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Thought and Memory 4: Time's Rags

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Casey leaned against her aunt's knee, and stared into the fire, twisting at the ring on her left hand. The stone glimmered in the light from the hearth, shining and dimming again as she moved. She closed her eyes when she felt Nettie's hand settle on her head and stroke gently. She smiled a little, grateful for the connection and the unspoken affection. They sat there in silence for a long time.

The quiet 'snick' of the door closing still echoed in her ears. Chris and Vin had gone, leaving in awkward silence. Leaving her so alone that she wasn't sure how she was still able to keep on breathing. Tears burned at her eyes, and she squeezed them shut, letting them fall in slow lines down her face.

"When your uncle passed," Nettie began, and had to clear her throat. Casey's face hardened, but she didn't move. Even if she didn't want to hear it she knew fine well that Nettie would be heard. In her deepest heart, she even knew that she wanted her rough comfort. Nettie had never lied to her, had never sugar coated things so she wouldn't feel bad about herself. Never pretended that the world was an easy or fair place. She shivered. It was one of the things that had made JD so wary of Nettie, though had he but known it, they were very alike in their stoic acceptance of the world and its trials. "When he passed, I thought that I would never be able to feel anything again."

Casey turned her face into Nettie's leg and pressed her eyes against the soft wool of her skirt.

"Well, you know I," she coughed and tried again, her voice as brusque as her hands were gentle. "I never felt the same about another man. Your Uncle Peter was the only one for me. When he went, well, I had you, and the ranch. I couldn't be wandering about only half there. I had to learn that the hard way." She paused, and Casey knew she was thinking of the long, dreary days after her uncle's unexpected death from a stroke, when she was just twelve. "I know how much it hurt when you lost your parents." Casey shook her head and Nettie stopped.

That loss was old, and the pain of it long since muted by time, and love, into something bearable; a bittersweet regret, lingering memories fueled more by photographs and video than actual remembrance. It wasn't the same. She had been a child then, she'd grieved, but she'd not truly understood what she had lost -- Nettie and Peter had tried their best to make sure she never felt that loss as badly as she might. This... now she was an adult, and was staring, eyes wide open, into long bleak years, empty of the man she had chosen to live out the rest of her life with. This fresh wound was nothing like that first childish confusion.

She had thought she was ready. It had been more than three months, and Chris had kept her informed every step of the way as they desperately looked for her JD. She hadn't seen Buck since before JD had gone missing; he'd been working too hard, Chris had said. Reading between the lines she wondered what Buck was working on; whether he had felt the same stifling panic she did every time she heard 'no news yet'. Whether he wished that--

"I thought I was ready," she said, and choked back a sob. "I knew -- they kept looking, and it's been so long, I knew he wouldn't, I thought I would be ready..."

"Oh, honey, we're never ready," Nettie said tenderly, still smoothing her hand gently over Casey's tangled hair. "And he was just about everything to you."

Casey nodded, trying not to think of the exasperation in his voice, or the love in his eyes, or the secure warmth of his embrace. The way his hair got in his eyes; the way he laughed... She swallowed back another sob.

"I know it's not like when you lost your Mom and Dad. It can't be. You're older now. It hurt everyone when that juggernaut killed them, but you were young. It hurt you, but we could make you happy again. When Peter passed, I knew it was different." Her hand stilled. "Like with your JD. But in the end, it ain't no different, Cassandra Jane. You just keep on breathing in and out, and the sun keeps on rising in the east and setting in the west, like it doesn't care that your world's stopped turning, and eventually the pain fades. And one day you wake up thinking about tomorrow, instead of yesterday, and you don't even notice until the day's half done." She dropped her hand to the back of Casey's neck and squeezed. "Doesn't mean I don't think of him most days. Doesn't mean I ain't surprised when sometimes I turn around to say something to him and he ain't there smiling at me. Just means that I figured out I don't stop loving him just because he isn't here. He don't stop loving me. And I'll be back with him one day, God willing."

Casey couldn't bring herself to speak; where was God when her JD was murdered? Why did she have to lose everyone?

"He was a good man, your JD."

Casey nodded mutely.

"It's going to keep on hurting, little girl," she said with gruff kindness, "He was a good man, and you loved him, and he deserves to be mourned. It's okay to miss him. I still miss my Peter, even with fifteen years grace I still miss the old coot.

"But time does heal. He wouldn't want you to grieve forever." Casey shook her head in abrupt denial of the words she thought were coming, but Nettie ploughed on regardless. "Maybe you'll even meet someone else."

"No!"

"I'm not sayin' tomorrow, or next month or even next year. It might be you won't ever love like that again." She ignored Casey's protest entirely. "What you had -- what I had, that's precious rare, girl. You don't just forget, or move on from loving a man like that without grieving and hurting for a time. But time eases all things, truly."

"Fifteen years!" she choked out. "I can't bear it now!"

"I know, child, I know," and Nettie started stroking her hair again.

"They said there weren't no body. They didn't find him, there weren't no body, maybe--"

"Chris Larabee looked like he'd had his heart broke all over again," Nettie said inexorably, and Casey's face crumpled. She'd seen it too. The terrible belief in Chris's eyes, and the banked rage in Vin's as they told her gently that JD wasn't coming home.

Would never come home again.

And she buried her face in her hands and she wept.

---------------------------------

August 25

"That fuckin' hurts, man!"

"Tell someone who gives a damn. Now, I want you to take me to see Roberts," Buck snarled, jamming his gun up under Tyler Brown's jaw until the teenager's head was tilted as far back as he could get it. And then Buck jabbed the gun up again. "Now!" Tears of pain glinted under the street light, and still the kid hesitated, even with his head jammed against a wall in a seedy, dead-end alley.

"He's gonna kill me," he said desperately. "I -- look, I'll take a message, come back with whatever he says, I swear. I can't take you there. He'll kill me, he'll kill me dead if I take you in."

"Well now, that's a problem, see, because if you don't, I'm gonna kill you!" He cocked the gun, the muzzle still lodged tight against his throat and at the distinctive click, Tyler crumbled.

"Okay! Okay! Don't shoot!"

"Okay?"

"I'll get you in. But when he asks how, you don't tell him it was me, man!"

Buck inclined his head momentarily. "I guess I could do that." Like Roberts isn't going to know, moron, he thought acidly, like he doesn't already know. He put the gun away and gestured for the shorter black man to go ahead of him.

"I'm not stopping, okay? You don't stop either. Not for nothing." Tyler called softly and set off at an easy jog.

He followed the teenager out the alley and through Denver's late night streets, twisting and turning so much that he wondered if he could ever find his way out again. Strange how you could live somewhere twenty years and still be surprised by it. They reached a bar, slipped through the thinning crowds to a door at the back.

"Stay back, okay? Right back." Tyler said quietly, and Buck nodded. He wished for night vision goggles, but the corridor was lit enough to avoid stumbling on the sporadically placed boxes and junk, as long as he didn't rush. Each time he looked up Tyler was a little further ahead. Maybe it was a trap.

Tyler disappeared, and Buck's body tensed. He pulled his gun out again, and then speeded up, finding a flight of stairs at the end of the corridor, heading down, and Tyler staring up at him from the foot.

"Keep up, dammit," the man muttered, and Buck hurried down the steps, narrowed his gaze.

"Where are we going?" he asked softly, his gun nudging at Tyler's waist.

"To his place. Look, he doesn't like people knowing where he is. He's gonna kill you when he sees you."

"I'll take that chance," Buck said very quietly, and smiled when he felt Tyler shudder.

Long minutes later Tyler hammered on a door. The door opened and, as someone inside started to speak, Buck shoved him forward, and dropped to one knee, gun up, still partially hidden by the door. He smiled coldly at the sound of a gunshot; Tyler collapsed to the ground with a sharp cry. He snapped a shot blind into the dark room and was cruelly pleased by the soft sound of metal impacting flesh at speed, and the soft groan and thud of a falling body.

"Guns on the floor," Buck ordered from the flimsy protection of the half open door. "All the guns on the ground."

"I hardly think you're in a position to give orders, Agent Wilmington," Keith Roberts' voice came out of the dim shadows inside the room.

"Oh, I don't know." He grinned at the soft snick and the press of cold metal at the side of his neck. His stomach clenched but only for a split second. There would be no second chances if he showed any weakness. "You just ain't got to know me yet."

He dropped, swung his weight onto his hands and twisted, sweeping the legs of his assailant out from under him. The man fell to the ground, and lost his gun. It went off, echoing loudly in the narrow corridor. Buck never flinched, but kept moving, rolling smoothly back up to his feet and reached for the man. At the last moment he adjusted his aim from a lethal neck twist to a neck punch, precisely weighted to interrupt the man's blood supply to his brain, followed by a jab to the vulnerable temple, and as the gunman fell he finished him with a double handed chop down on the back of his skull, the butt of his gun adding weight to the blow.

Before the man had hit the ground Buck was retreating, moving until he had his back to the wall, scanning all around him in the dim light of the corridor. No one else emerged, and for long minutes the silence was unbroken.

"Not bad," Roberts conceded.

Buck grinned ferally, "Send 'em all, Roberts, send 'em all and I'll show 'em what a real man's made of."

"I'll give you the boy, since he was stupid enough to bring you here." Tyler was shoved out of the dark room, bleeding from a gutshot. Even in the poorly lit corridor, Buck could see that unless he got medical attention soon he was gonna die. Tyler staggered, looking pleadingly at Buck, one hand clamped to his belly, the other supporting him against the wall.

Buck looked away. "One gangbanger more or less, what's that to me?" He jerked a thumb towards the exit, and Tyler started shuffling away, hunched around his injury.

"I like your style, Wilmington. Crude but effective."

"Better than your boys," Buck bragged.

"For now."

Off to the left the unconscious gunman moaned softly, and Buck's jaw tightened. He should have killed him when he had the chance, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He heard Tyler stumble and moan, and he looked back towards the boy. He wasn't going to make it out. In another life he would have helped, would have left to get him an ambulance -- but he couldn't bring himself to do that either. In another life he wouldn't have been here in the first place. Travis had ordered him to leave it be. He wondered what it said about him that he didn't much care.

"What do you want?"

"Information."

"I'll trade you," Roberts said with an edge of mockery in his voice. "No free lunches around here, fed."

"No." Not that he wasn't willing to bargain; he'd spent weeks finding himself something that Roberts could use, but he wasn't going to get anywhere if he let Roberts believe that he held all the cards. Buck had a card or two worth playing. He was just going to take his time before getting to the end game.

"Guess that boy's life ain't worth so much to you after all," Roberts said slyly, and Buck froze.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Your little buddy. Dunne. What is he anyway? Baby brother? Fuck toy? Pet mascot?"

"What do you know?" he asked, desperately keeping his voice steady. He wasn't going to react. Words didn't matter, not those ones. He was looking for the important words. Dead. Alive.

"Heard a rumor you were making waves, naming names, asking questions. Kid's missing, big bust, little buddy vanished. Heard that maybe the right news might find a good home with you."

Buck shook his head. "Anyone with half an ear knows that by now."

"If you don't want to know..." he let his voice trail off meaningfully.

"What have you got?" he said, an edge creeping into his voice. Even he wasn't sure if it was anger, or fear, or hope.

"Oh no, that's not how it works. Something for something, Bucky boy. You gotta give me something. My game, my rules."

"What do you want?"

"That's better." Roberts chuckled and Buck ground his teeth. Roberts was a fence who traded in everything, but especially information. He brokered it all onwards too, to the highest bidder, for the highest price.

And that price was not going to be exacted in dollars.

"Well, Mr. Wilmington, since you were so kind as to ask, there is something you could do for me."

"Nothing to do with the job," Buck warned, and Roberts laughed. The sound echoed off the walls, and Buck tightened his grip on his gun.

"You don't get to set terms and conditions, Mr. Wilmington. I told you, that's not how it works. Now, you do something for me, and then maybe I do something for you. That's how it works."

"No." Buck said flatly. "You give me something I can use and I don't come after you with all the hounds of Hell."

"Really? Does Larabee even know you're not tucked up in bed like the good, drunken whoreson that you are?"

Buck's jaw was aching with the pressure he was putting it under to not say his first answer out loud.

"I found you once, I can find you again," Buck said softly, once he got his temper back under tight rein. "Or I can put out the word that you're helping us." He paused to let his words settle, then went on, "Hell, half the back side of Denver knows I was looking for you. All I need to do is drop some hints in the right places, and they'll kill ya for me." His voice was quiet and cold. "Wouldn't give that," he snapped his fingers, "for your life if some of those boys you run with think you've sold them out."

"An interesting point." The man paused. "Or I could just have you killed, and let everyone know what happens even to decorated ATF heroes when they walk into the wrong places. An object lesson."

"You think you'd survive that?"

"You think Larabee would?" Roberts replied smoothly, and Buck flinched. The man knew far more than Buck was comfortable with. "How do you think Mr. Larabee would feel if maybe we parceled you up a piece at a time and sent you back to him? A couple of fingers, an ear, your balls..."

"He'd hunt you down. You and every man, woman and child that you brought into it." Buck felt nothing. His throat was locked, his gut ice cold. He really didn't care. He'd given it all up for Larabee once. Now he had a better cause.

"He'd kill himself doing it."

"What makes you think either of us would care?" Buck said flatly, knowing that it was both true and a lie.

Larabee would care. He knew that. But he also knew that Chris understood. If he could stop Buck he would; but only because he felt he had to. Of all people, Chris Larabee would understand this drive to find what had been taken from him. He'd looked four square into Larabee's madness, eight years ago, and thought he had understood. Now he knew he hadn't. And by the same, double-edged measure, he knew Larabee comprehended his madness now. Hated it. Wished it gone, wanted to ignore it, wanted to pull Buck back from it. Feared it. But understood, bone deep, what Buck was prepared to sacrifice.

Just as well Chris wasn't here.

Because he was the only man alive who truly knew what he was capable of.

"An impasse, then."

"Maybe. What if I gave you something? And you give me something. Everybody wins."

"What?"

"Nothing you could blackmail me for afterwards." Buck cautioned.

"I'm shocked, Mr. Wilmington." But a greedy sound had entered the man's voice and Buck knew he just had to carry through.

"It has a shelf life," he warned.

"How short?"

"Twelve hours."

"That will have to be very, very good."

Buck grinned. He had him. And the information wasn't even something that the ATF could use. But maybe, offered in the right time and place, this time and place, it would give him the answers he wanted. And as a nice little bonus, maybe take down some people that considered themselves untouchable.

"Oh, it's real good," he drawled, lingering over the words, relishing them.

"Really." Roberts was politely incredulous, and Buck smirked.

"If it's me, it's good," he bragged.

"You don't lack for self-confidence." Roberts sounded amused, and Buck shrugged.

"Tzivokis is moving in on the Paulsen family tomorrow. Full out takeover."

"Haven't heard a whisper. You know this how?"

"Contacts."

"Let me guess, you've been shaking trees until something fell out."

"Let's say, Mrs. Tzivokis ain't so lonely as she was a week ago."

"You slept with that harridan?" For a moment there Roberts sounded both aghast and impressed.

"Gentleman don't kiss an' tell," Buck murmured self-deprecatingly.

"How do I even know this is true?"

"Check with her masseuse, or her beauty therapist. Ask 'em about her tattoo." He smirked. "Let's just say the lady has a taste for pain, and likes letting the butterfly fly."

There was a long silence.

"I don't know if I can offer you anything that valuable in return," Roberts said regretfully.

"Guess you'll just have to owe me one," Buck said lightly, but his heart sank. He'd thrown it all on this one roll of the die, and had lost.

"I can give you this. Word is, Madison didn't have Dunne killed. There are people who like to keep an eye on bodies; like to know where they are buried; when they might surface. There's not a whisper on this. Dunne might be dead, but he ain't in this town."

"That's all?"

Roberts huffed a short, impatient sigh. "Maybe something else. I hear rumors - unconfirmed rumors from places even I don't go. Someone upstairs needing a computer specialist so badly that they were prepared to pay anything, do anything to get one. Very high level. Very secretive."

"JD..." Buck mouthed noiselessly, then coolly asked, "What did they want one for?" What would they want one half-grown kid from the ATF for? He was half unsurprised that someone had noticed his little brother's genius; half startled to have his private opinion partially confirmed.

"I am sorry," the man genuinely was, he could hear it in his voice, and knew it was the regret of a man who knew that this was not enough to pay for the information Buck had given Roberts. "I do not know. I'll tell you this. The rumors are coming out of the black."

"The Company?"

"Deeper than that."

"Deeper?" Buck shook his head.

"One of the ad hoc committees... I don't know which one. And that's all I know."

"Names? Dates?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry." And the kicker was, Buck believed him. "I thought -- but if the information was good, the news would have already broken."

"What? Please?" Buck bit his lip. He hadn't meant to sound so desperate. Aw, hell with it. "Anything at all," he begged.

"Something was going down on August twenty. Something real quiet; something real big. Something to do with a place called Tiengo."

"I haven't heard anything." He wondered where Tiengo was -- some town on the Mexican border maybe. Days ago, just days. Maybe there was time...

"I don't think that there was anything to hear," Roberts said softly in the darkness. "I think whatever it was, if it even happened, it failed. And if your friend was involved..."

Buck slumped against the wall. If JD had been involved with something like that, and it had failed, then he would never know. Half formed plans to find this place, go there, look died. The government didn't let go of its secrets. He shivered, shaking off the spell of the man's words. "Not enough. Not nearly enough."

"I know."

"I'm gonna walk out of here, Roberts," he said slowly, and stood straight. "And you aren't coming after me. You aren't coming after me, or mine, ever."

"Why kill the golden goose?" Roberts' voice mocked. "I'll leave you and yours alone. Nobody wants that trigger-happy lunatic on his trail."

"Larabee won't be nothing to me if I find out that you knew something and hid it. Anything at all. You know where to find me. You hear something, you let me know. You still owe me." Buck turned and walked away, the middle of his back itching even under the Kevlar vest he'd worn.

"A pleasure doing business, Mr. Wilmington," Roberts' voice followed him.

His back itched all the way back to his car. He put the key in the ignition, locked the doors, and leaned his head on the steering wheel. "Jesus, that was a waste of time," he muttered. He slammed his hand down on the wheel angrily. He hated what he'd done to get something good enough to offer Roberts, and he'd got nothing back, nothing, except a maybe promise that no one was talking about JD's grave -- he swallowed hard -- so maybe JD was alive. Or maybe Madison just had a better grip on his people than Roberts.

He dismissed the rumors about the black taking JD. Why would the government kidnap the kid, when he already worked for them? No, Roberts had always been a conspiracy theory freak. It was why he was so damn good at finding information. It was just a pity the man chose to sell it to the highest bidder, instead of sending it to the National Enquirer like the rest of the nutjobs.

He started the car and drove slowly back home. He could start again tomorrow.

Maybe tomorrow would be better.

---------------------------------

August 27

"You're fuckin' jokin'," he said in flat disbelief.

The lead prosecutor, Louise Fenteman threw Tanner an annoyed glance, and turned back to meet Chris Larabee's fulminating glare.

"Vin," Chris warned quietly, not taking his eyes off of Ms Fenteman's face. "Ms. Fenteman, excuse my team, they're under a lot of strain."

"Of course, I completely understand, and I'm--" she stopped short as Larabee slammed his hands down on the mahogany conference table and stood, leaning forward until she pulled back.

"So what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"Mr. Larabee, please, language. I believe you are intimidating the poor woman," Ezra said mildly.

"Good," Larabee never moved his gaze. "Now. Tell me why after months of investigating and the sworn affidavits of a dozen men that Madison gave the order to kill my agent, you haven't even bothered to charge him with attempted murder?"

Ms. Fenteman flicked her gaze around the table, but all she found were hostile eyes. "Agent Larabee, we just don't have the evidence for it. We've got him for the kidnapping and false imprisonment, there's no question of that. We may even make the conspiracy to murder charges stick. But there is some considerable question as to what happened to Agent Dunne after Madison supposedly ordered his death. None of the witnesses are reliable -- some of their stories contradict each other." She looked away then back. "And the man swears he didn't do it. I've spoken to his defense attorneys and they are inflexible on this."

"Madison's a stone cold killer. He's killed and lied his way out of it for fifteen years, and you're lettin' him get away with it again. He's a lyin', murdering piece of shit," Vin spat out. "A drugged out, gunrunning bastard who'd sell out his own mother for a few bucks, and you want to believe that scum? When we've lost one of the best men I've ever known?"

"I appreciate your feelings, Agent Tanner, all of you, I am so sorry -- but I can't help you here. I have a job to do, and to be perfectly honest, it's about putting an illegal gunrunner out of business, not about fulfilling your vendetta."

"He deserves to die," Vin said flatly.

"So for the sake of your job you're letting him get away with murder. Literally," Jackson asked as Vin subsided, disgust dripping from every word. "So much for justice."

"Agent Jackson, I'm sorry, I truly am, but I can't agree with you. You've got to remember, I've got a duty to the state to prosecute criminals, not pursue vengeance. Mr. Madison's team have agreed to the remainder of the charges, and we are including conspiracy to murder and attempted murder." She flicked a reproving glance at Larabee who ignored it. "In return we will not be pursuing murder one. Frankly, I don't believe we could prove the murder charge without a shadow of doubt, and he will not plead guilty to it under any circumstances. With the wrong jury we could find him being found not guilty on that one, which in turn would damage our chances of securing conviction on the other counts. Such as the gunrunning."

"This is bullshit! We shouldn't even be here!" Buck stood abruptly. "You're just playing stupid political games when we ought to be out there, looking for him!"

"Buck, sit down," Larabee warned him.

"Do you really want Madison to walk free? Is that what you think your friend would have wanted?" she asked Buck directly. "Is that what Agent Dunne worked so hard for?"

Buck's eyes darkened with rage. "Don't bring his name into it. He's got nothing to do with it. You ain't even fit to say his name. Why don't you go back to fouling your own damn nest, and keep your botoxed face out of my way?" He pushed his chair back so hard its feet screeched against the floor. Without a backward glance he stalked from the room.

"Agent Larabee," Fenteman began, and Chris held up a hand.

"I understand your point, Ms. Fenteman," he said in a low, icy voice, "but you have to understand mine. Agent Dunne laid down his life for those charges to be brought. Believe me when I say we are not going to fuck it up. The way things are, it's likely gonna be the only epitaph my man gets. But we aren't going to forget this, either." Or forgive, was implicit in his voice and hard, unemotional face.

Jackson nodded in agreement, as did Standish. Sanchez was breathing slow and deep, his eyes half closed, his whole demeanor that of man on the very edge of controlling his temper. Tanner simply stared at his hands where they lay folded, white knuckled, over his briefing notes.

"Agent Larabee, if you intend to hinder--"

"You aren't paying attention. Like I said, we'll see your case through. You'll get your conviction, for what it's worth." He stared at her until she dropped her eyes. "If you don't need us for anything else?" He didn't wait for a reply, but rose and nodded to the remaining members of his team, who also stood, dwarfing her as she looked helplessly around, trying to think of a way to regain control of the meeting.

"Agent Larabee, you can't just--"

"Let's go, boys." He turned on his heel and walked out, ignoring her protests.

They headed back up to the team's offices in silence. Larabee didn't stop with the guys as they paused by the door to Buck's office, but walked all the way up to the end of the corridor, to his own office. He paused there a moment, drew a deep breath, and punched his right hand through the glass wall.

"Jesus, Chris!" Jackson was by his side in an instant, carefully lifting his arm to examine it. "Damn fool."

Chris wrenched away from Nathan's touch. "Leave it," he said tersely. He clenched and unclenched his fist once or twice, checking that he hadn't done any serious damage, then shrugged off the concerned stares, and carried on into his office, closing the door behind him firmly.

Nathan stared for a long moment at the ragged hole in the safety glass and the cobweb striations across the rest of the pane, and then turned to meet Ezra and Josiah's eyes. Tanner and Wilmington had disappeared into their offices.

"And that was merely our revered leader's feelings on the matter," Ezra said softly, and as one they looked at the closed door to Buck's office.

"We'll get him through it," Nathan nodded definitely.

"Will we?" Sanchez shook his head. "I don't know, Nate. I just don't know."

"He seemed pretty calm just now," he pointed out. "It's only natural to be angry, to try to deny what happened. These things take time. Hell, I was off balance for years after my Momma died, and I was just a little tyke," he stopped for a moment and sighed. "But it's been a couple of months, and I think he's getting there. He's starting to let go; he's not reacting violently towards us any more. Look at the way he walked away from that meeting just now. I'm not saying that he wasn't angry, but he controlled it, it wasn't controlling him. I'm not saying it ain't gonna take time but--"

Ezra snorted and at Nathan's sharp look, said, "You just don't get it. He doesn't care if they fail to prosecute Madison for our young friend's demise."

"But--"

Ezra had a sick look on his face as he leaned into Nathan's personal space. "To his way of thinking it is preferable. I think you have mistaken the issue here. Buck is not grieving. He is angry." He looked away for a moment, and then back, and Nathan's gut twisted at the look in his eyes. "JD is dead."

Nathan closed his eyes briefly and swallowed, willing away unbidden tears. "I know," he said hoarsely, and felt Josiah's hand briefly squeeze his shoulder.

"Buck, however, Buck's anger is not because he can't accept the truth, it is because he believes that we -- all of us, the team, Fenteman, everyone -- have turned on him, on JD. Have failed -- are failing JD by not searching heaven and hell for his living presence. He is not in denial, Nathan," he said as simply as he could. "It's nothing so simple and healthy as that. Do you see? He truly believes that JD is out there somewhere, and that we have given up on him. Betrayed him. Betrayed them both."

"But..." Nathan's voice trailed off as he looked at Josiah, only to find pity and agreement in the man's eyes. He looked back to Buck's closed door. "But--"

Ezra's mouth twitched. "Indeed, Mr. Jackson," he said softly. "In. Deed."

---------------------------------

August 27

Nathan stared blindly at the television until Raine walked in and switched it off.

"Hey, sweetheart," she said softly, and sat next to him, tucking her feet underneath her and leaning against him. It was a hot, sticky night, so she was wearing as little as possible -- an open backed sports top and cut-offs, and normally he would have been more than appreciative.

"Oh, hey baby," he said absently, and draped an arm over her shoulders.

"Any news?" She'd come in after a long evening shift at the hospital. She'd asked the same question every night for what felt like centuries, and she didn't expect any change.

"They aren't going to prosecute Madison for JD's murder."

"Oh. But that could be a good thing, right? They don't think JD's dead?"

Nathan shook his head slowly. "They just can't prove it." He sniffed, and his free hand wiped at his face.

"Baby?"

"Buck's still looking." His mouth worked for a few seconds until he got his emotions back under control. "He doesn't think -- he really thinks that kid is alive and waiting for us to find him, and I don't know how to get through to him!"

She didn't know what to say, and instead rubbed her face against his shoulder, pressing a small kiss against the top of his arm. He leaned in and they kissed, but she knew his heart wasn't in it.

"Nathan, honey, I'm so sorry." She turned onto her knees, facing him as his shoulders shook, and she wrapped him close against her, his head beneath her chin, rocking them gently as slow sobs shook him.

"Not fair," he whispered. "He was only a kid."

"I know, baby, I know. We all loved him."

"If it was something we could have done, something we knew about-- if he'd just called me, I'd've been there, any of us would."

"He knew that. Maybe he couldn't call?" She tried to comfort, "Maybe it was all so quick that--" she stopped herself.

"God, I hope it was quick." He shuddered, and she ran her hands up and down his back, pressing hard, as though to take his pain into her.

It was a long time before she felt she could speak again. "You want some water, baby?"

He nodded, and as she stood, tried to clear his throat. "Thanks," he whispered and she rubbed his head.

"I love you," she said simply, and went to fetch the water.

"Little sips," she said when she came back into the room.

He smiled at her, a small, sad expression, and impulsively she settled on his lap.

"So what happened today?"

"I --it just -- we had a meeting this morning, and Madison's plea bargained himself down to kidnapping and false imprisonment."

"And the gunrunning?" she asked anxiously.

"Oh, yeah, we've got him on that sure enough," he said dismissively. "It's -- JD's dead, and it's not healthy, it can't be healthy for Buck, refusing to let go like he is. He's gonna -- I don't know what he's going to do, and I'm afraid of how far he's gonna go, trying to find someone that just ain't there to be found..." He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "That poor kid."

"How's Casey taking it?" she asked quietly.

"I -- I don't know. I guess, I suppose Chris and Buck went and saw her. I told you Travis pulled us off the case?"

"Yes. At some length." She took the sting of her words away by snuggling in close. "Maybe I could call her," she added thoughtfully. "I think if it was the other way around, I'd appreciate it." She shivered abruptly, and kissed him hard. "Baby, I'm so glad you don't do the undercover stuff mostly."

His arms closed around her, and he said nothing.

"Have you thought about counseling?" she asked after a while.

"For Buck?"

"For all of you. You were so tight, be a shame to lose that," she said carefully. "You've all got to be hurting."

"I'm fine," he said automatically and then flinched when she swatted at him. "But, Raine, honey, I'm not the one yelling at Travis, or punching holes in walls, or fixin' to take out Madison."

"Buck?" she guessed.

"And Chris, and Vin. Ezra's locked down into himself; I reckon he thinks he forgot something or missed something that meant JD's cover got broke--"

"You told him he didn't, right?" she asked anxiously, she liked the man who played with the kids at her pediatric unit.

"Yeah." He sighed, then rested his head against hers. "Josiah has nothing but damned crows to talk about, and I'm--" he stopped abruptly.

"You're...?"

"I'm not doing so good, hon," he said painfully.

"Oh, sweetheart," and she hugged him close. "I know."

"I just -- I don't know if counseling will do any good. Half of them aren't ready to believe they need it, and the other half don't want to believe there's a reason for it."

"I'm just saying think about it. I hate seeing you so unhappy."

"I will. I promise."

---------------------------------

August 29

Josiah looked blankly at his emails, and abruptly shook his head. Buck had looked terrible this morning. Not merely unshaven and red-eyed, but the darkening shadows of bruises on his jaw and knuckles, and the small cut on his forehead suggested that the man had been getting into trouble of a less than spiritual kind.

He rose to his feet, and crossed the corridor to Buck's office, knocking lightly on the door. Maybe he'd never made it as a priest, but he was a damn good psychologist. Surely there was something he could do?

There was no reply, and he narrowed his eyes, trying to see through the glass of the office wall to where Buck sat, his back to the rest of the world. Perhaps he should let him be.

No. Friends didn't do that to friends. He rolled his eyes at the trite phrase, but it didn't make it less true. he tried the door and when it opened, slipped inside.

"Buck?"

Buck lifted his head wearily. "Yeah?"

Josiah sighed and took the hostile word as an invitation, contrary to Buck's probable wishes, and walked in. Up close, Buck's injuries were clearly getting worse, swelling and darkening. A thin trickle of blood from his temple suggested that the man had been messing with the cut there. Nathan was going to have a cow when he realised. Or not. After the last round of arguments between Nathan and Buck about counseling, almost certainly not. He sat himself in the chair across from Buck's desk. "That's a lot of weight to carry on one pair of shoulders."

Buck looked away. And after that last bout between Nate and Buck, maybe that wasn't the best opening gambit either. Josiah waited a few moments, then tried another tack, nodding at the damage to Buck's face.

"You had any luck? Out there, on the streets?"

Buck's eyes closed without ever meeting Josiah's eyes.

"I see." Josiah knew his worry was clear on his face -- wanted it to be. "I'll talk to Nathan, shall I? See if I can get him to back off."

"Thanks," Buck muttered. "Appreciate it."

Josiah waited to see if anything more might be forthcoming. The room stayed quiet for long minutes, until finally, he stood. "Buck, if there's anything I can do--"

"I know." This time Buck looked up, his voice rough. "Thanks." He forced a smile, and Josiah felt like he was staring straight into the wreckage of a soul, all jagged edges on the edge of a terrible abyss.

He turned away quickly. That face -- that place, was too close to things he never wanted to remember.

"Jo -- Josiah?" Buck's voice cracked halfway and he had to try again before he managed to get the word out.

"Yes?"

"Y'ever heard of somewhere called Tiengo?"

Josiah blinked. "I --" he frowned, "yes, I have -- one of those tiny South American countries isn't it? Principle export ice, principle import tourists." He thought a moment longer, trying to dredge up anything, "Any particular reason?"

"No, I--" Buck stopped.

Josiah shook his head slowly, "Unless you tell me the truth, I can't help you, son."

"No, it's a stupid question. It's not important."

"There aren't any stupid questions."

Buck laughed under his breath. "Thought you'd sworn never to say that again."

Josiah smiled at him, "Well, now, never say never."

"Thanks, Josiah." Buck turned his face away again, and Josiah nodded.

"I'll let you be." He walked to the door, and paused. "Any time you need an ear--"

Buck nodded without looking up, and Josiah left, puzzled.

Now, what was that about?

---------------------------------

September 3

Vin Tanner glowered at his unresponsive computer. Ten in the evening, with only two more paragraphs left to write up and of course the damn thing froze. He thumped it a couple of times, then growled, and held the power button down until it switched itself off. JD would have thrown a fit if he had seen him at it -- had once yelled at him, telling him that he might as well open up the box and pour coffee on the motherboard. But the kid wasn't here, which was pretty much the point of this whole exercise, and he had to get it working tonight. He turned it back on and waited for it to run through its starting sequence. It was too late for this crap -- if he didn't get the report ready for the meeting tomorrow they might not even be able to nail Madison on the gunrunning stuff.

Madison was going to court in less than a week, and he didn't want there to be any chance of something going wrong. If this was all the revenge he got, then he was going to enjoy every last minute of it.

He smiled ferally at the thought of putting away the man who had killed his friend. Madison could swear till he was blue in the face that he hadn't killed JD, but he knew better. He drummed his fingers while he waited for the ancient government issued machine to reboot. The only sound was the chirring of the machine's fan, and the ever-present hum of the a/c. His was the only office on the floor still lit, everywhere else was dim and quiet, his colleagues long since gone home. Even Chris had left nearly an hour ago, with a quiet 'Night,' and a nod. He yawned hugely, and arched his back, pulling the kinks out with audible cracks. He'd finished, near enough. One last thing, and maybe he would start to feel like he'd done everything he could for the kid.

The phone rang.

He froze, startled, and looked around. It was his phone; the caller ID display simply said 'Public', the number withheld. Not a good sign. It rang again. It was past ten at night, who the hell could be calling him? And how did they know he was there?

He flicked the switch that would ensure the call was recorded, and picked up. "Tanner."

"He's alive."

"'Scuse me?"

"I can't stay on the line, but you've gotta know. He's alive."

"Who? Who's alive?" He asked, the only possible answer was impossible, even as one name, the only possible, impossible name, repeated over and over in his mind until he thought he would scream it. "JD--"

"Dunne. They took him and -- shit!" The phone clicked dead and he hissed in frustration. It hadn't been long enough to trace. It was barely a big enough sample to send to Forensics to voice match, even if he had a voice to match it to. He ran the tape back and played it through. There was something in the voice, in the words... he shook his head, trying to shake the memory into his conscious brain. Did he know that voice?

Dunne. He only knew one Dunne...

JD.

He shook his head. No. He didn't believe in anonymous phone calls. He didn't dare believe in miracles.

The forgotten computer chimed at him, and he looked up, staring blankly at the login screen.

He'd almost forgotten.

Madison. The court hearing.

He sat still for long minutes, turning the whole thing over.

He didn't know who it was who had called him. They'd given him nothing he could use to find the kid -- if it was even him they meant.

He had no proof that they were telling the truth, and every reason save a body to know that they were lying.

God, how he wanted it to be real.

He closed his eyes, trying to batten down the grief. JD -- JD was gone. If he were alive then he'd be there, if there was any chance at all, but there wasn't, there couldn't be, no matter how much he wanted it to be otherwise. He'd learned a long time ago that wishing brought nothing. No.

His anger flared again, and he grasped it with something like relief. Hell, for that matter, it was probably one of Madison's boys trying to save his boss's perjured neck. That had to be it. Just one of Madison's people trying to throw them off their game, trying to add weight to their boss's plea bargain. They knew Madison had killed other federal agents and police officers in his time, even if he'd never been indicted. They knew he'd found out who JD really was. There was no reason to think that, JD's cover blown, the gunrunner would change his ways. No.

Madison had gotten away with murder, and that was all there was to it. It stank, but there was nothing he could do beyond what he already was. He pulled the tape and hefted it for a moment, then dropped it into the trashcan under his desk, where it disappeared without a trace under the paper and food wrappers.

His computer purred quietly as he finished typing up his report. Printed, he added the folder holding it to the stack of papers on Larabee's desk, then returned to his own office, shrugged on his leather jacket, and picked up his gym bag. As he left his office he turned and looked back at his desk. The desk where JD had once sat. For a split second he could see the kid, tilted precariously back in his chair, tossing a ball of paper from one hand to the other. Could almost hear the cheerful 'Hey, Vin, how's it hanging?'

What if...

God, what if...

For a moment the boyish face seemed to freeze into solemnity, and in Vin's mind's eye he sat up, leaned forward, holding out a hand silently. A more imaginative man might have thought he was pleading for help. Vin shook his head to clear it of the unwanted mirage, and swallowed hard.

Tomorrow, he would go ahead with the meeting the way he had planned. He wouldn't allow wishful thinking and imaginary ghosts to affect him, except to fight harder for justice for his friend.

And after the hearing? he asked himself. He'd keep looking, when he could; JD deserved a proper resting place.

No one had been fooled into thinking that even direct orders from Travis himself had stopped Buck looking for JD. He could keep an eye on him, help him when he could. Not feed him false hope, but maybe even let him know that someone had claimed -- no. Too cruel to give Buck that kind of hope without any evidence. Especially when he himself had no faith in the provenance of the claim. But... he walked back to the trashcan and pulled the tape back out, dropped it into the back of his desk drawer, locking it away.

And if JD was really alive... well then.

He patted the doorframe gently and walked away.

Well, then they would show the bastards who took him the real meaning of pain.

---------------------------------

date unknown

Nothing.

His head hurt, ached, as though someone had hammered a skewer through the back of his neck and up into his brain.

He couldn't think. Couldn't move. Distantly his back screamed in pain, and he knew that this was bad, but didn't care, just longed for the blissful, numb blackness again.

The fog blanketed him, there was nothing there when he tried to open his eyes. Somewhere, far away, people were talking. A steady bleeping burst into his awareness, each bleep matching the spiking pain in his head, until he could almost see the green line he knew it was painting on a monitor somewhere.

He didn't know how he knew.

He didn't know anything.

He didn't even know how to wake up.

He gave up, and let himself slide back into the soft embrace of dreams again...

---------------------------------

September 4

"See, it ain't difficult," Vin said easily, pushing the cutlery into place. "This is the court house, and here's the van coming up, and here," he moved the salt into position on top of a stack of coasters, "up on the Hillier building, you've got an almost perfect line of sight between the two sets of doors. Now, if we can get some sort of decoy, pull the guards out of line completely, it's a piss easy shot." He looked up at Ezra hopefully.

"This is a hypothetical assassination we are discussing." His tone made the words a flat order.

Vin pulled the plate of nachos, formerly standing for the courthouse, towards him and spoke around a mouthful. "Yeah, that's right. Hypothetical." He stroked a finger along the line of sight from the saltcellar to the forks standing in for the van.

"You aren't considering this seriously, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked more urgently. He didn't even want to think about how and why Vin knew the layout of the courthouse and nearest high buildings.

Vin looked at him for a long moment, then shrugged. "Woulda been nice to take him down." His eyes went distant, fixed on a scene that only he could see. "Him lying there, nice little hole plumb between his eyes, and him just staring up at the sky. An' all them stupid lawyers and prison officers scurryin' 'round like they're next."

"A delightful fantasy," Ezra agreed, not without a certain amount of wistfulness. "And yet, the very first place they would look would be up; and upon locating a sniper position it would not be a gargantuan step for the most imbecilic police officer to consider your involvement in the attempt."

Vin glanced at him, mildly irritated. "Ain't no damn attempt. If'n I'm shooting, he's dead." He crooked a smile at Ezra. "Hypothetically, of course."

"Of course," Ezra agreed weakly.

"Nah. You're right. Need to do it sneakier." Vin shook his head, "Would just hate to get took in."

"Or indeed, arrested and incarcerated for the rest of your life."

"You boys'd break me out," he said comfortably. "Chris wouldn't stop bitching about it, but hell, I could live with that. Go live in Argentina. Got nice weather there, I hear."

Ezra just stared, his jaw dropped, until Vin slanted a look at him, and shook his head.

"Jokin'," he said easily, and Ezra shook his head.

"You better be. We've lost enough people for this year."

"One too many," Vin said quietly. "Buck's goin' crazy."

"I know."

"Yeah, but Mrs. Tzivokis?"

"What about her?" Ezra felt a sick uneasiness that he was moderately sure owed more to Vin's words than the jalapenos and extra hot salsa that his friend had ordered for them both.

"Ya didn't hear?"

"Flattered as I am by your touching faith in my omniscience, I fear I must break the unhappy news that I am not in fact as all knowing as you appear to believe. No, I did not hear. If I had, would I be asking?"

"Slept with her."

His jaw dropped again until Vin kindly pushed it up with a greasy finger. "Catchin' flies, pard."

"He did what," he demanded, as quietly as his agitation would allow. "With Ellen Tzivokis? Is he mad or just blind?"

"Reckon he was looking forward to the pillow talk," Vin said simply, and poked at a mound of congealed cheese that had attached itself to the plate, until it came loose, trailing long yellow threads. "You want?" He waved it in Ezra's direction, then grinned at his flinch and tipped his head back to get it all in.

"Well, I hardly imagined it was for her looks or charming personality."

"Thought you'd'a liked her, Ez," Vin said, prodding at another bit of solidified cheese.

"Excuse me?"

"Well, hell, Tzivokis only married her for her money and connections."

"And because she knew his business better than he did."

"Well, that too." Vin popped an escaped jalapeno into his mouth and closed his eyes as he savored the taste. Ezra shook his head.

"Revolting," he muttered, but even he wasn't sure whether he was talking about Buck's sleeping habits, or Vin's eating habits.

"I reckon," Vin said slowly, sucking his fingers clean between words, "that we oughta keep a closer eye on ol' Bucklin."

"If he's reduced to bedding Ellen Tzivokis then I would have to agree." Ezra frowned. "I heard a rumor that Roberts was putting out feelers."

"More'n a rumor." Vin's face turned completely serious. "One of the kids downstairs from me knows I want to hear anything on the streets about --" he stopped, not saying the name, as though it might superstitiously cause harm to its owner. "Roberts is credited with letting Paulsen know about Tzivokis moving in a couple of weeks ago."

Ezra put the pieces together almost instantly. "Buck went to --" he stopped before he could say the name out loud, just as Vin's fingers bit cruelly into his wrist.

"Tzivokis is out for blood -- and it won't be her that gets it in the neck," he murmured so quietly that Ezra was more lip-reading than hearing him.

Ezra sat quite still, and then nodded once. "Agreed."

"Can take turns."

"As long as you're not planning on assassinating anyone."

Vin just smiled at him, and then wiped a finger around the plate to pick up the remaining guacamole and sour cream. "Start tomorrow?"

"Well volunteered. I take it we aren't bringing our esteemed lord and master into this?"

"Don't need to know."

"But will he kill us or Buck first if he finds out by some other route?"

"Oh, he'll kill you first," Vin said cheerfully. "He likes me better'n you."

Ezra gave him what he hoped was a withering look.

"You gonna eat that?" Vin pulled Ezra's buffalo wings over and helped himself. "Mmm. Good," he said, muffled.

"I don't know why I bother."

Vin looked up, his eyes unexpectedly serious. "Sure ya do, Ez. Sure ya do."

Ezra smiled faintly back at him, and then scowled at his next words.

"It's my purty blue eyes," and he batted them winsomely at Ezra, and stole a handful of Ezra's fries.

---------------------------------

September 6

"I don't think I can," Casey shook her head, panic edging into her voice.

"Casey Jane Wells, I didn't raise no coward," Nettie said sharply, and Casey flinched.

"Aunt Nettie, please." She looked up and Nettie's motherly heart twisted at the mute pain in the eyes of a girl more like a daughter than a niece.

"Casey, what happened when your uncle put you up on Timony the first time?"

"I fell off."

"And what happened then?" she asked relentlessly.

"It's not the same! Don't you see it, you stupid old woman, it's not like getting back on some horse. It's meeting them after they got him killed." Her voice caught on a sob, and she wiped angrily at her burning eyes.

"I think that's just about the most selfish thing I have ever heard come out of your mouth. I'm downright ashamed of you!" Nettie said, disappointment in her tone. "You see Vin when he drops in. How is this different? You think he won't know why you won't speak to him? You think they don't blame themselves already?

"They've lost someone they love too." Her eyes softened, and she rested a hand on Casey's face, tilting it up to look at her. "Casey, honey, believe me, you're stronger together than apart."

"I was stronger with JD, Nettie! With him!" She turned away and took a couple of steps up the stairs. "Tell them to go away."

"No."

Casey froze for a second, then carried on up the stairs. "It's a free country."

"And it's my house."

"If you want me to move out, then just say," Casey said bitterly.

"Don't be more stupid than you can help, girl." Nettie snapped back. "Buck is going to be here in minutes. You come down and take a good look at him. You don't have to say a word. You don't even have to come downstairs. Sneak your look from the top of the stairs if you're too blamed scared to face him."

Casey made no reply, and Nettie closed her eyes briefly, blinking away the blurring tears, although her voice was as sharp as ever. "I'm hoping you'll find the strength in your heart to do this, Casey." She watched the girl stalk away, and added, "For JD's sake, if not for Buck's."

Her parting shot hit dead center, and Casey froze at the top of the stairs, then shrugged.

"Whatever," and she ran to her room, slamming the door behind her.

Nettie let it go, though normally she would have taken Casey to task for her rudeness. God knows the girl had enough trials, but Nettie was at her wits' end. She was certain that the girl needed to talk to someone who had loved JD near as much as she did. And perhaps, helping Casey would help Buck. A long conversation with Chris Larabee the week before, while Casey hid silently in her bedroom, had given her hope that they might be able to kill two birds with one stone.

She sighed and headed towards the kitchen when the distinct sounds of tires on gravel alerted her. She glanced through the kitchen window just in time to see Larabee's Ram go past. She hurried back to the door and opened it, waiting for the two men to walk up to the porch, carefully taking in every detail. Buck was neat and clean, but he moved like a man double his age. He smiled at her as she called a hello to them both, but the smile didn't reach his eyes, and when it faded his face fell into tired lines, his tanned skin sallow and unhealthy, and marred with fading bruises and healing cuts.

"Good God, Buck Wilmington. What the heck have you been doing to yourself?"

Chris grimaced, and shook his head behind his friend. "Morning, Nettie."

"Chris. Don't stand around there letting the bugs in. Come in. Soda? Iced tea?" she offered as she led them into the airy kitchen.

"Soda is fine." Chris said. Buck looked a little green and shook his head.

"Some of your iced tea would be a real treat, Miz Nettie," he said, with a faint echo of his old charm and ebullience.

"Have a seat, Lord, don't stand there looming over a body." she ordered and fetched the men their drinks.

"How are you keeping, Buck?" she asked more gently as she handed him his glass.

He tried to smile at her, and for the second time that morning she felt like crying, or maybe hugging him, an impulse she would never have credited she could feel around the young reprobate. She quelled both urges sternly and handed Chris Larabee an unasked for glass of sweet iced tea too.

"Had better days, Miz Nettie," he admitted, his eyes on his glass. He took a sip, and offered that tired little smile again. "You make the best iced tea of any I've tasted."

"Ah, stop that," she chided mildly, trying to be the same as ever when everything had changed.

"How's," his voice deserted him and he took a gulp of the cold, sweet liquid again. "How's Casey doing?"

"I've had better days, too, Buck."

All three turned around to find Casey leaning against the kitchen door. "Buck--"

"Casey, sweetheart, I am so sorry--"

Casey shook her head and he stopped at once. "Come on. I wanna show you something, Buck." She nodded at Chris politely, and headed out the back door, Buck trailing meekly in her wake. Chris made an abortive start after them, held back by Nettie's hand on his arm.

"Let 'em be." She drew a deep breath. "There ain't nothing they can kill each other with out there, and they maybe need to deal with this on their own." Chris tilted his head towards her in acknowledgement of her point, and settled silently back into his chair.

Outside, Casey headed for the stables. "Here," she called quietly, and nodded at the large end stall. "She foaled last month."

Buck peered in, his eyes adjusting to the relative dimness. "Is that the mare that you and JD bred with Chris's ornery beast?"

"Yup. Look!"

Buck leaned over the door of the stall and smiled to find a spindle legged colt half hidden behind his chestnut mother. "You two made a good choice there." He offered his hand to the mare, and she nuzzled at it, then ignored him when no treats were forthcoming. He clicked his tongue and offered his hand to the colt.

"He's real friendly."

Buck smiled as the small creature investigated his palm curiously. "Nosy too." He ran his eyes over the small body. "Good lines," he observed and Casey nodded. He didn't look at her as he asked, "You okay?"

There was a long silence, which in the end, Buck decided to break himself. "If it helps: I'm not." He meant to keep his voice rock steady, but somehow his grief shattered it into gravel.

"I can't believe he's gone," she whispered, and Buck shook his head.

"Yeah." He glanced at her and found her twisting her engagement ring back and forth, staring blindly at her hands. "Careful, he spent three months picking it out."

She grinned up at him unexpectedly, tears on her lashes. "I know. He said all y'all were about ready to shoot him."

Buck snorted. "That is purely true. I swear that boy had every one of us round every damn jeweler in a hundred square miles." He reached over and lifted her hand, looking at the sapphire set deep in a simple white gold band. "He wanted it to be perfect."

"I know," she said again. "Buck--"

"What, sweetheart?"

"Is he -- do you think -- I mean..." She sniffed and wiped at her nose, then rubbed her hand on her jeans. "Is he really dead, Buck?" She looked up finally and pinned him with her clear brown eyes.

"I --" He looked away. Was it fair to tell her what he believed? When it flew in the face of all the evidence?

"Buck. Please?" He looked at her, really looked and found the Casey he'd known gone, leaving in the student's place a woman who was living with unbearable pain, who deserved to have him speak what he believed to be the truth.

"Casey. This is what I think, okay? Nothing more'n that. Most people think I'm crazy, or desperate, or just too dumb to recognize the truth, you understand me? I don't have no evidence, no proof, nothing except what I believe."

She nodded eagerly, desperate for hope. "Okay, okay, so you might be wrong, but...?"

"But.... No." He shook his head helplessly. "I don't believe he's dead. I won't believe it until I see a dead body."

"But how do you know? Did you hear something? Anything? It's been nearly four months now, surely there's something?" she begged, "Buck, please, you've gotta tell me, you owe me. Please? Anything at all?"

He thought of the dangerous, stupid, illegal efforts he'd made to find the truth, and the long series of dead ends and false leads that were all he had found so far, and was forced to shake his head slowly. "Nothing I can rely on. Wild stories about crimes, and conspiracies; stories about people who aren't JD at all."

She flinched at her fiancé's name, and he touched his hand to her shoulder lightly.

"Then how do you know?" she whispered.

Buck shrugged, looking almost embarrassed. "I just do." His smile died. "Maybe Nate's right. Denial. Maybe I just don't wanna know. But I can't help it. I don't know how to give up on him like the others have."

"Nothing but faith?"

"Huh?"

She smiled blindly at him. "Just blind faith to keep us going." She stepped in and buried her head against his chest. "Thank God for you, Buck. I couldn't believe on my own. Not any more."

He slowly closed his arms around her slight frame, and nodded, his own eyes badly blurred as she shook, weeping in great gasps into his shirt.

"I've looked so hard, Casey." His whispered words were too quiet for her to hear. "And I'm so tired." He rubbed her back slowly, staring across the stables at the far wall, feeling almost as though it was someone else holding the crying girl. "So tired." He wasn't sure he believed any more either, for all his fine words. Perhaps it was a cruelty to try.

"I miss him so much, Buck."

"I know, little girl. I know." His mind was a blank. He couldn't think of anything to say to comfort her. Didn't dare to sympathize in case her grief broke his hard-erected walls.

"I keep thinking that maybe I should have done something--"

"No! If anyone's to blame here it's me. I shouldn't have let him go under."

"And when did you ever stop him doing anything he'd set his mind on?" she laughed, leaning back a little.

Buck shook his head ruefully. "Never, sweetheart. You remember that too?"

"He isn't gone, Buck." She laid her head against his chest again, her eyes closing peacefully. "We just have to wait."

"He loves you so much, darlin'. If there's any way in this world to come back to us, you know him. Stubborn as stone." His hand rubbed in circles on her back, and she nodded.

"We only had a year to wait."

"I know, I know." He tightened his grip as she shuddered.

"One more year and I finish up the veterinary science course. Why did I tell him we had to wait? It wouldn't have mattered?"

"Don't, Casey. What-if's will kill you."

She sobbed helplessly, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "Might be gonna kill me anyway."

"Not you, kid. You're tough, you'll see. We'll wait it out, we just gotta have faith." Even if neither of them believed it.

He just held her and rocked slowly from one foot to the other.

---------------------------------

September 12

"Buck, a word?" Buck looked up and found Ezra standing at the door.

"Come on in, Ez. What's up?"

Ezra walked over to the window and stared out of it silently. Buck shrugged and turned back to his computer and the report he was putting together with painstaking care on a suspected arms cache being used by some of the street gangs.

"I know what you've been doing." Ezra kept his back to him, leaning against the window, hands resting on the wall either side. "And I have to say that I protest your foolhardy behavior in the strongest terms."

Buck froze for a moment, and waited.

"I don't know if you realize this, Buck." He turned around and met Buck's startled eyes. "But I have spent more time and effort smoothing over the ripples you are leaving than is wise. For either of us."

"I didn't ask you to."

Ezra smiled. "I'm glad you don't intend to pretend you don't know what I am talking about."

"It's a free country."

"Mr. Travis specifically asked you to desist."

"In work hours," Buck corrected, and Ezra nodded slowly.

"Would it help if I told you that you have shaken some very dangerous, very stupid trees? That some of the less friendly people of this good city are a hair's breadth away from putting a contract on you?"

"I don't care," Buck closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, and saw pity in Ezra's green gaze. "No one asked you to interfere."

"There you are wrong, my friend," Ezra said softly. "JD--"

"Don't!" he protested, raising a hand abortively in a warding off gesture.

Ezra carried on relentlessly, "I would not be the friend I have come to think I should be to yourself or to that boy if I did not look out for you." He paused a long minute, but Buck didn't look up again, and he took a deep breath. "JD asked us all to look out for you, if ... if anything untoward should happen to him."

"He ain't dead!"

"Did I say that? I think we can agree, however, that his disappearance, and his unknown status would be the very soul of 'untoward'." Ezra's voice sounded as though it came through gritted teeth.

Buck shrugged, and Ezra carried on, apparently oblivious to his gesture. "I would be remiss in my duty--"

"'Duty'. You're one cold bastard, Standish," Buck said, but there was no heat in the words, only weariness.

"Very well. I -- I find that watching you hurtle headlong towards disaster is too painful to not try to avert."

Buck jerked as Ezra's hand settled on his shoulder, very gently. He hadn't even heard the man move.

"If there is anything I can do to prevent myself from losing another friend, then I will," he said implacably; simply. "I have lost one friend too many as it is."

"He isn't dead!"

Ezra's eyes were compassionate as Buck's angry gaze hit them. "Really?" he asked, very softly. "My friend, in your heart of hearts, do you believe that?"

Buck shivered.

"I have looked too. Everywhere I could, and some places that I should have let be. Buck." He waited until Buck could bring himself to meet his eyes again. "If he could come home, don't you think he would be here already?"

"I've gotta hope." Even with his face turned away Buck knew that his strangled tears were only too obvious.

"I know." He could hardly hear Ezra's voice, it was so soft.

"There ain't no body. They wouldn't even prosecute Madison for it."

"I know."

"He's gotta be alive, Ez." Buck said helplessly.

"Do you believe that? Or just want to believe it?" Ezra's voice was infinitely kind, and Buck wrenched away.

"No." He stood and shoved Ezra away, all the midnight words that tormented him now out in the open, spoken, in a low, compassionate southern accent. His breath caught. "No..."

He looked back, and found Ezra watching him sadly. "The people you talked to?" He had to stop and clear his throat roughly. He wondered if Ezra had really gone so far as to talk to his former CIA colleagues, knowing how much the man hated the time spent on liaison with them from the FBI, almost more than he had come to hate the FBI itself.

"Yes?"

"Did they know -- did they say... anything?" He couldn't quite ask if he'd spoken to the people in the black. Maybe he was afraid it wasn't true, maybe he was afraid it was.

Ezra just shook his head slowly, and Buck closed his eyes, and turned away.

"Buck--"

He kept looking out the window, wondering if he should turn around, or just fall apart right where he was.

"I've looked too. Not the same places, not the same way, but I have tried looking. We all have, in our own ways." There was a little pause, and then Ezra said, very quietly, "You're not the only one missing him."

"I know," he said, and nodded, swallowing the sudden lump in his throat. "Thanks, Ez. I'll -- I'll remember what you said."

"Thank me by staying alive, Buck," Ezra said, and left.

---------------------------------

date unknown

"Mr. Dunne?" The ATF academy training director called from his office, and JD stood and marched smartly inside.

He stood rigidly, his hands behind his back, his eyes facing straight ahead over his nemesis's head.

"Mr. Dunne. Take a seat." Rob Becker sighed, and paper rustled. JD risked a quick look and found the man staring at a file marked DUNNE, J. D. He stayed standing. "Mr. Dunne, would you like to explain your actions?"

"Er. No, sir?" he said tentatively.

"That wasn't a suggestion, Dunne."

"Sorry, sir."

"I understand the exuberance of youth. Really I do. However, I cannot condone, under any circumstances, the breaking into federal property whether physical or electronic. For one thing, hacking is a federal offence." He looked steadily at JD, who squirmed uneasily. "Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Dunne."

"I didn't hack into it, sir," he said confidently.

"Then who, exactly, redecorated the main front page of the ATF intranet with your class's marksmanship results? The tooth fairy?"

"Me."

"I see. But you claim you did not do so illegally?"

JD frowned, "Well, you see, sir, Tina asked me to look at it, and I had some free time, and I figured out what the problem was. And fixed it for them as a favor. She asked me to. She gave me the passwords. Sir."

"And the scores?"

"Were a demonstration page that I accidentally uploaded in the wrong directory. Sir."

"I see."

JD risked another look, and caught amusement on the man's face.

"So it was all an accident?"

"Oh yes," JD said earnestly.

"Son, you are the absolute worst liar I have met in a long time. However," he paused, and a smile twitched at his face. "Sit down, JD."

JD sat, biting his lip.

"However, Tina Thessonalides agrees with your assessment of the incident, so we will overlook it this once."

"Thank you, sir."

"Don't do it again, Dunne," Becker looked at him sternly. "It's not worth it."

"I'll remember that, sir."

Becker sighed again, and shifted another document to the top of the pile tilting it up as if to read it. "However, it seems virtue -- or the lack thereof, is its own reward. Or not, as the case may be. You appear to have had a certain impact on the rest of the ATF with your little escapade."

"I have, sir?"

"You have." The man chuckled. "I have to say, I felt that the reaction of some of the higher ups was a little heavy handed, and I did protest, but they are insisting." He wouldn't meet JD's eyes, and he felt sick. They were going to throw him out. God, he shouldn't have done it, it was so fucking stupid, and he'd never-- His attention snapped back to the training director. "You'll discover, son, that sometimes, the most fitting fate is punishment and reward all in one happy bundle." Becker was smirking.

"Sir?"

He straightened his face with an effort and cleared his throat. "Mr. Dunne, I have received a request for your assignment on graduation to an ATF taskforce in Denver. In fact, there was more than one query, but a gentleman by the name of Travis seems to have prevailed amongst the various contenders for your doubtless enviable charms." JD reddened and stared at his feet determinedly. "He seems to feel that RMETF Denver need a computer expert with a sense of humor." He slid a sheet of paper across the desk to JD. "I think Larabee shot the last one."

"Computer expert?" JD gasped.

"Sense of humor," Becker said deadpan.

He blinked again, and then processed what Becker had actually said. "Chris Larabee? The Chris Larabee?" He grinned hugely. Stupid plan? Yup. Risky plan? Oh yeah. Successful plan? Score one for Team Dunne! And he'd scored Larabee, no less. If it hadn't been for the minor detail of standing in the director's office, he would have executed a victory dance on the spot.

"There's only one, thank God. I'll admit, his team of wiseass misfits do their best, but there's no one quite like Larabee."

"I'm really going to Denver?" he said, incredulous joy in his voice. "I'm going to work for Larabee in Denver?" Mom would have been so proud of him.

"You're going to Denver." Becker shook his head sadly. "And may God have mercy on your soul."

---------------------------------

September 15

Buck stared into the darkness. The condo was dark and empty of everything but trash and memories.

He finished the beer in his hand, and tossed the bottle onto the floor, not caring as it rolled under the coffee table and clinked against the last one.

He'd thought he had understood when Chris had done this. Now, his turn, and he wondered how Larabee had stood him and his well meant interference.

He wasn't drunk. Not sober of course, but for the first time he truly understood what they meant when they said that alcohol was a depressant. A faint smile pulled at his mouth, and he brushed away tears. JD had told him that. He couldn't even remember why the boy had been talking about it, but he'd turned around, and, oh, yes, the smile widened. He'd been razzing Buck about his 'prowess' and the effects of alcohol on... He closed his eyes and tried hard not to let it hurt, but it did, more than he could bear sober.

He'd tried everything, and all he could think of was how JD would jerk his chain about the messy apartment; about the lack of women and the quantities of beer.

"You'd understand, wouldn't ya, little brother?" he whispered, and blindly reached into the case and pulled another one. Of course, if he was here, he wouldn't need to understand, for he'd be alive and --

He popped the cap off the bottle, letting it fall where it would, and gulped down half the bottle.

JD's Will lay on the table.

Chris had brought it around earlier -- the kid had filed it with his personal paperwork at the ATF for some reason. And for some reason Larabee had decided that now, a month after the boy would have turned twenty-four, a month after Travis had ordered them off the case, was a good time to give it to Buck.

He let it lie where it had fallen from his hand.

JD wasn't dead. What does Ezra know? a small, treacherous voice asked. Did he mean there was no word, or that he knew that he's -- that he's... and he drowned the voice with more beer. He had seven years before they could force him to touch any of it, and they could take their seven years, and have another seventy and he still wouldn't--

He pressed the beer bottle to his forehead and closed his eyes tightly, but tears squeezed out anyway. He'd read it. Couldn't stop himself, like rubber necking at a traffic accident. He'd told Chris he would be fine, ignored the doubt and the offer to stay, and more or less pushed him out of the door. And then he'd read it.

Stupid kid. What the hell did he think Buck was going to do with all that junk? Three computers in various states of repair. Ice hockey gear. Climbing gear. Clothes that not even Goodwill would consider taking. A poster of Angelina Jolie, a life size cut out of Sarah Michelle Gellar. He made a small choked sound. Casey had told him that the girls had to go, and he'd promised, then hidden them where he could still look at them every now and again. A broken skateboard, a battered pair of rollerblades. Dozens of balls, everything from tennis balls to baseballs -- signed and unsigned, through to footballs, soccer balls, basketballs...

All the junk that had driven him mad when JD was living in it. And that was still driving him mad, because JD wasn't living in it.

His heart twisted and he moaned lowly, wondering if he was ever going to survive this.

"Chris did. Chris survived, and it was Sarah too. And it got better."

Chris had me. Who do I have left? No one. Not one of them believes me.

He barely believed himself on days like these.

"I can survive this. God. It's not like he was -- is --"

He might as well have been blood kin. Everything but blood. There was enough blood between them already, given and shed in each other's defense.

"Don't tell me he's not kin," he said harshly, and finished the bottle in his hand. He hefted it, eyeing the wall, and then threw it hard, watching motionless as it rebounded unbroken, leaving a dent on the wall. It rolled back, under the table and knocked noisily against the others.

"I'd know if he was dead," he whispered into the empty night, and no one contradicted him. "He can't be dead."

But sometimes it was too hard to remember that he knew this, and the black grief that settled on his shoulders seemed to freeze any inclination towards looking for JD, to moving, to anything except sitting here, wrapped up in pain, drinking his beer and wishing he was dead too. Every line, every source, every desperate attempt had come up empty, blank.

Nothing.

Blank fog clouded his mind, made the words of others sound hollow and far off, as though he was left alone in a vast place, the only person as far as the eye could see, both the focus of all attention, and ignored beyond bearing.

Sometimes, he felt as though he did know.

The debrief meeting this morning had been painful. A final examination of the Madison case, what had gone right - and what had gone wrong... Vin and Ezra's outrage that they had failed to nail Madison for JD's murder drove spikes of grief through him. Madison couldn't be jailed for murder, because JD wasn't dead. No one else seemed to see that. Not even when he said it, softly and reasonably. They smiled at him with pity in their eyes, and carried straight on giving up on the kid.

At least the lawyers had believed him. They too believed that JD Dunne was alive. Madison had gone down on the lesser, indisputable kidnapping and false imprisonment charges along with the gunrunning. Consecutive sentences meant the man should never leave prison, although the chances were he'd be back out in ten. Chris had been furious. They all had, except him. He was the only one that understood.

"Where did you go, boy?" he said softly. "Where are you? One word. Just one, and I'm there. Doesn't matter what's happened. Don't nothing matter. You know that. You just come on back home. Please?"

---------------------------------

September 16

Vin and Ezra swapped looks as Buck rushed out of the office, dead on six.

"Your turn or mine?" Vin asked laconically.

"I believe it is yours," Ezra tilted his head with a smirk, and Vin swung his leather jacket at him, clipping his shoulder before pulling it on.

"Funny how that works out," Vin said dryly, and Ezra shrugged. "Maybe we c'n both go this time?" he asked tentatively.

Ezra considered him for a moment, and then rose to his feet. "A depressing chore can always be lightened by good companionship."

"Don't know as I'd go that far, Ez," Vin grinned, and they headed out.

"Nathan's gonna get himself a thick lip one a these days," Vin observed out of the blue, and Ezra blinked.

"Well, possibly--"

"Caught him talking to Buck again this morning."

"Damn." He pressed the button for the elevator, and drummed his fingers on the wall. "I thought Josiah had taken care of that."

"Thought so myself."

They got into the car, and waited in silence until they got off again at the parking garage level.

"You got any plans for the weekend?"

Vin shook his head. "Let's take the jeep. Less conspicuous." Ezra nodded agreement and they both got in. "Nah, not really. Need to get some groceries in. Promised I'd go up to Nettie's, help with some of the chores."

"Very kind of you."

Vin shrugged. "They kinda got used to having," he stumbled for a moment, "havin' someone around to help out."

"Ah."

"Casey's coming up on her finals this year. She can't spend too much time up at the ranch. An' Nettie's getting on now."

"She's certainly no spring chicken," Ezra said acidly, then shook his head. "I suppose though, she is no older than my own dear mother."

"Ain't much alike between your Ma and Nettie," Vin grinned. "And I sure don't see Maude takin' to ranching!"

"That much is indisputable, my friend," Ezra smiled back, real amusement in his voice.

Vin drove in silence, following Buck's dark green sedan.

Ezra's smile faded. "How is young Casey?" Ezra asked quietly, uncertain of the question's reception.

"Still missing him something awful." Vin didn't take his eyes off the road

Ezra looked down at his lap. He hated not knowing what to say. This was all new territory, offering honest, sincere thoughts to a friend who was hurting as badly as he was. "Yes. I imagine she would." He looked up and tried to smile. "I've not as yet been so fortunate as to find the lady with whom I would desire to spend the remainder of my life, such as it is. I suppose they were lucky."

"Yeah." Vin hesitated, then took a right. "There he goes."

"I continue to be amazed at your skills."

"Good. Ez?"

"Yes, Vin?"

"Ya know it wasn't your fault, right?"

"No more was it yours." Ezra didn't look at him, his gaze on Buck's distant car.

Vin snorted. "Yeah. Thought so." His blue eyes flickered to look at Ezra, who looked away a second too late to pretend he hadn't seen the compassion and sorrow in Vin's face.

Ezra did look at him then, and without words they turned back to the business of following Buck, keeping him safe in payment of an ineradicable debt.

He heard Ezra say very quietly, "Touché, Mr. Tanner. Touché."

They followed Buck until hours later he finally reached his condo, watching silently as the lights came on, and some minutes later, turned off again.

"Time for bed," Ezra said quietly, and Vin nodded and started the jeep, heading first for Ezra's place.

"You want me to pick you up tomorrow?"

"I would appreciate that," Ezra agreed.

He pulled in, and waited for Ezra to leave the jeep. Ezra sat still for a long moment, and then shook his head.

"This can't go on."

"No." Vin looked down into the darkness at his feet. "Josiah says he'll stop eventually."

"He's going to kill himself first."

Vin shrugged. It wasn't as if they hadn't tried. He'd heard Ezra yesterday. Nathan had tried. Josiah kept trying to break through.

"I think."

Vin waited for Ezra's next words, but they were slow in coming.

"I think, forgive me, that Chris must be persuaded to help."

"You think he hasn't tried?" Vin said sharply. No one seemed to care that Chris was laboring under guilt for letting the kid go in, for losing him. No one seemed to notice that unless he could not avoid it he hadn't spoken the kid's name since Travis took them off the case. "You think he doesn't see it?"

"I think," Ezra sounded like he was picking out his words with exquisite care, "I believe that Chris has decided that, just as he believed he would rather suffer alone in extremis, so Buck too must be allowed to grieve in his own time, alone; that he should give Buck what Buck never gave him. Perhaps he has forgotten that in the end, being with others was the only thing that made his life worth the living." Vin looked quickly at Ezra, and found the man staring out the windshield fixedly.

Vin shook his head. "Don't know why you're telling me."

Ezra slid him a disbelieving look.

"Okay. Fine."

"That's all I wanted." Ezra stepped out of the jeep, and shut the door, then stuck his head back in through the perennially open window. "Not too early, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin smiled slowly. "Sure, Ez. Not too early," and he pulled away, barely giving Ezra time to get his head out of the way. "Now, what was 'early', again?"

---------------------------------

September 18

Chris scowled. Eight in the morning, and it was only too clear that Wilmington, yet again, was half hung over, half still drunk. He felt disapproving eyes on him and looked round, glaring back at the rest of the team.

"Buck? My office, now," he said sharply, and turned on his heel. He probably had a couple of minutes to think of what the hell he was going to say to him.

I know how you're feeling.

He couldn't be that much of a hypocrite, could he? He'd torn strips off that journalist woman who'd lost her husband and thought that that meant she understood his pain.

Buck was the comforter in this relationship. Not him. He was the one in pain. He winced. Seriously selfish, Larabee.

"If I hadn't agreed to take him on..." he said to himself, and jumped when a voice answered.

"Someone else would have. They'd have wasted his God given talents, and stuck him in a lab," Buck's voice broke in. "He'd've hated it. Quit in a month and gone back to writing his own stuff and making people like us pay through the nose for it."

He looked up, and smiled awkwardly at his old friend. "Yeah, I know."

"He told me once, you know, he planned the whole thing. He wanted to get noticed by a decent team."

Chris half grinned, remembering the day he'd come in and logged on to find the Class of 2001's score sheets plastered across the front page of the ATF intranet, JD Dunne's name heading the list, instead of the usual logo and links. "Still pissed me off when Travis hired him over my head."

"He ain't dead, Chris," he replied seriously, and Chris's eyes snapped to meet Buck's.

"Buck--"

"No, don't you 'Buck' me, I mean it. There ain't no body, and until and unless there is one, I ain't believing he's dead. I ain't giving up on him."

"Buck, don't do this to yourself." Don't do this to us. Don't do it to me.

"Why? Because it's easier to bury an empty pine box six feet under, where it can't hurt no more? Well, Chris, it hurts anyway. Dead or alive, it's gonna hurt until I know."

"And if it's the worst?"

"Then it hurts worse than it does now. Chris, you've got to have some faith in him. He ain't dead. I swear I'd know."

He half believed that Buck had the right of it, however impossible it might be. He wanted to believe it. But then, he'd wanted to believe other impossible things, and they had never come true, no matter how hard he wished.

"Buck, I'm going to suggest that you take some time off, and get some counseling."

"No!" Buck was abruptly on his feet, bellowing from inches away. He stood too, and leaned forwards, resting his hands on his desk.

"Dammit, Buck, I can order this, if you want?" he said quietly, voice hard and final. "Put it on your permanent record."

"What I want, is for you to get your damn face out of my business!"

"It ain't your business! Not when you bring it into work! Do you think we don't know?" He walked around the desk and deep into Buck's personal space. "Hell, you come in looking like shit, and the boys don't know whether you're going to explode or break down. We don't know where your head is at. We don't know which way you're going to jump from one day's end to the next." He drew a deep breath. "We can't count on you any more."

Chris paused at the stricken look on Buck's face. "You're so deep in your own pain, you can't see anything else. I can't put you on the streets like that, but I can't keep you here indefinitely without others noticing."

"Let 'em notice."

"Buck, if Travis starts taking official notice you're finished."

"I'll be all right. Just let me be, won't ya at least do that for me? I'm dealing in my own way."

"You aren't dealing at all," Chris said coldly. "I'm not gonna say I understand. I'm not gonna tell you I know what it's like. But you hear this. You lost that boy. Dead or alive, he ain't here and it just about rips you in two." He took another step in and his voice softened, "And we don't know where you are either, Buck." He moved to look into his friend's bleak eyes, tentatively resting one hand on his arm. "You ain't here, that's for damn sure. You're off thinking about him, wishing and dreaming, until sooner or later you're going to get one of us dead."

"That's rich coming from you, Larabee!" He shook off Chris's touch and stood, turning away from him.

"If you push this I'm going to have no choice but to suspend you."

"Then suspend me, dammit!" He reached to his waist and dragged the badge clipped to his belt off. "Here!"

"Buck, don't be such a fucking drama queen." He ignored the badge and drew a deep breath. "You need counseling. I'm going to insist. Whether you stay here or not."

"You got no right!"

"I've got every right! I have five other men out there who need you too." He hesitated, and added quietly, "God damn you, Buck, I need you, and it's not just the job, okay? I need you. But you aren't any use to anyone like you are now. I've been trying to cover for you, but it can't go on. Listen, if Travis finds out, it's going to be mandatory desk duty and counseling. And he's going to find out soon enough."

A look of betrayal swept Buck's face, followed by one of cynical comprehension. "Getting your own back, Larabee, telling some tales out of school?"

Chris swung at him. Buck staggered, one hand going to his jaw. He worked it slowly, his eyes warily fixed on Chris's.

"Chris?" he said in disbelief, and Chris, for one awful moment had no idea what to do.

And then he remembered another fight. Another drunk, and a concerned friend. A punch thrown... and realised he knew exactly what came next.

"You damned fool," he said roughly, and dragged Buck to the couch at the side of the room, and sat them both down, one arm securely around Buck's shoulders. Buck dropped his face into his hands and he shook. "Let it go, Buck. Let him go."

He wanted to turn away as the dam burst, knowing this only leeched a little of the poison. But Buck did this for him once. He owed him. And besides.

"It's okay, Buck," he lied quietly, rocking a little. "It's gonna be okay."

He hesitantly reached his free arm around Buck, until he had encircled him completely. Besides. Buck needed him.

---------------------------------

date unknown

JD frowned. He still wished he could get the rest of the guys in on this. But as the option wasn't there, he was going to have to try to think like them. He spread the contents of the folder out over the table, and started making notes.

A guard of forty armed men on patrol at any one time, on four hour shift rotations. That meant a total strength of two hundred and forty. Not counting commanding officers and support personnel. Assume equal numbers of them, might be less, might be more. So, close to five hundred people at the fort. He tried very hard not to think about that number.

Five hundred was too many. There was no way to infiltrate through that amount of people.

So, change the odds

His frown smoothed out and he nodded slowly. Ezra was right. But where?

A diversion. Obvious? Perhaps. But necessary.

Where did the non-military staff come from? They had to have janitors, suppliers. Would they be military too? He pulled the large scale map towards him, and scanned the road leading up to the fort. It wound tightly up the mountain. He ran his fingers over the contour lines. Maybe a landslip would work, except he didn't know anything about the local geology, and Buck was the demolitions expert, not him. It wouldn't do any good anyway if most people lived on the fort. It would also block any escape by road, leaving cross country or helicopter as his only exits. The terrain wasn't good enough for cross country, densely forested. It would be on foot until they could reach more populated roads.

A chill ran down his back. He really was expendable.

Bet Buck's surprised when the trust reverts to him and Case.

There were some points where he might be able to change the odds a little before he attempted to get inside the complex. There were positions a sniper could use. Doubtless they knew that and already had men on them, but if he could place someone here -- he marked a tiny 's' on the map. And one here. Another 's'. They have to take out the guards there first, but once they had the high ground...

Something nagged at him, and he stared at it, trying to figure out what Chris would hate about the plan so far. Well, apart from it being a suicide mission. Two men with each sniper, to take out the high points simultaneously. Six men and him.

No backup for him?

He frowned. It would make his life simpler if he could drop someone at each vulnerable point. The crows nests. The fence. The watchtower. The inner wall. The door into the secured corridor. The server room.

If the sniper guys could leave them to it that kept it at four men, plus the snipers. And him. Seven.

A quick smile vanished almost before it appeared. He wanted them. Almost without trying he knew how to do it. All of them to take out the guards on the sniper nests. Then Vin and Nathan left in the eyries, while the rest of them headed in. Josiah on the watchtower. Buck on the inner wall controlling a remote charge to take out the road up to the fort. Chris on the corridor and Ezra in the server room with him. Left a gap on the outer fence. Josiah could watch it. Or put Buck there, Chris on the wall, and take the sneaky Ezra through...

He shook his head. No, he wasn't going to get that. But they needed two snipers, two smart guys and two backup. Maybe a demolitions man as well. And maybe someone needed to be a doctor of some sort. Just in case.

He sat back, looked at his scribbled notes and realized: I'm going to do this.

---------------------------------

September 21

Buck peeled a note off the fold and then pulled it away from the eager hand reaching for it. "No. Not until you tell me what you've got."

"I'm telling ya, man, I've got real news, the good stuff."

"Way I see it, the only good stuff round here is the kind goes straight up your nose." Buck snapped. "I haven't got all night, Jose."

"I ain't Jose."

"Whatever. Come on, or do you want us to do this the hard way?"

"You lay a finger on me and you'll regret it!"

Buck smiled toothily. "I won't need to lay a finger on you, boy," he said very softly, and wrapped his large fist in the man's collar, twisting and lifting. "Now. The hard way, or the easy way?"

"Easy! Easy, man, lighten up!"

Buck dropped him, and the street punk took a moment to smooth out his clothes before meeting Buck's eyes.

"I hear that a guy in a suit walked straight into Madison's op. Spent an hour with the Mad Dog. He went straight to the place where they were, you know, keeping your guy."

"Description?"

He shrugged. "My friend said he was a suit, ya know? Old guy. Couple of boys watching out for him."

"Carrying?"

"Yeah. Looked kinda like those guys that watch the President, ya know? Suits and shades. Spooks."

Buck clamped back his first reply, that if he knew he wouldn't be asking, and went for more detail. "Gotta have more than that, Perilla, or the deal's off."

Tomas Perilla hesitated. Buck could see him weighing up who was more profitable -- and who was more likely to kill him.

"Believe me, Tommy, you're going to be in a lot more trouble if I have to do this the hard way. Madison ain't coming back inside of fifty years, the way that judge threw the book at him. And I won't tell your suit that you gave him up."

Tomas looked around nervously. "I ain't got much. Look, they don't give us the time of day, fuck the names and the invitation to dance, ya know?" Buck nodded. "Right, so, he's wearing a grey suit, grey hair, and he turns round and one of his boys, he drags your boy out. He looks pretty bad, ya know? Coulda been dead, except why'd he take him if he was just meat?" He caught the tension in Buck and raised his hands defensively, "I'm jus' sayin', man. Ya know?"

"You're not helping yourself here, Tommy. You give me another player, but no name, no date; and you seen my boy -- but you can't tell me shit."

"I'm getting there, alright?"

"Get."

Tomas leaned forward. "May fifteen. I remember because I'd gotten a sweet deal on some stuff, and I took my girl out for her birthday."

"You sure about the date?" Buck said tensely. A week before they went in. Three days before JD had been tagged as missing. His skin crawled.

"Yeah, and there's something else, okay? He said something to Madison as he left." His voice dropped to a whisper. "You gotta believe me, okay? I wouldn't tell you a lie."

"Just spit it out."

"He said 'your country thanks you', and he laughed, like it was all a big joke. He was still laughing when he got in the car."

"Numbers?"

"No numbers, man. No plates. I'm telling ya, your boy got took by secret agents."

Buck shook his head. "You know, for a moment, you almost had me." How desperate did this kid think he was?

"I'm telling you the truth, man! Ain't nobody else knows but me, I'm telling ya, you gotta believe me!" His eyes were fixed on the hundred that Buck folded up and stuffed into his pocket.

"Thought you said a friend saw."

Tomas rolled his eyes, "Come on, fed, what do you think I am, stupid? I ain't gonna roll over like a bitch and tell ya everything on our first date, ya know?"

"Could you identify him again?" Buck asked intently.

"Maybe."

"Can you identify our guy, if I show you some pictures?" Buck pulled out a handful of photographs of young, dark haired men and handed it to Tomas.

Tomas nodded eagerly and sifted through them. Buck's heart about stopped when he hesitated at the one of JD, and pulled it out. He kept looking, and pulled out two more, both the same type as the kid. "One a these," he said handing the rejected ones back and spreading the others in a fan. "I think it's this guy," and he tapped on JD's picture, "but he was pretty beat up, I can't be real sure."

Buck nodded, and pulled out the C note again and gave it up for the three pictures. "That's real helpful, Tommy."

Tomas snatched the note and started to back away. "I ain't seen you, and I ain't spoken to you." He turned and jogged away.

Buck waved vaguely and headed back up to the more well lit streets where he had left his car. Still nothing more recent than the day Madison had supposedly broken JD's cover identity. He laughed to himself, bitter and quiet. Secret agents. Word must be out with every low life scum there was in Denver -- hell, the whole damn state -- how desperate he was for word. He thought ruefully of his retirement fund, and the beating it was taking as he paid snitch after snitch for information that gained him nothing except more heartache. Even if it was true how the hell would he ever be able to follow it up? He had no contacts, no leverage that could work at those levels. God.

He wiped a despairing hand over his face.

Today, right now, he'd settle for an anonymous tip on a grave.

---------------------------------

Monday, September 22

"Good morning, I'm Agent Mark Nicholson. I'm looking for Agent Larabee?"

Six heads turned, and six pairs of eyes scrutinized him coldly. He straightened his back and lifted his chin. "I was told I could find him in here?"

"Nicholson, take a seat." The slender blond haired man seemed to be less than happy at his arrival, although he couldn't think why. He was dead on time, in the right place.

"Agent Larabee?" he asked tentatively, and put out a hand. It seemed to cost the man visible effort as he stood and shook.

"Chris?" the query came from a big, disheveled man with dark hair and dark sunglasses.

"Damn." Larabee's comment was probably meant to be inaudible, but Nicholson's hearing was sharper than most, and he felt a frisson of unease. Larabee had signed the transfer. Larabee had approved his application to take up the slack left by that gen-X hacker who'd been pretending to be an agent before he went bad. Surely he'd just caught them at a bad time.

"Sorry, Buck, guys," Larabee looked around the oval conference table, "Nicholson's taking up the seventh slot."

The room exploded with outrage, expressed as freely as though Nicholson wasn't even there.

"Chris, dammit, he's not dead!"

"It's barely been five months, Chris, give the boy a chance!"

"Who the hell sent us a suit?" A man with dark blond hair, longer than could possibly be regulation looked him up and down dismissively.

"Guys, guys, I know." Larabee tried to make himself heard through the uproar.

Nicholson felt his eyebrows starting to climb. Travis hadn't been kidding when he said that the team was unconventional. He'd never seen a room like it. His idea of a team was sane, sensible discussion of problems offered to them by their superiors. He'd assured Travis that he was flexible, confident, resilient and willing to adapt. But this... this wasn't 'unique', this was a catastrophe, a train wreck, a display of unprofessional behavior that would have shamed a kindergarten.

Larabee slammed a hand down on the table and leaned forwards. "Shut. Up."

Nicholson's eyebrows shot up despite his intentions to keep impassive. The whole team was silently staring at Larabee. Nicholson might as well not be in the room. Kindergarten had a tough principal.

"Human Resources insisted that we fill the team spec, okay? RMETF Seven is meant to have computer analyst capability. I asked them to recommend someone, and here he is." He waved a hand at Nicholson, who felt acutely uncomfortable and sidled to an empty chair and sat down.

"You didn't even interview him?"

Chris met the speaker's eyes steadily. "Travis did it, okay, Buck? I. I asked him to look through the people they sent up. He hired the rest of us. Figured he did a pretty good job the first time." Around the table eyes dropped abruptly, and Nicholson figured they must have realized how unprofessional they were being.

He smiled tentatively at the men, mentally tagging them against the personnel files he had discreetly acquired. The black guy had to be Jackson. Larabee he'd figured out already, and the guy making all the fuss at the start had to be Wilmington. Looked like the scuttlebutt about the guy shacking up with Dunne was true, judging by how out of control he seemed to be. He'd heard rumors of alcoholism, and his research before he joined had suggested that Wilmington was not above using federal resources for private research. He wondered again if the rumors about him and Dunne were true.

He let his gaze slide incuriously on to the unidentified three men, who had to be Tanner, Standish and Sanchez. Mavericks, the lot of them by all accounts. If Dunne hadn't gone bad, or gotten lazy, then it was Standish who probably set him up for a fall. Bad intel from a bad apple. His ATF file was exemplary, but Nicholson had FBI friends who had been more than willing to help a pal. Sanchez was too old to be out in the field, and Tanner was -- Tanner was staring at him like he could read every thought that crossed his mind, and didn't like any of them.

"Mr. Nicholson," Sanchez said slowly. His voice was far richer than he had expected, and he straightened a little as he met the icy blue eyes. "Welcome to our little band of brothers. I'm Josiah Sanchez."

"Thank you, Agent Sanchez," he smiled quickly. "It's a real pleasure to be here. I really hope that I can contribute to the great work this team does."

Jackson smiled at him mildly, and he felt a moment of relief at meeting a pair of eyes that didn't seem to have weighed him up and found him wanting. Jackson's tone was neutral as he added his own greeting. "Agent Nicholson," he nodded politely.

Nicholson smiled back, and perhaps was more effusive than he would otherwise have been, but the reception he'd received had rattled him more than a little, "You guys really have got a hell of a reputation, I really am excited about working with Team Seven."

"'Really, really excited'," Standish whispered audibly to Tanner, who snickered.

"Got something to say, Standish?" Larabee jumped on Standish immediately, much to Nicholson's gratification. Clearly Larabee tolerated the man but wasn't willing to encourage him.

"My heartiest felicitations on acquirin' a role your heart so clearly desires," Standish smiled, green eyes hard and glittering with insincerity.

"Thanks, Standish," Mark smiled back, equally insincere. "I'm looking forward to settling in, and showing you guys what a real computer expert can do for you."

There was a stony silence, and then Wilmington pushed his chair back abruptly. "Sorry, Chris, got a meeting."

"Yeah, a meeting," Tanner stood and stretched lazily. "Y'know. That other meeting that we were going to have."

Standish smiled and stood also. "A pleasure, I'm sure. Sadly I must leave immediately. I'm sure I will enjoy your demonstration of your," he looked up and down Nicholson dismissively, "'talents' some other time."

Mark felt like kicking himself. He knew the team had been tight. He'd been warned, for God's sake, that they wouldn't tolerate any disrespect to their missing colleague, but he couldn't help it. What the hell Dunne was doing with an A1 outfit like RMETF Seven he didn't know. The kid only had a bachelor's degree, a failed security company that he'd sold off to Gates at the first opportunity, and a rep as a hacker. A fully trained expert such as himself was going to be able to do so much more for them. "Guys, I'm sorry, I didn't mean a word against Mr. Dunne. I'm sure he was an exemplary--"

"If I were a wise man, I would drop that line of conversation immediately," Sanchez rumbled, and Nicholson nodded.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, and the three standing team members looked at Larabee. Mark caught the faintest of nods from the blond man, and he was torn between relief that they sat down, and annoyance that it took Larabee's say-so to achieve it. Still, he was the new boy, the low man on an established and much lauded team. He kept his head down. It was going to take time before he fitted into the group easily.

"Nicholson," Larabee glanced around the table, and made a decision, "Standish will get you up to speed on the case we're currently investigating after the meeting."

"Yes, sir," he offered first Larabee and then Standish a smile, not too broad in case they thought he was laughing or something, but neither acknowledged it, and Larabee launched straight into a detailed discussion of a current operation without a word of explanation to his newest agent.

Mark ended up twisting his pen back and forth, waiting for something to make sense. It never did. Half an hour later, Larabee looked around the room, gathering the attention of his five unruly agents.

"Good. Let's go."

Chairs were pushed back and Nicholson hurried after Standish, hoping that someone would explain what he was expected to do.

---------------------------------

September 25

"Who the hell put this together?" Nicholson muttered darkly as he examined the surveillance van equipment, three days later. For some reason some idiot had seen fit to jury-rig a set of unidentifiable transistors and chips, cross wired together on duct tape with a long aerial running up to the roof, and another long set of cables to hook the whole thing into the otherwise state of the art surveillance gear that he had been handed. He tugged a couple of times, and then unceremoniously yanked it off.

"Don't--" Standish started to say, and then lifted an eyebrow when he realized he was too late.

"Did you do this?" Nicholson twisted it around in his hands. "What's it for? Picking up college radio while watching the busts go down?"

Standish plucked it from his fingers and laid it carefully on a shelf at the back of the van. "That was Agent Dunne's enhanced listening equipment. Not that it's usable now. A pity."

"I didn't know," he hated being put on the defensive like this. "How enhanced?"

"An extra two hundred meters."

"Bullshit!" The word popped out before he could censor it. "No fucking way you could get more than eight hundred out of this stuff."

Standish shrugged, and said, "As you please. We certainly don't have it any more." Mark felt his neck redden.

"Look, I'm sorry, but how was I supposed to know the kid was a boy genius and MacGyver in rolled up in one handy dandy pocket sized package? Are there any other things I ought to know about?"

Standish stood and looked at him silently for a long moment. "Nothing, sir, that I believe would benefit you in any degree to learn."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Whatever you want it to. Excuse me. I have work to do." He picked up a wire and started to carefully insert it into an almost invisible hole in his jacket.

"Do you want a hand there?" he asked, trying to make amends. These guys were so darn prickly.

"Thank you, I am done. If you would like to check the performance while I step outside?"

"Sure." He waited a couple of beats, turning on the appropriate speaker.

"Standish testing, one, two, three, four--"

"Loud and clear, Agent Standish," Nicholson called softly.

"I shall get myself to the rendezvous point in that case."

"Good luck," Mark said awkwardly.

"Thank you, Mr. Nicholson. However, luck will not enter into it."

Mark's face hardened. The words might not have been an insult, but the tone sure was.

"Radio silence until I call it," Larabee said firmly, and Mark bit back his reply and waited, watching the video streams carefully, flicking between the four screens and six inputs with experienced ease.

The silence dragged on for nearly twenty minutes, and Nicholson started to wonder if the intel had been bad, or the perps had gotten wind of the raid.

"Meek as lil lambs to the slaughter," Tanner drawled softly, and Mark gaped. Hadn't the man heard about the radio silence?

"On my twelve," Standish murmured, and Mark closed his eyes, wondering what was going to happen when Larabee got a hold of the two of them.

"I got them," Jackson called in, and Nicholson just shook his head.

"Why bother with radio silence if you're not going to observe it?" he mumbled to himself.

"Someone might like to tell Nicholson that his mic is hardwired to open broadcast." Wilmington didn't seem to be addressing anybody, and nobody replied as such, although a series of muffled snorts from the speakers in front of him told him that everyone had heard.

"I've asked myself that very question many times," Larabee sounded amused. "Shut up, you yahoos. Let Ez have some time to clear out a space in that stuffed up little brain for thinking."

"Thank you so much," Standish snapped, and Nicholson shook his head, but kept his mouth shut. How did these men work like this? No discipline, no respect for each other. They couldn't even manage to keep a civil tongue in their heads when knew perfectly well that they were being recorded.

"Ah, Jim, you made it!" Standish's voice, oily and somehow, cheap.

"Underwood."

On the small video screen he could see Standish and the perp, Jim Myers, shaking hands. Myers gestured behind him and spoke again.

"The boys are bringing the materials up right behind me."

"Splendid. It only remains to discuss the question of remuneration."

"Don't get smart, Underwood, the deal was for eight, four up front, four on delivery."

"But I specified that delivery would be punctual at seven sharp. It is now," Standish made a show of consulting a watch that could not remotely have been affordable on an honest man's wage, "well, let me see, near enough seven thirty. And I won't be out of here until well past eight. Frankly, I am disappointed. Quite disappointed."

Nicholson nearly spoke, only remembering as he opened his mouth that the channel was wide open. And when he found out who the hell had done that, there was going to be hell to pay. He grimaced. It was probably Dunne again. Looked like the kid had had a habit of fucking around with very expensive gear that didn't belong to him. Which could explain a lot.

"You going back on our deal? Because I have other buyers," Myers said coolly.

Dammit, they were going to lose the bust, and the guns hadn't even turned up yet. What was Standish thinking?

"I am seeking some suitable recompense for being forced to linger in this dump for a minute longer than I absolutely have to."

Myers laughed, "Well, I can't fault you on that." He pulled out a cellular and speed dialed someone. He turned away and only said a couple of words before hanging up and turning back. Mark gritted his teeth tightly, aware that the equipment had not picked up the words. Still, it shouldn't be crucial to the case. And Standish could testify if they were. And that stupid piece of duct tape and tinfoil wouldn't have picked it up anyway.

The ground shook as a huge eighteen-wheeler rumbled past his van where it sat in a concealed yard. This had to be the guns. He scowled. He'd wanted in on the actual bust, but hadn't been able to refute the need to have someone monitoring the equipment. He'd suggested that they ought to have their own dedicated person for that job, and had received a blank look from Standish, and the information that they did -- and he was it.

Maybe Dunne had let them get away with leaving him out back, but he sure as hell wasn't going to. Next week he was going to start making nice to the tech boys and girls, and they could come and baby-sit the machines.

He turned back to the screens as Standish spoke, and watched, disgruntled as the armaments were displayed, a case of money exchanged hands and Larabee called his hell hounds down on them. He had a moment of real enjoyment when he saw Standish get taken down and cuffed right along with the rest of the crooks. And then the cops showed up, and the place was organized chaos until suddenly, RMETF 7 was nowhere to be seen, and someone was knocking on his door.

He pulled his weapon and peeked through the spy hole cautiously. A huge, rounded eye glared back at him and he made haste to let Larabee in.

"Good bust?" he asked tentatively.

"Good enough. You get all of that?" Larabee didn't seem interested in any congratulations, and Mark moved right along.

"Yeah, sure. Well, most of it. It might be a little muffled where Myers was facing away." A little non-existent, but he wasn't averse to fudging the issue.

"Did the equipment fail?" Larabee asked sharply, and Nicholson was about to explain about the non-standard attachments, when Standish butted in uninvited.

"It didn't record, because he removed the changes that JD installed."

Larabee just looked at him.

"I did remove some non-standard additions -- I wasn't sure what they were, and I was concerned that they might impede the --"

"Next time, ask first."

Larabee was already gone by the time Nicholson was able to get, "Sure, no problem, I'll remember that for next time," out of his mouth.

He drove the van back to the ATF building and dropped the tapes off with the evidence people, then headed back upstairs to write up his reports.

Later, he heard that the rest of the team had headed out to some local bar to celebrate.

---------------------------------

September 26

Chris rubbed his hands over his face in the privacy of his own office, and wondered what the hell had possessed him.

Yesterday had been bad. The bust had been good, nearly textbook perfect, and the only man on his team still speaking to him was Agent Nicholson and he really, really wished he wouldn't.

Without even looking he could feel the iciness in the silence between the offices.

Nicholson was working silently in Josiah's old office. The blond man was diligent, thorough, and in four short days had managed to make himself universally loathed. To be fair, he was never going to be welcomed with open arms, but they might have at least accepted him if he'd been halfway to a decent human being. Chris narrowed his lips.

He had to admit that he'd made a bad decision. He should have at least insisted that he meet him before signing the transfer, but he hadn't, too caught up in the disaster of the Madison case, and trying to keep the team together despite losing one of them. He'd allowed the bureaucratic idiots in HR to insist that he needed another man to bring the team to strength, and then let them foist another anti-social loner on him. He scowled. It should have worked. God knew that the rest of the team were anti-social enough for any dozen loners. Unfortunately Nicholson seemed to think that he was a welcome replacement for JD -- older, wiser, more competent...

No, Nicholson had been a mistake. But the man wasn't actively incompetent, so he couldn't just get rid of him. Maybe he could talk one of the perps into shooting him at the next takedown. He smiled, the idea had merits. He could give in to Nicholson's demands to be given an active role in busts, shutting the man up, and get rid of him permanently. Or at least, dump him in a hospital somewhere for a nice long convalescence. He ran a hand through his hair and then pulled on it. No. He really shouldn't. No matter how tempting it was.

He turned his head, ignoring the problem for now, and let his thoughts drift to the rest of his team. Josiah was in the office across from Nicholson now, his head down as he studied something on his computer. He had been worried about Sanchez, the man was as likely to go off the deep end as to be philosophical. And JD had been one of the few he called 'son'. Josiah had in turn been the only one allowed to call the kid by his given name. But Josiah was holding it together, retreating with tired grace from the emotions of the rest of his team mates when it grew too much, and then coming back again to field their anger and confusion.

Standish had pretty much stopped talking to Nicholson, especially after he'd overheard the new man talking on the phone to his old colleagues about 'picking up after the kid' just before yesterday's bust. Oddly enough, Nicholson had had a string of computer related mishaps after that which still hadn't been cleared up. He couldn't imagine how that might have happened, he thought with a faint smile. Ezra had been silent on the topic of JD, but Chris knew that the collapse of JD's undercover role must have damaged his confidence, and the loss of the boy because of that break in a cover he had helped build must have hurt. But he had never spoken of it to Chris, and all he could do in turn was respect the man's boundaries, and hope that he wouldn't implode.

Nathan was settling down the best of all of them, keeping the team on more of an even keel than he had thought possible. God knew that he himself had set no kind of example initially. The kid--he stopped himself. He wasn't going to think about JD. Not when it still clogged his throat and burned his gut that they hadn't been able to rescue him, or even give his body a decent burial. At least Nathan had finally given up trying to counsel his colleagues. He was trying to move on, and deep down, despite his gratitude that there was at least one sane man left on the team, Chris wasn't entirely sure that Nathan was succeeding as well as he seemed to be.

He glanced at the office that had been JD's once, and sighed. Vin. He could normally rely on his friend to be the one steady source of calm, but since Madison's trial, Vin had been on a razor's edge. Chris was half afraid that one day he would come in to find Tanner vanished, and a report of Madison's death in custody sitting on his desk. Vin had been the kid's official contact, the first man to know when things went bad, the first one to go in as back up. And he had failed. Chris knew his friend had done everything possible, but he also knew Vin. The kid had gone missing, and there was no way that Tanner felt that as anything but a failure. Then, to add insult to the injury, he hadn't even been able to push through the murder charges that Madison so richly deserved, though God knew it wasn't for want of trying.

Vin was coming back out of it again, though he knew that the man would never be quite the same again. None of them could be.

He hadn't wanted the kid on the team in the first place. He felt a smile pull at his lips as he remembered his outrage when Travis walked in and dumped a file on his desk. He'd opened it expecting it to be their next assignment and found a teenager grinning out at him.

"Who the hell is this?" he'd demanded, and Travis, damn him, had smirked, leaned back and crossed his ankles before telling Chris that this was his new computer wizard, and he'd better not break this one.

He'd done his best to put the kid off. They all had, one way and another. It struck him suddenly that he'd give anything to take back that wish, those first few weeks, that someone would just get the damn kid out of his hair and off his team.

They'd be okay. They were dealing in their own ways with the loss, mostly. They were holding it together for now, mostly. He rubbed tiredly at his forehead, trying to release the tight band of tension there. Mostly.

Buck... Buck had taken some stupid chances yesterday. He'd been taking stupid chances for months now, and he was starting to think that it wasn't going to work its way through the big guy's system. Buck wasn't going to pull his head together. Even with Travis's direct orders, even with Chris's attempts to stop him, Buck was still searching, silently defiant in his solitary belief that JD lived. Blaming Chris, Ezra, Vin, Travis -- anyone he could to vent some of the pain of loss.

He'd tried offering friendship; a shoulder to cry on; a drinking buddy; he'd tried being the badass boss. Hell, he'd even offered to be a punching bag. And Buck just kept turning him away, turning to alcohol, and walking the streets searching for word that wasn't there, wasn't going to be there.

Buck was a walking disaster, and Chris owed him better than that. Things were going to have to change.

Starting today.

---------------------------------

date unknown

The door clicked and unlocked, and JD looked up. He really should have put the bed across the door or something if they were just going to walk in and out like this. Atiyah walked into his bare little hospital room, accompanied by a man in his thirties. He got to his feet, keeping his eyes on the man. He was in army uniform, ribbons across his breast, and a hat tucked neatly under one arm.

"Agent Dunne?" she said politely, "Can we have five minutes of your time?"

"Come in," he said dryly. "Mi casa es su casa," he waved generously at the lone remaining chair and the bed.

"Good morning, Mr. Dunne," the man said. His blue eyes assessed him without giving anything away. A small, polite smile flickered for a moment as he held out a hand. "I'm Major George Antonov. I understand you've agreed to work with my team on the Tiengo problem."

JD stood slowly, and shook hands with the man, taking the time to look him over more thoroughly. So this was the guy in charge. "Yes, sir."

Antonov nodded and sat on the remaining chair, forcing Atiyah to perch on the bed. "Good. I've reviewed your files, and while I accept," he threw a glance at Atiyah that suggested his 'acceptance' was less than wholehearted, "that your presence is almost certainly mandatory for a successful operation, I have some doubts about your ability to respond to the command structure, or to the unique situations that this operation will entail."

JD almost shrugged, and stopped himself. Antonov was in charge. He'd agreed to do this. Therefore, he had to treat the man with respect. It went against the grain. Larabee's style of team management was nothing like the military, he suspected, and he seriously doubted that Antonov would care for his usual 'whatever' attitude, that Chris knew meant he was working on it. He'd volunteered for this, he reminded himself firmly. Okay, so he might not have if they hadn't kidnapped him first, and God knew what Buck and the others must be thinking about that.

"Yes, sir?" he said instead, and waited politely, head tilted slightly, waiting for Antonov to expand on his comments.

Unexpectedly Antonov's eyebrows quirked upwards. "Hmm."

"Major, Agent Dunne has expressed his willingness to operate within the parameters set by his team leader -- in this case, you."

JD said nothing, watching the two of them.

Antonov sighed. "Dunne, you are aware that this operation may result in your death?"

JD gritted his teeth. "Yes sir."

"Are you sure you understand what that means, son?" Antonov frowned at him.

"Sir, I could die any time I walk into an ATF operation -- come near enough once or twice." His shoulders twitched upwards and he consciously relaxed them. "I could die, and you will leave me there to rot, without any ID, and without any chance of bringing my body home, or telling my friends or fiancée what has happened." He met the major's eyes grimly. "I understand. But Director Atiyah tells me it is essential to our safety that we do this, and frankly, I'd rather go in, and risk dying, and maybe stop a war before it happens, than sit safe at home, and watch American soldiers die in a war I could have prevented."

Antonov measured him for a long moment, and abruptly he was reminded of the interview he'd had with Travis before he'd been taken to meet Team Seven for the first time. The man nodded once, and JD relaxed. "Fine words, Agent," Antonov said, but mildly. "I understand you've had a chance to look at the fort schematics."

"Yes, but--" JD said, taken aback. His plans were just for him -- he had no expectation of having to present them to a black ops soldier.

Antonov grinned wolfishly. "Well, let's see what Larabee and his dogs have taught you."

JD reached into the drawer of his nightstand. "You know Agent Larabee?" he asked cautiously.

The major looked sardonic. "I have heard great things of the man." He threw a glance at Atiyah, who astounded JD by actually reddening.

JD hesitated, his hand on the drawer containing his notes and plans. "I'm not a soldier, sir, these were just me thinking on paper, you know?"

Antonov nodded impatiently. "Of course." He held a hand out and JD passed them over silently. "Thank you." He looked at Atiyah and added, "I can take it from here, Atiyah." Atiyah's face hardened at the summary dismissal, but rose.

"I doubt I'll see you again before you go," she said directly to JD, who frowned a little, surprised. "You've got a lot to do, and a finite amount of time to do it in. Thank you, and good luck." She held out her hand, and JD stared at it for a moment, before standing to shake.

"Thanks," he said off-handedly, and sat back down barely before their hands had separated.

"Major." She nodded to the soldier, who nodded back briefly, and returned to flicking through JD's notes. She didn't look happy, but she left anyway.

"Not entirely a waste of paper," Antonov said finally. He looked up and shook his head. "For a civilian, and a computer freak."

JD gritted his teeth and said nothing. Was he a soldier? No. Was he expecting Antonov to use his plans? No. Did he want to antagonize the guy who was going to be taking him into a war zone? Definitely no.

"Of course, your ideas about range of snipers seem completely off the wall, but if we had guns that could reliably shoot that far, those weren't bad emplacements. And we don't want to starve anyone -- which dumping a thousand tons of mountain on the only road in would almost certainly do. Not to mention it's a little difficult to explain away explosives charges. And of course, the real decision about getting in is high or low opening on chutes," he seemed amused by JD's expression. "You're going to have to learn to freefall, Agent Dunne." He dropped the papers casually into the trash can and smiled coldly at JD. "Yuma should be an interesting experience for you."

"Yuma?"

"Yuma Proving Ground, Mr. Dunne. You're shipping out to Arizona tonight." He stood and added, "If you get a chance, you might want to practice your firearms skills." He walked to the door and hesitated. "If I thought you couldn't do this," he said neutrally, "I wouldn't be sending you. You might want to bear that in mind, over the next four weeks."

The door locked shut behind him. JD gaped at it.

What the hell was Yuma Proving Ground? And why did Antonov's reassurance sound so ominous?

---------------------------------

September 26

"Time to go, Buck," Chris said firmly, and met his friend's wild stare steadily. "Get your jacket, I'll get you home." He folded his arms and waited, his back to the rest of the bar.

"Fu' off," he slurred with an emphasis that tilted his head back on his neck, until it rolled forward again, too drunk to hold it.

"Vin, get his jacket."

"I c'n dri' my sel' home, Lar'bee," Buck said, slapping the table angrily, and Chris shook his head.

"No, you fucking can't. Now put the damn coat on and you can start sleeping off that hangover."

Buck grabbed his jacket out of Vin's hands and made three attempts at getting his hand into a sleeve before Chris hissed with irritation and dragged it onto him.

Buck lurched towards the doors and Chris hurried after, worried that he might actually be stupid enough to get in the truck and try to drive in this condition. A jangling set of keys appeared before him, and he glanced up to find Tanner holding the keys to Buck's truck.

"Ez lifted 'em a while back," he explained laconically, and dropped them. Larabee's hand reflexively snatched at them and he slipped them into his pocket.

"I owe ya one," he acknowledged and Vin shook his head, looking over at Buck.

"Didn't do it for you. Did it for the kid," he said quietly, and melted away into the night. Chris swore. He hesitated, staring into the darkness after his friend before looking back at an increasingly agitated Buck. The man was trying to open his truck with his house keys, and getting louder and angrier every time he failed.

"Cool it, Wilmington," he ordered, jogging over to pick the keys up from where they had fallen, and grabbing at Buck too as he swayed unsteadily.

"Fuck off," Buck told him, unexpectedly word perfect. Chris sighed.

"Couldn't you at least be a maudlin drunk?" he complained softly, and gripped Buck's shoulder. "Come on, pard, let's get you out of here."

"Fuck off!" Buck repeated, and twisted out of Chris's grip. "You shoulda known! You shouldn'a done it."

"What?" But he knew what. He just didn't want to have this conversation in a parking lot at midnight.

"You killed 'im." Buck accused. His eyes closed, pain clear on his face. Alcohol had only made him able to vocalize his thoughts.

"God, Buck, if I could bring him back--"

"You sent him out. I tol' ya not ta. I tol' ya you'd get him killed."

"You told me that every time, Buck," Chris gently reminded him, and stepped cautiously closer.

"Figures I'd have to be right some time," Buck agreed, and the half laugh broke in the middle. He turned and leaned against the truck, resting his forehead on his arms. His back shook, and Chris dropped a wary hand between his shoulder blades as the big man sobbed again. "Why'd'I have to be right, Chris," he said plaintively. "Why'n't you listen?"

Chris's hand curled into a fist as he pulled it away. He wasn't going to do this.

"Get in my truck, Wilmington," he said harshly, and turned to walk away.

"Murdering bastard! Don't you walk away from me, Chris Larabee! You killed that boy, and I want to know why! Get back here!"

"You're drunk. I ain't arguing with you like this."

"Why not? I argued with you enough times when you were drunk. Or was that different," Buck spat the word out, and caught Chris in a few long strides spinning him round to face him. "Oh, it's okay for you to mourn, okay for the great Chris Larabee to spend years of his life staring down a bottle, waiting for their killer to show up and give you your revenge, but I'm not allowed is that it?"

"Buck, just get in the damn truck. Someone's going to call the police in a minute, and I don't want to have to deal with that on top of everything else."

"What else? What else is there?" He turned and shouted to the nearly empty parking lot, "Chris Larabee killed JD Dunne!" A couple scuttled away, taking nervous glances over their shoulders at the two intimidating men facing off behind them. "There ain't nothing else! Ain't that what you told me? With Sarah n' Adam? That there weren't nothing else, not until you'd seen justice done."

"I'm telling you what you told me back then." He gripped Buck's shoulders and shook him, not too hard, well aware that the next stage was going to be messy. "Alcohol isn't the best judge. Tell me that sober, and I'll think about believing you."

"Jesus, Chris," Buck's eyes suddenly drained of their anger, almost black in the streetlights that were the only illumination. He sounded unbearably lost. "What am I going to do without him?"

Chris tentatively tugged at him and then found himself trying to support Buck's unconscious body as the man passed out into his arms.

"Shit." He staggered and then gave up and lowered the bigger man to the ground, making sure he was on his side before reaching for his keys.

"Want a hand there?"

Chris looked up and met Vin's eyes. Then they both looked down at a small sound, and Chris grimaced as Buck vomited helplessly over his boots. Without a word, Vin opened the car door and found an old blanket and the pair of sneakers Chris usually kept under the driver's seat.

Chris stepped over Buck and crouched behind him, carefully checking that his airway was clear. He accepted the blanket with a nod of thanks, and asked, "You want to get some water? And maybe something to mop him up with?"

Vin nodded and jogged back into the bar.

"Ah, goddammit, Buck," Chris said softly. A moment later Vin emerged again carrying a water jug and a huge handful of paper napkins. He reached his hand up for the water. Vin slapped half a dozen wet napkins into his palm and he gently wiped Buck's face, then lifted him carefully away from the mess. "Vin, can you get his jacket off him if I lift him?"

Vin nodded, and Chris pulled Buck into a sitting position, propping his boneless form against his chest, and trying very hard not to breathe in. Vin pulled the filthy jacket off Buck's shoulders and balled it up.

"You got a bag or something?"

"Throw it in the back. I'll hose it down later."

Vin smiled without humor. "You're not wrong about that."

"Let's get him up. On three: two, three--"

They struggled with Buck's uncooperative weight for a long moment until they managed to find their balance and then they wrestled Buck into the passenger seat, belting him in securely and locking the car door, just in case.

"You taking him to your place?"

Chris shrugged. "His is closer."

"Yours ain't got all those memories."

Chris stood stock still, remembering how much he had hated the cold, empty ranch until a bunch of rowdy yahoos had adopted him as their leader, and reclaimed it -- and him in the process. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah." He eyed Vin narrowly. "You getting smart in your old age, Tanner?"

A hint of a smile whisked across Vin's face, and vanished. "Allus was smart, cowboy," he remarked and brushed himself off. "Safe roads."

"Drive careful." Chris watched until the lights of Vin's bike had disappeared into the distance. He turned and peeled off his own bespattered jacket and threw it after Buck's, and then changed his shoes, adding the boots to the stuff waiting for cleaning. He sluiced his hands in the remaining water and then threw it over the vomit, it made virtually no difference, but it made him feel like he'd at least tried. The jug went back to the bar, with thanks and a ten dollar tip, and then he settled into the driver's seat with a grimace.

He wound down the windows and arranged Buck so his face was away from the wind, and pulled smoothly out of the car park.

"Puke in my car, Wilmington, and you're detailing it tomorrow, hangover or no hangover."

---------------------------------

date unknown

"Okay, you keep your head down, and you stay in contact. Emails daily, phone every other day, and you meet one of us every three days," Chris said firmly.

JD rolled his eyes. "I got it the first time, Chris. Jeez, you'd think I'd never been under in my life."

"Not like this you haven't, boy," Buck glared at him, and then at Larabee. "You get cocky, you're going to end up dead. Madison's killed before. He don't have any problems killing cops."

"Just as well I'm a fed," JD smirked, and ducked, but not in time to dodge Buck's hand.

"Vin's your first point of contact."

"I know." JD grinned at Vin, "If I hit trouble, I call. If Madison talks, I call. If I get a hangnail, I call."

"Damn right," Buck muttered, but the others ignored him.

Vin nodded to him, "The kids'll let you know where I am. They all know to let you through."

"Thanks, Vin," JD said gratefully. Vin's apartment in Purgatorio was going to be his starting point most days. Vin was going to be there when he could, but with Standish getting to be known in the Denver underworld, and the team's reputation as a whole so well established it was getting harder and harder for any of them to carry through successful undercover operations.

Ezra smiled at him, "You'll do just fine, son, I assure you."

JD preened a little until Ezra added, "After all, with my expert tutelage, and the work I have put into making this identity solid, even you would be hard pressed to set a foot wrong."

"Ez!" JD protested, as the others laughed.

"Never underestimate this boy's ability to put his feet in the wrong places," Buck said sourly.

"Hah! Just because your feet are so huge that a guy can't walk across a room without tripping over them once!" JD mocked cheerfully.

"Well, boy, you know what they say about a man's feet," Buck smirked, and JD groaned.

"Yeah, something about being inversely proportional to the size of his dick," Nathan said mildly, and thoroughly enjoyed the look of shock on his colleagues' faces. "Hey, if medical experience is good for anything, it's good to find out these things."

JD leaned back, a wide grin on his face. "That so, Nate?" He and Ezra simultaneously lifted their feet to the table and leaned back, crossing them at the ankles.

"I must bow to your greater expertise, Mr. Jackson," Ezra agreed, and they grinned smugly at each other over their size 9 feet, the smallest in the room.

They both broke up at the indignant look on Buck's face, and laughter resounded in the small room.

---------------------------------

September 27

"Coffee's right where it usually is," Chris called as he heard footsteps in the kitchen. He didn't move from his comfortable sprawl in one of the old wooden chairs on the porch outside the back door. He didn't even open his eyes at the slow footsteps or the creak as the chair next to him was strained by six foot plus of hung-over friend.

The day was warm, not as hot as September sometimes was. A sharp breeze was coming down off the Rockies hinting of the coming fall, and he was glad of the old, heavy shirt that he had put on first thing when mucking out the horses. He lifted his mug up and took a sip of the lukewarm coffee, black, no sugar.

He'd hoped he'd never have to do this. Had honestly started to think he might never have to. Over three years as a team they had come so close so many times. Three years of near misses and luck had let them believe in a charmed existence. They'd survived everything the streets of Denver had been able to throw at them -- and they always would. Half of the horror was sheer shock that one of them had fallen. And the other half -- it could have been any of them, but it had been JD. Twenty-three. Bright and brash and ebullient.

It would have hurt for any one of them. He knew damn well that if it had been Vin or Buck who had gone, he would be in a worse state than Buck was right now. But that was theory. Fact was, JD was gone.

And it seemed that was a fact that Buck Wilmington was only just starting to believe.

He slanted a look at his friend, then settled back to his own coffee.

Buck looked terrible. He'd showered but not shaved, and his eyes were puffy and bloodshot. His skin had the color of milky tea, pallid under a faint hint of tan. Usually by this time of year the man was a healthy brown after a summer of sunning himself. The old t-shirt and sweat pants he was wearing were Chris's, the tee clung to his chest, the pants a good three inches too short, showing hairy ankles.

Buck slid a glance at him and he smirked as though at the skyline, ignoring Buck completely.

"F'you," Buck mumbled, quietly.

"Problem, Wilmington?" Chris said, sadistically loud.

Buck flinched and hunched lower in his chair.

"Want somethin' to eat?" Chris asked, half an hour after finishing his own coffee.

"Nah," Buck didn't open his eyes, letting his mug slip to dangle from one finger. "'M fine."

Chris shrugged and wandered back into the house. He pulled out bacon and eggs, found the hash browns from the freezer and the pancake mix in the cupboard, and set about cooking a full breakfast. Just for himself, of course. He breathed the scent of frying bacon in deep, and tried hard to repress the smirk as he heard Buck groan.

"Larabee, you're a f'n' sadist." Buck had followed him in and settled himself at the kitchen table, dropping his head on the cool wood with a sigh.

Chris actually found himself whistling tunelessly as he poured the pancake batter into the hot pan, and flipped the bacon. It was mostly done and he removed the rashers from the heat, left them to drain, and put the eggs on. He lifted an edge of the pancake and then shook the pan gently to loosen it before flipping the half cooked pancake over with a dexterous turn of his wrist.

"Still over cooking 'em?"

"Still doin' em just the way I like 'em."

"Promise me y'ain't ever going to show the boys how to flip a pancake."

Chris grinned. "What's it worth t'ya?"

Buck grinned. "Well, just tell me and I'll bring the video camera." He laughed abruptly, winced, then added. "Thought of Ezra, standing there like Sarah that time, pancake in her hair..."

Chris grinned. "Got a picture of that somewhere still."

"Don't think she ever forgave me for taking it."

Chris shook his head. "I told her it wasn't done enough."

"'Don't you tell me how to cook in my own kitchen, Christopher Larabee'."

They both laughed, and Buck hauled himself to his feet with an audible grunt, dumped his mug in the sink and found himself a glass of orange juice. "You want one?" he asked, waving the carton at Chris.

"Yeah."

"Here."

"Wish I'd got to teach Adam that."

"Or JD." Buck said, and paused. "Yeah. Y'imagine the mess teaching the kid."

"Yeah. Over easy?"

"Good for me." Buck fetched a couple of plates as Chris dealt with the eggs and poured another pancake.

"Hungry now?"

"Some."

Chris dished out a mountain of bacon and eggs over a stack of pancakes. "Wrap yourself around this."

Buck took the plate and smiled hesitantly at Chris. "Thanks."

Chris shrugged one shoulder dismissively. "Time I returned the favor."

Buck dropped his eyes and looked away.

"Buck?" Chris frowned, "Buck?"

"Nothing."

He sorted through what he could say -- it wasn't a chore, an imposition, a burden. He wanted to fix this, but he felt like the closest he could come was to slap a Band-Aid over the wound and hope to god it held. "Let me help you?"

Buck looked at him. Volatile emotions flickered across his face, a painful vulnerable look in his eyes. "Don't know how," he said quietly, and put the knife and fork down. "Chris, I don't know how--" It seemed as though he was going to go on, but he shook his head instead.

"Stay here," Chris said impulsively. "Put the condo up for rent, get yourself away from there. It's no good, sitting there and brooding."

One side of Buck's lips quirked up, and he sniffed before he spoke, staring at the pancakes. "Guess you owe me a bed or two."

"Guess I do -- but that's not why."

"Guess you could use a hand with all them chores."

"Guess I could, but that ain't why either," Chris smiled tentatively.

Buck shook his head again, meeting Chris's eyes fleetingly before looking back at his plate. He picked his fork back up and used it to pull off a piece of pancake, but then just dragged it listlessly back and forth on the plate. "Can't do that, Chris," he said quietly. "What if he comes home, and there's strangers there? I can't just--" he stopped, and started again, "I'm not abandoning him, okay?"

"I never said you should, I just think-"

"You just want me to quit caring, to quit worrying about what's up with him that he hasn't made it back yet. I'm not leaving the only home that boy's got, just so you feel better about yourself."

"That's not why I'm--"

"Bull shit." Buck said angrily and stood, scraping the kitchen chair back so sharply it screeched. "If he's missing there, he's missing here too, I ain't going to forget just because I'm not sleeping there! I'm not that stupid!"

"Okay, okay, calm down, it was just a suggestion."

"A bad suggestion." Buck agreed, but sat down.

"Okay, a bad suggestion." Chris agreed calmly. "You eating that or playin' with it?"

"Don't talk to me like I'm Adam!" Buck snapped.

"Then don't act like you're five years old!" he snapped right back over the pang it caused him. He held Buck's eyes until he looked away, ashamed.

"Sorry," Buck muttered, and Chris shrugged.

"It's okay."

"No." Buck said softly, "No it's not, but thanks for trying." He smiled painfully up at Chris. "I appreciate it."

"No problem." Chris smiled back. "Look, you want to stay out here till Monday? I could use a hand bringing some of the animals down for the fall. We can head in early and swing by your place to get you some clean clothes."

Buck thought about it for a long couple of minutes, then looked up. From the look in his eye he'd been well aware of Chris's twitching foot under the table as he waited, seemingly patient, for Buck's reply.

"Guess I could do that." he conceded. He grinned abruptly, and Chris felt something unclench. Buck was still right there; a little battered, and a lot tired, but there, and fighting. "Guess I ain't got much choice at that -- how the hell did I end up out here anyway? And where's my truck?"

A slow, evil grin spread across Chris's lips. "Well now. It's funny you should ask..."

---------------------------------

September 28

The phone rang, shrill and loud.

Vin didn't open his eyes, just reached blindly for the phone, face still buried in his single, battered pillow.

"Yeah," he said across a yawn.

A soft female voice said, "Hola, senor, the man he is come home again."

"Shit." His eyes snapped open and he was about to ask for more information but the girl had hung up already. He cleared the line and rolled over onto his back, stared at the ceiling for a long moment, then reluctantly sat up and padded through his apartment to the bathroom. The clock on the DVD player told him it was ten past two in the morning, and he slumped, feeling vaguely betrayed by the cheery green numbers blinking at him. On autopilot he set the kettle to boiling, and wandered back into the bathroom, where he pulled on the jeans he'd taken off all of an hour ago, and a loose green shirt. It was too close and humid for anything more.

On an afterthought he slid his gun into the back of his waistband, almost hearing his sergeant's apoplexy at it, and his ATF ID into his back pocket. He grabbed wallet, phone and keys, made up a huge mug of black coffee and drank it down, then poured another and headed out the door, locking it behind him.

"What the hell are you doing up there, Bucklin?" he groused, slouched low in his jeep. He stared up at the lit windows of Buck's apartment. Ezra had somehow arranged for him to be contacted whenever Buck came in, but he'd assumed it wasn't going to be twenty-four seven. Hell, for that matter, he'd assumed that Larabee would keep Buck out on the ranch for the weekend, sober him up some. Maybe knock a little sense into the man. "Why couldn't ya stay where you were put?"

Still, even in the middle of the night on a weekend, it was his turn to watch over Buck, so here he was. He tilted up the mug of coffee, and muttered when only the last few dregs trickled out. Why couldn't the man have stayed out at Larabee's? He wouldn't be outside wondering if Buck was okay, and wishing he had more caffeine.

The sky lit up from horizon to horizon and he huddled down deeper. "Ah, shit." There was a massive crash of thunder and the heavens opened. His mug slowly started to fill up again, drops pattering gently inside it, beating down on his bare arms and uncovered head.

"Ah, hell." He hesitated, and then shrugged and stepped out of the jeep. Looking up he saw that the light in the apartment had gone out, and he slammed the jeep's door a little harder than necessary. "Well, he can just get up again."

He pulled out the keys Buck and JD had given him long ago and headed up the stairs.

He yawned as he put the key in the lock of their apartment, and twisted it firmly, knocking a couple of times as he did so. No point startling Buck and getting shot. He started turning the handle and the slightest, faintest edge of resistance dragged his eyes down before he moved it more than half way.

"Oh shit."

He could see it, now he was looking. Scratches on the lock. Fine black lines -- wires -- running from the external handle into where the latch sat. He dropped his head forwards and lightly rested it on the door. He knew he couldn't smell it, but he smelled it just the same. C4, semtex, nitro -- whatever it was, it was rigged on the other side of the door -- and if he let go of the handle or completed the turn, he was going to lose his hand, and by the time anyone got to him, probably his life.

"Least I'm out of the rain," he muttered. And then remembered he'd left the jeep's windows open. He sighed. Hell, he might as well just call Buck and -- oh, shit, the cell phone! His eyes widened and his other hand plunged into his pocket, turning it off, fumbling in his haste.

"Hell. Buck? Buck? You in there?" he called softly, not wanting to wake the neighbors, and then stopped. What the hell was he thinking?

"Buck! Buck dammit! Are you in there?!" he bellowed, as loud as he could.

It had probably been the bomber he'd seen moving around and who had turned off the light. Which meant the girl who'd been watching either needed a better picture of Buck, or better glasses -- and probably was worth tracking down as a witness. Or she was an accomplice, and it wasn't intended for Buck at all. And wasn't that a comforting thought.

"Hey! Anybody there? There's a bomb! Somebody call the police! There's a bomb in the building! Call the police!" he shouted over and over, until he was hoarse. And still he called.

For the longest time he thought nobody was going to come, and he leaned his head against the door frame thinking of all the things he would do and say if he got out of this alive, and whether he would be able to stay with the ATF with only one hand. He closed his eyes at the thought of his best case scenario -- it just took his hand off. But if it was shaped, or set on the floor, and not tied directly to the handle, it could take his legs. Or if it was high enough, simply shred him. He couldn't stop thinking of mines, and nail bombs, of being left to die a lingering, painful death, or left alive, with half a body, trapped in -- he stopped himself. Carefully he wrapped his left hand around his right as it began to cramp and ache in the unnatural half-twisted position he had to keep it to hold the handle steady. He shivered. It was getting cold. The storm had broken the humid, hot weather, and he was starting to feel it.

It wasn't anything to do with being trapped with a bomb, he told himself, and tried to ignore the goosebumps that rushed across him. Someone would come. Someone would come. They had to.

He wasn't going to die here.

He lifted his head at a faint sound, and then suddenly there was a rush of light and feet and voices.

"Denver PD! Hands in the air!"

"Bomb! There's a bomb! If I move it will go off!" he said urgently, before they shot him and killed them all. The sounds abated behind him and the creeping tension in his shoulders loosened a little. Perhaps he'd get out of this alive after all. "I'm Agent Vin Tanner, ATF, my ID's in my right back pocket, I have a gun in the back of my pants, and the door handle I am holding is rigged to go off when I complete the turn or let go."

He leaned his head against the frame and waited for them to decide.

"Don't move," a male voice said nervously, and a hand slipped into his pocket and pulled out the ID. He turned his head as far as he could to let them confirm that it was his face on the picture. The flashlight in his eyes blinded him, and he blinked against it.

"Believe me," he said fervently, "I'm not moving anywhere."

"Sorry, sir," the same voice seemed happier now. "One of your neighbors said there was a crazy guy shouting bomb threats."

"That was me," Vin said wearily. "I couldn't use my phone and--"

"Why not?"

"Because, officer," another voice said with clipped annoyance, "a cellular phone signal might act as a remote trigger and set the bomb off. Now, get out of the way, and let me see."

"Hey, Red, they letting you out on live cases again?" Vin smirked as he recognized the burly, red haired man from Denver's police bomb squad.

"Only ones where they don't care who gets hurt, pretty-boy," the officer said smartly. "Let's see what you've got yourself into then."

"Can you get someone to call Larabee, Andy?" he asked first. "He's gonna be pissed, and I'd rather he was pissed at one of you. No offense," he added, and Andy O'Dea grinned at him.

"I'll do it myself, if you like."

"Sooner would be better," Vin said seriously. "Been sitting here a while."

"Hand tired?" O'Dea was all business, and Vin nodded. "We'll see if we can do something about that. You know when you armed it?"

"'Bout two thirty. It ain't blown, so I guess I didn't arm it. Yet."

O'Dea nodded. "It's four in the morning now. Your neighbors must have the patience of saints with you caterwauling to wake the damned here."

"Fuck you very much." Vin lifted his head. "Hell, they're Buck's neighbors. Probably used to the caterwauling." They both laughed, and Vin was caught by a yawn. "Hey, sorry, did someone call Chris?"

"Luke Mitchen went downstairs to call Agent Larabee," a stranger's voice said.

"Linda Sarns, my newest victim. Er, rookie." O'Dea introduced the woman. "Vin Tanner, ATF agent and currently, door stop."

"Had it right first time, Sarge." Sarns said cheerfully. Vin didn't turn to look.

"I get no respect at all, these days."

"You get exactly what you deserve." Vin said, and tried to smile.

"Well, let's make sure you don't get what you deserve, eh, lad?" He leaned in and peered at the door handle. "Hmm. Yes. You've got good reflexes."

"It stuck. This door ain't stuck in its life. Buck an' JD too busy slammin' in and out of it." He stopped abruptly.

"I heard about your trouble," O'Dea said quietly, still examining what little he could see of the trigger mechanism. "Was a good lad."

Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Guess with Buck an' all, pretty near everyone's heard."

"Guess so." He traced the line of the wires with his fingers, not touching them, and tutted. "Who's Wilmington pissed off this time?"

Vin grinned, "Ex-girlfriend?"

"New girlfriend's ex-boyfriend? Or not so ex-husband?" O'Dea smirked.

Vin forced a laugh over the fleeting thought of Tzivokis. "Don't know where he gets the energy."

"Some guys have all the luck," the officer agreed, and settled back on his haunches. "Okay. My best guess right now is it's a simple trigger, and you were right, any move back or forth will set the charge off. But, I'm not risking anyone's life on that, so I'm going to see if I can get someone inside."

"Through the wall?"

O'Dea shook his head. "He couldn't have set this up without help, and at least one person had to be inside. Now, either they're still inside, which is stupider than most of our explosives boys are, or he went out the window."

"And if he came out, you can get back in." Vin nodded. "Cool."

"Course, it's going to be a wee while. Don't want to take off anyone's face finding out they put a charge on the window."

"Sure."

"I'll see if we can rig something to relieve the strain on your hands."

"Thanks, Andy."

"Sarge?" A woman's voice.

"You're welcome, son," he ruffled Vin's hair. "We're going to get you out, okay?"

"You say that to all the boys, don't you?"

"Just the pretty ones," O'Dea grinned cheerfully at him and straightened to his feet. "And I'll get someone to bring you some water. Yeah, Sarns?"

"Mitchen said to tell you that Larabee's on his way, and pissed."

"Hell, no change there then," Vin grinned, and O'Dea laughed.

"True enough. I'll see you in a while, unless you let go, in which case, I'll see ya in hell."

"Not if Larabee sees me first," Vin said morosely, and O'Dea chuckled again and left.

Someone draped a blanket over his shoulders. From the heavy, scratchy feel he suspected it was supposedly bombproof. It was no comfort at all to think that it was draped over him, rather than between him and the door.

It was some time before someone spoke to him again. This time a woman asked him if he would like some water, and when he nodded, held a straw against his lips. He swallowed gratefully. There was an explosion of sound and he smiled as a familiar harsh voice demanded information over the protests of the DPD.

"Hey, Larabee. Sorry we broke into yer beauty sleep."

"What were you doing here?" Chris asked, ducking down to get a good look at what little could be seen of the trigger mechanism.

"Making sure Buck didn't get caught in it first."

Chris's hand gripped at his shoulder as he stood, and Vin was absurdly grateful that he didn't lift it away immediately. They both knew that Buck might have spotted the wires. But the state he'd been in lately, he might just as easily have slammed the door open and been killed instantly.

"Hey, kid," Buck said quietly, and gripped his other shoulder. "You want to let me have a look-see?"

"Knock yourself out," Vin said tiredly. "I ain't going anywhere."

Buck crouched and shone a flashlight over the handle and over the dark lines of the wires running back into the door. He whistled softly. "Damn. I reckon I owe you one."

"Yeah. I'll send ya the bill when I get out of here."

"It's a deal." Buck stood and rested his hand on Vin's back for a moment. "Chris, you know who's in charge up here?"

"The prodigal returns, eh?" O'Dea's voice boomed out. "Nice mess you've left for your old friends to clean up."

Buck laughed behind Vin. "You know me, Red."

"Too well, laddie."

"What've we got?" Larabee interrupted them, he sounded angry, and Vin waited for the explosion.

O'Dea was calmly unfazed. "We've got a plain old fashioned nitrate charge, with a kinetic trigger hooked directly to the door handle. It's perhaps ten degrees turn away from being set off." His voice had lowered, but Vin heard him, and a rush of cold air seemed to pour over his back. That close to dying. He gripped tighter, watching his hands.

"I'm going to get a box into your apartment, Buck," O'Dea went on, "and we're going to try moving the charge into it, and do a safe detonation. Talking to the team inside, our boy's embedded the trigger charge in a bucket of nails, and by the looks of it, packed the whole thing with quick set plastic. Tanner?" A hand rested on his other shoulder momentarily and he lifted his head to meet Andy's eyes, "It's not going to be much longer, we're going to put sheeting over the inside of the door before we move anything, and we're going to get as much protection on you as we can."

"Thanks," he muttered. A hand wrapped around his on the handle, and he looked at it, and then at the man standing next to him. "Chris, don't be stupider than y'can help."

"How much longer can you hold that exactly there?"

"Long as I need ta," he said tersely.

"Vin. I've got enough trouble. Just shut up, okay?" Chris said firmly, and Vin shook his head.

"You'd think he didn't give a shit. Soft as butter in July," he taunted his friend, who just shrugged.

"Don't wanna try training a new sniper."

"God, no, if his last effort at hiring is anything to go by, you gotta survive this, Vin. I don't think anyone can take another Nicholson," Buck said. It was meant to be cheerful but there was too much of an edge to his voice.

"Shut up, Buck," Chris and Vin said jointly, and then slanted a look at each other.

"Ah, who cares what you think anyway. What the hell were you doing here?" Buck asked.

"Uh--"

"Happened to be driving past and saw a light, huh, Vin?" Chris said firmly.

"Yeah. How'd you guess?" Vin said lamely.

"Been following me?"

"Nah. Why'd I want to do a thing like that?"

Buck's arm wrapped over his blanket covered shoulders and he said, very softly, "So something like this didn't happen to me, right?"

"Was driving past, and saw a light, and it started raining and I figured I'd come on up, keep dry." The story didn't sound real convincing to him, either.

"You could try putting your windows up." Buck said.

"Put my windows up?" Vin said blankly. "What for?"

Chris chuckled softly. "You an' Ez, ain't half as smart as you think."

"Gonna ask you boys to move back." O'Dea reappeared by them. "Vin, we're going to pad you and tape down as much bomb proof sheeting as we can between you and it, before we start fucking around with the other side of the door, okay?"

Vin nodded. Slowly and infinitely carefully a couple of police officers slid heavy padding between him and the door and strapped it onto him.

"Can you pull your left hand back, sir," the woman asked, and Vin tried to remember her name. Samms? Something like that.

He shook his head. "Cramped on, I reckon."

"Okay. Hold still and we'll do that for you." It was the last part of him to be covered. He stared down through a smoked visor as one of them stabilized his right hand, and the other peeled his left off of the handle, Chris still holding his right in place.

"You going to be okay if I let go there," Sarns asked easily, and Vin met her eyes and nodded.

She let go of him and he tucked his aching left hand behind the padding and sheeting, and then watched as they carefully wrapped more between his right hand and the door. Maybe this was the last time he was going to -- he stopped himself right there.

"Looks like the Stay-Puft man, gone horribly wrong," Wilmington quipped from behind him. He grinned over his shoulder.

"Who ya gonna call?"

"Everybody back into the stairwell. Not you, Tanner," O'Dea called.

"Very funny, O'Dea."

Chris let go of where he was gripping Vin's hand and the door handle, and he felt cold.

"I'll be right back, Tanner," he muttered. "Don't go and do anything stupid."

Vin ducked his head in agreement.

"All clear on this side," O'Dea announced, presumably into a radio. He heard distant squawks and tried to stay as still as possible. The cramps were spreading up around his elbow, and straining across his back.

"You're clear to go," O'Dea told the bomb squad on the other side of the door, and Vin closed his eyes.

There was a long silence. It stretched out, painfully. Vin concentrated on breathing, slow and steady. Feeling his diaphragm move, his ribcage expanding and contracting. He heard a faint thump on the other side of the door, and stopped breathing.

God, he wished he could see what was happening.

---------------------------------

date unknown

"No!" He backed away from the gurney shaking his head as they pulled the sheet away from her face, his hand across his mouth, "No... Mom..." he whispered hopelessly. Her makeup was smeared, her long, dark hair pulled severely back, pooling under her bare shoulders. There was no sign of the lavender suit she had worn this morning, brushing a kiss over his head as he ate breakfast, telling him she was just going out to look at books. He'd laughed, they'd need a new house with all the books she'd been buying lately... "No..."

The morgue technicians retreated, leaving just him and the police officer -- Sergeant Mendez he said, a million years ago -- looking down at the body.

"I'm very sorry, son," Mendez said gently, "-- can you confirm her identity?"

"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "Yes, it's my Mom. Um, Valency Heather Dunne." He wiped tears roughly from his face. "I-- I'm sorry, I--"

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne." The old guy wasn't so bad, JD thought. His middle-aged face was creased in sympathetic lines, he felt oddly safe, like a cop was supposed to. "I'm so sorry, son. I know how hard this is."

JD turned away. He couldn't bear to look any more at the creamy oval face with that tiny bullet hole, barely an inch across, black and ugly at her temple. Her eyes were closed, blue veined and tranquil, and he felt sharply that if he just reached out he could wake her --

He snatched his hand back and asked, "What happened? How--how could this happen? She was going shopping for books!"

"From the witness reports it appears to have been mugging. One of the attackers had a gun, and when Ms. Dunne resisted, he shot her." The police officer hesitated, and gently rested a hand on his shoulder. "The doctor tells me that death was instantaneous. She didn't suffer at all."

JD sobbed once, a sharp, ugly sound, and closed his eyes briefly. "Thank you. I --" He looked helplessly at the officer. "What do I do?" God, there'll have to be a funeral, and I'll have to figure out how to get her cremated, and, oh God, ...

"We have a victim advocacy unit, Mr. Dunne -- someone is waiting outside right now if you want to speak to them? They will be able to guide you through some of the things that are going to happen in the next little while."

"Thank you." He tried to smile at him, and wished the police officer wouldn't look so sympathetic. He sniffed, then swallowed hard, and pushed back the tears. "Thank you." His voice sounded more normal, and he sniffed. "That would be great." It wouldn't of course. Nothing would be great ever again. It felt like he was drifting above the scene, listening to the meaningless platitudes, but not involved.

God... Mom....

---------------------------------

September 28

Chris held his breath, watching as Vin crouched against the wall by Buck's front door, his arm at full extension holding the wired door handle in place. He was almost completely obscured by padding and bombproof sheeting as he huddled against the wall. About all he could really see of the man was a few tails of hair poking out from under the helmet they'd put on him. He was supposed to be further back, lower down, behind the safety of the screens that had been put in place along the corridor in front of the stairwell where they were waiting. Instead he was watching, as close as O'Dea and Buck would let him be. Praying.

He heard a distant thump, and his eyes closed before he could see it. Oh God. In his mind's eye flame spurted out around his friend. He let his breath go, opening them again when there was no explosion of hot wind and debris on his face. Vin was huddled there still, there was no halo of fire, no tumbling masonry or splintered door, or shattered bodies. A hand gripped his shoulder and he jerked and then settled. He didn't need to look to know it was Buck.

"I couldn't bear it either," was all Buck said, and Chris nodded once. The conversations of the previous day were still too close and too raw for either to refer any more closely to it. "I called the rest of the boys," Buck said softly.

"Thanks." He could see Vin's hand shaking on the handle, and wondered how long he had been holding it like that. He wondered how much longer he could hold it for. Wished he could steady it just by willing it. Don't let go, he thought desperately. Don't let go.

He saw Vin take a breath, the first one in forever, and sighed in unconscious synchrony. Vin tensed. His hands curled into fists, staring at his friend, wondering what was going on. O'Dea had talked to Buck before they began, while he was talking to Vin.

"Buck, what--" He couldn't bear the waiting.

"They're going to try to put sheeting between the door on the other side and the charge, they're going to try to disconnect it, and if they can't disconnect, they're going to attempt a controlled detonation in a bomb box." Buck said softly. Chris looked up into the shadowed blue eyes. "They've a pretty good chance. Andy says it looks like it was done as a quick and dirty take down, nothing clever. No motion detectors or remote triggers."

Chris looked into Buck's eyes a little longer, wondering how he could be so calm, when yesterday he had been in agony. The unworthy thought flickered across his mind that Buck didn't care, because it was Vin, that if Chris lost Vin he would be even with Buck, who had lost his protégé and best friend.

"Trust me, Chris," Buck seemed to read his mind, but take no offense. "He's gonna be fine. They're keeping radio silence just in case there's a radio sensitive trigger, but he's fine. It's gonna be okay. That noise was just them putting the bomb box into the room."

Chris gritted his jaw, and said nothing. Buck didn't seem to notice, but his hand tightened on Chris's shoulder.

There would be a time for recriminations later.

Distantly there was a dull thud, and suddenly a burst of noise from the radios. Buck was gone, running for Vin, and Chris followed him, pulling him away from the door handle. His hand clung for a moment and Chris had to physically uncurl his fingers, then Buck was half carrying Vin, half dragging him, the man protesting at every step.

"Dammit, Buck, put me down!" Vin complained, shoving at him, and Chris grinned, huge relief sweeping over him. Behind them there were immense amounts of activity. He didn't give a damn. Buck hauled Vin into the stairwell and stopped, easing him down to sit on the top step, crouching in front of him on a lower step. They stripped him of padding, visor and bomb proof sheets, fingers stumbling on knots and Velcro strips, and took a warm blanket from the paramedic who was hovering, anxious to check the 'victim'. Chris waved him off and settled next to Vin, and shivered.

Much too close.

"You okay, Tanner?" Buck asked gently.

Vin was taking deep steadying breaths. He nodded rather than speak, and Chris swallowed, uncertain of himself. They were all off balance from losing JD, and this -- this caught him on the raw. He couldn't hide his fear from himself. Couldn't even use anger to pretend he didn't care. He'd spent the last two days trying to comfort Buck, and found he didn't know how to comfort himself.

Vin lifted his head finally, and looked first at him, and then, for a long, long moment, at Buck. "Well, wasn't that fun," he said softly.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

Vin lifted his hands and looked at them, turning them over as if amazed that they were still attached. "Just as soon's I get used to the idea of being in one piece," he said. His hands started shaking. "Damn."

"Cold?" Buck grabbed his shaking hands and folded them together, rubbing his own hands over them, ostensibly warming them. Chris smiled faintly. It was Buck's way of comforting without making anyone admit comfort might be needed. He leaned in a little, until his hip was just touching Vin.

"Cramped up some," Vin said softly, and winced as Buck straightened out his fingers, rubbing over the palm of first one hand and then the other. "Thanks."

He pulled his hands away, and flexed them. "Thanks," he said again, and without any warning, clenched his right into a fist and took a swing at Buck, clipping him high on the left cheek.

"Hey!" Buck protested, clutching at the stair-rail to hold himself from tumbling backwards down the stairs. "What was that for?"

"Next time leave fucking Tzivokis alone!" he snapped.

"I don't know--"

Vin shook his head, "No. Don't even." He looked at Chris. "You know what he did?"

Chris raised an eyebrow. "If you tell me am I going to have to know officially?"

Vin stopped. Opened his mouth. Closed it again. "You and me, Buck. We're going to have us a little talk some day, about you and keeping it in your pants."

Chris looked up at the ceiling, praying that Vin didn't mean what he strongly suspected he meant. "You know how you said you'd been doing some stupid things, Buck?" he said slowly.

Buck met his eyes. "I didn't know Vin was going to come breaking into my place in the middle of the night."

"That doesn't make it better! He could have been killed because you won't stop pissing off the wrong people." Chris snarled. "It's gotta stop, Buck. I'm not having this again."

Buck glared at him. "I'm supposed to just abandon him?"

"Yes." Chris snapped. "Buck--"

Buck got to his feet. "You want my badge?" he said, no emotion left in his words or eyes.

"You didn't -- Chris, he didn't set the damn bomb!"

"You could have been killed! Don't you get that?"

"I get it just fine. And you know what, rather me than him, okay? Rather me than any of you."

"You're in shock," Chris said after a stunned silence. "We need to get you somewhere, to a hospital or--"

"I'm fine, dammit." Vin shook Chris's hands off him.

Buck rummaged in his pockets, and held out the black wallet holding his federal ID.

"Oh, put it away," Chris said shortly.

Vin chuckled. "Now, that's some good advice," he said looking at Buck pointedly.

Chris frowned at them. "You got any idea who--"

Buck wouldn't meet his eyes. "Tzivokis," he muttered.

"What the fuck -- no, don't tell me. I'm just going to get angry."

"Angrier," Vin corrected with a smirk.

"Fine, angrier." Chris stopped and shook his head. "I could give a rat's ass what you do in your spare time, Buck. But I warned you, the day you crossed the line, was the day I got involved."

The blank look was fading from Buck's eyes, "God, Vin," he said quietly. He stared at Vin's hands, then gripped his wrists, apparently fascinated. "Thank God you weren't hurt. Christ. If you hadn't been so fast..."

"But I was."

"But if--"

Chris reached down and shook Buck's shoulder. "Buck. He's right. You didn't set the damn thing."

"My door. Meant to take me out."

"Don't know that."

"Well, who the hell else lives there any more, huh?" Buck asked bitterly, and Vin finally looked up, met his eyes. Chris watched the two of them silently, unwilling to interfere.

Vin's hands twisted in Buck's hold, and the comforted became comforter. "I know," he told their linked hands, very quietly. He looked up again, "I was his backup. I should have known something was wrong."

Buck shook his head. "You couldn't have known." He blinked, and looking down at him from higher up the staircase, Chris could see the tears that he refused to shed.

"You couldn't have known about this," Vin told him, absolving him more generously than Chris thought he could have managed.

"I --" he stopped, and then tried again. "I didn't care," he said, nearly too softly to hear.

"I know," Chris answered. Both men looked at him. "Buck, I can't make you care about yourself, I don't even have the right to try," Buck was shaking his head, but Chris carried on regardless, "but it's not just you." He stopped, trying to find the words. "How do I make you see? You're not in this alone. Vin nearly got killed because you didn't care about the consequences of chasing information." He couldn't think what to say next, and the silence went on and on. In the background they could hear the bomb squad securing the building, removing the charge. "Who has to die to make you stop?"

Buck dropped his forehead against Vin's hands, and they sat like that for what felt like hours, until feet pounding up the stairs broke them all apart.

"I take it that no one was injured?" Ezra said urgently as he took the last few steps two at a time. "Buck? Vin?" Nathan and Josiah were right behind him, and Buck was elbowed out of the way as they each checked Vin over. Chris didn't move from Vin's side; no one tried to make him.

Too close. Much too close. This time they had won, but for the first time in a long, long while, he had gone into a situation expecting to lose a friend. Feeling that losing a friend was as likely as beating the odds. Until the kid had died, and even in the silence of his own thoughts he shied away from saying his name, they had been untouchable. However bad it got, they came through, scarred, battered, but fundamentally unchanged. He'd believed in their own legend. And now? He looked around at them, at Buck's haunted face, and Ezra's uncomfortably steady gaze, at Nathan fussing over Vin's hands, at Josiah, eyes closed, murmuring what he could only assume was a prayer of thankfulness; now, they were all afraid in a way they had never been afraid before.

"He's fine," Nathan said happily, and clapped a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "He's just fine."

Ezra nodded; Chris saw him swallow before he spoke. "Good. I am delighted. Is Mr. Wilmington's abode undamaged?"

"I have no idea," Buck said with a faint chuckle. It wasn't funny, but somehow they were all laughing, the sound echoing in the stairwell.

Chris left one hand on Vin's shoulder and looked at Buck, no compromise in his voice. "You're moving out to my place. You won't be able to go back there."

The laughter died, and all of them were looking at Buck.

"No," he said softly, and Chris was going to interrupt, insist that he must, that he could not stay where they couldn't protect him from bombs, from himself, and caught Josiah shaking his head at him, and he let Buck fill the silence. "No, I can't go back," he agreed. Something in the way he said it held them frozen for a moment.

"We'll help," Nathan said gently. "A cousin of Raine's has a big truck I can borrow this weekend."

"We'll come over evenings, box stuff up," Ezra offered. "For that matter, we have most of Sunday left. We should be able to make a good start."

"We'll take care of everything, Buck," Josiah said finally, and Buck nodded.

"Thanks, guys. Vin--"

Vin smiled at him shakily. "We'll talk about it later, cowboy."

"Okay. It's a deal."

Chris looked at his watch, and then around them. "It's nearly five, boys. What ya say we go get us some breakfast?"

"Sounds like a plan," Josiah rumbled.

"What about the cops?"

"You can give your statement later," Ezra said quickly. "It's not as though they don't know where to find you."

"Cool," Vin said easily. "Let's go kill us some arteries."

Nathan groaned, but they rose to their feet, Chris helping Vin, and headed out en masse.

---------------------------------

October 1

Buck tapped on Chris's office door then walked straight in. Chris half smiled, wondering, as always, why any of them bothered knocking.

"You wanted to see me?" Buck said curiously.

"Yeah." Chris pushed the file he had been working on to one side and waved Buck to take a chair, pushing an large official looking envelope across the desk towards him. "Got these from my attorney for you."

"That's where you were this morning?" Buck asked.

"Yeah." Chris waited as Buck slowly reached for them and pulled the sheaf of documents out. His head reared up as he read the first one looking at Chris. "Go on. All of 'em."

Buck looked back down and read through them slowly and carefully. Chris watched him at first, then went back to reading through Vin's report on the merits of further investigation of one Ivan Haines, alleged gunrunner.

He was startled when Buck flung the papers higgledy-piggledy onto his desk and stood, so abruptly that his chair slid away several feet. Buck turned and walked away, towards the window and leaned his head on the glass. "No."

Chris consciously relaxed his shoulders, dropping them and rolling them a little, trying to ease the tightness out of them. "Buck?"

"Chris, I can't do this." He didn't look at him, and Chris closed his eyes briefly, struggling for patience. Surely they'd already been through this?

It was no good, the tension was back again.

"Do what?"

Buck waved at the legal papers scattered on Chris's desk and shook his head.

"Buck, all you have to do is sign them. Ezra and I will take care of all the rest of it. Ezra's lined up a couple of tenants for Monday -- if all that gets signed off today." Buck didn't reply, and Chris added, "Buck, you said--"

"I know, I, I just." Buck stopped, and Chris wondered if Buck really knew what he objected to, or if it was just moving too fast for the shell-shocked man. There'd been no question about Buck going back to the condo. For one thing, as a crime scene it had been pretty much uninhabitable until the middle of the week. And though he was sure Buck didn't want to go back there, it was starting to look like some of the implications of that had just sunk in. Chris sighed, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do now. He'd invited Buck into his home, had thrown him a lifeline, and now he was honor bound to carry through. He shook his head. What the hell had he been thinking?

A small smile tugged at his mouth. He'd been thinking that Sarah would have ignored him for weeks if he hadn't brought Buck home. He'd been thinking that -- hell. Why analyze? He hadn't been thinking at all.

Buck walked back and sat heavily. He turned the papers over and over in his hands. "Am I doing the right thing?"

Chris grimaced. "Yes."

"But what if he comes back, and there's no one there?"

"The tenants'll be there," he pointed out pragmatically. A hundred other things sprang to his lips, he gritted his teeth and didn't say one of them.

Buck shook his head. "That almost makes it worse. Chris, how would you feel if you came home and found strangers living there? If you found that your home had been abandoned and your friends -- your family, had left without you?"

"For god's sake Buck, you're not abandoning it. It's not like you're selling up. The tenants will know where to find you -- hell, we can give them a picture of the kid if you want, just in case. Make sure they have this address and mine -- the whole team's if you want. Make sure he can find us."

"I guess." It didn't seem to improve Buck's state of mind any. "I feel like I'm -- I don't know. Like I'm betraying him. That place is the only home he had, after his Ma died. And I'm just planning on packing it up and moving him out, like it doesn't matter. Like he don't matter." His eyes turned distant, and Chris frowned.

"You can't stay there," he said quietly, and Buck shivered.

"I know. I'm not -- I'm not arguing that. But -- how can I just leave him?"

Chris shook his head, not saying, he left first. "You gonna sign those papers or not?"

Buck looked at them, and Chris thought for a moment that he was going to change his mind after all, then he reached for a pen from Chris's desk. He rested them on Chris's blotter. Power of attorney. Lease agreement. Bank authorization letter. He signed them one by one, looking up at the end.

"Tell me I'm doing the right thing, Chris," he said softly.

Chris took the signed forms and squared them neatly before slotting them back into the envelope. "You're doing the right thing."

But somehow, he didn't sound any more convinced than Buck.

---------------------------------

October 2

"What about these?" Nathan asked Chris quietly, and gestured to a pile of photograph albums, topped with a teetering pile of envelopes filled with pictures that hadn't been filed before the kid -- left -- and now weren't ever likely to be. Chris crouched by it and opened an envelope, flipping through the photos in it. He smiled faintly at the array of action pictures from some motorcycle race or other, a couple of candid shots of Vin leaning forward urging someone on; one or two weirdly angled ones that looked like JD and Vin had been fighting over the camera, and then. His heart stopped. The kid was laughing out at him, a hand reached out to grab the camera back.

"God." Nathan whispered from behind him and Chris looked up. The black man looked as stunned as Chris felt, his eyes on the picture of the kid.

"Put 'em away," he said roughly. He shoved the photographs back into the envelope. His eyes flickered to the door, and the unseen Buck, bickering in the kitchen with Josiah over whether his pans were superior to Larabee's or not. "Quickly."

Nathan nodded grimly. "Have we got anything weatherproof?"

Chris shook his head. "Put them in one of the bags, and mark it with my name. I'll take 'em tonight and put them somewhere safe inside the house."

"And the papers?"

Chris looked around the kid's room. "Anything that won't survive the damp better stay inside. Box 'em up and mark them. Put 'em in plastic. We just keep them out of Buck's way until he's ready to deal."

"Got ya," Nathan agreed. Chris sighed and went back to clearing the kid's closet of clothes. It ought to all go to the Salvation Army or someone, but that was Buck's decision -- and Buck wasn't up to it yet. He carefully pulled and folded shirts, pants, jeans, sweaters and laid them one by one into the suitcase on the bed. It was hideously reminiscent of packing Sarah and Adam's stuff, and the only way he could do it was not to think about it. There was even the sweetish smell of burning that he had associated for years with detonated explosives. His stomach churned and he gritted his teeth.

"You okay?"

He hadn't even noticed Nathan leave, much less Vin come in.

He nodded shortly.

"I can finish up in here." Vin said quietly, looking around the small room.

"I'm good." He shook his head. "It's pretty much all done anyway."

"Let me help." Vin said simply, and Chris nodded wordlessly.

Vin took over the clothes, upending the drawers casually into the suitcase, and making a nonsense of Chris's efforts to be neat, and Chris dragged a box into the room and started putting away the books that were stacked in piles all over the floor. It was easier, much easier. He shook his head with bemusement at one pile that contained a technical manual for some programming language, a couple of Louis L'Amour's, and 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus', with post-it notes protruding from between the pages. He lifted that one and chuckled softly.

"You reckon it helped him figure out Casey?" he said, flipping to the first of the bookmarked pages and starting to read. Vin glanced over and grinned.

"Maybe. Heck, he managed to persuade her to agree to marry him." He frowned. "Hey, pass it over here when you're done." Chris chuckled and read on for a few more paragraphs before putting the book away. Maybe he'd have another look at it one of these days.

They only stayed at it for another couple of hours, and Chris was amazed at how little it all seemed to pack down to. There was a stack of boxes in JD's room, no more than seven or eight of them, and the room was already pretty much bare but for the furniture and the toys.

"I called out for pizza." Josiah walked into the room and saw the small pile of boxes. His face fell into worn, sad lines. "So little."

Chris nodded and swallowed. "Haven't packed up the games yet."

"The computer?" Josiah looked at the empty space on the desk, clearly delineated by a band of dust, crumbs and grime.

"Casey came over this morning." He looked around helplessly. "I think she took some mementoes and stuff as well."

Josiah nodded, and walked over to the life size cut-outs leaning face down against the wall. "He didn't get rid of them?" He shook his head and laughed. "You think Buck would mind if I--"

"You want them?" Chris knew he sounded incredulous, but Josiah simply smiled.

"They make me think of him."

Tears burned for a moment and he turned away. "I'll let Buck know you took 'em."

"Also," Josiah grinned, "they are very attractive young ladies."

Chris smiled back, and nodded. "I'll give you hand moving them."

Josiah shook his head reproachfully. "Dinner first."

"Sure." Chris looked around, and for the first time he wondered if he too should take something to remember the kid by. He shook his head abruptly. He couldn't do it and have it anywhere Buck could see. And things weren't going to make it easier.

They left the room and closed the door behind them.

---------------------------------

October 4

Buck straightened and groaned as his back popped.

"That all of it?" Vin asked, heading for the lone box on the living room floor.

"Yeah." Buck looked around. The place was empty. Casey had taken the stuff she wanted earlier in the week -- some pictures, JD's main computer, his stereo and a bunch of cds and dvds. The box of letters, notes and mementoes that he'd kept under his bed. A few other things: a shirt, a couple of books -- he hadn't asked, and she hadn't explained. Everything else was going with him to Chris's place. A professional cleaning service was going to finish up before the tenants Chris had arranged arrived next week.

"You wanna meet us down there?" Vin said quietly, and Buck nodded, offering a half smile for the understanding.

He walked through, telling himself he was checking for any last items. The apartment echoed as his booted heels clicked on the bare wooden floors. His toothbrush and razor lingered on the basin, and he picked them up and stuffed them into his jacket pocket absently. The closet was empty even of hangers. He looked around his empty bedroom, and smiled wryly. Good times. His smile widened, then drifted away as he tested the windows, all locked, the one the bomb squad had broken replaced.

Two floors below he could see Nathan and Vin fastening down the big green tarp over the half full flatbed truck for the third and final time. Ez and Josiah were probably at Chris's place by now with their last load. It was just this one, and he would be out of here completely. The furniture and other boxes gone up earlier in the day. He leaned against the wall looking out, wondering if this was the right thing to do.

If the kid came home, it would be empty. He shrugged the thought away. He would find him. He hadn't changed jobs. He was only at Chris's. If he came back, a little problem like a change of address wouldn't faze a kid as smart as JD. And he was honest enough with himself to know that Chris had thrown him a lifeline that he had never expected to get. Not from Chris. He wasn't going to throw the man's offer back in his face. He couldn't live here any more. Maybe a new place would help, even if it just ended up being temporary.

He didn't really mean to go in, but his feet led him into the boy's room. He leaned on the door frame, silent, not thinking, just being. This was a familiar place, a familiar position, and he grimaced. He could almost see him. Watching the kid, talking to him, missing him. Eventually, he patted the wooden jamb and left.

The apartment door clicked shut behind him, the keys sitting on the kitchen counter.

---------------------------------

October 4

Ezra grimaced at the quantity of boxes confronting him. "Is it absolutely necessary that we move this all ourselves, by hand? A mere pittance would bring more muscle than any of us possess to organize this," he gestured vaguely at the boxes.

"Ez?"

"Yes?" He turned hopefully to Larabee who squinted at him before saying tersely,

"Pick up a damn box."

"Sir, yes, sir." He grasped the nearest to hand and stopped, half bent over. "Oh." The box was labeled: JD, computer games. He swallowed and lifted it easily.

"Where should I put--" he nodded at the box in his arms, and Chris leaned in to see what he had.

Their eyes met and both tried smiling. Larabee's half smile worked no better than Ezra's bright insincerity.

"Barn. On the tarp down the back."

"Very well." He carried the box in and stacked it neatly with the others, then headed back for another. He cast a swift eye over the array and JD's name leapt out at him. He grabbed the box, and moved that. And another, and another.

He passed Chris and Josiah, all moving the remnants of a young life until there were only boxes marked 'Buck' left, working in silent agreement that the others should go first, be out of the way before Buck, Nathan and Vin arrived with the last load. It took depressingly little time.

The last box added to the pile, and Josiah and Chris spread out a second tarpaulin over the stack, roping the two sheets together until the boxes were completely wrapped up.

"They should be here soon," Josiah observed, but none of them moved.

"Anyone for a drink?" Ezra asked brightly. The atmosphere in here was rapidly becoming more than he could stand, somewhere between a morgue and a thunderstorm. "I know I could."

"Agreed," Josiah said, clapping a hand on his back. They were both startled by Chris's words.

"No alcohol."

Ezra's jaw dropped, and he stared at his boss. "Mr. Larabee?"

"There isn't any alcohol here," he said casually, and headed back to the house.

"No alcohol? But--"

"Ah," Josiah said in comprehension, and shook his head. "Buck."

"But is that a reason we should all--" he stopped at Josiah's glare. "No, well, perhaps you're right. My mistake." They turned at the sound of a car approaching. The truck that Raine's cousin had lent them pulled into Chris's drive and parked close to the remaining boxes.

"Chris, guys," Vin nodded as he swung out of the driver's seat and headed for its rear. He unknotted the ropes fastening another big tarp down, and hopped lightly up into the bed of the truck, pulling the rope free.

"Got much?"

"Not much," Nathan replied, "Vin, you want to pass me that rope?"

Vin handed it down and Nathan wound it swiftly into a long coil.

"Someone wanna give me a hand here?" Vin hefted a box and held it over the side. Josiah grabbed it.

"Where--"

"On the porch. If we move your stuff up there we can sort it out as we go, okay, Buck?"

The men all looked at Wilmington where he was standing by the hood of the truck, staring at the mountain of boxes.

"Those my things?" he asked.

"Yeah." Chris nodded.

"Where's--"

"In the barn. Got them wrapped up good and safe."

"Right. Right." He headed for his boxes and pulled one off the pile, his eyes on the barn. "The porch?"

"Yeah, Buck," Chris said patiently. Vin carried on handing boxes down from the flatbed to Chris, while Ezra, Nathan and Josiah shifted them one by one up to the house.

"Okay," he said quietly, and walked away to lay the box down next to the ones the others were stacking up there.

"The first stack is the ones marked 'bedroom', Mr. Wilmington," Ezra offered when Buck seemed unable to decide where to put the crate down. "Those things that we will wish to remove into the house imminently," he explained further at Buck's blank look. "The kitchen things are at the back; the rest of it in the middle."

"Okay," Buck agreed, but still didn't put the box down.

"Buck?" Ezra held out his hands. "Give me the box."

Buck looked down, looking puzzled at the cardboard container. "Sure, Ez." He handed it over quietly, and wandered away.

Ezra glanced at the box and added it to the 'everything else' stack, staring after him.

"Problem, brother Standish?" Josiah asked and Ezra stilled in surprise.

He shook his head. "Buck -- I don't -- " he stopped and sighed, meeting Josiah's eyes. "He isn't going to be okay, is he?"

"Are any of us?"

Ezra nodded slowly. "I take your point." he agreed quietly.

"Standish! Quit lazing around up there!" Chris bellowed from the truck, "Get your ass down here!"

---------------------------------

date unknown

"Done?"

"Yup," JD grinned at Major Antonov and pulled his night vision goggles back down over his face.

"Good work." Antonov nodded at him and JD felt a real charge of pride and pleasure. Antonov might dislike him, but he was a serious soldier. His praise was worth having, however grudging. "Let's go."

"Yes sir," he said, and jogged after the man as he started back up the stairs to the main area of the fort.

Antonov raised his gun without stopping, and let off four silenced shots. JD followed, pulling his own weapon and carefully not looking at the three dead men sprawled across the stairs. Antonov held up his hand, and JD stopped before they came up to the line of sight of the corridor. He watched for instructions, and nodded when Antonov indicated that he should go right, and stay low. He flicked the safety off his gun and checked the magazine. He signaled his readiness and Antonov counted down from three with his hand.

They erupted from the doorway ready to fire, and took full advantage of a split second of adjustment as the soldiers in the corridor realized that they were not their own men.

In less than ten seconds fifteen men were down, killed in the spray of weapons fire. JD glanced at Antonov, discovering an unnerving death's head grin on his face.

"Move it!" Antonov yelled, and ran for the end of the corridor, and the exit.

JD ran after him, caught up, and pulled ahead, Antonov covering his back. A figure appeared at the door and he shot it without a second thought, a head shot obliterating the enemy soldier's face before he could even make out the man's features. His eyes flickered trying to watch for targets emerging from side doors, and ice shocked him as a man appeared, gun in hand and then fell a split second later. Antonov's kill. He made it to the door and held his position, waiting for Antonov, laying down cover fire for him. He snapped off a shot at an opening door, and had barely a moment to realize that it was one of the base civilians, unarmored, weaponless, before his headshot blew her back the way she had come. The Major arrived by his side a few seconds later.

"On three." He watched for Antonov's signal, and they peeled out of the doorway, guns blazing. A figure high up on the walls was clearing the grounds, and he grinned wildly. A flicker out of the corner of his eye was the only warning he had and Antonov rammed him to the ground. He rolled and came up firing.

"Major?" But the man's neck was half torn away, blood bubbling out in dark gouts. He grabbed the man's tags and swore. "Shit. Now what?"

He looked around and ran for the wall. He reached it as the gunfire stopped from above, and he wondered if Evans was dead or alive. He swore softly. He didn't have time to think. Two more dead bodies, and he was through the outer perimeter, heading into the trees.

His side hurt -- no stitch. He could feel blood running in warm lines down his hip and leg. He clamped his hand to his flank.

Antonov was dead, and he would be too if he didn't run.

He ran.

---------------------------------

October 13

Ezra clamped down hard on his surprise. "I don't think I understand, Mr. Nicholson."

Nicholson slanted a look at him over the bottle of beer he was holding. "Didn't think it was that complicated."

"Complicated? No. I merely meant I failed to understand your interest at this stage."

Nicholson shrugged and looked down, as though embarrassed. "It's just, well, Dunne was only a kid; I mean, basically he was your research flunky, right?"

"JD did a little more than that," Ezra said stiffly.

"Yeah, running around getting himself shot seemed to be a bit of a hobby by all I heard," Nicholson's tone invited him to laugh at an in-joke. It was an in-joke. Just not one that Ezra was willing to acknowledge, especially to this man.

"He was a highly valued member of this team," he said, and stopped, not so much because he had nothing more to say as he couldn't get any words to come out.

"Yeah, I heard that too." Nicholson sighed. "He was real young. A real shame he disappeared like that."

"Yes." Stop picking over our bones.

"You guys are taking it pretty well. Did they ever find out what happened to him?"

Only because everyone else had the brains to understand that we grieve in our own way, and the manners to let us do that.

"No." Ezra shrugged.

"Look, I guess I kind of blundered in here at the start, and I'm sorry." Nicholson was trying hard, he'd give him that.

Ezra looked up to respond to the man and caught something unexpected. A calculating glint in the man's eyes that made him reconsider what he was about to say, and left him thinking furiously. "Well, I suppose it's hard to fit into a group such as ours," he replied, automatically, his voice making polite conversation while he rapidly reviewed the man's interaction with the team.

"I really want to make a difference here. I guess I wanted to know what went wrong, try not to repeat Dunne's mistakes."

He'd thought before that the man seemed to have an unlucky knack for hitting each of their sore points hardest. Now he looked closer he thought that he saw the marks of careful coaching. His body language was good, very good, but a little slow, as though it was under rigid control, every move deliberate.

"We don't know what happened to JD. Therefore it does us little good to speculate on his supposed errors and flaws." he replied.

"But we can't just leave it like that. What if it was something that Tanner did, he was meant to be the kid's backup, right? Or what if Mr. Sanchez miscalculated when he put the profile together."

"I put the profile and the cover ID together," Ezra corrected him icily.

"Well, okay, I didn't realize, but surely there's got to be an investigation?"

"There was one. It's a matter of public record. Now, if you'll excuse me?"

"But it doesn't answer any of the important questions!" Nicholson called after him as he walked away. "What are they trying to hide?" He hurried to catch up with him, and went on, more quietly. "I've seen your work, it's good, it's solid. But that report, yeah, I've read it -- someone's trying to pin Dunne's disappearance on you. Don't you care about that?"

Ezra relaxed. Ah, of course. Ezra was the one on the outside; the one that the team leader had very publicly announced that he didn't trust three years ago. How very clumsy. Divide and conquer.

Which begged the question: who wanted them divided?

He turned to Nicholson, and shrugged. "What does it matter? They've tried and convicted me on hearsay evidence, again." And he, at least, was good enough at controlling his expression to allow no hint of his real thoughts out.

---------------------------------

October 15

"Josiah?" Ezra's voice was tentative, and when he looked up he found the man looking uncharacteristically hesitant.

"Come in, Ezra," he said. "Shut the door behind you."

"Can we talk?"

Josiah spread his hands. They were already talking.

Ezra sighed. "Perhaps not here," he said so softly that Josiah wondered if he'd heard the words right.

"Do we have to right now?" Josiah said impulsively. "I was just thinking of getting some lunch."

Ezra looked briefly startled, and then he shrugged. "You mind some company?"

Josiah nodded at him, pleased. "Certainly, little brother." He rose to his full height and smiled down at Ezra who looked annoyed.

"Inches aren't everything, Agent Sanchez. I imagine the rarified air that you behemoths breath leads to some impairment of the intellect."

"Possibly so, possibly so." Josiah snagged his jacket and patted Ezra firmly on the back, staggering him.

They wandered in near silence to the nearest deli, acquired food, and then Josiah guided their steps towards a tiny green area hidden between the tall buildings. The place was so small, and so inconveniently placed that those few who knew of it couldn't be bothered to get to it.

"I had no idea this was here," Ezra said, looking around. "How did you figure out how to get here?" The route -- seemingly doubling back twice, going through two buildings' sky walks, and then emerging through a tiny, apparently private exit into this -- more than justified the question.

Josiah smiled enigmatically. "A friend showed me," he said simply. "Take a seat."

Ezra settled on the indicated bench and unwrapped his Caesar salad, and started by picking out all the croutons.

"You wished to talk?" Josiah asked finally, his fascination with Ezra's method of eating each food group separately exhausted.

"Yes." Ezra glanced at him. "This is safe?"

Josiah shrugged. "Today." His instinct had been right then -- Ezra wanted somewhere to talk that could not possibly be overheard. Now, who exactly was he afraid would hear him? And why?

Ezra's eyebrows shot up. "And tomorrow?"

He smiled slowly. "Tomorrow is a different problem." Merely coming here could have alerted people -- if they were looking, which he doubted -- that there was a potential location worth staking out.

Ezra sighed, and let it go, but not without shooting an irritated look at Josiah, who merely smiled, and took another mouthful of cheese and avocado on rye.

Ezra picked out a piece of chicken and examined it seriously. "If someone had acquired a certain item of information, and was certain neither of the provenance, nor the content, nor the implications of the content, and a life -- several lives, depended on the information being accurate -- but the information was not, could not be described as accurate, merely, a, a fantasy, a belief with no substance -- what would you do?"

Josiah frowned. "Did you know Nicholson came to us from the Department for Computer Defense?"

Ezra blinked. "There's a department for Computer Defense?" And he shook his head, as though dislodging the thought. "How is this relevant to my question?"

Josiah shrugged. "Lots of little threads leading nowhere, and lots of knots, tying us in place."

"Even for you, Agent Sanchez, that was obscure."

Josiah grinned, "Why, thank you, Agent Standish." He watched a bird flutter to the ground, and crumbled part of his rye bread onto the ground, tossing it towards her. "There you go," he murmured. "You're second guessing your own instincts."

"I -- well, I suppose you could say so."

"Do you know where DCD originates?"

Ezra shook his head.

"Treasury." He looked at Ezra. "Just like us."

"Just like--" Ezra stopped. There was another Treasury department that had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with -- His eyes widened. "You're sure?"

"Guys in suits, but not those guys in suits," Josiah clarified, without really helping matters at all. It helped that he had a bad sense of humor, but really, there were things he could not say. He had no proof.

"Nicholson joined us from --" Josiah was quite certain that it Ezra had not already been sitting down he would have been at that point. His jaw dropped slightly, a monumental reaction from someone who so prided himself on control of his every tell. "Then I'm right?"

"If you mean, you have your doubts about Agent Nicholson's role with us, and his purpose for being here," Josiah shrugged. "I couldn't possibly comment."

"What do you know?" Ezra's voice was hushed.

Josiah shook his head. He knew nothing. He'd made some educated guesses, asked the right people what he strongly suspected were the right questions, but beyond that... Where JD was remained a mystery that not even his own, very special brand of questioning had been able to obtain. If Ezra was getting in close to Nicholson then he needed more information than Josiah could supply.

"Dammit, Josiah!"

Josiah looked sadly at Ezra. "I don't know. There's information out there," he swept a wide arm to indicate the world around them, "but I can't reach it. I don't have the contacts, or the influence." He stopped.

"Nicholson might?" he breathed. Josiah nodded curtly. "This grows more fantastic by the hour."

"Fantastic? Better say, 'nightmarish'," Josiah said, and looked at the ground. The bird was still pecking at the crumbs on the ground, and he absently broke off another piece and threw it to her, then ate the last bite of his sandwich, licking his fingers clean contentedly, untroubled by the intense silence as Ezra's thoughts churned almost audibly.

"He is dead, isn't he?"

He looked up again, surprised. He'd thought Ezra was certain -- to the point that he had wondered what Ezra knew that he did not. But the plaintive simplicity of the question implied something else entirely, and his heart clenched with pity. There was no question as to who Ezra meant.

"I don't know." He drew in a deep breath. "If he is, then I believe it was an accident, unintentional. There are simply too many factors against it being deliberate. Whether at Madison's hands or -- elsewhere."

"Where else, Josiah?" Ezra whispered, but Josiah shook his head and didn't reply. Anything else would be pure speculation on his part, and as such, without foundation, little more than lies to comfort himself in the dark.

"Josiah!"

He shook his head. "I don't know, Ezra," he said, looking directly into the angry green eyes. "I truly do not know. I've been out of the game too long; all the people who might have owed me enough to find out are long gone."

"But you suspect..."

Josiah shook his head again. "Nothing more than you yourself. With no more proof than you have -- and if you second guess your contacts, how much more am I going to doubt what I hear?"

"Should we tell Buck?"

"No." He'd wrestled with this, long and hard. Buck was coming to terms with reality. They had found, as a team, a kind of equilibrium. "Can we prove anything? Can we point to a time, or a place and say, here, this is when, where JD passed? Do we even know for certain that he died?"

"You think he's alive?" Ezra gasped.

Josiah shrugged again. This was the hardest thing of all. He didn't know what to answer, and Ezra sighed, and stood.

"How do I get out of here?"

Josiah pointed to a second gate at the far end of the little park. "Through there, left, left and right, and you'll be out two blocks down from the federal building."

Ezra nodded. "Thank you. You coming?"

Josiah shook his head, and stared at his hands. "I will stay here for a while, if you don't mind?"

"I'll see you later then."

Josiah watched as he left, walking like an old man to the gate. As he passed from the park to the street, his shoulders straightened, his pace quickened, the mask falling back into place.

Ezra had taken his silence to mean that Josiah believed JD was dead; that he just couldn't bring himself to say it out loud.

He closed his eyes, and breathed deep. Nothing in this world told him JD was alive. Nothing except an instinct that he trusted. Buck knew too. He strongly suspected that deep down, they all did. Was that denial? Or something greater?

---------------------------------

October 25

"How come Ez is so friendly with that idiot these days?" Nathan asked. He had invited Josiah over for the evening, waiting until after the rest had gone from the office to make the invitation. He wanted to talk about Standish's strange change in attitude to the man.

"Hmm?" Josiah said absently, watching the curling on the television.

"Josiah!"

"Another beer, then, if you insist," he answered, and Nathan reached over, snatched the remote and turned the tv off.

"Hey!"

"Josiah, I'm trying to have a conversation with you."

Josiah blinked and looked at him. "Oh. Sorry, Nate. How can I help?"

"Not help, exactly." Nathan hesitated. Now he had his undivided attention, he wasn't sure what to say without sounding kind of like a kindergartener missing his best fwiend.

"Just spit it out, brother, and then we can get back to the curling," Josiah told him, and turned his whole body to face him. "Come on, what's wrong? Is it Raine?"

"Huh? No, no, everything's just fine. It's--" he drew a deep breath and let it go explosively. "Look, it's Nicholson and Ezra. What the hell is up with them?"

Josiah raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything for a moment, not even to deny that Nathan's question had any validity. "Can you clarify that, Nathan?" he asked finally.

"They were barely speaking to each other after that first bust, the one where Nicholson messed up the kid's stuff and kept bad mouthing him. And then suddenly, the last week or so, they're the best of friends. What gives?"

"Perhaps you should ask Ezra that," Josiah said calmly, and tugged the remote out of Nathan's hands.

"Come on, what, is he getting to know him better to take him down?"

Josiah didn't reply, just turned the tv on with a small smile.

"Josiah!"

"Brother," Josiah looked back and met his eyes steadily. "Ezra is doing what he sees as necessary."

"Necessary?"

Josiah returned his gaze to the television. "Watch."

Nathan watched, and wondered.

---------------------------------

October 27

"Mr. Jackson, can I have a moment?"

Nathan blinked and nodded. "Sure, Ez, let me just--" he locked down his computer and looked at Ezra, who carefully closed the door behind him and locked it.

"No, no need to get up." Ezra said, and settled himself in the spare chair to the side of Nathan's desk.

"Is there a problem, Ez?"

"Funny, that's the question I was going to ask you," he said with a smile that did not reach his eyes. "You want to tell me why I turned around three times last night, in three different locales, and discovered you staring at me?"

"I er..." he stumbled to a halt. Josiah had told him to talk to Ezra, and to watch Ezra. Right now he was wishing he'd done it in that order. "I was kind of worried about you."

"How," he paused until Nathan felt his neck start to heat with embarrassment, "gratifying. I had no idea you felt such a burning interest in my welfare."

"I don't! I mean, I wasn't watching you."

"No?"

"Ez, it's Nicholson. There's something wrong there," he said in a low urgent voice. "I don't know what's going on, but I figured you could do with some back up."

Unexpectedly Ezra smiled warmly at him. "I appreciate that, Nathan, I really do, but it isn't necessary."

"But you're getting into something there-- something's not right about him."

"What makes you say that?"

Nathan shook his head, frowning as he tried to put his thoughts in order. "He's always making these digs at one of us. If Chris ain't around he's talking about him having 'anger management issues'," he drew quotes around the phrase. "If it's Vin who's off somewhere, he goes on about lone wolves, and the dangers of letting people shoot to kill. And you--" he hesitated.

"Go on, I can imagine what he's saying," Ezra said softly.

"Don't seem right -- it isn't true, either."

"Thank you, Nathan." Ezra was still smiling. "You're right. There's something very wrong with Nicholson."

"It's like he's trying to play us off against each other. We're better than that."

"I admit, his approach is crude. And maybe a year ago it would have even worked."

"Ez!" Nathan shook his head. "I wouldn't--"

"Not deliberately, perhaps. But if nothing else, JD's disappearance has made us more certain of each other." He smiled at Nathan, "I admit, I thought it might drag us apart."

"I thought it might too," he agreed. "Buck--"

"Buck's getting there." Ezra looked tired. "We're all getting there. Which is why I find Mr. Nicholson's attempts to cut me off from the herd so offensive I suppose."

"What?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"I -- damn." Nathan shook his head slowly. "I was just seeing half the game, wasn't I?"

"You just saw him cutting me off from you all."

"Yeah." Nathan nodded. "It's another undercover op?"

"If you want to put it like that."

Nathan sighed. "Do you think we'll ever find out what really happened to him?" he asked out of the blue.

Ezra stilled. "The truth is, I honestly don't know. There's something very peculiar about the whole business, and the more time passes, the stranger it becomes."

"I almost hope he's dead," Nathan said quietly. Ezra simply looked at him. "You know what I mean, right? God knows I don't want him dead, but -- what could keep him away from us, from Buck and Casey, for so long if he were alive and able to come back?"

"I know." Ezra looked steadily at Nathan. "I keep asking myself that."

"Let me know if you find an answer?"

"I'll do that."

"Do you think he knows? Nicholson?"

"That's what we're going to find out, my friend," Ezra said very softly. "That is what we are going to find out."

"How can I help?"

Ezra smiled. "Trust me."

---------------------------------

November 19

Ezra stared into the tumbler of brandy, and tilted it gently. Just far enough for the liquid to lap at the edge of the thin glass, and then back the other way. The smell of it welled up and he inhaled deeply, savoring the dark, warming flavor of it. He was sitting in his apartment, on his pristine sofa, leaning forwards, elbows on knees, glass in hands.

He didn't know what to do.

He rocked the glass and the brandy swirled before steadying slowly, sloshing silently at the sides of the glass.

He always knew his next move. He always knew the next moves of everyone around him and his own answering moves for a hundred different scenarios. He'd played them through, thought of the consequences, explored the ramifications. Had considered, carefully, every part of the world around him.

This... this was like stepping off an unexpected curb to find no road. He had thought he knew better than to hope. And so, he was surprised when he found that it had lingered long enough to be hurt by this.

The more time passed with no news, the easier it became to let go. There was no body to bury, for all that Jackson wanted to hold a memorial and bury an empty casket. At least Buck's intransigent belief in his young friend's enduring survival had spared them that grotesquerie. But by the same token, Buck's faith in JD, stubborn and strained though it was, was almost as hard to bear as the fear that he was wrong.

He'd spoken the truth when he said that he had thought the team might break under the strain. Especially the strain imposed by a man carefully pushing wedges in where he hoped it would do the most harm. Instead, Vin had offered an alliance; Nathan had seen it and offered help. Josiah was supporting them in ways he suspected would only become obvious when absolutely necessary. A brief smile lit his face. The team was pulling together, not apart, but it had been so very close. And it could still fall apart.

Larabee was pretending that he didn't care. "Write it on his tombstone", still echoed in the back of Ezra's mind, the cold words of a man afraid to feel. But he had opened his house to Buck with no hesitation when he decided it was necessary. Had virtually forced Buck into accepting his help, and Buck had responded, finally, to something outside his own pain when Vin was so nearly killed.

Vin... Vin was silently angry. He still wondered if he would one day turn on the news to hear of Madison's death. He knew that there would be no question in his mind who had done it.

When it came down to it, JD hadn't called. Hadn't called Vin, his failsafe contact. Whether because he didn't think to, or because he couldn't, only JD and Madison knew, and neither was going to reveal the truth now. Vin even paid lip service to it: he could not have known that anything was wrong. He couldn't have known. It didn't stop him feeling he should have known. Didn't stop him feeling he had failed. Didn't stop him being as enraged as Wilmington, though at least he had an outlet. Vin planned murders, and guarded Buck. And an unwitting, ungrateful Buck had chosen to hawk his body to criminals for favors he couldn't redeem; to trade for information that wasn't there. The whispers had become a roar and the inevitable had so very nearly happened. Vin had been so close to dying because of a bomb set by Ian Tzivokis for Buck Wilmington. Neither man seemed to care.

Perhaps Larabee was going to be able to save Buck. He wouldn't have given odds on it a year ago, but there were a lot of things he wouldn't have given odds on a year ago.

He'd never expected to be grateful to his past, for one thing.

Ezra couldn't allow them to fail. More than that, he had to know. What had happened to JD? Where had he gone wrong? What part of the cover had failed so badly that JD --

He stopped, driving the guilt back. It served nothing, served no one, dwelling on this. There were no recriminations that could change the past, no maudlin, self-indulgent repining that would bring --

He gritted his teeth, tilting his head back, staring at nothing, thinking of nothing until his eyes burned dry, and his thoughts came under his control again.

Buck was so desperate for news, he'd done the unthinkable -- and then the same time, he refused to follow the leads that his reckless actions garnered him. It had only taken an application of money to a minor player in Roberts entourage to find someone who had been there for that conversation. A little more outlay to elicit the information Buck already had. A bagatelle. And to find black ops lurking in the fringes of the rumor-mill. Not merely covert, but outright illegal.

Something darker and dirtier than the Company.

You didn't really leave the CIA.

Sometimes they let you out on a long, long leash.

He closed his eyes. He did not use words lightly. Brother, to him, meant something like a force of nature; seven against the world. No matter what happened, he had thought, nothing could break them. A childish fantasy that he had pretended he did not have, so that he would never have to face the possibility that it might end. Nothing else could have persuaded him to ask his former masters for anything.

And now, when it had ended, it hurt just as much as if he had never pretended.

He knocked back the brandy in one gulp and threw the glass against the wall viciously. It shattered into a thousand pieces, chiming and crackling as they scattered over the white carpet.

JD was gone. And Buck could never know. He couldn't bear to do it.

He had followed the whispers that Buck had chosen to ignore. As Buck slowly returned to life, he took on the task of going where Wilmington could, or would, not. Delicately he had found his way through a labyrinth of hearsay and rumors, until he came to an end. As it happened, a dead end.

Very dead.

A report, so secret that even he, who had pulled every favor he could find, who had tugged on strings too fragile to endure such attention, was unable to read it in full. It was almost recent; by its date, written a mere six weeks previously. Censored, hidden, ambiguous.

Nonetheless, the parts that were not scored out by thick black pen were devastatingly clear.

Someone had been 'recruited' for an illegal mission. The name had been excised. A short name, not much ink to obliterate this identity. Someone with a specific expertise in a specific sort of something. The words blacked out might have been the right length for 'computers' and 'programming'. Or it could have been something else entirely. Could. And this recruit had gone somewhere. He had done his job. Had been injured. A clinical report, with casual cruelty was left in its entirety, all save the name, the places.

Land mines.

Serious multiple trauma.

Persistent vegetative state.

Brain activity dwindling steadily. Brain stem failure expected daily.

Death would be the only, inevitable, outcome.

He didn't want to think of the kid like that. He wanted to remember the bright, mischievous smile, the never ending energy and quick-fire intelligence, but his imagination ran out of his ability to control it. A slow, creeping death in a solitary hospital bed, surrounded by machines. In all likelihood, JD Dunne had slipped silently into the long night months ago, without a single person to stand watch over him, not a single person to mourn at his unknown grave.

He'd wanted to know. Now he knew. Be careful what you ask for, Mr. Standish.

He dropped his head in his empty hands and did not move for a long, long time.