Willow '05: Taxing The Bonds

"Think he's ready?" Chris asked as he shaved.

"What are we talking about now?" Buck was sitting on the end of the bed, pulling on his socks.

"JD, is he ready for this?"

"He's ready."

"Vin was a year older his first time."

"Stop fussin'. He'll be fine, you're gonna be right there."

Chris came out patting his face dry, then tossed the towel back into the bathroom. "He's the baby, I can't help but fuss."

"That `baby' is fourteen years old now, you know?" Buck stood up and kissed Chris just where his broad shoulder met his neck - one of his most erogenous zones. "Mmm. You smell good."

"Stop that! We have to go to work, remember?"

Buck pulled back, grinning leisurely. "Just reminding you that, work or no work, it's Saturday."

"I ain't forgotten, but save it for tonight." With that he gave Buck's groin a playful pat. "Down boy, down."


JD fidgeted with his watchstrap.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, I just wanna get on with it."

Chris smiled and patted him on the back. "You'll do great, but if you want to pull out now that's fine, no one will mind."

"No, no, I wanna do it."

The Denver police, the Colorado Department of Revenue and the ATF were conducting an undercover operation, targeting retailers selling cigarettes to minors. One teenager, working with an adult, would enter a store, gas station or drug store and asked for a packet of cigarettes, choosing a brand at random. The adult officer would observe the whole transaction. Vin, who was doing his part somewhere else in the city with Buck, had worked 'Operation No Smoke' as it was called, the year before, and JD was eager to join the fight. The chance to work with his fathers, and help them do their job, was important to him - to both of them.

JD stood with Officer Dulse, while Chris drove into the gas station and filled up the Ram. Once he was inside, paying for the gas; JD headed into the store. He could clearly see Chris, close to the till, pretending to look at the magazines.

"Whaddya want kid?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Um, a Snickers, a Pepsi and 20 Players." JD put the money he'd been given down on the counter.

The man gave him a cursory glance and then handed over all the requested items.

"Thanks." With that he collected his purchases and headed out, back to Officer Dulse. "Here you go." He handed them over to her.

"Any problems?" she asked. "No ma'am, he didn't ask me any questions or anything."

Chris left the gas station, drove around the block to the rendezvous point, well out of sight of the gas station.

"You did great son. Ready for the next one?" he congratulated JD.

"Yeah, when?"

Chris shook his head. "Well since you were so successful your first time out, we have to fill out a report and tag the evidence first."


By the end of the day JD had attempted to purchase tobacco twenty times and been successful twice, Vin had tried nineteen times and been successful six times. Along with the other ten teenagers, all of whom were children of ATF agents and police officers, nearly fifty illegal purchases had been made.

"You know we're real proud of you two," Buck reminded the boys once they were back in Team Seven's offices.

"I liked helping, it's cool," JD admitted.

"Now, you know you can't talk about this at school, right?" Vin reminded. "Don't want to blow your cover - right dad?"

"Right enough," Buck confirmed.

"I'm not a dumb kid, I know what undercover means." JD looked over at Ezra and smiled.

"Glad to hear it. Now as soon as Chris gets here, we can all go home." Buck looked over his shoulder at the door. "Just where is the heap big chief anyway?"

"Off some place being the 'heap big chief'?" Vin offered.

"I guess so. Well boys, I have some paper work to keep me busy. Can you two amuse yourselves for a bit?"

"I can if I can use a computer?" JD asked hopefully.

"Sure, use Chris', if it's not on, I'll come boot it up for you."

JD gave his father a pitying look. "I do know his password you know, how else am I gonna de-bug the damn thing every month."

"John Daniel Dunne, you will watch your mouth, and I didn't hear any of that. Ezra stop sniggering."

"Me, Mr Wilmington?"

"Yeah you. Vin, you need a computer?"

"Can I go on the Internet?"

"Of course, what do you think JD is doing?"

"Come Vincent, I'll start up Nathan's, he won't mind." Ezra rose from his seat. "Unless you know the password?"

"Carbolic." With that he sat down in front of the computer.

"Do you think there are any passwords they don't know?" Ezra asked.

"Why do you think I change mine every week?" Buck turned back to his own work, but he could see Ezra pulling up the screen to change his password.


Two hours later it was nearly six thirty and Chris still hadn't appeared. Buck found, much to his surprise, that he had no paper work left to do.

"Stud? Where are you?" He asked, having raised Chris on his cell phone. "What?…You're kidding me!… Way to go JD!"

"What was all that about?" Ezra asked.

"Hang on. JD!" Buck called.

"Yeah?" Came the response from Chris' office.

"Get in here, I've got news for you."

"I'm in the middle of something."




While Buck had stayed with the boys while they gave their statements, Chris, Nathan and Josiah had stayed with the DPD and CDR officers to process the evidence. Ezra hadn't been able to join this operation. He was working on a related case and needed to protect his identity, in case he had to go undercover. Logging, tagging and bagging packets of cigarettes was possibly the one of the most boring jobs an ATF agent had to do. It was so boring that they almost missed it.

"Wait, let me look at that one again." Nathan held out his hand for the pack of Players Josiah was about to place the box.

Once he had it Nathan examined the packet as best he could through the evidence bag.

"What is it?" Chris asked.

"Can't be sure, I need another pack, one I can run tests on."

Josiah was duly dispatched to purchase two more packs from the gas station. With them Nathan disappeared into his lab, there to perform his alchemy - as Ezra called it.


JD ambled out of Chris' office. "What's up?"

"You have just broken your Uncle Ezra's case," Buck announced.

"I did?"

"He did?"

"What case?"

"That packet of Players you bought, Nathan says the tax stamp is a fake."

While the two teens looked somewhat perplexed, Ezra shot to his feet.

"Really? Where did you get it?" Ezra asked JD.

"Um, the gas station?" Ezra left the office headed for the lab. "Dad, what did I do?"

"We've known that someone was importing cigarettes and selling them without paying the tax, for months, but we hadn't found any, until today."

"Well if you hadn't found any, how did you know?" Vin asked.

"We raided a warehouse one of Ezra's snitches said contraband was being stored there. We didn't find anything, but the place reeked of tobacco and we found half a tax stamp label, a fake tax stamp label. Now, because of JD, we can back track the cigarettes to the supplier and hopefully, locate other outlets."

"Cool, can I see it?" JD was already heading out the door.

"Hold up there, son. No, you can't see it now. Chris wants me to take you guys home. He'll get a lift with one of the others when he's through logging the new evidence."


Buck and the boys did the evening chores, brought in the horses for the night, and, eventually ate supper. It was nearly ten by the time Ezra dropped Chris off.

"Hi Dad," Vin greeted.

"Hi, where are the other two?"

"JD's right there." Vin pointed to the floor below the couch.

When Chris peered over he saw the dark haired boy, stretched out on the floor asleep. "Ah, and Buck?"

"Saw the lights and went to get you something to eat."

Chris nodded and headed toward the kitchen.

"Hi," he greeted softly.

Buck turned around and beamed. "Took longer than you thought huh?"

"You could say that." Chris stepped closer to Buck and kissed him. Buck, not satisfied with a mere peck on the cheek, pulled him in for a proper long kiss, which, as he knew it would, got Chris all exited.

"Mmm, hold that thought until later," Buck muttered. "I've was making you a sandwich."

"Ham and mustard?" Chris murmured while nuzzling Buck's ear.

"And all the trimmings. You want coffee?"

"Nah, it's too late, might have a scotch."

Buck forced himself to pull away. "Go and pour us both one, tell the boys to go to bed."

"Have to wake JD up first."


"We're gonna have to make this weekend count, you know. This case could take months."

Buck pulled Chris closer to him, a hand planted firmly on each butt cheek. "I know it, don't worry, we're gonna make tonight count."


Chris' prediction proved to be accurate. Over a number of weeks, plain clothed officers and agents visited the gas station and purchased a packet of cigarettes, each time a different brand. In the end they identified four brands that were carrying counterfeit tax stamps. Having identified the brands affected, they set about locating any other outlets. Four months later, four months of long days and many a lost weekend for the whole team, they were ready to identify the wholesale supplier. Of the eleven they identified who were looking for help, the team managed to place two agents in jobs with them. Ezra took a job in a convenience store, while Buck went to work in a twenty four hour liquor store.

As the newest employee, Buck was given the most anti-social shifts, mostly nights and weekends. He'd work a ten hour shift at the store, return to the apartment he'd rented as part of his cover, crash out, leave again sometime in the afternoon, drive to the ranch in time to type up his daily report. With luck he'd have time to welcome the boys home from school, help with chores, and share the evening meal, before heading back to the store for another shift selling beer, whiskey and cigarettes to some of Denver's least charming residents. Any semblance of a sex or social life was out of the question.

Ezra didn't have to work nights, but he was working very long hours and weekends. Both men worked hard to make themselves indispensable, trustworthy employees, and thus gain access to the information they needed. Buck had been working at the store for a month, and he was close to the information he needed. He had just arrived for the night shift, when the owner, Mr Kim, asked him to help unload a delivery.

Among the items delivered were cigarettes. Significantly the brands Buck was looking for weren't there, so he risked questioning this.

"Mr Kim I haven't found any Players or Camels, we're a bit low on those brands."

"Don't worry, they'll be coming later, I get good price on those brands."

Despite this admission, it still wasn't clear whether the retailers knew about the scam. It depended on just how much of a discount they were getting, just enough to make them change suppliers, or so much that they must be realising a real share in the tax free spoils? That was more difficult to ascertain. He needed to get access to the books and hope he could make sense of them if he did get to see them. He fervently hoped Ezra was having more luck; he at least would able to understand any books he found at a glance.


Ezra hadn't yet had a look at the books, but he had identified a plain white van that delivered the cigarettes in question.

Nathan was the designated agent on call. By the time Ezra was able to pass the information on safely, there was no time for Nathan to get to the store before the delivery van left, but since Buck reported that Mr Kim had said he was expecting a delivery soon, he headed over to the liquor store. Nathan watched the white van pull up in the alley behind the store. From his vantage point he could see boxes being unloaded and an apparent cash transaction between the driver and Mr Kim, all of which he captured on film. He then trailed the van to an anonymous looking factory unit on a huge new industrial development built on the site of the old marshalling yards.

There was nothing but circumstantial evidence, but in his gut Nathan knew they were close, that this might well be pay dirt. The trouble was they needed hard evidence, and that meant a stakeout, yet another drain on their limited resources. The DPD would supply officers to help with a planned bust, but not for a stakeout. The CDR didn't have field operatives, they were tax collectors, they helped follow the money and unravel the accounts. If they were following illegal explosives or firearms the ATF would allocate more resources, but not for a case of cigarette tax fraud. So the three members of Team Seven not undercover now had to split their time between backing up their team members undercover, and keeping a round the clock watch on the suspect building, recording all the comings and goings.


Life in the Larabee-Wilmington household was pared down to the basics, eat, chores, sleep. There was little time for anything else and both men knew their sons were suffering because of it. True, they had amassed days of overtime, which, with the upcoming summer vacation would be very welcome. Nevertheless, Chris began bringing as much work home as he could manage, that way he at least was able to spend more time there. Even so, the relentless pace was wearing all of them down, tempers were short, and people were getting forgetful.

On the third day of the stakeout, Chris had been going over the case file in the den. Not for the first time, he fell asleep over his work, papers slipping unnoticed from his grasp. Vin, returning from a Friday night out at the movies with friends, slipped into the house as quietly as he could. He was headed for the stairs when he saw a light on in the den. Chris was still sound asleep in the big leather recliner, papers scattered on the floor beside him. Shaking his head, Vin tiptoed into the room and gathered up the papers and stacked them on the desk before he draped an old tartan blanket over his father. He was about to switch off the desk light, when he stopped to read one of the papers.


"Bingo!" Nathan exclaimed.

"What do you see brother?" Josiah asked, snatching up his field glasses.

It was barely an hour after dawn on Sunday. Buck wasn't working so they were able to have two people on stakeout.

There, truck unloading, see it?"

Josiah focused his glasses. "Got it."

"See the pallets?"


"Take a look at the tape."

Each pallet of boxes was sealed in clear plastic. Around this was tape, like police evidence tape, you couldn't unload the boxes without breaking the tape.

"Well, I'll be. Bienvenue à l'Agence du revenu du Canada, Export Only - Duty Free."

"Bienvenue à l'Agence du revenu du Canada?"


"Show off. The RCMP are gonna want in on this."

"Oh great, a cross-border investigation, that's all we need."


Chris slammed the phone down and then wished he hadn't.

"What's up?" Buck asked without lifting his head from the pillow. It was the first night he'd slept at home in weeks. Too tired to make love, he'd enjoyed Chris' oral ministrations and drifted off to sleep peaceful and sated.

Since Buck was now awake, there was no point hiding things from him.

"Oh great," he exclaimed, once Chris had finished. "That's not gonna slow things up and drown us in an avalanche of paper, half of it in fucking French!"

"I know it, but a bigger investigation means more money, more resources."

Buck rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows.

"Look, Chris, boss, I know this case is important, not glamorous, but important, and I'm a team player - you know that - but I can't keep doing this undercover gig indefinitely. I'm not Ezra, and it's playing hell with us and the boys."

"I know, believe me I know. I'll talk to Travis, see how fast we can have more people. We've identified the outlets now, there's little more they can tell us."

"I still don't know if he's in on it." Buck admitted of the storeowner.

"That's for the accountants to work out."


Downstairs Vin was drinking coffee and ignoring the toast he'd buttered.

"Are you going to eat that or not?" JD asked.

Vin didn't respond.

"If you're not gonna eat it, I will," JD persisted.

Still Vin didn't respond, so JD took the toast and started spreading it with honey.

"What are you doing?" Vin suddenly demanded, as JD took his second bite.

"Eating the toast you didn't want, I did ask - twice."

"Oh, yeah, well I want it." With that he took back the slice and a half JD still hadn't bitten into.

"Fine, but I wish you'd make your mind up." With that JD pushed his chair back and went about making more toast. "I'm gonna give Maverick a work out, he's getting lazy on his turns, what about you?"

"I need to go out, can you give Jake a run for me, he's bored with the walker."

JD spun around. "Out? Buck's only gonna be here one day, and you're going out?"

"I got something I need t' do, won't be that long." With that he drained his coffee mug, stuck the remaining slice of toast in his mouth, grabbed his car keys and headed out.

All JD could do was watch his brother go. He was so tired of the way life was right now. There was no time to do anything fun. Chris was like a bear with a sore head and when Buck was home, all he did was sleep. At least Vin had remained reasonably normal. Now he was going all moody as well. He'd planned this day out in his head ever since Chris told them Buck would have almost two days off. Even though he'd worked all night, Buck had stayed up most of the next day, so that he'd sleep at night, with Chris. Then he'd be able to spend Sunday with him and boys, it was to be a real family day, the like of which they hadn't had in what seemed like months. Now Vin had gone off and spoiled it all.

He was still there, sulking, when Chris came down.

"Where's Vin?" he asked.

"Good morning JD, how are you? Did you sleep well?" JD asked sarcastically.

"You can lose that attitude right now," Chris snapped. "Now, where is your brother?"

"Out, okay, he's gone out."


"Yeah, out, as in he's left, he's not here, he went out! And no, I don't know where he went or why!"

"I'm warning you young man, I'm not in the mood for all this!"

"Well guess what, I'm not in the mood for it either! I'm not in the mood to make breakfast, I'm not in the mood to muck out the stalls, I'm not in the mood to exercise Jake and Beau and Pony, but guess what? I'm gonna have to do it anyway. I am in the mood to ride MY horse, so that's what I'm gonna do – okay?"

With that he stormed past Chris, out to the barn, and straight into Buck.

"What are you two arguing about?" he demanded, wrapping his arms around JD. "Morning son, missed you."

JD relaxed into the embrace. "Missed you, too," he admitted.

Chris stood rooted to the spot for a moment; he could feel the anger flowing out of him as he watched Buck's very presence soothe JD.

"This undercover assignment ends as soon as I can make it happen," Chris stated firmly. "It just isn't worth the damage it's causing. JD?"

"What?" he responded harshly "Come on, give Chris a chance." Buck gave JD's shoulder a squeeze.

"Son, I'm sorry I was short with you, I know it's been tough on you guys. You're not Vin's keeper and you shouldn't feel you have to do everything."

"I'm sorry I shouted at you."

"There," Buck beamed. "That's better. Now let's have something to eat and then we can all head out to the barn and do the chores together."


Vin returned home just before lunch, and was defensive about where he'd been. It was his business and no one else's. Had Buck not foreseen this and persuaded Chris in advance not to press him on the matter, there would probably have been a second row.

"We're all tired, we're all stressed, let's just give him the benefit of the doubt. If we raised him right, we have nothing to worry about, so let's just trust him," he argued.

Chris accepted this. The three of them had had a good morning, they'd worked hard to finish the chores in the barn, then Buck had coached JD as he and Maverick worked on their turns and sudden stops. JD and Vin were making progress as rodeo riders, and JD was keen to improve his and his horse's technique. Then they all went out for a leisurely ride. Despite his earlier anger with Vin, JD rode Jake, since Maverick had already had a work out. All this had relaxed the atmosphere so well that Chris didn't want to rock the boat again.

Vin put on a good front, but it was clear to his family that he was distracted and unhappy. Gentle approaches from Buck and JD were rebuffed, so the subject was dropped. Buck was working that night, so, as much as he hated it, come ten o'clock he had to take his leave.



"I don't know what's going on, and I'm not gonna make you tell me. I know this is difficult for all of us, but I've got a cell phone, anytime you need to talk you can still call me - okay?"

Vin kept his head down. "Okay," he admitted softly.

Buck reached out and, putting a hand around his son's neck, pulled him in closer. "Whatever it is we can work it out, we can deal with it, trust us - when you're ready," he whispered.

Vin nodded, then pulled back.

JD didn't need to be pulled in for a hug; he wrapped his arms around his father. "I wish I'd never bought those stupid cigarettes," he confessed.

"It won't be much longer."


"Yeah, we got a big break in the case, it'll be over soon."

"Be careful."


JD gave one last squeeze then pulled back, back handing a tear away, he was fourteen after all, too old to cry just because his father had to go to work.

Buck left the boys on the porch and crossed to the anonymous looking ten-year-old Chevy truck he'd been supplied with as part of his cover. Chris was waiting for him.

"I'm going to Travis first thing in the morning, this has gone on long enough, there's no point carrying on any longer. If it wasn't a joint op I'd have pulled the plug yesterday – damn it! I hate paper pushers."



"Shut up." With that Buck pulled Chris' lips down on to his. Their kiss was long and passionate, hands roamed freely, denim clad groins were pressed together - though this was shielded from the watching boys by the truck. Finally they pulled apart.

"I gotta go," Buck announced. "Love you."


Buck cocked his head to one side. "You've got to go? Where?"

"No, I love you, idiot."

Buck grinned at him. "I know."

"I hate this."

"I know."

"Watch yer back."

"I always do."


"Not yet," Travis told Chris flatly.

"We know which outlets they're distributing to, we don't need anyone under cover any more, our resources are stretched too thin, I need my whole team to cover the distributors."

"And you want your partner home."

Chris' glared at his superior, he and Buck had been living and working together for years, it had never, ever, caused a conflict or impinged on their work performance - given their somewhat unusual circumstances, they'd worked hard to make sure of that. The trouble was this time it was true, this time the job was hurting his family in a way it never had before.

"Yes, I want him home, but that has nothing to do with this. Tell me, just what purpose does it serve to keep them under?"

"It give us a link to the distributor."

"We know where to find them, we saw the damn things arrive, Canadian export stickers still on them, what more do you need?"

"I need time. I need time to bring the CDR back in at an operations level, I need to liaise with the DPD, most of all I need to make contact with the RCMP's. And …"

"And what?"

"There's another angle to consider here."

"Such as?"

"Buck and Ezra have worked hard on these assignments. I've read their reports, both of them have seen things that warrant further investigation, they've built up contacts, people have begun to trust them. I'm thinking that Buck Watson and Ethan Stapleton may be very useful to us in the future."

"What are you getting at?"

"That it might be useful to leave them in place until the bust. They can be arrested with the others, questioned and released. If they leave just before the bust, their credibility is shot to hell."

"That could take weeks."

"I know, but it really could be helpful."

"One week, I'll leave them there one week and no more."

With that Chris stormed out of the office. Travis winced as his office door was slammed. **Well, that went well.**


Ezra sympathised with Chris, but he was prepared to say where he was, compared to some assignments he'd had, this wasn't long or particularly stressful.

"I know Buck isn't a specialist, but he's really quite good you know? He's a natural people person, people trust him, they're drawn to him, men and women. I know we joke about the 'Animal Magnetism' thing, but in truth there is something about him that's just…"

"Ezra, I've been living with him for more than a decade, I know how attractive he is and how he can turn on the charm and pull people in."

"Of course, sorry. I also appreciate that I don't have a family. What I'm trying to say is; if you feel you need to pull Buck, I'd like to stay until take-down. Ethan is a man who's open to offers and I believe offers are close, they may prove… profitable."

"In what way?"

"I have heard rumours about a stash of AK47's."


"Eloquently put."

"Okay - if you're sure?"

"I am."

"Then I won't pull you out early, but if you want out, you say so, instantly."

"You have my word on it."


Travis did his best to get things moving as fast as he could. The CDR were happy to put more resources into the investigation once the possible scale of the scam became clear. The RCMP sent two liaison officers. The truck seen delivering Canadian cigarettes was traced to a small distribution company in North Dakota. ATF agents were put in place to stake out this company, with RCMP observers. Because the company was in a different state, that state's revenue serves had to be brought in as well as local police. While all this happened in less than a week, the more people and the more agents that were involved, the slower things moved.

Chris, after speaking to Buck, agreed to leave him in place for another week, and to review the situation each week. Two more weeks went by. The company in North Dakota was located at a remote farm close to the border with Canada. A pair of large 4x4 trucks were seen making numerous deliveries. The conclusion drawn was that these were being used to smuggle the contraband over the border on some unguarded track or farm road. Observation showed both cigarettes and spirits were being brought in. In Denver, Josiah followed the delivery truck as it made deliveries to distributors in three other states.

Finally, after three week's work, Chris made an appointment to speak to Travis again. He intended to tell him that Buck's side of the operation was now over and he needed him as a field agent again. There would be no more asking. The meeting was set for eight A.M. at two A.M. the phone rang. Phone calls at two in the morning were never good, so despite the hour Chris was alert in an instant as he grabbed the phone.

"What?" Chris demanded.


"Dad?" Vin called from behind the bedroom door as Chris was struggling to pull on his jeans.

"What is it?"

"I heard the phone, is something wrong? Is Buck okay?"

Chris let go a long breath. "Damn," he cursed softly. "Hang on." Pulling the jeans on all the way he crossed the room and opened the door.

"Oh God, what's happened?" Vin asked when he saw the look on his father's face.

"It's okay, it's not that bad, don't worry about it."

"What's not that bad?"

"Vin." Chris put clear warning in his voice.

"I'm not a little kid, tell me what's happened."

"There was a robbery at the liquor store, Buck was shot."


"Hush, you'll wake up JD," Chris warned. "He's okay, the hospital said he was hit in the thigh, but that it wasn't life threatening."

"I'm coming with you." Vin turned away, heading for his own room. "Vin you need to say here with JD."

"I'm gonna wake JD, he has a right to come, too, we can take my car as well as yours then one of us can come back and see to the horses."

Vin, who was as stubborn and mule headed as both of his father's when the need arose, continued on to his brother's room, despite Chris' protests.


Chris and the boys strode into the ER with a single-minded determination that was a sight to see. Chris zeroed in on the uniformed DPD officer in the waiting area and interrogated him, in full on 'scary as all hell Larabee' mode. This led them to a student doctor, who, looking quite terrified, told them that Mr Watson AKA Agent Wilmington, was in x-ray and would go from there to surgery, and no, she didn't know the full particulars of his injury, but it was a leg wound and he had been alert and chatty when he was brought in.

"He was flirting with me the whole time," she admitted. "Typical," Chris commented, somewhat relieved and reassured that the injury wasn't that bad.

"Of course he was flirting with Nurse Francisco as well, said he had nice buns - which he does."

"I'll kill him," Chris muttered.

They settled down to wait in the surgical waiting area, thankfully it didn't take too long before the surgeon, a genial, portly looking man of about five foot four, came out to meet them.

"Are you the family of the ATF agent?" he asked, not sure which name to use for his patient.

"Yes!" Chris shot to his feet, towering over the doctor.

"Let's sit down, shall we?" Doctor Stanley was used to being the smallest guy in the room and knowing how to deal with it.

Once they were seated, he began. "Now, you are…?" he addressed Chris.

"Chris Larabee."

Stanley consulted his clipboard notes, which told him that the patient's next of kin was 'Christopher Adam Larabee - Life Partner'. "Right." He looked up and at the two teenage boys with Larabee.

"These are our sons. How's Buck?" Chris was getting impatient.

"He's going to be just fine. The bullet entered from behind and to the side of his left thigh, it passed through the back of the leg - missing all the bone, tendons and major blood vessels which is nothing short of a miracle - and passed into the other thigh."

"It hit him in both legs?!"

"Yes, but by the time it hit the right leg it was all but spent, didn't get more than an inch or so into the muscle. As I said, no major structures were hit. He lost some blood and we're transfusing him now, he's got some nasty muscle damage that will take time to heal, he's going to have some scars, especially the exit wound, but barring any complications he should be fine."

"When can we see him?" Vin asked.

"He'll be out of recovery in about half an hour, the nurse will come and tell you when we know which room he's going to be in."


By the time they were shown to his room, Buck was fast asleep. He had two drips, one of blood, one clear, other than that, he looked wonderfully peaceful.

Chris released a sigh of relief. Only now that he'd seen him, did he let himself really believe that his lover, his other half, his reason for living, was really okay.

"Hey, there, Big Dog," he whispered, leaning down to brush the softest of kisses to Buck's forehead.

The boys stood at the end of the bed, equally relieved that their father, their rescuer, was going to be okay.

"Dad?" Vin whispered.


"I'll take me and JD home now, it's nearly dawn." Vin gestured to the window, where the pre-dawn light was just beginning to pale the sky.

"Fine, I'll be here until…"

"We know," JD interrupted. "Tell him we love him."

"I will, now come here and give your old dad a hug goodbye, I think I need it."


Buck was allowed home the next day, on the understanding that he'd rest and keep the weight off his leg for at least four days to minimise the risk of pulling the stitches out. Nathan assured the hospital he'd keep an eye on the dressing until the follow up appointment. The shooting was the perfect way for Buck to end his undercover assignment. Just days before Mr Kim had said he was thinking of making Buck an assistant manager, which would have made coming up with a reason to quit even more difficult.

More than a week later, while Buck was still on sick leave at home, the operation came to a head, and a day of multiple busts and arrests was planned in Denver. The bigger job of tracking down the other outlets and distributors in the seven states already identified as being served by the smugglers would continue, probably for years, but the Denver end of the operation was going to be closed down.

It was a long, long day and Chris didn't make it home until almost eleven. He should have been happy, relieved at least, instead he was worried, puzzled and angry.

"What went wrong?" Buck asked instantly, able to read his partner like a book.

"One of our target outlets was clean, not one pack of contraband." Chris slumped down on to the couch, while Buck hobbled over with two glasses of the best scotch.

"Thanks, I need this."

Buck sat next to him and kissed him on the cheek.

"I know it. So what do you think? They just decided not to sell them anymore, the packs we found were the last ones? Or…"

"Or someone tipped them off?"

"Well, it has to be the most likely explanation."

"Okay, who? Apart from us and Travis, who knew?"

Chris shrugged. "CDR liaison, DPD fraud office? Who knows how far they let it leak out? Travis says it's no big deal, but I can tell he's worried."

"It's not your fault," Buck assured, knowing how personally Chris took any failure, as he saw it.

"I was the AIC, it was my operation."

"It was taken out of your effective command as soon as we found the Canadian connection, and you know it."

"I am AIC here in Denver, and that's where this happened."

"Are you gonna get in trouble?" Vin's voice sounded from the back of the room.

Both men looked over their shoulder at their son, who, despite standing five foot ten, somehow looked like the little eight-year-old they had found all those years ago.

"Vin? What's up?" Buck asked.

"Is Chris gonna get in trouble?" he asked again.

"Come in here," Chris commanded.

Vin didn't move.

"Please son, remember what I told you, way back, on that Sunday?" Buck encouraged.

Vin edged into the room.

"Come on, come and sit down," Chris softened his voice in response to Buck's gentle encouragement.

Vin reluctantly sat down on the coffee table in front of his fathers, head hanging down. "It was me," he admitted.

"Pardon?" Chris asked.

"The shop where there was nothing, it was the 'Dan's Liquor Shop', right?"

"How the hell did you know that?!" Chris snapped.

Vin visibly flinched.

"Easy Chris, let him tell his side of it," Buck cautioned. "Go ahead son."

"Um, well I came in from the movies one night, just before that Sunday Buck was home and had the row and you…" He looked up briefly at Chris. "well you were sleeping in the recliner in the den and all your papers were on the floor. So I, um, I picked up the papers and put them on the table and put that old tartan blanket over you."

Chris nodded. "I remember waking up like that, should have said thanks."

"Well I was gonna turn the lights off when I saw the list of stores and I recognised one of them."

"Dan's Liquor Shop?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded. "See there's this boy at school, Mickey, he was in Special Ed English with me for a while and he's a second string pitcher, but he practises with us most weeks, he's okay, some people think he's a bit, well freaky."


"He don't talk much, he reads all the time and he likes jazz."

"Doesn't sound so odd," Chris commented.

"In high school it is, anyway I sort of got talking to him a few times. His dad died, it's just him and his mom. They had to pay a lot of money for his dad, medical bills and stuff, and well, they were only just making ends meet. So when I saw the shop's name on the list I…"

"You warned him?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have, I knew it was wrong to read the papers and when I had I should've pretended I didn't, I know what confidential means. But…" his shoulders heaved, "…if his mom was arrested, he'd have no one, if she went t' jail he'd end up in some home or something, I mean he's my age, but he don't know how to take care of himself, all he does is read books." Finally Vin looked up, despair and distress etched on his face. "I know it was wrong, but I mean the list was so long, it was just one small shop, and his mom, she's just trying to do the best she can." His head dropped back down. "I don't want Chris to get in trouble, I'll tell them it was me. I'll tell them I took the papers out of his case."

Vin fell silent.

"Right," Buck finally broke the silence. "Well, it's a mess isn't it?"

"Oh, son, why didn't you say something?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged. "You were so stressed out, Buck being undercover and away and stuff. Who do I have to tell?"

"No one," Buck stated firmly. "So far Travis isn't kicking up a fuss and he won't unless someone else does. Let's not go poking the bear in his den, 'till he starts growling."

"Buck," Chris warned.

"No, Chris, you said it yourself. No point looking for trouble, for either of you. This is a huge case, it's a hell of a lot bigger than one mom and pop liquor store in Denver, higher ups have got a lot more to keep them occupied than 'Dan's Liquor Store' - trust me."

"Does that mean I'm off the hook?" Vin asked

"Oh, no, the shit may still hit the fan – officially, and your own personal shit is well and truly in the air my boy!" Buck warned.

"But not tonight," Chris cut in. "We'll talk about this in the morning."

"Yes, sir. Night dad." Vin turned to Buck. "Night Dad."

"Night son… and Vin?"


"It may not have been the best way to do it, and I'm not saying I approve, but you did what you thought you had to, to protect someone. I know you thought long and hard about it, and I know it's been screwing you up, and well I'm, we're, proud of you."

Vin looked over at Chris. "It's true, but that doesn't mean you're going to be getting out of any punishment we come up with."


When they were alone again Buck turned to Chris. "See, I told you if we'd raised him right, we'd have nothing to worry about?"

"You call this mess nothing to worry about?"

"Is he on drugs? Getting drunk? Did he get some girl pregnant? Is he holding up gas stations?"

"No, but he…"

"Risked our wrath, to help out a friend. And then he owned up to it, offered to take the heat - what more do you want?"

Chris thought for a moment. "When you put it like that, I guess, we did okay with him?"

"With both of them. Course, he's still going to be doing chores until he graduates."

"Two years from now!"

"Too right."

"When was the last time I told you I love you?"

Buck made a great play of thinking. "This morning?"

"Too long, come here so I can show you."