The Idiot's Guide to Petty Theft

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

by BMP

The exterminator didn't call until late that afternoon. He cheerfully related that the bug problem was much less advanced in their unit than in the apartment across the hall. He just as cheerfully recommended that J.D. spend another night away from his gas-bombed pad. It should be all clear to come back in the morning.

Damn. That wouldn't give him too much time before Buck ambled in. Knowing Buck, as J.D. did, the man would probably have a big lazy smile plastered all across his face. He'd look at J.D. with the kind of self-satisfaction usually reserved for someone who had done something important or useful, like saving the world or at least a small, helpless kitten. Then, ignoring the pile up of dead bug bodies and anything else that might need to be cleaned or straightened up, Buck would head right up to his room for a long, self-satisfied nap. Said long nap in his room would prevent J.D. from searching there, the very place where that other tile was most likely to be squirreled away. That and storage. But getting into storage and then searching through all the boxes there was going to take a long time.

Maybe there was some way he could get Buck to dally a little longer with his stewardess. That seemed a good, plan, he reflected. And shouldn't be all that hard to carry out, if he could think of some plausible way to do it.

Pacing the hallway behind the couch, he pressed the exterminator for more details, pressing a finger to his other ear to block out the voices. Voices. Arguing. Discussing. Debating. Ridiculing each other. Two freakin' days he'd been here, during which time Chris Larabee had hardly spoken two civil sentences. Vin Tanner had been here two hours and he and Chris were jabbering like, well, like Chris and Buck.

"Dammit, I can't hear!" He froze like a deer in headlights to hear the words come out of his mouth. He thought for a second Chris might get up out of the recliner just long enough to pick him up and heave him out the front door.

Instead, Vin and Chris shared a look that was far too amused for J.D.'s taste. He pretended not to notice and tried instead to listen to the exterminator's answer to his last question. It was hard, though, because Vin kept talking. Only now he was talking about J.D. Which made it very hard to pay much attention to specifications from Materials Safety Data Sheets about the kinds of chemicals used to kill roaches.

"Jesus, Larabee," Vin said loudly. "Kid's twitchy and grouchy. What'd you do to him?"

Chris scowled back at him. "Hell if I know. I've been under that damn Cushman all day." He glowered over in J.D.'s direction and muttered none too quietly, "He was twitchy when he got here."

J.D. would have liked to protest that statement, but the exterminator was now asking him something. He pressed the finger harder to his opposite ear, and moved a little farther into the hallway to ask the man to repeat what he just said.

"Why don't you just shoot the damn thing?" Vin suggested, shaking his head.

Four feet farther down the hall, J.D. assumed Vin was still talking about the Cushman. "Want me to take a look at it? Got some experience with motor vehicle repairs."

Chris seemed to think about that.

"Got tools in my truck," Vin added.

Chris shrugged. "Couldn't hurt," he said finally.

"Besides," Vin added nice and loudly, "looks like J.D. wants us to shut up."

J.D.'s head whipped around at that, mortified. Mostly because, as usual, Vin had hit the target dead center, though if pressed, J.D. would have gone to his grave swearing that it was only Vin he wanted to shut up. You don't tell Chris Larabee to shut up. At least J.D. didn't. Sane people didn't. Buck, maybe, could get away with it. But sure as hell, not J.D.

"I'm sorry...what?" he asked the exterminator, who by now was getting just a little bit irritated himself.

Both other men laughed. They climbed to their feet, and went out the front door just like that leaving the TV droning on in the background.

Well, that just figured, he thought sourly, as he hung up the phone and looked around at the empty living room. J.D.'s help had been refused. Flat out. But Vin's was apparently acceptable.

It seemed unfair. After all, even Buck trusted J.D.'s help and God knew how obsessive he was about his little red vintage truck, the one he restored with his own two hands, his little cherry red hellcat. You'd think the truck was actually his girlfriend, they way he talked about her.

And Vin? Well, J.D. was reasonably certain that Chris had actually seen Vin's handiwork, right? After all Tanner's beat up, busted, dilapidated, run-down, battered, piece of crap Jeep was parked right in the driveway for all to see.

J.D. reminded himself pointedly that his goal here was not to spend the afternoon fixing the Cushman. His goal was to get that broken whatever-it-was the hell out of the house without Chris knowing it. And, truth to tell, Vin Tanner could be just the distraction he needed.

In fact, Tanner proved to be far more distracting than J.D. would have suspected. He sat on the couch alone for a half hour and, stupidly, could think of nothing other than what Chris and Vin were doing out in the tool shed. He stole another glance at the door. He'd have thought they'd be back by now.

Chris had said the Cushman was pretty well beyond anything he could do with what he had available, right? And Chris ought to know. Chris knew a lot about machinery. Actually, when you actually stopped to pay attention, Chris knew a surprising lot about a lot of stuff.

Damn it was quiet.

Fifteen more minutes went by.

Before he even realized he'd made a decision, he was standing at the front door pulling on his sneakers.

The tool shed was empty, however. Oh, the Cushman was still there, up on blocks. But no Chris and no Vin.

Maybe they were in the barn.

They were not there either. But the horses had been fed.

Where did they go to next?

J.D. turned a complete circle looking around the yard. No one.

Perhaps they had gone around back.

That was when rational thought finally caught up with J.D. What the hell was he doing standing out on the lawn looking for two grown men, when he could be inside on that comfy sofa watching what HE wanted for a change.

He stumped back up the stairs and detoured through the kitchen for another Mountain Dew, tucking a box of Cheez-Its under his arm.

He startled as the garage door swung open.

Neither man coming in from the garage appeared to notice him at all. In fact, they reached right over and past him for another couple of beers and kept going--except Vin, who slowed his step only long enough to pluck the Cheez-Its right out from under J.D.'s arm, ignoring his protests completely and continuing on into the living room, both of them still animatedly discussing something involving a vice, a crankshaft, a hacksaw, some pipe and a lot of dangerous sounding power tools.

J.D. followed both of them, aiming to get the Cheez-Its back and to grab the controller. It was on the armrest of Chris Larabee's chair, where it was not even being used, as Chris's hands were full. Both his hands and his attention were occupied by a rag-wrapped piece of filthy metal that a second look revealed to be a crankshaft, one that was definitely bent. Chris and Vin were peering at it under the lamp, Chris turning it slowly left and slowly right, the two of them looking closely at something of evident importance under the lamplight.

J.D. eyed the controller and waited, still trying to figure out exactly what they were trying to see. Seemed to him that the big bend in the narrow end of the twisted club-shaped piece of metal was the problem. But, of course, no one asked him. So he kept watching for a chance to get the controller and grab his Cheez-Its back.

Running out of patience, he finally asked. "Can I have the controller?"

"The controller?" he repeated a little more loudly and a little less politely.

Heaving a long sigh, he leaned right over Vin and plucked the remote right off of Chris's armrest. The conversation stopped as both men looked up at J.D.

He ignored both of them and changed the channel.

Both men's heads swiveled vaguely toward the TV set.

A re-run of Home Improvement appeared on the screen, and J.D. let out a grin. Apparently he was the only one who seemed happy about that. But he had the controller, so according to house rules ala Buck Wilmington, his was the only opinion that counted. He settled back into his seat to watch.

A minute later, Vin said, "Couldn't hurt to look."

And without so much as glancing J.D.'s way, both men went back out to the kitchen. The garage door slammed. They were gone for another half hour.

He glowered at the TV. What the hell could two men who, popular convention held, didn't speak more than three words a day if it wasn't absolutely necessary, have been talking about all this time. And how the hell did they plan to repair a bent crankshaft? He refused to go out there and find out just what they were trying to do.

Whatcha doin', Chris? Like a five year old. He cringed at the thought of it.

And now he remembered the irritating thing about Chris and Vin. Chris's long silences were uncomfortable enough, whether the man meant them to be or not. But Vin and Chris together were worse than just Chris. And far worse than Chris and Buck--no matter what Ezra said. Unlike Chris and Vin, Buck didn't usually forget J.D. was still in the room.

He glowered at the TV and pretended not to notice when the two of them eventually came back inside.

"You hungry?" Vin asked.

He didn't have a chance to say either way, as Chris answered, "He's hungry," and moved off into the kitchen without even waiting for J.D. to agree.

Fat lot Chris knew, J.D. groused silently. He'd just eaten half that damn box of Cheez-Its. He was really going to have to do some kind of workout tomorrow. Vin turned the box of Cheez-Its over and poured some into his palm.

"What do you want, J.D.?" Chris called from the kitchen.

Oh sure, now it mattered what he wanted.

"Whatever," J.D. replied.

Vin tossed a Cheez-It up in the air and caught it in his mouth.

"Let's order a pizza!" Vin answered, even though no one had asked him. He tried for two Cheez-Its, tossing them both into the air along the same trajectory, and catching them both flawlessly. He threw a wink at J.D.

"There's some of Josiah's chili," Chris called, his voice marginally muffled, leading J.D. to suspect that he had his head in the fridge or was already eating something.

"Pizza," Vin repeated, going for three this time. But the throw was not quite as neat, and he only managed to snag two. The third one bounced off his nose and onto Chris's recliner. He picked it up and blew on it before shoving it into his mouth.

"How about something marked 'Touch this and I'll rip your arms off'?" Chris hollered.

"That's mine!" Vin called back, as if Chris and J.D. hadn't actually figured that out. He tried the triple once again. This time he only snagged one. The other two flew off in different directions, skittering across the floor. One of them slid under the coffee table.

Vin snickered, reaching under the coffee table. His hand came back empty. He shrugged and stood up to wander into the kitchen to defend his week old leftovers, which he had no plans to eat tonight. J.D. rolled his eyes and closed up the Cheez-Its box. Three months from now, when Chris Larabee moved the coffee table, needing to obey some obsessive, anal-retentive compulsion to clean underneath of it, J.D. knew exactly who'd get blamed for that stray cracker.

"J.D.!" Chris's impatient shout nearly made him jump.

"Come pick your toppings," Vin yelled. "I'm starving!"

"I'm coming. I'm coming," J.D. complained, making his way into the kitchen. "Jesus! Keep your pants on."

Vin shoved a pizzeria take-out menu toward him with one hand, the other now full of some other snack item from the kitchen.

"And no broccoli," Tanner said sternly.

"Do I look like Nathan?" J.D. snapped back.

Chris snickered at that, as he turned toward the phone, and J.D. suddenly felt inordinately proud of himself--despite the urge to look around and make sure the team's medic wasn't actually standing behind him.

Chris ordered the pizza, hung up the phone, and headed for the coat closet.

"Let's go, Tanner!" he said, jingling his car keys at the front door. It was not so much a request as an order.

"You want to come along, J.D.?" Chris asked, far more politely.

This time, he thought before he agreed. With Chris out of the house, he would have a chance to take another look in the box, and see if he could figure out how that tile fit together. He could see what else was drawn on the tile. He could figure out how best to try to repair the damage. He could take a closer look at those signatures and those messages.

"I think I'll stay here, thanks," he replied.

Tanner slid into his battered old leather jacket and followed Chris out the front door.

J.D. waited in the kitchen, drinking his soda until he heard the engine turn over on Larabee's big black truck. He waited while the headlights swung across the glass in the front door, casting reflections into the front hall. He waited until the car turned up the long driveway, heading for the pizzeria. Then he practically bolted for the guest room, shutting the door behind him and dragging the box out of his duffel bag.

He was thinking much more clearly now. In fact, he had come to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely that one fall off of one shelf had caused all that damage. Maybe none of it was his fault, he thought hopefully.

Pulling the lid off the box, a closer inspection revealed the truth to be better than he had feared but worse than he had hoped. Holding the pieces carefully up to the bulb of the lamp, he could see from the way some of the edges had darkened and yellowed that, indeed, the tile had been broken before it had leaped from its place on the shelf to attack his poor, innocent toes. That meant it wasn't his fault, which was good.

However, there were several sharp, snowy-edged pieces, that looked like new damage. That was bad. Because even if the thing had already been broken, now it was even more broken. And that was his fault.

J.D. sat back and thought about this new information. The tile was already broken when he found it in the closet. In its original box and broken into pieces. Strange.

He considered whether Chris already knew that the tile was broken. Knowing Chris and how obsessive he was about his stuff, he probably did. Which was a really good reason for J.D. to just put it back and hope that, if for some reason Chris did decide to pull it out and have a look at it, he might not notice that it had a few more pieces now than it had had before.

But J.D. ignored that thought because he did know how obsessive Chris was about his stuff. And here was this tile, riddled with messages from that other team, a team he had led into battle, likely the last words some of them would ever share with him, and it was broken. Chris had left it broken. Broken pieces stored away in a closet never to see the light of day again, until J.D. had dropped it on his foot.

Now the questions really started. Questions like why keep broken pieces unless they are important? And if they are important, why leave them broken? And why hide them away?

He stared down at the broken tile, licking his lips absently. J.D. was a good detective. He could find the answers. The answers were waiting somewhere to be found. And he knew if he started with that complete, undamaged tile that belonged to Buck, there was a very good chance that the truth would begin to reveal itself.

Plus, he told himself, he was going to need that unbroken tile as a template to repair the pieces he had broken. All thoughts of returning the tile to the closet vanished, voices of reason drowned out, as he put his plan in motion

He went looking for masking tape. The cheap kind.

There was only Scotch tape in the kitchen, but the garage workshop had a whole drawer dedicated to tape: masking tape, strapping tape, electrical tape, duct tape in a number of colors. You name it. Glancing at his watch, J.D. took a roll of blue painter's tape and hurried back to his room.

He carefully laid a web of painter's tape, sticky side up in the lid of the box. Then using the lid as a frame and size guide, he began sticking the pieces to the tape in his best approximation of the right order. For the most part, it wasn't that hard. The picture was in the center, and the signatures were on the outside, and he used the different handwritings to guide him. It took him longer than he expected to place all the pieces, but he was relieved to discover that all the pieces seemed to be there. Most of them were fairly large, too. A few were just tiny slivers.

When he was finished, he sat back a little and looked down on a cracked imitation of the original. As repair jobs went, it was laughably poor, but it showed him enough. The cracked doghouse now sat among an array of debris, assorted pieces of junk strewn around the outside. J.D. recognized beer cans, a grenade, some bullets, a steering wheel, and a scuba mask. A neat set of tally marks, totaling twelve, adorned the wall to the left of the door and below the crooked sign that said "Lead Dog". Looking closer, J.D. was now sure those were bullet holes in the sign. And a big bite taken out of the corner, too. Hanging from the peaked roof were a ripped t-shirt sporting the name of some bar, a pair of shorts marked USN, and a lovingly detailed pair of women's panties. Above the dog house, large black letters spelled out "Sit. Stay!" Below the dog house, the pieces read, "You never did learn to obey."

The whole picture was surrounded by a fractured circle of well wishes. Tiny script, nearly illegible scrawls, precise printed letters, and a few places where a letter or two, or a tiny line had been forever lost, reduced to ceramic dust somewhere within the glittering powder that J.D. had tilted into one corner of the bottom of the box. They were all there. A complete collection of voices from the past, and although he itched to forget all about when Chris and Vin might reappear with pizza, and to hunker down and start reading what that other team had had to say to Chris, what they had said about Chris, he knew he had pushed his luck too far already today.

He grasped the ends of his tape web, and gently slid the broken tile into the bottom of its box, pleased at how well the tape idea seemed to work. So well, in fact that he didn't even hear any sliding or crashing of pieces when he put the box back into his duffle bag.

He was just putting the painters tape back into its designated drawer in Chris Larabee's workshop when the flash of headlights told him that Vin and Chris had returned with dinner. Timing is everything, as Ezra often said.

"That was fast," he commented, coming from the kitchen to take the pizza boxes from Vin. He put them on the counter.

"Be faster if Larabee'd move closer to civilization, where a decent pizza place might actually deliver," he growled, and J.D. smiled to himself, knowing the words were directed at Chris.

"How about you quit complaining and get some plates?" Chris retorted, shoving Vin away from the hall closet and toward the kitchen.

"Plates?" Vin muttered. "It's pizza, Cowboy. What do we need plates for?"

J.D. threw placemats down on the kitchen table, followed by forks and napkins.

Vin glowered at him. "We don't need forks neither."

Chris watched the sharpshooter with amusement.

"Sure, Vin," J.D. said. "You want to keep the bottle for your beer, or you want to just drink it out of your hands?"

Chris's quiet snort delighted J.D. for the second time that day. He reminded himself to report that to Buck, who still insisted that J.D. was not funny at all.

"Har de har har," Vin said, scooping up a piece of pizza, placing it on a napkin with a condescending glower at Chris and disappearing into the living room. The television flared into life. J.D. looked at Chris, who scooped up the placemats, plates, remaining napkins, and the pizza boxes and moved dinner into the living room. J.D. followed with the drinks.

Dinner was eaten in complete silence except for the TV. And this time, J.D. realized, it wasn't uncomfortable at all. More like companionable. Easy. Like sleeping in on Sunday morning. There was nothing that needed to be said. And for the first time, J.D. felt like he was part of the silence, a piece of the whole. They all sat there in the living room, legs thrust out before them, stuffed, silent, surrounded by the scattered remains of dirty dishes and dinner, staring at the TV. And it was nice.

But it didn't last. They watched another hour of TV. Then without signal or preamble, Vin got up, stretched, and announced that he was heading home. At the front door, he stopped long enough to trade a few parting words with Chris. Something again about the crankshaft and something else about the west pasture. Since no one included J.D. in the conversation, he pretended not to have heard, calling out his goodbye to Vin and receiving his "See ya" in return.

Alone again, J.D. thought. Only that was unreasonable, since Chris was here, too. So he wasn't alone. Except that being alone in a room with Chris Larabee still sometimes had a way of making J.D. feel as alone as the last person on earth.

J.D. decided to take a turn in the hot tub out on Chris's side deck. And Chris decided to go to bed.

"Good night, J.D." was all Chris said. He did not tell him to lock the doors, or to set the alarm system, or to make sure he covered the hot tub again, or to check the windows, or turn off the lights, or turn down the heat, or to not track wet footprints through the living room, or to clean up the pizza boxes, or any of that. And J.D. was weirdly proud of that.

"You gonna run in the morning?" J.D. asked him, sliding into the hot, soothing water.

"Yup," Chris said from the sliding glass doorway and actually smiling at the prospect. The grin turned into a sly smirk as he asked casually, "You?"

"Hell no," J.D. replied. And Chris laughed again. The third time today, J.D. noted. Not that he was keeping score, of course.

But as soon as Chris left, he remembered half a box of Cheez-Its and realized he would have to do something to work them off. He distracted himself from that thought by returning to his musings about that tile--and why Chris would abandon a team that so clearly wanted him to stay. But he found himself instead, gazing up at the stars and wondering what it had been like to be one of them.

Buck said Chris had been different back then. Not completely. But in many ways, he had changed. They both had. Life has a way of doing that to a man, Buck had said. J.D. would have liked to have seen those days for himself.

The bubbles died down as the timer came to a stop. And J.D., feeling heavy as lead and oh-so-comfortable, dragged himself out of the water. By the time he reached the glass door eight feet away, his teeth were chattering. He paused long enough to slip on his Tevas, then slid inside, still drying himself off. He straightened up the living room, fished the stray Cheez-It out from under the coffee table before setting the table straight again in front of the couch, locked all the doors, and set the alarm system.

He took one last look around the downstairs, satisfying himself that everything was exactly the way Chris liked it. Then he turned out the lights and went to bed. Funny, he mused to himself, his and Buck's town house would look a lot better if either one of them ever bothered to do that at home. He snorted and dismissed the thought with a shake of his head. Like that was ever going to happen.

He hit the mattress, formulating the next step of his plan. He would be able to return home again tomorrow morning. Buck was not expected until later in the evening. That would give him time to search Buck's room. He could always make an excuse if Buck caught him rummaging through storage. After all, he had stuff stored there and a roommate who now had a provable track record in not returning stuff. There was not a damn thing he could think of if Buck caught him looking through his room. Once he had the two tiles safely in custody, he was sure he could start to piece the story together. He drifted off with that confident thought in mind.

He awakened to the sound of voices, well one voice mostly, from the kitchen. A loud voice that clearly had no regard for anyone who might be sleeping at the wee hour of... He pulled his arm out from under the pillow to look at his watch. Ten AM. Shit! Ten AM! How the hell had he slept until ten AM? He jerked bolt upright and began looking for his socks. Ten AM. Hell, the day was half gone. So much for getting out of here early. Why the hell didn't someone wake him up?

He pulled on the first t-shirt he found. Hand on the doorknob, he paused. That was Buck's voice all right, at full story-telling tilt. J.D. would bet Chris was in the kitchen, too. Otherwise Buck was out there talking to himself, which seemed unlikely.

J.D. grabbed his discarded jeans. He didn't much care for appearing in front of his boss clad only in his underwear. The man could make him feel self-conscious enough fully dressed, suited up in his flak jacket, and armed to the teeth. Still fastening his pants, J.D. stumbled into the hall toward the bathroom. The voice was louder in the hall. It was definitely coming from the kitchen.

"Then Jolene calls back and says she can't get to Santa Fe tonight. So can she come over and crash at Candi's?"

J.D. rolled his eyes. Typical. He shut the bathroom door behind him and looked for his towel as the voice continued its narrative. Knowing Buck, Chris probably couldn't get a word in edgewise, which explained the lack of any other voices.

J.D.'s hair was wet when he finally made it to the kitchen. Sure enough, there was Buck, dressed in jeans and a ridiculous Hawaiian print shirt, leaning on the kitchen counter and drinking a big mug of coffee. J.D. scowled at him. There had better be more coffee left in the pot.

Chris slouched in a chair at the table. He looked more than half amused at Buck's tale, but his eyes flicked over as J.D. stumbled in.

"I tell you, Chris, this girl's double joints were double jointed..." Buck stopped suddenly. "What?" Then he turned to look at J.D. A big grin spread across the man's face. "Well, hey there, sunshine. Wasn't sure you were still here."

"Move," J.D. growled out. Buck was standing in front of the coffee maker.

Buck grinned and moved aside, so J.D. could get at the pitiful remains of what had once been an actual pot of coffee. Damn.

"Snooze you lose, Kid," Buck said happily.

J.D. glared at him.

And Chris laughed, like he actually thought Buck was funny. Or maybe it was J.D. he found so amusing.

Then Chris saved Buck from a slow and painful death at the hands of a caffeine deprived roommate by sliding a cup of coffee across the tabletop.

J.D. didn't care who saw the relief cross his face.

"It ain't warm anymore. And it ain't fresh," Chris said with a grin. "But it's strong enough to eat through the cup."

J.D. grinned and put the mug into the microwave. He was pretty sure it would taste about like battery acid by the time he finished drinking it, but at this point, it wasn't about taste so much as the safety of his idiot roommate, who had the nerve to look so ridiculously cheerful.

J.D. glowered over at Buck. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

Buck eyed him over the top of his nice, hot coffee. "Aren't you happy to see me?" he asked.

"Yeah," J.D. growled back. "If Jolene is still at Candi's and her double joints are double jointed, then why are you standing here in Chris's kitchen instead of still on Candi's houseboat?"

Chris snorted into his coffee.

Buck scowled at J.D. and cast a look over at Chris. "Nosey little shit, ain't he?"

"Seems like a fair question," Chris drawled easily.

Buck frowned.

"The fog lifted; four attendants got food poisoning in Minneapolis, and Candi and Jolene both had to fly out early this morning."

"Aw, bummer," J.D. said without a single trace of sympathy.

"You two have fun together?" Buck asked smartly. And J.D. considered hauling the man straight down to the guest room to show him the havoc he had caused by not returning the snowshoes.

But he didn't. He wasn't ready for Buck and his secrets and his smokescreens and his "I'd tell ya, but I'd hate to have to kill ya" crap. He wanted truth, and somehow he knew he wouldn't get it from Buck.

Most importantly, though, he needed Chris to not know what he had done and what he intended to do. And if Buck knew, then J.D. was pretty sure Chris would know soon after. No matter what Buck said about his top secret clearances and things he wasn't supposed to talk about, J.D. suspected that sooner or later, Buck told Chris pretty much everything.

He did not allow himself to dwell on the worst of the potential consequences of that, the sheer number of things he would prefer Chris didn't know. J.D. forced himself instead to think like the trained agent he was. And there was really no time like the present to see just how badly his plans were busted. He interrupted Buck to announce that they should be able to get back in the townhouse by now.

Buck turned and looked at him. "Okay," he said. "Thanks for letting me know." The polite words did not disguise the irritation in his voice. He resumed his broken narrative.

"So I'll be heading back," J.D. said.

This time Chris turned to look at him, too.

He put his mug down on the table long enough to thank Chris for giving him a place to stay for the weekend.

Chris raised an eyebrow and grunted, amused, perhaps. The way his teammates paraded in and out of his house, J.D.'s was probably the first actual thank you he'd heard in a long time.

Buck rolled his eyes. The same way he did the last time J.D. said they had been "invited" to Chris's. Apparently, once a person got a key, good manners were no longer necessary.

Buck coughed, making it clear that he would like to resume his story.

J.D. turned back to Buck. "You coming?"

Buck made an uncertain little grunting noise. "I just got here," Buck said.

"Oh," J.D. replied. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Buck spent half his life at Chris's place. It wasn't like this was a special occasion or anything.

Chris had cocked an eyebrow at Buck. "You've been here two hours," he said, his voice as even as if he were testifying in court. But J.D. could see the tiny smirk he hid behind his coffee cup.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, glowering at Chris, "But I didn't get to finish telling you the part about the..." He stopped suddenly and looked over at J.D. "You know," he said, stopping again, and looking at Chris as if trying to telegraph him a very important message, "the part about the thing, with the thing and you know, the thing that happened when she..."

"Oh for God's sake!" J.D. exploded. "Do you want me to go upstairs so you grownups can talk?" Buck opened his mouth to protest, but J.D. interrupted, "Not like anybody believes the story anyway."

Buck's mouth stayed right open, completely speechless. And Chris coughed suddenly and violently, spewing coffee into his napkin, and onto the floor. He got up abruptly and moved toward the sink, waving off Buck's attempt to thump him firmly between the shoulder blades while still glaring across the kitchen at J.D.

J.D. gave a satisfied grin to the inside of his coffee mug. That was better. Didn't pay to always let Buck have one up on him.

Chris was still swiping at the front of his tee shirt, which advertised some Mexican restaurant in Austin and was now spattered with coffee-colored dots. He looked at Buck irritatedly. Buck shrugged innocently, as Chris peeled off the shirt and headed for the stairs.

Buck shook his head and grinned at J.D. "Now about those double joints," he said.

"Save it, Buck," J.D. said, gulping down the last of his coffee with a grimace. "I've got more important things to worry about."

"Oh?" Buck asked, more than a hint of curiosity in his tone.

J.D. nearly froze on his way to the sink. Shit! Now why did he have to go and say that?

"What kind of important things?" Buck said, his voice sly and solicitous.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" J.D. said, moving out of the kitchen and wondering where to go. And considering that that remark wasn't exactly the best way to put Buck's curiosity to rest.

Behind him in the kitchen, he heard the distinct thunk of Buck setting down his empty mug.

At a loss for anyplace else to flee to, J.D. headed for the guest room walking quickly, but trying not to look like he was hurrying.

He didn't look back at the sound of footsteps pursuing him down the hallway. Damn all six foot four inches of the man, and his twenty foot legs. J.D. didn't have time to close the door before he arrived. Trapped like a rat.

"Whatcha got going on?" Buck asked, smirking now and leaning in the guest room doorway.

He couldn't exactly pull out his duffel bag now, so he grabbed a button-down shirt from the floor and began folding it, as if he were preparing to pack.

He could think of no suitable answer.

"None of your business," he said hotly. Cheeks flaming over his stupidity and that fact that between "Wouldn't you like to know?" and "None of your business", he pretty much sounded like a guilty five year old.

Buck's chuckle was low and irritating followed by a drawn out and smug "I see."

"Give Casey my regards," Buck said, as he turned away, snickering under his mustache. "I'll be home later," he said. His voice carried back along the hallway, as he added. "Much, much later."

J.D. glowered at the folded shirt. And felt his cheeks get even hotter. Damn Buck and his one track mind. And for that matter, damn his own white boy Anglo-Irish skin and blushing genes.

Then again, he thought hotly, shoving the door shut with his toe and dragging his duffel bag out from under the bed, perhaps this once, it had worked in his favor.

In a fit of absurd paranoia, he packed his dirty underwear on top, in case anyone noticed the odd straight edges and corners in the bottom of his bag and got nosey. He paused in the doorway to the guest room. He could hear the distant sound of Buck's voice. Cocking his head, and standing beside the heat register, he decided that the voice was upstairs, probably slouching in Chris's doorway and smirking like a lunatic. Probably, Buck standing in his doorway and bragging was the biggest reason Chris hadn't returned from changing his shirt yet. And J.D. was thankful because Plan A dictated getting out of the house before either one of them came downstairs.

He was more than halfway to the front door when he heard them coming down. This time Chris was doing the talking. About screws and dimensions and why red cedar was better than pine and something having to do with marine varnish. It would have made J.D.'s eyes glaze over--but not Buck's apparently because suddenly Buck chimed in something about floating cup holders with an enthusiasm that very nearly made J.D. turn around. But he didn't. Not even when Chris snorted and said pointedly, "The hot tub isn't that big, Buck."

Instead he hefted the bag in front of him and continued toward the door.

The footsteps behind him stopped.

His hand was on the front door, mere inches from freedom, and he could feel it, right between the shoulder blades, like the red dot on a laser sight--the penetrating Chris Larabee gaze. He did not turn around. Because he knew it would be written on his face--in big, fat, bold letters--"GUILTY. GUILTY. GUILTY."

Chris said dryly, to Buck apparently, but J.D. did not turn to check. "Seems in an awful hurry, doesn't he?"

"Things to see and people to do," Buck responded, his voice filled with the grin he was probably wearing at his own juvenile joke.

Keeping the bag carefully shielded between his body and the door, J.D. turned to face the two of them where they stood in the hallway, shoulder to shoulder, practically leaning on each other, hip shot, on opposite legs like some weird fun house mirror image, and wearing practically identical smirks. J.D. concluded that if Ezra thought Chris and Buck bickering was bad, he had never had the two of them gang up on him, or he would have a better idea of what hell was really like.

J.D. pointedly ignored Buck and thanked Chris again, knowing the glower that was denting in his forehead didn't exactly match his polite words.

Neither one of them stopped smirking. But Chris's shifted, just slightly around the eyes.

"No thanks necessary." He said it so quietly that it might have been just him and J.D. in that hallway. Or in the whole world.

He was suddenly acutely aware of what Josiah had told him some time ago, that most of what Chris had to say wasn't in the words he actually said. The stolen tile in his bag suddenly seemed improbably heavy, as J.D. cleared his throat, searching for some suitable reply to the meaning in the words that Chris hadn't actually spoken.

As usual, he was too slow. While J.D. was still trying to find a manly-man, cool-guy response, Chris gave one silent nod, crossed in front of Buck and headed through the kitchen toward the garage.

Buck only waggled his eyebrows suggestively and told J.D., "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," before following after Chris.

J.D. snorted to himself. Based on what he knew about Buck and his tall tales, J.D. figured that advice left him a whole lot of leeway.

He waved to Josiah, turning into the driveway, as he gunned his motorcycle out onto the road, relishing the way the wind slapped at him, almost like he was flying. He was almost sorry to arrive home again. But he didn't waste any time securing his bike and heading for the front door.

Once inside, he locked the lock and the dead bolt both.

The apartment had a slight chemical smell, and J.D. moved into the kitchen to open a window, stepping carefully around the small and shiny six legged corpses littering the linoleum. J.D. grimaced. Disgusting. But he got a broom, and swept the bodies into a nice neat pile on the dustpan and then dumped them unceremoniously into the kitchen garbage.

He headed for his room. There were only a few corpses here and there in the hall and the living room and none in his bedroom. That was a relief. For a moment he considered taking time to clean up the rest of the bodies, but he wasn't sure how much time he really had before Buck decided to get home. The bugs were dead. They weren't going anywhere. They could wait.

He took the stairs two at a time, his search pattern already mapped out in his head. There were no nasty bug bodies in Buck's room either. He was glad of that. J.D. took a careful look around. He would give top priority to the closet. Buck stored a number of items from his past on the top shelf. After that, he would search under the oversized Queen bed. His nose itched as he pictured himself belly down and sliding through an army of dust bunnies under there. The lurid thought of scraping through the dead exoskeletons of another pile of bugs under the bed made a nasty chill run up his spine. So he decided that perhaps he should start with the dresser drawers.

Having had no luck with the dresser, a scant ten minutes later, J.D. was perched atop a desk chair he had dragged upstairs from his own room and congratulating himself on his investigative brilliance. He found it, the flat white box, and a quick glance under its dusty lid confirmed that there was indeed a black and white tile inside. It had been stored away at the rear of the top shelf of Buck's closet, back where it would have been hard enough for Buck to reach it, let alone J.D. who had stretched his arm all the way to the back and tugged it forward little by little.

When it came out, it came with a tall, narrow, plain, tan cardboard box on top of it, which rattled enticingly when J.D. gave it a gentle shake. Peering inside, he noted a number of narrow, colored bars. Ribbons, decorations, awards. In short, the kind of medals soldiers wore on their dress uniforms, like the dress uniform Buck still kept tucked away in a plastic dry cleaning bag way, way, back in the far left of the closet behind everything else.

J.D. had suggested once that Buck wear the white tuxedo jacket and black pants for Halloween, if it still fit. After all, didn't women just swoon for a guy in uniform? He hadn't expected Buck to look quite so, well--appalled was a good word for it. He told J.D. rather shortly that that would be an insult to his uniform. And J.D. wisely did not point out that keeping it stuffed in the back of the closet wasn't exactly doing it any good either. Remembering that little incident reminded J.D. to put everything he had removed in search of the box back precisely where it came from, which he did, having made careful note of the position of each box, each bag, and one carefully folded old sweatshirt before removing it. Climbing down, he set the box with the tile and the box of medals carefully on top of the oversized navy blue comforter that covered Buck's big ol' bed. He looked carefully at that closet shelf from several angles before deciding that he had covered his tracks well. He took his chair with him and headed back to his room.

So far, his plan was working perfectly.

Pushing his scanner aside and stacking his light box on top of it, and a short stack of papers on top of that, J.D. cleared a space on his desk. With a satisfied and expectant crack of his knuckles, he carefully removed the lid from the white box he had stolen from Buck's closet.

Another tile glinted up at him, this one's smooth, ten inch by ten inch, black and white ceramic surface clear and unmarred. Almost reflexively, J.D. pulled his desk lamp down closer, bending the hinge and swinging it until the glare was minimized. There illuminated by the soft glow was the same doghouse, graffiti'd with names and surrounded by signatures. He pulled the lid off of the box he'd stolen from Chris's house. The tape had done its job well, and J.D. only had to press a few pieces carefully back into place.

It wouldn't have mattered, though. The similarities and differences in the two tiles were clear enough. The designs were the same, drawn by the same hand and bearing the same tiny set of initials signifying the artist. The same nicknames were scribbled inside it. But the pictures were different.

To start with, this time the sign over the door read "Big Dog". And the eyes that peered from the dark interior were distinctly less threatening. In fact, smug was the word that came to mind. And it struck J.D. with a chill that the cartoonist had managed to capture in a pair of simply drawn eyes a recognizable facsimile of that famous, self-satisfied Buck Wilmington grin. There were no holes in Big Dog's nameplate. Instead, in the spot where Lead Dog's sign bore three bullet holes and a big bite mark, Big Dog's sported a perfectly rendered lipstick print. The number of tally marks was different, too. Big Dog had eight. Lead Dog twelve. Not to mention the stylized World War II era pinup girl drawn on the other side of Big Dog's door. The cartoon debris around the two dog houses had enough similarities and differences to make him laugh. They both had enough beer cans scattered around to make him wonder about the U.S. Navy's standards of discipline. Big Dog's water dish had a snorkel and a pair of swim fins sticking out of it. Two grenades and a neat stack of bars labeled C4 sat beside the dish. Instead of a chain, a coil of wire unraveled from the C4, passing the pin up girl to disappear into the dark depths of the dog house. Another lovingly detailed pair of women's panties adorned the roof beside a pair of boxer shorts adorned with hearts and the initials B.W., and a dangling pair of binoculars.

The words were different, too. Above the dog house, instead of "Sit. Stay!", Buck's read "Down Boy! Heel!" Below the doghouse was cryptically penned, "You play dead pretty good, but your roll over and beg needs work."

J.D. shook his head. Whoever had done the drawings had certainly taken the time to tailor the details to the recipients. Women, beer, surveillance and explosives. Surely Buck was as recognizable in the carefully drawn accessories as in the uncanny way that trademark Buck Wilmington expression was captured precisely in a pair of cartoon eyes. Not much seemed to have changed. Women, beer, surveillance, and explosives still figured prominently in his personal and professional life. And that infuriatingly smug smirk still lit his face often enough for J.D. to recognize the expression. Even though he could not be sure exactly what was meant by "You play dead pretty good," the evidence was still clear. The cartoonist was someone who knew Buck well.

It unsettled him then, as he looked at the reconstructed drawing on Chris's tile. It was by the same artist. The same sure hand that had painted Buck's personality into the accessories and the details had surely taken the same pains in the details on Chris's tile. And yet the closer he looked, the less the pieces fit together to resemble the Chris Larabee he knew.

To start with, the beer cans. J.D. would not have pegged beer as Chris's beverage of choice. J.D. would have chosen a whiskey bottle, and just one, not the half dozen or so scattered about the picture. Sure, Chris threw back beers, same as they all did. But on those occasions that Chris decided he wanted to knock back a drink or two with the team at the Saloon on a Friday, he usually went for whiskey. So, J.D. would have chosen a nice bottle of a decent recognizable brand of whiskey if he were drawing a caricature of Chris Larabee, which he was pretty sure he could never really get away with. Come to think of it, he'd probably leave the whiskey bottle out completely, in case Chris found that insulting.

That, of course, led J.D. to ponder the panties on the top of the doghouse. They were a problem all right. It was no secret that Buck had probably earned the boxers and panties at the top of his doghouse. His own bragging would have earned him that much even in jest. But Chris...

Well, to put it bluntly, Chris Larabee sure as heck wasn't a player. What little J.D. knew about Chris's marriage spoke eloquently of fidelity. But since then? Unlike Buck, Chris Larabee was so guarded about his private life that not only didn't he kiss and tell, it was hard to be certain who or what there might be to tell about. And most people wouldn't have the guts to go digging for the information anyway.

Was there information to be found?

He shook his head to clear that thought, discovering that he really didn't want to think about that at all. Nope, Buck was most certainly the lady killer on Team Seven.

So what had the artist meant by those panties? Had Chris changed so much since then? Or had the artist meant someone in particular when he drew those lacey little panties? Chris's wife sprang to mind, of course. But he nixed that almost immediately. Who would have the guts to insult Chris's wife in indelible ink? Not someone who knew Chris well enough to be familiar with his deadly proficiency with firearms. Someone like that was surely too stupid to be still living.

So the only other explanation was that, back in the day, Chris Larabee had been a player, a lady killer, a charmer, a womanizer, a stud... Was that why Buck called him that? J.D. tried to picture it. Chris Larabee in a favorite bar. Turning on the ol' Larabee...charm? Hard to see. Easier to picture the Larabee glare. Turning on the ol' smooth-talking Larabee patter? J.D. had never once, not once in three years, heard anything even remotely resembling smooth talk, charm, or flattery come out of Chris Larabee's mouth.

Spending too much time pondering Chris's love life not only made J.D. uncomfortable, it also made his head hurt. He turned instead to the bits of junk scattered outside the doghouse.

First he tried the steering wheel sticking out of the water dish and couldn't make heads or tails out of that one. What the hell was a steering wheel supposed to mean? That the man liked to drive? Or thinking more symbolically, that he was a control freak who always had to be in charge? And why was it in the water dish?

J.D. rubbed his forehead with one hand and moved on to the SCUBA mask. The artist had given it a prominent place in the picture, too, right beside a realistically detailed hand grenade. J.D. knew that SEALs were trained in diving and explosives and were supposed to be adept at underwater demolition. But Buck's tile didn't have a mask. It had swim fins and a snorkel. That was a no brainer, though. Buck's vacation preferences tended toward tropical places, where he could lie on the beach, sip fruity drinks, and admire the human scenery and the underwater scenery both.

Did the mask mean that Chris had been exceptionally good at diving? That he liked to dive? J.D. frowned hard, coming up completely empty. At no point could he remember Chris ever talking about diving the way Buck talked about aquamarine seas, bathing beauties, and more than one close encounter with mysterious rays, shy turtles, and at least one good sized reef shark.

J.D. would have drawn a fishing rod for Chris. Fishing was Chris Larabee's idea of water sports. At least that was what J.D. would have said. But then again, if you strung together all the little facts Buck let drop, Chris liked a lot of sports.

For instance, J. D. he would never have guessed that Chris Larabee had ever tried his hand at snowboarding. But apparently he had. And wakeboarding, too, if Buck were to be believed.

And then there was that really vicious game of street rules basketball that had left J.D. bruised, Vin demanding a rematch, Buck and Chris laughing, and the team's smooth talking undercover man, Ezra Standish a full two hundred bucks richer. Plus, Buck had said that a million years ago when they were both in high school, Chris had been a three season a year varsity athlete. So shouldn't there have been some sports equipment on that tile? Is that what the shorts and tee shirt on the roof were about? Why was the shirt ripped?

What about a horse? he wondered. J.D. would definitely have drawn a horse or a saddle or something horse related. Chris loved horses. He never said as much, but wasn't it obvious in the care he took of the animals in his stable? Plus, other people had told J.D. that Chris really had an eye for choosing horses and a gift for training them. Yet there was nothing at all in the picture that represented horses.

While you're at it, why don't you just add a cape, a mask, and a giant red S? J.D. asked himself sarcastically.

He pushed his chair back, ripping the tattered edge of a thumbnail off with his teeth. Aggravated. Irritated. Frustrated.

There it was. He supposed it was the real reason he'd taken the tile. It was right there in front of him, quite literally in black and white. In the lines of Buck's tile he recognized his smug, sly, and happy-go-lucky teammate, his mentor, his friend. He could easily imagine that Buck. Younger and rowdier. But still definitely Buck. But this Chris, this young and rowdy, beer guzzling, woman chasing, carouser, was someone that J.D. didn't recognize.

Three years J.D. had spent soaking up all he could about the business of law enforcement from a man who he undeniably admired. He had come three quarters of the way across the country just for the chance to work with him. He had earned a spot on his team. He had been given a key to the man's home. He was sure that he had gained the man's trust personally and professionally. But when you got right down to it, it seemed that he didn't really know the man at all.

Feeling angry and stupid, he swatted the unoffending desk lamp roughly out of his way. He glared at the tile. He glared at both tiles. With both their stupid doghouses, and their stupid dog names and their stupid signatures.


Something in his brain clicked.

He pulled the lamp down closer and examined the names on the sides of both doghouses, scratching them down on a piece of paper he pulled out of the desk drawer, matching them up and discovering they were exactly the same. Exactly. And that was the problem.

Buck's tile was dated nearly six months after Chris's. But there was no farewell wish, no goodbye, no good luck, no message at all from Buck on Chris's tile. That seemed strange--until it occurred to J.D. that Buck had had no reason to say goodbye. He was planning on following after.

He wondered if the guys who signed Buck's tile had known. And he began to read the farewell messages on Big Dog's tile, which led him to read the messages on Lead Dog's tile. And somewhere among all those sincere well-wishes, fond sentiments, and more than a few sarcastic comments and private jokes, J.D. found himself wishing to see the faces of these men, these men who had known that rowdy young Chris, who had wished him well, who had wished he would stay. They couldn't have been much older than J.D. himself when Chris and then Buck had walked away from them.

According to Buck, they would have followed Chris anywhere. Like Vin. Like Buck. Like all of Team Seven. He couldn't imagine Chris just up and leaving them. Or Buck walking right after. He wondered how those guys had felt about it.

He wondered if Buck had photos of them. If he would recognize them by their photos. Would he be able to pick out "Bad Dog" and "Mad Dog"?

Drumming his fingers, he considered where Buck might keep photo albums and how long he might have before Buck got home. Decision made, J.D. scribbled down a list of names on the back of the paper with the dog names and shoved the paper in his pocket. He spread an old blue blanket he stole from an airline and sometimes used as a dust cover for his computer over top of both tiles and the box of medals. Then he left a note for Buck in case he came back: "Gone to storage".

Storage was in a pair of low, flat buildings hidden away at a far end of the townhouse complex. The building was nothing special to look at from the outside, and even less exciting once you let yourself inside, being windowless, and consisting of two narrow, unconnected hallways with floor to ceiling storage closets on both sides of each hall. The complex gave you a key to the building where the storage closet for your unit was located. Once inside, though, any locks you used on your storage locker were entirely your business and your responsibility.

J.D. stood for a moment and let his eyes adjust to the dim light, looking for the light switch. The place smelled of dust and mold. The bare bulb above his head lit faithfully, illuminating a layer of old spider webs near the ceiling, by the light switch, and near the door. The bulb wasn't terribly bright, so J.D. left the door open behind him.

It was noticeably darker in the back row, and J.D. remembered--too late, as usual--how handy a flashlight would have been for looking inside the storage closet he and Buck shared, down there at the end, just about as far from the bare light bulb or the door as a person could get.

He did remember to bring the combination for the lock, though. He peered at the numbers on the carefully folded index card and then turned the dial. God knew how long Buck had been using this particular lock to secure his possessions. Parts of the dial were worn and difficult to read, although--as Buck liked to point out--not any of the numbers that mattered. It was also a little temperamental--although Buck insisted it was not--so J.D. had to give it a couple of tries before it came grudgingly open.

They had a surprising amount of stuff for two single guys and had packed their closet right to the ceiling and as far back as possible with boxes and plastic Rubbermaid bins, none of them labeled beyond the basic "Buck" or "J.D." or "Christmas"--and those bins were only labeled because they actually came out of the closet once a year. It didn't narrow the field much, but it was a start. Unfortunately, since only the Christmas decorations were expected to come out, so, of course, they were all stacked in front of everything else. J.D. gave a sigh and got to work.

It took somewhat longer than he expected to find what he was looking for--and that was really saying something. There were a lot of boxes crammed into that little storage unit. A lot more than J.D. remembered. A lot more than it even looked like the little closet was capable of holding. And once you took the Christmas boxes out, the rest of the boxes and bins were three stacks deep and in no particular order.

Not surprisingly, given J.D.'s luck lately, he finally found photo albums in the last stack, in a box near the top. He had to carry them to the end of the row to get enough light to see them clearly. There were three of them and they were surprisingly well kept. The first one was fairly thin and contained old pictures of a dark-haired child that was unmistakably little Buck, often hamming for the camera, already working on that trademark charm. The second album continued to follow Buck Wilmington through adolescence and ended abruptly somewhere in the middle with his enlistment photo.

The third album contained photos of Buck in his Denver P.D. uniform, some of Chris and Chris's family, and a bunch of people J.D. didn't know at several different barbecues at the ranch. It also ended abruptly, and J.D. went back and checked to make sure he hadn't missed a whole bunch of pages somewhere in one of the albums. But there were no pictures of Buck's Navy days other than his enlistment photo.

Dusty and dirt-streaked, with cobwebs sticking to his sweaty forearms, he resigned himself to tugging and pulling out the last few boxes way in the back of the storage unit and on the bottom. He found what he wanted in the second to last box, packed in among a set of typical sailor whites including the round white hat, some postcards from far away places, and an assortment of strange junk carried back from distant lands. J.D. shook his head. Buck must have shopped at every junk shop on every island in the South Pacific, based on the assortment of carved Tiki gods in varying sizes, plastic leis, cheap-ass souvenir mugs, coconut shell carvings, and even a wooden lamp carved in the shape of a hula dancer and still sporting its hand-painted shade adorned with the ugliest looking tropical birds J.D. had ever seen. But in the midst of it all, a photo album had been carefully packed.

He carried it back to the light just to see, but he was already sure this was the right one. Right on the first page was a picture that was unmistakably Buck and Chris, younger, both their hair a little shorter, Buck a little thinner, Chris a little more muscular, their arms thrown across each other's shoulders, wearing white t-shirts and a pair of smug grins. They were squinting in the sun and framed against the backdrop of a warship hull in standard gray.

The only thing that spoiled J.D.'s sense of satisfaction was knowing that he was going to have to put all those boxes he had spread out the entire length of the hallway back into their tiny little storage unit, which also took longer than he expected.

His arms were beginning to tremble with fatigue by the time he put back the boxes marked only "Buck" or "J.D." and began lifting the heavy Christmas boxes back into place.

"Hey J.D.!"

The sudden shout almost made him jump out of his skin. The caller continued, oblivious to the years he had just frightened off of his friend's life. It was Buck. Damn it! Who would have expected the man to actually come looking for him? And why on earth had he left a note?

"You back there?" the voice called.

J.D. did not swear. Nor did he waste time answering a question that was fairly obvious. Instead he looked frantically around for somewhere to stash the photo album.

Inside his shirt was out. He wasn't wearing a jacket. He had nothing he could tuck it under unobtrusively.

Stall, he told himself. "I'll be out in a second," he called out.

"You need some help?" Buck called. From the sound of his voice and his footsteps, he was nearly at the end of their row. J.D. scanned the remaining Christmas boxes for one with his own name on it and shoved the album under its lid only an instant before Buck appeared at the end of the row.

Wilmington eyed the five or six bins remaining in the narrow corridor. "You find what you wanted?"

It took J.D. a second to realize that that was a perfectly legitimate question given the state of their storage unit, and he ought not to act suspicious.

"Yup," he answered, and gave a pathetic excuse for a grin. It was still kind of dark back here, so maybe Buck didn't notice how pathetic the grin was.

"Here, I'll give you a hand," Buck said, picking up the box nearest to him, and holding it out for J.D. to take and put in the closet. As "help" went, it wasn't very helpful.

"Chris throw you out?" J.D. asked.

That got him only one a short snort that he was pretty sure was not a compliment to his keen sense of humor.

J.D. slid another box into place.

Buck reached for the next one.

"Not that one!"

It sounded a whole lot more desperate than it probably should have.

"That's the one I need," he explained hurriedly, hoping Buck didn't notice his overreaction.

Buck gave him a funny look, but picked up the other box that was still in the corridor. J.D. pushed it upwards to sit solidly on the bin below it. He turned in time to see Buck reaching for the lid of the last container.

He was proud of himself for not slapping both hands down on the lid and shouting out the "No!" that was screaming inside his head. Instead he calmly and disinterestedly said, "You don't need to open it. The thing I want is on the bottom, and I don't want to unpack it here." Ezra Standish would have been proud.

Buck's hands paused, reversed, and drew away from the lid.

"I'm just going to carry it back to the house," J.D. continued, closing up the storage door and locking the lock with barely a glance at the container.

"Okay," Buck replied, as if he were agreeing with something that J.D. had said. Then he turned right around and headed for the door.

J.D. bent to pick up the bin and realized that he had probably picked the heaviest container in the whole closet. He struggled as far as the door with it, where Buck was waiting impatiently by the light switch. Apparently his struggling did not go unnoticed, as Buck was giving him one of those little smiles that told J.D. he was laughing silently at him. J.D. glowered back but he put the box down anyway.

"Need help carrying that?" Buck offered.

J.D. nearly said no, but if he did that then not only would he have to lug the great heavy plastic container more than halfway across the complex to the townhouse, but Buck would probably start wondering why J.D. was so keen to carry a heavy crate all by himself, which might lead him to wonder just what was in a crate of Christmas decorations that J.D. needed to get at right now, and, knowing Buck, that would lead him to look inside it, which was precisely what J.D. needed him not to do. In that case, letting Buck help carry the bin seemed like the safer path. Besides, that way Buck's hands were occupied, and he couldn't look inside it.

On the way back to the townhouse, Buck paused to inquire whether J.D. was storing bricks, rocks, or perhaps gold bullion in the crate. And J.D. was pretty sure there was more than one muttered "damn, kid" or "Jesus Christ" involved as they made their somewhat uncoordinated and lurching way to the townhouse and then through its front door. J.D. took it from there, glad his room was on the first floor, half carrying, half pushing the heavy bin awkwardly past the living room and into the narrow hallway, noting that, as predicted, the last of the dead bugs still lay exactly where they had been when he had passed them earlier.

Buck disappeared into the kitchen. He didn't appear to notice the conspicuous absence of six legged exoskeletons there. He was far more interested in what was in the refrigerator.

"You eat?" he finally called from the kitchen at the other end of the floor.

"No," J.D. hollered back, tucking the photo album under the blanket, too. "Did you?"

"Sort of," came the reply.

J.D. wondered what that meant. How did a person "sort of" eat?

He looked at the blue, blanket-covered lump on his desk, and wondered whether it looked too much like he was trying to hide something. He decided that he was being paranoid. It wasn't likely that Buck was going to go into his room. Still, he pulled his bedroom door closed just to be sure, but then he opened it part way, so as not to look like he was trying to hide something in his bedroom.

Damn, all this subterfuge was tiring. He wondered how Ezra managed it, working undercover so often and for weeks on end.

He went to the kitchen and pulled out a delivery menu.

"You want Chinese?" he asked, waving the stained paper in the general direction of Buck's face.

Buck shrugged. "Yeah, I guess," he said, one hand on his stomach as if to judge the space available inside.

J.D. peered at him. "There's sawdust on your shirt."

"There is?" Buck said, and brushed a cloud of tiny wood particles off his shirt front to float harmlessly down onto the kitchen floor.

Choosing to ignore that, J.D. picked up the phone. With Buck chiming in here and there, he ended up ordering a dinner for himself and an assortment of odds and ends that more or less amounted to another dinner for Buck. He tried really hard not to glower at that, and wonder why it was that no one accused Buck of being a bottomless pit. Or why it was that Buck didn't seem to gain any weight. And knowing exactly how Buck would smirk, waggling his eyebrows lasciviously as he replied that he knew how to "work off" a few extra calories.