Or What Not to Do When Staying at Your Boss's for the Weekend
The trouble with Chinese food, as the saying goes, is that an hour later, you're hungry again. There's always a kernel of truth to sayings like these and J.D. had been fighting off that kernel of truth for a couple of hours now.
He had told Buck that he was going to work on a fictitious computer project to which he gave a name technical enough to make Buck's eyes glaze over. Buck had plopped himself on the couch with the remote control where he had remained for the last two hours.
There was a good chance the man had fallen asleep in front of the TV, but there was a better chance that he was sitting there wide awake, intently watching any one of dozens of possible kinds of programs from infomercials to old film noir, from crap sci fi to documentaries and anything in between. And if that were the case and J.D. stuck his nose out there now, his gregarious friend, happy to have someone to talk to, would pepper him with questions about his project, about how he survived his weekend at Chris's, about the current state of his love life, about what was on TV, about the dead bugs, about the Christmas decorations, or just about anything else that might cross his mind.
Making up a computer project with a technical name was one thing, but J.D. was by no means prepared for interrogation a la Buck Wilmington, during which the man--because he had been a SEAL and a cop and a federal agent for a long time now--would sense his discomfort or catch him in some insignificant inconsistency which would pique his curiosity, which would spark his investigative instincts, which would kick his underhanded, left-handed, backhanded and damn effective interrogation skills into effect, and before J.D. knew it, he'd be confessing everything--whether it had anything to do with his current problem or not--and begging Buck not to tell what he'd done.
Jesus, it was almost as bad as when Chris did it. Only Chris didn't bother with subterfuge. He just glared you down and let you know exactly what he wanted to know and left you to imagine the horrible fate that would befall you if you didn't tell him. Where you could hardly mistake Chris Larabee style interrogation, Buck, on the other hand, could be so damn friendly about it that you never saw it coming. J.D. didn't know what was worse, having the truth pretty much scared out of him before he had a chance to think, or having it wheedled out of him without ever seeing it coming. What was certain, however, was that it was best to avoid any chance of interrogation entirely.
After dinner, J.D. had returned resolutely to the photos in the album he had privately christened "Buck's Navy Days", although he could have just as easily christened it "Buck's and Chris's Navy Days". They were there on every page, usually together, often in groups, seldom alone, but no matter the configuration there they were, young, more buffed up and with shorter hair than J.D. had ever seen on either one of them: in camo, in uniform, in civilian clothes, and in some photos, spit and polished, too. Buck appeared on the pages both with and without the mustache, and J.D. couldn't help but think how strange it was to see him without his trademark whiskers.
There was a guy who looked crazy enough to be Mad Dog or maybe Bad Dog, but then they all looked pretty fierce descending down the side of a burnt-out building in a newspaper clipping and in that glossy magazine picture of ten guys in black wet suits and black face paint belly down on a dark beach and pointing a whole lot of firepower right at the camera. J.D. wondered who took the photo staring right down the barrels of those big-ass guns and whether that guy had the same unnerving sensation J.D. got just looking at it.
They all looked pretty crazy, too, in that picture of eight guys posing in front of a group of vintage muscle cars. There was Chris standing up in an open topped Jeep. There was bungee jumping. There was even a photo of guys jumping off an ocean-side cliff that looked way too high to J.D. for it to be entirely safe. They were on every page playing basketball and beach volleyball and sail boarding and practicing martial arts. There was even one spectacular picture of Buck free falling through a clear blue sky, a brightly colored parachute pack still unopened on his back.
There were women, too, here and there throughout the album. Some of them appeared over and over with the same guy. And some of them appeared only once and then disappeared forever. There were laughing fools raising beers and men in tuxes with carnations in their buttonholes.
Unfortunately, what was missing, was the labels on the pictures. J.D. had even gone so far as to pry one up carefully to check. It was stuck down good between the non-acid free paper and the non-archival quality plastic protector on the page. As a result, J.D. had had to use the edge of a razor blade to get it. It was to no avail. Beyond the imprint of the date from the developer on the back of the picture, there were no labels of any kind.
All was not lost, however. It was true that he could not put names with faces. But he could certainly get an idea of the personalities of these men who had signed these two tiles, these terse, funny, sincere, smart-ass, and pensive little notes and messages. He could see them right here in the pages of the photo album at work and at play. They were sharp. They were fit and gung-ho. They were intense and hyped up. They were clearly very, very tight. And even though they were no more than pictures, J.D. found it strange to admit that they were intimidating.
He wondered who had taken the pictures. Not the professional ones, the ones of the guys just being their adrenaline junkie selves. Surely not Buck. Despite the care with which the albums had been put together and taken care of, J.D. could count on one hand the number of times that Buck had thought to bring a camera along on a day off adventure or even a vacation. He could remember even fewer times that Buck had actually returned from a trip with photos, but there surely were a lot of them in the album J.D. held between his hands--more than there were in the album that documented Buck's childhood, more than there were in the album documenting Buck's days in the Denver PD.
He wondered if there was an album of Team Seven. And how many pictures did it contain?
The question unsettled him. Worse yet, he felt petty for asking it, and he did not want to look too closely at what that might mean. Or why he had asked the question. Or on what it meant if there were no Team Seven album--or worse if there weren't very many pictures of the last three years he and his teammates had spent together, barbecuing, camping, fishing, and most of all fighting crime, side by side.
J.D.'s stomach saved him from having to follow this train of thought too far. It let forth a growl significantly louder than any of the three or four others it had given in the last half hour, and he began to wonder whether it would really be so hard to simply go to the kitchen and fix himself a snack. How much could Buck possibly get out of him in those few minutes? And if he fixed something for Buck, too, that had the added power of distraction. Plus, if his mouth was full, Buck couldn't hardly ask him any real questions, could he?
Luck was with him for once. More time must have gone by than he had thought for when he poked his head out the door, the living room was silent. The TV was dark and the sofa was empty, and most of the lights had been turned off. Buck must have gone up to bed.
J.D. breathed a sigh of relief. Well, that certainly made things easy, didn't it?
He took his time deciding what to fix himself. Too bad there weren't any leftovers. He could do with a little "Touch this and I'll rip your arm off." about now. He chuckled at that, head down in the refrigerator. In the end, he settled on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk and carried it back to his room.
He put his headphones on, put his iPod on shuffle, propped the photo album up in front of him, and proceeded to read the inscriptions on both tiles again carefully, and with a good quality magnifying glass, noting the handwriting, the initials, the words, the sentiments and wondering what he might have written in their places, what he would write if Chris were to suddenly announce he was leaving the team. Or worse yet--if Buck were.
The spoken words nearly catapulted him out of his chair. Tearing his headphones off, he lunged for the blanket, as a shadow darkened his doorway--his wide open, fully lit up doorway.
"Can I borrow your--" the words broke off.
He stood there stupidly with the airline blanket in both hands, realizing it was already too late. And that Buck was standing there in utter silence--which could not be good. And that feigning innocence was probably not going to cut it. Buck's photo album and his tile were right there, in plain sight, on his desk, after all.
He risked a glance at Buck, whose large frame seemed to fill the entire doorway.
The man still didn't say a word. He didn't have to. For a moment, he seemed not to notice J.D. at all, staring at the desk. Then he moved two steps into the room. Heading right for the desk, he placed one big hand squarely in the center of J.D.'s chest and moved him backwards right out of his way.
For one long second, Buck stood there staring down at the desk top.
J.D. licked his suddenly dry lips.
Then Buck reached out to collect his possessions. J.D. saw the anger vibrate through the wide shoulders and suddenly remembered how formidable an opponent Buck Wilmington could be.
"It's not... I wanted... You see..." J.D. began stuttering.
Buck turned to him then, his narrowed eyes skewering J.D. with a look that burned all the way through. A look he'd seen before, on an op, on a bust, and even leveled at Chris once or twice, but never, never aimed at him.
J.D.'s feet backed up another step, then two more as Buck drew up his entire menacing six feet four inches, and advanced toward him.
"Where did you get this?" he demanded, voice soft and deadly.
J.D. would have preferred it if the man had yelled. Yelling was so much better than that menacing quiet. The backs of his knees bumped against his own bed.
"Where did you get it?" Buck snarled, shaking the box in his hand.
"I--" J.D. started. He stopped suddenly. The box had rattled. He looked down. It was Chris's tile in Buck's hand.
"Answer me!" Buck roared.
And J.D.'s stupefied brain suddenly leaped to attention.
"It was in the closet!" he nearly shouted, dropping the blanket and scrabbling backward over his bed, putting the bed between himself and the bigger man and already formulating a plan to barricade himself in his closet if it came to that.
He could see that wasn't explanation enough to pacify his friend.
He held up both hands and started talking faster. "I went in the closet," he said.
He was trying to answer as fast as he could, but Buck apparently didn't really want to know where he had found the tile, despite the fact that that was what he had asked, because he didn't hardly wait for J.D. to answer. Still holding Chris's box in his left hand, he leaned halfway across the bed, right into J.D.'s face, and growled out, "Why do you have it?"
Buck was furious enough to kill him and bury the body in their storage compartment. And it wasn't even over J.D.'s theft of his own personal property. Oh no, he was going to commit murder over something that belonged to Chris. Go figure.
Apparently having the bed between himself and Buck made him cocky. His face turned bright red, and a crimson flame worked its way up the back of his neck. Let Buck hit him if he had a mind to, but he sure as hell wasn't going down easy. Instead he leaned forward to meet Buck halfway and tell him exactly how he came to have the stupid tile.
"Because you stole my snowshoes!" he shot back.
It had played much better in his head.
On the other hand, it wasn't what Buck had expected to hear either. "I what?" he asked, as his head jerked back. He eyed J.D. as if he were speaking some other language.
"You borrowed my snowshoes," J.D. amended.
The hand not holding onto Chris's box twitched toward him. One finger pointing right between J.D.'s eyes.
"Boy," Buck warned, in the tone he usually reserved for criminals--and stupid ones at that--, "I better get some answers that make sense by the time I count to three, or you won't much like what happens next."
J.D. felt the blood drain right out of his face. He talked faster, raising his hands up in front of him. "It's not my fault," he said, edging toward the closet. "I just wanted my snowshoes back!" He stopped to catch his breath, looking, he knew, far too hopefully up at Buck.
"One," Buck said.
"My snowshoes," J.D. repeated somewhat indignantly. "The ones you borrowed last February. And didn't return."
It didn't have the effect J.D. had hoped. He had hoped there might be some chagrin. Perhaps some give and take. A little 'I screwed up. You screwed up. We both screwed up.' camaraderie.
He didn't like the way Buck's eyes narrowed. He liked even less the glacial calm of his voice. "Two."
He tried again to get Buck to see the logic of it, the words tumbling out just a little faster. "If you had returned my snowshoes, I wouldn't have had to go in the closet to get them. And if they hadn't been stuck in your box, I wouldn't have had to pull your box out. And if I didn't have to pull your box out to get my snowshoes, then that box," he poked his finger through the air for emphasis, "wouldn't have fallen out onto my foot, and I wouldn't have thought I broke Chris's tile. And I wouldn't have had to take it home!" he finished, gulping in air.
Dammit that didn't sound nearly as good as it had when he'd told it to himself.
Buck's eyes narrowed a little farther.
Sweat broke out on J.D's upper lip.
He got as far as the "Th...".
J.D. didn't bother to breathe this time. "Iwasgonnafixit. IthoughtChriswouldkillme!" He pressed his back up against the closet door.
Buck drew himself up and his lips twisted up in a smile that could hardly be called pleasant.
J.D. resisted the urge to wipe the sweat off his upper lip.
"Son," Buck said low and calm and friendly-like, with way too many teeth showing in that smile. "It ain't Chris you got to worry about right here." There was no mistaking the warning--or the threat--in his tone, especially when the smile widened a few more teeth and he added, "At least not yet!"
Shit, shit, shit!
J.D. watched in stupefied silence as Buck turned away from him, never once releasing Chris's tile, and gathered up his own tile and photo album from the desk. He stacked them all carefully in the crook of his arm.
J.D. felt his face flame all the way to the roots of his hair to realize that he had absolutely no possible explanation for having that photo album in his possession. And that Buck hadn't even bothered to ask. After all, what could J.D. have said?
It occurred to J.D. that he might have broken something more than Chris's tile.
He found his voice. "Buck?"
For a moment he thought he was going to be ignored. But then Buck turned, and J.D. wasn't so sure that being ignored wouldn't have been the better option.
"You'd best steer clear," the bigger man said, a sharp edge to his voice that seemed to sock the air right out of J.D. He practically growled as he added, "I'd hate to do something I might regret."
Then he left.
J.D. stared into the darkened hallway after him then dropped heavily onto the bed and stayed there staring into space long after Buck's footsteps had died out upstairs.
J.D. awoke the next morning and stretched his toes down to the foot of the bed as far as they would go, happy to have been rescued from a distant, jumbled and unpleasant dream, already fading away and to find himself comfortable under his own quilt in his own bed. He smiled--until he remembered last night and the last parting glare on Buck's face.
He blew out a long breath and slid his feet to the floor. He sat on the edge of his bed, listening to the sound of Buck making noise in the kitchen and thinking over the moment last night when his plan went all to hell.
When he reconsidered it in the sane light of morning, he concluded ruefully, it probably all went to hell the moment he decided to take Chris's tile out of the house instead of just telling Chris that the box fell out of the closet. What would Chris have said anyway? Chris was a fairly reasonable person, after all. It wasn't like he was going to fly off the handle over an accident. Especially not when it turned out, on closer inspection that the tile had been broken long before J.D. got to it.
Of course, the closer inspection was what had done him in. It was the reason J.D. had to have a better look at it, which was, of course, the reason J.D. had decided to swipe the tile, to smuggle it out of Chris's house. To steal it, J.D. finally admitted to himself, rubbing the back of his head and making his hair stick up even worse.
And following that, he winced to himself thinking about it, he had no real, plausible, possible excuse to explain why he went snooping in Buck's closet or his storage boxes, except that curiosity had got the best of him, which wasn't much of an excuse at all.
No wonder Buck was pissed.
He swore to himself.
Then he remembered that it had been Chris's tile that Buck was rattling in J.D.'s direction last night.
Buck was pissed about that, too. And that was a little harder to understand.
He swore again.
Chris was going to be pissed the moment Buck told him.
That thought drove him right up and off the bed.
He supposed he'd better start with an apology. At least an apology couldn't hurt. Buck wasn't a man to hold a grudge, J.D. reasoned. Nor did he tend to stay angry long. There was a very good chance the man had calmed down since last night.
In fact, knowing Buck, J.D. thought hopefully, it wasn't impossible that the man had already moved on to other concerns and wasn't even thinking about it this morning. Not completely impossible, anyway.
J.D. made up his mind to go out there, to be a man, and to admit that he was wrong, completely and totally wrong, and that he was truly sorry about taking the tiles and the photo album. To get it over with.
Then he heard the front door bang shut.
He poked his head out of his bedroom door. A few seconds of listening confirmed it. Buck had left for work, early, without even a "hey", or an "I'm going," or a "You need a ride in?"
J.D. slouched against his doorframe and glowered at the apartment door. He couldn't help but think that this was not an optimistic turn of events.
Work wasn't any better. By the time he got to the federal building, he had not managed to come up with a single clue, piece of remembered information, or even part of any half heard conversation that would tell him why Buck had headed out so early--except that he wanted to catch Chris, who usually got there early. Only one reason for Buck wanting to catch Chris sprang to mind: to tell him that J.D. stole his tile.
As much as fighting with Buck made his stomach turn over, the idea of Chris "Five Kinds of Scary" Larabee visiting righteous wrath down upon his head made his throat dry up and his heart all but stop. By the time he got up the elevator to his floor, the butterflies in his stomach were fluttering so hard, he was pretty sure they were trying to escape.
The bullpen was empty when he arrived. And he was trying to decide if that was bad or good. Chris's door was open, so Chris was around somewhere. There was no note on his computer telling him he was fired. That seemed promising.
There was no Buck either, although his jacket was thrown over the back of his chair and his computer was on. That was not necessarily good if he was off somewhere breaking the news to Chris.
Just the simple greeting nearly gave him a heart attack. He started so badly he grabbed the edge of the desk.
Vin Tanner, ghosting like he did out of the coffee room stood there staring at him.
"You ever think of trying decaf?" Tanner asked, giving J.D. an appraising look.
"You ever think of making noise like a normal human?" J.D. snapped back, his heart still beating in his throat.
A grin flashed across Vin's face before he asked, "You all right?
"No, I'm not all right," J.D. hissed back. "I'm stupid. A stupid idiot. Chris is going to kill me. And Buck is going to help him hide the body."
Vin's eyebrows drew together in an evident attempt to hide the fact that he found whole idea of that not just unlikely but actually pretty funny, which J.D. did not find at all comforting.
"Well," Vin drawled. "he does have a lot of acres..."
"Ha ha!" J.D. said morosely, sliding into his desk chair.
Vin sidled over and parked one hip against the edge of J.D.'s desk. "What'd you do?"
J.D. glowered up at him.
He waited too long to answer, apparently, and Vin began drawing his own conclusions. "Something happen this weekend?"
"You could say that," J.D. muttered back, turning on his computer.
"And Chris doesn't know about it yet," Vin surmised, chewing on his coffee stirrer. "'Cause if he did," he continued thoughtfully, "he would have killed you already?"
Vin appeared to consider that for a second, then gave a shrug. "Cheer up," he advised, giving J.D. a wink. "So long as neither of 'em ever finds out, you got nothin' to worry about."
J.D. looked up at Vin, grateful because he knew that had the situation been fixable, Vin would have been the first to throw in and help him fix it. If it had been fixable, that was, which it wasn't.
"Buck already knows," J.D. said glumly.
Vin squinted at him curiously. "How is it that Buck knows and Chris doesn't?"
J.D. closed his eyes, realizing now a whole other depth to his stupidity. "'Cause I brought it home and Buck caught me."
Vin stared stupefied. He lowered his voice several notches and clarified in disbelief, "You took something from Chris's house? And Buck caught you?"
Evidently, Vin didn't lower his voice far enough.
"Mr. Dunne," another voice drawled out in evident disgust. "I'm appalled."
J.D. jerked and whirled to face Ezra Standish coming in the door. He didn't even try to hide the panic on his face as he peered past Standish out into the hall.
"What?" Ezra asked, craning his neck around casually in the direction of J.D.'s stare. He turned back to J.D. "Our fearless leader and his faithful sidekick won't be back for hours," he said with certainty.
Ezra moved on to his own desk, set down his leather briefcase carefully, unbuttoned the bottom button of his suit and slid gracefully into his desk chair. He smoothed out the calendar blotter, adjusted the angle of his stapler, switched on his computer, and readjusted his cuffs. Then, fixing J.D. with a look of undisguised relish, he folded his hands on his desktop and asked bluntly, "What object of great worth did you pilfer from our esteemed leader?"
J.D. would have liked to protest the use of the word "pilfer", but didn't really have a leg to stand on. Instead, he opened his mouth to explain it away, to make up something that would deflect both men's curiosity, but before he could stop it, the whole stupid truth began first to dribble and then to gush out of him in one long rush he felt powerless to stop.
When the story was finished, he looked at his two friends and teammates, knowing the expression on his face was nothing short of pleading.
There was a second or two of silence. Then Ezra and Vin, seated at adjacent desks, glanced over at each other.
Vin let out a long, low whistle. "Damn," he said.
"I repeat," Ezra said. "Appalling." He looked at J.D. with disgust. "You took stolen property to your own registered legal residence, and you were apprehended with it, red handed. And then, to add insult to injury, when confronted, you simply confessed. Confessed everything!" He turned to Vin and sourly said, "And not a mark on him. Pathetic!"
Vin stretched out behind his desk, folded his hands behind his head, and said pragmatically, "Nice knowin' ya kid."
"Thanks a lot. Both of you," J.D. grumbled. "Glad you're enjoying this. Thanks for the help."
Vin unlaced his hands from behind his head and leaned across his desk. "My best advice, Kid?" he offered. "Take your lumps and get it over with."
Ezra, seemingly engrossed in whatever was on his computer screen, snorted softly and said. "My advice would be to buy a plane ticket and relocate."
"Like I said," J.D. said gloomily. "They're going to kill me and bury me on the back forty."
"Who's getting buried on the back forty?" Nathan asked cheerfully, entering the room.
"I'm doomed," J.D. moaned and put his head down on his arms.
"Why does J.D. have his head down on his desk?" Josiah Sanchez's voice rumbled moments later, as he entered the bullpen.
J.D. didn't pick up his head.
"He's doomed," Vin supplied casually from his desk. From the sound of it, he was chewing on the coffee stirrer again.
"Oh," Josiah replied simply, and continued on, as if that were explanation enough.
Buck and Chris did come back, hours later, as Ezra predicted. They came through the door together, voices low, Chris smirking and Buck snickering about something. Chris nodded a greeting to his team, asked Ezra to bring a file on some case and disappeared into his office.
J.D. didn't realize he was staring, his throat gone dry, until Vin banged his boot against his metal desk and he jumped.
Buck turned, his grin fading and he gave J.D. a long hard look.
"You didn't..." he began, but the words got stuck. He swallowed and gestured vaguely toward Chris's office.
"No, I didn't," Buck answered, never breaking his gaze. "But you and I are going to talk."
He turned away and headed toward the coffee maker.
There was silence in the bullpen as all five men watched Buck go into the break room. J.D. felt his face turn red hot as they all looked back at him.
"By 'talk' he means 'kill'," Ezra translated just loud enough for the other four to hear.
Nathan winced, shook his head, and clucked sympathetically.
"God be with you brother," Josiah offered, turning back to his work.
Vin only shook his head.
Those were the last words Buck spoke to him all day. True, J.D. was busy, busy rushing in and out, busy rushing to IT and to archives, and to labs. He was so busy, in fact, that he wondered whether Buck had conspired to keep him away from Chris. But Buck was busy, too. He was in and out of Chris's office and in and out of the building. So J.D. did not actually see enough of the man to know if Buck was actually speaking to him or not.
He drove home alone, thinking that Buck was as good as his word. Chris had no idea what J.D. had done. And J.D. had tried to act un-guilty, that is to say as normally as possible under the circumstances. Apart from throwing him an odd glance, or two, Chris truly appeared to be none the wiser, his quiet "See ya tomorrow, J.D.," drifted after him as J.D. left the bullpen, like always. And yet that somehow made J.D. feel even lower.
The town house was silent when he got home, and for a moment he thought maybe Buck had not come home, but his truck was parked outside and the stairway light was on, so, J.D. decided, Buck must be upstairs.
He wandered into the kitchen and thought about having a last meal before facing the execution. But after a few moments inspection of the cupboard and refrigerator he realized that he didn't much feel like eating. He took a deep breath and headed for the stairway, determined to face the music, to take his lumps, as Vin put it.
The light was on in Buck's room and the door was ajar.
"Come in," Buck said soberly.
J.D. pushed open the door to see Buck sitting on the edge of his bed, his tile in his hands, tilting it gently in the light of the bedside lamp. A rocks glass half-filled with what might be scotch sat on the nightstand beside the lamp. The photo album lay open on the bed beside him.
Still standing in the doorway, J.D. cleared his throat. "Thanks for not saying anything to Chris," he said simply.
Buck gave a derisive snort. "Don't thank me," he said shortly. "I didn't do it for you." He looked up. "And I don't much like keeping secrets from Chris."
Not really knowing how to answer that, J.D. only nodded.
Buck took a gulp from the glass and put the tile down carefully beside him on the bed next to the photo album and the box containing Chris's broken tile. He looked up at J.D. "What were you thinking?" he asked, a frown wrinkling his forehead, his tone a mix of hurt and disbelief.
"I don't know," J.D. said. "I mean," he added hurriedly, "I know what I was thinking. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense anymore, now that I think about it," he admitted. He sighed. "For what it's worth. I'm sorry."
Buck turned his eyes back down to his hands clasped tightly in front of him and nodded his acceptance of J.D.'s apology. Then he reached out and pushed the tiles and photo album carefully across the thick Navy blue cotton comforter toward the center of the bed. J.D. exhaled a long, long sigh and stepped into the room. He sat down beside his friend in the space Buck had cleared for him.
Neither man spoke for several seconds. Buck reached over and took another, smaller, gulp from his glass then turned his eyes expectantly toward J.D.
J.D. shifted his weight uneasily. "I thought I broke it," he said lamely, trusting Buck to know he was talking about the tile.
And of course, Buck did, nodding his head at J.D.'s words. "Well, it is in a lot of pieces," he conceded, glancing back over his shoulder at Chris's tile.
"Yeah," J.D. agreed, "But if you look..."
It was easier to demonstrate, and he reached for the tile. Buck was faster, though, sliding the box right out of J.D.'s reach, giving J.D. the same kind of look a big dog might give to someone trying to steal his bone, right before he sinks his teeth into the idiot's hand. Like a big dog. Big Dog. The name on Buck's tile. A nickname J.D. occasionally heard Chris call Buck.
Buck still showed no signs of letting him touch the tile, so he drew his hands back.
For the first time, J.D began to consider that his own violations of Chris's and Buck's personal property was only a part of the problem, that maybe there was a lot more here than what he had done, that maybe he had crossed more lines than he even knew about and was deep into territory where he did not belong. Still, he had come upstairs to confess and to apologize, and despite the queasy feeling in his stomach, he resolved to complete that mission.
"Well, if you look," J.D. said uneasily. "I think some of the pieces did break off when it fell off the shelf."
Buck nodded again, almost robotically. He was not looking at the tile, though. He was looking at J.D., a long, penetrating look that made J.D. more than a little uncomfortable.
"Well, I thought I broke it," J.D. said more defensively than he had intended. "And I was afraid Chris would find out and kill me."
Buck's lips twitched minutely. Then he reached around and picked up Chris's box, transferring it carefully onto his lap. He wrapped both hands protectively around the sides of the box.
He did not look up from the tile cradled in his lap, but when he spoke, his voice was as serious as J.D. had ever heard it. "What were you planning to do with it after you got it here?"
J.D. scratched his head, trying to formulate his answer. He had learned a lot about lying in the last few days, not least of which was that he wasn't very good at it, and second that it was a lot of hard work, and he had gained very little from the effort. That alone seemed like a pretty good reason to tell the truth, if the gravity of Buck's tone hadn't convinced him already that Buck wanted the truth--that the truth mattered. Buck deserved the truth. And J.D. valued his friendship with Buck too much to damage it any further.
He sighed. "At first I thought I'd take it home and repair it," J.D. began. "Then I took a closer look at it and realized that most of the damage was old."
Buck peeled one of the larger pieces from the blue painters tape backing. He ran a thumb gently across the surface.
J.D. looked down at his own hands. "And then I started really looking at the pieces."
He looked over at Buck, who had replaced the first piece and picked up a second.
"And I got curious." There it was. The real truth. Almost. "After that, I guess I just got stupid," he admitted, feeling his ears burn red.
Buck nodded, in evident agreement over that last detail, and put the piece he had been fingering carefully back into the box. "Did you tape it together?" he asked, looking over at J.D.
J.D. flushed an even deeper scarlet. "I taped it together to keep the pieces from sliding around when I brought it home."
Buck looked at him curiously, but J.D. cut off anything that he might have said. Better to finish the confession before he lost his nerve.
"After I looked at it, I remembered you had one, too," he continued determinedly. "So I took yours out of your closet, so I could compare the two."
Buck raised both eyebrows.
"And then I wanted to know what they looked like," he confessed.
"They?" Buck asked.
"You know," J.D. said awkwardly, waving a hand backward toward the photo album spread open behind him. "Those guys. Them. Mad Dog, Bad Dog, Rude Dog. All the guys in the Dog Pound." The names sounded silly coming from him.
Buck's lips actually twitched upward on hearing them, his eyes momentarily far away. Then he turned back to J.D. "You could have just asked me," he said.
"I thought you'd say no," J.D. answered. "You know. 'I could tell you, but I'd hate to have to kill you.'."
Buck gave a short sharp chuckle in recognition of himself in J.D.'s imitation. "Fair enough," Buck replied. "You're probably right about that." Then unexpectedly, he said, "Hand me the photo album."
J.D. hesitated a second, in case he had heard incorrectly, but Buck stuck his hand out and waved it toward the open album sitting in the middle of the bed. J.D. picked it up, closing it carefully and handing it to Buck.
Buck took the album in both hands, still not relinquishing the tile in his lap, and turned back to the first page, the picture of Chris and Buck in front of the grey ship's hull.
"You already know Lead Dog," Buck said, pressing one finger down on the picture of the young Chris Larabee grinning out from behind the protective plastic cover. He passed the finger over the image of himself, his lips curving upward in memory. "And Big Dog you know, too."
He turned the page and one by one he began to introduce J.D. to Mad Dog Jimmy Cruz, Bad Dog Kevin Mahoney, Stray Dog Bill Molloy, and others that weren't even named on the tile. One name and one face at a time.
It wasn't even long before J.D. could begin to pick all of them out of the pictures himself. And here and there a story went with the photos. Things J.D. couldn't even believe Chris "Four Thousand Safety Rules You'd Better Follow Or Else" Larabee would ever have gone along with--let alone thought up. Not to mention the practical jokes. It was a wonder Chris hadn't shot one of them. But if the photos were anything to go by, he sure looked like he was having a damn good time.
Even a young Sarah Connelly, before she became Larabee, smiled at him from a restaurant table, seated between Buck and Chris, from a beautiful beach, the sun in her hair, from a park, holding onto Chris's hand.
"Where are they now?" J.D. asked. He was almost afraid to ask it, afraid that the answer would be "I don't know." That over a dozen men who fought side by side like brothers could split up and never think of each other again.
Buck turned back to a page of group photos. He ran his hand across the page and gave a sigh. "Kevin's a lawyer in the suburbs of Boston." He snorted like he thought that was funny, and one by one he began to place each of his old friends. They were all over the map. Some were even still in the service.
He sighed again. Then, one by one, he ran his hand over another half dozen young faces, animated with excitement, with humor, with ferocity, with intelligence. Dead. Every one of them. Gone forever. And J.D., who didn't know them at all, apart from this photo album, two tiles, and Buck's descriptions, felt a surprising sadness settle in his gut.
Buck looked up then, his eyes intense. Like there was something that he desperately wanted J.D. to know but somehow couldn't bring himself to say. But then Buck seemed to change his mind because he closed the photo album again.
J.D. wanted to ask Buck if he still kept in touch with those old friends, his brothers in arms, but it seemed a silly question. Wasn't it enough to know that Buck still knew where they were, that he had kept tabs on them that far? No, what J.D. really wanted to know was whether Chris still kept in touch with them. Or whether Chris Larabee's past, a notoriously touchy subject that Chris went out of his way to avoid, was really dead to him.
But he didn't really want to ask Buck that. Not quite like that. Because Buck might guess at what he really wanted to know.
"Do you guys still keep in touch with them?" J.D. asked finally.
Buck gave him a long look anyway before nodding. "Yeah," he said with a sudden self-deprecating chuckle. "Ain't either one of us great at it, but they keep us in the loop."
So the men in the picture hadn't let Buck or Chris get away entirely either. J.D. felt somehow better for knowing that.
Buck took a long deep breath, brushed his hand almost reverently over the front of his photo album, then gathered up his tile and placed Chris's carefully on top of it. He stood up, the entire pile in his hands.
J.D. jerked upright. "What are you going to do with Chris's tile?" he asked, seized by the sudden irrational fear that Buck was going to take it straight back to Chris.
Buck looked over his shoulder. "Something I should have done a long time ago, Kid," he replied, his smile drooping down at the corners.
He pulled a picture out of his photo album before placing the album on his dresser and heading for the door.
J.D. followed him out into the hall and down the stairs.
He put Chris's box down on the living room coffee table, making room beside two days worth of mail, the morning paper and the remote control.
J.D. watched as Buck took his own tile and the picture over to a small glass shelf in the alcove behind the TV. He stood the tile carefully behind a beer stein he never used and leaned the picture against it. J.D. could not see which picture it was. But he knew that it now rested beside a small framed photo of Buck's mother. Buck stood back, took another look at the display, gave a short nod of satisfaction and then turned back toward the coffee table.
"How'd the tile break?" J.D. asked. Buck stopped in mid step, his hand pulling up short in the act of reaching for the box.
When he looked up at J.D., a strange, intense conflict lay bare on his face. And J.D. realized that Buck both wanted to tell it and didn't want to tell it. Funny, he thought. He knew Chris carried secrets around with him. Everyone knew Chris carried secrets around with him. It was in his face and all the things he refused to say. But J.D. never really thought about Buck's secrets, the things Buck had seen and known and done that he didn't tell or couldn't tell. Buck loved to talk so much, telling stories, schmoozing, chatting people up, it was too easy to think that he had said all there was to say, told all there was to tell. But then there were a lot of things people thought about Buck that weren't necessarily so.
"You don't have to tell me," J.D. said hurriedly. "But I'm willing to listen if you do."
Buck lowered his head, hands on his hips, seeming to consider it.
J.D. rounded the other end of the sofa. He couldn't deny that he wanted to know what had happened to Chris's tile, and why it had been stuffed away in a dark closet, and why Buck seemed so reluctant to talk about it. But he had already invaded far too much of too many people's privacy to push the issue. He perched on the far arm of the sofa and waited for Buck to decide whether he wanted to tell or not and resolved to be okay with Buck's decision either way.
For his part, Buck stood beside the coffee table for a moment, staring down at his shoes, as if he were thinking it over, or trying to figure out what to say.
Then with a long exhale, Buck dropped onto the sofa, his eyes staring vacantly across the living room out the window.
"We made him leave," Buck said suddenly, simply. Staring at the side of Buck's head, it took a second for J.D. to understand that the story of how the tile broke didn't begin with the tile at all. It began with Chris.
Buck looked up, and J.D. swallowed his surprise to see Buck's face so full of guilt.
J.D. slid off the sofa arm and into the nearest cushion, his full attention on Buck.
"You gotta understand something about Chris," Buck said. The guilt never left his eyes, but his lips quirked up in a bitter little smile, and his voice was earnest, like he was asking for something. Asking J.D. to understand this something about Chris.
"He's stubborn and hardheaded," Buck said.
That was hardly a revelation, J.D. thought. He understood that very well already.
But Buck continued. "The mission matters," he insisted. "He'll go through hell and high water to get the job done. You know?"
J.D. nodded. He did know. He'd been dragged through some of that hell and high water himself in the last three years. And not all of it terribly willingly.
"The mission matters," Buck repeated, his voice gone soft, and his eyes turning again toward the window, far off, seeing things that J.D. could never know. "But the men matter more," he said. "Always have, with Chris."
He gave a short snort and gave J.D. a look that was part disgusted. "But that doesn't always hold water with the brass."
J.D. had seen that in the ATF, too. He didn't suppose he really knew the true number of times Chris had taken heat for the actions and errors of his team. Add that to the list of things that Chris didn't talk about.
Buck reached for the broken tile on the table, picking it up again, and tracing the bullet holes in the doghouse.
"He was good," Buck said, pride coloring the nostalgia in his tone and a little smile quirking up his lips. "Damn good." He shook his head as if it were something hard to be believed.
The smile faded.
"He got a reputation for being the go-to guy for missions that were pretty damn near impossible." He looked down at the tile in his hands. "And along with that, for bringing the guys home again."
His tone turned hard. "No matter what," he said.
Buck focused his full attention back on J.D. "But those two priorities--accomplishing the mission and bringing everyone home again--ain't necessarily mutually supportive." His voice took a bitter edge. "The missions got more and more impossible, and it got harder and harder to bring everyone home."
He sighed, again, looking down at the tile, his voice soft, scratchy with unpleasant memories, as he added. "Until it got impossible to bring everyone home."
Buck hesitated then, his eyes wandering over toward the shelf behind the TV, where he had carefully placed his own tile. He got up from the couch abruptly and moved across the living room, like he was drawn there.
J.D. wanted to say something, anything to let his friend know he understood what he was trying to say. But he couldn't think of anything that didn't seem trite. Then again, he wasn't sure he really could understand exactly what Buck meant. Not really.
Standing and staring at his own tile, or perhaps the picture, Buck cleared his throat. "Chris don't have such good boundaries," Buck said, his voice unnaturally flat. The knuckles on one hand stood out white where he gripped the edge of Chris's box. "He took it personally," Buck said. "All of it. It was his job to protect them."
"They were making it impossible for him to protect them," Buck said. J.D. couldn't know who "they" were exactly, but, given the venom in the way Buck said the word, he sure as hell was glad he wasn't one of them.
Buck turned back to him suddenly, eyes as fierce as J.D. had ever seen them. "It was going to get him killed. Or eat him alive."
J.D. said nothing. He wanted to nod or something to show he was listening, but he only stared at Buck, at the way the man's face was lit up with a kind of determination, a kind of defiance that J.D. had never seen in him before. Or perhaps had never really noticed. "And the Navy?" Buck said, appearing not to notice J.D.'s stare or his lack of participation. He gave a derisive shrug. "They'd get all the years out of him they could. Turn him into a burnt out empty shell if he survived it. Then give him the boot."
Buck focused back on J.D. then, his expression hard, almost angry. "We lost two guys on a mission in the Balkans," Buck said. "Two guys who'd been with us since the start. And we just about lost Chris. That's when Sarah and I made up our minds."
J.D. hadn't expected to hear her name, hadn't expected Chris's murdered wife to have a part in the story. He tried to keep the surprise off his face. He needn't have worried. Buck continued without pause, as if once begun, the story needed to be finished.
"He loved being a SEAL," Buck said, his face defying J.D. to say that they had been wrong, that they had done something wrong. "And Sarah and I convinced him to resign, to walk away before it destroyed him, one way or another."
He came back across the floor toward J.D., in measured, inexorable steps. "We took a guy who didn't know the meaning of the word quit, didn't accept defeat, didn't have the words "give up" in his vocabulary and we made him pack it in."
J.D. did not flinch or lean back or shift even as it appeared Buck might just walk right through the couch and him alike.
He came to a halt right in front of him, his boots touching the toes of J.D.'s sneaker and he leaned forward, his eyes intense, and his voice fairly vibrating. "Do you understand?"
J.D., unable to tear his eyes from that gaze, swallowed hard and nodded dumbly.
Buck searched his face, peering at him as if searching for something. To see if J.D. really did understand. Seemingly satisfied with whatever he found there, he straightened and turned away again.
"The tile was a farewell gift," he said casually over his shoulder. "Standard farewell in our platoon."
J.D. glanced over at Buck's tile, shining on the shelf and then at the pieces gathered in the box in Buck's hand.
"Sarah was already pregnant when they moved into the ranch," Buck said, his shoulders sagging a little. "I thought she was working too hard at unloading the moving van, and I took some boxes out of her arms."
He turned back toward J.D., but his eyes were on the shattered tile. "The load slipped out of both of our hands and crashed off the back of the U-Haul onto the concrete steps. The box opened and the tile broke."
"And when we looked up," Buck said, "there was Chris looking at it. He didn't say a word, just continued on into the house. Sarah ran after him, promising to fix it." He shook his head, as if to rid himself of the memory.
"Sarah cried over that tile for most of the afternoon until Chris told her it was just a tile. It wasn't a person. He took the box and put it in the top of the closet in the den."
"It wasn't just a tile, though," Buck said, lifting haunted eyes to J.D. "We made Chris leave them. And we broke their last message to him."
He cleared his throat. "She meant to get it fixed. She really did. But she wanted it to be perfect again. About once a year she'd call around to ceramic restoration specialists. The estimates were always pretty expensive, and they didn't have all that much money, and Chris said it wasn't worth it, so the box would go back on that shelf. The two of us finally decided to stop telling him the estimate, to pool our money and get it done in time for Christmas."
He lowered his eyes and his voice. "She and Adam were killed that fall."
There was silence as J.D. worked his mouth a couple of times, trying to squeeze words past the lump that threatened to close off his throat. "You did what you thought was best," he said.
As consolations went, it was pretty lame.
But Buck gave him a grateful look anyway.
They both looked at their shoes.
"Chris never did see it our way," Buck said with a sigh. "He thinks he failed them, that he ran out on them."
Again J.D. saw the perplexed expression on Chris's face as he tried to answer J.D.'s question: "Why did you leave the SEALs, Chris?" Now he understood the reason for that expression. Chris hadn't wanted to leave at all. Not while his country needed him and his men needed him more. The people who loved him most had pulled him away to save him.
He looked up at Buck. Even now, he knew Chris's penchant for not knowing when to quit, his sometimes frightening disregard for life and limb in the course of doing his job or protecting his team. How downright hell bent Chris could get sometimes. And it slowly dawned on J.D. that maybe Chris, who "didn't have such good boundaries", needed a protector--needed a Big Dog--to watch out for him.
"You probably saved him," J.D. said firmly.
Buck nodded at that, as if still trying to convince himself.
"It's important to know when to stage a tactical retreat," J.D. said, almost defensively, borrowing a bit of wisdom from Ezra Standish.
Buck gave a short, sharp snort. "At least I taught him that," he said. "He staged a tactical retreat all right, right out of his house, right out of his job, and right out of my life when Sarah and Adam died."
J.D. peered at Buck carefully, shocked to see his lips twitch up into a smile at that, a sad smile, but a real one.
Buck shrugged. "It took him five months. And when he made up his mind, he was gone like that," Buck snapped his fingers. "It was the first act of deliberately selfish self preservation I ever saw Chris take."
And J.D. grinned back, rising to his feet.
They stood there grinning at each other over what was probably one of the most painful episodes in Buck Wilmington's life. And Buck could grin about it because he understood that, cruel or not, Chris was better off for having made his escape.
J.D. shook his head.
Chris Larabee was a lucky man to have a friend like Buck Wilmington. And now he understood, too, something of Buck's answer to why he left the SEALs. "I just followed Chris," was Buck's stock answer. It made so much more sense now that J.D. finally understood just a little of the past that bound Chris and Buck so tightly together. And the sacrifices they had each made for their country, for their friends, and for each other.
He fished his wallet out of his pocket.
"I'd like to help you fix that tile," J.D. said. "For Chris," he added.
He peered in a moment at the dearth of cash inside it and then threw caution to the wind. What the heck, he thought, tossing a credit card down on top of the broken tile.
"Give it back when you're done," J.D. said pointedly. Then he turned and went off to his room, leaving his credit card, carte blanche, in Buck Wilmington's careful hands.
He didn't worry about the price.
Chris Larabee was worth it.
Just ask Buck.
Three weeks, half an op, 53 cups of coffee--give or take--, two goofs at Chris's house, and one application of a really good stain cleaner later, J.D. gawped at the credit card bill in his hand. It was amazing what the services of a good ceramic restoration specialist could cost.
He kept his mouth shut, though. He kept his mouth shut and went on with his days like it wasn't sitting there in his "to pay" box waiting to gobble up most of his next paycheck because Buck had spent two Sundays and three Saturdays in a row at Chris's house, and now there was a new red-cedar bench surrounding the hot tub, and a matching new bench rail traveling the perimeter of the newly expanded deck. And Buck had bragged happily about owning a piece of that deck after all the work he put into it. And because, unbelievably, there were three small square boards mounted on Styrofoam so they would float, each one with a glass-sized hole cut out of the center, which Buck thought he ought to get a patent for designing. And because Buck insisted J.D. come along to view the finished product.
On the pretense of checking on the free anti-spyware software he had installed on Chris's computer, J.D. snuck away from Buck's bragging out on the porch, and Vin's lying bare-chested out on the bench rail, t-shirt snaked through a belt loop in his cutoff jeans, and Josiah's contented sigh as he test-drove one of the drink holders from inside the bubbling hot tub.
He found what he was looking for right away, there on the mantel above the den fireplace, shiny white and vivid black, a ten by ten ceramic tile with a doghouse on it, surrounded by cartoon debris and tiny signatures. Holding it carefully in both hands, he tilted it in the light. The restorer was good, all right. You couldn't even see the cracks in this light. Of course, for what she had charged, she had better be that good.
"J.D.!" Buck's voice hollered from the living room. "Get your ass out here."
He jerked and for one horrifying instant, he feared he might drop the tile. But he didn't. He put it carefully back on the shelf, holding it there for a second, just to be sure.
"What for?" he hollered back. But he went out into the living room all the same.
Chris and Buck were leaning side by side on the waist high railing that edged the older part of the deck. Legs crossed, elbows on the rail, bodies canted slightly toward each other, silhouetted in the late afternoon sun, all dark limb shapes and white teeth parted in smug grins.
"Vin here wants a rematch of that basketball game," Buck said happily.
Just for a minute, instead of the yard behind them, instead of the pasture beyond, J.D. saw the grey hull of a Navy ship and black face paint. He saw their identical smirks. And that weird fun house mirror image again.
"Sure," J.D. said, pointing at Chris and Buck. "As long as you two play on separate teams."
Both men's eyebrows quirked up as they glanced at each other.
Buck laughed and reached out to snare J.D.'s head in the crook of one arm. "I'm gonna kick your butt, Larabee," he said.
"That'll be the day, Wilmington," Chris replied, looking at Vin and jerking his head toward the driveway.
And J.D. grinned like a fool, knowing that somehow, even on separate teams, he and Vin would be the only ones who got their butts kicked. Buck and Chris would always be on the same side.
No matter what.