Second Chances

An alternate view of the formation of ATF Team 7 -- what if Chris's grief and anger after the death of Sarah and Adam drove him deeper down and threatened to lose him his job and his friends? How would he climb back up? And while exploring that, I also wanted a realistic way to have four of them be gay (or bi).


He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, gripping it tightly as he decided if he cared enough to listen to whatever Travis had left to say. Or if he could control his anger enough to listen, more like it. He decided he should, even if he really didn't care, so he turned back to face the director.

"Yeah?" He put as much insolence into it as he thought he could get away with, which, under the circumstances, was quite a bit.

"You think I don't know what's eating you. You think you're the only one with pain." Orin Travis rubbed a hand across his forehead, then waved it in the air. "Chris, I can't help you any more. You're at the end of your rope and all the rope I could call in markers for." Travis leaned forward onto his hands, still standing with his big desk between them. "You take a week and you think about everything I've said here today. You don't have a lot of options left."

Chris stood and stared at the old man for a minute, taking in the hair that was grayer than before, the face with more lines, but the intensity of the dark eyes and the air of authority were what they had always been. Yeah, he'd take a week. He'd think a little bit and drink a lot and maybe the decision would make itself and he wouldn't have to do anything at all.

"Not sure I give a flying fuck for options any more, Orin." With that, he turned away, walked out the door and slammed it closed behind him. Travis's secretary did her best to be invisible behind her desk, and Chris ignored her as he walked past.

Fuck options, he thought, fuck the job, fuck every fucking thing! He let his anger build as he wound his way out of the building, but it wasn't only anger that was building. The threat of losing his job brought fear to the table, too. Fear that he would have no more reason to get up in the morning, no reason to do anything anymore. He found his way to the garage and to his truck. His liquid lunch had worn off, and he wasn't even sure he would have cared if he was still drunk. He was driving home and that was that.

Being at the wheel of thousands of pounds of black powerful Detroit steel didn't do much to ease his mood. Fuck the stupid commuters, let them find their own piece of the road! He found gaps in traffic that street racers would have questioned, intimidated other drivers out of his way, miraculously caused no damage to himself or any of the rest of the motoring public as he headed out of town, intent on getting home.

Outside of town the two lane road was much less traveled, and rather than go faster, he eased up to drive somewhat near the speed limit. Less than an hour from leaving the federal building, he was at his own drive, a half mile of irregular asphalt down to the house.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat, staring at it. An old pile, built in the 1880s, it had belonged to her family. White clapboards, blue-gray trim, dark gray roof. The broad porch that embraced two sides of the house was edged with wood railings and peeling gingerbread where the posts met the roofline. He'd inherited the place when she died, and some days he wondered why he stayed. Looking across at the barn, he knew the answer to that. The dream he'd had since childhood was why. Raise horses. He snorted at that. Yeah, raise horses like an old cowboy, live off the land. Just what you can do now that it's the twenty-first century.

Or not, he thought. But just because he was killing himself by inches didn't mean the animals should suffer. He took the key out of the ignition and got out of his truck, his boots crunching on the loose gravel as he walked to the porch. He knew the other reason he stayed in the house. To remember. To remember that he had to find the son of a bitch who had killed his wife and son. To bring peace and justice to their memory, to let the ghosts rest. The fuck of it was, nothing he did got him any closer to that peace and justice.

Changing into old jeans and a navy blue plaid flannel shirt, Chris grabbed a bottle of whiskey to take with him out to the barn. Taking care of the animals didn't mean he couldn't start his dinner.

An orange tabby cat met him half way across the yard to the barn, and he reached down and scritched it behind the ears before moving on. It was an old timber frame barn and smelled of hay and horses. The only peaceful times he had lately were when he was in the barn and he'd try to pretend it was the olden days and his problems could be solved by a quick draw and a six gun. Those moments were few and far between, and he wasn't going to have any of them today.

The tack room was closed, and the smell of clean leather and oil greeted him when he opened the door. It was one thing that modern life couldn't change, you still needed good leather to make gear for horses. He opened the container of cat food and filled the dish and checked the water. Closing the door behind himself, he double checked that the cat flap wasn't jammed with hay or shavings and went on to the horses. Horse.

There was only one stall occupied. When was it? Two months before that Buck had come and picked up his gray gelding? Said he couldn't trust Chris with him any more. Chris figured that wasn't precisely true, that what Buck couldn't trust was whether Chris would be alive when he came out to visit it.

Twisting the cap off the whiskey bottle, he took a long drink, letting the burn settle in his belly and remind him that the asshole of a doctor had told him to lay off or his ulcer would perforate. Who the fuck cared? Three years and the only constants were that whiskey still burned, killers stayed free and they were still dead.

A soft nicker from the first stall got his attention. Sweet, gentle black gelding that he'd bought so that he could teach his boy to ride a real horse. Now he still had the horse, but not the boy.

He capped the whiskey bottle and propped it on the floor next to the stall door while he went back to the hay storage. A double flake of alfalfa would do and make sure the horse had feed in the morning as well, since he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be up early. Hay and a large coffee can of sweet feed, and when he opened the stall door, the horse was already standing with his nose in the feed bin. Yeah, he thought, I know where to put it.

The empty can took the place the bottle had been in, and Chris walked through to the run out pen to check the water. The troughs had automatic fillers, but things could get clogged, and it was worth the look to be sure.

Leaning on the pipe rail next to the trough, he took another long pull on his bottle. It was late afternoon, so the woods to the east still shone bright green in the sun, the wild grass in the pasture was half green, half golden brown. Summer was coming along, but not just yet. There would be a nip in the air when dark fell.

He pushed off the rail and walked back into the stall, realizing that he didn't want to go back to the house. The front corner of the stall was deep in clean bedding, so he leaned into the wall and slid down, his knees bent, and sat there watching the horse eat while he finished the bottle and tried to forget what Travis had told him. It wasn't like he didn't know he'd been pushing his luck, but for it to be laid out so clearly for him was a shock. Somehow he'd never believed he'd get that final warning, but there it was.

He finished long before the horse did, but it didn't help. Liquor no longer brought him the oblivion he sought. All it did was make his belly ache and sometimes let him sleep. Today it seemed like sleep was all he was getting. Tucking the bottle next to him, he wrapped his arms around himself and sat, his eyes closed, wishing it all away.

He must have dozed off, because when he woke up, it was dark outside. The horse had moved outside and left him alone, and the chill air was moving in. But none of those things was what woke him. He was sure he heard something. Probably just the cat. He shook his head. Getting paranoid along with obsessed.

The crunch of a boot on the driveway wasn't the cat. Much too big and much too human sounding. He had an idea who it might be, and there was no way he wanted to talk to anyone tonight. Especially that someone.

The footsteps moved into the barn, and Chris sat rock still. I'm not hiding, he told himself. I'm just avoiding.

"Larabee!" The baritone belonged to exactly who he figured it was. Buck. "You in here?"

At Buck's shout, the horse came back into the stall and hung his head over the door, nickering for attention.

"Hey, son, your asshole of a master around?" Chris ground his teeth, itching to respond, but not wanting to start anything at all with Buck. "Lemme see if you've been fed, boy." The stall door opened and in came Buck. His long, jean clad legs were close enough to touch, but Chris didn't move and didn't make a sound. Buck looked in the feed bin and nodded. "Looks like you've got plenty there for tonight and half of tomorrow. Guess he's working on a bender."

When Buck turned back to the door, he started, seeing Chris sitting in the corner. "What the fuck you doing there?"

"Avoiding you," Chris growled.

"You been doing that for a long while." Buck shifted from foot to foot. He obviously had something to say, and Chris knew he didn't want to hear it. "You want to come in the house and I'll cook up some dinner?"

"No, I don't fucking want you to nursemaid me."

"Yeah," Buck said softly. "Didn't expect you to." He shook his head and walked out of the stall, standing with his hand on the door. "When you pull your head out of your ass, there's some stuff I really need to talk to you about." He started to push the door shut, but Chris was on his feet, pushing through behind him.

"You think you can show up here with some damn fucking holier than me attitude?" Chris drew back his fist and then lashed out, aiming at Buck's chin, but his fist sailed past as Buck turned aside and landed a hard blow to Chris's gut.

The searing pain of Buck's fist driving into his belly put him on the floor gasping for breath, his vision dark and hazy. Was this it? Was he going to die here, on his knees in the barn? It sure as hell felt like it. Buck stepped around him and fastened the stall door shut, then came back to stand in Chris's small field of vision.

"You okay there?"

As Buck leaned down to touch him, Chris mustered enough strength to try to sucker punch him, but the effort was too much and he dropped back to the floor, holding tight to his gut.

"Ah, shit." Buck knelt next to him, pulling on his shoulders to uncurl him, got him far enough upright to manhandle him into a fireman's carry. That was enough. There was no way he was letting this bastard carry him! His struggles earned him an elbow to his gut. "You hold still, or by god I'll drop you here in the driveway and leave you to rot." Buck's tone and his own pain were enough to still him for now.

Inside the house, Buck let Chris down in the living room and he dropped into a chair, still curled over his belly and holding on for dear life. "Can you get me some of the antacids?" he ground out.

"No." Buck's answer came from the den, and Chris looked up. Buck had his emergency phone list in one hand and his cell phone in the other. "Doctor or hospital?"

Chris looked away. "I don't want to see that fucking quack."

Buck nodded. "Hospital." He closed his phone and dropped it into his jacket pocket. Just like earlier with Travis, making a choice was too damned hard. If Buck wanted to step in and do it for him, he didn't have the strength to fight him. And it seemed like Buck was going to do just that.

He went along peacefully as Buck drove them to the nearest ER, letting himself be signed in and sitting quietly in the waiting area. When his name was called, though, he glared at Buck to make him stay away.

"Not gonna work this time." Buck shoved him in the shoulder to move him toward the exam room.

The doctor looked harried and tired, but brought his full attention to them when they got to the room. It was clear from his expression that he could smell the alcohol on Chris's breath.

"What brings you gentlemen in tonight?" The man's name tag said he was Dr. Langley.

Chris started to talk, only to be interrupted by Buck. "Well, Doc, Chris here's been drowning himself for a while. Doc Helfer diagnosed him with a nasty ulcer, but that didn't seem to matter to him." Chris growled deep in his throat, earning him a punch in the shoulder from Buck. "We had a little disagreement this evening, and I punched him in the gut. He ain't been able to stand up since then."

"One punch?" Dr. Langley asked.

"One punch," Buck said.

"Very well." Dr. Langley was writing furiously on Chris's chart. "You got any allergies, Mr. Larabee?" Chris shook his head. "I'm ordering a GI series and a scope. You'll be here overnight."

"No fucking way." Chris started to get up, stopped by Buck's hand on his shoulder.

"Not this time, Chris," Buck said gently, "I'm not going to let you kill yourself."

Dr. Langley looked from Chris to Buck and back to Chris. "He your next of kin?"

"No!" "Yes." They answered together. Buck went on. "I have his medical power of attorney."

"That only comes into play if he's not able to make a decision."

Buck looked hard at Chris, then at the doctor. "If need be, I can see to it that he's not able."

"Do what you need, you blood suckers," Chris snarled.

"The nurse will be in with paperwork for you to sign, then we'll get you up for the tests." Dr. Langley pinched the bridge of his nose, then looked at Chris. "How much have you had to drink today?"

The million dollar question, and what answer would he give them this time? Some, he could say. A few. Enough.

"Finished the fifth about three hours ago." Close enough to the truth that he surprised himself. Of course, he left out his liquid lunch, but that was forever ago.

The doctor's expression didn't change, he simply nodded. "Thank you." He made a few more notes on the chart, then tucked it under his arm. As he left the room, he stopped and turned back to Chris as if he was going to say something, but only shook his head and went on his way.

Buck was sitting a little behind him, so he didn't have to see him as they sat and waited. Before long, nurses and more doctors and people with wheelchairs had him in their clutches and he was off to the OR for his procedures. They used the good drugs, and he was out for the procedures. When he woke in what he assumed was recovery, he had no idea what time it was. A nurse came over and asked him about his pain level, and he told her he was fine.

When he was a little more awake, the specialist who'd done the procedure came in. He was about Chris's age and looked like a street fighter, not a doctor. His badge said his name was Warner. "You want to die?"


"I asked you if you want to die." Most doctors had tried the gentle approach with him, sympathizing with his loss, wanting him to work through things. This man's approach was new, at least. And the hell of it was, it was working. It had scared the shit out of him when one punch put him on the ground and it felt like he might really be dying.

"There's days I'm not sure," Chris answered honestly.

"An honest answer. That's novel." Dr. Warner wrote something on his pad. "You want to die, you just keep up with what you're doing. You want to live, I've got some things you can do for that, too."

Chris stared at the doctor in confusion. He was used to them giving him sympathy and understanding, telling him things would get better when he knew they wouldn't. He looked at the doctor, not knowing what to say to him.

"I need to know now. I've got other patients to see." The doctor's expression was almost one of disinterest. This was totally up to Chris. "Your partner said you might not know the answer."

His partner? Since when was Buck his partner? Since always, you fool, the voice in his head answered.

"Can he come in and hear this?" Chris heard himself say to the doctor.

The doctor jerked his head, and Buck came out from around the corner. "He's already here."

"I guess he wants to live," Buck said.

I guess I do, Chris thought with a jolt of surprise. It was true. He really didn't want to die. Sure, it had taken a push from Travis, a punch from Buck and a trip to the ER to make it clear, but he knew it now with a surety that he wouldn't have claimed yesterday. He feared death more than he feared living.

The doctor didn't mince words with him. He'd been damn lucky that Buck was there, even if it was the punch in the gut that exacerbated his condition. He was also damn lucky that his ulcer hadn't perforated. Yet. They fixed the worst of it with the scope, but for it to heal completely he had to change his life. He almost laughed at that. This was the second person in one day to tell him it was time to change his life.

Maybe it was so.

It was another couple of hours before they let him go, and he and Buck were armed with forms and instructions and booklets that he didn't throw in the trash on his way out the door.

By the time they got back to the ranch, Chris was tired and aching. They'd stopped at the all-night pharmacy to get his prescriptions filled, then at the all-night grocery to pick up enough healthy food to last for a few days. All he really wanted to do was go to bed. But he had more than the elephant in the room, he had Buck. And Buck couldn't be ignored.

"You staying?"

"You kicking me out?"

Chris ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. "No." It was all he could say for now. His gut hurt, his throat hurt, his head hurt. With a hand on his belly, he turned away from Buck and climbed the stairs up to his bedroom. More talk would just have to wait till morning.

In bed, he tossed and turned for a while, listening to what he assumed was Buck cleaning up his kitchen for him. Damn him! What the fuck brought him out to the ranch today anyway? He had a vague recollection that Buck had wanted to talk about something. Obviously they hadn't gotten to it, and if he was lucky, Buck would forget whatever it was and he wouldn't have to hear about it.

Finally, Buck finished what he was doing, and Chris slid into sleep with the soft sound of the television from the living room as background noise.

Morning sucks, Chris thought. Damn bright sun, damn cheerful Buck, damn smell of fresh coffee. Damn everything! He tried to sit up, gasping and grabbing his belly as the pain stabbed through him. Yeah, the docs had said it might hurt some. Should have realized that would be an understatement. Moving more slowly, he got to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, wondering if he really wanted to try standing. Have to, he thought, or I'll end up pissing on the floor, and I'll bet Buck won't clean that up for me. Pushing himself to his feet, he shuffled out to the hallway and down to the bathroom.

"You look like shit," he told his reflection in the mirror over the sink. Shower. If you think you can stand up that long, that is. He stood at the sink for a long moment, considering. Yeah, he could manage a shower. Stripping off his boxers, he let them fall to the floor and left them there. Climbing into the old claw-foot tub was more of a challenge, but he managed, and managed to pull the curtain shut around it.

The spray from the shower felt like heaven. Warmth washed over him, carrying away the stench of his alcoholic sweat. He let the water flow for a while, just standing there as his brain kicked in. Yeah, he was in deep shit, and not just with Buck. There was Travis, too, and his own self. And decisions to be made, so many decisions. Live or die. Shape up or lose your job. Shape up or lose Buck for good.

Soap. That's what came next. And shampoo. Get clean. Scrub off the sweat and smell. Stand longer under the spray and rinse, then simply to enjoy the feel of the water. He realized the decision had been made in the recovery room last night. He would live. Not just because he wasn't dead, but because he decided he wanted to. And he wanted to really think about what Travis had offered. Maybe with Buck here he could talk to him about it. Maybe Buck might be interested.

"As if." He shook his head. Buck had a good job with Denver PD, a detective position. Why would he even consider leaving? Can't hurt to ask, though.

That's when the reality truly hit him again, harder. He'd hit bottom, and damn if Buck hadn't been there when he fell, just like always. And just like always, Buck would stand by him. Like those horrible days after the funeral when all he wanted to do was lash out, Buck was there to hold him together, hell, just to hold him. He didn't know if they'd ever get back to that point in their lives.

Turning off the taps, Chris pushed back the curtain and stepped out of the tub. The towel on the rack was pretty nasty, so he rummaged into the linen closet and found a clean one, rubbing himself dry and feeling decent about himself for the first time in a really long time. Years, truth be told. Combing his hair and brushing his teeth only added to how good he felt, as if this was the first time he'd been really clean.

With the towel tucked around his waist, he went back to his room and found clean sweats and a t-shirt. He slid into his slippers and looked once more at himself in the mirror. "Facing reality is going to suck," he told the reflection. His reflection wasn't any help, so he took a deep breath and went down to face his dragon.

Buck was sitting at the farmhouse table in the kitchen, the collection of papers they'd brought home from the hospital spread out in front of him. He looked up when Chris came in the room, but didn't smile. In fact, Chris thought he was being examined as if he was a particularly nasty insect.

"So, how are we doing this?"

Chris sat down, looking at Buck, looking at the papers, doing his best to gather up his thoughts before answering. "Would you believe me if I said I was ready?"

Buck's expression softened. "I might. I'd remind you it won't be easy."

"Can't do this without coffee." Chris pushed back his chair so he could stand up, but Buck beat him to it. Coffee was poured for him and set on the table. Only problem was, it had milk in it. "What's this?"

"Did you listen to anything the doc said? No booze, no coffee, no fried foods." He opened his mouth to protest, but Buck held up a hand to stop him. "You don't have to say it. You're more hooked on coffee than you are on booze. And I sure don't figure to deal with you going cold turkey on both. This," he pointed to the coffee, "is what you call a compromise. Half coffee, half milk, and I'm hoping the milk will keep the coffee from tearing up your stomach any more than it already is."

Chris nodded. As far as 'won't be easy' went, this was only the tip of the iceberg. "You willing to stay?" He wanted to run away and not hear the answer, he was so afraid Buck would say no, but instead he sat, hands around his coffee cup, staring at a place on the table halfway between them.

"I'll stay."

He met Buck's eyes, seeing beyond the words. Not only would Buck stay, but Chris realized this was likely to be his last chance. Add this to the list of ultimatums he'd gotten in the last twenty-four hours.

Buck pushed three pills across the table to him. "Here's your morning meds."

Chris bristled. "You going to play nurse-maid and then check to make sure I take them?"

"I'm going to give them to you on the doc's schedule. You don't take them, I figure you're lying about being ready." Buck stood up and poured himself more coffee which he laced heavily with milk. That wasn't normal. Buck drank black coffee. And another realization hit Chris. Buck was going to play hardball with him, but he wasn't going to flaunt things Chris couldn't have. Buck set a glass of water on the table next to the pills. It was Chris's decision, every little step of the way. Take the pills or not. He picked up the pills and washed them down with most of the glass of water.

"All right," Buck said softly.

It was the first step. An easy one, to be sure, but he'd taken it and Buck was staying. He knew the next days would be pure hell for both of them. The only reason he wasn't seeing pink elephants right now was the amount of pure alcohol his blood had absorbed over the past three years would take some days to leave his system.

His thoughts were more than prophetic. The next five days were spent with him shivering, screaming, demanding and being as cruel to Buck as he'd ever been in his life. Through it all, Buck held his ground, cleaned up after him, made sure he ate and took his meds and never once hit back.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Chris was on the porch in his old rocking chair, wrapped up in a quilt, rocking slowly and staring out at the barn. The screen door into the kitchen squeaked open, and the chair next to him creaked as Buck sat down, putting his pills and a glass of ginger ale on the table next to him.

As automatically as always, he picked them up and drank down the ginger ale. But this time he looked over at Buck. "Thanks."

"Welcome." Buck leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Travis called this morning."

Chris nodded. "He wants his answer."

"You want to tell me what the question is?"

"He didn't tell you?"

Buck shook his head. "Not my business. He asked how you were doing and when he'd hear from you."

"What'd you tell him?"

Buck smiled. "Thanked him for his concern and said I'd pass on the message."


"And nothing. Up to you to tell him what you want him to know."

Chris sat back in the chair. His nerves were still on edge, he wanted a drink worse than he'd ever wanted one in his life, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that if he was going to survive the next few weeks, it would be because of Buck.

Across the drive, in the small front pasture, his black horse was grazing and next to him, for the first time in months, was Buck's gray.

"You brought him back." He waved toward the horses.

"Only took him over to Nettie's."

"She hate me yet?"

"Nah," Buck chuckled. "She thinks your head is too far up your ass for your own good, and she's angry as she can be at you, but she doesn't hate you."

"What about you?"

"Me either."

No, Buck wouldn't hate him. Probably didn't like him much at the moment, but Chris wasn't sure he liked himself very much right now, either.

"When you came out last week, you said you needed to talk to me about something." Chris looked away. "I don't remember if we had that talk."

"No," Buck said softly, "we didn't." He turned in the chair to face Chris. "Ain't no good way to tell you this, and I'm sure there's no good time, either, but I wanted you to hear it from me. They're moving the case from active to cold."

He didn't have to ask what case, he knew what Buck was talking about. Only three years from when it happened, and the damn police were giving up on finding who murdered his wife and son.

"Son of a bitch."

"Yeah." Buck reached out a hand, then pulled it back. "I tried to get them to leave it, but there's been nothing new in eighteen months and all the old leads went nowhere." Buck shifted uneasily. "Maybe ... maybe it's not all bad. Sometimes the cold case guys find new ways around things."

There was nothing he could say to that. His gut felt cold and empty and he fought the urge to scream in anger and frustration.

Buck stood up and picked up the empty glass from the table. "Come in when you're ready and I'll make dinner." With that, he walked back inside.

Chris sat for a long time, simply absorbing what Buck had told him, trying not to feel the ache and emptiness of the loss all over again. Finally, with a sigh, he stood up and went into the kitchen.

"Let me guess. Broiled chicken and steamed vegetables."

"Could change it up and have broiled fish."

"Damn it!" Chris clenched his fists, trying with everything he had not to explode. It wasn't Buck's fault and it wasn't fair to take it out on him. But his nerves were strung out taut and he felt like there were ants crawling all over him sometimes.

Buck said nothing, simply kept on chopping vegetables. Fine. He could play it cool, too. He stalked into the living room, unsure what he was going to do once he got there. Pushed into one corner was the trunk where Buck had locked up all the liquor. He had a guilty memory of a screaming tantrum when Buck wouldn't give him the key and a not quite memory of trying to punch Buck in the jaw.

He looked around his living room -- really looked. It was tidy. Lived in. A paperback that had to belong to Buck sat on the coffee table next to a newspaper folded open to the comics page. His liquor cabinet stood empty, but that was probably for the best. A few dvds were piled on the floor in front of the television. And none of these lived-in touches were his. They were all Buck's, evidence of the days spent watching over him.

Rubbing his arms, Chris wished this would all pass more quickly, but he knew better. It had taken three years to get him to this point, likely going to take a bit longer than five days to get him out of it. But at least today he could think clearly. Yes, he was still on edge, barely in control, but there was control, however tenuous.

Taking that control, he went back to the kitchen and stood near Buck. "Anything I can do?"

Buck took a long look at him before saying anything. "You up to seeing to the horses?"

Not what Chris had in mind. He figured he could take out plates or heat a pan or something. He stood with his jaw and fists clenched while he rode out his sudden and unreasonable anger. When the worst was past, he nodded. "Yeah. I can do that."

He stalked out to the barn, there was no way you could call it anything else. He was mad. His anger was directed at Buck, but he knew for a fact that what he was really mad at was himself. It was easier, though, to focus the anger outside where he didn't have to admit how badly he'd fucked up his life.

He stalked all the way through to the hay storage, sitting down on a bale of alfalfa, hands gripping the edge of the bale as he rocked back and forth. He'd heard the horses nicker as he walked through, knew there were two heads leaning over stall doors waiting for him to bring their food. But still he sat. This was the first time in the five days he'd been in the barn, and it occurred to him that there was a bottle in the tack room. He doubted Buck had found it, it was tucked away in the back of a blanket chest. The lure of that bottle was nearly irresistible to him, but he told himself no, he had to feed the horses. That was what he came out here to do. He forced himself to stand and pull large flakes off the bale and carry them to the stalls. His black gelding got his quarts of sweet feed, the hefty gray only got a handful. The water troughs were back to back in the run out pens, so he only had to walk out in one pen to make sure they were full.

That was it. Horses were fed. Cleaning was done in the mornings, and he'd try to do that himself tomorrow. He had the sense that if he started doing some of the routine things that life might get closer to normal for him. He double checked the latches on the stall doors and turned back toward the house. It would be so easy; just duck into the tack room, pull out the bottle and take a long drink.

He stood there in the doorway, imagining the burn of the liquor, the oblivion it promised. Comforting. Safe. Before he knew it, he opened the door and almost ran to the blanket chest, throwing the lid open. There it was, right in the corner where he'd put it. Reaching in, he pulled it out. Nearly full, too. Manna from ... not heaven, that was for sure. He unscrewed the cap and stood there, shaking from need, grasping the bottle by its neck, staring at it.

No. It took everything he had, but, with shaking hands, he screwed the cap back on the bottle and closed the lid of the blanket chest.

The walk back to the house was more subdued than his angry march out had been. Buck looked up as he opened the kitchen door, and he held out the bottle. "This was in the tack room. Know you didn't know it was there." Buck took it from his hand. "So you know, I didn't drink any." He kept walking on, into the living room. He didn't want to see or hear Buck's reaction.

A few minutes later Buck called him in for dinner. Stupid healthy eating. Broiled chicken, brown rice and steamed vegetables. What he wouldn't give for a nice thick rare steak and fried potato wedges. Your health, you moron. Damn self-righteous little voice was back in his head. Only five days and Buck's absolute adherence to the doc's orders, and his gut did feel better. The stabbing pains that used to double him over were gone. The dull ache that came after meals was also gone. The burn up his chest and throat were gone. Some of it he knew was due to the meds he was still taking, but no matter how much he wanted to deny it, the diet change was helping, too. But he'd be goddamned if he was going to admit it out loud to anyone.

After dinner they settled in the living room, and where they would have had beer in their hands in the past, now it was cans of soda. Chris knew that Buck wasn't going to ask what Travis wanted, but he also knew it was time to let him know what had been said.

"I'll talk to Travis on Thursday." He glanced over at Buck to gauge his response, but saw nothing but Buck simply listening to him. The same fucking passive expression Buck had worn for the past five days. "He..." This was harder than Chris had expected. "He told me to get my shit together or I'd be out of a job. Gave me a week to answer."

Buck nodded, but said nothing.

"Gave me another option, too, though I'll be damned if I know why." Buck tilted his head and Chris knew he was itching to ask. "Said if I got my shit together and decided to stay that they were looking to set up a team to take care of the worst cases. He called it the ATF's version of 'The Dirty Dozen.' Thought it would be right up my alley."

Buck snorted at that. "Could be right. Give you a band of misfits and send you in after the worst of the worst. Great idea for a man with a death wish."

"Fuck you, Buck."

"Sorry, Chris, but I call 'em as I see 'em. You been digging yourself a grave for the past three years."

Hard to argue with the truth. But something had happened five days ago, something profound. Maybe it took three people he respected to all tell him how far down he'd gotten for him to see the reality of it, but whatever it was, it had worked. He knew now that he didn't want to die. He also knew that living scared the shit out of him, but with the help he'd been offered, he was going to give it his best shot.

"Not any more," he said softly.

"Glad to hear it," Buck answered, just as softly.

That was the last they talked about what Travis had said until Thursday morning. The two days had made a big difference for Chris. He'd taken over doing the horse care, and that simple physical labor and taking responsibility for the lives of those gentle beasts had helped him focus his thoughts. By the time he got up on Thursday morning and showered, he knew what he was going to tell Travis. He also knew he had to talk to Buck before he went into town to meet with him.

Delaying as long as possible, Chris cleaned the stalls, scrubbed out the feed bins and emptied and refilled the water troughs. He'd fed the cat on his way in, and now she was sprawled out on the barn floor, basking in the sunshine. He leaned down to rub her belly, then looked at the house. Time to face what he wanted to tell Buck, but was terrified of the response he'd get.

Fresh coffee was waiting for him, and for once, it wasn't half milk. Still had that beige tint he didn't care for, but not as bad. Buck was sitting at the farm table with his own cup.

"You better sit down and tell me what's got you all tied in a knot." Trust Buck to see his unease.

Chris sat down and started right in. "I'm going to take Travis's offer." Buck nodded as if this was no surprise to him, and it probably wasn't. "Been doing a lot of thinking, and I know this is going to sound really trite, but you and the doc and Travis all gave me that one more chance that likely saved my life." He paused, but Buck said nothing, just looked at him, his expression open and encouraging. "I'm going to look for guys for this team who need a chance just like I did."

He wanted Buck to say something, to tell him what a great thing he was going to do, but no, all Buck did was sit there and nod and wait for him to go on.

"I'd like you to be there with me." There. He'd dropped his bomb. Only, from the look on Buck's face, it wasn't exactly a bomb. "You knew I'd ask you."

"Suspected, more like." Buck rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Chris, you know I've got a good job. A job I like. A job I'm pretty good at, and that I'm going to be able to do for a long time and maybe retire from."

Chris nodded.

"So, why would I leave that?"

It was a good question, and one Chris had known he'd have to answer, and he only had one answer. "Because I need you." It was hard to admit to himself, much less out loud to Buck, but if he was going to survive, if he was going to manage to pull himself up and do this job, he needed Buck now more than he ever had before.

Buck was silent for a long time, looking at Chris, and Chris held up to the scrutiny. "Tell you what. I've got some leave due me, and we're not on anything big right now. I'll take another couple of weeks and we'll see."

Another couple of weeks. No shit, Sherlock, the voice in his head scolded him, what do you think he did to stay here all week?

"All right." He didn't have a set time for his meeting with Travis, but he wanted to get in and get it over with. "Guess I'll get changed to go in."

He should have figured Buck wouldn't let him drive in on his own, so he wasn't sure what would happen when they got to the federal building, but he had an idea. He parked in the garage and looked at Buck. "Come up with me. Listen in and make sure I'm not off my rocker about this." He offered a half-rueful smile. "Please."

"Asshole. You are feeling better if you pull that one out." Buck unfastened his seat belt. "But I'll go with you, if only to save you from yourself."

Director Travis's secretary was ruffled by their presence at his office that morning. "You don't have an appointment."

"No," Chris agreed, "I don't. But Director Travis will want to see me. If he's busy, we'll wait."

"Very well." She picked up the phone and called in to the Director. "Sir, Mr. Larabee and a Mr. Wilmington are here to see you." She listened for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, sir, I'll tell them." She hung up the phone and looked at Chris. "He's in a meeting at the moment, but he asked if you'd wait. He says it won't be longer than half an hour."

Chris took a deep breath. "Fine. We'll wait." He'd convinced himself there would be no waiting, and even though he'd offered, he wasn't at all sure he could sit for half an hour and do nothing but think about what might be said and what decisions he might have to make and what Buck might think about it all. But Travis asked him to wait, he said he'd wait, and by God, he and Buck would sit and wait.

The chairs in the outer office were upholstered in leather and were far enough away from the secretary's desk that she relaxed when they went over and sat down. He had to admit, she wasn't the first secretary he'd had that effect on, and he doubted she'd be the last.

Buck leaned over closer to him. "Just half an hour. No sweat."

Damn man was a mind reader, it was the only answer.

As it turned out, it was only ten minutes before the door opened and Travis ushered out an expensively suited man with a handshake and a smile.

When the outer office door had closed behind the man, Travis turned to Chris and Buck. "Come on in."

Inside the office, Travis steered them to the sitting area rather than his desk. Chris and Buck took the couch and Travis settled into a comfortable looking wingback chair. "You brought back up with you, Chris?"

It took him a moment to realize the director had never met Buck. "Sorry, Orin. This is Buck Wilmington." Buck stood up enough to reach out and shake Travis's hand. "He's here to ..." Chris wasn't sure what to tell Travis about why he'd brought Buck along.

"I think I'm here to be his reality check," Buck picked up the train of the conversation. "Chris told me a little about what you said to him last week."

Chris glared at Buck for his vagueness. "I mentioned the new team you were considering."

Travis frowned. "That's need to know information right now, Chris. Is sharing that supposed to give me confidence in you?"

"No, sir." Chris leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Buck isn't a security risk. I've known him since we were in the Navy, and we were in Criminal Investigations in the DPD together. Buck's still there." He glanced over at Buck. "If I do this, I'm going to want him."

"Sir," Buck started, also leaning forward, "I can't say if I'll be willing to join up with Chris on this, but I will give you my word that nothing that's said here will leave this room."

Looking at Buck, then Chris, Travis nodded. "Very well. Have you made a decision, Chris?"

Rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, Chris shook his head. "Not exactly."

"Then why, exactly, are you here?"

Because you gave me an ultimatum, you old bastard, Chris thought. "To hear about that team one more time, and to have Buck hear it, too."

Travis looked at the file folder he'd been holding. "It's all in here." He handed the folder to Chris. "It still says what it did last week. They want a team in the western division that can ferret out the worst of the worst, find the unfindable evidence against them and make it stick. To work with other teams on their nastiest cases. To dig into the old files and find ways to clean up messes that got away from us the first time. There won't be many cases that only belong to the team, they'll come from other sources but need a fresh approach. The team will be researching a dozen things at once and much of the time will hand off the actual take down to the original team. No glory."

"The X-Files of the ATF," Buck mumbled.

"Something like that," Travis answered with a smile, "but it will have autonomy to work outside normal channels. What the smart guys call outside the box thinking. What they won't have is autonomy to work outside the law. It's a fine line, but with the right people, we feel it can work."

"Where do these right people come from?"

"Well, Mr. Wilmington, if Chris can get himself under control, I think he's the man who could lead a team like this. At his best, he's not an ordinary thinker. But right now, he's not at his best. I'm going out on a limb with this."

"Director," Buck smiled his most charming smile, "I can honestly say that what happened last week pushed Chris in the direction he needed to be pushed. He's going to be at his best again before too long."

Easing back to relax on the couch, Chris watched the interchange between Buck and the director. Seeing Buck using his charm this way brought back a sudden wash of memories, of the days when they were partners in all the ways there were, at work and at home. Memories of great friendship and great sex, of a man willing to stand aside when Chris met and married the love of his life. Too many memories. Chris rubbed a hand across his eyes, pushing the memories away. He couldn't handle them right now.

He forced himself to focus on what Buck and Travis were saying, to hear the team purpose again, to be sure he remembered it correctly. And he did. He was just about ready to tell Travis his decision, but he was hoping Buck would convince himself that he wanted to be there with Chris.

"You still haven't said where the people will come from, sir."

"No, I haven't." Travis took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It'll have to be posted within the agency. The leader will have the decision of who to take."

"No." Buck and Travis both looked at Chris when he spoke. "Not just within this agency. Nationwide. You want non-traditional thinkers, you have to get them from non-traditional places." Chris looked Travis in the eyes. "If you want me, that's a deal breaker. Also, I'll need one of the computer geeks to do background research on the applicants. I'll need to know more than comes with a resume and job history."

"Sounds like you've made up your mind."

"Yeah," Chris said, "I guess I have." He turned to Buck. "Am I crazy to do this?"

Buck looked back at him for a long moment before answering. "Probably. But I think it's a good fit for you."

"What about you, Mr. Wilmington," Travis asked, "will you be joining Chris?"

That was the question that put Chris's gut back into knots. What would Buck do. Was there enough of their friendship left for him to call in a big enough marker for Buck to leave a job he liked?

"I don't rightly know yet."

"Buck took some leave to help me get straight. I hope I can convince him before he has to go back to work." It was a big admission for him. Other than the doc at the ER, he hadn't admitted to anyone how fucked up he was. But for both Travis and Buck to know he was serious about changing, he had to say it.

The director nodded. "We can't start the personnel search yet. I was waiting to get your answer before pushing for final approval upstairs. Now that I have it, I'll have to add your search criteria to the approval." He held out his hand to Buck. "A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Wilmington." Buck shook Travis's hand again. "Chris, I should have the go ahead by Monday. Come in then and we'll get started."

Chris stood and also shook Travis's hand. "Thanks, Orin. For everything."

"Don't make me regret this, Chris." He nodded at Travis, not answering. How did you answer something like that? Sure, Orin, no pressure there. I'll be fine by Monday, get Buck on board, find a handful of perfect people and never make a mistake. No problem at all.

Buck's hand on his shoulder guiding him out of the office was exactly what he needed. He thought he was going to end up standing there, trying to find a response, for hours. But Buck, as always, had his back.

In the elevator, Buck punched the button for the lobby, not the garage. "Lunch time, stud, and I've got a hankering for a steak sandwich from the place down at the corner."

"That does sound good."

The lobby was full of people heading out for lunch and crowded together to exit security. As they waited in line, Chris saw a man collecting his weapons from the security lock up, and couldn't help smiling as he listened to the monologue the man was carrying on. "Stupid, stupid, fucking morons, damn idiots, should never have taken the damn job." As the man leaned over to slide his third gun into his boot, someone behind Chris shoved him hard, and he ran right into the man, toppling him to the floor.

"What the fuck?" The man sat on the floor, blue eyes blazing, his lips in a hard line.

"Sorry," Chris said, "got pushed from behind." He reached down to help the man up, sliding down to take a wrist to wrist grip. "You okay?"

The man stood up and let go of Chris's hand, brushing himself off and straightening his jacket. Chris saw he was favoring his left leg and winced, hoping he hadn't caused the problem.

"No worse than I was," the man answered him. "This," he touched his leg, "weren't your fault. Got that on my last job." When he stood up, Chris saw that the man was about his height, but younger and a little more solid. He was dressed in jeans and a cambric shirt, with a leather jacket. Along with the arsenal Chris had seen him put away, he was wearing a U.S. Marshal's badge on a chain around his neck. His face looked both young and old, the age from his eyes, telling of a life lived hard. He had long sandy brown hair, pulled back in a pony tail. "You boys from around here?"

It was obvious from his accent that the man wasn't from Denver or anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. "Yeah. Something we can help you with?"

"Need to find a Wells Fargo if there's one close by."

Chris looked at Buck, who had that 'give me a second' look on his face, then smiled when Buck nodded. "South a couple of blocks, then west a couple more, should be a branch on the corner."

"Thanks, fellas." The man nodded at them both, then turned and went on out of the building and down the steps.

"Nice to meet you, too." Chris shook his head. "Not exactly the social type."

"What'd you expect? You ran him over and he was already hurt. Didn't sound like he was too happy before, either."

"Suppose not." Chris pushed open the door and started down the stone steps. "I wonder ... did you see that Marshal's badge he was wearing?"

"Little early to start recruiting, don't you think? Travis doesn't have the approval yet." Buck caught up with him and nudged him with his shoulder. "You see something you like in there?"

Chris thought about it. When Buck put it that way, there was nothing at all he could put his finger on about the man. Just a feeling. Hell, likely the guy would head back to Texas and that would be that. Just because the guy was cursing out his job today didn't mean anything. Much as they all loved their jobs, on any given day they could be found cursing the work or the boss or the co-workers.

"Nah. Just a hunch. Nothing worth thinking about." Chris looked up at Buck and bumped into him again. "Where's this steak place, and is it the steak or the waitresses you're looking forward to?"

"Little of both."

Waiting for Monday was the hardest thing Chris had done in a long time. It was the first weekend in years he hadn't spent staring at the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle, and the itch to find one was almost overwhelming. Without Buck there to distract him or to fight with him, he was sure he'd have found his way to the local bar and tied one on. Probably found himself a nasty bar fight at the same time. But Buck kept on being Buck and kept him on the straight and narrow. Three weeks, Buck kept telling him. Three weeks is what it takes to establish a new habit, and his habit had to be not going out looking for booze and battle.

Monday dawned bright and cheerful, and Chris wanted to punch it in the face. The shakes were completely gone, his gut felt almost normal. He still had another week on some of his meds, and if the notes were right, he'd be on one of them for the rest of his life. But none of the meds or notes had warned him about fits of anger, and it was hard not to give in to them.

Anger or not, though, he had to go in to the office. If Travis was right, approvals would be final, and they'd be drafting the job posting for his new team. Glancing across the kitchen table at Buck, he tried to imagine the team without him. When he'd left DPD for the ATF, it was with vengeance in his heart, he was going to use the full resources of the Federal Government to find the bastards that killed his wife and son. Buck had not followed him to the ATF, and it had left another hole in his soul not to have Buck beside him. The biggest hole hadn't been mended, either. Vengeance had not been achieved, and the killers were as yet unknown. And with the police giving up on the case, maybe one of the things he could have this team of non-traditional thinkers work on was finding those killers. Maybe.

After breakfast, they drove in to downtown to meet with Travis and start this new chapter in his life.

Approvals in hand, the guidelines for the team reflected his demands from the meeting last week. He would have the freedom to open the personnel hunt across all the federal agencies. He would have the freedom to choose the people he wanted. It seemed almost unreal, to go from nearly being handed his hat to an opportunity like this one. He remembered Travis's words, though, to not let him come to regret it. You won't, he thought.

"This is your new office." Travis had taken them down to the 11th floor, to the south-west corner of the building. "They were going to let the leasing company rent it out to someone else, but I got it just in time. Can't say it's much, but it's better than nothing."

To Chris, it was perfect. Half a dozen desks in the middle of a larger room, two small offices on the south wall, an area that could be made into a coffee station. Network cables lay coiled on all the desks. "No computers?"

"This was vacant. I'll send in reqs for the tech stuff as you find your people."

"If I have to work from here, we're going to need at least two right away."

Travis turned to look at him. "Two?"

Chris nodded. "Buck's working with me on the search."

"Chris, I can't allow that."

He felt one of those jolts of anger build. "You don't have a choice in that. You want me to do this. I need his help."

"Mr. Wilmington is not part of this agency, and has not agreed to leave his job to join your team."

Chris looked at Buck, pleading with him to find the right words to make this work.

"Director," Buck said quietly, "Chris is the best man you have to head up this new team. For a lot of reasons that are none of your damn business, I'm not ready to say I'll leave DPD and join up. But I want Chris to succeed. I want you to succeed. If you want to succeed, you write me down as a contract worker or long term visitor or whatever it takes for you to be comfortable with it, because I'm going to be here every day for the next few weeks to help Chris."

"Blackmail, Mr. Wilmington?" Travis had an edge in his voice.

"Facts, Director Travis." Buck was quietly firm.

The director stood still, staring first at Buck, then at Chris. "Looks like you're using that autonomy already, Chris. I'll have a temp badge made up for Mr. Wilmington and put in the req with IT for computers." He turned to leave the office, then turned back. "I'll want the draft of your job posting before lunch." With that, Travis left the area, closing the door firmly behind him.

"Looks like I won round one."

"I don't know, Chris, that's one tough old man."

"And I need him on my side." He turned to Buck and smiled. "Thanks for working him around."

"Looked like you were going to explode for a minute."

"Yeah." And for a moment, he was that close to uncontrolled anger. Control, he thought, just have to hold on to the control and the anger fits will pass.

"Guess you get six guys for your team." Buck was wandering around the desks, pulling out drawers, taking out pens and boxes of paper clips.

"How do you figure?"

Buck waved over the desks. "Six desks. One office for you. One for printers and files."

For the first time in months, Chris laughed. "That's one way to decide. What do you say we go into my office and write this damn job posting."

He had the template for the posting, but the hardest part was working out how to say what he wanted in the section on job description. Technically, his team would all be agents like anyone else in the ATF. But he wanted to say more, to hint that he was looking for men who wanted more out of law enforcement than just a paycheck. To hint that this team could be a second chance for someone who was good at what they did but wasn't in the right place to do it.

That one paragraph took them over an hour to word to his satisfaction. But when they were done, he was sure it would both draw the people he was looking for and meet the satisfaction of the suits who had to approve it.

As they were finishing the final handwritten draft, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of IT with a cartload of computers and printers. Chris shook his head at the young geek they'd sent up to hook everything up. Kid couldn't be more than minimum age for the agency, he figured. The kid had long dark hair that kept falling over his eyes, an easy smile, and looked a little nervous to be on his own. "Where do you want this stuff?"

"Agent Dunne, is it?" Chris asked, reading the kid's badge, "one in that office," he pointed to the one he'd chosen as his, "and the rest on these desks." He did a quick mental tally of the monitors on the cart. "They sent up seven? I thought the director was only asking for two."

"He did," Dunne answered, "but I know this office. Figured he'd ask for the rest later, and thought I'd save myself a trip."

"Any chance you'll have a printer hooked up before lunch?"

Dunne nodded. "Sure, no problem. I'll do your office first and put a printer in there." He dug into his pocket and handed Chris some slips of paper. "These are your accounts and passwords. I set you up with complete access, and these computers have all the current user apps on them."

"Damn," Buck said, "we could use an IT department like this over at the PD."

"This is easy." Dunne took something out of his pocket and hooked it up to the network cable on the closest desk, looked at the gadget and wrote something on a sticker which he stuck to the cable. He repeated this for every cable in the office, then started on the wall outlets. When he was done, he went back to the cart and started moving computers and monitors. "I don't suppose you guys would mind setting these around, would you?"

Realizing he'd been watching this IT whirlwind with something approaching amazement, Chris did what he knew how to do, lift and carry. With the kid hooking up cables and working the keyboards and Chris and Buck moving equipment, they had the office wired and running within an hour.

"That office there," Dunne pointed at Chris's chosen office, "I have to set up a few more things, but you can print to your local printer if you need to get that doc typed up." He pulled out a chair and sat at one of the computers, logging in and pulling up some screens Chris had never seen before. "I can remote in to the system from here and finish everything."

Chris took that as his dismissal and went into his office. "Is that kid that good, or am I that stupid about computers?"

"I think it's a little of both." Buck sat down in the chair he'd pulled in from the main area. "But at least we don't have to bring Travis a handwritten note."

With the printed document in hand, Chris went out to the main area again. It was amazing. While they'd spent twenty minutes typing up one short paragraph, Dunne had every desk computer arranged and cables tidied up, and he'd even pushed the desks around to make a more sensible working area. As he taped an envelope to the last monitor, he looked up. "The default usernames and passwords are in these envelopes. Whoever gets the desks can change them when they log in the first time." Dunne stood with his hands on his hips, looking around the office critically. "Looks like I'm done here. You need anything, just give me a call." He came over and handed Chris a card with his name and number on it.

"Thank you, Agent Dunne." Chris took the card and put it in his shirt pocket.

"No problem." Dunne took the cart and headed for the door, and Chris heard him mumbling as he left the office. "Go set up computers, J.D., do research, J.D., stay in the dark stupid basement, J.D. Yeah, no problem."

Buck had come up to stand close beside Chris. "Another unhappy camper there."

"Yeah, but he's a kid, and a geek kid at that."

"I'm just saying." Buck waved a hand at the desks. "He showed up with more computers than he was supposed to, they were all ready to run, and he even arranged the damn furniture."

"So, he's an efficient geek kid."

"Never know when you might need a geek."

"I need one, I'll call one." He held out the paper in his hand. "Right now, I want to get this upstairs."

Travis wasn't in his office, but his secretary took the description and the rest of the posting information and assured them it would be on the inter-agency website before end of day. She also mentioned that the director had asked to have some files delivered to their new office, so they should be expecting them any time.

Any time appeared to be sooner than Chris expected. When they got back to the office, there were half a dozen cardboard file boxes stacked on the desks, each one with an inventory list taped to the top.

"Holy crap," Buck whispered, "these are just the extracts of cases, not the whole case files. Must be a dozen in each box."

"Guess they don't want us to get bored waiting for resumes to roll in."

"Guess not."

"We're going to read through all this, we need coffee." Chris looked at the alcove he'd designated for the break area. "Hell, we need a coffee maker, a fridge, a microwave." He looked at Buck. "Time to do a little strategic scrounging."

The dead storage room yielded dusty but usable cabinets and a two burner coffee maker. A commandeered hand truck later and they had a passable break area. A foray by Buck into a quiet office and they had supplies to make coffee. Chris figured carrying water from the rest room would do for the time being. Maybe once he actually had a team, he could get a water cooler and that microwave.

They picked out the most comfortable chairs, pulled them up to adjoining desks and sat back to start reading through the files. Before they knew it, it was five o'clock and time to close up shop for the day.

As Chris pulled the door shut and tested that it was locked, he looked at the key in his hand. For all the teams he'd worked with, this was his first time as leader with all the responsibilities that came with it. And all the privileges, too. He had a long moment of feeling a bit awestruck by it all, excitement combining with fear at what he had ahead of him.

"We better stop at the Costco on the way home." Trust Buck to bring him back to the mundane.


"Supplies for the break room."

"All I have to do is put in a req and we'll get everything."


That was it, he was going to lose that battle no matter how hard he tried, so he didn't try. The Costco was on the way home, so they stopped. He worried a bit when Buck chose a flat cart to take inside. Worried a bit more when it was filled with a microwave and small fridge. Stopped worrying when bags of apples and oranges went on top of that, followed by coffee supplies. If he couldn't get reimbursed for the stuff, he'd take the appliances home. Like he always said, it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.

The next day went on much as the first. Scrounge a bit for office furniture and supplies, read files, check for answers to his job posting. By the third day, a call from Travis's secretary supplied him with his charge number to order supplies and instructions to stay the hell out of other people's offices.

On the fourth day, he had his first answers to the job posting. The packets were delivered to him in the morning interoffice mail, and he was almost scared to open them. Buck took the first one out of his hands and undid the clasp, pulling out the papers and handing them to Chris.

He read the cover letter and the resume, then looked at the attached photo. "I know this guy. Medium bright, but pretty ordinary in his work. Not what I'm looking for, at least not until we run out of choices." He put a sticky note on the envelope and wrote his comments there, then set it aside.

The next envelope was from an agent in another state. "Reads okay, but I need to know more. Guess I'll ask the geeks to do some research on him."

The third envelope was from another agency. Chris opened it and pulled out the pages, looking for the resume and photo. "Well, I'll be damned." He held out the photo for Buck to see. "Look at this." It was a photo of the U.S. Marshal he'd knocked down in the building lobby last week. "I'm putting the geeks on this one, too."

"You want their best work, probably shouldn't call them geeks to their face."

Chris reached for the phone, punching in the number for the research department. He gave them the names and I.D. numbers of the two men he wanted to know more about and hung up the phone. "They said it might take a while."

"Wonder what they mean by a while."

"Better not be more than a day."

In actuality, they had the first files from research by mid-afternoon. To Chris's consternation, there wasn't anything there that hadn't been sent in the original packets. His call back to them didn't get him any further, all they'd do was say he was being provided with the information that he was legally entitled to.

"Damn regs! How do they expect me to find out what I need to know about a man?"

Buck stretched his arms up over his head, then crossed them over his chest. "You still got that kid's number? Agent Dunne? Might give him a call direct."

Dunne was more receptive to what Chris was looking for, but warned him that what he wanted could take some serious digging. Chris told him that if he got what he wanted, he was willing to be patient. What he didn't tell Dunne was that his patience had limits.

When Friday afternoon rolled around and he still hadn't heard back from Dunne, Chris was starting to wonder if he'd made a mistake. Of course, he knew he was asking for information that not only went way outside what personnel files could include, he was asking for information that skirted legality. All it would take was for the kid to pick up the phone and tell Travis what he'd asked for and all this would be over before it got started.

He sat and fidgeted and tried to read case files and refused to look at Buck, who was sitting and looking way too calm under the circumstances.

"Let's go find the kid."

Chris looked up at Buck, who was now standing near the door. "You think it's a good idea?"

"Not really." Buck shook his head. "But you're not going to get anything done until we know if he's found anything or ratted us to Travis."

Put that way, they didn't really have any choice.

The basement was gray. Gray concrete, stainless steel doors, anything that wasn't naturally gray was painted gray. No wonder Dunne hated it down there. IT was behind two sets of security doors, but luck was with them. When they dialed the phone access, Dunne picked up on the first ring.

The kid's cubicle was in the farthest corner of the big room, and it was hard to tell if he was ripping the guts out of things or making them work. Or both. His desk had three different monitors on it, each one with different programs running, each one with a keyboard in front of it. He led them back there, then plopped into his chair, rolling over to one of the keyboards. "Download's almost done." He looked up at Chris, nervousness showing in every motion. "I did say it could take time, right?"

Now Chris felt like shit. He had no idea how long this sort of computer search took and by coming down here, he'd got the kid's nerves on edge. But dammit, he wanted the information, and he wanted it yesterday.

"Relax, kid." Buck took over the conversation, using his smile and his calm to soothe both Dunne and Chris. "Chris here, he gets a little impatient sometimes. We just figured we'd come down and see how things were going is all."

"Oh." Dunne smiled. "Okay." He grabbed up one manila envelope and handed it to them. "Got the stuff on Clifford with no problem. Tanner's a bit harder. Had to back door into his military and school history, but I got there. Gonna take a few more minutes to get it all, though." He jumped up and went to the next cubicle and grabbed two chairs, rolling them into his area. "You can wait if you want. Ten minutes, tops."

They sat down, and Dunne turned his back to them, working alternately on the three keyboards, stopping occasionally to stare at a monitor, then typing more. Eventually, one of them displayed what seemed to be classified documents. "Good, good," Dunne mumbled, "go print, pretty docs. Print quick and let me out of there."

Swinging around in his chair, Dunne looked at Chris. "You realize to get what you wanted, I had to hack the Pentagon, right?"

"Shit." That was Buck. And Buck had a point. Hacking the Pentagon could get them all much more than fired.

"The Pentagon?" Chris repeated.

"Not that hard, really," Dunne said, "but I figured you should know. This Tanner has lots of totally classified shit in his background."

The pages finished printing, and Dunne gathered them together into another manila folder. "You going to need more stuff like this?"

"I might."

Dunne took a deep breath. "Okay." He looked around at the rest of the cubicles. "They don't know what I do anyway. But if we get caught, we're toast, you know that?"

Chris chuckled. "Story of my life." He stood up, tucking the envelopes under his arm. "Thanks, Agent Dunne."

Neither Chris or Buck said a word until they were back in their own office area, but once they were, Buck was the one who said what they were both thinking. "He fucking hacked the Pentagon!"

"Question is," Chris stared at the envelopes he'd dropped on the desk, "what the hell have we got here?"

"I say we take them all and get the hell out of here. It's late, and we can read through them at the ranch."

Buck was right. They didn't need these files to be seen in the office at all.

Saturday morning was gray and threatened rain, which suited Chris just fine. He woke up looking for a fight and didn't know why, just knew he was likely to belt the first person who crossed him. And since he was alone with Buck, he knew who that person was likely to be.

In his living room, there was that damn box where Buck had locked up the liquor. Who the hell did he think he was, taking what belonged to Chris and locking it up? He gave the trunk a kick and only managed to hurt his foot and make himself madder. When he got to the kitchen, there was old Buck, drinking coffee, looking like nothing in the world was wrong. Well, goddamnit, there was something wrong. Chris wanted a drink. Really, really wanted one, more than he thought he'd ever wanted one.

"Give me the key," he growled.

"No." At least Buck had the grace not to play dumb with him.

"My house, my whiskey. Give me the fucking key."

Buck looked up at him. "No."

He was never quite sure what happened then, but there was buzzing in his ears, a red haze in his eyes, and he knew he yelled as he jumped on Buck. By the time fists stopped flying, he was face down on the kitchen floor, his hands behind his back and Buck was sitting on his legs.

"You can let me up," he said, and with the motion of his mouth he realized he had a split lip.

Buck didn't move right away, and Chris understood what he was waiting for. He consciously relaxed, doing his best not to struggle, to let Buck know he was in control again. A minute or two later, that seemed like hours, Buck shifted off of him and let go of his hands. Rather than get up too fast, Chris rolled over and sat on the floor, his knees pulled up.

"You okay?" Buck asked.

"No." And he wasn't. He didn't know what had caused him to go off like that, to wake up feeling so shitty. Except, of course, that he did know. One more part of getting his system clean, and Buck ended up taking the punishment.

"What can I do?"

He looked at Buck, standing, leaning on the counter by the sink, holding a cloth to his cheek. "I don't know." That, at least, was true. He had no idea what anyone else could do for him outside of what Buck was already doing. So much of his recovery had to be done by himself. "Just keep doing what you're doing, I guess."

Buck nodded. "You going to sit on the floor all day?"

"No." He climbed to his feet, testing to see if anything was hurt, then reached out to touch Buck's face. "Let me see." It wasn't bad, a knuckle cut to his cheekbone, but it was going to bruise up beautifully.

Flinching away from him, Buck put the cloth back on his face. "I'm fine."

Yeah. Sure. Chris left the house and went out to the barn. Whips and jingles was what the old timers used to call what he had now. Couldn't stay in one place, couldn't hold still, couldn't tolerate being with anyone, couldn't tolerate his own company. "Fuck!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. Just to keep moving he fed the horses, but that wasn't enough. He didn't know what would be.

He could see Buck through the kitchen window. Damn man was cooking breakfast. Fucker. Damn busybody. Who the hell needed him anyway? You, you moron, the voice in his head answered. How the hell do you expect to get clean and start a new team all in less than a month without him? You can't. Face it. You fucked yourself up so badly that without someone looking out for you, you'll end up right back there.

Get a grip. Think. You know it's not real, you know it's the withdrawal. Sure feels real, though.

The barn cat trotted across the driveway to him, rubbing against his legs. He picked her up and held her, listening to and feeling her purr against his chest. Thanks, Cat, good to know someone still likes me. He scratched her ears and head, then put her down. Cat isn't the only one who still likes you.

The worst of his mood passed and Chris thought it might be safe to go back inside with Buck. Besides, he was hungry, and he could smell the bacon cooking.

"Horses are fed," he told Buck as he poured his coffee. The only battle he'd won so far had been to go back to his black coffee.

Buck didn't say anything in response, just dished up bacon and eggs and toast. Over a last cup of coffee, Buck finally said something. "You want to read over those files?"

Reading files was the last thing he had in mind. "No, I don't want to read the fucking files." He stood up abruptly, jiggling the table and the dishes. Something about the sound got to him, and with a swipe of his hand, his plate and cup flew to the floor, shattering with a great crash.

Just as quickly, Buck was on his feet, his forearm across Chris's throat, pinning him to the wall. "You are this close to ending up in the hospital." Buck pushed harder, cutting off Chris's breathing. "I know you're going through Hell. I do. And I want to help you. But I will not let you indulge yourself with this bullshit." Buck backed off, letting Chris breathe again. "You can clean up your mess. I'm done with doing it for you."

Stunned, Chris stayed against the wall, watching Buck as he walked out of the kitchen. After a long moment, he raised his hand and rubbed his throat. Looked like Buck had reached his limit. The question was, had he pushed Buck that far on purpose, or was he, as Buck had said, indulging his bad behaviors? He honestly didn't know. He was so damn edgy that everything seemed to set him off, and he struck out at whatever was close. And right now, that was Buck.

He could start by clearing up the mess. Broom in the closet. Dust pan. Paper towels for the food scraps. All into the trash. But how could he stop himself? Maybe, that annoying little voice said, by recognizing that you're doing it, you can make yourself stop. Yeah, maybe. He poured himself another cup of coffee and sat alone at the kitchen table, doing his best to relax as he drank it. When he thought he had his equilibrium back, he went in search of Buck.

Chris wandered through the living room and down the hall to the den, following the sound of fingers tapping on a keyboard, and found Buck at his computer. "What are you doing?" He hoped he sounded only curious and not accusatory.

Buck glanced up from the monitor. "Paying bills." He turned his attention back to the screen. "Did you ever think about how they got paid when you weren't doing it?"

No, he never had. "I paid them," he objected.

"Not often enough." Buck kept working at the keyboard, making notes on each bill as he set it aside. "Somebody had to make sure you didn't lose the house."

It was like a slap in the face, realizing that he was no longer in control of his life, and really hadn't been for a long time. Further realizing that Buck was the one in control ratcheted up his anger again, and he stepped away, turning his back, fists clenched while he did his best to ride it out. It took a few minutes, and thankfully, Buck didn't say anything while he worked himself through it.

With the anger under control for the moment, Chris knew what he needed. He needed to not be with Buck today, at least not the side by side closeness they'd had for the past couple of weeks. He needed some space and some air and some time of his own.

Taking a deep breath, he turned back to Buck. "I'm going up to the top of the pasture. I'll be back."

The barest hint of a smile touched Buck's mouth. "Okay."

No matter how nervy he felt, Chris knew better than to go for a hike unprepared. He dressed in heavy hiking boots and jeans, tee shirt, flannel shirt and jacket. Shrugging a small knapsack with a couple of bottles of water and some snacks across his shoulders, he headed across the yard.

It wasn't a strenuous hike, but it was a damn sight more exercise than he'd done recently. Still, he decided not to take the direct route to the top of the pasture. He set out along the fence line, taking the longest way he could think of. Maybe if he got himself good and tired, some of this would pass.

By the time he'd worked his way to the top of the hill, he'd found three loose boards on the fence and made a mental note to go back later and fix them. Thankfully, they weren't enough that a horse could get out, but it showed him how little attention he'd been paying to the place, and increased the sense of guilt that had started when he saw Buck paying his bills. Damn stupid to get so deep inside the bottle that he didn't care if he had a roof over his head. But Buck, steady Buck watched his back, just like always. Or at least when he'd let him.

At the highest point of the pasture were some big flat rocks, and Chris sat there looking down the hill at the house. Far enough away to look like a doll's house. Close enough to be home within the hour. But he didn't want to be back in the house, not just yet. Sitting in the sun, feeling the heat the rocks had taken on, it was the most soothing thing he'd done in a long time, and he was convinced that it would help him.

Letting his mind wander, he thought about the last time he'd been up here, and pain enveloped his heart. This was a favorite place for him to come with Sarah and Adam, to sit and look over the family ranch, to watch Adam run in the grass trying to catch rabbits and squirrels. That would never happen again. Now he was moving forward, trying to face life without them, and it hurt. It hurt like hell. But he could also feel the rightness of it, of his accepting Travis's offer, of working side by side with Buck again. It could be enough to help him truly believe in living, not just surviving.

A light breeze plucked at his hair, and he almost wondered if it was a message, something telling him that it agreed, and it was good that he should keep on with life. Maybe, he thought, but I'll never forget. Never stop trying to find the bastard killer. Life can have both pain and memories, regret and looking forward.

The sun was inching toward the western mountains, and the breeze was more chilled. Spring might be coming, but it wasn't all the way here yet. Time to head back down the hill.

When he got back to the house, the only light on was the flickering from the television, and Buck was oblivious to the world, draped in a reclining chair, snoring softly. Chris put his knapsack in the kitchen, went out again to give the horses their dinner. No point in waking Buck. He'd had nearly as bad a couple of weeks as Chris had. Maybe worse, since Chris at least hadn't been fully conscious for big parts of it.

After feeding the horses, Chris went in and sprawled on the couch, gently taking the tv remote out of Buck's hand. He flipped through most of the channels before settling on an old James Bond movie. He watched for a while, then decided it was his turn to cook. Not that he'd been doing any cooking at all to speak of so far. But he could cook, and before long he had some chicken simmering in a pan on the stove. If he knew Buck, just about the time it was done the smell would wake him up. Buck had an uncanny sense of those things, and was more accurate than the kitchen timer.

Back in the living room, Chris watched Buck sleep, wondering how they could have gotten on such wrong footing with each other. You don't know? that damn, stupid, annoying voice in his head asked. Yes, of course I know, he told it. I know now, just wish I could have known when it started so I wouldn't have let it get so far gone. Better late than never, the stupid cliché-ridden voice said.

"You cooked." He jumped at Buck's voice, and wondered how long Buck had been awake.

"I did." Chris smiled at Buck. "Nothing fancy, but I think it'll keep us from starving."

"You're feeling better." Not a question, a statement.



"Found a few repairs needed on the fence line. Should have taken a hammer with me."

Buck shook his head, then pulled the recliner up to vertical. "Nah, plenty of time for that later." He stood up, stretching. "Anything need doing?"

"Horses are fed, dinner's simmering. Should be all we need." And it really was. Dinner in the kitchen, movies on the television, the papers could wait until tomorrow. "Go wash up."

"Yes, mother."

That sounded damn near normal, Chris thought. Wonder how long it'll last. Long enough, the voice answered.

Normal lasted all through dinner and the evening in front of the tv. Normal even carried on to the next day. And it felt really good.

Midway through the morning, Chris brought the files out of the den. "Suppose we can't avoid these forever."

Buck brought two glasses of iced tea to the table. "I can't decide if I want to read what that Dunne kid found or not. I can't get over that he hacked the Pentagon."

"I'm just glad he's on our side." Chris picked up the envelope marked 'Clifford' and pulled out the sheaf of papers. Skimming the top sheet, he passed each one in turn to Buck after he looked at them. "This guy looks pretty normal. Just wants to get the hell out of North Dakota. Can't say I blame him."

"But he's not what you're looking for."

No, not really, Chris thought. Gary Clifford, ATF for five years, stationed along the North Dakota - Canada border. Good education, well thought of by his peers and supervisor. Normal family life. "I should interview him."

"But he's not what you're looking for," Buck repeated.

"No," Chris admitted aloud. "He's too damn normal." And that made no sense. In this business, normal was an asset, and here he was on his search for people as lost as he was. "I'm going to talk to him." He picked up the pad of sticky notes and put one on the envelope, writing 'phone interview' on it. The papers went back inside and it was set aside.

Tanner's envelope was thick with documents. When he pulled the sheaf out, on top of all of them was a handwritten note from Dunne. He read it quickly, then handed it to Buck. "Smart kid." Dunne had tagged every illegally obtained document so that they could pull them out of the packet and shred them later.

The top few pages were the official application and resume. As they already knew, one Vincent Tanner was an employee of the U. S. Marshal's Service, working to apprehend wayward felons. His official past was a little hazy. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army, ending up in the Rangers, assignment unspecified. Honorable discharge. Worked as a recovery agent for a couple of bail bondsmen before signing up with the Marshals. Typical letters of recommendation. It was what was underneath those that got interesting.

The first of the red-tagged documents was a sealed juvenile record from Texas. How the hell Dunne had gotten into that system, he knew he didn't want to know. Chris passed the pages over to Buck. The next pages were copies of Army personnel files. Skimming through them, Chris wasn't sure he even wanted to trust a shredder to obliterate them. He passed these to Buck as well, then waited.

"Holy shit." Yeah, that was the response he expected.


"Black ops, wet work. Some top secret shit here, Chris."

"I know." He waved at the resume. "What I want to know is how he got to bounty hunting from black ops."

Buck pulled out one paper and slid it back to Chris. "This one might tell the story."

Chris pulled the document closer, reading more thoroughly. Yeah, that might be it. Accusations of him coming on to one of the other men. True or not, enough to get him discharged. The honorable was because they never proved anything.

"Looks like I've got me a candidate."

Bright and early Monday morning they were back at the office. The first thing Chris did was call Clifford in North Dakota and put him on speaker phone so Buck could listen in. As he expected, Clifford was a capable agent looking for a change of scenery. After spending enough time so the man wouldn't think he was being blown off, Chris assured Clifford that they'd be in touch when they were closer to making a decision.

"He sounds like a good man, Chris."

"I know, Buck." Chris sighed. "But he's just too..."


Chris laughed. "Yeah, he's still too normal."

Clifford's envelope was closed up and marked with a sticky note that said 'normal'. Let 'em wonder, Chris thought.

Picking up the phone again, Chris dialed Tanner's number, and again put him on speaker so Buck could listen in. Listening to the tone as much as the answers to his questions, Chris got the sense of a very intense young man who wasn't going to give them anything extra over the phone. This one he needed to meet in person.

Luck was with him, Tanner was still in Denver. Chris asked him if he'd come up to the office, but wasn't surprised when Tanner said no. They arranged to meet in the park in front of the old courthouse after lunch.

It was a warm day, so they walked from their building down to the park, finding Tanner sitting on a bench in the sunshine. When they walked up, the squirrels and pigeons he'd been feeding all took off. Tanner stood up to greet them, and Chris took a moment to look him over. Chris's height, more or less. Solid. Youngish. Tanner's hair was loose today and reached his shoulders. His leather coat looked well worn. Tanner's most striking feature was his piercing blue eyes. This man missed nothing.

He took Chris's hand in a strong grip. "Thanks for meeting out here. I figure you might have some questions I don't want the answers overheard in an office."

Right to the point. Did Tanner know they'd dug into his background or only suspect?

"Your resume is a little vague in spots." Chris took a seat on the bench, motioning Tanner to do the same. Buck waited till Tanner sat down, then sat next to him, opposite Chris.

"Kind of has to be," Tanner answered, then jerked a thumb at Buck. "He your back up?"

"I look like I need back up?"

Tanner looked at him, then at Buck, then back to Chris. "Nope." Smiling, he relaxed into the bench.

Chris felt like he'd passed some sort of test, and surprised himself by being pleased about it. This guy had him off balance and it was time to get control of the situation again. "What can you tell me about your Army career?"

"You were Navy, right?"

How the hell did he know that? "Seals."

"How much can you tell me about it?"

Touche. "Not much." But he did want to know if he was right about the discharge. "Why did you leave?"

Tanner was quiet for a long time, and Chris waited him out, understanding that he was considering how much he could say to total strangers. Finally, he said softly, "Somebody asked, and I told." He looked Chris straight in the eyes. "That a problem for you?"


"What about him?"

Buck chuckled. "Not hardly."

Tanner relaxed again. "How many you got for this team so far?"


"What about him?"

Chris looked at Buck, who shook his head minutely. Still hadn't made up his mind. Chris needed to see how he could sway that in his direction. "Not yet."

"But he comes with you on interviews. You ATF boys sure got a strange way of doing things."

He liked this man. Liked him a lot. He had an ease about him and a confidence, all underscored by a gentle irreverence. He wanted him on the team. "You going to be in Denver long?"


"On what?"

"Whether you make me a job offer or not." Tanner's grin was infectious.

"Can you hang out this week on the chance I will?"

"Can give you a couple days. After that, I got to get back to Texas."

Chris stood, Buck and Tanner following him. He held out his hand. "I'll be in touch." Again, Tanner's grip was firm.

As they walked back to the office, Chris looked behind him at Tanner. The pigeons and squirrels again surrounded the bench, and Tanner was feeding them bread crumbs.

"Let me guess," Buck said, "he's the first."

"Or the second," Chris said, hoping Buck would know what he meant.

"The first." So, Buck understood and wasn't going to sign on yet.

"I'm sending his packet up to Travis as soon as we get back. I want him."

Tuesday brought them another job application packet. It was good enough to merit a call to Dunne for more research. What they didn't get was approval to make an offer to Tanner.

By Wednesday noon, Chris was jumpy. How the fuck did Travis expect him to do this if they didn't let him hire people? Where were his answers? A knock on the door startled him, and he was embarrassed when it turned out to be Agent Dunne with the information he'd asked for on the latest application, a Nathan Jackson.

"Figured I'd bring it up, save you the trip to the basement," Dunne said as he handed over the packet.

"Thanks." Chris looked at Dunne. There was something else on his mind, but the kid looked too nervous to out and out ask. "Spit it out, kid, what's on your mind?"

"I, uh, I wanted to give you this, too." Dunne handed him another envelope. The name on the outside was John D. Dunne. "I'd like a chance on a team like you're putting together."

Chris nodded. His instinct was that this kid, this young man was too young, too green for what he needed. But he couldn't turn the kid away just yet. He had to consider him the same as anyone else. "All right. I'll look this over."

"Thank you, sir." Dunne turned and nearly ran out of the office.

Shaking his head, Chris stacked Jackson's envelope on top of Dunne's and put them both on the corner of his desk. The first thing he was going to do was find out why he didn't have an answer from Travis yet about Tanner. He picked up the phone, then thought a moment. He really needed to see Travis in person about this, get a read on what was really going on.

Buck was leaning back in his chair, one leg up on his desk as he read through more of the case files. They were finding more than a few that Chris thought would be a great challenge for his new team, and he had Buck looking for more. Buck looked up as he stepped out of his office.

"I'm going up and see Travis, find out when I can make an offer to Tanner."

Buck nodded. "You want company?"

"Nah, I think I can handle this on my own."

"Behave yourself up there, then."

With a smile, Chris headed out for the elevators. All he was going to do was ask a question. He could do that calmly enough, he was sure.

Travis was on the phone when Chris got there, and he was waved in and to a chair. He sat down and waited, deliberately not listening to the phone conversation. After he hung up the phone, Travis folded his hands together and looked at Chris. "What can I do for you, Chris?"

He almost lost his calm, thinking that Travis should know why he was here. Should know he was holding up Chris building the team by not letting him make the offers. But he held back, took a deep breath. "Just need to know when I can make an offer to Tanner."

"Thought it might be about that." Travis shuffled through some papers on his desk, pulling out a small stack paper-clipped together. "I told them down in H.R. that you would want to do it yourself. It took an extra day to get them to make up a packet for you to use." He reached forward to hand it to Chris. "The CD on the top has blank forms for the rest of the people you want to hire. There's a list of salary and benefits on there, too, in case any of them ask."

The tension Chris had brought with him evaporated, it was all he could call it. Travis had anticipated what he needed and now all he had to do was put it to use. "Thanks." It was all he could say, except for one more question. "They decide how many I can have?"

"No more than six." Travis smiled at him. "Budget boys would be happy if you took less, though."

Chris huffed out a laugh. "Have you looked at those case files? You could set a room full of agents on them and not get some of them solved." He stood up to leave. "But we'll see what we can do with seven of us."

He grinned at Buck when he got back to the office, holding up the sheaf of papers. "Got it all. Now all I have to do is call Tanner." He left his office door open so Buck could hear as he made the call. Tanner was still in Denver and agreed to come up and meet with him.

He looked up as Buck leaned on the door jamb. "Think he'll take it?"

"Sure hope so."

Buck sat down in the office with Chris while they waited and read over Jackson and Dunne's files. "Jackson looks good." Chris nodded. "Dunne has potential."

"He's too young."

"Maybe. He's smart, he obviously thinks outside the box."

"And you like him."

Buck shrugged. "Might. Just don't think you should dismiss him out of hand."

Chris put the file aside. "I'll think about it." He opened Jackson's file again. "We need to talk to this guy, though."

They heard the outer door open and a voice call out. "Mail call." Not the regular office runner, either. Chris got up to see who it was, not completely surprised to see Tanner standing in the office holding some small envelopes and one more large one that had to be another applicant. He took them all and tossed them on his desk without looking at them, then pulled Tanner's file out of the cabinet.

"Let's sit down out here." He waved at the desks closest to the break area. Once they were comfortable, Chris looked straight at Tanner. "I've got a few more questions."

Tanner was relaxed and smiling. "Expected you might."

"You've been in Denver for a while. You job hunting while you work?"

"Not really," Tanner said. "I've been thinking on leaving the Marshals for a while, talked to a couple of friends about what I might do. One of them saw the job listing and called me. It sounded good and I asked him to pull my files off my computer and send them in for me."

"Real good friend, if you let him on your computer that way," Buck said.

Chris glanced at Buck, then back to Tanner, who was answering Buck. "Got to have someone you can trust."

"Sometimes hard in a job like this," Chris agreed. "There's a gap here between your discharge and when you started bounty hunting." He didn't make it a question, but he hoped Tanner would answer.

Tanner's eyes narrowed and Chris could tell he was deciding how much to give him. "There was a shooting I got blamed for just before I left the army. Took a little while to get things sorted out." Chris knew the timeline didn't jive. You don't leave the Army and still have them looking into your record. And to end up with the honorable discharge on top of it really had him wondering. "Just so you know," Tanner went on, "I didn't do it."

"Which is why the discharge went through normally." Chris was fishing. He knew that he was straying into Tanner's black ops career and that by rights he had no need to know and if Tanner refused to talk, that was it. Hell, if Tanner did talk, he could be charged with revealing classified information to Chris.

"Tell you what, Larabee," Tanner's voice had gone hard, "I get to trust you the way I trust Larry, maybe I'll tell you about that some day."

It was the right answer. Chris wanted Tanner to trust him instantly, but he also knew that was not going to happen. More than ever, he wanted this man on his new team. "Sounds fair to me." Chris picked up the paper he needed Tanner to fill out and sign. "I'd like you on this team. This is the official paperwork." He handed Tanner the paper, waiting while he looked it over.

Tanner concentrated on the paper for several minutes, his brow furrowed, but when he got to the bottom, he looked up and smiled. "Looks like you've got another man." Tanner reached for a pen and started filling in the few spots that he needed to.

"Got my first, you mean," Chris said.

That got Tanner's attention. "Your watchdog isn't on your team? I thought you and he were--"

Chris shook his head, but Buck answered. "Chris and me, we go way back. But I'm not ready to jump on this team. And it's been a while since we were, well, you know..."

"My fault," Chris filled in. He looked at Tanner. "I get to trust you the way I trust Buck, maybe I'll tell you about it some day."

Tanner finished filling in the blanks on the form and signed on the bottom. "I'm going to have to go settle things at home in Texas." He quirked a grin at Chris. "I gave them notice after we talked the first time. Had a good feeling about things. So all I got to do is pack a few things and decide what to do with my horse."

Chris looked at Buck, hoping he'd catch the question he was asking, and Buck nodded. Perfect. "You get him up here, I've got a small ranch outside town."

"No," Tanner shook his head, "I don't want to impose."

"If I were you," Buck spoke up, "I'd take it while Chris was offering."

"All right, then." Tanner stood up. "We done here?"

"Yeah," Chris said with a nod.

"They're waiting on me to clear my last case, but I'll be back as quick as I can."

Hands were shaken all around, and Tanner took his leave. Chris grinned, a feeling of exhilaration filling him. He had the first official member of his team. This really was going to happen.

"You got a winner there, stud." Buck looked as happy as Chris felt.

"First of many, I hope." He closed Tanner's form into an envelope and addressed it interoffice to H.R., dropping it into his 'out' basket. "So, let's see what else the mail brought." He grabbed the big envelope off his desk, slitting it open. The first pages were the usual resume and application form, but attached to them were some odd notes, mostly hand written, on colored paper. "What the hell?"

Sliding his chair closer, Buck picked up some of them. "Has to be a joke. And not a good one."

One of the pages was a love letter, obviously written by a man to another man. Another one was a note to Chris, saying that if he didn't hire him, the man would jump off a bridge. Still another appeared to be a letter of recommendation, but was more a plea to Chris to take this man off their hands.

Sitting back, Chris stared at the pages. "Joke or not, we need to know more. If this was sent by this guy's co-workers, he deserves to get out. If he put it together himself, his supervisor needs to know he's a little off balance." He grabbed the resume page and the phone. "I'm going to ask Dunne for a quick and dirty job on this. Assuming this is the guy's real name, that is. Who calls their kid Ezra?"

He stayed on the phone while Dunne did his preliminary work, discovering that one Ezra Standish was employed by the FBI in Atlanta and wasn't exactly well liked by his peers. Dunne said he'd have more by morning, so Chris let him go.

"I've got a feeling Standish didn't send this in himself."

"And that," Buck said, "adds to the problem. What the hell did he do to them to deserve that?"

"Guess we'll know in the morning." Chris put all the papers back in the envelope. "But right now, I think I'll give Jackson a call."

The phone number on Jackson's application turned out to be a quick care clinic on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. They had to wait a few minutes for him to be free to talk, but when he got on the phone, he sounded relieved that they had called. Chris wondered at that, wondered that a physician's assistant would want to join a tactical team, but Jackson's background was solid, and if he was reading the stress level properly, this was a man looking to make a change.

When they were done on the phone, Chris looked at Buck. "I want a face-to-face with him."

"That in your budget?"

"Guess I'll find out." Picking up the phone, he dialed H.R. to ask them to make the arrangements. When they didn't balk at all, he grinned at Buck and nodded, covering the phone with his hand. "They're looking up flights from Albuquerque right now." It took a few minutes, but he had flights and a hotel arranged for Jackson to come up for an interview on Friday.

Looking at his watch, Chris wondered if it was too late to call Atlanta. It was well after five there, but he was banking on the phone number being a cell phone. He put through the call, putting it on speaker as always.

"Lassiter, it's your dime." Not the answer he'd been expecting.

"This is Chris Larabee in Denver." Something told him that identifying himself as a federal agent could be a problem.

"How the fuck did you get this number?" Yeah, something wasn't right here.

"Friend of a friend," he waved at Buck to give him the envelope, and he pulled out the papers, searching for a name. "Warren."

There was a long silence. "Give me your number, I'll call you later."

Chris gave him his cell number, then hung up. "That was odd."

Shaking his head, Buck held out Standish's resume. "He does undercover work. I'll bet the bastards who set him up with this gave you the UC phone number."

"That could get him killed." Chris was more and more sure this man had not sent in his own resume, and that he was in a situation he needed to get away from.

"Wonder if they cared about that," Buck mused. "Wonder why they'd hate a man so much that transferred or killed were equal choices for them?"

"Maybe he'll call back and tell us."

The phone didn't ring until early the next morning, and Chris nearly missed it as he came in from feeding the horses. A quick check of the caller ID showed an Atlanta number, not the same one he'd called before, and he flipped the phone open. "Larabee."

"Are you going to tell me how you got that number?" No introductions, no niceties.

"Your name really Ezra Standish?" He could do short tempered as well as anyone.

He heard a long sigh. "Yes."

"A job application packet in your name was sent to me."

"I haven't applied for any change in position."

"I expected you didn't. If you want to know what they sent your name in for, it's on the interagency site, ATF Denver." Chris was going to let this man make up his own mind. "If you're interested, call me back."

"Thank you." Standish sounded surprised that Chris had made the offer, only reinforcing his sense that his work situation wasn't a good one.

Buck brought him a cup of coffee as he put the phone down. "That Standish?"

"It was." Chris took a long drink of the coffee, reveling in the flavor and that his stomach could handle it again. Well, as long as he took his meds and only had a cup in the morning. "He didn't send in the packet. I told him to look at the job posting and call back if he was interested."

"They want to get rid of him that bad, he may not be worth having."

"True," Chris agreed, "but by the time he decides, we'll have all of Dunne's snoop work."

When they got to the office, they found a sticky note on the door asking them to come down to see Dunne. They found him in his corner cubicle, madly typing on his keyboards.

"What've you got, kid?" Chris asked Dunne's back.

"My name's J.D., not kid," Dunne answered without turning around. When he did swing around to see who was there, his face flushed in embarrassment. "Sorry, Agent Larabee."

The kid was right. If he was old enough to be an agent, he was old enough to be called by his name. "Call me Chris, J.D."

J.D.'s smile told him he'd made the right call. "Pull up a couple of chairs. Got some stuff for you on Standish." J.D. picked a stack of pages off his desk and grabbed one just coming out of his printer. "First thing is, somebody thinks he's dirty. There's all this circumstantial stuff." He handed pages to Chris. "But it's a setup. Good enough to fool people who don't want to find the truth, but still a setup." J.D. handed him a few more pages. "Don't know if it matters, but Standish is gay. Seems to matter to some of the agents in Atlanta, though. He got hung out to dry last month on an op, and the investigation after was just shit." Chris looked at J.D. questioningly. "Sorry. It all felt wrong to me, so I did more digging. He's good at his job, but they hate him. It's pretty much what it comes down to."

"Give me what you've got." Chris ended up with a fair sized stack of papers in his hands, wondering how late, or maybe how early, J.D. had worked to get all of it.

They left the basement, not saying a word until they were in their own office.

"You think the kid has a life?" Chris spread the papers over his desk, picking up the ones J.D. had marked 'setup' first. He wasn't an expert at paper or money trails, but J.D. had made notes with highlighters that made the trail clear. It was convoluted, but it was all there. The rest were case reports, one with a cursory injury investigation attached. Alone, no single one of them would be cause for alarm. Taken as a whole, it looked like Standish was having a hard time with the team in Atlanta. Chris really hoped the man would call him back.

"Well, Chris," Buck put down the last of the pages, "you may not need Standish, but he sure needs you."

Nothing they could do but wait for a call. Or, that little voice piped up, you could call him back yourself and tell him what you found. Sure, Chris thought, and then get turned in for searching through records he didn't belong anywhere near.

Fortunately, he didn't have to make that decision. Standish called back and said he'd be sending in a proper application for the job.

So, they had one man signed on, a real possibility in Jackson coming in for an interview the next day, Standish submitting paperwork. And Buck, the voice insisted. And Buck.

Buck, who was looking through one of the applications again.

"Who you got there?"

"J.D." Buck handed him a few pages. "MIT grad, passed all his quals at the academy with good scores. You see what he's been doing for you with the digging."

"No field experience."

Buck shrugged. "Everybody's got to start somewhere."

Friday dawned gray and drizzly, but for Chris it was going to be a good day, he just knew it. Jackson would be in for his face-to-face interview. With luck, he'd have himself another man before the end of the day.

He hadn't been prepared for what was waiting for him when they got to the office; there was a man sitting against the door, head lolled back as he slept. Chris gave the man's shoe a nudge with his foot, stepping back as the man jerked awake and jumped to his feet, standing ready to defend himself. When he realized where he was, he relaxed.

"Gentlemen," the man began, straightening his clothes and finger-combing his hair. "Forgive me for arriving unannounced. Ezra Standish, at your service." He held out his hand and Chris took it, appreciating the firm hand-shake.

"Thought you were going to send in your application." Chris looked Standish over carefully, seeing bruising on his face, a slight hitch in his leg as he moved.

"I was," Standish said, "but I found myself in a position of needing to be away from Atlanta at the moment." He picked up an overnight bag and drew a folder from the outside pocket. "My application. A real one. I have no idea what my fellow agents might have sent you."

Chris took the folder, then unlocked the office door and led the way inside. He gestured at the desks. "Make yourself comfortable." Reaching into his office, he dropped Standish's file on his desk. Buck went straight on to the break area to make coffee, and Chris joined him there. "What do you make of that?"

"I don't know, but he sure looks like ten miles of bad road."

When the coffee finished brewing, Chris poured a mug and doctored it with milk and sugar and took it to Standish. "I know you didn't sleep there last night, so what's the story?"

Standish sipped the coffee, and Chris recognized the stalling tactic, but he eventually spoke. "I flew in on the red-eye last night. Arrived about five this morning and couldn't see the point in attempting to find a hotel at that ungodly hour. So, I had the taxi drop me here."

"Which doesn't explain anything about why you had to get out of Atlanta." Chris sat on the edge of the desk, using the physical position to play the alpha card.

"No, it doesn't." Standish put down the coffee and used both hands to rub his eyes. "And I'm not sure it's germane to our discussion."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that." He was starting to be annoyed by Standish's evasiveness, but at the same time understood that if it was something related to his job, Chris didn't have the right to pry.

Superiority by body language wasn't working. Standish just stared at Chris, clearly taking his time to consider if he was going to answer the question. This one is a loose cannon, Chris's little voice warned him.

"Very well." Standish sat up straight and folded his hands together on the desk. "When you called me on Wednesday evening, I was working with one of my snitches. By Thursday morning, word was out that I'd talked to the ATF. How the hell they knew who you were is beyond me, since I didn't even know. In any event, it spooked my contacts and blew the case we were building to smithereens. I decided that in the interest of my health, being away from Atlanta was advisable."

"That happen to you a lot?" Buck asked as he sat down across the desk from Standish.

Standish stared at Buck for a moment, then looked back at Chris. "You have done your homework."

Nodding, Chris retrieved Standish's folder from his desk. When he got back to where they were sitting, he took a chair, seeing no point in playing games with this man. Taking a few moments, he flipped through the papers in the file, looking at the resume and supporting documents. The resume was essentially the same as the one in the fake application, but he could guess that Standish knew what they might have added.

"Whoever sent in the first file outed you." Might as well cut straight to it and see what Standish would do.

Tilting his head, Standish gave Chris a small smile. "I could be coy and say 'outed me as what?', but that would be foolish. I will not deny it."


"Good?" Standish looked mystified. "Are you recruiting for a gay team? That was not the impression I got from the job description."

"No, I'm recruiting for good people who will tell me the truth when I ask questions." And I have a lot more questions, Chris thought. But not right now. Standish needed sleep and Chris had to prepare for Jackson's interview.

"Tell you what. Stay here for now, we'll get you booked into a hotel and you can catch a nap. I'd like to talk more later."

Standish nodded. "I'll check into a hotel later. Right now, if I may, could I use one of these computers?"

Chris couldn't see any reason not to let him, but had a moment of suspicion. After setting Standish up at a vacant desk, Chris went into his office and closed the door, calling down to J.D. to ask him to monitor the activity on that computer.

A soft tap on his door warned him as Buck came in and closed the door behind him. "He's a cagey one."

"I asked J.D. to monitor the computer he's using." Chris shook his head at Buck. "And no, before you ask, I don't trust him, but I don't think he's here under false pretenses either. I think he's been burned and doesn't trust anyone but himself."

"Okay." Buck looked at his watch. "What time did you tell Jackson to be here?"

"Ten o'clock."

"Be interesting to see how they get along."

There was another tap on the door, and Standish opened it far enough to poke his head in. "Your ten o'clock appointment is here, sir." He sounded for all the world as if he were Chris's secretary, and that was probably what he had in mind. Chris wondered if it was a game Standish was playing or if Jackson had done something to cause the change in his attitude.

"Thanks," Chris said, "we'll be right out." He looked a question at Buck, who shrugged in answer. Yeah, they'd find out when they went out to meet Jackson.

In the squad room, Jackson was standing just inside the door, his posture stiff and straight. Standish had returned to his computer, his jacket draped over the back of the chair and his shirt unbuttoned at the neck. Obviously, Jackson had assumed Standish worked there and Standish had not disabused him of that notion.

Chris introduced himself and Buck to Jackson and seated them at the farthest desks away from where Standish was, but not out of his earshot.

"So," Chris started, "is it Doctor or Mister Jackson?" J.D.'s research had found a mention of practicing without a license, and it wasn't something that sat well with Chris, if true.

"It's Mister."

"You care to explain what happened after Dr. Tahani died?"

Jackson's eyes hardened, and for a moment Chris thought he was going to get up and walk out. Instead, Jackson took a breath and answered the question. "We had the only clinic on the reservation. I worked beside Dr. Tahani every day for five years. When he died, the bureau wasn't going to send anyone else, so I kept on doing what I could for the people."

"Until the bureau caught on or until someone got hurt?" It was a low blow, but the rumor was a patient had died.

"This is about the old man that died, isn't it?" Jackson reached inside his jacket and pulled out a folded document. "Here's the damn autopsy report. The fool didn't come in until the gangrene was so advanced that there was nothing anyone could have done."

Chris took the document and unfolded it. It was a certified copy from the county coroner's office, and on the front page, the summary said exactly what Jackson had told him.

"I had to ask." Chris turned pages in his folder on Jackson. "How long has it been since you did fitness or weapons qualifications?"

"Last year." Jackson smiled at Chris's surprised look. "I like to keep my options open, so I made a deal with the reservation police that I could test with them every year."

Jackson seemed to be everything the paperwork said he was. A man disenfranchised because of his combined black heritage and being raised on the reservation, who was marked because he tried to help people and an old man died. Looked like Chris was going to have another man for his team.

He pulled out the document he'd prepared in advance and slid it across the desk to Jackson. "Here's the official offer. Look it over. You don't have to decide right now."

They were interrupted by a crash as Standish collapsed to the floor, sending his chair one way and a stack of papers another. In seconds, Jackson was by his side, Chris and Buck right behind him.

As Jackson turned Standish onto his back, his face was white as a sheet, letting the old bruises stand out even more. After checking for obvious injuries, Jackson looked up at Chris. "How long since this man ate right or slept?"

"I don't know. He showed up on our doorstep this morning, in from Atlanta for an interview." Chris wasn't going to share anybody's private information, and he thought that was close enough to the truth.

The look on Jackson's face told it all. He wasn't happy with Chris and he wasn't happy with Standish. "These are old bruises here," Jackson indicated Standish's cheek, "but he's got at least one cracked rib I can feel." He unbuttoned Standish's shirt and opened it to reveal more bruising. "Somebody don't like this boy much."

"Get your hands off me, you quack," Standish rasped out. "And give me back my shirt."

"Fine." Jackson pulled his hands away and got up. "All I was going to do was see if you had a rib might puncture a lung, but you don't want that, it's your funeral."

Great. Here he had two men he thought he wanted on his team and they hated each other on sight. And worse yet, one of them probably needed to be in a hospital.

"Standish." Chris waited till the man looked at him. "I'm taking you to the ER to get checked out. There will be no arguing with that." He saw Buck turn away to hide his laugh when Chris said that. "Mr. Jackson," Chris met the man's gaze, "thanks for your help here. Leave me a number where I can reach you later." He knew that Jackson would want to come along with them, but he had a few things to say to Standish that would be best said out of Jackson's hearing.

Friday afternoon in the ER was not going to be a quick visit. Chris managed to get them a little bit of priority by flashing his badge, but since Standish wasn't in danger of dying, there were other patients taken first. When they finally got to a room, Standish tried to have Chris removed, but his badge overruled that, too.

"You're a real bastard." Standish had regained some of his attitude, although it lost some of its effectiveness when he was lying on a gurney with an IV hooked up to his arm.

"Been told that before." Chris was sitting by the door in a plastic and metal, extremely uncomfortable chair. "You going to tell me who beat the shit out of you?"


His interrogation was interrupted by the arrival of the portable x-ray unit and Chris was sent outside while they took the pictures of Standish's ribs. Then there was more waiting for the blood tests and the images to be uploaded.

The doctor who came in with the results was a short, stocky, balding man with an air of weariness about him. His name tag read 'Berger'. Dr. Berger looked at Chris. "Your man here has been beaten, but you know that already. Damages are one cracked rib and assorted lacerations and contusions. He's also dehydrated. In spite of everything, he will live. In an ideal world, we'd admit him overnight for observation. This is not an ideal world. We'll support the rib and as soon as the IV finishes, you can take him home. I will ask that someone keep an eye on him for at least the next twenty-four hours and make sure he keeps his fluid levels up. I recommend one of the balanced electrolyte formulas. Any questions?"

"I am right here." Standish said softly.

Dr. Berger turned to look at him. "Yes, you are, but you're the man who got himself beat to crap and got on an airplane. You are not what I'd call the most responsible person in the room at the moment."

Chris had to work really hard not to laugh. This doctor wasn't quite as hard edged as the one he met in his own ER trip, but he ran a close second. "Dr. Berger?" When he had the doctor's attention, he went on. "I've wrapped a few ribs in my time, so I'm pretty sure we can handle that. Will Gatorade do for the fluids?" The doctor nodded. "Guess all we need is the paperwork, then."

It took almost as long to finish the paperwork as it did for the IV to finish, but close to an hour later they had Standish duly signed out, and Chris walked with him to the waiting area. Buck met up with them as they headed out for the parking lot. "What's the verdict?"

"They say I'll live, but I could have told them that before they started." Standish was moving a little slowly, so they adjusted their pace to stay with him.

When they were at the truck, Buck jingled the keys. "Where to?"

"Home." "Hotel." Chris and Standish answered together, but Chris shook his head. "Home. One night. We'll see how you're doing tomorrow."

"Very well." Standish didn't sound happy, but at least he was giving in to the common sense of the situation. Having him at the ranch overnight would also give Chris and Buck more time to figure this guy out.

"So," Chris began, once they were home and had Standish settled on the couch with a glass of Gatorade beside him, "you want to tell me what that thing with Mr. Jackson was all about?"

Standish hesitated, considering his answer. "No."

Should have expected a smart ass answer, Chris thought. "Let me rephrase that. What the fuck was going on between you and Jackson?"

"I simply did not want his hands on me. Is there a crime in that?"

"There might be." Chris took a breath, working to project outward calm, even though he was pissed as hell inside. "You got a problem with blacks? Or doctors? Or black doctors?"

"Mr. Larabee, are you asking if I'm a bigot? Because if you are, your snoop did a pretty piss poor job." Standish turned away, picking up his glass and taking a long drink, grimacing at the taste. "I don't suppose you could flavor this with a shot of bourbon?"

"Nope." Chris waited, but it was clear Standish thought his answer was enough. "What do you have against Nathan Jackson?"

This time, Standish's hesitation looked more like genuine thought. Chris harbored a hope that he'd get a straight answer. "Through the years, I have both met and been all sorts of charlatans. Mr. Jackson admitted he was not a doctor. I have no desire to be prodded by amateurs."

Chris was willing to leave things at that. If they decided to make an offer to Standish, they could deal with his attitude on an as needed basis.

"I still want to know who beat you up."

"And you don't believe it was an accident?"

Now Chris had to decide whether to let Standish know just how much J.D. had found out about him and his problems in Atlanta. Maybe if he laid his cards on the table, Standish would do the same. Or maybe, annoying little voice said, if you lay out your cards, he'll call his boss and have you and J.D. up on charges. You know, Chris thought, you keep saying that and no one has yet.

"No, I don't." His mind made up, Chris laid it all out. "My snoop, as you call him, found out a lot of things. He found out that you had at least one accident like this before and that nobody seemed to care if their fag undercover guy got the shit beat out of him. He also found out somebody's setting you up to look dirty."

Standish was quiet for a long time. "So. You know that I am gay. You know that my fellow agents in Atlanta are not sympathetic to that fact." He cocked an eyebrow at Chris. "I'm impressed you found the financial setup. I've only recently been aware of that myself." He looked down at his hands, then back at Chris. "Is this where you invite me to join your new, if dysfunctional, little family here in Denver?"

Buck had wandered in from the kitchen as Standish spoke. "You know, for a guy who could use a good escape from a bad situation, you're not making any friends here." He gestured to the kitchen. "And dinner's on."

No one said much while they ate, and Standish barely looked up from his plate. When they were finished, he looked up at Chris. "I owe you both an apology. You opened your home to me and I have been nothing but rude." He shook his head. "I envy you two your ability to live as you do, and I fear my envy has brought out the worst in me."

"We're not--" Chris was stopped by Buck's hand on his arm.

"Apology accepted," Buck said.

Standish didn't last much longer, and after they got him comfortable in the guest room, Chris cornered Buck in the living room. "Why did you let him think we were together?" And why did it bother him so much that Buck did? It's not like Standish was the first to say it. Maybe that was it. Standish wasn't the first, and maybe Chris wanted it to be true more than he was willing to admit to himself. Except right now it wasn't about him, it was about Standish. But maybe, little voice chimed in, it'll be about you one of these days soon.

"Because." Buck shoved Chris toward the kitchen. "Because he's looking for a chance. Because if he thinks we're together, he's going to think there's a chance for him here." Chris snorted at that. "Yeah," Buck went on, "he's as prickly as I've seen, but look at what he's coming from. And look at the fact that he stayed working at that office in spite of everything. He's pissing you off so if you don't hire him, it won't be because he's gay."

Chris just looked at Buck, realizing that everything the man had said was true. Most of it Chris had already seen and figured out, but Buck tied the last little knot in it. "Okay, assume you're right. If he's doing better tomorrow, we set him up at a hotel and hand him a little more rope and see what he does with it."

By the time Standish got up the next day, it was well past lunch time and Chris and Buck were relaxing in the sunshine on the broad side porch. Chris looked up when the kitchen screen door squeaked open. Standish was in the same dress shirt he'd been in yesterday and the same suit pants. With a start, Chris realized they had left Standish's overnight bag at the office, and after the trip to the ER, he hadn't given it any thought at all.

Standish didn't seem the least bit uncomfortable, so Chris left it alone, watching as he stepped into the sunshine and smiled. "Is it always this peaceful out here?"

"Most of the time."

Turning around to face them, Standish leaned on the porch railing. "I believe I've imposed on your hospitality long enough, gentlemen. I'm quite sure I'm well enough to be on my own." He scratched his chin. "I don't suppose we can pick up my things at your office?"

Chris thought for a moment. Standish did look like he was feeling better, it would be best if they found him a hotel and let him rest on his own. "Did you have a reservation somewhere, or was that all on the fly as well?"

"In a city this size, I assumed it would not be difficult to find a room."

No, it wouldn't be, not at this time of year. Chris leaned over and tapped Buck on the arm. "You up for a drive into town?"

Standish ended up with a room at one of the downtown hotels, grumbling about the six-pack of Gatorade they sent with him, but agreeing to drink it, mumbling something about bourbon and mini-bars.

He did, however, look Chris in the eye and shake his hand when Chris told him to rest up and come back to the office no sooner than Tuesday.

Buck was quiet most of the drive until they were out of the city on their way back to the ranch. "Why Tuesday?"

"Give him time to think. Time to rest up. Give me some time to prepare for him."

Buck chuckled. "Yeah, he's a handful. Be nice to see the man behind the curtain, though."

"You noticed that, too." Chris rubbed his eyes. He was tired. Not so much physically tired as just plain mentally worn out. When he'd taken Travis's offer to head up this team, he'd underestimated how much work would be involved in getting things going. What he wouldn't give to be able to go home, settle in a chair on the porch and have a cold beer. Two out of three, the little voice said. Yeah, he thought, could be worse.

Mid-morning on Monday, Jackson called, asking if it was convenient to come see Chris. When he arrived, Chris sat down with him in his office, leaving Buck out in the squad area.

"I'd like to join your team," Jackson said. "Brought the paperwork with me." He reached inside his jacket and pulled it out, unfolded it and handed it over to Chris.

Chris took a quick look to see if it was all filled in, then folded his hands over the pages. "Tell me what you thought of Standish."

The question surprised Jackson. "I thought he was a stupid jackass to get on an airplane in the shape he was in."

"Yeah, and?"

"And I thought he was an ungrateful bastard. All I was trying to do was help."

Now for the hardest question. "How would you feel about working with him?"

Jackson stared at Chris for a long moment. "Hard to judge a man based on one encounter, especially when he isn't feeling good."

"But you don't like him."

"Not so you could tell, no."

Holding out his hand, Chris stood up. "I appreciate your honesty. Welcome to the team, Mr. Jackson." Following Jackson out to the squad area, Chris smiled at Buck. "Got another one."

Slowly but surely, Chris was finding the right people to fill the team. He still didn't have Buck roped in, but with luck, anything could happen. The one thing that worried him was that before long, Buck would run out of leave time and have to go back to work. Chris was pretty sure he himself was over the worst of things, but he didn't want to lose the chance of convincing Buck to join the team.

The afternoon mail brought in two more applications, both of them more on the unlikely side of things, but worth looking into. Bob Friedman was with the Treasury Department in D.C., and Josiah Sanchez was an instructor at Quantico. Friedman had no field experience of any kind, and Chris wondered why the guy sent in an application. He had none of the basic requirements for the job. Sanchez, on the other hand, had quite a varied career, and while age was not on his side, experience certainly was. As usual, J.D. was more than willing to dig up what he could.

Just as they were going to leave the office Monday evening, the phone rang. Tanner was back from Texas and was hoping his horse still had a place to stay.

They met out at the ranch, and a more unlikely rig Chris'd never seen. Tanner's Jeep was towing an old two-horse trailer, the horse in one stall, and boxes of what he assumed were Tanner's worldly possessions in the other. Tanner opened the ramp of the trailer and stood back after untying the horse, letting him find his own way down, then giving him a carrot as he snagged the lead rope. The gelding was a big blaze-faced black who walked in circles around Tanner, munching on his carrot.

"You want to let him stretch his legs a bit, that front pasture is secure." Chris pointed to the gate across the driveway.

Tanner led the horse in, then laughed as he unbuckled the halter and let it slide off. The gelding took off at a run, head up and tail flying, stopping in the middle of the small pasture and turning around to whinny loudly. He was answered by the two in the barn, and trotted over to investigate.

"Looks like he's going to like it here," Tanner said. "He doesn't have that much fresh grass in Texas." He turned to look at both Buck and Chris. "I hate to ask, but could I leave the trailer with my stuff here while I hunt for a place to live?"

"Park it behind the barn," Chris told him. "You want to stay for dinner?"

Tanner was already heading for his rig. "No, thanks, I need to get to the motel. Got a reservation, and I'm bushed. Drove straight through to get here." After dropping off his trailer, Tanner stopped the Jeep next to them in the driveway. "I'll come in to the office in the morning, we can work out what I'll owe you for putting up with my fathead." With that, he put the Jeep in gear and headed out the driveway.

"He sure doesn't waste time," Buck mused.

No, Chris thought, he doesn't. He wasn't going to stay around long enough so they might get stuck in that awkward, should I offer him a room here situation, and he had his own lodgings worked out.

"I'm looking forward to tomorrow, though." Chris grinned. "Tanner, Jackson and Standish all in the office."

As he expected, both Tanner and Jackson were at the office before nine in the morning. Tanner arrived wearing jeans, a white oxford button down shirt and his leather coat. Jackson was in beige Dockers, white polo shirt and a navy jacket. Chris was pleased with the lack of pretension in their dress. They looked like the people they seemed to be, and that reaffirmed to Chris that his choices were right so far.

Since these two were officially signed on, Chris put them to work looking over some of the case files that he and Buck had identified as good starting projects for a new team.

About twenty minutes later, Standish arrived, dressed smartly in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt and forest green tie. Chris thought he looked more like he belonged uptown in the financial district, but he had to admit, it suited his initial impression of the man. What didn't, though, was the box in his hands. The large, flat box was marked in orange and pink, covered with the logo from Dunkin' Donuts, and he had a bag balanced on top.

Tanner looked up first when Standish arrived, and grinned wide. "Dunkin' Donuts. A man after my own heart."

Standish responded with a small smile of his own. "Best coffee in the country." He set the box of donuts down on the small table in the break area, opened the bag and took out a styrofoam cup of coffee and a bag of beans. The beans he sat next to the coffee maker, the cup stayed in his hand. "Donuts aren't bad, either."

"The donuts," Tanner said, easing in next to Standish and opening the box, "are the best." Before Tanner could get one, Standish's hand snaked in and grabbed a plain cake donut, and he backed away, moving toward the desk he'd used before. Tanner, on the other hand, had picked up a big old-fashioned buttermilk bar, and damn if it didn't look to Chris like he was giving it a blow job. He did his best not to laugh as he saw the look on Standish's face, knowing he was thinking the same thing as Chris.

"I love these things," Tanner said, all innocence.

"I can see that." Standish almost choked on his coffee when Tanner nearly deep-throated the thing.

Laughing, Tanner threw a wink Chris's direction then clapped Standish on the shoulder. "You want to share where you found these?"

"I might," Standish told him, dead-pan, "but then I'd have to kill you."

Tanner stuck out his hand. "Vin Tanner."

Standish responded in kind. "Ezra Standish."

"They're cute together," Buck whispered to Chris, having sidled up next to him while the two were bonding over donuts.

"Ever the romantic." Chris elbowed Buck gently in the ribs as he whispered back. He gestured at Jackson. "Jackson look a little peculiar to you over all that?"

"Might have. Be hard on him if he has problems with them being gay." That was exactly what Chris had been thinking. If anything, he wanted this team to be a haven for good men who ran into nothing but prejudice in other places. He wondered how Tanner and Standish would handle this, or if they'd even noticed.

"Mr. Jackson," Standish said, "would you care for a donut? I attempted to make an eclectic selection in hopes there would be something for everyone." So, Standish had caught Jackson's look, but intended to work past it. Good. Let Jackson be the one deciding how he had to behave.

And Jackson decided well. "Thank you." He went over and lifted the box lid, picking out a cruller. "Hope we don't do this every day, it won't be good for my boyish figure."

Laughter broke through the last of the tension in the room, and Chris joined in with them. Yes, this group had kinks to work out, but it looked like things were going well so far.

"Mr. Standish," he waited for Standish to look his way, "a moment of your time?"

Chris closed the door to his office and waited until they were both seated. He pulled Standish's file in front of him and opened it, picking up the colored pages that had come with the first packet. "Thought you might like to see these before I shred them."

Standish looked at the papers, then slumped in his chair. "Bastards," he swore softly.

"Yeah," Chris said, "that was our thought after we figured out what happened. So you know, Buck, my researcher and I are the only ones who have seen these." Standish looked surprised. "We don't traffic in rumor and innuendo. I'd like you to tell me what's behind these, but I'll also accept if you prefer not to." He paused for a moment. "But I do need to know if we're going to have any problems getting you released from Atlanta."

"Mr. Larabee, I believe you know enough about these," he waved the colored pages, "for the moment. As for leaving my post in Atlanta, I can't imagine anything that would make them happier."

"Good." Chris opened his desk drawer and pulled out the job offer he'd prepared. "I'd like you to join this team."

Standish took the paper, and Chris swore the man's hands were shaking. He gave Standish all the time he wanted to look over the offer, pleased when Standish nodded, then reached inside his jacket for a pen. "Last chance to change your mind, Mr. Larabee." Chris said nothing, just waited for Standish to finish the paper and sign it.

Now his team had three. And needed three more. Two, the little voice said, you'll get Buck. I sure hope so, he thought.

"You need to go back to Atlanta to close things up?"

"No." The look on Standish's face was hard and dark. "I do not intend to set foot in that city for a very long time." The dark look cleared, and was replaced with an easy smile. "I can take care of everything by phone."

"Okay, then." Chris stood up and opened the door.

Buck was standing outside with his hand poised to knock. "J.D. just brought up the scoop on the latest two." He slid through the door as Standish went out. "Wait'll you see what he dug up on Friedman."

Closing the door again, Chris opened the folders. Friedman, Robert. Accountant with the Treasury Department. No law enforcement background, no field experience of any kind. His work record was pretty ordinary, no commendations, no reprimands. Even his picture showed an ordinary man. Sandy hair, brown eyes, slightly pasty colored skin, probably from never getting out of his office.

"I don't know why I had J.D. waste his time on this. Guy has nothing I want, and belongs where he is, pushing a pencil behind a desk. Nothing interesting at all about him."

"That's exactly it. Have you ever seen a more uninteresting person? Except for being born in Roswell, New Mexico, this guy has nothing anyone would notice. Hell, I'd even forget his face two minutes after seeing him."

Chris kept looking further into the folder. "For a number cruncher, he seems to like to shoot things. Won some damn paintball tournament." He pointed to the page he was looking at. "And this -- he belongs to some paramilitary sci-fi group. Guess he thought that counted as law enforcement background." He shook his head.

"Not what you need."

"Not what anyone needs, it looks like." Chris held up Friedman's resume. "He's been shifted around departments there every year or so. Nobody wants to keep him."

"Poor guy. You better let him down easy."

He snorted. "Yeah. I'll do that." He picked up the other file, Josiah Sanchez. "This guy is interesting. Couple of notes here about anger issues, but it looks like when he's not having anger problems, he's damn good at what he does. Pissed off somebody, though, they buried him at Quantico." He tossed the file on the desk. "I'm going to invite him up."

The phone calls were sometimes the hardest part of dealing with the applications. Friedman, who insisted that Chris call him 'Bob', tried everything he could not to take no for an answer. Offered to fly out on his own dime, offered to bring more letters of recommendation, practically begged for a chance to do field work. Finally, Chris felt like he got through to him, that this was not the right fit for him.

Sanchez, on the other hand, was easy to talk to. He sounded a lot like Chris expected from his picture; gruff, straightforward, yet with an edge of humor. Sanchez was available to fly out any day Chris needed. A quick call to H.R. and Sanchez would be in for his interview on Thursday.

The last folder Buck brought him was follow up from J.D. The kid wanted on this team in the worst way. Chris wasn't sure why he was resisting so hard, but there was something about J.D. that, in his mind, screamed 'too young' and 'too inexperienced'.

"You're still not going to consider J.D., are you?" Buck said, sounding disappointed.

"He's too young."

"He's old enough to be an agent. He knows his stuff, and, as we've talked about before, all his quals are good." Buck picked up the most recent pages J.D. had offered them. "He's even doing his best to find skeletons in his closet for you."

Chris sighed. He didn't want to argue about this. He didn't want to argue at all. "What about you, Buck. Have you given it more thought?"

"I think about it all the time. Every time we interview a new guy for you. Every day when we head in here from the ranch."

"But you're not ready to decide."

"No, Chris," Buck said softly, "I'm not."

By Thursday, Chris was pretty well pleased with how well Vin and Ezra and Nathan were getting along. They'd begun digging into the files he and Buck had picked out, along with looking at some of the older boxes, and he liked the free flow of ideas he was hearing. Once he had the last few people, he was sure they'd start to show the results Travis was expecting from them.

He was sitting with them in the squad area, drinking coffee, listening to them talk when the office door opened. In walked, of all people, Robert 'call me Bob' Friedman. He looked like exactly what he was, dressed in an ill-fitting black suit, white shirt and black tie.

"Agent Larabee?" Chris stood up, knowing all eyes in the room were on him. "I'm here for my interview." Lovely. So much for letting him down easy.

"Let's go in my office." He closed the door behind them. "Mr. Friedman--"


"Mr. Friedman, I thought I made it clear on the phone that your qualifications didn't match what I was looking for."

"Well, yes, I suppose you might have mentioned something like that." Friedman fidgeted from foot to foot. "But I thought if we met, I could convince you--"

"No," Chris said bluntly. "It isn't going to change my mind. You've wasted your time coming here."

Friedman stopped fidgeting and stood stock still, glaring at Chris. The way his demeanor had changed so suddenly worried Chris. This one wasn't stable. "You can't be serious! I've come here to show you what I can do!"

"Mr. Friedman," Chris spoke calmly, hoping to keep things from exploding in his face, "I'm not going to say it again. You don't qualify for the job. If you want a field job, you need the training and background, and I recommend you go back to your office and see what you can do to get it."

"You'll regret this, Agent Larabee." Friedman shoved his hands in his pockets and the abruptness of his move had Chris almost reaching for his gun.

"You need to leave now, Mr. Friedman," Chris said, not hiding the threat in his voice.

"Oh," Friedman said, "I'll leave. But you haven't heard the last of me." He pulled Chris's office door open with such force that it slammed into the wall, then stormed out through the squad area, slamming the outer door closed so hard that the glass in it vibrated.

Buck was the first to speak up. "Who the hell was that?"

Chris ran a hand through his hair. "That was Friedman."

"Who is, or was, Friedman?" That was Ezra.

"He put in for the job," Buck explained. "He didn't exactly have the qualifications."

"Looks like he oughta have keepers," Vin said with a smile.

"Or maybe he should be in one of these case files," Nathan added.

"Nah, he doesn't look that dangerous," Vin offered.

"Who doesn't look dangerous?" All eyes swung back to the door and the new voice. A big man with short cropped gray hair was filling the doorway, a toothy smile on his face. He was dressed in jeans, a turtleneck and a tweed jacket, looking not unlike a college professor. "You talking about that fellow who just left? Because if you are, I might disagree."

"Why do you say that?" Nathan asked.

"Don't know why he'd say it," Chris said, nodding at the stranger, "but Friedman told me I hadn't heard the last of him. And that doesn't give me a warm fuzzy feeling."

"That wouldn't give anyone a warm fuzzy feeling." Nods and agreement were heard all around. "Now that we've settled that, where might I find Agent Larabee?"

"Right here." Chris finally spoke up. "You must be Josiah Sanchez."

"Guilty as charged." Sanchez held out his hand, and Chris found his grip strong enough to be painful. Fitness didn't seem to be an issue here.

"Give me a minute, I've got a call to make." Chris picked up the nearest phone and called Travis. He related his conversation with Friedman and Travis agreed that they should call DPD and have them put out a BOLO on the man. Another quick call accomplished that, and he hoped that would be all it would take to put Friedman back on a plane to Washington.

He invited Sanchez into his office and closed the door, getting right down to business. "You must be close to retirement. Why a field job now?"

"Not as close as I'd like," Sanchez answered. "I've had a lot of careers, shall we say, and only been with the Bureau for about 10 years. I miss field work. I miss the investigations and the problem solving. Your team sounded like the change I was looking for."

"You've been reprimanded."

"That I have, and I probably will be again whether you take me or not. I have two things that can rile me considerably. Injustice and liquor. Liquor I can avoid most of the time. Injustice is a little harder. But as I have become wiser with age, so has my anger tempered itself."

Chris found himself smiling, in spite of the fact that these were issues he shared with Sanchez. He knew just how it was to have things spark the anger and how hard it was not to act.

"You think you can keep up with that rowdy crowd out there?"

"I think," Sanchez grinned, "they'll have to work to keep up with me."

You've got another one, the little voice told him. I have indeed, Chris thought. The face-to-face interview with Sanchez had been a formality. Chris had made up his mind when he talked to him on the phone. Meeting him in person only confirmed what his instinct had told him. This was a good man. And he wanted to add him to the team. Pulling out a set of papers, he pushed them toward Sanchez. "Fill these in and let's make this official, shall we?" He waited while Sanchez went over the papers and signed them, then stood up, offering his hand again. "Welcome aboard."

He took Sanchez out to be introduced to the rest of the team, and was surprised when Ezra knew the name.

"It's an honor to meet you, sir." Ezra was practically gushing, at least for him. "The only profiler in Atlanta worth his salt came from your classes."

Sanchez merely smiled and shook hands all around, and Chris left them to talk, going to pour himself a cup of coffee. Buck met up with him at the coffee pot. "You're doing something right. These four are going to make you a hell of a team."

Chris nodded. "I think so, too."

Now for the last two. He didn't have any other applications pending that he would seriously consider, but he felt pretty lucky to have found these four in less than two weeks. Watching the four of them as they chatted and traded information, Chris started to feel comfortable with what he'd agreed to do. Started to believe what he'd been telling himself and Travis, that with the right people, there could be a team to solve the dirtiest cases.

But the team wouldn't be right without Buck. Every morning he woke up wondering how to convince Buck to join him, and every night he went to bed knowing that he still didn't know what he had to do to show Buck that this was worth leaving the PD for. That he was worth leaving the PD for. Shaking his head, Chris topped up his coffee and went back into his office. Sometimes things didn't work out the way you wanted, and there was nothing you could do about it. You giving up, Larabee? little voice asked. Three weeks isn't long enough to fix what you broke. Fuck you, Chris thought. But he knew that damned little voice was right. He'd spent three years pushing not just Buck, but the whole world away, and it was going to take longer than a few sober weeks to convince Buck that he was worth taking a chance on again.

He didn't know how long he'd been staring at his coffee when he heard the tap on his door, looking up to see J.D. standing there with a sheaf of papers. "Come on in." He wasn't expecting any more research, and J.D. looked nervous. Chris had a sinking feeling the kid was going to try to talk him into letting him on the team again.

"Agent Larabee," J.D. began, "I mean, Chris, I can do this job."

Chris glanced up as Buck quietly stepped in behind J.D. "J.D., this isn't--"

"Dammit, Chris, I've been in that basement for two years." J.D. paced in front of Chris's desk. "I went to MIT to learn everything to be good at research and surveillance and all the high tech to keep ahead of the criminals. But what do I get? Oh, J.D., here's the IT department. Stay there and help the morons who can't remember their passwords." He stopped pacing and slammed a fist onto Chris's desk. "I didn't sign on for that! You know what I can do. You need that. I can learn to do the rest."

Chris held up a hand when J.D. stopped to breathe. Thankfully, J.D. stayed quiet, which gave Chris a few moments to think. While he was thinking, he looked at Buck, who was standing there with a little grin on his face, his head slightly tilted, and Chris knew that inside he was laughing his ass off.

"Chris," Vin called from the squad room, "you need to see this."

Before leaving his office, Chris looked straight at J.D.. "We'll finish this discussion later."

Out in the squad room, the four were gathered around Ezra's computer. Vin looked at Chris, then pointed to the screen. "Slick here was checking out the news. This could be a problem."

As Chris moved in behind them, Ezra maximized the streaming video to fill the screen. It was a local newscast, the reporter going on about some crazy man who was terrorizing shoppers at a mall not far from downtown. Surely this was a job for the local police, not the ATF. Then the news station put up a shot of the crazy man. Bob. Robert 'call me Bob' Friedman had managed to evade the PD and was out on a rampage in his city.

"Ah, shit." All heads swung his direction. "Boys, I think this may be our first test." Chris looked at J.D.. "Can you bring up a map of the area and the mall itself?"

Within seconds, J.D. was logged into another computer and maps were displaying. "We need a big screen monitor for this kind of thing." Chris grinned at his use of 'we', but couldn't disagree. J.D. was pointing at his computer screen. "Here's the shopping center, it's about ten minutes from here." A few more keystrokes. "And here's the detail of the shop layout. According to the latest on the news, Bob is right about here." J.D. pointed to the screen. "They said he's heading south, toward the theaters."

"Why the theaters?" Chris mused. Why indeed. Dark, full of people, lots of twists and turns. Just the place for a whackjob trying to make a point. "What's playing there?" he asked on a hunch. Maybe they could narrow down where Bob was heading.

J.D. was closing screens and typing more when Ezra spoke up. "I've got it." When everybody turned to look at him, he cocked an eyebrow. "J.D.'s not the only one who knows his way around a computer." Looking back at his screen, Ezra started reading. "Stomp the Yard, Ghost Rider on two screens, Zodiac on two screens, 300, Grindhouse. Oh dear." He looked up with a grin. "This has to be it. They're doing a Star Wars festival all weekend. Started this morning."

"You're joking, right?" J.D. glared at Ezra. "Just because a guy might like Star Wars doesn't make him a raving lunatic."

"J.D.," Vin pulled their attention back to map, "was that a sports store there?"

"Yeah, why?"

Vin looked around at everyone. "Who's armed?" When only Vin, Buck and Chris held up hands, Vin nodded. "We got time to get to the armory, get everybody signed out for weapons and get there in time to do any good?" Heads shook in the negative. "Didn't think so. News said Bob had a handgun. He know how to shoot?"

"Yes," Chris answered. "He's licensed to carry."

"Okay." Vin stopped and looked at Chris. "Sorry, Boss, this is your team."

Chris shook his head. "This is exactly how I want the team to work. You know a good way to handle this, you keep talking."

Vin gave a curt nod, and went on. "I figure the fewer real guns we have out there, the less chance anyone gets hurt. We go in with real ammo, and if he's off his nut, folks get killed. I know that store. We borrow a bunch of paintball guns from them, that'll give us something to keep Bob off balance, but not kill civilians. Chris, as long as you and me and Buck are the only ones with live ammo, we have control of the situation."

"Paintball guns?" Chris asked.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, "closest thing we can get to bean bag weapons on this kind of short notice."

"Chris," Buck interjected, "we need to call DPD and talk to them before we ride in there like the cavalry. This should be their op."

Buck was right. No way Bob was their responsibility, but his guilt told him that Bob wouldn't be in Denver if it wasn't for him. Along with that, his gut told him that his small team could take Bob down quicker and cleaner than a bunch of guys in uniforms. He grabbed up the nearest phone and put in his call upstairs, bullying the poor secretary until he got Travis on the line. After listening for a moment, Travis agreed to let them take on this situation as long as DPD agreed to it.

"Travis is going to let us go out on this as long as the PD is okay with it. If we're lucky, maybe we can get to him first and I can talk him down." He thought for a moment, then dialed DPD and asked for Hendricks. If anyone could work the magic to get them in on this one, he could. It took a little bit of sweet talking and explaining why Friedman was in town, but Hendricks said he'd see that Chris and his team had lead on this one. Hanging up the phone, Chris grabbed his jacket, slipping it on. "Let's get going."

They piled into Buck's truck and Vin's Jeep, Buck in the lead, taking advantage of his light and siren to get them there quickly. At the mall, they parked as near the sports shop as they could get. Running in, Chris in the lead, they flashed badges at anyone who got in their way, finally getting to the weapons section of the store. Once they were there, Chris let Vin pick out weapons for everyone. Most of the guys ended up with paintball rifles. Vin took a few moments to choose a .22 caliber target rifle. The store manager squawked a bit, but Chris handed him a business card and said he'd be back later.

As they exited the front of the sports store, they did their best not to look like they were in a hurry or hunting someone. Edging their way around the food court, a uniformed officer pointed toward the theater. They were right, Bob was heading inside.

At the theater entrance, panicked-looking people were coming out in ones and twos, but quickly being guided away by more uniformed officers. They stopped a couple of teens to ask what they'd seen. The description was a crazy man waving a silver gun, heading toward the side of the theater where Star Wars was playing.

In the lobby, Buck stopped Chris. "We need to clear the theaters. I think a fire alarm would do that. There should be one emergency exit at the back of each bank of screens."

Chris agreed. "Josiah and Nathan, work your way around behind the west bank of screens. Find the exit and get the people out." Josiah and Nathan headed out at a jog.

Looking around, Chris grabbed one of the uniformed officers in the lobby. "We need to find this guy and we need to find him fast."

The officer pointed to an elevator. "Projection booth. Should be open to all the screens, and with it dark, he won't know anybody's up there looking for him."

"Great. Thanks." Chris let the officer go back to getting patrons out and looked at Vin. "You good with that?"

"Not much room to shoot from up there," Vin said.

"Enough," Ezra said. "Small ports, but if you're as good as you should be..." Ezra grinned at Vin.

"Okay." Chris made up his mind. "Vin and Ezra, get up there and find the guy. Call in when you find him." He looked at Buck and J.D., wondering how he'd missed that the kid had tagged along. "J.D., go with Buck. You two and I will see what we can do from the entrances down below."

His team split apart to do their jobs as smoothly as if they'd been working together for years. Professionals, Chris thought, it's what you get when you have experienced professionals. He watched for a moment as J.D. followed Buck into the first of the theaters. Kid was smart, no doubt about it. Let him have a taste of this and see if he still wanted to do this kind of work. Chris headed out on his own, jogging to the last of the theaters, slipping inside to see what was going on. The theater was quiet, the movie was showing. Bob wasn't in that one.

The sirens and strobe lights of the fire alarm broke all the silence of the theater, the house lights coming up as the first patrons started out the exit next to the screen. So far, so good. Chris went back out to the hallway and on to the next theater. It too was clearing peacefully, folks grumbling a little about fire drills, but going nonetheless.

Just as he was going into the third theater, his cell vibrated in his pocket. "Yeah," he answered quietly.

"He's in 16," Ezra's voice was smooth and calm, "and he's not letting the people leave."

"I'll get Buck and J.D. and we'll go in from below." He hung up his phone and looked at the signs to find theater 16. Across the way and down a bit. He hit his speed dial for Buck, and when he answered, told him, "16, he's got hostages."

They met outside the doors, deciding to each go in from one door to keep Bob off guard. Chris hoped they'd manage to do this without hurting anyone.

Edging through the doors, the first thing Chris saw was panicky people. He put his finger to his lips to hush them and flashed his badge. Continuing along the wall, he waited till he could see Buck on the other side. Bob was down in front of the screen, standing in front of the first row of seats, holding on to at least one kid, a girl, and waving his gun around. Terrific. The worst kind of hostage situation. Bob had no idea what he wanted or what he was going to do, and it could only go bad from here.

"Bob," Chris called out, "it's Chris Larabee." He waited until Bob looked his way. "Can we talk about this?"

"Nothing to talk about, Larabee, you were pretty clear about that this morning." Bob swung the girl around so she'd be between Chris and Bob.

"Maybe I was wrong." Keep him talking, he told himself. If he's talking, he's not shooting.

"Maybe you were, but it's too late now."

Standoff. Bob wasn't budging, but neither were they. Chris could see Buck and J.D. edging closer along the wall, moving slowly so as not to attract attention. He wondered what the hell Vin and Ezra were doing, and whatever it was, could they do it quicker. Edging forward himself, he kept his paintball rifle low, out of Bob's line of vision.

Then the moment came. From up in the projection booth, Ezra shouted, "Now!" The searing white light of the projector blinded Bob and he threw up his gun hand in front of his eyes.

"Run, kid!" That was J.D. shouting, and the girl squirmed and bit and kicked and got away from Bob. The three of them down below opened up with their paintball rifles, peppering Bob with shots.

When Bob covered his face with both arms and turned his back to hide from the balls, Chris heard the crack of the .22 rifle and saw Bob jerk forward and grab his ass. Bob screamed and turned, firing off one wild shot before falling to the floor. Chris was on him before the echo of Bob's scream was gone, the gun kicked far away and Bob's hands secured behind his back.

Chris sat on Bob until the PD arrived with handcuffs. As they dragged him out, Chris followed, only then realizing that J.D. was kneeling near Buck, who was down. Shit! Bob only got one shot off, what the fuck kind of piss poor luck would it be if it got Buck? But Buck wasn't shot. J.D. was holding paper napkins to Buck's head.

"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded.

"The shot hit that lamp, knocked it loose and it fell, hit Buck on the head." J.D. looked stricken.

Kneeling next to them, Chris felt for Buck's pulse, which was strong and regular. "Just smacked that hard head is all. He'll be okay." He sat down, cradling Buck's head in his lap. "You hear me? You're going to be okay."

"Gonna have a hell of a headache, though," Buck whispered.

Chris laughed softly, rubbing Buck's arm. He was still sitting there holding Buck when the rest of the team gathered around.

He looked up at Vin. "Hell of a shot."

"He was an easy target. Thank Ezra for making him into a deer in the headlights."

Josiah and Nathan were both smiling. "Guess everybody got out okay?"

"Not a problem," Nathan answered. "They were even happier when they found out they were all getting free movie coupons."

"I'll bet." Chris looked at the men standing around him and Buck, relaxed with each other, smiling, looking like they truly belonged together.

The moment was broken by several more of DPD's finest coming in, looking stern. It took quite a while to explain what had happened, to give them enough to avoid having to go in to the station to file reports, and to get their weaponry back to the sporting goods store. Thankfully, the manager realized that the use of his goods in avoiding anyone getting hurt would be better publicity than full page ads in the paper, so they avoided any potential unpleasantness about who might have to pay for the ammo they'd used.

Back at the office, he asked them all to write up reports of the incident. When he sat down at his own computer, Chris looked up to see Buck in his doorway. "You done already?"

"Nah, I'll get to it in a minute." Buck came in and closed the door behind him, then pulled up a chair. "Did you see how well J.D. did out there today?"

Chris pushed his keyboard to the side and leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, he did okay."

"More than okay, Chris. He was smart and he was observant. He didn't just do what he was told, he figured out why he was told it and did it right." Buck looked him straight in the eyes. "He deserves a chance."

"I know." And Chris did know. J.D. was smart and capable and nothing if not eager. So, why was he resisting so hard? There was no real reason other than his age, and intellectually, Chris knew that wasn't a reason. In his favor, of course, was Buck. And through this whole process, Buck had been there, supporting, listening, advising, but this was the first time Buck had pushed for someone. Was this it? Was this what he needed to do to get Buck? Well, yeah, little voice said, he wants to know you value his input. Of course he valued Buck's input. But had he let Buck know that?

"Dammit, why--"

Chris cut him off. "You've convinced me. He did too. Did great today. He did great all along, and you've been right about him all along. Took me a while to get it through my thick head is all." He smiled at Buck. "Go get him."

Buck jumped up from his chair and opened the door, calling J.D. into the office. J.D. stood in front of Chris's desk, looking as nervous as a kid on a first date.

Chris smiled up at him. "You've got some paperwork to fill out."

J.D. let out a war whoop and grinned. "For real?"

"For real." He handed the forms to J.D., chuckling at how quickly they were filled out and signed. J.D. wasn't going to let this chance get away from him.

"Thanks, Chris," J.D. shook his hand, "you won't regret this, I promise."

A moment later he was out in the bullpen, shaking hands with anyone who would let him.

"What about me, stud?" Buck looked at Chris. "You still looking to add me to your band of misfits? That is, if you'll take a man who can't get out of the way of falling lamps."

Chris walked around his desk and stood close to Buck. "Yeah, Buck. I still want you. I still need you. Always did, always will."

"Well," Buck said softly, "I'll join up with the team, and we'll see about the rest as things go along. That okay with you?"

"It'll have to do for now." And it would. The team was complete, and with a little time, a little luck, and a lot of work, his life would find its way forward, and one way or another, Buck would be there.