Eighth story in the Angel Girl series.
Disclaimer: Don´t own em, Don´t make money from em.
I´m pulling an H G Wells here and jumping back in time for this one. I can´t help it! I´ve never been much of a linear thinker. Sorry for any confusion.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to MOG for letting us play with her toys. Thanks to all the lovely people who took the time to let me know they enjoyed the series, and last but certainly not least, thanks to the ladies at Blackraptor for giving these stories a home.
His hands were still shaking, Buck realized as he drove his classic truck through the early evening traffic. Damn, it had been too close this time, he thought.
The bust of the cigarette smuggler should have gone down with no problems. All their research had indicated their perp was just a petty hood. Their surveillance showed only activities you would expect of a small timer. All the information obtained from the streets, via their snitches, indicated this was a third rate felon . No one had known this criminal wanna-be had delusions of grandeur. No one could have guessed what he really aspired to was moving up from running untaxed cigarettes to automatic weapons. It was questionable who had been the most surprised when the bust had gone down, the smuggler and his men when the abandoned warehouse they were hiding in was overrun with armed federal agents, or the ATF agents who suddenly found themselves in a firefight against opponents that were better armed if less experienced than themselves.
Buck had narrowly missed a bullet in his brain when he came out from behind the crates he was using as cover to fire at the smuggler who was about to gun down JD. His cheek still had the small bandage Nathan had applied to cover the wound made by the splinters that had exploded from the wooden crate when the bullet stuck it not two inches from his head. Buck had been too hyped on adrenaline to pay much attention when it happened. He was totally focused on covering his teammates and taking down the smugglers. It wasn´t until JD dragged him to Nathan after the perps were taken in to custody and the scene had been secured that the reality started to hit him. Two inches, just two small inches and he could have been making a one way trip to the morgue.
Buck had been in dangerous situations in the past. He had spent too much time in hospital beds from injuries acquired in the line of duty, and he was well aware of the possibility that one day his luck might run out, but somehow the thought of his own mortality had never stuck him as hard as it did standing in that devastated warehouse while his teammate applied an antiseptic and bandage to his cheek. His hands had started to shake then, and he put them in his jeans pockets to hide the tremors from Nathan, but judging by the look in his friend´s eyes he had not been entirely successful.
Nathan finished applying the bandage and put his hand on Buck´s shoulder and gave a slight squeeze. You okay, Buck? he asked.
Avoiding Nathan´s eyes he pasted a strained smile on his face and said, Yeah. It´s just a scratch. Hardly even hurts now. Thanks, pard.
Unconvinced, but letting it go, Nathan nodded and left to join the other members of Team 7.
Buck looked around and found the rest of his teammates standing together in the center of the warehouse laughing and joking one another, still in the grip of the adrenaline high. Buck quickly turned away, and made his way out of the warehouse then climbed into the back of the van they had used to reach the warehouse. Buck sat on the middle bench seat and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees while he buried his face in his hands.
Too close. Too close. The words kept running through his head, while he struggled for his self control. Two little inches to the right and his 10 month old daughter, Angela would have been an orphan. Somehow the thought of that was more frightening to him than anything. It scared him right down to the bone.
Buck? Are you alright? a soft voice drawled from outside the open door of the van.
Buck glanced up at Vin in surprise. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not heard the Texan approach. Yeah, I´m fine. He straightened up and sat farther back on the van seat. I guess I´m just coming down from the buzz at little harder than normal. That was intense! Buck tried to joke.
Vin didn´t look anymore convinced than Nathan had. How´s the face?
Buck grimaced and raised is hand to run his fingers over the bandage, Just stings a little. Nothing to worry about.
Vin could see the strain in his friend´s eyes, but didn´t push him about it since it was obvious Buck didn´t want to talk about whatever was bothering him. Privacy was something Vin valued for himself so was hesitant to violate that of his friend by pushing for an explanation. He decided to watch and wait. If Buck decided he needed to talk Vin would be there for him.
All during the trip back to the ATF offices, housed in the Federal building in downtown Denver, the other members of Team 7 kept giving Buck concerned looks as they noticed how quiet the normally effusive agent was. No one was sure exactly what the problem was but they all knew there was definitely something bothering their friend. All attempts to draw him out were met with a shield of forced laughter and wisecracks that didn´t manage to fool anyone. Each man knew their friend was in trouble but were unsure how to help when he seemed so determined to hide behind a mask of unconcern.
Okay, listen up, Chris said once they reached their office, I want all preliminary reports on my desk before five o´clock. He headed into his own office and shut the door behind him so he could start his own report.
The others sat at their own desks and began booting their computers to start the long and tedious process of documenting their actions on the bust. This was always the least favorite part of their jobs, even if they did recognize the importance of this paper trail to prosecution. They all knew a wrong word or missed detail could mean the difference in a criminal going to prison or going back to the streets. They all knew it was necessary, but they didn´t have to like it.
Buck seemed to have problems focusing on his report. His mind kept sticking on that one moment in time when he had come so close to losing his life. When he had put himself in harm´s way in the past he had never stood to lose as much as he did now. He wanted to be there to watch his daughter grow up; to see her first steps, to hold her hand on the first day of school. He wanted a chance to intimidate the boy she chose for her first date into treating her with the proper respect. So many firsts he was risking now by simply going to work everyday.
Buck had always figured the risks he took were worth the rewards. He felt he was accomplishing something noble by helping rid the streets of the human predators that preyed on the innocent. He rejoiced at every gun that was taken in every bust, knowing he was helping save lives, possibly the life of a someone´s child. Now he could only think about what could happen to his child if he were to die. His fear grew larger and larger as every hour passed until it blocked out most other thoughts. Buck took his shaking hands from the keyboard. The screen showed a jumble of letters and symbols. His trembling fingers had made it impossible to hit the correct keys.
I can´t do this anymore, he whispered to himself.
Do what anymore? asked Vin from behind him.
Buck gave a start. Damn it, Vin! Buck turned to face his teammate irritably, Would you stop sneaking up on me like that!
Sorry, Buck. I thought you heard me ask if you wanted some coffee since I was on the way to the break room. Vin grinned.
Buck took a deep breath and struggled to control himself. No, I´m sorry. I shouldn´t have snapped at you like that. Thanks, but I really don´t want coffee right now. Buck gave the sharpshooter a forced smile.
What I really need is a stiff drink or four. he thought to himself.
Sure, pardner. Vin slapped Buck on the back before turning away and walking to the break room.
Buck turned back to his workstation and stared at the screen once more. The afternoon passed by with the other members of Team 7 diligently writing their reports while Buck continued to sink deeper into the black morass of fear. One by one his teammates printed out their reports and carried them into Chris´ office. By the time five o´clock rolled around Nathan, Vin, Ezra and Josiah had already left for the team´s usual post-bust tradition of drinks at the Saloon. JD was in the process of pulling on his jacket as he stopped by Buck´s desk.
You gonna be much longer, Buck? You want me to wait and drive over with you? JD asked.
No, thanks, JD, Buck refused to look at his friend. I think I´m gonna go home and see how Angel´s doing. You go on.
But we always go to the Saloon after a bust, Buck!
Not tonight, kid, okay? I just don´t feel like it.
What´s the matter, Buck?
Nothing. Just tired I guess. Go on, head on out and have a good time, alright? I´m just gonna have an early night and get some sleep.
JD knew something was still bothering Buck, but also knew he had no hope of prying the cause out of him before he was ready to talk. Nodding slowly, Okay. Then I´ll see you at home later. I have a date with Casey this evening, but she has an early lab tomorrow so we shouldn´t be too late. JD punched Buck´s arm lightly. Give Angel a kiss goodnight for me, huh?
Sure. Have a good evening, Buck called to his friend as he walked out the office doors and pushed the button to call the elevator.
Finally Buck was left alone in the open bull pen of the office. Only Chris remained, behind his office door. Sighing heavily, Buck returned to his computer and struggled to focus his mind enough to make it through his report. Chris stepped out of his office quietly a few minutes later and approached his old friend. He glanced over Buck´s shoulder and read what little of the report Buck had managed to complete.
Buck? That´s all you´ve got? You´ve been at it all afternoon. This isn´t like you. What´s bothering you?
Buck didn´t want to get into this with Chris but knew his oldest friend and boss too well to believe he would be able to get away without an explanation. Buck hung his head and stared at his clenched hands. I don´t think I can do this any more, Chris, Buck whispered.
What are you talking about, Buck? I don´t understand,
Being an agent. I don´t think I can keep working here anymore.
Chris sat on the corner of Buck´s desk and gently put his hand on his friend´s broad shoulder. Where´s this coming from, Buck? You´ve never seemed to be anything but happy about the job we do. How many times have you told me over the years that this was what you were born to do? Why the doubts all of a sudden?
I. . . Chris, I almost bought it today. Two inches to the right and Angel would have been growing up without me. I guess I never thought about how my job could affect her life so much. I don´t want her left alone like that, with no parents to love and protect her. Look at all the terrible things that Vin went through when his mother died. I don´t ever want Angel to have to go through anything even remotely like that. The very thought of it scares me to death. I don´t want to lose a minute of her life, Chris, and I stand to lose all of it if I wind up taking a bullet in the head on a bust. I just don´t think I can do it anymore.
Chris silently watched his friend as he suffered through the voicing of his fears.
I mean . . . I don´t want you to get the idea that I wasn´t worried about dying before Angela. I never had a death wish or anything, but I always knew it was a possibility. I just accepted the risk as worth it. Let´s face it, if I had died before, I wouldn´t really be missed that much. . . Chris attempted to interrupted but Buck stopped him. No, wait. I´m not finished. I know you would have grieved and so would JD and the other guys, but you´d have gotten over it and gone on. You know you would have. You´re adults, agents, and you know the score. Now, there´s Angel. She´s counting on me, Chris. I promised her when she was born that I would always take care of her. I´m gambling with her future every time I walk into a situation like today. How can I do that to her, Chris?
I´m not going to try and make light of your concerns, Buck. I can see where you´re coming from, and some of your points are valid. I used to wonder the same thing sometimes when Adam and Sarah were still alive, but let me set a few things straight. You could never pass out of this world without leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of everyone who knows you. You give too much of yourself to others to make anything other than a huge impact were you suddenly missing from their lives. I don´t think you realize just how much you mean to the guys . . . to me. You are, and have always been, the rock I lean on, Buck. You´ve seen me through some of the darkest times of my life. I would have self-destructed years ago if you hadn´t been there to pull me back from the edge. We both know that´s the absolute truth.
You took JD under your wing and not only taught him how to survive in this job, but took him into your home and gave him back a family. That´s not a loss he could get over easily if you never came back one day. As for Ezra, do you really think he would have made so much progress in trusting us if you hadn´t been there pulling him into the group; showing him by example there was someone he could trust not only with his life but with his heart as well. The same would go for each of the other guys. They all depend on you, and care about you.
As for Angel, you have to know I . . . no, we . . . all of us, would never let her wind up in the system. She´s a part of our family, too, Buck. She means as much to us as to you, not only because she´s such a sweet kid in her own right, but because she´s yours and you mean so much to us. I would always take care of her like she was my own if anything ever happened to you. You have my word on it. I think I can speak for all the rest of the team when I say they would feel exactly the same way. I can guarantee she would never wind up alone.
Besides, what else would you do? You know you love this job. You´re making a difference here; making a better world for Angela and all the other children to grow up in. Do you really think you could be happy doing anything else? How embittered would you become if you gave up such a big part of yourself? Do you really think you could make Angela happy if you´re miserable yourself? I think you´d eventually come to resent her for keeping you from your life´s work. You wouldn´t be human if you didn´t at some point. You could be doing her just as much harm if you let your fears force you into being something less than what you are. Could you live with yourself then? Think about it, Buck. Think really hard before you throw it all away for something that may or may not happen in the future. You´re playing the what-if game, and we both know you can´t ever win that one.
I just don´t know anymore, Chris. Buck ran a hand lightly over the bandage on his cheek. It´s like a movie that keeps playing in my head. I keep seeing that crate getting hit right by my head. I keep feeling the blood running down my face, and then I see myself someday lying on the ground bleeding out. I see Angel crying for me and I´m not there. It just keeps repeating like a scratched LP, playing the same tune over and over. I can´t seem to get past it, Buck shuddered.
The report can wait until tomorrow, Buck. Why don´t we head over to the Saloon and join the guys. I think you need to talk to them, too. They´ve all been in life- threatening situations before. They each had to make the choice you´re facing now. Maybe they can help shed some light for you.
The thought of spilling his guts again in front of the men he respected and admired the most was intolerable to Buck. He just could not face them yet. No. I think I´d rather be alone right now. I just need to think, Chris. I have to work my way through this on my own, okay?
I´m here for you, Buck. The team is here for you. Just let us help. Don´t shut us out,
I´m not trying to shut you out. I just need a little space to catch my breath. Can you give me that?
Yeah, friend. I can give you that, but you just remember. I´m only a phone call away if you need me. I just ask that you not make a decision about the future until you calm down enough to see more clearly than you are right now. Can YOU give ME that? Chris asked with a small smile.
Buck gave his first genuine laugh of the day and repeated his friend´s words, Yeah, friend. I can give you that.
Chris wrapped an arm around Buck´s shoulder and gave him a small hug before turning him toward the office door, Go on. Get out of here before I change my mind about that report. I´ll see you in the morning.
Goodnight, Chris, and . . . thanks for being my friend.
I´m always gonna be your friend, Buck, no matter what you decide.
Buck nodded his head to acknowledge that truth, but remained silent as he made his way out of the office.
Chris watched him until the elevator doors blocked his view.
Buck turned the truck into his driveway and hit the button for the garage door opener. When the door reached the top he drove into the garage and turned off the ignition. He slowly dragged himself out of the truck, hitting the button again to close the garage door, and headed across the patio to enter the house by the back door. He stepped silently inside the kitchen and closed the door behind him.. Buck inhaled the delicious aromas wafting in the room and listened to the familiar sounds of Angela playing and his housekeeper, Rita Aragon, humming as she prepared dinner. He felt the security of home wrap its soothing arms around his battered soul. This was exactly what he needed right now. Buck stepped further into the room and called a greeting to his housekeeper.
Ola, Señor Buck, Rita turned to face him. She noticed the small bandage on his face and said, What happened, Señor Buck! Are you all right?
Yeah, I´m fine. It´s just a scratch. How´s my Angel doing today, Rita? Buck asked with a smile as the small child abandoned the pans she had been banging on with a wooden spoon, and crawled across the kitchen floor to him. She pulled herself up by holding onto his the legs of his slacks. Buck bent down and lifted Angela into his arms. He hugged her tightly and kissed her cheek. Angela babbled excitedly to her father and returned the hug.
Rita turned back to the pots she was busy stirring on the large kitchen stove. She has been a busy little niña today. She managed to give herself a nice bump on the head this morning. She is trying so hard to learn to walk, but has not figured it out yet. She was pulling up by the sofa, but fell and hit her head on the table. She gave herself a good scare, but she´s fine now.
Buck lifted the baby´s chin with his index finger and searched her face until he located the tiny bump on her forehead. He placed his lips against the owwie gently and kissed it. Are you trying to grow up on me, Angel? Buck asked with a little grin before he settled her on his hip. What´s smells so good, Rita? Buck asked as he strode over to Rita and looked over her shoulder at the pots and pans simmering on top of the stove.
Aros con pollo, Señor Buck, Rita replied.
Mmmm, I love your chicken with rice, Rita. Fresh torillas, too? Buck asked hopefully.
Rita threw him a smile over her shoulder and said, Of course!
Always, Rita laughed.
Rita, you spoil us rotten, you know that don´t you? What ever you do, don´t ever stop, okay? Buck grinned down at the little grey haired woman, who smiled back and shooed him away from her stove. When´s dinner?
It will be another half an hour or so. I´ve already fed Angela. Do you know if Señor JD will be here for dinner? Rita asked.
He said he had a date with Casey, so I doubt it. It will probably just be the three of us tonight, Buck said. I think I´ll grab a quick shower before dinner.
He gave Angela another kiss and sat her down on the floor before leaving the kitchen and heading upstairs to his bedroom. He stripped off his clothes and stuffed them in the hamper in the bathroom as he waited for the water to heat. He adjusted the water temperature and then stepped into the shower. He placed his hands on the wall in front of him and leaned forward with his head under the water´s stream and let the hot water beat over his head and shoulders. Buck could feel the tense muscles in his neck and shoulders start to relax. He deliberately tried to keep his mind blank as he straightened up and reached for the soap. He focused on the motions of bathing as he rubbed the soap over his chest and arms and then the rest of his body. He used the familiar routine to block out the black thoughts that still lurked in the back of his mind. As the water started to run cool, he quickly rinsed off and exited the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist and used one to rub his hair as he strode back into his room. He put on a pair of briefs and some sweat pants he took from a dresser drawer, and then pulled a Bronco´s tee shirt on. Giving his head one last swipe with the towel, he threw the towels in the hamper, ran a comb through his hair quickly, and then went downstairs again.
Dinner was spent making quiet conversation with Rita and watching Angela play in her high chair and chew on small pieces of tortilla. Buck determinedly used the familiar routine of his little family as a barricade to lock the dark thoughts of the day into the back of his mind. Buck pushed himself away from the table and groaned, No more, Rita. I just might explode if I tried another sopapilla.
I like to see a man eat good, Rita grinned. It makes me feel he appreciates my cooking.
Well then, I think you can safely say you were definitely appreciated tonight. I´m stuffed.
Buck took Angela from her high chair and washed her up while Rita cleaned up the kitchen and put the dishes in the dish washer. When the work was finished, Rita bid him goodnight and retired to her room next to the kitchen to watch television.
Buck settled himself and Angela on the sofa in the den. Angela squirmed off his lap and almost went headfirst off the sofa until he caught her and set her on the floor. She immediately crawled across the floor to the armchair that sat across from the coffee table. When she reached it she pulled herself up using the side of the chair, and stood bouncing on her little legs. Buck watched in fascination as the little girl let go of the chair and tried to turn around. Angela couldn´t quite manage to get her legs coordinated and fell forward. She landed on her outstretched hands and knees with a little bang. Buck rushed over to the now crying child and snatched her up.
It´s okay, Angel. You´re fine. Daddy´s got you, Buck cooed. He returned to the sofa as he continued to soothe the frightened child. After a few minutes Angela was again calm.
Buck lifted one of her little feet and began their nightly ritual.. This little piggy went to market, he said as he wiggled her biggest toe, this little piggy stayed home. This little piggy had roast beef. This little piggy had none. And this little piggy cried Wee, Wee, Wee, all the way home. Buck laughed as Angela giggled and thrust her other foot at him for it´s turn. Buck repeated the game twice more before Angela tired of it and they began her second favorite game. Angela covered her eyes with her hands, and Buck obediently said, Where´s Angel? while turning his head around the room, pretending to search for the little girl. The child quickly pulled her hands from her eyes with a big grin and Buck pretended to be surprised, There she is! as the child laughed and hid behind her hands again. She finally tired of this game too and wanted down.
Buck sat her on the floor beside the sofa, and watched as Angela crawled across the floor to the armchair and pulled herself upright again. Looking over her shoulder at her father, she slowly turned around holding onto the chair until she was only braced against it with one hand. She took a moment to get her balance then let go of the chair. Buck held his breath. She stood motionless for a moment, then lifted one small foot and placed it in front of her other one and moved forward an inch. The other foot took its turn, and she advanced another inch. A third step and she shank to the floor on her diaper clad bottom. Buck jumped to his feet and crossed the room to sweep Angela into his arms and hug her tightly. Oh, Angel girl, you did it! You did it! he exclaimed, his face beaming. He kissed her on top of her head, then lifted her in the air over his head as she giggled with glee. You are amazing, Angel girl! Nothing´s gonna keep you down, is it darlin´? You´re just too stubborn and brave to ever quit.
As Buck stood rejoicing in his daughter´s accomplishment, he had a sudden flash of insight. Courage is not only found in striding forward in the face of opposition. Sometimes it´s in the small, hesitant steps you take toward facing your fears. Sometimes it´s just putting one foot in front of the other and not giving up until you get where you need to be no matter how scared you may be on the journey. Buck looked on his small daughter in awe. This small child had shown him what he had been refusing to face all day. You can´t run away from your fears, or refuse to move forward because of them. They´d always be right beside you like a shadow, casting darkness where there should be light.
I don´t want to live in the dark, Angel. I´d rather live in the light with you. Thank you for showing Daddy the way back to the light, sweetheart.
Lowering Angela from where he still held her over his head, I love you so much, Angela Sarah Wilmington! he said then he hugged her to his broad chest, and gave her a kiss on her little cheek before he settled her on his hip.
I think it´s time for Daddy to start taking his own steps forward. Buck knew what his first small step should be as he picked up the phone and dialed.
Chris? I need to talk.
|. . . Courage is only an accumulation of small steps.
- George Konrád
Feedback is appreciated.
Author´s note: I always felt I learned just as much from my children as they learned from me. In a lot of ways, I think we grew up together. Just thought I´d share that with you. Let me know what you think, okay? Feedback is much appreci