It had been one hell of a week, one long, blistering hell of a week. Not
a damn thing had gone right all week long, and now as far as the tall ATF
agent could tell, everyone on his whole team was mad at him. But he didn´t
care. At least that´s what he told himself as he carefully groomed his
mustache in the bathroom shaving mirror. He told himself he didn´t care
because it was Saturday night. And it being Saturday night, he had a date.
A date with one marvelous Ms. Lila Foxwood, a statuesque brunette he had
met in the elevator on Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, he mused. Well,
one thing had gone right this week.
There she had been, cup of steaming hot coffee in hand, staring absently
at the numbers on the elevator panel as they went out one by one. She did
not notice the tall, handsome ATF agent in the jeans and t-shirt who was
admiring her appreciatively from her immediate left. At the 4th floor, two
FBI agents shoved past her, jostling her elbow and spilling her coffee. Jerking
her coffee away from her as it spilled onto the floor, she seemed just about
to let out a most unladylike curse when she caught the eye of the man to
her left and clapped her mouth quickly shut. She blushed bright red.
Pardon me, she said looking at the floor. And he, so charmed
by a woman with such grace and restraint, stepped gallantly into the opening
she left for him.
Well that´s alright, he drawled smoothly as the elevator
doors closed again, leaving him alone with the siren that had stolen his
heart. I´d have cussed, too. You need a good cup of coffee on
a day like this.
She smiled at him, and he felt his heart melt. I guess I´ll have
to make do with office coffee, she said ruefully. Lest my coworkers
suffer the consequences, and she added a little laugh that trilled
off her tongue like birdsong.
My, he said practically purring. I can´t allow that
to happen, he said. She turned to look at him quizzically.
I´m a federal agent, Ma´am, he said, And it is
my sworn duty to protect the innocent, even from the unprovoked rampages
of a caffeine-deprived co-worker. He held out his double tall Americano
and tipped an imaginary hat. Take mine.
She stared at him, smiled, laughed that laugh again and reached for his cup
with her left hand as she extended her right hand toward him. Lila,
she said. Lila Foxwood.
He clasped her hand in the hand he had been warming on his coffee cup.
Buck, he said. Agent Buck Wilmington. And if a beautiful
woman like you isn´t doing anything this Saturday night, I´d like
to right that injustice, if I may?
By the time the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he was alone again,
wearing a smug but dopey smile, and imagining where he was going to take
her on Saturday night.
His blissful daydream lasted approximately 15 seconds before his boss bellowed
his name down the hall so loudly that Buck swore he could hear the windows
He moved himself into the hallway with a loud sigh. Yes, master,
he said with resignation and came up the hallway toward the bullpen where
his team had their offices. Others in the building referred to their bullpen
as the Lion´s Den. The place where the most maverick, and yet most
successful, ATF team in the Western region planned out missions that no one
else wanted to take. They were serious about their work, but serious about
their play, too, a good deal of which happened at the office. But when Buck
entered, he noticed that everyone was very, very busy working away. Working
very, very much too hard, he noted.
He turned to his boss´s office. The door was closing behind Agent J.D.
Dunne, by far the youngest member of the team and Buck´s best friend
and roommate. Buck stared at him. The kid looked like a puppy that had just
had its nose whacked with a newspaper. He looked up at Buck and his face
turned red, so many emotions crossing through his young face that Buck
didn´t have time to decipher all of them.
Sorry, Buck, J.D. said quickly. He wants to see you now.
J.D. sidled around the tall mustached agent and headed for his desk. Four
pairs of eyes glanced up at J.D., and then looked quickly back down at their
desks. Buck snorted in annoyance. Whatever had happened, looked like no one
wanted to back him upagain. Some lion´s den, he thought. From
what he could see, there were only 5 little tabby cats and one big mean grizzly.
And the grizzly was waiting for him behind the office door.
Chris, he said in greeting as he opened the door. He suddenly
wished he had saved the coffee to bribe his boss.
Shut the door, Buck, the blonde senior agent and team leader
said tersely from behind his desk without looking up.
Buck shut the door, keeping one eye on the top of his boss´s head as
he shuffled through all the reasons that he might be standing here right
now. He could think of six, but he was pretty sure that Chris would have
no way of knowing about four of those.
It seemed like several seconds before Senior Agent Larabee looked up at him.
Buck didn´t have to think much to decipher the emotions he saw there.
Chris was steamed. He and Chris had known each other for over twenty years,
worked together in one capacity or another for ten of those, off and on,
give or take. There had been a time when Buck had thought they were closer
than brothers. But on a brilliantly sunny autumn morning, a single horrifying
crime had blown that all to hell, taking Chris´s wife and son, and
destroying the only family Buck had had in a long time.
Buck suddenly realized that while he had been musing, Chris´s eyes had
been taking in his appearance. Unbidden swear words leaped into his brain
as he jerked instinctively upright. He glanced up at the clock on Chris´s
office wall. This time he did swear out loud.
I´m sorry, Chris, he blurted out. I forgot.
Clearly, Chris growled, green eyes glittering dangerously. Buck
waited for the explosion he knew was coming. In the past twortwo years, since
that sunny morning from hell, Buck had been on the receiving end of Chris´s
volatile temper many times. Drunk, sober, words, fists; Buck had received
it all. So he waited with the forbearance that he always used with Chris.
While he waited for the coming explosion, Buck began to wonder what J.D.
had done to give Chris opportunity to vent his anger first. It was a long
second before Buck realized that Chris hadn´t said anything. He was
just sitting there glaring.
Buck shifted his weight uneasily, feeling his own anger rise. After all,
he had been ready for the famous Larabee temper. He wasn´t going to
just sit here and get cussed out. But if Chris wasn´t going to say anything,
how the hell was he going to retort. Buck glared back.
Chris narrowed his eyes.
Well what do you want me to do? Buck finally bit out exasperated.
Chris´s lips curled up in a bitter smile. Nothing, he snapped.
Go to your desk.
Buck flinched. Go to my desk? Is that like go to my room? Am I
grounded? he snapped back.
Chris´s head jerked back like a snake ready to strike and Buck actually
saw him clamp his jaw together. Buck went out the office door, slamming it
behind him for good measure. He cringed momentarily, wondering if Chris was
going to come flying through that door after him. When he heard nothing from
the office behind him, he straightened his shoulders and determined not to
feel responsible for the reprimand he had just been givenor more precisely,
not given. Chris had said nothing at all. And somewhere in the back of his
mind, Buck knew that had to be bad, but he refused to give into that nagging
He slid into his desk chair scowling, his perfectly good mood ruined. He
turned on his computer and noticed J.D. was looking at him.
Where the hell have you been? J.D. whispered but none too quietly.
It´s 8:30, Kid, Buck retorted irritably. On the dot.
I´m here right on time.
You had a meeting at 7, J.D. snapped back, his eyes darting to
I´ve been reminded, Buck snapped. And you don´t
have to whisper, he said sourly. Last I checked, Larabee ain´t
got super hearing or x-ray vision. Regardless of what he thinks.
He´s pissed, J.D. said, slumping back in his chair.
So what? Buck snapped back. He´s almost always pissed
about something. Guess it´s my turn.
Chris´s office door opened and he stalked out again, a short stack of
file folders under his arm.
He strode over to Buck´s desk. Where´s your report from
yesterday? the blonde asked. It was clear that he was making an effort
to keep his voice even.
Buck picked up a closed folder from his desktop and handed it over, wearing
his best congenial screw you smile. Chris snapped the folder
up without so much as a thank you and headed for the hall. Barely slowing
his stride, Larabee threw a look back over his shoulder toward Ezra, who
closed up his briefcase and stood up without a word.
The undercover agent was dressed impeccably as ever in a gray silk suit,
but what impressed Buck is that he was here, alreadyand
workingsomething that almost never happened before 9:30, at least.
On the way past Buck´s desk, Ezra paused ever so slightly and leaned
over just a bit. As you say, Mr. Wilmington, it appears to be your
turn, the southerner drawled. But it might not have been if you
had remembered your meeting, dressed presentably, and not managed to make
your boss look stupid. Twice. All before 9 A.M. Well done.
And with that the undercover agent was gone, heading down the hall toward
Buck scowled after him. He then turned to J.D., the only other person in
the room who had spoken to him today. A thought suddenly occurred to him.
Twice? he asked.
The meeting, J.D. said, continuing to work.
Yeah, I got that one, Buck growled, but the fire was leaving
Well, Chris took me up to try to cover the information, since I seconded
you. But I couldn´t give them the information they wanted.
So what´d you do? Buck asked, swearing to himself. He had
been standing in line for coffee at the time his best friend and roommate
was getting roped into a meeting with the brass. Their own brass was bad
enough. But this meeting had brass from their sister feds the FBI. Feds that
were none to happy about the way the bust had gone down the other day. At
the time they demanded the meeting, Chris had told the team not to worry.
There was not a damn thing he would change if they had it to do over again.
Perhaps he had changed his mind.
J.D. shrugged. I told them everything I could. Chris said that you
were probably held up somewhere and asked to reconvene after you arrived.
He yell at you? Buck said narrowing his eyes.
No, J.D. said. But the two directors from the Feebs tried
to rake me over the coals.
That´s when Chris asked to reconvene. J.D. kept typing.
Travis was not pleased.
I´ll bet, Buck mused, thinking of the stern gray-haired
Assistant Director who had Team 7 under his dominion. Trouble was, he
wasn´t quite sure who Travis was less than pleased with at the moment.
J. D. looked over at him suddenly and sighed. Aw, Buck, he said.
Why the heck did you decide to wear jeans?
I was tired, Buck said. And don´t you start in on
me. He paused and looked at his watch. When were we supposed
J.D. sighed again in exasperation. You can´t meet with the brass
in jeans, he said. He took Ezra up instead.
Ezra? Buck snapped. Ezra wasn´t in the communications
van! How´s he going to tell what happened?
J.D. cocked his head to the side and looked at Buck strangely.
That´s why Chris took your report, he said.
Well, hell, Buck said jumping up out of his chair. I´ll
just borrow a jacket and get on up there.
J.D. continued to look at him strangely. Buck gave him his best smirk and
went to ask Josiah, the team profiler if he could borrow his jacket. Tweed
wouldn´t have been his number one choice, and the jacket was bound to
be too big, but everyone else´s would have been way too small.
Buck, J.D. said, as Buck came back with a well-worn tweed hanging
loosely off his gangly frame. Buck scooped a pad of paper and a pen off his
Buck, J. D. repeated, trying to get the mustached agent´s
attention. You can´t go up there like that.
I got a jacket, Kid, Buck said.
J.D. sighed in exasperation. Again. Buck frowned slightly. Kid was startin´
to sound like Chris.
Your jeans, Buck, he pointed out.
Buck looked down. His blue jeans were a little faded, but they were clean,
fit properly, and didn´t have any rips. They won´t notice,
he said easily.
Buck, J.D. said again, cocking his head and looking at him
appraisingly. Buck swore silently. He was startin´ to look like Chris,
too. Best nip that in the bud, he thought.
Alright, Buck said, turning back toward Josiah´s office.
I´ll be right back.
I heard you, and the answer is no, Josiah´s deep rumble
sounded from his office at the back of the room.
Come on, Josiah, Buck said. Yours are the only ones that
are big enough. He waggled his eyebrows at his unspoken joke.
His reasoning did not impress Josiah. Precisely, the profiler
said. And one good reason why I´m not going to sit here in your
tight jeans while you go off to a meeting you should have been at an hour
and a half ago.
Come on, Buck said again, as if that would change the big
No, Josiah said with finality.
Buck turned away trying to figure out what to do, when his eyes lit on Nathan.
Oh no, said the team medic.
Come on, Nathan, Buck said sidling up to the medic´s desk.
It´s only until the meeting´s over. I´ll give you my
Great, Nathan said ungratefully.
Buck gave the medic his most ingratiating grin. It´s for the good
of the team.
Nathan snorted. But he stood up and started to undo the buttons on his dress
pants. Alright Buck, you win, Nathan said. But don´t
piss Chris off again. He handed the pants over and slid into Buck´s
Don´t you worry, Buck said smoothly. I know how to
Nathan winced as Buck pulled the pants on. They were way too short.
And don´t ruin my pants, Nathan said.
Buck tipped his imaginary hat to Nathan as if to say, You can count
on me, and headed stiffly out the bullpen door, too-long jacket dangling
off his wrists and too-short pants riding up the ankles of his cowboy boots.
Wafting after him came a low snicker from the team´s laconic sharpshooter.,
Vin Tanner´s first sound of the day.
Feeling faintly irritated, Buck chose to ignore him completely.
He gave Travis´s secretary his best lady killer smile and entered the
room. All heads turned to look at him as he entered the upstairs conference
room. He felt their eyes rake over his too short, too tight pants and too
big jacket, but he smiled at them confidently as if he had no idea what they
were staring at and took his place at the table, nodding a greeting to Travis,
Ezra, and Chris. Travis started and got a little red around the gills. Chris
glanced at Buck only once. He twitched one eyebrow only very slightly, but
his expressionless face betrayed nothing. Ezra diligently studied the folder
on the table in front of him.
Agent Wilmington, Buck said, stretching out one big hand across
the table. Sorry for the delay. I got held up behind a traffic
incident. He shook his head with sincere regret and was rewarded as
Chris and Ezra exchanged a nearly imperceptible eye roll.
The FBI brass exchanged a less subtle look and began to fire questions at
Buck, which he fielded with impressive expertise.
The meeting ended an hour later. Buck waited until the FBI had left, before
he stood up uncomfortably. The pants had been way too tight, and it had taken
all his willpower not to wriggle in his chair like a little boy. But he had
done it. He had pulled it off. Even Ezra ought to have been proud. AD Travis
and Ezra each looked him over once, and left the room without a word, shaking
Buck beamed smugly at Chris. Chris looked him over one time, slowly, glaring,
but Buck had known him long enough to see the dark mood begin to grudgingly
Forgiven? Buck asked, smug smile still planted across his face.
A wicked gleam lit up Larabee´s green eyes, and one corner of his mouth
twitched up in a smirk. At least now we both look stupid, he
growled as he brushed past Buck.
Ungrateful bastard, Buck retorted as he followed Chris, stiff
legged back to the elevator, still grinning smugly. Yep, he had been forgiven.
That was Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the FBI brass had officially declared that Team 7´s maverick
style had ruined their perfectly good bust. And Chris was steamed again.
He had apparently spent some of that anger yelling at Travis that his team
was not going to take a black eye for the FBI. The FBI wanted the ATF brass
to reprimand Ezra and Josiah personally. Chris reportedly shot back that
the brass goes through him. Period. No one bypassed him in dealing with his
team. AD Travis was familiar with Larabee´s policy that no one gets
direct access to his men but himespecially where discipline was concerned.
He was also familiar with the directorship´s opinion that this was simply
Larabee´s plan to buck the rules and ignore agency policies without
fear of punishment. Travis was also well- acquainted with Larabee´s
lack of diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, it was not a wise idea to yell at
one´s boss and Larabee got an unofficial dressing down for his efforts.
That disgruntled the team leader further, which kept Team 7 tip-toeing around
Not that they blamed Chris. After all, he was willing to face down agency
brass to defend his team´s autonomy. Still, there was no point riling
the team leader further. Let the innocent equipment in Chris´s office
take the brunt of his anger.
Buck sighed and chewed on the end of his pencil as he looked up at Chris´s
office door, which rattled on its hinges as he slammed it.
He shook his head and turned to J.D. Back in the old days, he´d
a never let this rattle him, Buck said. You shoulda seen us back
J.D. looked up from his computer.
We pulled some wild stunts, Buck mused, leaning back fully in
his chair and lacing his hands behind his head. When we were DPD, The
brass called us in a lotand I mean A LOT. But Chris used to just give
em that cocky grin until the captain looked like he would blow a gasket.
The captain hated that grin, but he loved our arrest record. I remember once
when we were investigating a
He launched into a story, which J.D. doubted was wholly true, but he listened
When he finished the story and began to launch another one, Ezra cleared
Fascinating, Mr. Wilmington, the southerner drawled, still typing
away. But if you tell all the stories today, what will you use to get
out of working tomorrow?
Buck threw a paper wad at Ezra´s head. It missed and bounced on the
desk beside Ezra´s keyboard. The Southerner flicked it into the wastebasket
without sparing Buck a glance.
Chris´s mood had not lightened when the team gathered at their favorite
bar after work. They affectionately called it The Saloon, and Buck never
missed the opportunity to flirt with Inez, proprietress, chief cook, and
bartender all rolled into one sassy Latina ball that repelled Buck´s
advances as deftly and cheerfully as he made them.
The team had traded jibes for a while, until Chris´s simmering anger
had finally managed to sour the mood. He seemed to sense it too, because
he finished his beer and announced that he was heading home.
Drive carefully, Cowboy, Vin said easily, the nickname an
affectionate source of mock sparring between the sharpshooter and the team
Chris didn´t even respond with the expected mock glare. He grunted something
no one understood over the noise in the bar, laid enough money on the table
to cover his beer and the tip and slid out into the night.
Buck shook his head and watched him go. You know, he used to be fun,
once. Buck said. He didn´t know why he said it. He knew darn well,
when Chris had stopped being fun. It was when that sonofabitch had killed
Sarah and Adam. Still, it was nights like this he missed the sharp sense
of humor that Larabee used to employ as efficiently as he now used his gun.
As if to prove his point, he leaned forward and began another story about
Chris and his adventures, while J.D. listened with rapt attention.
Not long after, the party broke up and the men headed home.
On Thursday, Chris called Ezra and Josiah into his office and shut the door.
They both came out with dark looks and pieces of paper.
The other team members looked up at them.
Reprimands, Josiah said stonily. Nice and official, in
Buck scowled. I can´t believe it.
Nathan shook his head. Wonder what they shoved down his throat to make
him issue those.
Don´t know, Josiah said. Then he and Ezra shared a flickering
conspiratorial grin. But he did tell us where we could file our
We have chosen a less career-threatening course of action, Ezra
drawled, putting his through the office shredder.
Damn, Buck muttered. I can´t believe he knuckled
Musta had no choice, brother, the big profiler said easily,
preferring to shred his reprimand by hand.
There´s always a choice, Buck retorted in defense of his
teammates. Those go in your record. Did he mention that?
Ezra eyed him calmly. This isn´t exactly the first official reprimand
to grace my employment files, the undercover agent said dryly. I
doubt our fearless leader is keeping track.
Josiah chuckled. He ought to, the graying profiler said. Every
one we get figures into his yearly evaluation.
It was Buck´s turn to snort. He never cared about reprimands
Vin´s raspy Texas drawl sounded suddenly from his office. If yer
gonna start another damn story about the good old days, I´m goin´
out to lunch. The sharpshooter set the security on his computer and
pulled on his leather jacket.
Buck grinned and rubbed his hands together. Sounds good, Junior, where
Vin shrugged but didn´t pause in his journey toward the elevator bank.
On Friday, neither Chris´s mood nor Buck´s attitude had improved.
They argued their way through what was supposed to be a routine meeting between
the leader and his second in command. It had ended in a shouting match.
Who the hell do you think you are? Buck demanded.
Chris´s eyes narrowed dangerously. Apparently not who you think
I am, he snapped.
Damn right, pard, Buck said, voice laced with anger and disdain.
Not anymore you´re not.
For a split second Buck thought Chris was going to leap over the desk and
throttle him. A year ago, he might have.
Get out, the blonde grated through clenched teeth. Go to
lunch. You can come back when you remember who´s in charge of this
Buck knew better than to argue with that tone. But he refused to be
chagrinedat least until he left Chris´s office. Judging from the
attitudes of the others, outside the door, they had heard every one of his
shouted words. He muttered several unkind words about Chris´s parentage
and character and slid into his desk. No one said a word.
That afternoon, J.D. made an error in a report, provoking their leader to
jump down his throat.
Damn it, J.D.! he snapped, slapping the document back on J.D.´s
desk. Do you read your reports before you hand them in? This one makes
you sound like a god damn rookie.
Chris stabbed a finger down on the offending paragraph. Pay some god
damn attention to what you write.
With that, the blonde senior agent whirled on his black-booted heel and stalked
back into his office.
J.D.´s cheeks flamed bright red as he reread the paragraph. The young
agent swore under his breath.
Buck leaned over to see the report, but J.D. pulled it out of his sight.
He didn´t mean it, kid, Buck said softly.
How do you know? J.D. snapped back, face still red. Maybe
I deserved it, he said softly a moment later.
Maybe you made a mistake, but that don´t give him the right to
come out here and insult you.
J.D. ducked his head.
Buck sighed in frustration at his best friend´s shame. He knew damn
well that Chris Larabee was a legend in J.D.´s eyes. He was the sole
reason the boy had come here looking for a job. Chris was J.D.´s hero.
And Chris just plain didn´t seem to care.
He doesn´t mean to be such a bastard, Buck said with a sigh.
Deep down somewhere he really does care. About you. About all of us.
Buck said the words, but he wondered whether he was reassuring J.D. or himself.
I know that, J. D. gulped but he didn´t lift his head. Buck
could see how horrified the boy was at a display of emotions he thought none
of the others ever showed.
Back before, Buck began and paused. It was hard for him to voice
exactly what had happened to the woman he had loved as a sister and the boy
he had called his nephew, so he divided the time into Before
and After, and J.D. seemed to understand. Before he was
different. He used to be a lot more, he paused looking for the word
somewhere in the air around him, compassionate, he decided. He
used to care about people´s feelings.
Before, Chris and Sarah´s life together had been characterized by a
thousand small acts of kindness, which had included and enfolded Buck as
a part of their family. After, Chris had kicked Buck soundly out of his life,
so he could continue with his hell-bent, alcohol-fueled mission of
He cares, J.D. said with a confidence Buck knew he didn´t
quite feel. The boy continued on doggedly. It would have been worse
if he´d filed this report and let me look stupid.
Yeah, well, back then he would at least have had the good grace to
call you into his office.
He´s had a bad week, Nathan intervened through his open
So he takes it out on the kid? Buck shot back.
Buck, don´t, J.D. pleaded, and this time, Buck got a good
look at the mixture of shame and determination on J.D.´s face as he
doggedly defended his goddamn hero. A hero worship that man had not done
a damn thing to earn or deserve, as far as Buck was concerned.
It took less than a second for Buck to make up his mind. He stalked into
Chris´s office slamming the door behind him.
What the hell was that? Buck demanded. You yell at the
kid in front of his teammates over a typo?
Chris´s eyes glittered angrily. Hell of a typo, he snorted,
reminding Buck that he didn´t have all the facts.
Buck felt his ears go hot as a red flush crept up his neck.
Vin´s reports are filled with typos. Let´s see you yell at
This time the red flush crept up Chris´s neck and the blonde pushed
his chair back from the desk.
J.D. ain´t Vin, Chris said, clearly struggling to keep his
Ain´t that the truth, Buck snapped. He knew he was treading
over the line. He had practically accused Chris of practicing favoritism.
To make matters worse, even though Chris had never mentioned a word, Buck
knew damn well that Vin took his reports to be typed up in the secretarial
pool because Vin´s dyslexia hampered his writing skills. Still, he was
too caught up in a full head of steam to pull back now. No matter that he
had forgotten whether he was defending J.D. or venting his own spleen.
What the hell does that mean? Chris demanded.
Why don´t you tell me? Buck retorted.
This time Chris did stand up. You got something to say, say it,
Alright, I´ll say it, Buck said, leaning his fists on
Chris´s desk and putting his face right up next to the blonde´s.
I don´t know who you are, but you sure as hell ain´t the
guy I used to know.
Buck got the satisfaction of seeing Chris recoil at his words. A split second
later, the blonde´s expression closed down completely. Somewhere in
the back of Buck´s brain, a voice raised an alarm.
When Chris spoke again, his voice was quiet and as flat and expressionless
as his face had become. That´s right, he said, pressing
his face closer to Buck´s with every sentence. I´m not your
old buddy. I´m not the guy you went through SEALs with. I´m not
your DPD partner. I´m not even the guy you dragged stinkin´ drunk
out of bars after my life went to hell. But I am the guy you answer to around
here. Get used to it. Or find another job.
It was Buck´s turn to recoil. Find another job? Could he really mean
Before Buck could think of a reply, Chris had yanked his black duster off
the hook on his door and stalked out past him. He barked at the 5 faces that
stared at him that he was leaving early. No explanation. And he swept out
to the elevator bank.
The 5 men in the bullpen exchanged glances and looked questioningly up at
Still angry, and deprived of the last word, Buck kicked his rolling chair
across the floor to collide with Ezra´s metal desk.
Ezra looked up annoyed. Don´t take your lack of tact out on my
office equipment, the southerner snapped.
Buck gave him a sour look.
What the hell´s his problem? he demanded of no one in
particular, sweeping his arm in the direction Chris´s retreating back
The question hung in the air for a long time before Vin´s voice broke
the resounding silence. He said it quietly, but not so quietly that his teammates
didn´t hear. Awful hard to spend 8 hours every day with a body
who wishes you were someone else.
What´s that supposed to mean, Tanner? Buck demanded, rounding
on the sharpshooter.
Vin´s blue-eyed gaze looked impassively back at him as he added in his
peculiar soft rasp, I ain´t never met this old Chris´
you keep goin´ on about, but me and this Chris get on just fine.
Buck glared hotly at Vin.
He turned angrily at Ezra´s choked off chuckle
Something funny, Standish? Buck demanded, his hands flexing into
No not particularly funny, Ezra sighed. But I think I speak
for everyone when I say we´ve all grown a tad tired of hearing about
the good old days.
Buck´s eye´s narrowed and he opened his mouth to say something
he knew he would well and truly regret later.
Stop it all of you, J.D. suddenly started up, laying a hand on
Buck´s arm. Chris was right about my report. And I don´t
need you to defend me. Now let´s stop fighting each other and try working
like a team.
Josiah seconded the motion from his office. Nathan provided his calm support
of the suggestion.
Buck forced himself to resume his seat and take a calming breath. But he
noticed that no one had bothered to agree with him. The air simmered all
afternoon with quiet tension.
Buck half-heartedly suggested a trip to the Saloon that evening, but everyone
had demurred. Nathan had a class. Josiah had an appointment with a noted
visiting philosopher at the University. Vin wanted to head out to his trailer
in the woods for the weekend, and Ezra just flat out declined. Of all things,
J.D. wanted to finish fixing that damn report so Chris would have it on his
desk first thing Monday morning.
Buck muttered a curse and headed home to a beer and an early bed. When J.D.
finally did come in that evening, he told Buck that he didn´t need to
defend him. If a battle needed to be fought, he would fight it, even with
Buck began to offer an excuse, but J.D. stood pat, and waited for Buck to
accept what he said.
Yeah, I see, Buck muttered. Try that on Chris, he thought darkly
as he handed J.D. the TV remote and headed off to bed without even a good
Buck planned to make amends with his roommate first thing in the morning,
but J.D. had left early to pick up his college student girlfriend for a
motorcycle ride and a picnic. His cheerful note, however, showed that, as
always, the young agent held no grudges.
There had been a time that Chris hadn´t held anything against him either,
Buck mused. But those days were gone. Buck had prevented Chris´s
self-destruction after Sarah and Adam´s deaths, and Chris refused to
forgive him for that. He reached for a cup of coffee to clear his head.
Then he remembered his date for the evening. Brightening considerably, Buck
headed out the door to run some errands before he had to get ready for thethat
At long last, there he was, seated across the white-clothed restaurant table
from the enchanting Lila. She was beautifulno, resplendentin
a simple black evening dress and pearls. Her creamy skin glowed in the
candlelight, and she laughed that musical laugh as Buck smoothed on the charm.
With great appreciation, Buck noted that not only did she have that magical
laugh; she had a quick, warm sense of humor of her own. Intelligence shone
in her clearwarm, brown eyes, and she seemed knowledgeable about a refreshing
variety of subjects.
She was lapping up his cheerful banter, as he helped her relax and feel
comfortable. And bBy the time their meals were finished, Buck was feeling
very optimistic, indeed, about where the evening was headed.
In the second hour, after wine, perhaps Ms. Foxwood had relaxed too much,
and Buck discovered he had a woman with a heartache on his hands. He knew
he´d regret it, but he couldn´t stand seeing anyone in pain, so
he invited her to talk about it over dessert.
He had been right about her. She was very nearly perfectbut she had
one big glaring flaw. Some guy named Rick. A schmuck of a fiancé who
had cheated on her and broken her heart. Yet, to Buck´s amazement, she
was still counting up his good points. Over the course of her story, Buck´s
own feelings about Rick had taken a decidedly different turn.
That´s when realization hit him right between the eyeswith a
After dessert, he escorted her home, with apologies. But there was something
he had to do.
It was late when he pulled into the long curving driveway, but the porch
light was on. Buck paused as he also noticed the lights on in the barn. He
closed his door behind him and headed for the barn, his hands in his pockets.
Chris was sitting astride a horse stall, struggling with the hinge on the
door. The horse was tied patiently down the row a ways. Josiah´s horse,
Buck noted. Buck´s own big gray whickered at his approach.
Chris looked up at Buck. He bobbed his head once in silent greeting and turned
back to his work. If he wondered what Buck was doing here at this hour, he
did not show it.
Buck rubbed his horse´s nose affectionately before turning to Chris.
Need some help there, pard? he asked, eyeing Chris´s scraped-up
Thanks, Chris said simply, nodding at a tool kit that balanced
precariously on the corner of the stall.
Buck grabbed a sturdy screwdriver and jammed it between the stall and the
door, making a space for Chris to get his fingers in to rethread the hinge.
They worked in silence for a while until the hinge snapped together.
Still make a good team, Buck said with a rueful grin.
Chris looked up at him. What´s on your mind, Buck? Chris
asked. Right to the point, that was Chris. No quarter asked; no quarter given.
I reckon I owe you part of an apology, Buck said, glancing away
The blonde snorted, wiping his bloodied knuckles on a towel and stuffing
it into the pocket of his jeans. Part of an apology? he asked
and climbed off the stall door.
Buck grinned sheepishly. Chris knew apologizing didn´t come easy for
him. He was just twisting the knife.
Before the big mustached agent could speak again, Chris moved past him to
get Josiah´s horse. You don´t owe me anything, Buck,
he said softly but matter of factly.
Buck stared after him, trying to work out what to say.
I reckon I ain´t exactly been fair, he said finally.
Chris came back leading Josiah´s horse. Buck held the door, while Chris
led the big mare into her stall. He spoke some soothing words, forked in
a couple extra forkfuls of hay, and closed up the stall door nice and tight.
Buck admired how well Chris handled the horses. Time was, he handled people
as kindly, too. The thought brought Buck back to what he wanted to say.
Trouble was, the words got stuck in his throat.
Chris was staring at him, head cocked to one side, eyes narrowed slightly.
It was a look that made people feel like he could read their minds. And
sometimes, Buck almost believed he could.
He was waiting. Buck could feel it. They were standing in Chris´s barn
at nigh on 11 PM. And Chris was waiting patiently for Buck to say what he
wanted to say. It was a courtesy, Buck knew. Chris was not normally a man
of great patience. At least not these days.
Buck´s confusion must have shown on his face because Chris suddenly
grinned mischievously and glanced at the clock on the barn wall, beside the
radio. Thought you were on a date, Bucklin´, he said. You
Buck felt a similar grin spread across his face at the intended jibe. He
hadn´t even known Chris knew about Lila. And yet without apparent effort,
Chris had given him just the opportunity he needed.
Funny thing about that, he started, before he could start to
second-guess himself. Seems we both made that date, but one of us was
the wrong person.
Chris quirked an eyebrow in response and waited to hear the rest.
Buck blew out a breath. You ever spend a date with someone who won´t
talk about anyone but their ex?
Ouch, Chris said in sympathy.
Yeah, well, Buck said, staring suddenly at his feet. I
reckon that´s what I been doin´ to you.
There was a long silence, and Buck looked up to see if Chris was still listening.
Chris´s hands were jammed into his pockets and he was gazing down at
the dirt. But his expression was far off. Thinking.
The rhythm of their long years of friendship told Buck that it was his turn
to wait. So he did.
When he spoke, Chris´s voice was low and filled with an unaccustomed
emotion. I know you miss your old buddy, Chris said with a sigh.
When he lifted his head, Buck saw regret etched in the green depths. Chris
took a deep breath and finished firmly. But he´s gone, Buck. He
died in that fire.
It was as close as Chris liked to come to talking about what happened to
Sarah and Adam.
He ain´t gone, Buck protested. I know he´s in
there somewhere. He reached a hand out to prod Chris gently in the
Chris grimaced and shook his head. I´m not him, Buck, he
said with gentle force. Things like that change a man. He´s not
Buck knew the sense in those words. But he didn´t believe them. Because
sometimes, in a glance of pride at the team, or at a teammate´s hospital
bedside, Buck saw him. In Chris´s dogged determination to protect the
innocent, in his willingness to stand up and take flak from the brass or
even a bullet to defend his team, he rose up again, the ghost of Buck´s
old friend, resurfaced in unguarded moments.
Buck shook his head. You´re wrong, pard, he said. I
still see him sometimes.
Chris inhaled to reply, but Buck continued, slipping into the space, making
his apology, clumsy and halting.
It´s just that sometimes I resent that you´re walking around
with his face and his memories and you won´t let him out. He surprised
himself. That was not what he wanted to say.
He had surprised Chris, too, apparently, because he could see the blonde
mentally backpedal to catch his balance.
Another thought chased that one into Buck´s mind and he continued without
waiting for Chris´s reply. You shut me out, he accused.
You didn´t want to remember, so you shut me out.
Chris couldn´t deny that, but Buck wasn´t just talking about the
horrible year that passed after Sarah and Adam´s deaths, when Chris
had systematically pushed Buck away using whatever he could find for leverage,
blame, guilt, harsh words, and when that didn´t work, fists. He was
talking about now.
You invited me to join this team. I was the first one you picked, but
you´re still shutting me out.
The guilt that chased the surprise across Chris´s face told Buck he´d
Chris dropped his eyes and looked at the floor. Buck waited while Chris figured
out what to say.
You´re right, the blonde said finally. He blew out a big
breath. When his green eyes met Buck´s again, Buck could see the thoughts
chasing each other around in circles. It´s not that I don´t
want to remember, he said slowly. It´s just that
He halted. Words had never been Chris´s strong suit, and Buck could
see how hard Chris was working to get this out.
The blonde started over. There was a time that I thought the memories
would eat me alive, he stated simply. I can´t go back
A lump formed in the back of Buck´s throat. He remembered only too well
how the grief and guilt over his family´s death had threatened to devour
Chris whole. Buck would have reached out and pulled his old friend into one
of his trademark embraces, but Chris´s stiff stance told him the gesture
would not be welcome.
I guess I thought we could start fresh, Chris finished.
Buck shook his head. You can´t throw out 20-odd years of friendship,
old buddy. It means something to me, he said. Something important.
I don´t want to forget it.
Chris shook his head testily. I didn´t ask you to forget it. But
you don´t always have to be the official keeper of my past.
Well that´s what I got left since you made Vin the official keeper
of your present. Buck snapped. As soon as the words were formed he
wanted to take them back. The words hung between them like cannon smoke as
the impact reverberated in the air around them.
Chris´s eyebrows came down in a glower, when suddenly he snorted. It
was almost a laugh. He shook his head at the floor and fixed Buck with that
You think Vin has taken your place, Chris said matter- of-factly,
but there was an edge of wonder in his voice.
Buck´s whole face flushed. He didn´t say anything for a long moment.
Chris quirked an eyebrow sardonically as he waited for a response.
If Buck had thought about hugging Chris before, he was considering punching
the bastard´s daylights out now. Mostly because Chris was right.
Vin HAD taken his place. Since they had played football together in high
school and straight through their days in Special Forces and the Denver Police,
Buck and Chris had had an unspoken understanding. Chris was a loose cannon,
and it was Buck´s job to be right at Chris´s back. Thick, thin,
hell, high water, whatever the day threw their way. But Tanner had joined
the group team with his easy-going outward manner and a preference for nonverbal
communication that matched Chris´s own, and the two of them had developed
some sort of instant understanding. They seemed to have entire conversations
without even speaking. A series of glances, head nods, and expressions, and
things seemed to have been decided. Tanner planted himself at Chris´s
back and stuck there. Pushing 20 years of friendship right off the pedestal.
Chris saved Buck the effort of either finding his voice or slugging him,
when he took a deep breath and spoke again, a bitter smile curling up at
his lips. You didn´t get replaced, Buck, he said, holding
Buck´s eyes. I did.
Buck´s eyebrows came down in confusion. I never
Chris cut him off. You didn´t do it,. he said. I did
it., he said The blonde leaned back against a stall door as if he suddenly
needed extra support. Pony´s black head shoved him in the shoulder fondly
and Chris crooked an arm absently across the faithful gelding´s nose.
He stayed that way for a second before he looked up again.
Buck was staring at himwaiting for an explanation.
Chris took a deep breath. I´ve known you for more than half my
life, Buck. I know you like the back of my hand. I know you better than I
sometimes know myself. You need someone to take care of.
Buck flinched. What´s that supposed to mean?
Chris held up a hand in a conciliatory gesture. It means just what
I said. That´s you. You take care of people. You´re a big tough
guy, with a big soft heart.
Buck narrowed his eyes, but Chris continued. It´s not a bad thing,
Buck. It´s what makes you the friend you are. It´s what keeps you
coming back for old friendseven when they treat you like shit.
The bitterness in Chris´s words tinged the air, but Buck let it slide
The blonde exhaled again, as if letting out a breath he had been holding
a long time. When you agreed to help me start up the team, I could
see how thrilled you were that your old friend had come back. And I knew
that you were going to fall right back into the role of Chris Larabee´s
personal caretaker. But I´m not your old friend come back. I needed
you to back off. I needed us to start over on an even footing. He looked
up at Buck, his expression intense, as if he could make Buck understand by
simply burning the words in with his eyes.
Then he looked away again as he continued. But if there´s one
thing I know, it´s that Buck Wilmington needs someone to mother hen.
So when J.D. came around, green as all git-out, I saw a perfect fit.
Don´t get me wrong, Chris said hurriedly. I hired
J.D. on the basis of his skills, same as everyone else, but it was clear
that he needed more mentoring than I could give and that you needed to be
more protective than I could stand. You needed each other. You were perfect
together. So I put you together
and I got out of your way. He
looked up at Buck for a brief second. A look of intense loss flashed through
Chris´s eyes. Then he looked away again, checking a stall door that
didn´t need checked.
Buck stared. Thunderstruck. Trying to digest what Chris had said. Events
of the past year replayed across his mind, uncoupling, fitting together in
new directions. He could feel that his mouth was open, but he didn´t
care. The sounds of the ticking clock and the shuffling and snorting of horses
bedding down for the night filled the air around them, as Buck struggled
for something to say.
When he found his voice, he wished he had the eloquence of Ezra or Josiah.
It sounded clumsy even to him, but he finally blurted it out. You
can´t replace people, Chris, Buck said. J.D. may be like
a little brother to me. He may even be just what I need. But he don´t
share the history that you and I got behind us. He ain´t you.
That bitter smile returned to Chris´s lips. But you´re still
looking at me like I´m who I used to be, Chris said, a raw edge
in his voice. You´ve got to get used to who I am now.
Buck sighed. Fair enough, he said. Maybe I have been spending
a little too much time in the past.
He ran a hand through his hair and paused to carefully phrase what he wanted
to say next. I know something like that changes people, Buck
said. I never expected you to go through what you went through and
come back exactly the same. But, he said, bending a little to peer
straight into Chris´s eyes. I do know you. Probably better than
you know yourself. And you´re a damn sight better than you think you
are. So why don´t you stop tearing yourself up about the past and just
accept that I am still your personal watchdog.
A smile cracked Chris´s face. Damn big watch dog, he muttered.
Yup, Buck said smugly. That´s why I´m the Big
Dog. Chris shook his head at the affectionate nickname that seemed
like part of a long-ago past.
Silence hung again for a moment. An´ I´ll tell you what,
Buck said finally. I won´t tell all of your secrets, if you´ll
let my old buddy out a little more often.
The smile turned sad. Don´t know if I can, Chris said.
Sure ya can, Stud, Buck said, a grin perking up his mustache.
He´s a lot closer than you think. Hell, Buck said. You
might even like him.
Don´t push your luck, Larabee mock-growled.
Buck laughed. Chris laughed. It rang in the barn, irritating the sleeping
horses and soothing Buck´s frayed nerves. Then he did it. He reached
out and pulled Chris into a Buck bear hugand for once, Chris didn´t
On Monday, the atmosphere in the office was all business. The seven members
of ATF Team Seven sat around their gleaming black conference table and shared
intelligence on their next target. Chris´s clipped, official tones assigned
each member his next task and brought the meeting to a close.
A box of donuts meant for Buck slid down the table and bumped Chris´s
arm. The leader flicked his glance over at J.D., the source of the offending
matter. Buck´s long arm reached out and smoothly ensnared the misguided
Now, J.D., he said, a twinkle in his blue eyes. You know
Chris is on a diet.
It was a long-standing joke between them. In all the time Buck had known
Chris, the blonde´s lean frame had never held an extra inch of fat.
Once he had been almost scrawny. But hard years and hard training had turned
to hard muscle.
Chris turned his glare on Buck, but looking up at the gaze, Buck saw nothing
but bemusement in the green depths.
Gimme a break, Buck, J.D. said in disgust.
Buck let his lips twitch up into a smirk, as he cradled the box under his
arm and walked around the table to sling the other long arm across the youngest
It´s true, kid, he purred smoothly, turning his head to
wink at his boss. When he turns sideways the bad guys won´t be
able to see him.
J. D. punched Buck soundly in the ribs in fond exasperation.
Chris gathered up his things without a word. But a smile creased his face.
He looked up in time to see Buck hand the box of donuts to the young agent.
And when J.D. had both hands full, Buck closed his arm into a headlock. Ignoring
J.D.´s loud protests, Buck swung around in the doorway to face Chris.
Chris shook his head. Shoulda seen that comin´, kid, he
said, sliding past them out the office door, and grabbing the box of donuts
from the young agent´s hands without even a pause. He saluted Buck with
the box and continued on out to his office, his voice carrying back to them.
Shoulda seen that comin´ a mile away.
Buck tipped an imaginary hat at the retreating back of his leader, his boss,
and his friend. A man who knew him only too well.