gratitude. He took an appreciative sip then passed the flask over to the sharpshooter.

His agents looked at him expectantly. Chris knew they were waiting for him to tell them what had happened in the kitchen. And why J.D. was heading for the hills. He did not enlighten them. Buck and J.D. would do a far better job of telling the tale than he could. Besides, it wasn’t really any of his doing, was it? Even if Buck had offered to kill him.

No, he didn’t give them the answer they were hoping for, but he couldn’t hold back his smirk as he drawled out, “I believe I’m ready for that cigar now, Mr. Jackson,” in a surprisingly passable Atlanta accent.

Chris clamped the smooth, dark-oak colored cylinder between his teeth, as Nathan lit it expertly. They watched as a moment later, their infamous, hard-assed, surly, intractable, cold-blooded, belligerent team leader blew out a fragrant bluish cloud, settling back into his chair with a long and satisfied sigh. And something that looked suspiciously like a twinkle in his remarkable green eyes.