When J.D. had taken Buck up on his offer to rent a room from him, he really hadn't known what to expect. Buck's condo was "always ready for company," as Buck liked to say. The furniture was comfortable and there were plenty of places to sit, between the sectional sofa in the living room and barrel chairs, the barstools at the kitchen island, and the chairs on the patio. Which was good, because plenty of people visited. Neighbors. Chris. Old girlfriends. Ezra, Vin, sometimes the rest of the guys on the team. Casey. J.D.'s buddies. Buck's buddies. The condo was just that kind of place, as likely to have company as not. If they were home, the door was open and people were welcome to drop by.
A couple of old girlfriends still had keys, and J.D. still didn't understand how Buck had navigated all his women without anybody wanting to kill anybody else. Of course, J.D. didn't know why it had taken him six months to realize that when Chris crashed here, it wasn't because he was too tired to drive home. J.D. wasn't touching that with a ten-foot pole, but it was another example of how Buck was mostly an open book: nothing to hide, no shame, and a genuine liking of people that kept women friendly and men too amused to be jealous of all Buck's flirting.
The guys from work liked to call Buck's condo the CDC, but J.D. knew that was mostly his fault. Buck wasn't a clean freak—not nearly as bad as Chris or Vin—but Buck had some things that he took special care of.
Buck only owned four bookshelves, but they were big self-assemble kits: one in his bedroom, and three in the living room, back behind the stairs and already full when J.D. had moved in. Mostly the books were older, and clearly cared for. A couple of the shelves had titles that changed regularly: those were nearest the TV and easier to get to than the rest, and people could borrow those if they wanted. The names that cycled through were familiar: Suzanne Collins, Tom Clancy, Alice Siebold, Sue Grafton, and John Grisham. J.D. was allowed to read any of those he wanted, as long as he put them back when he was done. The "public" magazines too, Buck had said J.D. could read any time, but they were mostly boring. Rolling Stone was okay, but J.D. could give a crap about GQ or Vanity Fair.
Everybody who visited often knew the rules of the house: use the last of the TP, put on a new roll; crash on the couch, fold up your blankets and lock the door behind you when you left; drink the last of the beer, restock the refrigerator; get a hankering to read something besides what was on those two revolving bookshelves in the living room... go someplace else.
Nobody got to touch Buck's books. Buck had never explained himself beyond "They're mine, I like it that way, and since when did I need a reason?"
As quirks went, this was a pretty simple one to indulge. J.D. even helped, keeping anybody who didn't know better from going back into the alcove behind the stairs, because as easy-going as Buck Wilmington could be, the guy didn't like people touching his books.
Most weren't in particularly good shape. J.D. had poked around on the sly more than once and was pretty sure none were first editions. But Buck held onto and cared for those books like some people saved concert tickets or family photographs: William Goldman, that guy who wrote movie scripts; Mark Twain; a few Stephen King titles; and a surprising number of westerns, from tattered copies of Zane Grey and A.B. Guthrie to newer, better-condition works of Louis L'Amour and Cameron Judd. Buck even had a weird spattering of science fiction, mostly a lady writer from the 1990s and then some old guys long before J.D.'s time who he'd never heard of and never gone further than looking up on Wikipedia.
Chris Larabee was pretty much the only person besides J.D. who Buck didn't pay any mind to when he went back into the alcove. But J.D. had watched and learned and gone from resenting Chris's privileged status to realizing that Chris followed the same rules J.D. was supposed to; he looked, he didn't touch, and he never said anything about them.
On those rare occasions when Chris brought a restless mood with him to visit, he'd wander the living room, never settling down and frankly winding up J.D.'s nerves until either J.D. gave up and went to his room or Chris ended up in the alcove, just staring at Buck's books. Buck never even looked Chris's way when Chris did that. Buck would just keep doing whatever he'd been doing—drinking his beer, watching the game, whatever—while Chris tilted his head and scanned the titles behind Buck's back.
J.D. always watched, though, because it fascinated him that whatever Chris found back there almost always calmed him down. Chris would pause, then his head would tilt or he'd look a little further up or down. He'd step right or left, and on rare occasions he'd lift his hand like he was going to touch something, but he never did. Then he'd stick his hands into his pockets, saunter back out, and usually steal Buck's beer on his way back to the couch, moody tension replaced by an easy set of his shoulders and a faint smile on his mouth.
There'd been a time when J.D. would sneak over after the living room cleared out and try to figure out where Chris had paused, what titles could ease Chris Larabee like that. He'd never figured it out though, and in the end he'd stopped trying. Buck didn't like being asked about his books, he wouldn't dream of asking Chris, and in the end it was a little mystery he could live with.
One Friday night though, the mystery grew just big enough to feel like an itch under his skin. Most of the guys were over and Josiah had brought a bottle of tequila that was so smooth, the guys were drinking it in shots. J.D. had gotten buzzed fast, and hid his shot glass in his lap to take a breather. Chris and Vin had already put their keys on the high shelf in the hall closet.
Still, nobody was drunk enough to let Ezra start a "friendly" game of poker so he could clean out their wallets. So between beers and more offers of betting from Ezra and the only thing on ESPN being men's professional golf, Buck had just gone to the coat closet, rummaged briefly, and pulled out a big boxed board game, dropping it on the coffee table like a gauntlet.
"It's that or non-strip versions of the games I used to play with girfriends," Buck announced.
J.D. hadn't been that surprised to find himself, Buck, Chris, and Josiah playing "You Don't Know Jack" while Vin alternately gave hints, refereed, or refilled shot glasses.
J.D. was more surprised that everybody seemed to be having a pretty good time playing. The game required a little bit of dexterity and a little bit of attention, just enough to keep the laughter flowing as the guys kept trying to decide if they wanted beer and chips in their hands or a chance to actually score in the game.
Then Vin made a joke, something about Buck being a Neanderthal, and while Buck pretended to look offended, Chris said, cheeks flushed with liquor and laughter, "Can't go that far, Vin; a Neanderthal might go for 'Margaritaville', but its favorite book wouldn't be 'To Kill a Mockingbird'."
Buck's head jerked hard when he looked over at Chris, like Chris had just said something horrible about him. His cheeks even reddened before he dropped his gaze. Chris had stopped laughing as soon as the words were out of his mouth, and he went quiet even before he and Buck made eye contact. Chris's smile disappeared completely and he reached for his beer. Josiah hadn't been laughing in the first place, but he was clearly analyzing the situation now.
So Vin and Ezra were the ones J.D. took his cues from: they'd both been about to say something, probably tease Buck about being able to read at all, or about liking a book written from a little girl's point of view. But neither one of them did. Each of them tried to make eye contact with Chris who kept his beer bottle tipped back and stared at the ceiling, then with Buck who was trying to stare a hole through the coffee table, then at each other and finally at J.D..
J.D. shrugged. He didn't know anything, either.
Josiah broke the silence. "I'm partial to Emily Bronte myself, though I still have a soft spot for S.E. Hinton," he said, like nothing had happened. "And I'm almost positive that none of Bronte's titles ended up as a Jimmy Buffet song."
Ezra chimed in, ignoring whatever'd just happened between Chris and Buck. "You can't convince me you actually enjoyed 'Wuthering Heights,' Josiah," he chided. "And even if you could," he went on before Josiah could answer him, "no one here wants to hear the Cliff's notes."
"That's the truth," Chris muttered.
Buck chuckled softly. "I'm with Ezra, Josiah. I almost failed 10th grade over that book."
Nobody ever paid the little snippets of history much mind, because Chris and Buck had so much stuff like that between them, this just happened on occasion. Usually it was Buck talking, but still.
J.D. felt like he should let it go, but he couldn't stop thinking about it, and the more he did the surer he was that Chris had been telling the truth. Buck's favorite book was a story about a little kid and some legal thing in some southern town, a book J.D. had been forced to read in middle school.
The next morning, he went to a local bookstore because he knew he couldn't borrow it off Buck's shelf and he couldn't wait for Amazon to deliver it, and bought the novel. He holed up in his room and read it, and left his room no more enlightened than he'd been when he'd started. Of all the books in the universe, this old story about a kid and her dad and a hanging and a tiny southern town was Buck's favorite book?
There wasn't even any sex in it!
He asked Buck on Saturday, but Buck shut him down with a rare and curt, "None of your business," then pushed out of his recliner, collected keys and jacket, and left the condo even though he'd been getting ready to turn on the TV. And he didn't come back until late Sunday night.
J.D. set his mind to solving the mystery, treating it like a case. He made lists and password-protected his files. He re-read the book, the Cliff notes, and watched the movie. He checked his own recollections and Buck's high school yearbook, dug out of their shared storage locker, to confirm what he already knew: Buck had no reason to care one whit about Harper Lee.
The days slid by. His in-home case went nowhere. He resorted to asking Buck again. And again. Each time he got the same response, but each time Buck was more wound up than he'd been before. Things got quiet in the Wilmington-Dunne household, and all that ease J.D. had gotten so content with went out the window. All because J.D. couldn't dial down his curiosity and he couldn't leave alone a simple little question: why on earth was "To Kill a Mockingbird" Buck Wilmington's favorite book?
Casey was even mad at him over it.
More and more often, whenever Buck was out of the house J.D. found himself standing in the alcove with this damned question eating at him, and stare at the book titles, sure that this time they'd do for him what they'd always done for Chris.
He usually left the area more frustrated than when he'd gone in.
He didn't even know why he couldn't let this thing go. It was just a book, for Pete's sake. His favorite book. It wasn't like they never kept secrets from each other, and Buck didn't ask for much in the way of privacy or personal space. But this one stupid secret had changed things between him and Buck.
J.D. had read all the titles off the spines dozens of times. He'd even broken down and bought e-copies of every single book he'd never read.
One Thursday morning, J.D. admitted defeat. He was obsessed and he knew it. It wasn't his business and he knew that, too. But he was going to do something stupid and then Buck was going to kill him for it, if Chris didn't save him from himself.
Resolute, J.D. left home early and got to work early. He marched into the elevator on one and marched out on twelve. He sidled into the bullpen, where Vin and Josiah were already in, leaning by the coffee maker and staring at it like mind power alone would make the pot fill faster. So J.D. used his chance and knocked on Chris's office door.
"Yeah," Chris called. Chris barely glanced at him when he slipped into the office, but when J.D. closed the door and just hovered beside it, Chris frowned. "What."
"I can't sleep."
Chris raised his eyebrows, kind of an, And how is that my problem? look.
"And I'm starting to make Buck really mad."
Chris's eyebrows rose a little higher, emphasizing the question.
"I'm looking at his bookshelves. He, uh, doesn't like it."
Now Chris just looked annoyed, a face J.D. hadn't earned--at least, not this time. "Then stop doing it."
"I've tried," he said. It was a stupid thing to get hung up on, but J.D. could have accepted porn. He'd learned over the past weeks that he could've accepted Shakespeare even, or Gone with the Wind. But this one, he just couldn't believe even though he was sure Chris had told the truth.
He swallowed. "And uh, Buck really doesn't like it."
"What the hell did you expect, J.D.? You've lived with him for two years, you know how he is. "
"I know," J.D. said, just barely resisting the urge to pace. "But... 'To Kill a Mockingbird'? Seriously? I read that book. I've read everything about that book. It's about a little girl and it's got nothing to do with nothing, and—"
"And you'd best never say shit like that to Buck," Chris said sternly.
J.D. felt his face heat up, and watched Chris's eyes narrow and his mouth tighten.
"You've already said shit like that to Buck."
Helplessly, J.D. nodded.
Chris's gaze turned harder, and J.D. knew he should never have brought this up to Chris. But he'd run out of ideas and he felt like a stupid six-year-old and the only thing he could imagine that was worse than confronting his boss about it was losing his best friend because he was too scared to confront his boss.
He glanced toward the door. He should get out of here. It clearly was Buck's business and Buck didn't want him to know, and he should let it go and respect the guy's privacy, and—and he'd told himself that same thing probably fifty times. But here he was in Chris Larabee's office.
"You fucking can't leave it alone, can you," Chris said. It wasn't a question, and J.D. knew for sure Chris was mad now. Chris just didn't do that kind of cussing for no reason.
He shrugged helplessly. "Buck's about ready to kill me, too."
Chris pushed away from his desk and stood up fast, as fast as he'd ever drawn his weapon or put down a bad guy—fast enough that J.D. took a step back and bumped into the wall.
But Chris didn't come around the desk at him. Chris turned and stared out his office window, and J.D. read the tension that tightened his shoulders and stiffened his whole frame.
There had to be a way to figure this out without making everybody mad. Or there had to be a way to drop it entirely and never, ever mention it again. "I..." he started, and tried again. "I'll try—"
Chris said something, loud enough to make the words dry up in J.D.'s throat but not loud enough for J.D. to make out the words. His back was still turned and his voice sounded hard and distant.
"Uh, excuse me?"
Chris turned and looked at him for a long, painful minute. Then he sighed, and J.D. realized he wasn't the one Chris was mad at. "I guess I'm the one who started it," he muttered. "So I'm going to end it."
"I tell you, you don't ever ask him about it again. Don't ever try to talk to him about it. You do, it won't just be Buck mad at you, you understand?"
"Yeah." He'd already promised himself he wouldn't do that. "I wasn't going to anyway, Chris, I—"
Chris waved a hand at him and J.D. snapped his mouth shut.
"It's not a big deal, J.D., not like anything you've probably dreamed up. It's not a bad secret or anything, it's just—it's his. And he doesn't hold on to many."
J.D. waited. He watched Chris open his mouth and close it. He felt like crap.
"It's Buck's favorite book because it was his mother's favorite book."
J.D. felt his throat tighten and his eyes go a little misty, and he was mortified by both reactions. But he understood. One thing he and Buck had in common was that they'd lost their moms way too young, and he remembered how important some of his own mother's stuff had become to him when she'd died. He still kept her hairbrush in a locked box, and didn't even take it out because he was afraid he'd lose the few strands of hair still in it. But he'd told Buck that. He'd told Buck every story like that.
Chris was right. It was no big, terrible secret—which was why J.D. would never have figured it out.
"I don't get it. He's told me all kinds of stuff about his mom. He's—" Chris's smirk shut him up again. "He has," he said anyway.
Chris shook his head. "I'd bet a hundred bucks you can't tell me ten things about that woman that you haven't looked up yourself or seen written on the back of a photograph."
J.D. knew she'd been a stripper, and more on the side. He knew she'd been killed when Buck was seventeen. He knew what she looked like, from the photographs. He knew Buck revered her and missed her to this day. He knew... what else did he know?
Chris was right. While Buck talked about his mom a lot, he didn't really say much. In fact, the only serious stuff Buck had shared about her was all the bad parts.
J.D. cleared his throat. "I just... how come Buck wouldn't tell me something like that?"
He had to look up when the silence stretched, and he watched Chris's face change two, three times, like he couldn't figure out what he was going to say. Finally though, Chris stared at the wall for a second—a lot like he looked when he was staring at Buck's bookshelves—and nodded to himself.
"You know how much Buck likes to talk."
J.D. nodded. "Everybody does."
Chris's lips twitched into an involuntary smile, just for a second. "Well, things like this, they get diluted with the sharing. Buck wouldn't so much care that you know, J.D.—or I wouldn't have told you and I don't care how much you let it eat at you. But every time he talks about it, it gets less real for him."
"You mean like all his stories about women and stuff?" J.D. asked.
Chris smiled again. "Yeah. All those stories you've heard a million times, from fast women to the big touchdown at the high school homecoming game, or one in three of the stories he tells about him and me—the more he tells them, the less he feels about them. These days, they're just tales he tells to entertain himself and whoever hasn't heard them before."
Little pieces of memory, things he'd seen and heard in years of shared conversation and shared silence, things he hadn't even known he'd known about Buck, slotted into place like Tetris blocks. Things he'd only ever heard once. J.D. nodded slowly. "I get it," he said, and when Chris studied him, he squared his shoulders and waited out the scrutiny. "I really do."
Chris stared a moment longer, then nodded. "Good," he said as he went back to his desk and settled into his chair. "There aren't that many things Buck cares about so much that he doesn't talk about 'em. Lots of those books—especially his mom's—he cares about that much. Don't screw that up by making him talk it all away."
J.D. nodded again. He wanted to say "I won't, I promise," but he figured Chris already knew. So he just slipped out of Chris's office and over to his desk, and pretended to read email.
He felt like an ass. Buck had a right to his secrets, just like anyone, whether they were big and bad or small and good, like this one. Just because J.D. wanted to know, wanted to be that close to Buck, didn't mean he was always going to get what he wanted. If he was patient enough, maybe one day Buck would share memories of his mom, like J.D. had. And maybe not. But that book....
It was a good thing. A good memory. He wondered when Buck had told Chris, or if Chris had figured it out on his own. He wondered if that was the book that eased the tension in Chris when he stood before Buck's bookshelves, or if Buck had close-held secrets about lots of the books he saved.
When Buck ambled in just after 8:00 Chris was out in the bullpen, refilling his coffee cup.
Buck stopped in the doorway and called to J.D., "Hey, kid, what got you up so early?" But when J.D. looked up at him, he squinted a little. Then Buck tilted his head and squinted at Chris's back. J.D. braced himself as Buck walked past Chris and straight to J.D.'s desk, stopping only when he was barely a foot away and towering over J.D.'s chair. "He tell you?" Buck asked, barely loud enough to be heard.
J.D. felt his cheeks heat up.
Buck wasn't mad, though. In fact, he seemed... relieved. Buck patted him on the back, then turned and strolled to the coffee maker, where he squeezed Chris's shoulder before not-quite shoving him out of the way with his hip.
Chris glared and griped under his breath, shaking spilled coffee off his hand.
"Ought to know better than to get between a man and his coffee, Chris," Buck told him, grinning.
"I'm gonna kick your ass for this someday," Chris replied, clearly annoyed—which was exactly what Buck had been going for.
Everything was okay.