Two Weeks in May
Buck awoke to the smell of bacon frying. He grabbed his robe and hurried down the stairs. Fresh coffee was also brewing. JD looked up at his roommate and smiled.
"Hey, Buck. About last night-"
"Forget it," Buck said, wrapping an arm around JD and pulling him up close.
Vin was relieved to see the smiles when Buck and JD arrived at the office. He and JD had talked after they ate and he knew that the kid felt badly about the way he reacted. Vin had assured him that they all understood that he was having a hard time and, like everyone else, assured him that it wouldn't go on forever.
Chris picked up the reports on the dead homeless man and called a meeting with the team. He passed the file around for each of them to have a look before he handed out assignments. JD was given the chore of running down the shipment, passing him the records from the small quick-shop where the man had bought the bottle. Nathan, Vin and Josiah were going to hit the streets, talking to other homeless people and warning them about poisoned alcohol. Buck and Ezra were going to hit the other small stores in the area to look for any common carriers.
JD dove into his project, quickly entering the data from the delivery tickets and shipping documents. He couldn't find any correlation between the trucking companies or warehouses that the stores had used. He had a feeling that they were really close to finding the supplier. He began to research the signatures on the delivery tickets.
Vin slapped the younger man on the shoulder as he walked away from the newsstand. He had been talking to the young Latinos all over the neighborhood, warning them about the bad booze and asking if any of them had heard about someone making bootleg liquor. He was eager to catch whoever was responsible.
The homeless men thanked Josiah for the warning and assured him that they would be very careful of the booze they bought. None of the people he spoke to had any idea that there was any poisoned liquor going around.
Nathan eyed the wary group of young men carefully as he got out of the car. His eyes swept over the discarded bottles and he wondered how long it would be before one of them got hold of a bad bottle.
After a long and largely unproductive day, Chris sent all of them home early. JD still had to see his therapist and the others made an early stop at the saloon to unwind. If anyone thought it odd that they only drank what was on tap, no one commented on it. Buck finished his beer and dug into his pocket for his wallet.
"I'm gonna head out. The kid should be home shortly and it's my turn to cook," he explained. "See y'all in the morning."
The others called out their goodbyes as Buck left the table. Vin stretched, then reached out to slap Chris on the shoulder and challenged him to a game of pool. Nathan and Ezra threw darts for a while, until Nathan's cell phone rang. Rain was starting supper and wanted to know when he would be home. Nathan ended the call and begged out of the rest of the game.
"I should be going as well," Ezra told Josiah.
Buck got home ahead of JD and hurried into the kitchen. He grabbed the bags of noodles from the pantry and began measuring water and butter into a pan. He drained a can of tuna and set it aside for later. By the time his roommate arrived home, the tuna casserole was almost done. It was a quick, inexpensive meal that they enjoyed. It also brought back fond memories for both of them. They had been talking about their favorite meals growing up and JD mentioned that his mom would stir a tuna casserole together for them as a treat. It was something that he could warm in the microwave the next day. Buck's mom had made it for the same reason. She worked evenings and Buck had to fix his own supper so she made the casserole that he could reheat.
"How'd it go?" Buck asked when JD opened the fridge and grabbed a soda.
"It was there," JD replied sullenly. In truth, the therapist hadn't been happy that he hadn't talked to Nathan about being his sponsor. JD had promised to talk to him the next day.
After supper, JD excused himself and went to his bedroom. He turned on his computer and found one of his on-line friends to chat with. He was feeling vaguely out of sorts and didn't want to be 'watched' all evening. Before his kidnapping, Buck would have rushed through supper to get ready for a date. Now, Buck was turning his lady friends down to stay home and babysit his roommate, JD thought bitterly. He hadn't been watched so closely since he was in grade school.
Buck sighed as he glanced down the hall toward JD's closed bedroom door. He was afraid that they were growing apart and it made Wilmington angry. He and JD had been closer than most brothers until the kidnapping. They still didn't know who had taken Dunne or why they were so fixated on Buck. He remembered the lost, terrified look on JD's face when the kid thought he was seeing a ghost. It was still like a kick in the guts every time he remembered the way JD had sobbed out that his kidnappers had told him that half of the team was dead.
The phone rang, dragging Buck out of his dark trek down memory lane. It was Lindsay, reminding him of their date Saturday night. He assured her that he hadn't forgotten and made a mental note to talk to Chris about someone to stay with JD.
JD showered and shaved quickly because he'd overslept. Buck woke him up and told him to hurry or Chris would have their asses in a sling. JD was sorely tempted to tell Buck to go on without him, since there wasn't anything for him to do at work but he knew he couldn't just blow it off. His hair was still damp when he slid into the passenger seat of Buck's truck.
When they got to the office, Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah were already in the conference room. They had three new deaths connected to the shipments of poisoned liquor. This time, it was a close friend of the Mayor's daughter who died and Travis was pouring on the pressure.
"JD, good that you're here. We got something that I want you to research," Chris said as soon as he laid eyes on the younger man. "See if you can find anything on this. It has a false stamp on it. The guy who bought it said that he got it right off the shelf at a grocery store."
Taking the scanned copy of the label, JD immediately went to his desk and powered up his computer. A smidge of the 'Old JD' from 'before' appeared as the young computer tech attacked the project. He traced the bottle to the store, then to the invoice but when he tried to connect it with the supplier, he found that the numbers were wrong. Someone was forging the invoices and slipping the bad liquor into the shipments.
It was a busy day for the team, as everyone except JD and Ezra went out to check the shipments from that supplier to other locations around the city. They found over a dozen bottles with the same phony numbers as the one from the recent party. It didn't mean that they had all of them but it was a beginning.
Alone in the office with Ezra, JD tried to keep busy. When lunch time rolled around and Standish suggested that they go out, JD begged off, saying that he was running a search program and he was close to getting an answer. Ezra offered to bring him something back and left the office.
An unusual silence settled over the office and JD grew uncomfortable. He turned Vin's radio on and tried to use it to stay focused. It was fine until the girl arrived with the interoffice mail. JD didn't hear her coming until she was right there at his desk. He gasped, shrinking back in his chair until he recognized her. She held out a yellow envelope and a clipboard for him to sign. JD watched her until the glass door swung shut behind her before he let himself move.
In the restroom, JD splashed cold water on his face. He was ashamed of the way he was acting. He was coming out of the restroom when the phone on Ezra's desk rang. It was the special ring, the one that meant it was coming from his tip line. He rushed to answer it before it went to voice mail.
"ATF Tip Line," JD said in his best official voice. He snatched one of the forms from the pad on the desk and made a note of the time.
"If you're looking for those bottles of bad booze you should check out the old machine shop on West 70th off of Federal. They're getting ready to make another delivery this afternoon," a gravelly voice said.
"Do you want to leave a name in case there's a reward for the information?" JD asked as he scribbled the man's words on the paper. The call ended with an abrupt click and JD carefully replaced the handset. He immediately picked it up again and dialed Chris' cell phone. A pleasant voice informed him that his call could not go through due to an unusually heavy call volume and invited him to try again later. He hung up and tried Buck and got the same message. In an instant, JD decided to check out the machine shop on his own. He wouldn't do anything to engage the bootleggers but he wanted to get descriptions and whatnot. Armed only with a digital camera with a telephoto lens, he ran to the elevators.
When he reached the parking garage, he realized that he didn't have his car. He leapt back into the elevator as the doors were closing and went up to the main floor where the car pool office was located.
"Hey Jeff, you got a car I can use for a couple of hours?" JD called over the counter. "I'm going to take some surveillance photos and I rode in with Buck."
"Yeah, here, take this one," Jeff replied, grabbing the keys off of the board and sliding them across the counter with a clipboard. JD hurriedly scribbled his name on the line and snatched up the keys.
"Thanks!" he said as he raced out the door.
When Ezra got back from lunch the office was empty. He checked the break room, Chris' office and the restroom without finding JD. Thinking that perhaps the younger man had gone to run an errand in the building, Ezra went to his desk and opened his e-mail. He deleted several repetitive items, sent two to the spam folder and one to the printer before he opened the one from his mother. Her missive was all about how bored she was with her current paramour. He was almost finished reading it when he heard the annoying bit of modern music that JD used as a ring tone on his cell phone. When the music stopped, Ezra started reading again but his phone began to ring.
"Standish," Ezra replied as he flipped the phone open.
"Ezra, do you know where JD is? He tried to call a while ago but we were in a dead zone," Chris said.
"He isn't in the office and he didn't leave a note as to his destination," Ezra said.
Chris felt his stomach churn. "Stay there, we'll be there in ten," he said abruptly.
JD laid across the front seat of the car as he snapped pictures of the vehicles on the parking lot. He managed to get several good shots of the men who were loading the unmarked truck. It was getting warm in the car with the sun beating down on the roof, but JD was determined to get all the intel he could on the operation. As he was staring through the viewfinder of the camera, a familiar face came out of the building and handed an envelope to the man who was getting ready to climb into the cab of the truck.
When the truck pulled away from the building, JD decided that he'd better get back to the office. His phone vibrated and he dug it from his pocked as he pulled into traffic. He blanched at seeing he had six missed calls.
"Dunne," JD said calmly.
"WHERE IN THE HELL ARE YOU!" Buck bellowed into the phone.
"I'm on my way back to the office. I'll be there in fifteen minutes." JD snapped the phone closed and dropped it into his shirt pocket. He glanced over at the camera on the passenger seat and hoped that they at least let him look at the enlargements before they banished him from the office on suspension.
JD dropped off the keys to the pool car and stepped into the elevator. His hands were clammy as he clutched the camera and watched the lighted numbers flit closer to his destination. His stomach felt as if a flock of pelicans had taken flight inside of it and he hoped that he didn't embarrass himself by throwing up on the carpet at Chris' feet. He opened the door to the offices and stopped. He could already hear the team leader yelling from inside of his office. Not even when he had confronted Larabee about getting on his team did JD feel as nervous and uncertain as he did right then.
"the last straw, Buck! If he can't even follow simple directions to stay in the office, how can I keep him on the team?" Chris was saying as he and Buck entered the bullpen.
"At least give him a chance to tell you why he left the office," Buck said.
"I got a tip that the guys selling the bootleg were loading a truck," JD said softly. "It's all in here," he added as he handed the camera to Buck.
"JD-" Chris began.
"I know. I'll clear off my desk," he replied, his head hanging so that his hair hid the traitorous tears that filled his eyes.
Buck automatically slid the memory card into his computer and began to review the pictures. He saw the man pulling only a select few bottles from each carton to replace with the bootleg bottles. That was why the stamps and barcodes on the bad bottles hadn't matched the shipping records. Just as JD picked up the box of his personal effects from the desk, Buck came to the image that clenched the case for them.
"Chris! Look at this!" Buck shouted. The rest of the team crowded around the monitor, staring at the familiar face standing next to the truck. It explained why they were having so much trouble catching the bootleggers. The man who was paying them was one of their own!
"Call Orin and set up a meeting. He'll want to bust this guy as soon as possible," Chris said tersely. "The rest of you suit up and be ready to go." The team leader's jaw was taut as he glared at the image on the screen. He was so intent on the man's face that he didn't see his youngest agent slipping out of the office.
JD flagged down a cab and gave his home address to the driver. He sat in the back seat with his arm draped across the top of the box he had brought from the office. While he was not usually a vengeful person, JD thought that he could cheerfully choke his kidnappers to death for fouling up his entire life.
Chris looked around the office as soon as he realized that he was missing someone. His eyes settled on the empty desk that JD had used and he felt like he'd been sucker punched. Pulling his cell phone from the clip on his belt, he speed-dialed JD's number. A second later, a familiar tune sounded from the desk drawer. Chris jerked the drawer open and stared down at the other cell phone.
"Damn! Buck, call him at home and get him back here," Chris ordered.
"Orin says he can see you now but he has another meeting in ten minutes," Nathan called out, still holding the phone so he could let Orin's secretary know whether or not they were coming up.
"I'll be right there," Chris said to Nathan. "Get him back here," Chris repeated to Buck as he ejected the memory card from the computer and swept out of the office. He bypassed the elevator in favor of burning off some of his anger on the stairs.
+ + + + + + +
The phone was ringing when he walked through the door but JD ignored it. He reached out and angrily jerked the cord out of the wall. In the deafening silence that followed, JD drew a shuddering breath. An almost overpowering urge crept up his spine and he found himself considering the liquor store down the block. Remembering how awful he felt when he woke up from his last drinking binge made him decide against that option for the moment. Shaking with cold, JD went into his bedroom and grabbed the comforter off of his bed before sliding down the wall in front of his closet.
+ + + + + + +
"He must have turned the answering machine off," Buck announced after the tenth ring. "Damn! How else could we have screwed this up?"
"Why don't you call the PD and have them send a car to check on him?" Vin suggested.
"Have to give them a reason," Buck replied dispiritedly.
+ + + + + + +
Orin stared at the face on the monitor for a long time before directing his gaze toward Larabee. The older man's eyes were filled with disappointment and anger. Orin sent several of the pictures to his printer before ejecting the memory card and placing it in his desk drawer.
"Have your team suit up and go pick him up," Travis said solemnly.
"Yes Sir," Chris replied smartly.
By the time Chris returned to the office, the rest of the team was ready to go. Buck looked toward JD's empty desk again and sighed. He had called one of his neighbors and asked her to go knock on the door and tell JD to call the office but she said that he didn't answer the door. His car was still there, which gave the worried roommate some small peace of mind.
Agent Larry Dotson looked up in surprise when Chris Larabee and his team barged into the FBI offices. The fact that they were wearing Kevlar and the scowls on their faces had been enough to keep the rest of the FBI agents quiet as Chris handcuffed Dotson and shoved him toward the door. Josiah and Buck took charge of the agent while Chris explained to Dotson's second in command.
Once Dotson was confined in a holding cell, Team 7 went after the distribution center that JD had taken pictures of. Two other ATF teams, as well as SWAT and the DPD were on hand to assist with the bust. Inside of the machine shop, they found several 55-gallon drums filled with bootleg gin and whiskey. They found a printing press that they used to manufacture the phony labels and rubber stamp made to put on the fake tax impression. Of the ten men arrested, seven were illegal aliens, who would be turned over to immigration if their statements proved to be worthless. The three who weren't illegal were responsible for rerouting the pallets of liquor so that the bootleg stuff could be put in with it. They were then crating the legal bottles up to sell on the side. In order to avoid being charged with the deaths from the poisoned alcohol, they quickly identified the location of the still and the people running it.
"We'll get this bunch settled in a nice, safe holding cell," Chris told the other ATF team leader, "and get them started writing their confessions. You should be able to take the still down without us."
Jake Farrell raised his eyebrows slightly at the offer to be in charge of the group that took down the still. There was bound to be media coverage and it would definitely be a major feather in his cap. He looked around at the tight knot of men gathered by the suburban Larabee's team had driven to the site and realized that they were a man short. He could easily read the tension in Wilmington's stance and noticed that Dunne was the missing man. There were some rumors circulating about the young computer whiz and his recent bout of 'flu' that suddenly seemed more like the truth.
"JD still down with the flu?" Jake asked. The immediate flash of anger in Larabee's eyes told him all he needed to know. "Tell him that we hope he's feeling better soon," he added quickly. "He's a good agent."
Chris glared at the other team leader before he saw the sincerity in his eyes. He also saw that Farrell knew what had happened to JD. The ATF was a small world and it was damned near impossible to keep a secret.
"Tell him that if he ever gets tired of working with your lot that I'd make room for him on my team," Farrell added with a smile.
"Over my dead and rotting corpse," Chris replied with an evil grin.
As soon as they reached the parking lot, Chris sent Buck to bring JD back to the office. He and the others headed for the holding area to begin taking statements from the men arrested at the machine shop. He interviewed the English-speaking men while the others handled the rest. It was very handy for him that four members of his team spoke passable Spanish.
Buck let himself into the apartment and looked around carefully. The box of things JD had taken from his desk was still sitting on the kitchen counter. It only took a minute to see where JD had ripped the cord to the answering machine from the wall. Buck replaced the cord before heading for JD's bedroom door.
It was dark and quiet in the room and Buck flipped on the overhead light. He glanced toward the bed and saw that it was empty. His heart leapt into his throat for a moment until he saw the dark head sticking out of the comforter in the corner. Buck exhaled slowly as he went to his knees in front of his roommate.
"JD?" he said softly. JD flinched, his head striking the wall with a resounding 'thump' and Buck saw the red, swollen eyes settle on him. "You alright?"
"Yeah," JD replied timidly.
"Come on, then. Up and at 'em. Chris wants you back in the office," Buck said as he rocked back on his heels and stood up. He held his hand out and waited for JD to take it.
Looking up from his seat on the floor, JD debated taking Buck's outstretched hand. He knew that he couldn't sit in the corner forever and finally uncurled his arm from around his legs. Buck pulled him upright and wrapped his arms around JD for a squeeze-the-stuffing-out-of-him kind of hug.
"We got 'em, JD. We got the men at the machine shop and they gave up the location of the still. You did good," Buck said as he gave the back of JD's head a thorough scrubbing with his knuckles.
JD was at his desk and had successfully traced at least half a dozen store deliveries to each of the names of the men arrested. He was also able to confirm that the stamp found, matched the imprints on the phony tax seals on the bottles. He was so intent in his work that he didn't notice Chris standing on the other side of his desk until the team leader cleared his throat.
"My office," Chris said. JD got up slowly, firing a worried look at Buck before he crossed the threshold into the smaller office. He stood in front of the desk, trying desperately to quell the trembling of his hands and blinking back tears. "Sit down, Agent Dunne," Chris said calmly.
"I'd prefer to stand," JD answered with a hint of defiance.
"JD, sit down," Chris repeated. JD's defiance melted and he sank into a chair, his knee immediately beginning to bounce as he gripped the armrests with a white-knuckle grip and stared at the floor between his shoes. "You knew better than to leave the office, didn't you?" Chris asked softly.
"Yes, Sir," JD answered.
"You went without a weapon, without backup, without letting anyone know where you were going," Chris added.
"Yes, Sir," JD repeated.
"Look at me, JD," Chris said. He waited until the tearful hazel eyes lifted to settle on his face. "You know better, don't you?"
"JD, I know that this has been hard on you. But you have to know that I wouldn't make demands of you that I wouldn't make of any of the others. It isn't because you're the youngest or because of what happened to you. It's because you're a member of my team and ..." Chris stopped speaking as two incredibly large tears rolled down JD's cheeks. His own eyes blurred with emotion and he drew a deep breath to regain control. "I can't have you disobeying orders. Do you understand?"
"I don't care if someone calls in the location of Jimmy Hoffa, you don't leave this office unarmed, without backup and without letting someone know where you're going, is that clear?"
It took several seconds for JD to reason through what Chris had said before his heart leapt in his chest. It certainly sounded like he still had a job ...
"And don't leave your cell phone in your desk again," Chris added. "Now, get out there and see if you can speed up the paperwork so we can all go home."
JD leapt out of the chair and was out of the office before Chris could say another word. Chris let his gaze fall on the picture of the team that sat on the corner of his desk. After a minute, he realized that he had an audience. Looking up, he saw Buck leaning on the door facing.
"Thanks," Buck said with a smile.
JD stared at the pile of folders on his desk the next morning in disbelief. Chris stepped into the doorway of his office and waited until JD looked at him for an explanation.
"As punishment for leaving the office yesterday, you will be entering old data files into the data base until you are released to regular duty," Chris said.
"How many old data files are there?" JD asked hesitantly.
"The rest are in the conference room," Chris replied.
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, JD crossed to the conference room and opened the door. He stared in dismay at the neat row of stacked file boxes that lined the wall.
Several hours later, Buck slipped into Chris' office. He had expected JD to be more vocal about his punishment but the kid hadn't said a word all morning except to occasionally read from the notes in a particularly interesting file.
"How much longer are you going to make him do that?" Buck asked.
"Until he gets it through his head. Or until he's released to regular duty, whichever comes first."
"He did try to call us," Buck added.
"He could have gotten himself killed," Chris countered.
"But he didn't," Buck said, turning away before Chris could reply.
Josiah and Vin were back interviewing the illegals that they had arrested. A couple of the men were willing to testify that Agent Dotson knew that their product was killing people but he wasn't willing to stop making it. Josiah said that the men were desperate to stay in the US and weren't afraid to testify.
Orin came down later in the afternoon to talk to Chris about the photos on the memory card. He complimented Chris on the fine work his team had done. When he found out that JD had been the one to take the pictures, he was mildly irritated. Chris assured him that JD wouldn't leave the office again until he was on full duty. Upon hearing the method of discipline Larabee was using, Orin shook his head and grinned.
Standing in the doorway to his office, Chris watched JD work. He knew that the data entry was tedious and not really all that necessary but he wanted to keep the young man busy. He was also proud of the way JD tackled the job without complaining.
"JD, can I see you for a minute?" Chris said when he noticed that Dunne was finished with the file he was working on. JD looked relieved as he sprang from the desk.
Once inside of the office, JD took a seat across from Chris and leaned forward, his elbows on the arms of the chair. He watched as the team leader opened a manila folder and looked at a matte-print photo.
"I wanted to have a word with you," Chris began, picking up the photo and showing it to JD. "I know that you don't like being on light duty and I can't say that I blame you but it's for your own good."
"I understand," JD replied.
"I also wanted you to know that I'm only trying to do right by you. I know it's been hard for you-"
"No! Chris ... I appreciate what you all did for me. You could have gotten in trouble trying to hide my problem from Travis. You could have fired me for leaving the office but you didn't."
Chris smiled. He was truly proud of the way JD was handling himself. He was also relieved that the younger man seemed to understand the need for the 'tough love' that he was receiving from his friends.
"I just wanted you to know, I'm proud of you," Chris said. He immediately realized that JD was having trouble concealing his emotions and came to his feet. JD leapt up and shifted nervously in place. Chris came around his desk and did something he wasn't accustomed to doing, he wrapped his arms around the younger man and hugged him. For the first time since it all began, both men could finally see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.
By the end of the day, JD was delighted to power his computer down. One of the boxes of folders had gotten wet and there was mold on several of the folders, which had him sneezing and his eyes watering. But there was no way he could complain because he didn't want to chance Chris finding some worse form of punishment for him. As they were getting ready to leave, Vin invited them to join him at the youth center to play basketball with some of the older kids.
Over the squeak of tennis shoes on the gym floor, JD heard the whistle signaling a foul. He shook the sweat from his hair and jogged down to take his place on the opposing key. He and Buck and Vin were playing with a couple of kids against another team of kids from one of the neighborhood gangs. The weekly competitions seemed to help the teens work out their aggression and kept them from turning to violence on the streets. The free throw shot missed and Elias quickly fired the ball back onto the court. JD accepted the pass and dribbled down to the outside corner of the key before passing to Vin, who took the shot. It hit the rim and bounced back to Sampson, who quickly put it back up for two points.
After the last of the kids had showered and changed, Buck and JD hit the showers. It had been an exhausting evening but they'd had fun. Buck took the teasing good-naturedly, knowing that it masked the kids' affection. JD had enjoyed challenging the kids, since he was so much closer in age. During a break, he had talked to several of the teens and discovered that they weren't all drop-outs and gang-bangers. JD and Buck hung around while Vin cleaned up and locked up, then they all parted ways on the parking lot.
Friday was met with the normal enthusiasm for the coming weekend. JD was too engrossed in his data entry to have much input into the team's plans. Buck reminded him of their double date with Janice and her sister that night. While they were on the subject, he also informed JD of his date with Lindsay and suggested that he make plans with one of the others for the evening. Vin jumped to the rescue by inviting JD back to the youth center. JD quelled the flash of anger at being 'minded' like a four-year-old and agreed to spend the night at Vin's and ride out to the ranch Sunday for their weekly barbeque.
Chris frowned at the familiar number on the caller ID as he picked up the phone. JD's therapist informed him that JD had missed his appointment the last two days and Chris sighed in frustration. He had forgotten and JD was so busy with the data entry that it had just slipped their collective minds. The therapist also asked Chris if JD had spoken to someone on his team about acting as his sponsor. Chris admitted that he really didn't know and assured the doctor that he would make sure that JD didn't miss another appointment. He hung up the phone and went to the bullpen to speak to JD.
Buck noticed Chris speaking softly to JD and immediately began to worry. When JD slapped his forehead with his open palm, Buck realized that the kid had forgotten something. It took him only a second to come up with the therapy appointments. JD had been so involved in entering the data from the old cases that he had forgotten the day before and two days ago had been the bust at the machine shop and JD leaving the office upset. Buck was puzzled when Chris called to Nathan and sent him with JD into the conference room. Getting up from his chair, Buck started over to the larger desk JD was using while he did the data entry.
"Something wrong?" he asked as soon as Chris turned around.
"No, JD's therapist called because he missed two appointments," Chris replied.
"What's with JD and Nathan in the conference room?" Buck asked.
"JD told the therapist that he was going to ask someone on the team to be his sponsor instead of a stranger."
"I could be his sponsor," Buck suggested.
"No you can't Buck. He needs someone who's been there."
Understanding came slowly. Buck's eyes went unfocused as he went over what Chris had said. He didn't know that Nathan had ever had a problem with dependency. Bu the time he figured it out, Nathan and JD were coming out of the conference room and JD was nodding to whatever Jackson was telling him.
That afternoon, when JD got up to go to his therapist, Nathan also got up and grabbed his jacket. Buck watched them leave before returning to the project on his monitor. The afternoon dragged on for Buck as he worried about his roommate. He glanced at the clock on the wall and sighed.
"Staring at the clock won't make time pass any faster," Josiah advised.
"I can't help it," Buck replied angrily. "I thought he was getting better."
"It takes time ... and patience."
"Neither of which Mr. Wilmington possesses in large supply," Ezra added.
"Shut it down and go home!" Chris shouted from his office. He knew that they weren't doing anything. Nathan had confided his previous addiction when Larabee offered him the position, he didn't want anything to come around later and bite him. Chris admired the honesty and vowed to keep the secret. When Nathan pulled him aside and announced that he was going to tell JD, Chris had nodded in agreement that it was a good idea. He hoped that it would help the young agent to realize that he wasn't alone in what he was experiencing.
The noise level in the bullpen rose as the men prepared to depart for the weekend. Chris shut down the computer and pulled on his jacket. He heard Josiah asking Buck what his plans were for the evening. He was surprised to hear that Buck and JD were going on a double date that night.
+ + + + + + +
On the drive to the therapist's office, Nathan asked JD what he thought of the man. JD debated an honest answer, not wanting to sound like he was whining. He was sure that the doctor was the best, Orin wouldn't have referred him if he hadn't been. But, at the same time, JD didn't really feel like the man understood him.
"He treats me like ... like I did this to myself ... like I wanted to start taking drugs. He keeps asking me if I think I'm going to start using again," JD said hesitantly.
"Have you tried telling him how you feel?" Nathan asked.
"No, I mean ... he makes me feel like ... like when my mom caught me sneaking extra cookies into my lunch box. I didn't ask for this to happen to me but I'm the one being punished!" JD replied. He was feeling anxious and uptight again.
"Okay, starting this afternoon, you are going to have to tell him exactly how you feel. He can't help you if you don't confide in him."
After the session, Nathan dropped JD off at the apartment. Nathan had been forced to tell the doctor what he and JD had discussed on the drive over because it seemed that JD was too intimidated to admit it. The session went better after that. The doctor took a different approach in his discussion thereafter. It was good to see JD actually smile a couple of times.
JD rushed through the apartment, heading for the bathroom to shower for his date. The walls and mirror were already dotted with humidity from Buck's shower and there were damp towels on the floor in the corner. JD showered quickly and washed his hair. When he got out, he brushed his teeth and took the blow-drier to his hair. He raced to his room and pawed through his closet until he found his favorite pair of jeans and the sweater Ezra gave him for Christmas. He rooted around in his underwear drawer for clean underclothes and tossed them on the bed. Unwinding the towel from around his hips, he slung it across his computer chair while he pulled his clothes on.
Buck grinned at him as JD came out of the bedroom buckling his belt. JD fanned his hand in front of his face, crinkling his nose at the amount of cologne his friend was wearing. Buck scowled at him, reaching out to muss JD's hair as he darted past.
They took Buck's mint 1969 GTO, which he'd had detailed that afternoon so that its glossy finish was mirror bright. Buck pulled a soft rag from his pocket to wipe stray fingerprints from the roof.
It was five minutes to eight when they pulled up in front of the apartment building where Janice lived. They took the elevator to the sixth floor and JD followed Buck to the apartment door. Before he could even ring the bell, the door opened and Janice and her sister stepped out. Buck introduced Janice to JD and Janice introduced both of them to her sister Jessica.
"Come on, let's get going," Janice said, grabbing Buck by the arm and pulling him toward the elevator. At the car, JD opened the driver's side door for Jessica to get into the back seat while Buck put Janice in the front. Buck and JD then passed each other coming around the back of the car. JD grinned gamely and Buck winked at him as they rushed to get in the car.
After supper, they went to a nice bar that had a large dance floor. The girls had a couple of drinks each while the men drank soda. JD and Jessica seemed to hit it off and Buck was glad to see his roommate happy. Since his split from Casey, JD had been reluctant to date.
Around one in the morning, they left the bar and went back to Janice's apartment for a nightcap. Buck and Janice drifted out to the balcony, leaving JD and Jessica the living room to themselves.
Cuddled up together on the couch, JD brushed his thumb along the soft ridges on Jessica's throat. He carded his fingers through her hair and felt the silken tresses glide along his skin.
"Tell me about your job," Jessica whispered.
With Jessica's fingers brushing lightly against his jaw and down his throat, JD began to talk about what he did for the ATF. Jessica continued to pet him as he talked. His thumb brushed gently against her throat and collarbone. It felt really good to just talk to someone without having to weigh his words or worry about revealing too much. He found himself telling her about his kidnapping and the drugs he'd been forced to take.
"Oh my gosh, you poor thing!" she murmured, gripping his shoulder and pulling herself up to kiss him. JD cradled the back of her head with one hand as he leaned in closer. With the other hand, he gripped her hip and pulled her onto her side.
Several minutes of heavy petting later, Jessica pulled away to look up at him. She smiled and brushed her fingers across his lips.
"Do you need something to help you with the fuzzies?" she asked.
"Fuzzies?" JD repeated.
"The fuzzy, funky feeling you get when you're coming down? When your skin itches like you have ants crawling on you?"
"Coming down?" JD asked, feeling anxiety creeping up his spine. But her description of ants on his skin was spot on with how he'd been feeling.
Jessica shifted, pushing against the couch cushions until she was pretty much sitting in JD's lap. She dug into her pants pocket and pulled out a small, Ziploc bag. JD immediately tensed, pushing back into the couch.
"Oh, it's okay! I have a prescription for it. It's really easy to fake the symptoms. I only use them when I need to cram for a test or when I want to party. They won't hurt you. They'll help with the fuzzies," she repeated, placing the bag in his hand.
The sliding door opened and JD hurriedly stuffed the bag into his pocket. He leaned his head back in time to see Janice trying to crawl into Buck's mouth. When she pulled away, Buck smiled down at her.
"You ready to head home, JD?" Buck asked as he extricated himself from Janice.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm good," JD replied, easing Jessica off of his lap and coming to his feet. He brushed a quick kiss on Jessica's lips.
On the drive home, JD's foot bounced erratically. He was paranoid that Buck would somehow know about the pills in his pocket. Buck turned the radio on and jacked the volume up until the speakers in the back window were thumping in their casings. Buck also rolled his window down some so that the cool air would help him stay focused.
Inside the apartment, JD exaggerated a yawn and headed for his bedroom. He dug the bag out of his pocket and buried them in his sock drawer. Buck headed straight for the shower to shed the smell of cigarette smoke from his hair and body. When he came out, he hollered down the hall to let JD know that he could have the bathroom.
After his shower, JD lay in bed, trying to fall asleep. He could swear that anyone who looked at him would know that he had brought drugs into the apartment. He tossed and turned for a while before he finally managed to fall asleep.
Three hard thumps on his bedroom door woke JD the next morning. He sat up, looking around in confusion for a minute before he realized that it was Saturday. It was the Saturday that Buck had decreed would be used to clean the apartment. They had to gather up all of the laundry and take it to the Laundromat in the basement. JD rolled out of bed and pulled on a clean pair of shorts and a tee shirt. He stripped the sheets off of his bed and tossed them in the floor. The basket that still held a few clean tee shirts that he hadn't bothered to put away was dumped on the bed and all of his dirty clothes went into it. He snagged the still-damp towel from the computer chair and stuffed it in on top.
Buck had the hamper from the bathroom and his basket sitting near the door, along with the bottles of detergent and fabric softener. He was in the kitchen, gathering the dishtowels and pot holders. JD grabbed the bag that held the Gameboys that they used to kill time while the clothes washed and dried.
Doing the laundry took most of the morning, since they had only been able to snag one washer. But it was alright because Buck and JD enjoyed the time spent together. They managed to secure chairs in a corner and played with their hand-held video games in between loading the washer and dryer. JD ended up playing by himself when Buck saw the pretty co-eds from the first floor coming in with their laundry.
It was nearly lunch time by the time the duo made it back to the apartment with their clean laundry. JD was still chuckling and teasing Buck about being shot down by the pretty little red-head.
"How was I supposed to know they were together?" Buck complained. "And not interested in men? With looks like that? Go figure!" He slung the hamper down the hall toward the bathroom, intending to put it in place later. Or better, to make JD do it when he carried his things back to his room. "Why don't you run down to the sub shop and get us lunch? My treat," Buck added, seeing JD's slight scowl instantly turn into a delighted grin as he snapped the twenty dollars from Buck's fingers. "And don't forget the mayo!" he called as the door closed behind his young friend.
Alone in the apartment, Buck began to put away the neat stacks of towels and pot holders into the kitchen drawer. He stacked his super-king sheets on top of his basket and piled JD's on his basket. Thinking to do something nice for the kid, Buck swept the basket up and carried it down the hall. He kicked the hamper into the bathroom and opened the door to JD's room. Dropping the basket on the foot of the bed, he began to gather the neatly folded pairs of socks.
"Danged kid has more socks than Carter's has little pills," Buck mumbled to himself. He didn't really know what Carter's were but his mother had always used the phrase to describe anything in excess. He pulled the top drawer out dropped the socks in on top of the rest. "Hey! These are mine!" he exclaimed, picking up his good, dress socks. One of the only things Ezra had ever urged him to buy that was actually worth the outrageous amount of money they wanted for them, the socks were the only thing he would wear with his black dress shoes. Under the socks, Buck saw something that made his heart clench.
JD got hung up in traffic coming back from the sub shop because of a fender-bender at the intersection near the apartment complex. Unable to resist, he opened the bag of chips he'd gotten and began to stuff his face. Just as he was debating calling Buck so that he wouldn't worry, the police arrived and had the intersection cleared.
Jogging up the stairs instead of taking the elevator, JD knew that he had to get rid of those pills Jessica had given him. He knew that wasn't the way he wanted to deal with the situation. Nathan had told him that it would only take a couple more weeks before he would stop having the 'itchy' feelings and he knew he could get through it. After their talk with the therapist, the doctor had confessed that he hadn't realized that JD would take his jest so seriously. Knowing that the end was in sight gave him the strength to tough it out. JD stepped out of the stairwell and strolled toward the apartment, eager to get his laundry put away so he and Buck could go rollerblading in the park.
The door opened and Buck looked up from where he'd been sitting on the arm of the couch. He had just talked to a woman he'd dated before who worked in a pharmacy and confirmed that the pills in the bag were Ritalin. Since hanging up the phone, he'd been staring at the bag lying in his palm.
Blithely unaware of his roommate's discovery, JD closed the door and turned around to drop his keys in the bowl on the table where he could find them later.
"Hey Buck, the girl at the sub shop said to tell you that she's free ..." JD's words tapered off as he recognized the bag in Buck's hand. "You went through my dresser drawers?" he asked, feeling his face warming and his stomach starting to churn.
"I was putting your socks away and found this. How long have you been using?" Buck asked in an accusing tone. "I thought they told you that taking something else would make you sick?"
Slamming the bag from the sub shop on the counter, JD dragged his fingers through his hair. He was torn between telling Buck the truth and anger that his friend didn't trust him any more than to believe that he would use drugs illegally.
"I'm not using!" JD finally shouted.
"Then you want to explain to me where these came from?"
"I didn't take any of them! Do you really trust me so little that you think I would abuse drugs? Damn it, Buck! I didn't ask for this to happen to me! Those creeps seemed to have a grudge against you, not me!"
JD's angry words washed over Buck like ice water, shocking him to the core. He was the one the kidnappers had taunted. He was the one they wanted to see 'broken.' It was his fault that JD was dealing with the aftereffects of heroin addiction. Buck's hand clenched on the small bag of pills as his anger turned to guilt and shame.
Seeing the effect his words had on Buck, JD began to feel his own shame. He never meant to blame Buck for what happened. He knew that Buck would willingly have traded places with him if he'd been able. Without the veil of anger coloring his vision, JD saw just how deeply he had cut Buck but he didn't know how to take it back.
"Buck ... I didn't mean that ... I don't blame you-"
"Why in the hell not? Those bastards took you to get back at me! It's my fault."
Buck came to his feet and turned away, too distraught to respond. He needed to put some distance between himself and JD before he said or did something that would irrevocably damage their relationship. Grabbing the basket of his clothes, he headed for the steps to his room.
JD watched as his closest friend fled. With his shoulders slumping in defeat, JD walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He stared into the cavernous appliance without really seeing anything, finally closing the door and jerking a chair out from the table. He flopped down, dropping his elbows onto the cool Formica surface and scrubbed at his face with both palms.
'Why am I taking it out on Buck?' he wondered. 'He doesn't deserve this any more than I do. Why am I lashing out at him? It isn't Buck I'm angry with; it's those chicken-shit bastards who kidnapped me. They're the ones I really want to hurt."
Upstairs in his bedroom, Buck sat on the foot of his bed, staring at his hands. He noticed a hangnail on the side of his thumb and began to pick at it. In his mind, he could hear the gravelly voice again.
'Do you know how to break a man's spirit? Give him something broken.'
And they had done just that, given him back his friend, the one who was as close as a brother, broken and angry with him. Buck hissed as his picking at the hangnail finally drew blood. He put his thumb into his mouth until the stinging sensation eased. As he sat there in the darkened room, he remembered the way JD had clung to him when he realized that Buck was still alive. Despair welled up in his chest and Buck vaulted up from the bed. He opened the door and padded swiftly down the steps to the living room, fully intending to leave. He didn't know where he was going but he had to get away.
Hearing Buck thumping down the stairs, JD leapt to his feet. "Don't go," JD said, moving to block the door, "Please, we have to talk about this."
"What's there to talk about? You said it yourself, it's all my fault."
"I didn't mean it!"
"It sure as hell sounded like you did," Buck said, glaring down at the smaller man.
"I was scared!" JD shouted. "You don't know what it's like, feeling like you have ants crawling on your skin! I'm so damned scared that I'm gonna fail and lose my job and end up like those drugged out weirdo's on the streets!"
Taking a half step back, Buck was able to identify the emotion he had been seeing in JD's eyes since he'd gone back to work, it was fear.
Unable to continue to looking into Buck's eyes, JD's shoulders slumped and he stared at the shiny brass nails they had used to fix the laminate on the kitchen counter when it came off during one of their rough and tumble sessions months earlier. His vision blurred and he backhanded the traitorous tears from his eyes.
"I don't think I could live that way," JD mumbled. "But I don't know if I'm ... strong enough. I swear to you, Buck, I never took any of those pills. Jessica gave them to me last night and I stuffed them in my pocket but I never intended to take them."
Something in the pleading tone of JD's voice urged Buck to move. He wrapped his arms around JD and held him close.
"I know you didn't, kid. And I'm as sorry as I can be that I didn't realize it before I confronted you," Buck murmured into the long, dark hair. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this."
Wrapping his arms around Buck's ribs, JD wiped the tears from one side of his face against Buck's shirt. He hadn't wanted to talk about his fear but it felt good to have finally said it out loud. He knew that Buck would never tease or ridicule him for being afraid. Buck's hand slipped up his back to squeeze the back of his neck and JD let go a sob that he had been holding inside. JD's hands clenched in the material of Buck's shirt and the big guy squeezed tighter, talking softly against the top of his head. "Let it out, boy...just let it all out."
Buck knew that the emotional outburst was purging the fear and anxiety that his friend had been carrying around for the past few weeks. He relaxed his posture, feeling JD clutching at him so desperately.
After several minutes, JD began to pull himself together. He felt Buck releasing him with one arm to dig into his pocket for his handkerchief.
"Fresh from the laundry," Buck teased as he pushed the material into JD's hand.
Once JD blew his nose and mopped the tears from his face, he sank into the couch cushion with a deep sigh. Buck reached down to tousle his hair, causing JD to duck and push his hand away.
"So, what did the girl at the sub shop say?" Buck asked, grateful for the change of subject.
"Oh, that she's free Monday night if you want to catch a movie or something," JD replied. "But I told her that you already had a date with some little brunette."
"You what?!" Buck shouted. "How could you? I've been working on her for a month of Sundays and she finally agreed to go out with me and you told her I was seeing someone else?"
"I thought we were going bowling Monday night," JD countered.
Buck stopped his tirade. He had promised JD that they would go bowling with Josiah and Vin, it was some kind of fund raiser for the neighborhood youth center.
"I forgot," Buck said sadly.
"That's alright, Buck-"
"No, I said I'd go bowling and I will. I'll just have to wait for her to be free another night."
"Like Wednesday?" JD asked.
"Wednesday?" Buck repeated dumbly.
"Yeah, that's when she's really off. I was just pulling your leg."
Buck growled, stalking over to wrap one arm over the back of the couch and around JD's neck as he gave his roommate a 'noogie' for teasing him.
At the park a few hours later, JD tightly laced up his rollerblades and pulled his pants leg down before getting up awkwardly from the bench.
"Race you to the swings!" he called over his shoulder to Buck, who was still tying his laces. He'd been busy watching the plethora of pretty girls skating along the path.
"That's cheating!" Buck shouted as he hurriedly stuffed the tied laces into the top of the boot and launched himself off of the bench.
Sunday morning, Buck and JD were up early. Chris had called the night before and suggested that they might all go fishing. After a quick pass through the drive-up at McDonalds, they were headed for the ranch.
It was a perfect late spring morning. A thick layer of dew clung to the grass, making it appear to sparkle when the sun hit it. A bevy of birds sang from the branches of the trees. The radio in Buck's truck blared out country music, to which the roommates sang, loudly and slightly off key. They were surprised to see Ezra's Jag already in the driveway when they arrived. Chris' truck was parked on the grass, with the tailgate down to accommodate the supplies being loaded in for the trip. Vin came out of the garage, struggling with several fishing rods that had somehow gotten tangled when he took them from the rack on the wall. Three red and white bobbers swung back and forth as the Texan tried to separate them. Nathan came out of the garage carrying a cooler, which he heaved onto the tailgate and shoved toward the cab.
"Morning!" he called brightly.
"Nathan," Buck acknowledged.
"Hey Nate," JD chirped, "Need a hand?"
"I thought you'd never ask. There's a flat of soda in there that needs to be loaded," Nathan replied, stopping as JD began to clap his hands. He cocked his fists on his hips and glared at the younger man. "Everyone's a comic," he said, shaking his head.
Josiah came out with another cooler and called a greeting to Buck and JD. Chris was right behind him, adding a couple of dip nets and a good-sized tackle box to the gear.
"Since you're the last to arrive, you get to run for snacks," Chris announced. "We'll be there all day so shop accordingly."
"Whoo hoo! Munchie run!" JD shouted.
"Pick up some kind of fruit. Try not to get all junk," Nathan pleaded.
"Don't forget the Ding Dongs! And some Pringles!" Vin shouted.
"Chris?" Buck called, "Anything in particular?"
"Jerky. And not that Teriyaki stuff you got before! That damned crap gave me heartburn," Larabee replied.
"Hey, where's Ezra?" JD asked.
"Making and drinking coffee," Nathan said with a broad grin.
Buck and JD got back in the truck and drove to the little grocery store not too far from the ranch. Grabbing a cart, JD headed for the aisle of chips and pretzels. He had already tossed several cans of Pringles and other chips into the basket by the time Buck caught up with him. Wilmington grabbed a couple of jars of salsa and cheese dip to go with the chips. Their next stop was the snack-cake aisle, where they added Ding Dongs and Ho-Ho's to their haul. As they were making their way around to the fruits and vegetables, they passed the coolers and JD grabbed several small cartons of chocolate milk. Buck added a couple of containers of yogurt, guaranteed to make Nathan happier. They ended up with bananas, apples and grapes, as well as a bag of white radishes that JD said Vin would enjoy.
With all of the groceries tucked safely in the net attached near the cab of the truck, Buck and JD headed back to the ranch. They had turned off the radio and were just enjoying the natural sounds coming in through the open windows.
"You know you're going to have to talk to Nathan about the pills, don't you?" Buck asked as they coasted along the blacktop near the turnoff to Chris' driveway. "Even though you didn't take them, you still need to tell him."
"I know," JD replied, "I will."
Sensing that he had upset his friend, Buck reached across the cab to lay his palm on JD's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. JD immediately smiled and Buck knew that it was going to be alright.
Since they already had the groceries secured, Chris suggested that Buck and JD follow them. Vin shouted that he had shotgun and raced toward the passenger side door. Ezra levered himself up from where he had been sitting on the front steps, clutching the large thermos of coffee like Linus with his blanket.
"Come on, Sleeping Beauty, your carriage waits," Josiah called out, opening the back door to the cab and motioning for Standish to climb in. Nathan took the middle so that Ezra could lean against the door if he wanted to sleep on the drive.
The stretch of river was totally abandoned when they rolled to a stop something like and hour later. There was a long, sandy area where they could throw down their tarp and have lunch, as well as an abundance of stones for a fire ring. The entire group started unloading their supplies with enthusiasm, all except Ezra who made the requisite three trips, then collapsed in the shade against a tree with his thermos resting at his side.
JD and Buck grabbed rods and checked the hooks and lines before choosing a small Styrofoam container of worms for bait. They struck out from the vehicles, eager to prove their skill to the others.
"Lightest stringer cleans the fish," Chris announced as he tossed a newer stringer at Buck.
"Come on, Buck! I hate cleaning fish!" JD yelled.
"They'll be lucky to catch anything if he doesn't quiet down," Vin said as he pawed through the collection of bobbers to find the one he wanted. He noticed that Josiah and Nathan were moving away without taking a carton of worms. "Y'all forget the bait?" he asked.
"Nope, got it right here," Josiah said, brandishing a small jar.
"Stink bait?" Vin asked.
"Home made," Nathan replied. "Guaranteed to have the fish lining up for a taste! I made it myself." He and Josiah shared a knowing grin as they resumed their trek to find a place to put out their lines.
An hour passed and Chris casually reeled in his line. He and Vin had taken four large fish from the river and he was getting warm in the sun. Glancing around, he spotted Tanner, leaning back against a tree as he teased the fish by slowly moving his line. Seconds later, he whipped the rod back, setting the hook and reeling in another fish.
The rod in his hand shook as the bobber disappeared below the water. JD clamped down on the grip as the reel sang from the speed the line was being drawn out. He pulled back, stopping the line from feeding out and felt the strong pull of the struggling fish at the other end.
"Buck!" JD hissed.
Looking over toward his young friend, Buck had to smile. JD was trying to get up but he couldn't let go of the rod and his shoes were slipping on the sandy ground. In the river, the fish reversed direction and was going upstream as fast as he could, causing the line to go lax.
"Reel up the slack!" Buck suggested. Laying his own rod aside, Buck moved to pull JD to his feet. Walking toward the water, JD steadily wound up the line. The fish continued to struggle and the end of JD's rod dipped and bobbed erratically.
Nathan was frustrated. The stringer lay on the grass next to him as neither he nor Josiah had managed to catch anything. The smell of the bait was thick in the air around him and it wasn't a pleasant odor. Deciding to walk back to the truck for some worms, he began to reel in his line.
"Give him some slack and let him wear himself out," Buck advised JD as Dunne continued to battle the fish. JD's thumb pressed the release and the line began to unroll quickly. "That's enough, now bring him back," Buck said.
His attention was focused on the bobber skating slowly across the current when the rod in Nathan's hands suddenly jerked. Tightening his grip, he continued to reel in the line. Rocking up onto his knees, he caught his tongue between his lips as he estimated the size of the fish he'd caught. The line went slack for a moment and he came to his feet, reeling quickly, suddenly, the fish began to swim the other direction. Nathan walked all the way to the water's edge, steadily winding up the line until the bobber was close to the shore.
"That's it! You've got him now!" Buck all but shouted when the line went slack again. JD continued to crank the reel until the exhausted fish came to the surface. Thrusting the rod quickly into Buck's hands, JD flipped off his sneakers and waded into the water. Reaching down, he carefully slid his fingers into the fish's gills and lifted it up for Buck to see.
Nathan reached down and pulled his line out of the water, staring in disbelief at the tiny perch that was thrashing on the hook, which was stuck in the side of his mouth. It looked as if Nathan had hooked him from the outside instead of the fish taking the hook in its mouth. Hearing a triumphant shout, he looked up river to see JD holding up a fish at least 24 inches long and as thick as his calf. Mumbling in disgust, Nathan caught the perch and gently extricated the hook before dropping it back into the water.
In the end, Nathan and Josiah had to clean the fish. Ezra, who had finally wakened enough to be useful, had gathered wood and built a fire. It helped that he needed the fire to warm the coffee he was still drinking from the thermos.
Vin emptied his pockets of the wrappers from the half-dozen Ding Dongs he had eaten that morning, stuffing them into the empty Pringles can.
"When did you have time to fish and are you going to be able to eat any of this?" Josiah asked after seeing the remains of Vin's ravenous appetite.
"Hell yeah," Vin replied. "Got plenty of room for fish!" He pulled up his shirt to show off his lean six pack.
"I just want to be there when his metabolism changes," Nathan mumbled not quite under his breath.
Gorged on fish and potato chips and other snacks, JD stretched out on the tarp and tucked his hands under his head. The sun was hidden behind a large, fluffy, white cloud, so he was just staring up at the sky. Chris and Vin had gone to sleep, leaning back against opposite sides of a large tree. Josiah was seated several yards away, engrossed in some book he had brought along. Ezra had gone down to the river to wash his hands and was caught up watching something on the other bank. Nathan finished putting the leftovers in one of the coolers and came to stretch out on the tarp next to JD. Buck, who had been sitting there while he finished his beer, nudged his roommate. When JD looked over at him, Buck tossed his head toward Nathan and got up to throw away his empty can.
Trusting that Buck wouldn't let anyone bother them, JD took a deep breath and turned over to face Nathan.
"I need to talk to you about something," JD said softly.
"You not feeling too good? Might be all the chips you ate," Nathan replied.
"No, that's not it. I need to talk to you about something that happened yesterday ... Friday night. I need to talk to you as my sponsor."
JD couldn't look directly at Nathan as he spoke, so he laid back and looked up at the cloud that was drifting overhead as he talked.
"The girl I went out with Friday night gave me some pills, Ritalin, and Buck found them in my sock drawer Saturday morning."
"Did you take any of them?" Nathan asked.
"No. She gave them to me just as Buck said we had to leave. I stashed them in my drawer and went right to bed when we got home," JD replied.
"But you considered taking them?" Nathan pressed.
"Well, yeah ... for like ... a second. But I remembered what you said and what Chris said about trading one addiction for another and I knew I didn't want to do that."
"That's good, that you realize that," Nathan praised. "So what happened when Buck found them?"
"I was out getting lunch. When I came back he was just sitting on the couch, staring at them. He looked so ... angry and ... disappointed. He asked me how long I had been using them and I got mad."
Nathan glanced past JD to where Buck sat on the open tailgate of the truck. The deep blue eyes reflected only concern, so Nathan figured that they must have worked it out.
"What happened?" Nathan asked.
"I ... I said it was his fault, that they only took me to get back at him." JD felt his eyes filling with tears and he palmed them away.
"Can you tell me what you were feeling?"
JD drew a shuddering breath and turned his head to look at Nathan as he spoke, "I told him what I should have told him and the therapist before, that I was scared."
Shifting his body so that he was closer to the younger man, Nathan reached out and placed his hand on JD's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. When JD looked up at him, Nathan smiled.
"Admitting that you're scared is one of the hardest things you'll ever have to do, JD. And it doesn't make you any less of a man. I know that all of this has been hard for you and that you've been trying to handle it all on your own but you don't have to. You have friends who care about you, who will help you whenever you need them. Admitting that you're scared was a very brave thing to do. Not taking those pills was a turning point for you. You know now that you can face temptation and turn away. You are strong, JD. You'll get through this and be a stronger man for it."
A slow, tremulous smile lifted the corners of JD's mouth as he sat up. "Thanks, Nathan. I appreciate you standing by me through all of this," he said.
"It's where we've all been," another voice added. JD looked over his shoulder to see that Chris and Vin had walked up behind him and Buck was right behind them.
"Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees, John Dunne," Josiah's gentle voice reminded.
JD climbed awkwardly to his feet and found himself facing Josiah, who put his arms around Dunne and gave him a sound pat on the back. When he turned, it was to find Vin's arm thrust toward him. When he reached to shake hands, Vin moved, clasping JD's forearm and giving it a firm squeeze. There was a slight inclination of Vin's head that JD took as a nod. Nathan's large, strong hands came down on his shoulders just as Vin released JD's arm. Looking back, he saw encouragement shining in Jackson's eyes. When JD's eyes sought Ezra, he saw the definite nod and proud smile that bared the gold premolar that they rarely saw; it was a show of genuine happiness from the undercover agent. As his eyes continued around the group, JD found himself looking at Chris. JD had always looked up to Chris, physically and metaphorically, but he didn't seem quite as imposing as before. Their eyes met and JD saw that Chris didn't look at him the same way he had when he'd first joined the team. When he first started in Denver, he's always gotten the impression that Chris looked at him like a kid, but now, JD saw that Chris was looking at him like an equal. Turning to Buck, JD did the only thing he could; he threw his arms around the taller man's torso and hugged him. Buck's arms settled around him for a long moment before JD's sense of propriety reasserted itself and he pulled away.
That evening, as Chris, Josiah, Buck and Nathan sat on the deck drinking a beer, the other three team members played some game of their own invention in the yard. Vin tossed the Frisbee so that it flew just barely over Ezra's fingertips to land in JD's outstretched hands. Ezra then took off across the grass, tackling the younger man and wrestling the disk from his hands.
"Did it ever occur to any of you that Ezra acts a whole lot younger than he did when he first moved to Denver?" Josiah posed to the others.
"I don't think he ever got to have much fun as a kid," Buck replied.
"It's good for him. He keeps too much bottled up inside," Nathan added.
Chris' words caused the other three men to nod in agreement, "I think Ezra and JD are growing up together."