Rowan '06: Depth Perception

Buck couldn't stop staring at her. Her soft brown eyes traced with Kohl, her cupid's mouth and petal-pink lips, her high cheekbones splattered with blood. One after the other, he stared at the photographs on the evidence table, a macabre collage. Thirty-five in this batch alone.

Reverently he brushed the tip of his finger down the line of her jaw and found he couldn't tell the difference between the softness of her skin and the patina of the high gloss print. The forty-watt bulb shed enough light to make her fair skin glow, to catch the sheen of her lipstick and make it shimmer.

They always say photographs flatten an image; they say you lose an entire dimension. Not if the composition is good enough, but amateurs run the risk of losing all that precious depth. What looked so vibrant and alive appears dead in 35mm print.

Buck didn't really need the crime scene photos, though. All he needed to do was close his eyes.

She'd tried to play it sultry, all grown up, seductive like a professional but he'd thought it awkward – like a little girl trying on her mother's clothes. He'd wondered if she'd done that as a child, seated at her mother's dresser painting her cheeks and wearing a string of fake pearls. That's what she'd seemed to him despite the vision of wide pink nipples through the lace of her negligee. She was still a child and her mouth was too sweet to speak the words she'd whispered in his ear.

He hadn't let her, even when she bared her creamy breasts and straddled his hips; he hadn't let her do what she'd come to do. What she'd been sent to do.

And now he needed this. He needed this moment alone with her.

Behind him, he heard the shuffle of shoes in the corridor and somewhere down the hall, a laugh trilled. He shook his head in mute denial and touched his fingers to her glossy mouth.

She'd giggled. It was her laugh that told the truth. She'd sworn she was twenty, and she looked it. She tried to act it. But when he made her laugh, he knew then. She sounded like bubblegum and pigtails, pom-poms on a football field.

She was a gift, she said, a little company on a cold night and she could keep him so warm. He didn't doubt her; he just couldn't let her.

A whisper of sound suddenly close made Buck turn his head. After a moment's recognition, he returned his gaze to the table and leaned to brace his weight on his arms. He hadn't known to expect this, he hadn't seen it coming. He was so far out of his depth. No one told him that undercover work might require him to choose between fucking a child or getting her killed.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you. Chris is still held up and I thought you might wish for some company."

More like Chris had *sent* him, ordering him not to let Buck out of his sight. Buck couldn't bring himself to tell Ezra that the only company he wanted was a full bottle of Jameson and a shot glass. Chris should understand that much.

She hadn't understood him at first. She hadn't believed he could be serious in his refusal, but he'd gripped her wrists and pried her hands from his buttons, pushed her mouth from his neck. He'd convinced her that he wasn't joking.

He sighed. They thought he needed company.

He doubted any of his team would let him be alone for some time to come and knew that he should feel grateful. He should.

"Hey Ez, when you first got into this game, did you ever think of doing something else?"

For nearly a minute, the question went unanswered, and Buck glanced over his shoulder again to see if he wasn't alone. But Ezra was merely taking the time to think it over, a genuine consideration that Buck would later remember as a compliment.

"I did." Ezra looked up from his study of the floor. "Briefly." His expression was stripped of its usual farce, his hands folded placidly in front of him. He appeared to be waiting for an invitation to step into the room.

Buck wasn't sure if he wanted Ezra to elaborate or not. He drew his eyes back to the images on the table. H

e could hear Ezra moving into the room on the heel of his answer – and almost asked him to stop. He didn't want anyone to see her like this even though they probably already had.

"She's lovely," Ezra said quietly.

Buck wanted to thank him for using the present tense, for having that much consideration. It was one of many quirks, Ezra's peculiar and solemn respect for the dead.

"The FBI came through with an ID on her, and I asked them to let me tell you. May I?"

"Sure, Ez."

He knew the name she'd given him wasn't real, just like the name he'd given her. It made him feel sick.

"Her name is Suzanne Baker. Originally from Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She has an aunt there, I believe. They didn't mention any other family."

It hadn't been a lie, then. She'd told him that her parents had died in a car accident when she was thirteen, and she'd been on her own since then. Why or how he hadn't asked. He'd finally given her his jacket for modesty and had seated her at the end of the couch nearest the fire. She'd become someone else then, something closer to real. Talking and giggling, sharing little pieces of stories that Buck figured she was making up.

She'd broken her arm when she was five falling off a tire swing. She'd hit a growth spurt at the same time she got braces, and laughed at how gangly and ugly she'd been. He'd told her that he couldn't imagine she'd ever been anything less than beautiful. At first she'd blushed at his open smile, but then a spasm of fear and pain had clenched her face and twisted her lips as she spoke. She'd asked him why he wouldn't sleep with her. Because he was in love with someone else, he told her, and it was more than enough just to be near her. She was lovely to look at.

She'd smiled at his charm but it sat wrong on her mouth, and she'd suddenly appeared so tired. Beneath her makeup, she'd had a fathomless sorrow in her eyes, a hollow dullness that spoke of men and drugs and experience gained far too early.

He didn't tell her that he couldn't possibly be the person he was pretending to be. He couldn't possibly be a person who put that kind of pain on her face.

"She was born April 23, 1988," Ezra's voice told him.

"Sixteen," Buck whispered. Sweet sixteen. She'd been sixteen going on forty. Aged before her time. He hadn't slept with a girl that young since he'd *been* that young.

A minute of silence passed and Buck felt a tentative hand place itself in the small of his back.

"You did the right thing, Buck. You may not know it now, but you did."

Those were terrible words, hard impossible words that seared him, and he hated to hear them spoken. He wanted to shrink away from Ezra's hand and turn on him, hit him, hit something, swipe the photos off the table and make then untrue. How could it possibly be right that he couldn't save her?

He had let her sip his Cognac and he'd told her stories of growing up in Vegas, getting into trouble at school, having to look for work after his mother's early death. He'd almost forgotten himself, forgotten who he was pretending to be, the job he had to do.

He'd been picked for the assignment because of his expertise in bombs, his experience on the bomb squad. As they'd planned and strategized, he and Ezra had joked about the silent letter in ATF. Explosives are also their purview, and Buck was supposed to have been concentrating on shutting this operation down, not swapping life stories with a prostitute. His mind was supposed to be on the job, but she'd reminded him so much of home, and all the ways his life could have gone wrong.

"You didn't kill her, Buck."

"Bullshit. Bull. Shit. How do you *do* this? How do you cope?" He heard his voice crack and slammed his palm on the table in useless frustration. "Because *this* – " The sweep of his arm took in all the photos on the table, all the photos in the yet unopened envelopes. " – This isn't worth it."

"It's not?"

Buck didn't realize he'd moved until he heard Ezra's head hit the back wall. Few times in his life had he ever felt that much rage, but Ezra continued to regard him calmly, almost sympathetically. And Buck wanted to *hurt* him.

"I'm not Chris, Buck. If you hit me, a blowjob won't earn you forgiveness."

"Shut your fucking mouth, Ezra."

"Let go of me, Buck."

So he did. In a dizzying rush, Buck felt the anger drain out of him and he unclenched his fists from Ezra's jacket, letting his nerveless arms fall to his sides.

"How many lives had already been lost due to their handiwork, Buck? And how many more would there have been? You did your *job*. And you didn't kill her."

Buck felt like laughing; he felt like breaking down in hysterics. He backed up to the table again and drew a hand across his face, shaking his head in denial. Denial of the whole fucking mess – and Ezra was too fucking calm.

"Is it all ends justify the means for you? You don't get it, Ezra. She told them I wouldn't sleep with her, and they asked her what good was she, then. They just. Shot her. They shot her because I wouldn't fuck her. Because I *couldn't*. Because she was supposed to be a gift, a gift I refused, so she wasn't any use to them anymore. And there *are* no ends to justify *that*. Any of it."

She'd told them they hadn't had sex. Buck had told them that he hadn't wanted to, that he was thankful for the gesture, but he wasn't there for sex, he was there to do business. Too bad, they'd said, then what good was she. Buck hadn't been able to open his mouth in the time it took her to die.

Ezra's mouth curled into something that looked nothing like a smile. He straightened himself and began to smooth out his lapels.

"Buck, they didn't shoot her because you wouldn't sleep with her. They shot her because she wasn't *ever* of any use to them. And the moment she entered the house, she became a witness. They would have shot her anyway."

"You don't know that."

"I don't?" He appeared to find humor in that, raising his brow and drawing his thumb across his lower lip. "Buck, how many times have you gone undercover? Four, five times since I've known you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Personally, I've lost count of the number of times I've gone under. So, don't presume to tell me what I do or don't know and I'll spare you the ballpark estimate of the number of innocent lives I've seen lost while I pretended not to care." His eyes lost all trace of humor as he walked to stand beside the table and gesture at the gruesome display. "If you want to assume the guilt for this girl, that is your business, but spare me the affectations of martyrdom. You did your job. And they would have shot her anyway."

Aghast didn't even begin to describe how Buck felt, standing there, looking at someone he thought he knew. Disgust rolled off of him in waves.

"How do you sleep at night?"

"Who says I do?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Ezra – who's nailing himself to a cross now? How do you do this for a living?"

For a confusing moment, Buck thought Ezra was going to laugh, but he only closed his eyes and sighed wearily, then planted himself on the other side of the table.

"I suppose you could blame my mother or my upbringing or the fact that I didn't get the car I wanted at graduation. We could get into a debate about nature versus nurture in an attempt to levy responsibility for my questionable moral fiber, but the truth is – "

Ezra's eyes pierced him, hooked and reeled him in. " – I do this, day in and day out, because I *can*. I drink a lot, and I gamble, and I take vacations to remote islands, and I'm able sleep at night because I *know* I'm better at this game than anyone else I've ever met. I couldn't do it if I were the kind of man you are, Buck. Thank heavens I'm not, because then I *couldn't* sleep at night." He paused to draw breath, his demeanor relaxing subtly, his eyebrow lifting. "And you all know how much I value my rest."

It was sick, sick how he could appear so unmoved. Buck wanted to wrap his fingers around Ezra's neck and *squeeze*.

"And you can forgive yourself," he said, tasting bile in his mouth.

"I have to." Ezra didn't even have to think about the answer, unapologetic and unyielding. "Once, there was only once when I thought I couldn't – "

" – But you managed to get over it – "

"No," he stated evenly with a slow shake of his head. "No, I managed to get past it. And you will too. Your moral backbone isn't as bent as mine, so you'll feel guilty even though you shouldn't. I know you wouldn't have hurt her if they had held a gun to your head. You don't have it in you. Consider that in all likelihood, you showed her the first kindness she'd known in a very, very long time."

It was true – she'd relaxed with him, smiled with him. She'd folded her legs beneath her and tucked her hair behind her ear. She'd recovered from her fit of sadness and reminded him of Mary Ellen in the tenth grade who'd taken to calling him John Boy. As the evening wore on, she'd yawned and told him that it was nice, it was so nice to have a normal conversation with someone.

He'd wanted so badly to rescue her, to take her somewhere safe, but he'd been in too deep to back out of the case, and she was in too deep to escape. He'd let her lay her head on his shoulder and he'd thought about Chris, the strength of his arms and the warmth of their bed.

"Go home, Buck," Ezra said, unexpectedly mild. "Let her go. Go home to Chris and do whatever it is you two do. Let him take care of *you* for a while. And if you want my advice – " He hesitated, lips twitching at the thought. "If you want my advice, if you feel the need to cry, wait to do it until you pay your required visit to Dr. Matheson. He'll love you for it and praise your ability to get in touch with your inner child, or some such idiocy. He's a sycophantic moron, but he'll make you look good for the record if you play along."

Buck shook his head again, torn between amusement and nausea, knowing he wouldn't have to fake his tears. He wondered if he could delay them that long, wondered if he wouldn't have many more tears to cry long after he was back on active duty.

"Is that what you do, Ez? Cry for the staff psychologist?"

"Oh absolutely. I am a fountain of genuine remorse, and I always bring a clean handkerchief." Ezra smiled, all teeth. The antithesis of sincerity.

"Jesus, Ez. You're one of a kind."

"And aren't we all glad," Ezra said, dropping his smile. It was a white flag of sorts, and honestly Buck *was* glad.

He supposed Ezra already knew that. He thought about Ezra's ends and Ezra's means, and knew that he was glad he couldn't bend like that. Ezra was a good friend and a good teammate, and Buck was very glad not to be anything like him.

It was a détente they'd reached standing on opposite sides of the evidence table, and though he might not sleep that night, Buck smiled to think of Chris. Chris, who would stay awake all night if need be. Chris, who would happily fuck him into a stupor if need be. Chris, who would probably say the same things Ezra had. Damn him.

It was strange, but Buck suddenly knew – knew that Chris hadn't sent Ezra. Ezra had come on his own, because he was the only one among them who could relate. He was the only one who could possibly know what to say.

Buck caught his gaze, waved his own white flad. "Thanks, Ezra. Thanks. I know you're right."

Ezra waited a moment before flashing an insufferable grin. "That hurt to say?"

"You have no idea."

"Well, think nothing of it. I try to be charitable at least once a year." His tone was light, but his eyes were sober as he began carefully collecting the pictures, stacking them in sequential order so the lab could file them.

So Buck could finally put her to rest.

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry," Ezra told the table top.

Buck nodded at his shoes. "For what it's worth, so am I. So am I."

Reverently he brushed the tip of his finger down the line of her jaw and found he could tell the difference. Her skin had been softer than that.

The End