Disclaimer: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, we'd let YOU play in it...) That said, this story was written purely for self entertainment (and the possible entertainment of me, thanks BMP!) and no money is being made, has changed hands, or has been paid out for the contents therein. The Author wishes to thank MOG for the original ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets others play there. Thanks go to S Berry and JK Poffenberger for creating the Little Britches AU and opening it up for others to play there. Barbretta H. and Pat M. get the credit for bringing the Little Britches AU into the ATF AU. Certain elements of the Little Britches AU and the Little Britches ATF AU have made their way into the fanon, and the author would like to acknowledge that the horse's names are among these. We're not even certain who did name them, but they have our thanks. The pups were introduced by LaraMee, and used here with her permission. The puzzle board that is mentioned was introduced by Joy and Gina D in the series 'Puzzling Out Life's Little Lessons' and is used here with their gracious permission. Special thanks to GSister for Beta-ing, encouraging, and all around nagging. Without her patience and insistence, these stories would never have been.
Author's Note: This story was written as a gift for GSister. It was her wish that it be shared here with others.
~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author
~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows
The ATF agent cracked one eye open and listened to the noises in the house, trying hard to figure out what they meant without actually having to get up and look. It was Saturday. Of that he was sure. He was still dead tired. There was no mistaking that. The TV was on, so that meant the boys were up. So far, normal. It was the other sounds he was having a hard time with.
He listened a bit longer to the sound of quiet clattering in the kitchen, followed by grown-up feet along the downstairs hall. There was a high-pitched child's giggle and an answering "Shh!", then the sound of water running in the laundry room. He looked at the clock by his bed and groaned. Damn it was early!
Quietly, so quietly he had to hold his breath and ignore his own heartbeat, he heard the whistle. Reasonably good for first thing in the morning, he thought grudgingly. He recognized the song: Jimmy Buffett. That got him out of bed in a hurry.
In the middle of a perfect, left-handed, overhand sock toss into the waiting maw of the dryerhis right arm cradled protectively against his chesthe caught the shape that loomed up in the laundry room doorway. He stopped in mid-throw. He turned and looked at the haggard, unshaven, sleep-fuzzed face staring at him from the doorway.
The whistle died in mid-note as he grinned at the disheveled sight. "Didn't mean to wake you," Chris Larabee said.
The mustached man in the sleep-rumpled sweats pointed a finger at him accusingly. "That was Jimmy Buffett," he growled. "Don't deny it."
The tall blond cocked his head to the side in amusement. "You would know," he shrugged, pointing at the faded Jimmy Buffett tee shirt that was currently serving as part of the man's pajamas.
Buck Wilmington ran a hand down his face and wished he had just stayed in bed. "What the hell are you doing?"
"A dollar for the swear jar!" the voice of six-year-old J.D. Dunne, Buck's adopted son, crowed from the living room.
Wilmington grimaced, ignoring the high-pitched voice, and concentrating on his first train of thought. "It's 6:30 in the morning," he pointed out. "On a Saturday."
His long-time friend and team leader grinned at him, and pulled a wad of money from the top of the dryer. "Here," he said. "Found these in your pockets."
Buck grabbed at the bills in exasperation.
A year ago, Buck's best and oldest friend, tough as nails, foul-tempered, stubborn as all git-out ATF Team Seven leader Chris Larabee and his team had followed some mistaken information on a bust, and found two small boys living in an abandoned warehouse. One had been accidentally shot by arms dealers testing out their wares. Seven-year-old Vin Tanner's tiny wounded form had somehow cracked the frozen steel that had encased the team leader's heart since the day his own wife and son had been brutally murdered. The other boy, five-year-old J.D. Dunne, captured Buck's own heart the moment he laid eyes on him. The boys were inseparable. And Buck had never been a father, and didn't really know how to take care of a child, so when Chris decided to take Vin in as a foster son, Buck asked to move into his team leader's ranch with J.D. A year later, both adoptions were final, and somehow the two long-time friends and the two boys had achieved some kind of stable home life.
Not that the two men's dedicated careers in law enforcement didn't occasionally interfere with that. Like Tuesday, when Chris got himself shot on a bust, tackling their medic, who was trying to pull their wounded undercover agent out of harm's way. He took it in the right arm. And it turned out to be a bleeder.
In the end, it wasn't as bad as it looked, but that did not make up for those first few minutes of panic or the ensuing hour or more of anxiety. First there was the blood. A lot of it. It poured out of Chris's arm spreading down toward his elbow at an alarming rate. Chris had attempted to peel himself up off the concrete and fell back against it instead, dead pale. His voice was choked, as he breathed out Nathan's name. The team medic recovered from his crash to the concrete and was on him in an instant. Buck and Josiah Sanchez, the team's large profiler, could only watch from the corners of anxious eyes, while trying to get the bad guys into custody. In the end, only two of the perpetrators ended up face down on the floor in cuffs. The other two took to their heels.
The ambulance arrived shortly after that, but not until after Nathan voiced his fear that an artery had been sliced. Despite assurances otherwise, Buck found himself in the hospital waiting room unwillingly imagining having to raise both boys aloneand unable to stop the train of thought. It scared him so much that as soon as he was allowed to see Chris, he let his friend and boss have it with both barrels. Never mind that the man was his team leader. This had nothing to do with Chris's authority and nothing to do with the job. Buck pulled no punches. This was personal.
The other members of Team Seven stared at him, eyes flicking warily from Buck to Chris and back. They watched wordlessly, every one of them, including Ezra Standish, their loquacious undercover agent.
When Buck had finishedor perhaps just run out of breaththe southern-bred undercover agent, residing for the night in a nearby bed, drawled to the team medic, "There Nathan, Chris should have just let them shoot you."
Buck turned his red hot glare on the undercover agent, too.
Chris somehow managed to shrug his free shoulder. "Seemed reasonable at the time," he said simply. As justifications go, it failed miserably.
They all drew back as the long string of curses exploded out of their normally affable teammate. The swearing seemed to echo on the air, long after Buck had stomped out of the room, leaving behind him an awkward, uncomfortable silence.
It took Buck a long time to come back, a long time to calm down. Damn the man for that cavalier remark. Tossed off, out of hand, casual, as if throwing himself in front of a gun were just another day at the office. But it wasn't. At least it shouldn't be. Not anymore.
Maybe two years agobefore the boysBuck might have expected that from Chris. Half crazy. Careless. But having someone waiting for him at home, being responsible for a child should have changed him, stopped this crazy risk-taking behavior. Damn it, he knew Chris loved those boys, more than his own life...
Buck realized suddenly his hands were shaking. He realized he could have lost his oldest friend right there on the concrete. And suddenly Chris's room was right where he needed to be.
This time Nathan met him outside the door and took him aside. Tactfully avoiding any mention of Buck's recent explosion, the medic offered him some information he might need to know.
The Team Seven leader's low tolerance for medication was well known. He didn't like painkillers. They made him sleepy, slow, and sometimes even sick. Knowing that, his doctors had obligingly prescribed something new.
This time, the doctor had assured Nathan, Chris would not be sluggish or sleepy. And for once the doctor was right. This time, the medication killed the pain and left Chris clear-headed, razor sharp and ready to rumblejust the way Chris preferred it.
And, naturally, Chris being Chris, and being more sensitive to medication than he would ever admit or any sane person would tell him, there was also a new side effect. Not that Nathan would bring it up, at least not in front of his notoriously hot-tempered boss with the penchant for absurdly stating that he was fine, despite stitches and IV bags, and therefore did not need to take any detested meds, but this particular painkiller had been known to occasionally artificially elevate some people's moods.
Understanding dawned in Buck's face: The source of Chris's comment. Buck recognized it now for what it was: Not a cavalier justification of a categorically stupid stunt by a man with a presumed death wish, but a joke. One that had hit rather badly up against a situation that Buck didn't find amusing at all. But there it was, that dry, ironic humor.
Buck supposed he had just been too angry, and too nerved up to recognize it. Stuck too deep in memories of other stupid stunts spawned by Chris's descent into a dark and reckless, alcohol-fueled rage after the murder of his wife and child. Too busy reacting to the past too badly to recognize the trademark deadpan expression and the flat toneless voice of irony. Or the way Chris could move not a muscle and yet give Buck the distinct impression Chris was laughing at him.
Like now. Standing in the laundry room, head cocked to one side and watching Buck trying to figure out what to say or do, or whether he should say or do anything at all.
Buck scrubbed a hand over his face and contemplated this downside to the new painkillers. They certainly seemed to kill pain, which was good, since Chris would hardly admit to feeling any. And they kept Chris in rare good humor, which was also a good thing for a man who was not exactly known to have the cheeriest of dispositions.
But God, couldn't the doctors have given him some of the good old reliable meds? The ones that knocked the man out and kept him fogged up and sleepy? Just for weekends? Or early Saturday mornings? The man was supposed to be resting. He wasn't supposed to be standing here sharp as a tack. Six thirty was god damn early for a Saturdayeven for Chris Larabee. And Buck hadn't spent all that time training the boys to get their own breakfasts, so that he would have to get up and check on whether his idiot best friend was overdoing it.
The answer to that was obvious, Buck realized belatedly, since Chris was already up, shaven, showered, dressed, and in the laundry room. He looked back at Buck, evidently waiting for Buck's tired brain to catch up. And there was the tell tale look in his eye that told Buck that Chris was indeed silently laughing at Buck's expense.
Buck glowered at him.
"You can go back to bed, Buck," Chris said finally, easily. "The boys are having breakfast. The horses have been fed. Vin and J.D. and I will turn them out to the pasture when the boys are done eating."
Buck squinted at him and finally asked the question. "You all right? Don't think you should be working yet." He eyed the arm Chris held against his chest and waited for Chris to deny that he could be anything but "fine."
To his credit, Chris did not give his usual pat denial. He shrugged his free left shoulder instead and answered, "I've had lots of help."
He meant the boys.
Buck continued to squint at him skeptically. Vin was pretty handy in the barn, true, but Buck knew from experience what sort of "help" six-year-old J.D. Dunne usually provided.
Chris squinted back at him, mimicking his friend's doubtful expression. And Buck tried damn hard to ignore the impression that he was being mocked.
"If it hurts, I'll stop," Chris said.
Now Buck really looked doubtful.
Chris suppressed a sigh. "I promise," he said calmly.
There was another long moment, while Buck eyeballed him with undisguised skepticism. And Chris wondered whether he should be irritated by that.
"All right," Buck said slowly, finally, turning in the doorway. He turned back and gave Chris another long look. "Those must be damn good drugs."
Chris's smart-aleck smirk was his only reply.
Buck put one of the wadded-up dollars into the swear jar that sat on a bookshelf in the den that served as an office for both ATF agentsand which was also where most of the swearing happenedand he trudged back up the stairs and back to bed.
He woke up at a more reasonable hour and wondered how the hell everyone had let him sleep so late. He half expected to see J.D.'s big hazel eyes staring at him from beside the bed, faithful retriever pup sitting beside the boy, equally wide-eyed. But his door was closed.
He frowned. Since bringing the boys into their lives, the two men hardly ever closed the doors. There were nightmares to deal with, late night drinks, bathroom runs, squabbles, tummy aches, and fears and insecurities enough to have kept them up at least part of two to three nights a week. At first, anyway. It had gotten much better. Or maybe Buck had gotten used to it.
He wondered if Larabee had closed the door.
After a pleasantly hot shower, he felt much less cranky. Then he dressed and went downstairs to be part of the family.
In the large living room, Vin was bent over his puzzle board. Sitting on a wooden stool, one foot tucked under him, the eight year old's tongue stuck out as he meticulously searched the pieces with the long fingers of one hand. Chris sat across from him on a chair from the kitchen, both arms wrapped around the dark-haired boy who straddled his lap, chubby hands picking up one piece after another and putting them down again right where he found them.
J.D.'s voice rang out in the room. Loud for indoors. Cheerful and effusive. Words tumbled over words with scarcely a pause for breath, so quickly Buck could hardly follow the narration. But Chris seemed to grunt at the appropriate times, or at least the boy thought so. He continued happily, stopping only to complain laughingly and rub his head as Chris blew a breath teasingly across the baby-fine, straight black hair. The man grinned then, snugged the child a little closer, and rested his chin lightly on the top of the little boy's head. Vin looked up, and Chris tossed him a wink, earning a broad smile in return.
J.D. went on with his chatter. Vin went on with his puzzle. And Chris went on being mostly silent, watching both boys, that damn smile still sitting on his lips. Buck stood on the stair, motionless, watching all three and yet seeing a picture from an entirely different time, seeing a family of three, and half a hundred lazy Saturdays in this house, Chris and Sarah and Adam, and Buck showing up to join them, regular as rain on Saturday afternoon.
A tangle of conflicting emotions crawled their way up the inside of his chest.
Then Chris turned as if he sensed Buck standing there.
He whispered something in J.D.'s ear. The boy scrambled instantly off Chris's lap and launched himself up the stairs, rousing both pups lazing in the front hall. The dogs tore up the stair after him. J.D. latched hold of Buck's legs, shouting "Da! You're awake! We've been waiting for ages!" and pulling on one leg impatiently to show just how long he had been waiting.
The tangled emotions disintegrated under this irresistible onslaught, and Buck let them fall away.
"Ages, huh?" Buck asked loudly, scooping to lift the six year old over his shoulder like a sack of flour. J.D. squealed in delight.
Chris and Vin looked on with identical smiles of amusement as the pair went by into the kitchen.
"Mornin', sunshine," Chris said with a laugh.
"Put your sling on," Buck retorted.
Saturday afternoon was quiet. The boys spent most of it outside. The men spent most of it in front of a basketball game with a bowl of popcorn, rooting against each otheruntil Chris's team made a spectacularly bad play. The blond threw his hands in the air and shouted something unkind at the offending players. Buck opened his mouth to make a smart remark but was brutally silenced by an unexpected barrage of artillery as an entire handful of popcorn bounced suddenly off his face. Chris laughed at the look of open-mouthed surprise still plastered on his friend's face.
It took the blond precisely two more minutes to scoop the popcorn off the floor, brush it off of a throw pillow, pick two kernels off of Buck's head, and dump the whole handful into his empty soda glass, by which time Buck realized it was probably too late to voice a snappy comeback.
Chris wandered to the sliding glass door and watched the boys chase each other and the two gangly pups around the side yard. He turned back to Buck with a wide, sparkling grin that showed his dimples and could have lit up the whole house.
The commercial break ended, and he slid back into his recliner and resumed loyally rooting for his team, despite their previous stupidity. Determined not to be outdone, Buck cheered his team on louder still. And Chris seemed game to give him a run for his money. If Larabee noticed the intermittent strange looks Buck threw his way, he gave no sign.
Sunday was another story in itself. First, the boys had promised their Uncle Josiah that they would help him with a sermon he was giving at the mission church downtown in the city's Purgatorio district. Sanchez worked a lot with the local shelters and other charities there. A former priest, he had instituted a fellowship service at the community center on the west side of the district, where gang activity was becoming less and less and citizens had begun to reclaim their neighborhoods. A local priest had begun to come once a month to minister to the mostly Spanish-speaking participants on Thursday nights, but on Sunday, members of the parish took turns speaking. Today was Josiah's day. He had planned something special, and when he had asked the boys to assist him two weeks ago, they had enthusiastically agreed.
But that was two whole weeks ago. A lot happens in a boy's two weeks, and the children had forgotten. They had forgotten mainly because they were invited to a classmate's birthday party including a trail ride and barbecue and a trip to the movies afterward. That, the boys remembered.
When Chris and Buck came to haul them out of bed, Vin was horrified to realize he'd forgotten his promise. J.D. was less horrified at his error than at the mistaken assumption that they were not going on the trail ride. The smaller boy began to wail his protest. Buck resisted the urge to cover his ears. Chris's squint and raised eyebrow told him that Larabee was not impervious to the volume either. Vin was less subtle. The eight-year-old put both hands over his ears and looked at Chris with exasperation.
Chris barely managed not to roll his eyes but he did look pointedly at Buck, as he moved aside and ushered Vin out the bedroom door toward the boys' bathroom. Behind him in the room, he heard Buck finally getting a word in edgewisefinally telling the child that they were not going to miss any of the party.
"But we'll miss the trail ride!" J.D. protested, his voice coming through the plaster walls as if he were standing in the bathroom beside them.
Vin rolled his eyes in the mirror. Chris squeezed his shoulder and shook his head with slight disapproval. Vin sighed.
"J.D.," Buck said calmly.
He was interrupted.
"Trail rides always start early. They start at the crack of dawn," the little boy said as if reciting a set of rules. In the bathroom, leaning on the sink, and handing Vin a washcloth, Chris practically bit his lip, as he heard his own tone coming back at him, an octave or two higher. "Chris always says we gotta get a move on. We're burnin' daylight."
Larabee ducked his head. He could just picture the look on Buck's face right now. He heard the controlled rumble of his oldest friend's voice replying that just because Chris does something one way, that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to do it.
"What's so funny, Dad?" the little blond beside him asked, squinting up at him, while dragging the soaped up washcloth down one side of his face.
Chris smiled back down at the boy and shook his head fondly. "Nothing," he replied, moving Vin's long blond curls back from the side of his neck. "Nothing at all."
Chris pushed away from the sink, sending back over his shoulder. "Don't forget behind your ears."
Vin did as he was told, although it was beyond him how anyone could actually get dirty behind their ears. Well, maybe J.D. could, he amended as he stared into the mirror, his hair plastered damply to his forehead. J.D. could get dirt anywhere.
Buck appeared in the bathroom doorway, J.D. on his hip.
"You need some help there, Junior?" he asked.
He received an exasperated sigh.
"I'll take that as a no," Buck replied, setting J.D. down on the step stool and putting the toothpaste in front of him. "Go easy on the toothpaste, okay?" he said, leaving the room with some trepidation.
Chris found him in the upstairs linen closet muttering to himself. He caught the words "eight years old" and "don't need help with nothing," before he decided to let Buck know he was there. Not that listening to Buck mutter to himself wasn't amusing. Generally it was. And often instructive, too. But he had his hands full of the laundry he did yesterday, and truth to tell, his arm was beginning to hurt.
He cleared his throat.
Buck startled, nearly banging his head on the wooden shelves, as he jerked upright.
Chris stood there with a massive pile of folded towels in his arms.
"Jesus, Larabee," Buck growled.
They both heard the sharp intake of breath from the six year old and then two gleeful soprano voices floated out into the hallway "A dollar for the swear jar!"
Buck glowered at his old friend.
And Chris just stood there smirking at him. "Towel?"
Buck grabbed the first one off the top. He squinted at Chris. "What are you going to do while I'm chauffeuring the boys all over creation this morning?"
Chris shifted the towels over onto his left arm and reached past Buck to deposit them in their designated space in the linen closet.
"Get ready for the big boys to come over," Chris replied.
It was Buck's turn to look startled. "The game!" he said. He had forgotten. He frowned. "How am I gonna make it back in time for kickoff if I gotta run the boys out to the Bar None after church?"
Larabee cocked his head over to one side and eyed Buck, an amused smile across his face. He wondered if Buck had any idea just how much he sometimes sounded like J.D.
That damn smile never leaving his face, Chris replied patiently, "I told Josiah that you'd leave the car seats with him. He'll take the boys over to the dude ranch then come over here. You're picking up the snacks on the way back from Purgatorio."
Buck stared at him. "Oh," he replied. "Right."
Chris saw the next realization sneaking up on his friend. He waited, while the mustached man asked hesitantlyand way too hopefully, "So, I'm not stayin' to hear Josiah preach?"
Chris's tongue planted itself thoughtfully, mockingly in his cheek. "I could always call Josiah and tell him how much you want to hear him," he offered.
"No, no," Buck said hurriedly. He eyed Chris's arm. "You'll need the help getting the place cleaned up."
Chris grinned at him and told him he'd better hurry up or the boys would be late.
Coming back in through the front door more than two hours later, Buck was met with a stereophonic wall of sound loud enough to peel the paint in the front hall. Sinatra. In his prime. Worse yet, he knew the song. It was Sarah's CD.
He had a sudden flash of memory of watching a much younger Chris Larabee and Sarah Connolly on a spring night in San Diego, already dancing as if they were made for each other. Chris, in his Naval dress, was doing his best to sweep her right off her feet. The stars in her eyes were bright enough for Buck to see them all the way from his corner table. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but Buck remembered how he had stared. And the couple of seconds it took him to figure out that dopey look on Chris's face, too. He knew right then that his best friend was about to walk out of his life.
Only it hadn't happened that way. At least not until Sarah and Adam were killed.
Christ! he thought, hurrying into the kitchen with the provisions he had picked up. That CD had not been seen, touched, or heard from since the god-awful day when Sarah and Adam had died. He dropped the groceries on the counter and steeled himself to go into the living room, wondering what the hell kind of emotional mess he was going to have to clean up in there. If Larabee was drinking, he'd kick his ass right into next week...
The sight that greeted him brought him up short.
The couch and recliners had been shoved back up against the stairs. The coffee table and end tables were stacked up onto the large brick hearth. And the throw rug was rolled off to one side, leaving the bare hardwood, in the center of which, stood Chris, mop in one hand. It was plain as day that he had no idea Buck had returned, as he was completing a slow, easy swing dance through the center of the floor, mop as partner. He extended his left arm and rolled the mop up into it, tilting it back into a dip as the song ended.
In the deafening silence, Buck managed to clear his throat. "Think she likes ya, Stud," he choked out, laughing.
Chris nearly jumped. He couldn't hold a straight face, as a scarlet blush flamed up his neck. He grinned self-consciously at his shoes for a second. Not that he was apologetic. It had been one of Sarah's favorite CDs, and they always danced when that song came on. Anyway, he knew he'd never dance it with anyone else, so...
He cut off his train of thought abruptly. He didn't want to go down that road. Not now. Not today.
Buck watched the self-conscious smile melt away into a frown. Before he could speak, Chris looked back up at him. He handed Buck the mop. "You wanted to cut in?" he asked, sliding past Buck and into the kitchen.
The next second, a new CD clicked into place, one that was definitely on the locked-up, forbidden, no-way-you're-listening-to-this-until-you're-eighteen-and-possibly-not-even-then shelf. Buck leaped for the stereo controls before his ears started to bleed.
Fairly caught dancing in the living room with a mop, Chris had expected to endure some god-awful teasing about his lack of a love life. But Buck didn't say another word about it. They ate lunch, and then Buck moved all the living room furniture back by himself. Other than shooting Chris the occasional odd look when he didn't think Chris was watching, Buck seemed to be passing up the perfect opportunity to nettle his oldest friend and boss.
Knowing Buck as he did, Chris was immediately suspicious. He wondered if Buck was just saving the story for the rest of the team to hear at half time. Chris felt the red flush creeping up his neck again. But he shook it off. Payback's a bitch, Wilmington, he thought philosophically and settled in to wait it out.
Fifteen minutes before the pre-game show, Chris came back down the stairs, showered, shaved, and in a pair of blue jeans and a Broncos jersey, sling neatly supporting his right arm. Buck frowned at him.
"No." Chris's head was cocked to one side and was looking at him like he was just waiting for Buck to catch on.
The tiniest smirk ticked up the corner of Buck's mouth. "You tellin' me that you ain't worn it in three days, but you're wearin' it now just 'cause Nathan's comin' over?"
Chris grinned his smart aleck grin. He didn't bother to reply. He didn't need to. Hell, Buck oughta know what kind of a scolding Nathan was likely to give him. Nobody needed that before kickoff.
"Coward," Buck accused.
"My mama didn't raise no fools," Chris said.
Buck snorted. "Well, maybe just the one," he replied.
Only the twitch of Chris's eyebrow as he passed told Buck the comment would be redressedwhen he least expected it.
He hadn't expected it quite the way it came.
Somewhere in the middle of half time, what had begun as a comment on a ridiculous commercial suddenly became a brief discourse from Josiah on the significance of tattoo symbols among certain cultural groups. Something about tribal affiliations. Something much more scientific than Buck wanted to think about on a Sunday. This happened occasionally. Josiah got intellectual in the oddest places. With long practice, Buck took little notice, except to turn his brain toward a couple of spectacular tattoos he had been privileged to see on a couple of private beaches in his past. He came up out of his daydream when he noticed a sudden change in the air.
Chris slouched on the sofa with his feet on the coffee table between the empty popcorn bowl and what was left of the chili dip, pretzel bowl in his lap. He was squinting at Josiah. When the profiler paused, he asked curiously, "So in some circles, having the wrong tattoo can send the wrong message?"
Buck's head jerked up.
"Right. Much like wearing eyeliner in the Seventies branded you either a cross dresser or a member of the punk circuit. Identification with the wrong group could have disastrous consequences," Josiah said sagely.
A strange gleam grew in Chris's eye. Buck stared at him, his numbly disbelieving brain stuttering in its recognition.
Chris scratched his chin contemplatively. "Well, now," he drawled quietly, only his eyes betraying him. "I think that Buck might have some insight into that."
Ezra and Nathan's eyes snapped suddenly toward Buck.
"Do tell, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled with more interest than he had shown in anything all afternoon.
Had Buck not been so stunned, he would have acted as soon as he realized what was about to happen. As it was, Chris had gotten all the way through the opening phrases, "Buck and I spent a weekend furlough in Bangkok once. Although I don't think he remembers much of it..."
At that point, Buck's brain finally clicked. He leaped out of his chair straight at Larabee, dragging him up by the good arm, and nearly pushing over the coffee table in the process. He yanked Chris to his feet with a feral growl. The bowl of pretzels upended itself into Ezra's lap. He hauled Chris to the kitchen, ignoring the hoots, jeers, and complaints behind him.
"I told you never to tell that story again," Buck snapped.
The horrified look on Buck's face nearly made Chris regret his moment's rashnessnearly, but not quite.
He cocked his head over to one side and watched with amusement as Buck's ears turned bright red. He waited. Timing was everything.
Chris's face was pure innocence. Except his eyes, which sparkled with pure devilment. "But Buck," he asked with feigned confusion, "if I don't tell them how you got the tattoo, they won't understand why you were so desperate to get rid of it."
"Chris..." Buck snarled in warning.
Chris continued, head cocked over to one side, and a concerned frown on his face that rivaled J.D. at his best five-year-old attempt to snow his two fathers. "And if they don't understand that, they'll never understand the part where I tell them how you finally 'lost' the damn thing."
"No," Buck snapped with much more horror in his voice than he had intended.
Deft as a crooked dealer in an old time saloon, Larabee pulled the bait and switch. "Well I gotta tell 'em something now that I got it started."
After a nanosecond of feigned thought, a wide, uncontained grin blossomed across Chris's face as he suggested, "How 'bout why there's a picture of your butt on a wanted poster in a Mexicali jail?"
Buck's retort died in his throat. He felt the glower between his brows fade away, as he stared at Chris, his face alive with mirth at Buck's discomfiture, and wearing a disarming smirk that matched the glimmer in the green eyes.
Buck stared a moment, then cleared his throat and tightened his grip on Chris's good arm. "Let's get this straight, Larabee," he growled. "I tell the stories around here."
At that, a full-blown laugh burst from Chris. He laughed until his ribs hurt. Damn it was good to get one up on Buck.
Wilmington knew the others weren't going to wait long. Not with a beginning like the one Chris had given them. Not with Chris Larabee, of all people, cackling like a god damn hyena in the kitchen.
He gave Chris a pointed warning look, and shoved him back toward the living room, where he did the only brave thing he could to save himself. He told the damn story about the damn Mexicali jail, and how his butt got onto the wanted poster in the first place, although it wasn't really his faultnot all of it anywayand hell, how was he supposed to know that Maria's dad was the Mexicali police commissioner, or that one window to the right was the police commissioner's sainted mother's room? Anyone could pick the wrong window, drunk on tequila, summer, and a pretty girl's love on a warm Mexican night. Although, all these years later, he was still somewhat at a loss as to what had really happened to his pants.
By the end of the story, Josiah was laughing so hard the tears were rolling unchecked down his cheeks. Even Ezra, who had tried so hard to put on his best "I'm shocked and appalled" face, was silently shaking in mirth. Between shakes of his head, Nathan was chuckling away. And Chris, who knew the story by heart, had actually come to Mexicali with him that evening, and who Buck had long suspected held some missing clues about those pants, had his good arm wrapped around his middle, laughing with abandonpart of which, Buck was still sure had something to do with what had happened to his pants. But Chris wasn't stupid. If he really did know, likely he'd never tell.
The game came back on, and the laughter settled down, although once in a while, a brief chuckle of remembrance would rise up among the cheers and jeers shouted at the TV screen, mostly from Buck, or Chris, who, several minutes later, leaned slowly toward Buck and said quietly, teasingly, "No one tells 'em like you do."
Buck flushed with embarrassment at the incident, now that he was not regaling the troops anymore. "Shut up, Larabee," he growled. But there was no heat. It had been a long time since he had seen Chris laugh like that. A long time. And Buck knew the number of years by heart.
A couple of the mothers brought the boys back just after supper at the food court where the movie theater was. Both men heard the truck roll up. Buck's team was about to begin a crucial play, and despite his better intentions, he found himself looking at Chris with a plea on his face. Chris gave him a wry grin and got up and went to the door.
The high-pitched and excited voices of both boys filled the front hall, drowning out whatever Chris's baritone was saying to the lovely, throaty alto at the door. Buck didn't even look. He was holding his breath, the men in the living room all tilted forward on their chairs.
Chris got the shouting contained but not the boys. J.D. Dunne flew into the room like a small torpedo, leaping over the arm of the sofa onto the couch, shouting effusive greetings to every one of his uncles as he bounced on the center sofa cushion in stocking feet. Buck took a sidelong glance at the boy, who came barreling into his arms completely blocking the TV screen from view. He missed the play. He heard the shouts of derision. He heard the announcer's excited disbelieving commentary. But it was all background. He was captured by the delighted hazel eyes that locked on his and the two arms that wrapped themselves around his neck, squeezing, as J.D. gave him a full body hug.
"So, you had a good time, huh?" Buck asked with a grin, while all around him his teammates started shouting at each other over that last play.
And J.D. began to tell him all about it, exuberantly, every detail, in one long unending sentence, interrupted only by Buck's occasional reminder to breathe, and J.D.'s exasperated reply of "I am breathing!"
Buck looked up to see Chris come back in, keeping pace with the boy beside him. He watched them both and marveled at the little boy's unconscious imitation of his newly adopted father's characteristic long, lazy swagger. Vin's face was earnest as he looked up at Chris, evidently explaining something important about the plot of the movie. Chris was listening, his face just as earnest, and his whole attention on the boy in that way Chris had sometimes of listening like you were the only person in the whole world. Buck watched them come in. Watched Vin's face light up to see his uncles. Chris swung the boy up onto Josiah's lap, using his good arm, then turned to ruffle J.D.'s hair.
About that time, Buck noticed something sticky had been squished onto his shirt, doubtless from the offending source that was spread across J.D.'s shirt. Chris noticed it, too, and laughed again. He held his hand out to J.D., who gave a dramatic sigh, but grabbed the hand with a grin and picked up the narration where he left off, never pausing for breath or letting go of Chris's hand as he climbed back down out of the chair and let Chris lead him patiently to wash up and change his clothes.
Buck turned to Vin. "How 'bout you, Junior? You have a good time."
"Yup," Vin replied with an enthusiastic nod that told Buck everything he needed to know.
After cleaning up the pizza boxes, chip bowls, beer and soda bottles, coffee cups, picking pretzels out of the sofa cushions, wiping the spots of chili dip off the coffee table and stuffing the mound of paper plates and towels into the trash, the Larabee Wilmington Tanner Dunne family saw their teammates and "uncles" out the door again, still trading jibes. Josiah was still laughing at the Mexicali story. And Ezra was still trying to tell them he didn't like football, although everyone present had been witness to a splendid diatribe aimed at a referee who apparently lacked sufficient visual acuity to call the game correctly, according to Ezra anyway, who upon realizing he was shouting at the screen, quickly stuffed a chip in his mouth and muttered something about the patent absurdity of the entire sport. Josiah had reached over and smacked him on the back of the head with a throw pillow.
The men spilled out over the porch and onto the driveway, calling and laughing. Vin had both arms wrapped around Chris's right leg. Buck, walking with Josiah out to the car, transferred J.D. from his hip to the porch. Instantly, the little brunet grabbed Chris's free left hand, twirling under it and stepping gently up onto Chris's left foot to lean against his leg, playing with the long fingers that he pulled down against the side of his face. Chris smiled down at him and at Vin before looking up at Buck.
And there it was. So obvious that Buck wished time would stop right there. Wished he could somehow call out to the others to wait. To just stop. So he could hold the moment. But he couldn't. Time goes on. So he memorized the sight: Chris, with a boy attached to each leg. That contented smile. And his heart up in his eyes.
Josiah paused at the bottom of the steps, staring before he looked away, suddenly feeling as he were intruding in the moment. He cleared his throat gently. And Buck joined him a moment later.
He hated to bring work to the weekends like this, but he had heard from his experts this morning. He had already passed what he knew on to Chris before the game. But Buck needed to know, too, so he could make arrangements for surveillance come Monday.
Buck nodded his understanding and his thanks.
Josiah looked back up at the porch, where J.D. had somehow managed to finagle his way onto Chris's hip, resting in the crook of his second father's left arm, talking away. Chris was turned toward him, and for all the world, appeared to be giving the boy's every word his full and undivided attention. Except of course for the right arm, which had removed itself from its sling as soon as Nathan's car vanished up the driveway, and was now running its fingers through the tangled blond hair of the boy that leaned happily against his other leg.
Josiah smiled and looked at Buck. "Guess Chris had a good time today," he said lamely. The truth was he had never seen Chris enjoy himself so much. Or tease Buck quite the way he had. Or, hell, just put his heart on his sleeve like that and show the whole room what he was made of. Not the way he had today.
Buck grinned back at him. "Yeah," he said. But Josiah heard the soft note of sadness. He wondered as he got into his Suburban whether maybe what he had seen today was a piece of that mysterious creature from the past that Buck had so cherished. His dearest friend. The way Chris had once beenbefore his family was taken from him.
What he didn't hear, as he climbed into the car, as Buck watched him drive away, as the figures on the porch waved, was Buck's quietly sighed "I wish he could take those pills forever."
Nearly a month later, things had returned to normal. The sling had come offfar too early in Nathan's opinion. Neither Buck nor Chris bothered to tell him that Chris hadn't worn it outside of Nathan's presence after the first week it was prescribed. The pills had run out, too, and so had any relaxed atmosphere in the team's office. Another tough case had come down to them from above and Team Seven had had their noses hard to the grindstone for several long days and nights in succession.
It was now one o' clock, and Buck was waiting impatiently in Chris's office, muttering to himself. He had been trying to have this meeting for two days. He had cut his own lunch short today to fit it into Chris's schedule. Then Travis called Chris upstairs right in the middle of it. Buck took a deep breath, realizing that any annoyance on his part would do nothing to speed Travis up anyway. He consoled himself by clunking his booted feet up onto the corner of his team leader's immaculate desk, leaning his chair back against the thin office wall, and closing his eyes. Imagining himself lying under a tropical sun on some beach somewhere in Key West, he began to quietly whistle a Jimmy Buffett tune.
The voice that ordered him none too politely to get his feet off the desk startled him. He jerked his feet back and set the chair down with an awkward clunk.
Chris glowered at him as he resumed his seat behind his desk. Evidently the meeting with Travis had been less than satisfactory.
"So where were we?" Buck asked with mocking cheer.
Chris snorted unexpectedly. "Judging from how long I was standing there, you were about at the third verse."
Buck made a face at him. His gaze fell suddenly on the filing cabinet.
"When'd they put those up?" Buck asked.
He nodded his head at the two awkward but enthusiastic crayon drawings hanging incongruously and crookedly on the cabinet's shiny steel sides. Names scrawled in black crayon identified the artist of each picture. Vin Tanner had drawn an awkward horse with a short neck and a back that more properly belonged on a dachshund. J.D. Dunne had drawn something largely unrecognizable, but the colors were bright and appealingespecially the big yellow sun and a quartet of faintly recognizable stick people in the foreground.
Chris looked at him annoyed, wondering what the hell Buck was talking about. "When did who put what up?" he asked irritably.
"The pictures," Buck prompted impatiently, indicating the drawings with a jerk of his head.
Chris turned his head to look at them. Buck half expected him to start in surprise at seeing them there. Instead, he flushed a slight shade of red.
"I did," he said, indignation covering a sudden self-consciousness. His voice dropped as he added, "Yesterday."
Buck's tongue stuck itself to the inside of his cheek as he regarded his oldest friend. He looked around the spare interior of the office: Ordered, neat, almost Spartanthe way Chris liked his workspace. With the exception of a coffee mug and a small framed picture of Sarah and Adam, now joined by tiny school pictures of Vin and J.D., Chris did not keep items of a personal nature in his office. Never had. Not ever.
Chris eyed Buck a moment and then suddenly flashed him a sly grin. "Look nice, don't they?"
Buck nodded his head, "That they do, Pard," he agreed, an answering grin spreading across his own face. "That they do."
Chris cleared his throat then, signaling the end of chitchat. He flipped the folder on his desk back open and picked up right where the meeting had left off, clipped tones, all business and no nonsense.
Buck smiled to himself, though, when Chris wasn't looking, and allowed himself to wonder with more hope than he would dare to voice aloud, whether perhaps, just maybe, the sea change in the Larabee-Wilmington-Tanner-Dunne household was more than just those pills after all.