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Aftermath

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The tall mustached ATF agent ran warm water into a paper cup and leaned heavily on the bathroom sink. He didn’t look into the mirror, not wanting to see what would be staring back at him. He poured a drop of mouthwash into the water, the act of bending down to get the bottle costing him dearly.

His head was pounding. Again.

The remains of what little he had eaten for dinner floated next to him in the toilet along with both sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed. Not that there’d be any more sleeping for him tonight. At least awake he had a little control over the images that flitted through his head. Unfortunately, their accuracy was no less gut wrenching when he was awake.

They’re just dreams, he had told himself the first night when they awakened him, sweating, shouting, fists clenched and tangled in the bed sheets, his pillow wet with sweat and tears, fury still pounding in his chest. They’re just dreams. And then the thought had hit him like a sledgehammer. Except when the dreams are true.

He swished and spat. Then he reached for the bottle of aspirin and poured six of them into his hand.

“Buck?”

The voice was outside of his bathroom door. It was filled with concern.

He swore to himself, eyes squeezed shut against the pain. It was sometime after 3:30 in the morning. He had tried, really tried, to be quiet about it, not wanting to wake his roommate. One of them ought to get some sleep. He swore again. You’d think a man could heave his guts out in his own upstairs bathroom without waking up another man sleeping downstairs, he thought.

He swallowed his anger. “I’m fine, J.D.,” he said in as even a voice as he could muster with his raw throat.

The young black-haired agent settled back against the hallway wall. “Open the door, Buck,” he said, with a sigh.

To the youth’s immense relief the door opened. Buck leaned in the doorway, as J.D. raked over the image of his best friend with eyes that were getting far too much practice. Sweat soaked the tall man’s gray t-shirt and his dark hair. He stood slump-shouldered. He was pale beneath his tan and dark circles had taken up residence under his eyes. He was starting to lose weight.

“You want to talk?” J.D. Dunne asked, trying his best not to sound hopeful

Buck reared back and grimaced. “No, I don’t,” he said flatly.

J.D. pushed himself off the wall and stood in front of his taller, older friend. “You gotta talk about it,” he said. A note of pleading had crept into his voice, and he hated it. How much longer could this go on?

“No, I don’t,” Buck Wilmington replied. His voice was hard. Flat. That was a warning. Two days ago, dead drunk, he had taken a swing at another member of their team, when he had suggested the same thing. J.D. didn’t really think Buck would take a swing at him—drunk or sober—but he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the chance.

Normally, Buck was an affable, even affectionate man, who was fond of women, loved to tell stories that inflated his own reputation, habitually teased J.D., and took great pride in his position on the finest ATF team in the Western region. As easygoing as he was normally, the man could become the devil himself in a fist or fire fight. J.D.’s mind wandered to a time he had personally seen Buck take out their formidable team leader with a single solid punch to the jaw. Of course, Chris had been drunk…

Chris…

J.D.’s stomach lurched.

Buck didn’t miss the sudden pallor that came over his young friend’s face.

“You can’t help me, kid,” he said softly. He squeezed past J.D. and moved toward the stairs, aspirin still in hand. He wondered what the medical cautions against swallowing aspirin with a full glass of whiskey were. He reminded himself that he had some portion of two sleeping pills still in his system.

Then why the hell am I still awake? He wondered. And what would it take to be able to sleep and not dream that goddamn dream?

Almost like a physical presence, he sensed the dark behind him, dogging him, pursuing him, threatening to swallow him. Of all the emotions that competed to engulf him, anger was the one he feared least. So he let the anger take him. Flood him. He turned it on himself. And was rewarded with a brief bitter flash of humor as he mused that getting cold-cocked with his service revolver might just do the trick. He wondered what he’d have to say to J.D. to push him far enough to do it. He smiled a bitter inward smile.

Buck grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet. He didn’t bother with a glass. He swallowed the aspirin along with a gullet full of the fiery liquid, shoved open the living room drapes and dropped into a chair that he had pulled up to the window. He propped his feet up on the windowsill and stared out across the orange and yellow-lit buildings of suburban Denver, a view that was beginning to take on a painful familiarity.

Behind him, J.D. had returned to his room. Certain that Buck could not hear him, he dialed his cell phone.

“Nathan?” he whispered urgently, as the team medic’s sleepy voice answered. “I didn’t know who else to call...”

The 11th floor of the Federal Building was silent when he got off the elevator. It surprised him until he remembered it was Saturday. He balanced a very large, very strong, very hot coffee in his hand, while his other hand dug for the keys to the door that would let him into the bullpen—the large space where his team had their offices and base of operations. Before he could get to the door, though, a gray-haired figure intercepted him. The man was considerably shorter than Buck, but nonetheless, he cut an imposing figure. Buck sighed and came to a halt.

“Judge,” he said, warily.

“It’s Saturday, Buck,” said Assistant Director Orin Travis, wearily. He looked over the agent who stood before him: ATF Team Seven’s second in command. He looked a little better than he had the last time Travis had seen him, but that wasn’t saying much. He looked haggard, unshaven, on edge. That wasn’t going to make what he had to say any easier. In fact, Travis thought with regret, he hadn’t planned to say it today at all, but here Wilmington was.

ATF Team Seven was Travis’s dominion. He had been there from the beginning, when Senator Wilkey Redd had proposed putting the volatile Chris Larabee in charge of a brand new and experimental Regional Mobile Enforcement Team. Based on Larabee’s reputation, Travis had had some reservations, especially when Larabee demanded—and received—the right to recruit his men from anywhere he wanted. His reservations escalated when those agents all turned out to be mavericks and misfits—including an FBI agent whose own office was investigating him for corruption. But his enormous respect for Larabee’s personal integrity and tactical skills, if not his methods, eventually earned the hard-eyed former Navy SEAL a fond place in the judge’s circle of affection, something he regretted now that he had never mentioned.

Not that trying to oversee Chris Larabee had ever been easy. In the three years since the team’s inception, Larabee had demanded and received an awful lot of things, not the least of which was an unprecedented autonomy in enacting policy and discipline within his team. Many of the assistant directors joked that it was because the brass was a little afraid of the former military officer, with his flash temper, and loose-cannon reputation. Travis knew this was not wholly a joke. He also knew first hand that the team had earned their nickname, the Magnificent Seven.

For a time, they had seemed untouchable, the men of Team Seven. As long as Larabee and his team got the job done, the chains of command contained their grumbling. They were willing to wear the laurels brought on by the team’s reputation and to take the black eyes reasonably quietly. But Larabee’s disdain for chains of command—and in particular any authority that had not yet earned his respect, had also earned him a lot of enemies.

This was precisely Travis’s current problem. The team’s reputation outside the bureau for efficient, effective law enforcement work made it a plum command for a patronage position. Its maverick reputation inside the bureau made it a headache that needed to be reined in. Now the headache threatened to turn dangerous. One of the directors had gone so far as to refer to the team as a hydra with its leading head cut off, a singularly tactless comment—given the circumstances—that had made Travis and several of the directors blanch. But no one had argued the veracity of the statement.

Travis brought his focus back to the man in front of him, who was waiting with ill-concealed impatience. Anger simmered below the surface, Travis noted. He dropped the small talk. “Come to my office,” he said and turned away. The tall agent cast a glance at the bullpen door and then followed the AD upstairs.

* * *

“You can’t do that!” Wilmington shouted. The air in Travis’s office reverberated with the sound. The mustached agent was on his feet, staring at Travis, betrayal and astonishment etched on his face. “That’s not what he wanted and you know it!”

The AD remained calmly seated behind his desk. Wilmington was shouting at the top of his lungs. A good sign. Had the agent been using his quiet voice, Travis would have wasted no time in calling for security and backup.

He, Travis noted. Buck had not spoken his name.

Travis took a patient breath. “This is not about what Agent Larabee would have wanted.” He carefully avoided calling the agent by his first name. Travis’s own sense of loss was intense, but in no way compared to what the man before him was going through. Wilmington and Larabee had been friends and colleagues for a good many years. The fires that had forged and hardened their friendship had been theirs alone to share. Fires, Travis thought again, kicking himself. Another poor choice of metaphors.

Wilmington clenched and unclenched his large fists. He was clearly making an effort to control his temper. Travis resisted the urge to look toward his phone.

“If you do this,” the big man breathed, his voice softening to a conversational volume, “the team will walk.”

Travis’s gray eyes bore an oddly intense expression as he returned Buck’s gaze. “I’m counting on you not to let that happen,” he said, the softness of his tone belying the force behind them.

Buck didn’t move. Didn’t trust himself even to twitch. This wasn’t happening. It was not the first time he had thought that very thought in the last week. Not the first time he let himself hope it for a fraction of a second. Reality betrayed him again.

The expression that formed in the agent’s deep blue eyes was bleak.

For a moment Travis considered not finishing what he had to say, but the man had a right to know why he was asking this of him. “You know he’d want the team to survive this.”

Wilmington recoiled as if Travis had hit him. Outrage filled his face. His fist clenched.

Travis tensed.

But Buck turned abruptly on his heel and went out the way he came in, through the door back into Travis’s outer office reception room. Barely pausing, the big agent swept a glass coffee table up in both hands and flung it against the far wall. Glass showered the waiting room. He followed after it with two long strides, grabbing the empty frame, lifting it above his head by two legs and swinging it blindly. With the screech of rending metal, the frame broke against the secretary’s desk, taking a myriad of small objects with it.

The silence that followed was deafening. The only sound for long seconds was Buck’s hard, harsh breathing.

“Sure, Judge,” he said finally, his voice a brittle parody of his usual bantering tone. “I’ll do that for ya.”

He went out of the office again, slamming the door behind him.

“That went well,” Travis sighed angrily. But it was hard to say who he was angry at. He kicked at the shards of glass that littered his waiting room floor, briefly considering leaving them there for Monday morning, as a monument to show his boss. Then he gave a deep resigned sigh and returned to his office to call someone to come clean it up.

Buck returned to the bullpen. When he stuck his key in the door, he discovered it was unlocked. He glowered at the door as if it were the door’s fault, before pushing it open. He stopped dead in his tracks. Ezra Standish, undercover agent, self-proclaimed independent operator, and notorious late sleeper was in the office. Before noon. On a Saturday. At his desk. Staring intently at his screen. Typing.

The undercover agent glanced up. “Mr. Wilmington,” he drawled in greeting, his Georgia accent marked with the slightest tinge of world-weariness. Buck was not fooled. An indecipherable emotion crossed the undercover agent’s face before he carefully concealed it under his practiced, professional mask. He looked Buck over once from head to toe, noting the wrinkled clothes, and the hollow, dark circles under the tall man’s eyes.

“You’re looking rested. Enjoying our enforced time off?” the undercover agent said dryly and returned to his typing,

Buck sought and found a smart remark to make, but it died in his throat as he noticed Chris’s office door, standing open. His feet took him to the doorway almost against his will.

He stared into the spare, orderly interior: shelves bending under the weight of reference books; couch resting against the large window, a wool blanket folded neatly against one arm. Drawn blinds. Metal filing cabinet. Big black desk chair. Coffee cup, washed, rinsed and sitting upside down on a well-worn rubber coaster marked with a U.S. Navy insignia. Inbox empty. Outbox empty. All files and papers locked up neat and tidy in the desk drawer. The desk should have been immaculate. But it wasn’t.

It was covered. In cards, handwritten notes, tiny mementos. And worse yet, photos. Vases and vases of flowers, some fresh, some clearly past their prime adorned the desk and spilled over to sit on the floor.

Chris would’ve hated it, Buck thought, leaning against the doorframe.

As if reading his mind, Ezra’s voice carried across the bullpen. “Appalling, isn’t it?” he said flatly.

Buck nodded.

He moved away from the senior agent’s office and back out into the common area, where the rest of the team had their desks.

“What are you doing here, Ez?” he asked.

The undercover agent rolled his eyes at the much-protested shortening of his first name. But it was only a half-hearted roll. He turned back to his typing.

Buck cocked his head to one side and waited. Any explanation from Ezra was likely to take twice as long as was necessary.

Standish did not disappoint. “As you are already well aware, Mr. Wilmington, it would normally be against my principles to spend any more time than necessary in the office unless coerced,” he said, “but since my home computer refuses to indulge me by turning on, this seemed the most reasonable place to accomplish my task.”

Ezra looked up again from his computer and pursed his lips thoughtfully before launching into something that seemed like he had been rehearsing it or at least formulating it for quite some time.

“In no way should you misconstrue my resignation to be casting aspersions on your leadership abilities, which are formidable,” he explained. “It simply has to do with a promise I made to myself…”

The undercover agent stopped, suddenly, backtracking in his mind and realizing that he had heard Buck snort and loudly, at that.

Buck was looking back at him, a hard glint in his eyes, where there had been a twinkle only a week ago.

Has it only been a week? Ezra asked himself, unaware that he was running a hand slowly across his face.

“It’s not MY leadership abilities you have to worry about, Ez,” Buck said flatly.

Ezra stared at him now, taking full notice of the man’s eyes, shadowed and angry. He hardly dared to admit to himself how much he missed that twinkle.

“I shudder to ask,” Ezra said. “But what do you mean by that?”

“They’re sending in a replacement,” Buck said, hooking his own chair back from his desk with his foot and slouching his lanky frame into it.

Shock showed plainly in the undercover agent’s green eyes. The fact that he didn’t bother to hide it was a testament to how much he had grown to trust his teammates in the last few years.

“A replacement?” Standish repeated in astonishment. He shook his head in wonder. “And who, pray tell, do they think will be capable of filling this…” he paused, looking for the words. Incredible, gaping, festering, bleeding hole, came to mind. “Vacancy,” he finished.

Buck did not miss the look of outrage that passed through Standish’s remarkable green eyes.

He leaned forward in his chair. “Does it matter?” he asked.

“No,” Ezra said, leaning away and returning to his typing. “Especially as I am tendering my resignation first thing Monday morning.”

“Travis wants us to play nice,” Buck said.

Ezra continued typing. “So generous of him to ask, but in case you didn’t hear me, I said I am resigning.”

“I figure we’ll play nice. On the surface, anyway,” Buck said, scratching his chin and staring off into space.

Ezra wondered whether the man was deliberately trying to irritate him or just didn’t want to hear. “Who is this ‘we’ you keep going on about? You appear to have lost your hearing, along with your ironing board and your mind,” he snapped. “I repeat, I am signing, sealing, and delivering my resignation from this team, from the ATF, and from law enforcement period first thing Monday morning.”

“Right up until this clown officially tells us we can’t pursue this,” Buck finished, as if he had never heard a word Ezra said.

Ezra stopped typing abruptly. He stared at Buck. An odd mixture of emotions played across his face. They were all replaced by a cold, hard realism.

“Buck,” Ezra said. He dropped the formal terms he usually used, indicating his seriousness on this subject.

Buck turned his full attention to Standish.

“They are never going to let us pursue this matter,” Ezra said with absolute certainty.

“What do you mean ‘us’?” Buck asked flatly. “You won’t be pursuing anything after you resign.”

What Buck was proposing was impossible—not to mention dangerous—and Ezra knew it. The voice of self-preservation that had been his lifeline and reason for survival for many years rose up inside him. He willed himself to agree with Buck’s simple statement of fact. To simply reply, “That’s right. I will not be pursuing anything after I resign.”

But when he opened his mouth, it was the other voice that answered, the one that had developed suddenly two minutes after he had run out on his team during his very first mission. The one that took root the very moment Chris Larabee had pinioned him with his green-eyed glare and said “Don’t you ever run out on me again.” Again, he had said. A gift of a second chance, an offer of redemption, a statement of faith. Faith. In him. Something Ezra had never dreamed to encounter. And something he could not sacrifice now.

He spoke quietly, but with conviction evident in each word. “I would be willing to delay my resignation long enough to catch the foul, loathsome beings who perpetrated this disaster.”

Buck smiled—dangerously. “I knew I could count on you, Ez,” he said.

“When does our new leader start?” Ezra asked, with no small amount of sarcastic emphasis on the word ‘leader.’

“Monday,” Buck replied.

“Well, then,” Ezra said, tilting his head thoughtfully at Chris’s office. “Let us give him a welcome worthy of the team he is about to command.”

For the first time in days, Buck felt a grin slide across his face. “What’d you have in mind?”

It took only a few minutes of preparation.

“Are you ready?” Ezra asked, surveying the inside of the office, which smelled revoltingly of florists’ arrangements.

Buck nodded. “There’s only a few things I want,” he said, removing the framed silver picture of Sarah and Adam Larabee from Chris’s desk. He took the picture of the seven members of Team Seven down off the bookshelf, along with the single spur that hung on the picture’s simple wooden frame.

As an afterthought, he picked the blanket up off the couch and pressed it into Ezra’s hands.

“Coffee cup,” Ezra said. Buck took it, too. Then they shut the office door behind them.

The two men leaned back against the closed door, side by side, each lost in his own thoughts.

Ezra’s carefully chosen words broke the silence. “It wasn’t your fault, Buck,” he said.

Buck scowled down at his feet. He didn’t want to talk about this.

His teammate seemed not to notice, continuing. “There was no choice. Mr. Larabee knew that when he gave the order.”

The undercover agent leaned over to try to gage his friend’s expression.

Buck shook his head. When he looked up at Ezra, his eyes were haunted. “Anyone try explainin’ that to Vin?” he replied, his voice hollow.

Ezra winced. “Mr. Tanner heard the order, too,” he said simply. “In time he will come to realize there were no other options.”

Yeah, Buck thought bitterly. No other options but to hurl himself into the flames and burn in hell beside him. He could still hear Vin’s unintelligible shouting, struggling as Nathan and Josiah held him back. He could still feel the heat from the flames that devoured the building before them, as he held J.D. back against the communications van, blocking the youth’s view of the inferno.

The thought brought up another, long-suppressed image of flames, and his stomach turned over as he remembered pinning Chris bodily down on the pavement of his own driveway, while the man fought, screaming, to leap into the flames and join his wife and son in their fiery death at the hands of an unnamed, unknown—and still uncaught—car bomber.

That was before Team Seven, when he and Chris had been partners in the Denver PD. He hadn’t thought their friendship would survive the aftermath of that terrible day. He was sure for a while that it hadn’t—until Chris came to him, literally, with the offer to join his new ATF team.

For Buck it had been like seeing the dead rise again. He had accepted joyfully and had watched with pleasure as his old friend had gradually learned to take part in life again.

The office before him blurred as he came back to the present. He blinked rapidly. “Thanks, Ez,” he said hurriedly, still looking at his shoes.

He did not hear the grim sigh that escaped Standish as the undercover agent awkwardly reached out and squeezed the taller man’s shoulder.

Buck looked up suddenly, his mustache twitching upward. “So how long before this stuff dries?”

Ezra grinned back. “It should be quite safely adhered now,” he said consulting the empty tube in his hand. “By Monday morning, our new leader will have to cut a brand new doorway if he wants to use this office.”

Buck smirked.

Ezra smirked back.

“By that time, Mr. Wilmington,” he drawled lazily, “I should hope that you would have gathered the troops, so we can present our proper parade dress to our new commander.”

Buck’s smirk slowly spread into a smile. “Oh, I will,” he said. He cradled the pictures and the coffee cup in his arms. “But first I’ll have to take care of a few things.”

Buck had gone first to Vin’s run-down apartment building in the gang-ridden neighborhood called Purgatorio, but the wary-eyed child on the downstairs stoop had recognized him and informed him that Señor Vin was not there—and had not been all week. Buck held his swear words until he got back in the truck. Then he made the long drive out to Chris’s ranch.

He had gone there, their first night back, for the same reason the others had, each drawn there instinctively, needing to be together and close to Chris. But the bond had been shattered. With red-rimmed, blazing eyes Tanner stood on the porch and told Buck in a deadly voice to get out. Get out. Don’t show yer face here again.

Buck had backed down the steps at those words, those very words, spoken once before on the very same porch of the house that had once been like home to him, by another friend as close as a brother. A past image of a grief-ravaged, raging Chris Larabee overlaid Tanner’s furious form.

“You don’t mean that!” J. D. had protested in shocked defense of his friend.

Buck answered quickly, preventing Tanner from turning that anger on the young agent. “It’s alright,” he had said simply, amazed at the steadiness of his own voice. “I’ll just go.”

He turned back once, asking no one in particular, “Make sure someone sees to my horse.”

Vin’s venomous final words shot through him like hot lead. “Bet on it. I wouldn’t turn my back on an animal.”

Buck had climbed into his truck. He drove off, hands shaking. He hadn’t returned to the ranch, although he had longed to, every single day. But he knew that Vin needed it more than he did. He only hoped that Tanner had not shut out all of his teammates.

The ranch came into view at the bend at the top of the road, laid out neatly before him at the end of a long curving driveway: White, clapboard ranch house, two stories with a rambling front porch and a side deck that shone like honey in the late afternoon sun; a white shed that matched the house; and a weathered white barn thatstood neatly across the gravel driveway from the house, its far end opening onto a tidy, fenced paddock. Vin’s beat-up Jeep was parked in the front.

Buck sighed as he pulled up next to the Jeep. A quick glance in the row of darkened windows showed Chris’s truck was parked in the garage. The will would offer the truck to Vin—part of a long-standing, semi-serious joke about the reliability, or lack thereof, of Vin’s beloved Jeep, and the inherent danger of his coveted motorcycle. In spite of himself, Buck smiled as he recalled how Sarah Larabee had staunchly substituted the title of “death machine” into every conversation Chris had ever started about getting a motorcycle. He knew better than to bring up the truck with Vin.

He reminded himself with a pang that, as executor of Larabee’s estate, which held the ranch and its contents in trust, he had not yet done more than arrange for the bills to be paid on time. As he surveyed the property now from the front porch, he tried—again—to consider how to begin. How to decide what to do with the house and its contents. As before, his mind refused to focus. And he didn’t have the heart to raise the question with his teammates.

Hell, if he wanted to be honest, he hadn’t even read the will. He’d put the appointment off twice. Told the attorney he was ill. He knew what Chris had wanted. He didn’t need some damn lawyer to tell him.

He rang the doorbell, then knocked softly, before letting himself in with his key. He entered his security code into the alarm system.

One Christmas shortly after the team was formed, Chris had presented each of them with a key and a personal code for the alarm. It was his way of telling them that his home was now their home. Buck had joked that the individual codes were so Chris would know whose pay to dock if anything got broken. A small smile flitted across his face at the memory.

Making his way through the front hall he noticed the clean dishes drying beside the sink. The mail was on a telephone table in the hall. He made a note to himself to pick it up on his way out.

A quick check through the house showed that Vin was nowhere to be seen about the property. Probably gone for a ride, Buck reasoned. He shook his head as he looked around. Every last dish, piece of paper, and stick of furniture was in place, just as Chris had kept it.

He found the first sign of Vin in the upstairs hallway. His sleeping bag was rolled out on the carpeted hardwood floor in front of the master bedroom door. Buck winced. Three bedrooms in this house, two of them guest rooms, and Vin was camped in the hall. Unable to move in. And unable to move away.

He hurried back down the stairs, pausing only to look at the pictures above the fireplace. Pictures of Sarah and Adam. Pictures of the team. Then he wrote a quick note.

New boss. Monday morning. Be on your best behavior.

That last part should guarantee Vin’s arrival, if anything will, Buck thought.

He folded the note and tucked it carefully in the rowels of the spur he had taken from Chris’s office. He left them in the center of the dining room table, where Vin would be sure to find them.

He stopped at the barn on his way out. Buck’s big gray mare whickered a greeting, and he paused to feed her a carrot and check her over. True to his word, Tanner had taken good care of her. Or someone else had. Her stall was clean and she had been brushed until her coat shone.

With apologies for his absence, he left her again, taking a quick look around at the other horses. They had all been brought into the barn for the evening. Only Chris’s big black gelding was missing. As he suspected, Tanner was out for a ride. He headed back to his truck, wanting to be away before Vin returned.

By Sunday evening, Buck had left a message similar to the one he had given Vin for every member of the team, ensuring that every man would be present to meet their new boss on Monday.

He was the first to arrive on Monday morning, nosing in just ahead of J.D. on his Ninja bike. They did not talk on their way up in the elevator. Other agents who knew them seemed uncomfortable with the unaccustomed silence and moved none too subtly away from them. By now, there was not a man or woman who worked in the building who had not heard what had happened or who did not know what was bound to happen today.

Buck did not have to wait long for the others to arrive, but, to his surprise, it was Vin who arrived next. He wasn’t sure why he was surprised. After all, Vin had always been an early arrival to the office, sometimes even getting there before Chris. When this happened, of course, it meant that Vin made the coffee, a horrendously, indigestible, undrinkable brew that Buck and Chris had joked would eat right through a normal spoon. On a normal day, J.D. would have expressed his gratitude that Buck made the coffee today. But today was not a normal day.

Vin approached Buck’s desk, eyes harder than Buck had ever seen them. He did not speak. He stretched his arm out over Buck’s desk and opened his fist. The shredded pieces of Buck’s note fluttered down onto the center of Buck’s desk. And he turned away again. But Buck noticed, with no small amount of gratitude, that the sharpshooter held onto the spur, placing it carefully, almost reverently, on his own desk next to its matching mate. A pair. Buck had given Chris and Vin each one spur from the pair. It was Buck’s way of blessing a friendship that had helped his oldest friend learn how to live again.

The other members of the team arrived with little comment.

Josiah and Nathan arrived almost together. Both looked tired. They nodded once to each of their teammates, Nathan’s brown eyes raking over each one in turn.

Even Ezra made his appearance on time.

This time, J.D. did express his amazement.

Ezra winked and adjusted his immaculate tie. “Must make a proper first impression,” he drawled.

J.D. puzzled at the gleam in Ezra’s eye and Buck had to duck his head to keep from smiling. Vin stared at the undercover agent, as if in anticipation.

The elevator bank in the hallway dinged again, and they heard Travis’s voice in the hall beyond the bullpen door.

As one, they stood and faced the door.

* * *

To say that Senior Agent Jack Dawson’s introduction to Team Seven was hostile would have been an understatement. And Travis had the guilty feeling that he had just led a lamb to slaughter. Travis introduced each member of the team to him, and each man offered a polite greeting or at least a civil nod. But it did not escape Travis that their eyes were much too hard and their smiles showed far too many teeth. For just a moment, Travis envisioned Dawson surrounded by a snarling wolf pack.

Dawson was a decorated former soldier. True he had not been in law enforcement long, but his career was on the rise. His friends in high places had assured him that taking command of this team was a plum assignment that would guarantee him an extraordinary career resume. He felt certain that the team’s evident hostility would fade once they got used to his style.

Travis turned to the closed office. “This will be your office,” he said. Dawson put his key in the door, while Travis shot a warning glare at the standing men behind Dawson’s back. They key turned, but the door refused to budge.

“I’ll have someone check that,” Travis said. “In the meantime, there’s a table in the conference room as well as a small one in the coffee room.”

Dawson went on ahead into the conference room and then into the tiny kitchenette. Travis looked over at Buck and didn’t care for the innocent smile he received in return. Then again, he mused, all six remaining members of the team were here. In the office. And that was a damn sight more than he had really expected.

He left Dawson in the kitchenette and headed back for his office, shaking his head. Whoever had connected Dawson had unwittingly hung the man out to dry.

Considering how best to get to know his men, Dawson decided that his first course of action would be to get himself a cup of coffee. He paused at the small sink. Six coffee cups sat on a drain board. The seventh one sat apart, smashed, its pieces artfully arranged on the countertop. Puzzled, Dawson pulled out the garbage pail and reached for the pieces.

“Leave it,” a low voice growled, so close to his ear it made the hair on his neck stand up. Despite himself, he froze, drawing his hand back, and he knew he had made his first mistake. He turned slowly, pulling his face together to greet the fiercest pair of blue eyes he had ever seen, glaring out from the face of the team’s young, long-haired sharpshooter. It was the first time in Dawson’s career as a soldier or in his short time in law enforcement that he actually felt afraid of another man.

One by one, each of the others came into the kitchen and retrieved their cups, their voices low and bantering around him. They poured their coffee and filed out again, leaving Dawson staring at the broken cup. He left it right where it was.

Later that morning, maintenance came up to open the door. First they tried another key. It didn’t take them long to realize the lock worked just fine. They promised to return with tools to take the door off the hinges.

After lunch, they arrived. They removed the hinges. Still the door stuck in the frame. Dawson noticed his agents ducked their heads as the maintenance staff left. The maintenance crew promised to try again, but wouldn’t make it back until sometime tomorrow.

Dawson busied himself studying the dossiers on his agents, choosing to start by breaking the ice with his second in command. In fifteen minutes of conversation, Dawson had not managed to elicit more than a terse, “Yes sir”, “No sir”, or “I’ll find out sir” from the tall mustached agent. He was perplexed. The building was rife with stories about the man’s affable, talkative nature.

Things went much worse with the sharpshooter. Agent Tanner had stared at him, unblinking, throughout the entire conversation. He did not utter a word, make a gesture, or even change his facial expression. When Dawson dismissed him, the sharpshooter went out as silently as he came in.

The next two he couldn’t get to stop talking, although he could not fathom what either was talking about. Agent Sanchez, the team’s mountain-sized profiler was an ex-soldier and an ex-priest. He was a trained anthropologist and apparently something of a philosopher, for he completely ignored Dawson’s very first question and instead began a lengthy, convoluted parable that took up the whole interview. At its end, Dawson had not an inkling what it meant. He only knew that he felt vaguely uneasy with Sanchez’s single reference to his trouble turning the other cheek.

Agent Standish was even worse. He answered all the questions, but in such vague, and long-winded terms that Dawson couldn’t tell exactly what he meant. Dawson had intended to try to subtly gather some information from him about his career in the FBI and the rumors about his “misconduct”. But something in the way the undercover agent looked at him made him suddenly look at his watch and end the interview.

He decided to postpone his interviews with the others until the next day.

By Tuesday, the offices that shared the same ventilation conduit with Team Seven began to complain about an unpleasant odor. The agents of Team Seven looked puzzled. They maintained that they didn’t smell anything. Well five of them did. Vin Tanner still had not said a word to Dawson since that first day in the kitchenette.

Later that day, the heat was mysteriously jacked up, and by afternoon, the stench both in the bullpen and the outer offices had become thick enough to choke on. The maintenance staff arrived shortly thereafter with several hand held saws. They cut away the door, the frame, and a good part of the office wall. As the door to the office came down, out rolled the stench of rotting floral arrangements. Dead and dying plants drooped from the desk and along the floor. Dawson recoiled from the odor, fighting the urge to gag.

“Oh that smell,” the young computer expert said suddenly.

“Oh yes,” said the ex-priest sagely. “Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Dawson sent both men a glare that should have set their hair on fire. For reasons he couldn’t understand, both men looked at each other and began to laugh.

Only Tanner blanched at the sight. “Jesus,” the sharpshooter muttered and left the office. He did not return for the rest of the day.

Custodians came to remove the dead flowers, but J.D. Dunne carefully gathered up every last card, note, memento, and photograph. Standish muttered something about burning them, and Dunne threw him a reproachful look and packed them carefully into his backpack. Then he returned to the office. He came out again with the battered U.S. NAVY coaster. He held it in his hands a moment before placing it carefully on top of his own desk.

All afternoon, Dawson sat in his reeking office and wondered how he was going to tell his new boss on his second day that an agent had already gone AWOL.

On Wednesday, Dawson resigned his position with Team Seven.

Travis brought Buck the news with a stern warning. The team hung their heads and looked chagrined. Travis was not fooled.

After Travis left, Buck leaned over toward Tanner and softly said, “Missed you yesterday afternoon, Pard.”

Tanner grimaced but said nothing.

“Your conspicuous absence was much commented on by the Senior Agent,” Ezra added.

Tanner muttered a suggestion that would have been physically impossible for either the Senior Agent or Ezra to accomplish.

“What happened?” J.D. asked.

Tanner shook his head, still staring at his computer screen. “I didn’t know there would be so many flowers,” he said finally, his voice no more than a whisper.

“Revolting, wasn’t it,” Ezra said.

Tanner exchanged a look with J.D. that said they both thought otherwise.

Buck smiled to himself. It was the first complete sentence he had heard from Vin in more than a week.

* * *

Wednesday afternoon, Nathan was called up to Travis’s office. The AD called the medic into his office and offered him a seat, getting a good look at him for the first time in a few days. He looked damn tired.

“How are you?” Travis asked.

The medic sighed. Silence hung heavy in the air between them until at last Travis said, “They’ll send someone new tomorrow”.

Nathan nodded. He knew they would, but that didn’t mean they had to like it. Or make it easy.

Travis leaned forward to look Nathan in the eye. He was not accustomed to beating around the bush, so he came straight out with it. “I’m telling you what I already told Agent Wilmington. The powers that be are not happy about what happened with Dawson. The more you resist getting a new Senior Agent, the harder they’re going to make it on you. If you make it too hard, they will disband the team.” He thought but did not add, That’s not how Chris would have wanted this to go.

He searched the medic’s face for an indication of what action he might take. Jackson had been a steady voice of reason over the last few years and Travis depended on his judgment and his gift for handing the volatile men he worked with.

Nathan knew this. He found it almost funny, since it had been his politics and known associates that had made it politically hard for him to advance—until Chris. At first Nathan thought he was being recruited as window dressing, a nice African-American agent to make the team look politically correct and appropriately multicultural. He was prepared to tell the man precisely what he thought of that, but Chris, in his terse way, had made it immediately clear that what he wanted was a medic with military training. Period.

By the end of the interview process, Nathan, perplexed, for no reason he could fathom, blurted out the very reasons why Chris might not want to hire him: his past activism, participation in protests and Civil Rights demonstrations, his support of several groups with socialist leanings.

It was the first time he had seen the Larabee smile, the one that promised the man could fight the devil and win. You could be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, read sheep entrails for Druids, and have voted for Satan in every election since you turned 18 for all I care, Chris had said. I’m not interested in your politics. I’m interested in your skills

Jackson shook his head, thinking back. He had never met anybody less interested in making a good first impression than Chris Larabee, and yet no one had ever won his loyalty so completely in such a short time.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Nathan said to Travis at last, his voice low and rough. “But I don’t lead them. I just put the pieces back together when they get themselves shot up.”

Nathan might be practical enough to agree with him, but Travis could see the medic’s concerns were elsewhere right now. His voice softened. “Are the pieces fitting back together?”

Nathan’s sight turned inward. Every day last week he had seen to his teammates. He had come to Buck and J.D.’s townhouse in response to J.D.’s middle-of-the-night phone calls. He had assured J.D. repeatedly that no one would think less of him for crying. He had tried to convince Buck that it was not his fault. He had watched Josiah ransack his own living room, tearing it apart with his bare hands as he railed against his God for letting this happen. He had urged Vin to scream, cry, yell, talk—about anything! He had begged Ezra to wipe off his professional poker face and stop blathering about anything and everything except what had happened. In the end, he had put Ezra and Vin together at the ranch, hoping they would talk about what happened—or at the very least yell at each other. And every night, Rain’s loving arms had held him, rocked him while his tears silently soaked the pillow and he bled invisibly for himself and for each of his teammates.

“I don’t know,” Nathan said looking up from his hands, sorrow filling the deep brown eyes. “There’s nothing in my medical kit that can help with this.”

Travis sighed. Despite his irritation, the shenanigans that had driven Dawson from the office were the first sign he had seen that they were still working as a team. “I had hoped,” he said finally, “that supergluing the door shut was a healthy sign.”

Nathan’s face twisted suddenly into a smile. His deep chuckle brought Travis a momentary sense of solace.

After Jackson left, Travis read the file profiling Team Seven’s next new leader. He put it away again, shaking his head.

* * *

Thursday morning the replacement—or as Ezra preferred to term it ‘the moron of the moment’—arrived. He was, by reputation, a no-nonsense, hard-boiled, old school, ex-military commander who ate upstarts for breakfast. He looked about two years from retirement. All this led Buck to wonder where they had dug him up—and so quickly. He decided that the man must have pissed someone off royally to get exiled to Team Seven. Normally that would have been a point in the man’s favor—since it was one of the personality traits that had made working with Chris Larabee so uniquely interesting. Unfortunately, the new Senior Agent also pissed off Buck and the rest of the boys in record time.

First he had escorted himself to the bullpen, without Travis. As if he owned it.

He stood in the bullpen doorway and regarded them balefully through icy blue eyes under steely gray brows. He looked unimpressed. And indeed he was, announcing as came toward them, “I am Senior Agent Grayson Mueller. I’ve come here from Oregon to take charge of Team Seven. I’ve read your files and your records, so I know all about you. All you need to know about me is that I expect you to work and work hard. I expect you to follow orders, do your jobs, and leave the crap at home. Do that and we’ll get along fine.”

With that he moved out of the bullpen to inspect the conference room and the kitchen. The men of Team Seven stared after him, open-mouthed. Ezra recovered first. His face twisted up in disdain and he inhaled deeply, but Vin reached across his desk and grabbed the undercover agent by the back of the collar, cutting off Standish’s air before he could let fly with his free opinion of Agent Mueller’s personal and professional qualities.

Ezra sat abruptly in his chair, straightening his collar and glaring at Vin.

Buck shook his head nearly imperceptibly.

Nathan and Josiah caught the signal and exchanged a glance. Nathan had filled Josiah in on his meeting with Travis. A sardonic smile tilted up Sanchez’s lips, as he said, “So much for playing nice.”

Mueller came out of the conference room and moved into the kitchenette. They all leaned over to watch.

Mueller eyed the pieces of the coffee cup still on the counter. Without hesitation, he picked up the garbage and swept the pieces into the bin with one arm. Buck instinctively grabbed Vin’s arm and was gratified to note that the sharpshooter did not pull away. They watched Mueller search for and find a spare cup in the cabinet. He rinsed it and poured himself a cup of coffee before coming back out into the bullpen. He surveyed the agents, still watching him. Good, he thought. I’ve got their attention.

“We’ll have a meeting in ten minutes to discuss our current case load,” Mueller said. As one, their heads swiveled to watch him walk into his doorless office. He was not intimidated. Until he choked on his first swallow of coffee.

Red faced, he emerged from the office and poured the cup angrily out into the nearest potted plant, which happened to be a tiny cactus on the edge of Vin’s desk. “Is this someone’s idiot idea of a joke?” he snapped, fixing each man with a soul-searing glare that promised retribution.

The six agents looked at each other. “Joke, sir?” Ezra asked innocently. He stared at Mueller quizzically. Then suddenly his face lit up in understanding. “You mean the coffee!” he exclaimed, in a performance so perfect J.D. had to duck his head to keep from laughing.

“Actually Mr. Tanner made it,” Ezra continued most helpfully. “Some say it’s a bit strong, but we like it.” He turned to his teammates and raised his cup. “Gentlemen,” he said. “To our new leader.”

Right on cue, the six agents lifted their cups and drank to Mueller’s health. All of them managed to keep a straight face as he glowered threateningly at them. Then he turned on his heel and thundered into the outer office to look for coffee elsewhere.

The instant Mueller was out of earshot, four of the six agents choked, spluttered, and held their hands to their throats in exaggerated death throes.

“Vin,” J.D. rasped. “Better check to see if your cactus is still breathing.”

Impervious, Vin and Josiah raised their cups to each other and drank.

“Don’t know what yer problem is,” Vin muttered darkly into his cup. “Make a damn fine cup of coffee.”

“Amen, Brother,” Josiah said, seating himself at his desk, as the other four agents went to dump the undrinkable brew into the sink.

A few minutes later, they noticed Sanchez in the kitchenette rummaging through the garbage. They watched in silence as he retrieved the pieces of the shattered mug, methodically rinsed and dried each one, and then placed them in an envelope in his desk drawer.

They met to discuss their current caseload, what had not been taken away from them when they had been ordered to take time off. Compassionate leave they called it. Buck’s term for it was less tactful. Nothing in hell was going to prevent him from going after those bastards.

Mueller found the team to be efficient and knowledgeable despite their obvious resentment.

His grudging respect was replaced by gnawing doubt when he arrived early the following morning and found his agents already gathered around the conference table. Although their voices were too low to hear what they said as he lurked outside the room, it was quite clear that Buck Wilmington was running a tactical meeting. It was also clear that this was a case they had already begun working on—one they had no intention of sharing with their team leader.

He stepped into the room and manila folders snapped shut. “Good morning,” he said, eyeing them suspiciously. “I’ll take a look at those.”

Of the six agents in the room, only one flinched. The youngest. He turned toward J.D. Dunne and held out his hand, glaring fiercely. A strange look came over the young man, as if Mueller had asked him to cut off his own hand.

It was then that the undercover agent interfered. He reached over and took the folder from Dunne. Mueller turned slowly toward him. After reading the man’s file, he had his doubts about the man’s integrity. After first-hand experience, he had labeled the agent as mouthy and insubordinate. Possibly a ringleader.

“Hand over the file, Agent Standish,” he said, his voice soft and promising an unspoken punishment for disobedience.

He did not expect the response he got from the flowery-spoken man. “I think not,” Standish stated simply, tucking both folders under his arm, his green eyes hard and flat.

Mueller refused to show his surprise. Without a word, the others slid their folders into their notepads and case rosters. Now he knew for certain. This insubordination had to be nipped in the bud. And he would start with Standish.

Later that day, he returned from a lunchtime meeting with the other team leaders under Travis’s dominion to find the coffee cup he had been using smashed, the pieces left on his desk and artfully laid out to resemble a fist, a single finger raised in a gesture that was hard not to recognize and even harder to ignore. Burning with fury, he noticed that Standish was the only one in the room. His desire for control turned to a desire for retribution.

Josiah and Buck returned from picking up sandwiches in time to see Ezra, face turning purple suspended by the collar from Mueller’s meaty fist, Mueller’s face a mere inch away and spitting obscenities into the undercover agent’s face. It took both men to pry them apart.

“Jesus Ezra,” Buck said as Mueller regained his composure and stormed from the office. “Why didn’t you just lay him out?” After all, Standish was proficient in several different forms of hand-to-hand combat.

“And hit a superior officer?” Ezra gasped, yanking his collar loose, an ugly red line appearing around his neck. “Have you any idea of the paperwork involved in that?”

Josiah chuckled. How would Buck know? he thought. Although the mustached agent had actually hit his long-time friend turned boss more than once during their time as a team, it was not Chris’s style to settle the matter with paperwork. Besides, God only knew what Wilmington would have written in explanation. “He asked for it.”? “Someone needed to do it.”? “ He’s had it coming for 15 years.”? Or the most likely option: “Ask him. He’s the asshole who started it.”

“What set him off?” Buck asked, looking from Ezra to the hall door and back.

“The coffee cup,” Ezra replied. Then with a snort of disdain, he added, “As if I would have had the bad taste to choose such a vulgar design.”

It didn’t take long for Travis to hear what had happened. A meeting was called. Strange, he reflected. He was certain that Chris and his agents had manhandled each other from time to time over the past few years. The proof was in the black eyes and split lips—and the complete denials. Complaints and paper trails were not exactly their style. This time, Travis knew without doubt, things would not be so easily smoothed over.

“I refuse to endure unprovoked assaults on my person,” Standish said as they stood before Travis and two of the directors.

“Unprovoked?” Mueller said dangerously, his face turning an unhealthy red.

At that, Ezra gave a surprisingly succinct verbal resignation on the spot.

The directors exchanged glances.

It was Mueller who did not return that afternoon.

* * *

Travis came down to the bullpen—again. Ezra was dramatically cleaning out his desk.

“Agent Standish,” he said. “A word, please.”

“Certainly, sir,” Standish said, his exaggerated courtesy a marked contrast to the scowl on his face.

Travis eyed him carefully. Standish was renowned for his poker face, and Travis was never certain whether any emotion he saw was real or just put on for his sake.

Travis was about to suggest they use the team leader’s office, but then he noticed the gaping hole where the door used to be. He made a mental note to push the maintenance staff to get that fixed. Since he couldn’t use Team Seven’s bullpen, he led Standish back upstairs to his own office.

“I meant to ask,” Standish drawled, looking around him as they passed through Travis’s outer office. “What happened to your coffee table?”

And again Travis was reminded why he was not surprised it only took Mueller two days to try to throttle the man.

Standish returned to the bullpen a mere fifteen minutes later, looking like he wasn’t sure whether to be smug or upset. In truth he wasn’t.

“What happened?” J.D. burst out, unable to contain his curiosity.

Ezra snorted. “For three years the powers that be have been looking for a reason to fire me. And now they won’t let me resign.”

Buck and Nathan exchanged a knowing smirk. “Too valuable to let go, huh?” Buck asked.

“Actually,” Ezra replied. “What our esteemed AD said was if I am really determined to go through with this, he would not take part. I would have to submit the necessary paperwork to my direct superior for submission to the directors themselves.”

The team glanced over at the vacant office. “Guess you’re out of luck then,” J.D. snorted.

“I am,” Ezra said, suddenly quiet. “Since there is only one individual I have ever been willing to recognize as my direct superior. And I am NOT submitting my resignation to the approval or disapproval of the arrogant, authority-driven, tactless buffoons we are required to call our chain of command.” He paused thoughtfully then added, “AD Travis notwithstanding.”

“Oh by the way,” the undercover agent added as an afterthought. “One Jackson Henderson is next in line to assume the position of ‘moron of the moment.’ Perhaps a few minutes of research would turn this miserable situation to our advantage.”

“I’ll get on it,” J.D. said at once, glad to take a break from the frustrating task of trying to hack into information on their last case—information that other agencies were trying very hard to keep to a “need to know” basis. To a man Team Seven felt that if anyone “needed to know,” they did.

They went home on Friday not knowing much more than they had when they had come back to Denver a week ago. Frustrated.

For the second weekend in a row, Buck had not even thought of making a date. In fact, he had declined one of his Saturday night usuals for the second time. He hadn’t even explained. It was still too hard to say the words.

He tried staying up late enough to wear out his frayed nerves then taking his pills. He hoped for dreamless oblivion. But still the images came.

“All teams pull back! All teams pull back!” an urgent voice on the headset.

“No shit!” the typically aggravated response. “You got that Buck? Pull the team back.”

The hair standing up on the back of his neck. New combatants in khaki and camo pouring into the warehouse, from three points of entry, taking up strategic positions as if planned. Where the hell were they coming from? There was no intelligence on this. “Where are you, Chris? We’ll cover your position.”

A bark of laughter. “Thanks, but these assholes are doing that just fine on their own. Get the team out of here. Now.”

Straining his eyes in the dim light of the loading bay, trying to see the position Chris had taken. The position the rest of them were supposed to take. Except Chris had refused to comply with orders. Couldn’t see. The area was alive with gunfire.

Cracking automatic weapons. A flinch, as a flying shard of wooden crate stung his cheek. Again. More urgent now. “What’s your position?”

“Fuck my position!” A garbled grunt and a swear word. “I’m overrun.”

The voice now strained and angry. “Retreat, Buck. Take the team and retreat.”

Vin’s voice, cutting through. “Gimme a target. I’ll…”

“Get your stubborn Texan ass down off that rafter and cover the team’s retreat. That’s a goddamn order!”

Silence.

Another grunt. The voice quiet. “Regroup at the van. I think I can break a line out of here. I’ll meet you at the van in ten.”

Nathan’s voice. “Just so you do.”

A muttered, “God be with you, Brother.”

A reluctant “I’ll hold you to that, Cowboy.” Then, “Hold your position. I’m coming down.”

The sharpshooter comes spiraling down off a rafter to their rear, on a spider line. Nathan and Josiah cover his descent.

The lucid part of his mind wanted to scream out then: Give me your position! We’ll charge in there. We’ll go down together. Anything. Just don’t make us leave!

But that’s not what had happened. He had obeyed the order.

Fighting their way to the doors. Nathan and Josiah dropping their empty clips where they stood.

His heart in his mouth as Vin slipped and dropped several feet to the concrete floor. Then the Texas sharpshooter’s arm was in his hand as he dragged him toward the door. Hauling him back with them still somehow firing with the other hand. Goddamn door out in the open.

“Lay down cover fire. J.D. get a fix on Chris.”

“Can’t get him, Buck. His headset’s gone off line.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!

Shoving Ezra behind him. Last out, Vin pressed so close he was nearly in his pocket, using the door as a shield.

Squinting in the too-bright sunlight. Smell of dust and gunsmoke in the air.

Across the parking lot. J.D. in the door of the van. Looking nearly frantic.

“Nobody move. He said he’ll meet us here in ten.”

Jesus! How do I sound so calm? Oh God! I didn’t know. Don’t let it happen. Not again. Don’t, don’t…

He woke up, sweating, before he had to relive the last scene. His hand shook as he ran it over his face. He knew he should get up out of the armchair, go to bed, change the channel in his head, turn the TV back up, but he couldn’t get his body to move. Without his knowing, his eyes slid shut and dropped him right back into the hell he had just left.

“Ten minutes, Buck. Still offline.”

Gunfire still cracking from inside.

Shifting his feet. His team looking at him now. Waiting to hear a plan.

The site commander came into view forty yards up, waving his arms as he spoke. Dug in positions up front moving suddenly backward. Vans and equipment trucks starting away from the building. Sirens in the distance. Approaching fast. Fire trucks?

He felt his body came fully upright.

Orders from someone hollering out, “Get your men under cover!”

Then amazement from J.D. “What the hell is that?”

On the left. A van. Rolling in from the west, out from under an even lower level, turning back toward the building. Mounted on top with a device he had seen before but never on a city street—in the U.S. anyway.

Shit!

Perplexed southern drawl. “Is that a rocket launcher?”

More amazement from the kid. “But they’ll blow up their own arsenal!”

Harsh surprise from Nathan, “That’ll take out half this city block.”

Cold realization descends on everyone at the same time.

Khaki clad militants begin to pour from the building, hands in the air, guns flung away. ATF and FBI waving them to get down. Get down.

Eyes scanning for one familiar, running figure. Dammit, Chris, don’t fuck around with this…

J.D.’s eyes go white. From the open doorway, militants inside the building begin mowing down their surrendering comrades. Parking lot shrapnel pushes back the ATF and FBI. SWAT team pinned down. Frontline ATF hits the deck. At least two definitely dead.

Sudden fire from the rocket launcher. Flinch. Flash. Rumbled roar. Then the explosion.

The concussion rolls across the parking lot, knocking back fleeing police, nearly taking him off his feet. He staggers back, surprised to find one arm holding J.D. up, pinned back against the van.

Someone is hollering Chris’s name. Maybe it’s his own voice. Maybe it’s Vin. He can’t tell. Maybe it’s all of them.

The fireball shoots up three stories into the sky, rolling out the door toward them, overtaking everything in its path, man, metal, machine.

J.D. bolts two steps forward. He slams him back pressing with more weight. Josiah and Nathan have tackled Vin. They are dragging him backward. Screaming. Fighting. They fight to hold him back. They pin him down.

J.D. is talking, sounds like he’s strangling. Ezra just standing there, face blank, staring at the flames, his gun dangling from one limp finger. His eyes are blank, like he has gone somewhere and left his body behind.

It takes seconds more to understand…

It is happening again.

This time he did scream out. J.D. came flying out of his bedroom at the end of the hall. But Buck didn’t have time to calm him. He staggered to the downstairs bathroom, hitting it just in time to heave up everything he had eaten. Again and again. Wishing he could just turn himself inside out, like a glove, empty everything out and get rid of it. Empty out the dreams. Empty out the memories. All of it. Empty. He wanted to be empty.

Not for the first time he wondered if this was how Chris had felt after the car bomb. After Sarah and Adam.

Bile rose up again, and though he had nothing left to lose, he bent low and retched violently into the toilet.

J.D. leaned back against the wall outside the door, tears stinging his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to go in there, hold his friend’s shoulder, tell him that he wasn’t alone. But he knew, because he knew Buck, that Buck wanted to be alone. Alone with this violent grief that threatened to tear him apart.

* * *

The gray light of dawn found him at the cemetery, again, as the first pink fingers began to touch the gray and white stones, one by one, then row by row.

He had come here the very day they returned. He had come to tell her, to tell Sarah what had happened. Although if Josiah was right and there really was a hereafter, he hoped with all his heart that his friend was already safe in Sarah’s loving arms. He swallowed thinking of it. It was the only image that brought him peace. He fought to hold onto it through the days, but it eluded him at night.

He stared down at the two headstones. Sarah Larabee. Adam Larabee. Both ripped from him. He had loved them like family. They had been his family. He thought of them now.

He thought of the three of them, remembering Sarah’s kindness and laughter, her stubborn streak and sharp humor—even her quick Irish temper. A small smile lingered on his lips.

Adam’s toddler grin, smelling of baby shampoo, delighted squeals, his face lit with the joy of some new discovery, some new skill conquered. The way he cocked his head to one side when he was thinking—just like his father.

Buck gulped.

He tried to bring to mind the Chris Larabee he had known for more than half his life: The cocky, reckless youth, the brash Navy SEAL team leader, the wily cop, the fierce, protective ATF team leader. He tried to picture the trademark cocky grin, the one that made bad guys run, the one Chris couldn’t help wearing whenever he was facing down danger, or the way Chris’s green eyes looked at you as if he could see right through you. He tried to picture the mischievous smart-ass smirk or the gleam of pride or contentment that he hid under lazy half-mast eyes that weren’t lazy at all. He tried, but he failed.

Of all his memories, the only image he could call forth clearly was Chris standing there in his flak jacket, changing the deployment of the team.

“This shit-for-brains plan is going to get someone killed,” he had muttered.

Vin snorted in response.

Larabee had two great gifts: leadership and tactics. But Team Seven had not been invited here to offer an opinion. They had been brought in because of their collective military and Special Forces experience, valuable experience when facing down a well-supplied paramilitary squad. They had been brought in to do the dirty work, to root out the head of the squad and preserve the weapons for recovery. Naturally, Chris ignored the plan completely, choosing instead to deploy his team in what he judged to be a safer position. One that would still let them get the job done. Except one angle still needed to be covered. So he assigned the remaining position to himself. A good idea—except the intelligence had turned out to be horribly wrong.

“I lost him, Sarah,” the mustached agent blurted out suddenly, hoarsely. Tears burst from his eyes, rolling down his cheeks. Even as his eyes swept over to the third, still unbroken plot in the line, he tried to remind himself that this was how Chris would have wanted it.

You wanted to go first, Pard, he thought. But I wasn’t ready.

Now it was too late.

And he still wasn’t ready.

Monday, they dragged themselves back into the office, looking more exhausted now. They had worked all weekend at the ranch, going through reams of papers and files. J.D. had set up a temporary computer system and linked in the computer in Chris’s den. They hardly spoke except to exchange information, as bit by bit they clawed through files and dug out the information they wanted. Now they needed a plan of attack. And a way to get back to Texas, back to that warehouse and the militants that had taken them down.

They were no longer concerned about having a new team leader. That problem had taken a second priority.

* * *

They were in the conference room, arguing over approach strategies, when Jackson Henderson arrived. Alone. He was tall, handsome, well-groomed and reeked of old money and well-heeled friends who pulled strings to get him here.

He had barely appeared in the conference room doorway, had hardly begun to wonder what case they were arguing about, when the six voices stopped talking at once and looked over at him. He could feel the intensity of their gaze as if it were one single fixed glare. And just as palpably he could feel how deeply unwelcome he was here. Nothing was said.

He went to the kitchenette, took a Styrofoam cup out of a cabinet, poured himself a cup of coffee, his mind rolling slowly around the situation he found himself in, with no little pushing from Dad, his connections, and his image of who and what his son should be. My career in law enforcement is not worth getting my ass kicked, he decided. And he knew beyond certainty that these six men could and would do just that if pushed. He, however, could always go into business as a skydiving instructor. And for that, he’d prefer to have all his limbs intact.

Screw ‘em, he thought to himself, the thought encompassing the men of Team Seven, his father, AD Travis, and all his new bosses. Don’t ask. Don’t tell, I always say.

He went into the office without the door without saying a word.

It took Team Seven some time to realize that their new team leader had not been back in to bother them. They had been too busy to notice. But they had come to an impasse now in determining how next to proceed. They sent Ezra out to check on the new Senior Agent, to speak Southerner to Southerner, to scope him out.

Ezra came back to them with a puzzled shrug.

They worked the day. It ended. Henderson flicked off the lights in his office, bid them goodnight offhandedly and went out the door at five o’clock.

The agents of Team Seven closed up their folders and exchanged looks.

It was Buck who proposed a trip to the Saloon. They agreed unanimously.

* * *

It was the first time they had been in since they had returned, and Inez Recillos, proprietor, head bartender, and chief cook was relieved to see them. In the three years since Team Seven had made this their gathering place, she had slowly come to view them as her own. And they had helped her out in many small, private ways.

It was Ryan Kelly, leader of ATF Team Eight, someone they trusted, who had told her what happened in Texas. He had made a special trip. He knew she’d want to know. The bar was not yet open. She had thought he was making a bad joke, but the look in his eyes told her he wasn’t.

She remembered sitting down suddenly on the nearest chair, while the world swam for a minute. Occasionally when she heard that one or the other was hurt, curiosity led her to wonder how she’d react if it happened. But she hadn’t really expected it to happen. And she hadn’t expected it to hit her so hard.

They slid into the back table they had long ago staked as their own: Five tough-looking law enforcement agents and the boy, who was older than he looked, and growing more like his friends every day. An icy lump threatened suddenly to choke her. In the corner of the bench they had left a space. His space. Her eyes blurred and she brought six beers, a bottle of whiskey, and seven shot glasses to their table.

“On the house,” she said, looking each man over. God they looked tired. She poured each of them a whiskey and one for herself.

She did not drink with patrons. She hardly drank at all. This was different.

They all looked to Josiah.

He held his glass aloft. “To Chris,” he said solemnly. “Our leader, our brother, our protector, our friend. His light will never leave us.”

They tilted the glasses back and set them on the tray, thanking her, softly, politely in that surprising way they had.

She assured them there was nothing to thank her for and squeezed the nearest of their shoulders before she moved on to other tables.

After Inez moved off, Buck leaned in close. A dangerous smile spread across his face. “Third time’s a charm, boys. Our new team leader’s just what we need to get this done.”

“To paraphrase an immortal piece of literature,” Josiah said philosophically, “the first replacement was too soft. The second replacement was too hard. This one seems to be…”

“Just right,” the other voices chorused with evil grins. They clinked their beers together.

The teams at nearby tables glanced over, knowing Team Seven well enough to realize they were up to something. Best to just try to avoid the inevitable crossfire.

They left the Saloon early—for them—and went their separate ways. There was much work to be done and they each had a job to do. Operation Divine Retribution was under way.

At home in his living room, AD Travis was not aware that Team Seven was in such a comparatively good mood. Had he known, he would have been more nervous than he was. He knew that Henderson’s first day had gone off without a hitch. It was more than he had hoped for. In fact, after Dawson and Mueller, he was downright relieved this one had lasted the day. Some found Henderson’s southern good nature ingratiating. In his opinion, Jackson Henderson was so easy going as to be almost comatose. He had no idea what Henderson’s connections were thinking when they pulled strings to put him on Team Seven. But then again, right now, maybe hands-off was just what the team needed.

Travis’s current nervousness had very little to do with the bad behavior of Team Seven, not directly anyway. It had to do with a phone call from Senator Wilkey Redd. A courtesy call from the man who had talked Chris into starting the team. An old friend of Chris’s parents. He had given Travis the heads up to expect a phone call from the General. The AD had never spoken to the General, but he could guess the contents of the message that would be waiting for him when he got into the office.

Fortunately, he had a full agenda out of the building for Tuesday. He checked in early on Henderson. The man was at his desk in the still doorless office, working apparently. Jackson, Wilmington, Dunne, Sanchez, and Tanner. They nodded a greeting to Travis and continued working. Standish was absent, but he seldom graced the office before 9 AM even under Chris Larabee’s command. There was no reason to expect him to show up early now.

Looks like a good start, the AD noted warily. He stopped briefly in the doorless office and told Henderson where to reach him if absolutely necessary. He offered his own secretary to accommodate his questions. Henderson thanked him politely and bid him good day. The man didn’t seem overly concerned. Travis didn’t know whether to relax or to worry.

It was late when he got home, his fist clutched around the message from General Larabee. He had tried before he left the office, but it was two hours later in D.C. There was nothing to do but phone first thing in the morning.