The Idiot's Guide to Petty Theft

Or What Not to Do When Staying at Your Boss's for the Weekend

by BMP

MAIN CHARACTER(s): JD. Chris, Buck

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 ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets others play there. Special thanks to Charlotte for Beta-ing, and to GSister for 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

J. D. Dunne knew from an English class he had once taken that Dante had envisioned a hell with many levels. Ezra had once loudly professed that surely one of those levels had to be being forced to sit in the special-issue team surveillance van while Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee bickered like they did. Over problems that no one else really seemed to understand. In terms no one else seemed to understand. Related to events that no one else really seemed to understand. Nor were they ever likely to have any of it explained.

As J. D. approached the front steps of the old white farmhouse, he was pretty sure that if Dante were to add another level to hell, this should be it: A weekend forced to stay at the Ranch. Chris Larabee's home. With Senior ATF Agent Christopher Scary-as-Hell, Master of the Fine Art of Intimidation, Flash tempered, Fluent in over six thousand ways to inflict pain and suffering with one finger or less, Able to reduce hardened criminals to sobbing confessions in a single glare, Larabee. Government agent, Navy SEAL, law enforcement legend, control obsessed psychopath, and also--not to be underestimated in this volatile mix of titles--J.D. Dunne's boss. All weekend. And with no backup in sight.

J.D. had tried several times to explain the problem to Buck, to no avail. Either the man really didn't understand or he just didn't want to. In either case, trying to wring sympathy from him for this miserable, uncomfortable situation was like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

Small wonder. For Buck Wilmington, Team Seven's second in command, spending a weekend at the ranch was as normal as breathing. The place was as much home to him as the townhouse he and J.D. shared. How was J.D. supposed to explain to Buck that spending the weekend at Chris's ranch while the townhouse was fumigated, was like inviting disaster, throwing the door wide and saying "Come on in!"? J.D. Dunne was definitely doomed. And Buck, who had gone whistling off to some boating adventure with some flight attendant, didn't care one damn bit.

"Doomed," J.D. repeated gloomily to himself, as he shifted his duffel bag to his left hand and dug in his hip pocket for the key to the front door. He paused on the step.

He knew he was being stupid about this. In the scant three years since he had managed to wheedle his way onto Larabee's fledgling team, over the protests of several voices of experience, since he had rattled out his gratitude in an overly zealous handshake and an embarrassing promise of "You won't be sorry," he had more or less given up on trying to impress Chris Larabee and settled for earning the man's confidence instead--which had been damn hard enough.

In all that time, he had been here, to this house, with his teammates, more times than he could count. They had had about a hundred barbecues. They had watched about a thousand games on the TV. Hell, they had bought Larabee the TV. They had keys to the house and alarm codes. They kept food in his fridge. They kept their horses in his barn. They came and went more or less as they pleased. Trouble was, telling himself he was being stupid wasn't helping. Trouble was, the inevitable fact that some time in the next 48 hours he was doomed to say or do something stupid. Categorically, undeniably, embarrassingly--but hopefully not fatally--stupid. Like spill his Mountain Dew all over the leather sofa in Chris's den, he thought with a shudder. That had been two weeks ago. And J.D. was pretty sure that the arm was no longer sticky.

J.D.'s face flushed. Spilling his soda wasn't the worst of what he'd said and done here at this place.

Take that first time he had come here. Been invited, according to J.D. Buck had snickered at that. "We don't get invited, kid," he had said. "We just show up." He was still snickering when they pulled into the driveway and J.D. evidently had said out loud the "Wow" he was thinking when he saw the white barn with black trim, the horses grazing in the paddock, tails swishing idly at flies, the neat yard, and the rambling old white farmhouse, with black trim to match the barn, or was the barn painted to match the house?

He remembered he was wondering that when he had first come in the front door. And he remembered how the thought vanished when he first stepped into the front hall and followed Buck into the kitchen.

Looking back he was not sure what he had expected of Chris Larabee's house. Something as Spartan as the man's office, perhaps, as austere as the man's own manner, as black and white as the man's view of the world. Certainly not a kitchen in blues and soft greys, with tiles to match, and granite countertops, and cabinets fully stocked and holding appliances that were fully functional.

As if that weren't enough to throw him, there was also the living room, where J.D. had followed Buck next. It was a large room where warm-colored hardwoods glowed, and where furniture pieces matched each other--and the rug. Even the wallpaper that marched in perfect alignment down the adjoining hallway seemed somehow to fit into an overall color scheme. There were pillows on the couches, logs stacked by the fireplace, and more than one soft-looking blanket folded within arm's reach of couch and recliner.

Who could blame J.D. for being caught off guard? He supposed he thought Larabee's house would look somewhat neglected. Too dusty maybe. Or too shiny maybe. Unlived in. Orderly, sure. Neat, yeah. But certainly not so, well, peaceful looking, or, well, to be honest, homey.

So, it was not what J.D. Dunne had expected. Unfortunately, his mouth had moved faster than his brain. He vividly remembered joking to Buck in his best Gabby Hayes, "This ain't your ordinary bachelor pad."

And he never could quite forget the way Chris had looked at him, and the odd flatness of his voice as he answered, "I'm not a bachelor."

J.D. still cringed to think of it. How he had remembered an instant too late for the information to be useful that Chris had had a wife and a son once, a wife and son whose murderer was still out there somewhere. And even though nothing had come of the comment, and nothing was ever said about it, though Buck had made some dumb joke and everyone had gone on with the afternoon, still the memory lingered.

So spilling Mountain Dew on the leather couch was not the stupidest thing J.D. had ever done here. Nor even the most embarrassing. Just the most recent.

Until now. Now he had a whole weekend to break his record, he thought morosely. It was practically inevitable. Only this time, there would be no Buck to deflect the fallout on his behalf.

He pulled the key sourly from his pocket. "J.D." The sound of the voice startled him nearly as much as the immediate realization that the man was standing almost right behind him. His hand jerked, and the key went flying across the small wooden porch and skittered into the faded doormat.

J.D. gritted his teeth and turned to see Chris Larabee less than four feet behind him.

"Mite jumpy aren't ya?" Chris observed. It was a statement. Not a question. Chris eyed him critically, head tilted slightly sideways in that way that always made J.D. feel like he was wearing see-through skin.

Backlit against the falling sun, Chris's expression was hard to read. But he was wearing his barn clothes, J.D. realized, seeing his chance to at least do some good before the flying fickle finger of fate boinked him in the butt.

"Just let me put my bag inside," J.D. said. "I'll come out and help."

"Already finished," Chris said in that flat tone of his. One lip twitched sardonically. "Buck must be rubbing off on you."

"Well, you know what Buck says," J.D. offered. "Timing is everything." It was his best imitation of their notorious surveillance expert. A second later he wondered why it was that Buck never felt like an idiot spouting that crap.

Apparently crap like that was a lot more amusing coming from Buck. Buck, at least, would have got a flicker of amusement, a smile maybe, perhaps even a grin. All J.D. got was a soft snort that sounded distinctly unimpressed.

He suppressed the urge to sigh and remembered that his keys were still lying on the wooden boards of the porch. He bent to get them, relieved to return to his original objective.

"Well, let me get the door anyway," he replied, more to break the uncomfortable pause than because something needed to be said. He retrieved the key and aimed it for the lock.

"It's unlocked," the voice said right behind him, so close that Chris reached around J.D. and shoved open the door.

J.D. felt the blood rise up into his cheeks. Of course the door was unlocked. Otherwise Chris would have locked himself out. And Chris Larabee wasn't likely to lock himself out of his own house. No. That was more like something J.D. would do.

He put his bag down in the foyer and turned awkwardly back to thank Chris for opening the door, deciding that a simple "Thanks again for letting me stay this weekend," would not be inappropriate. He had cleared his throat and started to speak before he realized he was speaking to the air. Chris had gone.

A moment later he remembered the barn chores and knew Chris had gone around to the back door. Chris Larabee would never bring his barn boots through the front hall. He remembered learning that lesson, too, and checked his sneakers hurriedly for mud in the treads.

They were clean. He toed them off onto the mat that stood by the front door for just that purpose and shut the door. Standing in his stocking feet on the hard wood floor he took stock. Exactly three minutes into his weekend stay at his boss and team leader's house and already he felt damn stupid.

Oh yes, he was most definitely doomed.

He moved into the kitchen and stuck his head in the fridge. His stomach growled loudly, complaining of neglect, as J.D. scanned the shelves: a half-empty package of hot dogs from last weekend; some stir fry tofu crap that probably belonged to Nathan; two full gallons of milk, some Cheese Whiz that had been there so long the gunk on the sides of the jar had gone crusty, a couple of take-out containers, their Styrofoam surfaces marked with the initials VT and BW, and one of them bearing a ball-point carved inscription that looked like "Touch This and I'll Rip Your Arms Off."--Oh yes--and a plastic container containing leftovers of Josiah Sanchez's Red Hot, Tonsil-Toasting, Turn-Your-Stomach-Lining-Inside-Out Chili.

J.D. grimaced and pushed the chili out of the way. Bad enough he was here for the duration. He wasn't going to spend the next 48 hours in the bathroom, too. He picked the hot dogs. And paused to consider how much discomfort just a little spoonful or two of the chili could really cause him. He could always add Cheez Wiz to lessen the burn. And onions. Gotta have onions. And a little mustard. He reached for the chili.

Part of his brain idly wondered whether he ought to ask Chris if he'd eaten yet, or at least offer to make him a chili dog. Did Chris eat chili dogs? Buck ate chili dogs. Did that mean Chris ate chili dogs?

He realized that he had never heard Chris return from the back mudroom. He pulled his head out of the refrigerator and nearly jumped out of his skin as a horrible, high-pitched rending sound screamed out through the closed garage door. He tripped on the bags of paper and plastic to be recycled as he tore open the garage door, hand already flying instinctively for his cell phone or his gun, neither of which he was wearing because he was no longer at work.

Chris spared a glance for J.D.'s less than graceful entrance into the garage, then returned his attention to a large plank and an exceptionally large and vicious-looking table saw. A pair of serviceable, if fairly ridiculous-looking, safety goggles hung down around his neck and thick gloves covered his hands. He regarded the board from several angles, replaced the goggles over his eyes, and sent the innocent board screaming past the whirling blade.

J.D. willed his heart to return to a normal, sane pace, as the saw blade slowed and stopped.

Chris pulled the safety goggles down to dangle around his neck, circled his newly cut board slowly before bending to inspect the cut more closely. He ran one hand gently across the surface, dusting away the sawdust, and pulled the board from the bench. He laid it carefully on a stack of other boards roughly the same size.

He turned back to J.D. and smiled lopsidedly. "Red cedar," Chris Larabee said with satisfaction, as if those two words said everything.

J.D. tried to see something special in a short stack of sawn boards. In the end, he sidestepped the issue entirely.

"You eat dinner yet?" J.D. asked casually, and hoped belatedly that Chris had not noticed his hurried rush to rescue his boss from unknown attackers in the garage.

Chris seemed to consider the question for a minute and glanced back at the boards as if actually weighing his options. Eat or saw. Have dinner or give J.D. another heart attack at the sound of unfamiliar and dangerous-looking power tools.

J.D. scowled. Geez, a guy ought to know if he's hungry or not. What was there to think about?

"All right," Chris said with a shrug. "Let me put these away."

With that, Chris pulled the plug and began carefully looping up the long orange cord. He covered the blade. When he began sliding the large table saw back toward a space along the wall beside a workbench and some other pieces of equipment that J.D. vaguely recalled seeing in a high school shop class, J.D. realized that the sooner he started helping, the sooner he might get to eat.

While Chris pushed the saw back into place, J.D. set to picking up wood scraps from the shop floor. Standing in the middle of the floor, he looked around for a scrap bin, or some other appropriate place to put them. Chris caught him looking and pulling off his gloves, pointed to a closed storage bin at the end of the workbench.
"The scrap goes in there," he said.

"Oh," J.D. returned and headed for the bin, only to be stopped by Chris Larabee's hand reaching over his shoulder to pluck a small rectangular piece out of the center of the jumble of wood in J.D.'s arms and put it safely on the shelf with the other pieces Chris had cut. He didn't say anything. And neither did J.D. With the painfully familiar feeling of being five years old again and being banished to a kitchen chair so his mother could finish cleaning faster, J.D. hurriedly dumped the scrap pieces in the bin, replaced the lid and followed Chris up the garage steps and into the kitchen.

Together they cobbled together some chili cheese dogs, poured some drinks, and took it all into the living room to eat. Hands full of plate and drink, J.D. stared, perplexed, at the wooden coffee table and his own lack of a third arm. Chris saved him by tossing a paper beer mat onto the coffee table, so he could finally set his drink down.

Chris Larabee was borderline fanatical about glasses and woodwork. There used to be a stack of coasters in a basket under one of the end tables. Then Buck developed a habit of flinging them at the television when he did not like the play his team had made, when the wrong team scored points, when he disagreed with the ref's call, or when he just plain felt like it. As a result, one Saturday, all the good coasters completely disappeared and were replaced by a stash of paperboard beer mats advertising beers J.D. had never heard of and coming from countries J.D. barely knew existed--and doing far less damage when they hit the TV, other pieces of furniture, and, occasionally, teammates.

The drawback was that, now and then, Buck would read one of them, and it would spark him into a round of "Remember When", which frequently made the whole team cringe. J.D. was pretty sure the resulting smirk on Chris's face was just his way of getting revenge on the rest of them.

J.D. set his soda down carefully on the beer mat, noting that it didn't seem to matter that the table top did, in fact, bear some scars (all of them carefully filled in and polished) or that Buck and Vin had a habit of propping their feet up on it when Chris wasn't in the room, or that countless bowls of chips, pretzels, nuts, crackers and just about every other snack food had been set on it, spilled on it, and occasionally launched from it via Vin Tanner's ridiculously accurate finger-flicking skills. It was a point of fact. No drink--hot, cold, or room temperature--had ever been set down on that gleaming wooden surface without a coaster to protect it.

Balancing beverage and full plate with admirable grace, Chris settled himself into his recliner. J.D. sat with his plate on his lap in the exact center of the long empty sofa. By himself. He watched CNN playing on the television. And wished that Buck were here.

Chris did not speak to him for a solid forty-five minutes. He did not comment on the news reporters, on the news itself, or even on events actually related to their case load. He did not channel surf. And J.D. knew there was no hope of him putting on a nice re-run of the Simpsons or King of the Hill or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"I'll clean up," J.D. said, suddenly unable to stand either the relentless drone of the news or the relentless lack of conversation. He bounced up from the sofa, grabbed Chris's empty plate, and disappeared into the kitchen.

He loaded both plates into the dishwasher, then pulled them out again and rinsed them, all the while wondering what the point was of having to wash the dishes before putting them into a machine whose sole purpose was to wash the dishes. Really, that was a red herring. What he really was wondering was why it wasn't possible for Chris Larabee to make just a little effort to engage a guest in some form of polite conversation.

But then Chris Larabee wasn't particularly polite to the rest of the guys either. And, J.D. felt with a pang, J.D. wasn't exactly a guest. He lost his guest status the moment he received a key, so he could come and go as he pleased. And that meant something. Something important. No longer a guest. Now more like family.

And a person doesn't have to entertain family.

But still, J.D. groused to himself, having rinsed the plates properly now, a person could make the effort. Couldn't he? After all, if Vin or Buck were here, there'd be talk. There'd be teasing. There'd even be laughing, or at least smiling.

J.D. thought about that for a second. Chris did talk when Buck and Vin were around, right? At least some of the time. He was positive.

Granted, Chris Larabee and "small talk" didn't belong in the same sentence. And what Vin and Chris did most of the time couldn't hardly be called "conversation".

And Buck did most of the talking in just about any conversation he was involved in. But he'd actually seen Buck get Chris going a time or two. And through the glass doors, he'd seen the two of them side by side in the Adirondack chairs on the back deck, watching the backs of their heads bob and swivel, punctuated by the occasional wave of a hand or pointing of a beer bottle. And sometimes he'd even seen the two of them laugh so hard Buck had to wipe the tears off his face.

Yep, if Buck were here, there'd be talking. There'd be story telling. There'd be stupid jokes. There'd be teasing. And lying. And sarcastic remarks. There'd be life. Alive-ness. Liveliness. Not this irritating silence.


J.D. was not Buck.

But if there was going to be any kind of conversation, he was going to have to start it.

He returned to the living room and to the sofa. Chris turned from the TV screen long enough to give him a scouring once-over.

"You don't have to clean up," Chris said pointedly.

The weather channel announced the local forecast.

The weather, J.D., thought, brightening. They could always talk about the weather for a few minutes.

"It's gonna rain tomorrow," he said, pointing at the screen.

Chris followed J.D.'s pointing finger to scan the rest of the report. "It'll be early," he said thoughtfully. "And light."

"Thought I'd go riding in the morning," J.D. said. He left the statement hanging.

Chris nodded. "Your horse could use the exercise."

Was that a jibe? A joke? Teasing?

"You want to come?" It was on the tip of J.D.'s tongue.

"Gonna take an early run," Chris said, interrupting J.D.'s thoughts.

Run. He meant running. Like exercising. Only far more masochistic.

Was that an invitation?

J.D. had never actually run with Chris. Only listened to Buck gripe about it. But Buck exaggerated a lot, too.

Vin ran with Chris. He seemed to like it. How bad could it be?

"Good idea," J.D. said. "I could use a run."

A sudden smirk cracked Larabee's face. And in the silence, J.D. could hear the words. You? Run?

"What?" J.D. demanded. "I run."

"Oh, you run," Chris said, the sarcasm now clear. He tossed J.D. the remote.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, snatching the remote out of the air. He'd passed every single fitness qual with flying colors. What did that mean: "Oh, you run."?

The smirk grew a little wider.

"You run," Chris said, kicking his footrest down and sliding out of his recliner. "But you don't like it."

"I..." the retort stopped.

Well, hell. The man was right. J.D. didn't like to run. He only did it to keep up with the job requirements. There were better ways to exercise anyway: like biking, like skating, like...well, like a lot of stuff. That wasn't the point.

"I keep in shape," J.D. retorted testily.

A small snort escaped from Larabee, as he headed for the stairs.

"I won't wake you," Chris said. "Help yourself to," he paused to give a backhanded wave in the general direction of the kitchen, "whatever."

J.D. was not to be derailed. "I do exercise," he snapped at Chris's back, as it disappeared up the stairs. And he muttered it once more into the empty room, as he flicked through the channels.

Where the hell were the re-runs of Buffy now that he had control of the TV?

He thought about popcorn.

Did Chris just call him out of shape?

By 4 AM, J.D. had reason to regret the chili dogs. Or maybe it was the corn chips. Or perhaps the salsa. Hard to tell. The only thing he could tell for certain was that he had heartburn. Heartburn! Despite the fact that he had been telling himself for well over an hour that people his age--strike that, ATF agents his age, ATF agents his age and in his kind of great shape--don't get heartburn.

At 4:45, he gave in to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He swore and swung his legs out of bed, nearly tripping on his own duffel bag as he shuffled across the floor toward the door, feeling his way in what was very nearly pitch dark, despite the fact that he knew from the chorus of twittering birds somewhere beyond the heavy curtains on his window that it had to be nearly dawn.

It was somewhat lighter in the hall, where the sliding glass doors in the living room let in the pale pre-dawn light. He shuffled across the hardwood floor, clumsily navigating the corner of the stair and tiptoed into the bathroom. He shut the bathroom door behind him, turned on the light so he could see, and set to rifling the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Rolaids, any sort of cheap antacid really. Maybe a pink bottle of Pepto.

Larabee's medicine cabinet was a wonder to behold. To be fair, it was the guest bathroom. And therefore the guest medicine cabinet. And therefore the "guests", who weren't really guests at all, coming and going as they pleased and generally having the run of the house, were sort of tacitly expected to keep it straight. Which they didn't. So everybody just kept the doors to the medicine cabinet and to the cabinet below the sink, which housed the considerable overflow tightly shut. That included Chris, who was adamant that he was not their mother and was not going to clean up the medical supplies for them.

Nathan Jackson, the team medic, occasionally attempted to inventory and straighten up the boxes of Band-Aids, tubes of liniment and topical antibiotics, sports wraps and tapes, bottles of painkillers and over the counter medication and to throw out anything that had passed its expiration date.

It was good to be prepared, J.D. reflected, bent over and feeling his way irritatedly through a full basket under the sink, the acid burning its way up his throat now. But wouldn't it be better if a person could actually find the damn stuff he was looking for? He closed the cabinet under the sink and returned to the medicine cabinet behind the mirror, where he had started the search, pulling the door open much less patiently now.

Two bottles of pills and a tube of something spilled off the top two shelves. He reached for the pills, snagging one out of the air, while the other bounced off the sink and clattered loudly to the floor. The tube landed with a soft thud on the counter. He grumbled again and bent to pick up the other bottle, elated to discover it was the antacids he had been seeking--until he smacked his head on the corner of the cabinet door.

His heartburn was instantly forgotten as he grabbed the back of his head and more tubes and bottles clattered to the counter top and rolled and bounced to the floor. Still gripping the back of his head, he staggered toward the toilet, kicking the pill bottles out of his way. He plopped down on the seat and fingered his scalp carefully. Damn that hurt! But there was no blood on his fingers when he pulled them away.

He swore one more time for good measure and looked around for the bottle of antacids he had been holding a second ago.

There was a quiet knock at the door.

Shit! Chris! Of course he had heard the commotion. Man had ears like a bat. He was radar personified when it came to hearing things that no one wanted him to know.

"J.D.?" the voice asked.

"Er--" J.D. hesitated. He let go of his head and reached over to open the door.

"Didn't mean to wake you," J.D. said, as the door swung open.

"You didn't wake me," Chris replied, standing in the doorway.

No, of course not, thought J.D., eyeing Chris's wet hair, the tee shirt that was soggily plastered against his chest, the long shorts, the running shoes and the headphones around his neck. It's 4:45 AM. Why would anyone be sleeping when they could be out running in the ice cold rain?

"Nice run?" J.D. asked casually.

Chris nodded. He eyed the bottles on the floor and one corner of his mouth twitched. "You find what you were looking for?"

"Yeah." J.D. shrugged coolly. No problem.

"Came to tell you it's raining pretty hard. You probably want to put off that ride."

"Thanks," J.D. said.

Chris pursed his lips.

J.D. waited. Waited standing amid a half dozen bottles and tubes from the medicine cabinet. Waited while hydrochloric acid from his stomach burned a hole through his chest. Waited, thinking about that nice, soft bed just over twenty feet away, and the little bit of sleep he could still get.

"Was there something else?" J.D. asked, trying to hide the edge of frustration in his voice.

"Since you're up," Chris said. "I could use some help with a project."

The prospect of another hour of sleep evaporated in a puff of smoke. Or perhaps it was the soft hiss of air between J.D.'s teeth.

"Um, sure, Chris," J.D. replied. What else did he have to do anyway? Had he been home, he and Buck might have sat down to laugh their way through a couple hours worth of Saturday morning cartoons. But that was Buck. And watching cartoons while Chris worked away at some project was way, way, way out of the question. And frankly, J.D. wasn't sure he wanted his boss to know that he still liked cartoons. Assuming that wasn't one of those secrets that Chris somehow already knew.

J.D. brightened suddenly, realizing that Chris Larabee had just asked for his help on a project. That didn't happen every day.

He leaned around the doorway and called after Chris, who was already on his way upstairs. "When do you want to start?" he asked.

Chris turned back. "No rush," he said. "We'll have breakfast first."

J.D. groaned and looked around for the fallen bottle of antacids.

By the time J.D. showered, shaved, dressed, and made his way to the kitchen, Chris was already seated at the table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper and an empty plate on the placemat in front of him.

Eggs were in the frying pan, and bacon was on a plate on the stove. Even better, coffee was in the coffee pot. And it was hot, strong, and fresh. Forgetting all about his discomfort of four A.M., J.D. piled up a plate and poured a big mug of coffee. He tucked a placemat under his arm and carried it all to the table.

He plowed through the eggs. Still chewing his bacon, he reached for the discarded sports section.

"So, what's up?" J.D. asked casually, skimming through the first page.

"What?" Chris asked absently, never lifting his eyes from the paper.

"The project you wanted help with?" J.D. clarified patiently, very patiently.

Chris lowered the paper to the table, still reading. J.D. craned his neck to try to see what Chris was reading that had sucked up all his attention. He didn't have much chance, as Chris looked up at that moment.

"I need to overhaul the engine on the Cushman," Chris said, sounding ever so slightly resigned, as he spoke of the small utility vehicle that had seemed to have acquired a stubborn streak lately, along with a string of broken belts and leaky hoses. J.D. grinned. He could help overhaul the Cushman. After all, he knew his motorcycle inside and out. And he had recently helped Buck overhaul the engine on his beloved antique truck. Buck loved to overhaul the engine on his beloved truck, J.D. thought. Buck never sounded resigned about an engine overhaul. In fact, he always sounded like it was an event he had looked forward to for months.

"Sure, Chris," J.D. answered quickly. "I can help with that. I've got lots of experience, too. In fact--"

He was interrupted.

"It's not that big a job, J.D." Chris explained, now sounding ever so slightly exasperated. "I need you to take a look at the computer in the den."

The computer, he had said. Five days a week, the team depended on him to work practical miracles on their computers. They made fun of him on the occasions when he did have to give in and call IT. On the sixth and seventh days, he was supposed to have fun. Granted, poking around on computers generally WAS fun. But that wasn't the point here, was it? He would just remind Chris that he was off duty and that Chris's personal computer wasn't really his responsibility.

He was set to do just that. But it was too late. His mouth was already asking what was wrong with it.

"Running slow," Chris replied. "Probably needs someone to take off the spyware."

J.D. sighed. That figured. Positively paranoid about security, surveillance, and proper protection on an operation, but so like the man to leave his home computer, gateway to the information highway, portal for personal business, practically unprotected.

J.D. all but groaned. "When's the last time you ran a utility to do that?" he asked.

Chris smirked at him, as if J.D. were the idiot who had let spyware take over his machine. Mockingly, he appeared to take a second to think about that before simply replying "Never."

This time J.D. did groan. He closed his eyes, too. "At least tell me you have a firewall and virus protection."

Chris made a sour face. "I'm not stupid, J.D." he said through his teeth.

And J.D. felt his face grow hot. "I didn't mean..." he started but didn't finish because a niggling little voice in the back of his head wondered loudly whether not running any kind of utility to block or remove spyware couldn't really be classified under the heading of stupid.

Boy, he thought blackly, if the shoe were on the other foot, he'd be mocked half to death for not protecting his computer. But he didn't dare say so. Instead he made a minor show of giving in with great reluctance, assuring Chris with a large sigh that he could take care of that for him.

And irritatingly, Chris Larabee appeared not to notice his reluctance at all.

"Thanks," the man said. "I left the passwords on the desk." And with that, he rose up from the table, put his dishes in the sink, and left, leaving J.D. alone in the kitchen. He glowered at the hallway. It took him another second to realize that Chris had never even bothered to consider that J.D. might have said no.

"Of all the..." he muttered, then sighed. "Who am I kidding?" he asked the air.

He shook his head at himself, feeling ever so slightly used and disgruntled and picked up what was left of the paper. Sure, he said he'd clean off Chris's computer. But he didn't say he'd do it right away. And he almost felt like giving the empty kitchen a resounding "So there!" just to prove the point.

Half the morning had sped by while J.D. was in the den that served as Chris's office. Nice office that, when you really looked around. Dark brown leather sofa (No Mountain Dew stain. J.D. had checked.), barrister bookcases with beveled glass, brick fireplace, the big wooden desk, of course, and the old TV that used to be in the living room. J.D. spun the swivel desk chair in a circle while he waited, waited, and waited some more. It shouldn't have taken this long really. But then, he hadn't counted on how much software and how many updates he'd have to download.

As he rebooted into Safe Mode, he consulted a list of suspect files he had scribbled on a pad of paper. He'd had to go back to the kitchen to find both paper and pencil because Larabee kept his desk locked up tighter than the weapons locker at the training range. Tighter than the fine print on J.D.'s motorcycle loan. Tighter than... The computer grabbed his attention, and he stopped spinning the desk chair around looking for just the right metaphor to tell Buck later. He put down the list.

Safe mode. He grinned and cracked his knuckles. There was nowhere the little spying buggers could hide from him now. And he set about hunting them down one by one, adding an occasional laser shooting and explosion noise just for emphasis.

"Got you!" he roared suddenly in triumph, thrusting both hands into the air. "Dead. Dead. You are so dead. Take that you little lying, cheating, spyware bastard!" He pointed his finger at the screen. "Slink back to whatever hole you crawled out of and tell your master you failed!" He was feeling pretty damn proud of himself as he restarted the computer one last time.

His eyes drifted along the mantel above the fireplace. It was made from a thick beam of wood and it wrapped around the bricks on three sides. He'd never paid much attention to the room. He knew there was gun safe or at least a lockbox in here somewhere. Presumably it was behind the wooden door that was half hidden in the shadow between a tall bookcase and the jut of the hearth. He had always assumed that was another closet. But it occurred to him that he had never actually seen that door open.

But he was alone now. And the computer was still rebooting. So technically, he had nothing to do. And try as he might, he couldn't recall Chris ever saying that any place in the house was off limits.

His feet carried him over to the closet door. He tested the knob and the cool metal turned obligingly in his hand. Chris would have locked the door, he reasoned with himself, if the closet were off limits. And the door wasn't locked. So he opened it.

A white string hung down in front of him. He pulled it and a light blazed up from a bare bulb screwed into a socket above his head.

Yup, it was a closet. Big enough for a grown man to hide in if it weren't so full of crap. Well, not crap exactly, or not that J.D. could actually tell. It was practically stuffed with boxes--right up to the fat wooden dowel for hanging coats. And most definitely not off limits. Four boxes marked "Buck" were visible right in front of him.

He wondered what Buck would store here that he wouldn't put into storage at the townhouse. So far as he could tell, Buck had a LOT of stuff stored at the townhouse. So how much crap could one man possibly have? He scanned up the boxes, stacked one on top of each other, the top one stuffed so full that something was actually sticking out of the top. J.D. peered at it. It didn't take much closer inspection to discover a pair of snowshoes he recognized. And they definitely did not belong to Buck.

His eyes narrowed. Those were HIS snowshoes. New last winter. He remembered loaning them to Buck--against his better judgment no less--sometime last February. Well he sure wasn't going to sit around and wait for Buck to remember he had packed them into a box and shoved them into one of Chris's closets somewhere.

"They better not be scratched," he growled, reaching upward and grabbing the lightweight metal. "Or bent," he added, giving a tug. It seemed caught on something. "Or rusty," he snarled, giving it one more good tug. Stuck.

He eyed the boxes one more time. Looked like he was going to have to lift the whole box down, so he could reach in and unhook the snowshoes.

The four boxes were piled snugly into the space available, fitting neatly into the space below the top shelf of the closet that overhung the hanging bar. In fact, the back part of the box, the part J.D. couldn't reach in the small, crowded space, was jammed up against the shelf.

J.D. was not to be deterred. If it went in, he reasoned, it can come out, too. And he set to alternately, rocking, and tugging, pulling, and lifting until slowly, bit by bit, the box began to come free. Rock, tug, pull, slide. Rock, tug, pull, slide. Rock, tug, pull--until at last one long, hard tug brought the box sliding free, falling right down into J.D.'s arms.

It turned out to be heavier than he expected, as it thunked hard against his chest. He staggered under its weight, shuffling his feet for better purchase in the small space, grunting as the box in front of him knocked hard on the hanging bar, causing his shoulder to bang just as hard on the door jamb behind him.

In the middle of the second swear word, he noticed a small white box, now precariously balanced atop a short stack of small, uneven boxes on the top shelf of the closet. And as he watched in horror, hands too full of Buck's big, heavy box of crap to do anything about it, the box slid slowly forward, hit the edge of the box right below it and tumbled end over end, down the tower of boxes marked "Buck", to thud hard on his sock-covered toes before hitting the floor with a surprisingly loud crunch

"Ow!" and "Shit!" followed by a litany of half intelligible curses spewed from J.D.'s mouth as he crumpled forward, remembering just in time not to set Buck's stupid box down onto his other foot.

"Shit, shit!" he repeated as he felt his toes inside the sock. He wriggled them and inspected his sock at close range, relieved to see there was no blood. He plumped himself down against the closet door and pulled off his sock, and squinted at his foot, wriggling his toes again just to make sure nothing was broken. God damn that hurt, he muttered, massaging the injured digits. His eye fell on the flat, white box. It sure was heavier than it looked.

Curiosity got the better of him.

He reached for the box, picking it up and hefting its weight experimentally, his ears picking up the unmistakable sound of small objects sliding around inside it and then hitting each other with a distinctive clink.

He tilted the box the other way just to make sure. Slide and clink. And then he tilted it back, with no better result. Whatever it was, he realized slowly, it sounded like it was broken now.

Damn. He listened a minute to the silence of the house and convinced himself that he was still alone. He set the box back on the floor, heart pounding, and sliced his thumbnail through the Scotch tape holding the box closed, and pulled off the cover.

Double damn.

Whatever it been at one time, it was now a jumble of black and white ceramic pieces of varying sizes. He stared into the box, willing time to reverse itself, aware that that was not going to happen, and berating himself.

In a flash of hopeful optimism he checked the box for some sort of label, something to tell him what it was, or even better, that it belonged to Buck. No such luck.

In fact, the word "Larabee" glared up at him in tiny black writing from one shiny, jagged, white piece.

He was so dead. So totally and completely dead.

The only question was how painfully he was going to die. J.D. was pretty sure that depended on what it was he had broken.

He reached for one of the bigger pieces, but was stopped by the realization that he didn't want to get caught sitting here in the closet doorway beside a box marked with someone else's name, inspecting the broken pieces of something that was most definitely none of his business. So he did what he deemed a good half of his teammates would have done. He put the cover back on the box, got back to his feet, stepping gingerly on his throbbing toes, removed his snowshoes from Buck's box, and put the box right back up on the stack where it came from, closing the closet door behind him. Then he scooped up the flat white box and its broken contents and limped hastily to the guest bedroom.

Sitting on the bed, he carefully pulled aside the tissue paper to reveal the pieces. Black and white ceramic, with some handwriting, that he hoped to God wasn't some authentic, one-of-a-kind artist's signature, or worse, he reflected, his mouth going dry--some childhood creation from Adam, Chris's beloved son who never got to grow up.

On closer inspection, that possibility seemed unlikely. As far as he could make out, after starting to separate and reorient the pieces, he was looking at the pieces of some kind of large ceramic tile. There was a picture on it, drawn in black and white. There were words, neatly handwritten it appeared, and a bunch of people's names that J.D. guessed had also been handwritten. Guessing the tile would be roughly the same size as the box, he began to try to reassemble the pieces inside the box cover, like a jigsaw puzzle, gratified as the black lines began to take shape before him.

It didn't take him long to put together a reasonable estimate of what the tile must have looked like. He stared at it a long time, more relieved than he could say that it did not bear the remotest resemblance to the kind of pre-school crafts that J.D.'s own mother had cherished from her only son. Nowhere did it have Adam's name on it. And although J.D. had not known Sarah, Larabee's dead wife, he was pretty sure the sarcasm and bawdy humor evident in the drawing had not come from her.

He sat on the bed and stared at the picture that had started to take shape in the center of the box. It was a large doghouse, hand-drawn, cartoon style in black and white. It had a peaked roof, or would as soon as J.D. found all the pieces. A heavy, hand drawn chain ran across three different pieces to disappear into the deep, dark depths of the yawning, cave-like doorway, from the center of which, on a single fragment of tile, a pair of threatening eyes shone white against the black. Above the door was a crooked sign with a bite taken out of it and three of what J.D. guessed to be bullet holes in it. The sign said Lead Dog. The rest of the doghouse, he noted, was thoroughly graffiti'd over with what looked like names or at least nicknames. Laying down another jagged piece of ceramic, he peered closer at the pieces and made out Mad Dog, Bad Dog, Top Dog and two pieces that seemed to go together to read Deputy Dog.

Turning pieces over one by one, he began to realize that the drawing was surrounded by small signatures and phrases printed around the drawing. Messages beginning "To Chris" or "Chris" or even just "Larabee". Fragments of messages where J.D. could make out words like "Good luck," at least one "Godspeed" and "never forget". A strange shiver ran up his spine to realize what he was reading: messages to Chris out of a past that to J.D., when he thought about it, seemed liked a whole other lifetime, or like something Buck Wilmington had made up. But here was proof in black and white. Well wishes from a bunch of young and rowdy Navy SEALs.

J.D. put the pieces in his hand back into the box, feeling suddenly awkward, like an intruder. And worse than that, he realized his monumental stupidity, as for the first time, it truly came home to him that there had been another team, before ATF Team Seven, as dedicated, as tight, maybe even more so--and Chris had left them.

The back door slammed, and he jerked upright.

Thankfully, J.D. Dunne had always been fast on his feet--both mentally and physically. He closed the box hurriedly, and shoved it inside his duffel bag. It was a tight squeeze there on top of his clothes, and he cringed to see the tell-tale corners visible beneath the taut fabric. Digging his hand around under the box, he pulled out some wadded up socks and a pair of sweats. He shoved the box further down into the bag, padded it with the socks and sweatpants. Better. He remembered the snowshoes an instant later.

"J.D.?" Chris called.

J.D. reckoned he had left the mud room and had already poked his head into the den to see that he was not there. The next stop would be the guest room. Satisfied at the way the odd shape of the snowshoes shoved in at the top pulled the fabric of his duffel bag tight, outlining their odd features and totally obscuring the unnaturally square object at the bottom of the bag, J.D. nevertheless used his uninjured foot to slide the bag away from the door and to the foot of the bed, where it then half buried itself in the quilt drooping off the end of the bed. He opened the door just as Chris was about to knock.

"Hey," J.D. greeted him, and congratulated himself on his casual tone. And on the way he didn't even break a sweat when Chris squinted at him slightly.

Whatever it was he had on his mind, he didn't say. The slight frown vanished, as he asked instead, "You done already?"

He sounded surprised--and pleased.

"Sure," J.D. shrugged nonchalantly, disinterestedly.

"Great," Chris replied. "Let's have a look."

With that he wheeled and headed for the den, and J.D. was suddenly seized with the absurd notion that he had left the closet door open, or some small piece of tile still lying on the floor. He was right on Chris's heels as he wandered over to the computer. And had the nerve to look at it sitting there, running smoothly as you please, with a vague disinterest that J.D. tried not to let bother him.

Chris looked up. "Thanks," he said, with a grin. And heck if the man didn't actually look pleased.

"No big deal, really," J.D. replied, certain now that there were no stray pieces lying on the hardwood floor but still considering how best to get Chris out of the room before he somehow figured out that something was not right.

That wouldn't be that hard either, now that he thought about it.

J.D. stepped up to the computer. "All I had to do," he explained, "was run updates on Spybot and AdAware. 'Course HijackThis was really helpful. But after I ran it all in safe mode, I was finally able to get rid of TVMedia and WildTangent. It was tricky, though." He paused, inhaled and started phase II of his explanation. "So first I had to..."

That was far enough.

"You hungry?" the team leader interrupted, predictably. Chris was never all that interested in the technical details.

J.D. shrugged again. "I could eat."

Chris gave a snort, as if he found J.D.'s reply amusing. But he turned and headed for the kitchen.

J.D. resisted the urge to protest that snort, and also the urge to look backward at the closet, lest Chris exercise some sort of clairvoyance or x-ray vision, or something. Hell, the things the man figured out were just plain spooky sometimes. But J.D. couldn't afford to risk it. He followed Chris, without a backward glance, away from the scene of the crime.

Chris piled waxed-paper packages of cold cuts on the counter, while J.D. pulled out the bread.

"Stopped raining," Chris said, sliding assorted condiments onto the counter.

J.D. gave him a sidelong glance, trying to fathom the direction of this conversation and starting to feel like it was some sort of a test. As usual, he failed it.

"You were going for a ride," Chris prodded.

"Oh, right!" He had completely forgotten. And from the look on Chris's face, the man had already figured that out.

The "At least your horse will get some exercise." that followed was so quiet, J.D. almost didn't hear it. He glowered at Larabee's back and considered reminding him that he might have considered running with the man this morning, had he been asked or that it was Chris's little computer issue that kept him tied up all morning, but he didn't. He didn't because somehow, somehow Chris would know the computer didn't take all morning and that would lead to the question of how else J.D. had spent the morning, which would lead to the issue of the box, the box whose contents he had broken, and now hidden in his duffel bag and shoved partially under his bed. And J.D. definitely didn't want to go there. Because, damn Chris, too many questions and the truth started dribbling right out of J.D., whether he wanted it to or not.

So he decided to let Chris just have his little joke and leave it at that. Of course, by the time he decided that, Chris had already taken his plate through the living room and out the screen door onto the side deck, where he seated himself in one of the two Adirondack chairs, propped his feet up on the railing, and, drink in hand, surveyed the west pasture intently.

J.D. followed suit only to realize belatedly that his chair was too far from the railing for his feet to reach. That, of course was because J.D. was the shortest person on the whole team. No doubt, too, Buck Wilmington and his six foot four inch self was the last person to sit in this chair. Scowling, and balancing his lunch in both hands, J.D. scooted the chair forward until he could put his feet up, too. He surveyed the pasture briefly, but had no idea what Chris was looking at, so he dug into his sandwich instead.

"So," J.D. inquired after a long silence. "You finished fixing the Cushman?"

That brought forth a snort and a grimace that J.D. took for "no."

"I could help," he offered.

Chris flicked a glance toward him as if considering, then shook his head. "Nah," he said. "Go take your ride."

"You sure?" J.D. asked. "I mean, I've worked on Buck's truck, some."

Chris appeared to mull that over for a fraction of a second before repeating his original reply, adding on, "You've done enough work for me today."

J.D. supposed that was actually a compliment. Nevertheless he added, "I overhauled my bike a couple months ago. Did a complete..."

"J.D.," Chris said through his teeth.

It looked like J.D. was going for that ride.

He wasn't sure how much good exercise his horse actually got. He spent most of the ride thinking about the pieces of the tile. Well, not the tile exactly, so much. Just something about it kept wiggling around and poking him uncomfortably in the back of the brain.

When he thought about it, he actually knew very little about Chris and Buck's time in the SEALs. He knew they joined together, made it through a hellish training program to finally be accepted into the elite brotherhood of the SEALs, and in the end, somehow found their way to the same team, and eventually, the same squad. What else J.D. knew came largely from the stories Buck liked to tell, most of which were exuberantly-related, self-serving yarns about off-duty adventures, full of plenty of hot air that J.D. was sure were at least partly fabricated from Buck's fertile imagination and stuff that he couldn't remember correctly. J.D. couldn't say that for certain, though, since Chris rarely deigned to either add to or contradict Buck's stories. Occasionally he left the room. Mostly, though, Chris just sat there silently, smiling one of his sly, secret smiles into the bottom of his whiskey glass.

Any other stories Buck told involving any actual, theoretical, or hypothetical operations hypothetically, theoretically, or actually conducted during his time in special operations generally suffered from large gaps in the narrative often prefaced with one of Buck's favorite stock phrases: "That part's still classified. I'd like to tell ya. But I'd sure hate to have to kill ya."

Conspicuously, Buck never named names. And Chris never said anything about those days at all.

All of which didn't tell J.D. very much other than Buck had clearly enjoyed the hell out of being a U.S. Navy SEAL.

But still he left.

A person had to wonder at that. Why does a man who loves a career and a lifestyle as much as Buck loved his time in the SEALs one day decide to up and leave it?

All the answer Buck ever gave to that question was a self satisfied grin accompanied by the words "I just followed Chris." Which wasn't much of an answer--or much of a reason--if you asked J.D.

Once, early on in his time with ATF Team Seven, J.D. had tried to ask Chris why he had left the SEALs. To his knowledge, it was one of a very few times J.D. had ever seen Chris Larabee at a loss for words. Stonewalling, sure. Ignoring a question he didn't want to answer, absolutely. Measuring his words before speaking, often. Simply having nothing to say, a great deal of the time. But this was actually perplexed. Chris had narrowed his eyes as if really thinking about it.

Only Chris never answered the question. He hadn't uttered a single, solitary syllable before Buck was suddenly there, steering J.D. away, distracting him, dragging him off in some other direction. And somehow, though nothing was said, J.D. got the distinct message that the subject was to be considered closed.

He didn't ask again.

All that contemplation got J.D. and his horse as far as the fence marking the eastern boundary line of Chris's property, where his confused horse gave a toss of its head. Receiving no further instructions from his rider, the gelding made the decision to turn around and head back toward the barn.

A half hour later, J.D. was slightly surprised to find himself back at the barn with no new answers and no new information to go with his new questions. He was not sure at what point he had resolved to take the tile home with him, but he did not bother to remind himself of the many reasons why taking something of a personal nature from his boss's home was a bad idea. He didn't even bother to justify it by reminding himself that he planned to bring it back again and that the odds of Chris suddenly feeling the need to find that particular item buried in the back of that particular closet were ridiculously low. And he surely didn't try to convince himself to come clean and just admit that he broke the damn tile--even when he could blame part of it on Buck not returning the snowshoes.

Unfortunately, good sense and rationalizations alike fell by the wayside, done in by curiosity and the fact that at some point as the horse followed the path it had chosen to the fence and back, J.D. remembered that he had seen that doghouse design once before--on another white tile, somewhere in the town house that he now shared with Buck. And he was willing to bet that it was still in that house somewhere. He only had to get home before Buck to start looking.

He phoned the exterminator from the front porch before removing his boots and going inside. With any luck, the guy would call him back when he took a break from massacring roaches and got around to checking his messages. Unfortunately, there was no way to know when that might be.

When one is about to smuggle an item of a personal nature from one's boss's house, it is a good idea to make sure that said boss remains unaware of the nature of the crime about to be committed against him. Since the box was now in J.D.'s bag under the bed in the guest room, J.D. only needed to keep Chris away from the guest room and to guard against the infinitesimal possibility that Chris would go looking in the office closet and notice the missing box. The best way to do that, J.D. decided, would be to follow Machiavelli's advice and keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Chris, seeming to qualify in both instances under the circumstances.

So, once J.D. ascertained that Chris was not in the house or in the garage fiddling with his tools, the young agent grabbed a couple of bottles of cold water from the fridge and went out to the tool shed, where Chris's legs, clad in a pair of grass- and grease-stained jeans protruded from under the old utility vehicle. The legs were surrounded by a variety of pieces, parts, chemicals, tools, and shop rags. The vehicle had been raised up on blocks and wedged in tightly to keep it from rolling off and possibly crushing whatever was underneath it, which, based on the muffled muttering and swearing was all the rest of Chris.

J.D. stood in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot and considering how he could let Chris know he was there without startling him. Not least because with J.D.'s luck the man would probably knock himself out cold on the undercarriage of the battered old Cushman and then J.D. would have to call the ambulance. Two possibly. One for Chris and one in case Chris woke up and decided to kill him.

He didn't have to consider long, as Chris picked that moment to slide himself out from under the machine, wiping his hands on an old hand towel. He looked up at J.D. and frowned.

"You need something J.D.?" he asked, exasperation evident in his tone.

J.D. held out one of the water bottles. "Came to see if you needed help," J.D. said kindly.

Chris's answer was a glare at the old machine, which stood on its blocks stubbornly impervious.

"What I need," Chris snarled, getting up and reaching for one of the waters, "is for Buck to stop driving over big ass rocks. It's not a goddamn race car for Christ's sake."

Since Buck was not here, Chris glowered at J.D.

J.D.'s own water halted halfway to his mouth, as words leapt to his lips. "Maybe Buck didn't see the rock..." he said, defending his friend, even if he was a big careless idiot, who didn't return the stuff he borrowed.

Chris didn't want to hear it, apparently. He cut J.D. off before he could list another reason why Buck might be excused.

"Buck ran over a big rock," Chris said irritably, throwing down his towel and expelling a long breath. "But it ain't his fault the thing's twelve years old and well past its prime. I can rebuild it or I can replace it and that's about it."

Chris grunted something that J.D. presumed was a thank you for the water and brushed disgustedly past J.D. and left the young agent, still staring at the battered little cart, and morosely contemplating the idea that now Chris Larabee was also ticked off. Not by J.D., thankfully, but nevertheless the evening forecast was looking decidedly frosty and uncomfortable. And the exterminator still had not called to say when J.D. could get back into his house. It occurred to J.D. that Buck was at least partly responsible for this, too. And the man wasn't even here.

He went back in the front door, put his water bottle back in the fridge and pulled out a beer instead, reflecting that Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington could drive a man to drink. He went into the living room and turned on the TV, circumventing the empty recliner and seating himself instead on the same center sofa cushion as before. He checked his messages--still no exterminator--and began flipping through the channels, a black cloud of disgust still hanging above his head.

He had just decided on a nice rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond, when Chris appeared, dressed in clean clothes, and a beer in hand. "Anything good on?" he asked, sliding into his recliner. His tone was still terse.

J.D. wondered for a moment whether Chris's question was a real question or just a snide commentary on J.D.'s choice of programs. Uncertain, he searched for a suitable reply.

A full three seconds went by before he realized, again stupidly, that Chris wasn't looking for an explanation. Or any sort of reply at all, really. Apparently, that was Chris Larabee's notion of small talk. Someone ought to explain to the man what the word conversation actually meant.

But not right now, J.D. amended silently. The less conversation he had with Chris Larabee, the less likely he was to let Chris lull him into some sort of ignorant ease and lead him to mention something he shouldn't and somehow accidentally--and stupidly--reveal exactly what he was trying to hide. A paranoid idea, perhaps. Or maybe not so much, considering that Chris had done it before. Granted this wasn't the same situation. Chris didn't actually have any good reason to suspect that J.D. had done anything he shouldn't have. Not like that time when Buck hijacked Chris's precious Ram out of the federal parking garage so he could pick up...

Best not to think about that, he decided. He had held up approximately 1 minute and 28 seconds under interrogation, done in by the famously terrifying Larabee glare. Even Buck had been disgusted when he found out how completely J.D. had ratted him out.

J.D. doubted that Chris was terribly interested in the program he chose, but at least the man was now looking at the TV screen instead of at J.D. So J.D. settled himself a little more deeply into his sofa cushion. And looked relaxed. And willed himself not to be uncomfortable with the silence, noting with no little irony that Chris had had far more to say when he thought he was all alone under the Cushman than when he was sitting in the living room with J.D. Dunne.

Unfortunately, J.D. was not all that comfortable with silence. And now he had to wonder. Was Chris Larabee's silence the usual silence from a man who Vin Tanner said only spoke three words a day? Or was it more the Chris Larabee thinking kind of silence? And if he was thinking, was he thinking about normal stuff, like the ranch, or the horses, or the Cushman, or the operations the team currently had running, or the paperwork, or whether the Ram needed an oil change-- or was he thinking about why J.D. Dunne was acting so weird.

He wasn't acting weird, was he? He was doing his best not to act weird. Or was that his mistake? Was Chris wondering why he was trying so hard not to act so weird?

Then the front door opened. This was not an unusual occurrence at Chris Larabee's ranch.

"Hey!" a familiar voice hollered down the front hall. "Y'all here?"

"Hey!" Chris returned casually, without so much as glancing away from the TV.

A second later, Vin Tanner strode into J.D.'s view from the couch. And J.D. thought he had never been so happy to see someone in his entire life.

"Hey, J.D.!" Tanner greeted him exuberantly. J.D. held up a hand casually to be slapped five. Then he added "I forgot you were here."

J.D. snorted. Didn't that just figure?

Nevertheless he returned a friendly "Hey, Vin," glad that both he and Chris now had someone else to distract them.

Tanner plopped himself into an open space on the couch between J.D. and Chris's recliner. "What's on TV?" he asked, reaching a hand out for Chris's beer.

Larabee's eyes never left the screen, but his hand snagged the beer bottle right out of Vin's fingertips. "Get your own," he growled, placing the bottle well out of Vin's reach.

Vin laughed easily and leaned back. Never let it be said, J.D. Dunne fell for a trick more than once. He moved his bottle out away from the snack-stealing sharpshooter and kept watching the TV.

"Damn, Larabee," Vin laughed, climbing out of the deep, comfortable cushion and heading for the kitchen. "He sticks around here any longer and he's gonna pick up the rest of yer pleasant personality."

Chris's lips twitched slightly upward, which was all the appreciation Vin's sparkling wit was likely to get.

And J.D. wondered why he felt so good about that comment.

Tanner was back a moment later with a long-neck of his own. This time he demanded J.D. shift his butt over and make room.

J.D. gave him a grunt of annoyance as if to say "I was here first." But he knew he'd lose the argument, so he shoved over, and Vin plopped himself right back in that spot next to Chris.

Vin wasted no time grabbing the controller and flipping on a football game that interested no one but himself.

J.D. found it much more interesting to watch Vin, who was clearly itching to put his booted feet up on that wooden coffee table, and just as clearly wasn't willing to risk it with Chris sitting right there. The sniper cast a surreptitious sideways glance over at Chris, who had a recliner so he wouldn't have to put his feet up on the coffee table. Vin toed off his boots. And Chris smirked knowingly, without ever looking away from the screen, as a pair of stocking feet slid silently onto the table top. All three men stayed that way, more or less silent, just staring at the TV, beers slowly disappearing.

J.D. was not aware that his knee was jiggling, until he realized that both Vin and Chris were looking at him.

"Small, local earthquake?" Vin asked, raising an eyebrow in J.D.'s direction.

"Sorry," J.D. replied.

Several more minutes went by.

The other knee betrayed him.

"You nervous about something?" Vin asked.

J.D. nearly choked on his beer.

Chris's lips twitched again, amusement glinting from green hazel eyes.

Vin turned back to Chris, who only shrugged as if to say "You figure him out."

Vin gave a quiet grunt, and leaned back against the cushions.

Another minute ticked by. The game droned on.

"You know," the sharpshooter drawled into a commercial space. "A good early mornin' run c'n help you work off all that nervous energy."

J.D. turned to stare at him.

"Sleep better, too," the sharpshooter added innocently. "Calm your nerves."

"Keep you in shape," came the comment from Chris, so low J.D. almost missed it.

Vin hid his grin behind his beer.

J.D. glared at both of them. "I am in great shape!" he announced rather more sharply than he intended. "I sleep just fine. And I am not nervous."

Chris snorted.

J.D. felt his ears burn as he thought back to standing in the midst of the contents of the downstairs medicine cabinet in the wee, gray hours that morning.