Disclaimer: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, wed 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 ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets others play there. Thanks go to Limlaith for her Beta reading and excellent feedback. Special thanks to GSister for Beta-ing, encouraging, and all around nagging. Without her patience and insistence, these stories would never have been.
~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author
~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows
The voice carried a definite smirk in it, and Chris Larabee gave his best friend, his best man, a nasty glare in the mirror. Breathe, Buck Wilmington had said. Chris was getting married. Crossing the Rubicon. 'Til death do us part. Forever. I do. In twocount themtwo minutes. The bow tie on his mess dress uniform refused to stay in place. He blamed the dry cleaner. Thank God the red wine stain came out. Marco and Bill were doing their duties as ushers, and God help him if Marco asked one more of Sarah's bridesmaids if she wanted to know why they called him "Stinger." Plus, Eli and Kevin had his car keys. And God only knew what they were doing to his Jeep. He just had her detailed. If it involved shaving cream, the two of them were going to lick it off.
Now Buck was seriously starting to laugh behind him.
"Unclench your jaw, Chris," he said, reaching over Chris's shoulder and turning him away from the mirror. Buck batted Chris's hands away from his collar and reached for the bow tie himself. "Happiest day of your life. Most beautiful girl in the world. Grow old together and have lots of pretty children. Remember?"
"Shut up," Chris growled.
Buck gave a low chuckle and smoothed the properly placed tie down against Chris's collar. His hands gripped Chris's shoulders. "You ready?" He asked, smirking.
The smirk quirked up the ends of that cheesy looking mustache that was still on Buck's face and, disturbingly, seemed like it was there to stay. It was trimmed now, neatlythanks to Sarah's insistence. And from the looks of it, Buck had gone somewhere to have it done professionallyalong with his hair, probably, knowing Buck.
Chris nodded to answer the question that Buck asked what felt like several hundred seconds ago. Chris was breathing now, but still unable to speak. What if he couldn't croak out his vows? God help him...
Buck laughed again, and turned him toward the door.
There were Marco and Bill and Eli and Kevin, in full dress uniforms. They were all grinning at him. And he didn't like the smirk on Eli's face.
Their swords were piled on a chair near the door for the arch they would make when Chris and his wifeWife!left the church. "Welcome to the Navy, Mrs. Larabee," the last man would say, as he gave Sarah the tiny traditional tap on the rear with his dress sword. Chris told the whole bunch of them last nightand Kevin specificallythat he'd kill the man whose sword ripped Sarah's dress during the traditional tapping. Buck gave his solemn promise for the whole squad that the ridiculously expensive, white, fluffy dress would remain completely intact, so Chris could rip it off her himself after the reception.
What would have been so wrong with eloping? he wondered yet again. Among the good points of the suggestion, Chris listed that he wouldn't have to face Hank Connelly's baleful glares all evening long because his little girl was willing to risk having her own father never speak to her again in order to marry a "no-good", "hot-headed", "beer-guzzling", "carouser".
But Sarah wanted a real wedding. Even if it was only in a Navy base chapel. And her father had actually swallowed down his resentment and had made the trip from Colorado.
Strains of organ music filtered through the closed doors. The prelude had begun. Oh, shit. It was time. And this was for real.
"Breathe, Chris," Buck said again and propelled him toward the door.
"Breathe, Chris!" Laughing this time, Buck's voice. The man was practically jumping up and down in delight, while Chris thought his knees would buckle onto the rubbery all-weather surface and his chest would explode.
"You...breathe...you...bas...tard," Chris growled as best he could.
Buck whooped and grabbed the stopwatch from the trainer's hand with no regard whatsoever that the man was trying to write down the time on his official form. Buck bent down to wave the stopwatch in front of Chris's face. No mean trick, as Chris was bent double, and Buck had to wedge the watch between Chris's elbows and hips to where his head hung practically between his knees.
Chris's head snapped up, irritated. How was he supposed to read the damn thing like that? He grabbed the stopwatch, and ran a sweaty sleeve over his sweaty face, which didn't improve things much.
He peered at the numbers on the display. He read them again, carefully, just to be sure. Hot damn! He grinned back at Buck, who Chris suddenly feared might reach out and wrap him into one of those stupid bear hugs.
He was saved by the approach of Chief Briggs, who stuck out his hand.
"Passed the fitness tests," Chris panted out.
"So it would seem," Briggs said wryly, his stern face holding mock anger, while the deep set brown eyes twinkled. The police chief shook Chris's hand and thumped Chris on the back with a conspiratorial smile.
He turned his tall frame, still wiry at age 63, back to the white-haired head trainer. "It's a new course record, McCarthy," he said, with an exaggerated sigh.
The trainer and the chief of police shook their heads at each other. Who would have thought? The end of an era. The course had been revamped several times in the many years since Briggs and McCarthy had graduated the academy. But the records still stood. Even when recruits complained that new requirements made it impossible to compete with old scores. Even then, the best of the old records still stood. Until today.
"Want me to test him for steroids?" McCarthy offered dryly.
The police chief grinned. "Nah," he replied. "The new record stands."
The trainer shrugged and grinned back. He jerked his head toward Wilmington and Larabee, straight out of Special Forces and about to become brand new officers in the Denver P.D. "Then they're your problem now."
Chris knew the man was only half joking. But he didn't care. Buck and fifteen other soon-to-be graduates of their police academy class had hoisted him roughly into the air and were carrying him jubilantly off the field high up above their shoulders. There would be many drinks tonight. And he would not be buying a single one of them.
To hell with police academy records, Chris thought, jerking from side to side, as hands steadied him down onto a pair of mismatched and only marginally steadier shoulders. One good SEAL could beat all of 'em any day of the week.
He looked down at Buck's bobbing head. Two good SEALs, he counted. The bad guys in Denver would never know what hit 'em.
"Breathe, Stud!" came the words, sparked with joy. "And don't look so damn nervous."
Nervous? This was far worse than nervous. Eight and one half pounds and 22 and one quarter inches of squirmy, sleepy, messy, perfect and beautiful baby boy. He hadn't given it a thought before when the doctor handed him the tiny, perfect body in the delivery room. He'd taken the boy with an ease that surprised even himself. But he spared no time to contemplate it. There were other matters to contemplate, like fingers and toes smaller than he had remembered was possible, each one tipped with a tiny, perfect nail; like dark eyelashes, and milky eyes that looked up at his face as if it were something important that needed to be remembered. He thought his face would break with the smile that made his cheeks stretch until they burned. Then again, his heart might have burst, too full to carry the warmth and the joy as he looked at his exhausted, and achingly beautiful wife and the miracle they had made together. A father. He was a father.
But now the baby, his boy, his son, was home for the first time. And now it hit him before he'd even gained the front door. What kind of a father would he be?
He grinned a grin he knew reeked of falseness, so Buck could take the damn picture of him on the front porch. He hardly noticed when the camera clicked for all the questions and checklists stampeding unchecked through his head.
Yeah, he had childproofed the house. He had moved all the hazardous materials up high and put safety latches on all the cupboard doors. He had put covers on all the open outlets and he'd taped down the rug in the hall. He and Buck had tested the sturdiness of the crib themselves.
He knew how to change a diaper and had even done so once or twice in his life. He could do bottle feedings and had fed a nephew or a niece a time or two. And he could read a bedtime story with the best of them.
He could cook well enough and thanks to the Navy, he could keep a house clean, too. He was well acquainted with basic first aid proceduresand even a few that weren't so basic. He could do laundry, and he already knew how to operate on little sleep. As for the rest, he knew how to put a car seat in the back of a car, and he was getting a lot better at wrangling a squirming infant into a clean, new onesie.
He could do all of that. And what he didn't know, he'd learn. After all, he and Sarah now had a set of useful reference books to help them. But none of it answered the question: What the hell kind of father did Chris Larabee really know how to be?
He could hear the words just as clearly as if Buck were here to speak them. It was good advice. But he couldn't.
Staring at his ceiling in the dark, he could see it replay, the nightmare. Where he saw them again. And again. And again. His Sarah. His Adam. Ripped from him in his own driveway. While he stood in the kitchen, talking, finishing his coffee, joking with Buck. And again, and again, and always in his dreams he was too late to help them.
Just like in real life.
Breathe. It's just a nightmare, counseled the voice that sounded like Buck.
"It's not," Chris countered, his voice hardly a whisper in the dark room.
And how was it reasonable to expect him to breathe anyway? To go on drawing breath, when his reasons for living at all, never would again?
"Breathe, Chris," The voice ordered, low, menacing, right in his ear. "Take a big, deep breath, before you do somethin' we're both going to regret."
At the sound of it, Chris willed himself back into focus. Both arms were in Buck's firm grasp and they trembled from the violence of his desire to tear something apart. This office. His commanding officer maybe. The Assistant DA seemed a good choice.
"Listen to your partner, Larabee," Captain Andrews said. He was not fooling. He glared at Wilmington.
"Get him out of here," Andrews growled out as if Chris weren't even in the room.
Chris locked his jaw and set his feet.
"Come on, Chris," Buck said, tugging at him.
Chris didn't budge.
"Come on," he said again, and he felt Buck set his own stance behind him.
If Chris didn't move, would Buck actually pick him up and carry him out? Like he did yesterday, when Chris came a hair's breadth from beating the hell out of a suspect and Buck moved him bodily out of the interrogation room, and roared at a staring uniform nearby to shut the video camera the hell off. The bastard's lawyer stared bug eyed. But the little weasel found his voice as the door was shutting and called out legal threats a-plenty.
Chris didn't care. Or did he? The "suspect" was guilty all right. He killed the woman because she didn't want to be his courier anymore. He killed the little girl for what she saw. The son of a bitch deserved to be ripped limb from limb. He hoped the other inmates killed him in prison. Or worse. Much worse.
Except the ADA and a set of smug looking U.S. attorneys, had cut him a bargain in return for informing on Robert Merrick, his own father, a climber with ties into several nasty operations, including the illegal arms trade, and explosives. Merrick was just one of many, a merchant in arms and blood. Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Serbia, and South America ran lousy with men like him. Slimy. Invisible. Everywhere. A needle in a stinking, bloody haystack.
He reminded himself that he didn't know Robert Merrick. But he knew what his son had done. He had seen the blood and the bodies and the lifeless eyes. And the damn lead U.S. Attorney had the nerve to be proud of the bargain she'd struck, putting a confirmed killer back on the streets in exchange for mere information. Infor-fucking-mation from a sneaky little bastard who would say anything to get himself off the hook. Not exactly grade A intelligence. And all the while she gloated to the Captain that it was a damn sight better than they had the right to expect after Detective Larabee's "temper tantrum".
He pulled together the threads of his control. Losing his temper now wasn't going to help. He inhaled and remembered who and what he was. His arms shook with the effort, but he unclenched his fists and pulled his arms out of Buck's grasp. He shrugged his suit jacket back into place, and with one last long glare at the Assistant DA, he walked out of the office under his own steam. Out of the office. Past his and Buck's desks. And right out of the building.
Buck followed him. Chris knew without looking. And he knew why.
"Go back, Buck," he said between his teeth and without looking back.
Go back inside with the rest of them, he thought. You're good at this. A good cop. And a good detective. I'm not taking you down, too.
He couldn't do this job anymore. Couldn't do homicide. Couldn't look at dead kids and dead mothers without thinking about what he'd lost. And Christ, homicide was filled with dead kids in all shapes and sizes. All colors and ages. Good or bad. Every one of them was someone's dead child.
Chris had no delusions about the lines he'd crossed. He didn't make excuses. Didn't want Buck to have to make excuses. It was time.
He'd talk to the captain tonight. And when he handed in his resignation later on this week, more than one of his "brother" cops would be relieved to see him go. But Buck wouldn't see it coming. He wouldn't be involved. Chris would see to that. It was better for him to be one of the innocent.
'Course, Buck wouldn't see it that way. And he wouldn't like it. That was perhaps a gross understatement, but taking a deep breath, Chris decided he'd worry about that problem later. He'd take care of business first.
There would be a lot to do. Get something lined up for work. Somewhere where no one knew himmaybe on the other side of town, where he'd have to get an apartment. An apartment that wouldn't be alive with the ghosts of a life he no longer had.
And for a second he saw a chance. A chance to maybe stop fighting himself and everyone else. To stop running. Just for a minute. Just long enough to catch his breath. To remember what it was like to breathe again.
"You best take a big deep breath and start counting. 'Cause you ain't goin' in there lookin' like that." Buck had him by the arm and gripped it hard, and there was more than a hint of threat in his voice.
But Chris wasn't listening. Dammit all to hell! This was the reason he left the Navy. Stupid kids with young faces all too eager to get themselves killed on his orders.
He turned all his defiance into one glare. But Buck refused to let go. Buck dragged him sideways past an empty gurney into a less busy connecting corridor and shoved him against the wall, hard enough to maybe knock some sense into him.
"No one's dead," Buck said between his teeth. "No one that we care about anyway. You go in there ready to rip that boy a new set of holes, you're gonna scare him and the nursing staff half to death."
There was a thin attempt at humor in Buck's words, but Chris was in no mood for jokes. And Buck's face, still showing signs of the fear that the doctor had only just now mollified, didn't look like it was quite up to jokes either.
Chris said nothing. He simply remembered the way J.D. Dunne's feet flew out from under him, the thud as his body hit the pavement. He had known before J.D. even hit the ground that no one was close enough to drag him out of the line of fire. He didn't spare the second to wonder how the hell the kid had got himself that far out of position. He didn't have the second to spare.
It was all too familiar to Chris as he ordered his sniper to lay down cover fire, as he organized a cross fire that was nowhere near efficient enough for his liking, while he watched Buck elbow crawl out into the open to go get the rookie. And saw their target slip the trap they'd laid, through an angle that should have been covered.
Damn, fucked up, botched up, overeager... How the hell had he ever thought he could turn this mismatched bunch of problem children into a team?
Buck shook him one more time to get his attention. Then the hand on his arm loosened slightly, and he peered intently into Chris's face.
Chris really wanted to rip the kid a new one, God help him. He hated rookies. Always had. For this reason. That he hated hospitals. And he hated funerals more. And he hated to hand out platitudes to grieving family members, words that he knew solved nothing, helped nothingespecially when everyone knew that he had been the one to give the orders. He was in charge.
And it never mattered who was really at fault. It didn't matter to fathers and mothers, wives and daughters, brothers, sons, or sisters. But it sure as hell mattered to the brass. And in that, the ATF was no different from the Navy.
But this wasn't the Navy, Chris reminded himself. And J.D. Dunne wasn't any full-on, amphibious warrior either. He was a kid. And a cop. And a federal agent. Even if he was a rookie. And since Chris was the one who hired him, who put him on this team, that meant this rookie belonged to Chris.
Buck opened his mouth.
"I know," Chris cut him off curtly. "Breathe."
A small smile twitched up the ends of the mustache.
Chris glowered. But Buck still smiled.
Chris shrugged off Buck's hand and took that deep breath. Buck was right. No one they cared about was dead. J.D. had some stitches and a really bad bruise. Standish was pissed as all hell that Robert Merrick and two of his top lieutenants got awayagain. And Chris wanted to know what the hell had happened on the flank to leave that corridor open.
On the bright side, this time they had two of Merrick's men in custody. Chris planned to let Josiah use his own brand of "persuasion" to get the information they would need to plan their next move. And you could bet all seven of Team Seven's collective asses that there were going to be plenty of review and practice runs before they made that next move.
But for now there was no real damage. And there would be time to chew heads off tomorrow when J.D. limped in for duty. The boy already knew there would be hell to pay. But that was tomorrow. And there was more work to be done today.
Chris pushed away from the wall. "Collect the kid," he ordered bluntly and headed for the waiting room, knowing Buck would get Agent Dunne home again, safe and sound, to the townhouse that Buck and J.D. now shared.
Buck was good at that, at picking up the pieces, at putting Band-Aids on all kinds of hurts. Chris had counted on that when he "gave" the boy, green as all git-out and having no idea how much he had yet to learn, to Buck to turn into an agent. Buck was good at that, too, and had gone at it with a fervor that only showed Chris how much the boy had come to mean to Buck in all too short a time. Chris only hoped neither of them would come to regret it.
The four remaining agents turned their eyes on Chris as he stalked back through the swinging doors to the ER. "Buck's taking J.D. home," he said flatly.
They nodded. Relieved. Although they had heard the doctor's report, it somehow seemed more real now that someone was actually assigned the job of getting J.D. home.
"We're heading back to the bullpen," he announced. Back to business. And the sooner the better. This was not great trauma. It would not stop them. And he would not let it slow them down. They would not let the bad guys win the day. The team needed to know it. So did Merrick and all the other bastards like him.
Chris was giving orders before they even opened the glass doors that led out to the parking lot.
"Josiah, you'll interrogate the two we caught. I want to know where Merrick will pull back to. Nathan you second him. Bad cop and badder cop. No one sees a good cop until they crack."
"Vin and I are going to review the tapes. I want to know when and how that corridor opened up.
"Ezra, find out how badly your cover is compromised. If there's no safe way in, we'll need another angle. J.D. will assist in the research as soon as he gets back."
Chris watched them covertly as they crossed the parking lot. Their first casualty. Their first team scare. He watched Tanner shrug it off, falling back into that crooked-shouldered, street-wise swagger. Ezra straightened his cuffs, a sign Chris had come to recognize as Standish for rolling up his sleeves and getting to work. Sanchez and Jackson straightened their shoulders and smartened their step. He hid his satisfaction. And admitted to himself that he had been right. They had the makings of one hell of a team.
Chris slid open the door on the team's surveillance van. They piled in, and he reminded himself to make a note to Buck about getting her fitted out a little better. After all, a top notch team was going to need top of the line equipment.
The insistent whine of a motor permeated his fogged head. His eyelids snapped open onto a clouded night sky. It took him a minute to make out the shadowed forms above him, crouched low against the rubber raft, moonlight illuminating the lines of tension in their bodies, his own four limbs splayed across the dark rubber, riding the chop off the coast of Croatia. Inky black water below him and at least an inch of it in the bottom of the rubber raft, sloshing against him where he lay, soaking wet, heavy as lead. His lips were salty, and tasted of the sea, and something else, metallic, unpleasant, and familiar.
There was something important he was supposed to know...
Eli and Marco were dead.
The realization drove him upright, or at least it tried. The gasp tore out from inside him and he felt like he'd been turned inside out. He struggled against the weight on his chest that wouldn't let him curl up. The world rocked left and right and the crouched figures snapped into motion.
"Breathe, Chris," Buck's voice said from a face that was blurring in and out above him.
Determined now, feeling his neck bulge with effort he spat words at the shoulders that pinned him water-logged to the rubber beneath him. "Got...to..."
"You don't gotta do nothin' but lie there and breathe," Buck spat hotly, a tremor beneath the anger that Chris hardly recognized as belonging to Buck.
From somewhere behind his head came Bill's voice, calm and low, "Easy, Lead Dog. Take it easy."
Where were Marco and Eli? He remembered the lightless eyes a split second before a flash stole his vision and his feet left the ground.
He strained to lift his neck.
"E...li?" It came out as two words.
Please don't let him tell Eli's wife they left his body in a foreign land. Bad enough he couldn't tell her why. He could hardly remember why himself.
There was no response from above him. "Buck," he hissed out, and hated the strange thin sound of his own voice. The face wobbled around toward him again but didn't listen. A heavy hand on his forehead pushed him back down against the cold rubber.
Buck peered down at him again, face pale in the moonlight. Something was wrong about that. Camouflage paint, he realized. Where the hell was his face paint? They all had it when they went in. He wouldn't have let them move a foot without it. Stupid bastard. God damn white face in the dark. Practically a target. He glared hard at Buck and tried to crane his neck around to locate Bill, but the hand wouldn't let him lift his head.
"Stop it," Buck hissed.
A faint, thin sound poked intermittently through the sound of the boat motor. Radar maybe. Sonar. The pickup ship, he thought hopefully, suddenly acutely aware that his insides were on fire.
He would not be deterred. "Don't...leave...them," he croaked out.
"We aren't leaving anybody," Buck said tightly, through his teeth, and Chris felt there was supposed to be a message in there for him. But he couldn't figure out what.
Buck nodded at someone nearby.
Kevin's voice drifted at him, comfortable, reassuring. "Nobody got left," he said. But the soft, familiar drawl confused him, and he didn't know why.
The pulsing noise grew steadier beneath the whine of the boat motor. The boat rose up on a wave, and between Buck's shoulders and Kevin's knee, he saw the tether line. The bodies were in the second raft. They were coming home.
At least there was that.
But what about J.D.?
He jerked. Where the hell was J.D.? He last saw him on the ground.
That was wrong. J.D. wasn't on this mission... Was he?
Voices buzzed above him, a staticky, incomplete sound like radio chatter. "...come out of it?... ...takes time... ...damn long time already...."
Without warning, a bright light blazed suddenly above them like a nuclear flare, disintegrating the moonlight and the Croatian sky. And the raft and its towline together.
"No!" he tried to shout, but the air was too thick, and he couldn't make a sound. He tried again. Louder now and louder. "God, no!" he cried. Someone had to hear. Someone had to understand.
The raft was gone, and the ship would never come! It would never pluck them from the water like it was supposed to. He had to fix this. He had to get Eli and Stinger home. And Buck and Bill and Kevin. He promised them. He promised so many...
"Chris?" Buck's voice came through the static. "Come on, now," it urged.
He sounded so calm. But how could he, when he had vanished with the others?
Something warm was beneath him. Where was the water?
Buck called his name again.
Where the hell was he? He struggled to get his eyes open. If he could just see, maybe he could make sense of it. Figure it out.
He wanted to swear with the effort. With the pain. And swear loudly. But his throat was dry and filled up with a raw ache. Still some sound came out, a low, faint groan he hardly even recognized as his own by the time it reached his ears.
"Chris?" Buck's voice came again, louder now, over the buzz of the boat motor that had suddenly become just a soft hum and the radar that had transformed into a beeping sound beside his left ear.
"That's it. Come on."
Finally, he pried his heavy eyelids open and blinked once, twice in the too bright light. The blurred form above him resolved itself into Buck. His gear was gone. He was talking to someone just over his shoulder, where Kevin should have been.
But it wasn't Kevin. Couldn't be Kevin, he thought, and tried to remember why not. Where was Kevin?
He stared up at Buck. And chose only one question. Knew he could manage just one. "Eli?" he rasped.
He knew the answer as he watched the wrinkle form between Buck's brows. The whole of the mustached mouth drooped downward.
There was no water below him. No waves. No ocean and no moon. The raft and the sky were gone, were never there. But the hand that rested on his forehead was big and warm and real.
"Eli's dead, Chris," Buck said slowly, patiently, with a kindness Chris hated.
He knew that.
Eli was dead. And Marco, too. He knew that. His head ached with the effort to snap the pieces back together, from that long ago night in the Balkans. A hazy trip he never remembered fully. Except that it had been impossible.
But four of them survived to bring back the truth. That the Stingers came out of the U.S. The U.S. government and its other bureaus and agencies would deal with who and how. This they had been told. It was no longer their problem.
There would be no revenge for Eli or Marco. Move on.
Buck had finished the mission, the part no one ever wanted to talk about, orders given to Buck alone: Bring back the team commander. Bring back the lieutenant, with the orders and the know-how and the intelligence we sent you out to get and the answers we need. Bring back the lieutenant. Even if no one else survives.
And Chris had hated himself for that. He could not hate Buck. Buck had made promises, too. And not just to his country or to the Navy. He could not hate Buck, so he hated the Navy and he hated himself all through the week on a ward in Bethesda, all through the interviews where he went over his reports again and again and again, first to men in uniforms, then to men in dark suits. And all through two funerals he should have been at, but the Navy would not let him leave.
But Buck went. Buck made condolences and drank tequilas and whiskeys and beers with Bill and Kevin and toasted friends past until they could not see straight. And Buck was beside him when he finally, slowly made his way to see Eli's wife and Stinger's mother. And hugged both women as they wept and could not understand how they could not blame him for standing there when Marco and Eli were gone.
It was Buck who delivered him back to his quarters and Sarah's waiting arms. And he realized who had held Sarah for the week that he was away. It would have been Buck who had brought her the news had his part in the mission failed. She would have cried on Buck's shoulder as Eli's wife had cried on his.
Neither he nor Buck spoke of his reasons. And neither did anyone else. But Chris quietly resigned his commission. He didn't want to imagine that stricken look on Sarah's beautiful face.
And he was done burying his friends...
A well of near panic rose up through his chest and slammed against his insides. Where was J.D.?
He squeezed both eyes shut to remember. And remembered an unfinished ceiling with steam pipes and water pipes running naked across it, parked cars, and broken glass. A whole lot of broken glass.
That wasn't right, he told himself. J.D. had gone down in a greasy alley, while Merrick and his top dogs escaped.
And why the hell was Buck sitting here if J.D. was down? Unless...
Damn it to hell! He needed to know and he needed to know now. Why couldn't anyone seem to understand that? He struggled to sit up. Silver sparks shot across his vision and the world grayed.
He felt the weight of a hand on his chest. "God dammit! Lie still," Buck snapped.
"Easy, Chris." Vin Tanner's familiar soft Texas drawl came gently from somewhere out of his line of vision. He recognized it now. And knew why it didn't belong on Kevin Mahoney, boy from Boston's Back Bay. "Rest easy. Doc's comin'," Vin assured him or Buck or maybe both.
"Well what's takin' her so damn long," Buck shot back over his shoulder.
Chris tried to raise his head. To look for Vin.
Buck pushed him firmly back down against the mattress and held him there. The effort to struggle against him left Chris gasping through a ragged red pain.
"Breathe, Chris," Buck ordered. He sounded pissed. "Don't do nothin' but lie there and breathe."
Chris might have laughed at the ludicrousness of that. How similar the words spoken in his memory, while two of his men headed for body bags and a six foot by two and a half foot plot of land in Arlington.
Chris glared daggers back at Buck. The hell with breathing. One of his agents was down. Buck of all people ought to understand that. He loved that kid like he was his own brother.
And Chris was too stubborn to give in. He enunciated the two initials precisely, and didn't care how much it hurt to push the air out from his gut. "J. D."
Buck looked at him, strangely, exasperatedly.
"Chris," he said firmly, drawing breath. "For the hundredth time..." And suddenly Chris could see how bone-weary he was. "J.D. is fine. Vin is fine. Ezra is fine. Nathan, Josiah, and I are all fine."
Chris blinked again. He could have sworn he had seen the boy go down... Wait. Not a boy. Not in three years, not since they lost Merrick that first time.
The first time...
There was no way to ever know if it was Merrick's merchandise that took Eli and Stinger. There was no way to ever know. Merrick was just one of hundreds. But he was theirsTeam Seven's target. Their mission now. For three years they had dogged the bastard, watched him get richer one shipment at a time, and slowly closed the net around him.
He needed to know now if it was over.
He swallowed hard and felt like he was choking. God it was hard to talk. But Buck wasn't listening anyway. "Breathe, Chris," he said, impervious to Chris's glare.
But then Chris saw Vin, finally, stepping forward with the doctor.
The doctor started firing questions at him that he was just too tired to answer. Or maybe she was talking to someone else. A nurse was standing at his IV.
Buck moved to one side to let the doctor by, but the hand never left Chris's forehead. And Vin hove into his line of sight between Buck's arm and the doctor's coat. Chris tracked both his friends, his eyes traveling impatiently from one to the other, as he tried to answer the doctor, hoping all the while that one of the two of them might somehow read his mind and tell him what he needed to know.
The doctor was definitely telling him something now. His whole body felt heavy and he knew he couldn't wait for Buck to figure out the message. He forced the syllables out. "Merrick," he all but whispered.
Tell me we got him this time.
Buck's eyes rolled up to the ceiling. He pressed a little harder onto Chris's forehead, but he could have pinned Chris down with just the look in the two blue eyes. "We got him," Buck said, his voice hard, but his hand sliding up into Chris's hair. "He's going to jail. And if Uncle Sam gets his way, he ain't gonna ship so much as a postcard overseas ever again. Now shut up."
Behind Buck, Vin nodded, but his eyes held all the confirmation Chris needed.
His eyes strayed back to Buck. Chris had never been much good at taking orders. Buck knew that. And a corner of his mouth ticked up, as he answered, "Mission accomplished."
It was little more than a whisper, an exhale. But Buck heard it all right. Chris knew he would.
"Idiot," came the reply.
Chris would have grinned at that, if he had had the energy. The wind had gone out of his sails.
After years of chasing him, Merrick was theirs. And he was going down hard.
Mission accomplished, he thought again, thinking of Kevin, and Bill and Eli and Marco, who had begun the trail all those years ago, a trail that led to a series of illegal arms dealers, and ended with Robert Merrick, smart, connected, slippery. Another impossible mission. But he and Buck had finished it.
He and Buckand five of the best federal agents Chris had ever seen.
He felt his eyelids growing heavy. He took stock.
Merrick was finished. His men were okay. And he would be, too. He could tell. Buck had told him. Idiot, he said.
Buck had called Chris by a lot of other epithets over the years. The worse the situation, the fouler the name. "Idiot" Buck saved for when the crisis was over. Just to let Chris know he was still mad.
And that was pretty normal.
Damn he was tired.
He let his eyes fall closed, and a picture of the bright, blue Pacific and a warm California sun filled his vision, washing away the memory of the cold Adriatic. He felt himself drifting at anchor. In the harbor. Becalmed.
And on the heels of that, came the realization that Buck was right after all. Right now, in this moment, he didn't have to do a damn thing but lie here and breathe.
For once, that sounded like an order he could follow. And a promise he could keep.