Willow '06: End Of The Road (I)

The doorbell rang; three sharp bursts that pierced the early morning quiet, making Buck jump slightly. He ignored the sound, just continued buttoning up his crisp white shirt, wrestling the top button closed with clumsy, fumbling fingers. The bell rang again, more insistently this time, as though somebody was leaning up against it.

"Jesus, JD, get that will ya?" Buck called through his open bedroom door. He heard the thunder of feet and JD cursing loudly, then the ringing stopped abruptly and silence washed back in.

Buck sighed and picked up the two ties he'd slung over the back of the chair late last night, holding up first the black, then the navy blue.

"Go with black," a voice said, and he turned to find Vin standing in the doorway. "The black makes you look like an undertaker, they like that."

"Vin," Buck chided, "you know you're not supposed to be here."

Vin shrugged and stepped into the room. "Who else is gonna help you choose a tie?"

Buck shook his head silently, but he tossed the navy tie back across the chair and looped the black around his neck.

"Here, you always make a dog's breakfast out of it." Vin took the tie out of his hands, and Buck stood still while his friend deftly worked the material into a knot. "It's all in the wrist action," Vin said, then, "How you holding up?"

"You know me," Buck replied, attempting flippancy. "I take a lickin' and keep on tickin'."

Vin snorted. "JD tells me you're up all hours, pacing like an expectant father."

Buck dredged up a smile. "It ain't everyday your life's about to get shot to shit," he said and winced at the poor choice of words.

"There, you look halfway presentable, anyway," Vin said, trying to change the subject.

Buck couldn't even raise the energy for one of his usual smart comebacks. He slipped the jacket of his best suit over his shirt and smoothed his perfectly knotted tie.

"JD's driving you," Vin said, flicking imaginary lint off Buck's lapels. Buck opened his mouth to protest but Vin silenced him with a stern look and he subsided with a sigh.

"How's Chris?" Buck asked the question that had been haunting him for the past two weeks. JD was no help there, pursing his lips in disgust and refusing anything but the most perfunctory of answers whenever Buck asked him that question.

Vin glanced away, unable to look him in the eye. "You know what a hard-head he can be sometimes," he said carefully.

"Yeah," Buck breathed, feeling his stomach clench into a tight knot.

"Aww, hell, I don't know," Vin said. "Most of the time he's holed up in his office. He only comes out when he wants to make our lives as miserable as his own. We can't wait for this shit to be over so we can get back to normal."

Buck grimaced. "Wouldn't be counting any chickens yet, pard," he said quietly.

"You heard anything from him?" Vin asked, risking a glance.

"Nope. Read his statement to the Disciplinary Board, though. Reckon he'd have made a good hanging judge in the old west."

Vin winced in sympathy.

"Guess I'll be seeing plenty of him later today," Buck said.

"Guess you will."

Buck picked up the folder of notes he'd been up half the night studying, including the deposition from Chris that accused him of insubordination and disobeying orders, and he resisted the urge to pore over them one last time.

"You ready for this?" Vin asked.

Buck shrugged. "Ready as I'll ever be." He paused for a moment, "Listen, Vin…"

"Don't," Vin warned, throwing up a hand. "Don't say anything that's gonna make me want to kick your ass. He'll come to his senses. He might be a stubborn, pig-headed, half-blind jackass, but he ain't gonna throw away the best thing any of us ever had just for his pride."

Buck sighed and shook his head. "You know it isn't his pride he's trying to protect, Vin," he said.

Vin reached up and cupped a hand behind Buck's neck. "Let's get through this mess first," he said softly. "Then we'll tackle the rest, okay?"

Buck nodded and cleared his throat, swallowing against a sudden lump. "Let's go give 'em hell."


JD chattered ceaselessly as he drove, a nervous reaction Buck understood all too well. He managed to tune the kid out, more or less, his voice reduced to a faint buzz while Buck's mind drifted over the last two weeks.

The suspension had been hard as hell on him, on all of them he supposed. It had been tough not knowing what was going on, having JD clam up on him whenever the subject strayed too close to work. And not seeing any of the other guys had been the hardest part of all. Well, Buck thought morosely, the second hardest part. Having no contact with Chris had almost driven him nuts. No phone calls, no emails, not a single word, not since Buck had walked out of the office on that chilly March evening, still smarting from the stinging dressing-down Chris had given him.

He'd driven straight to the condo that night, the first time in almost a year that he'd actually slept at the place that was listed in ATF records as his home, and he'd had to call JD and ask him to drive out to the ranch to pick up his things because most of his stuff had gradually migrated out to Chris's place. Chris had packed a suitcase and sent it back with JD, though without any kind of message for Buck. He hadn't been surprised; he'd only seen that blind, helpless rage once before, when Chris's previous world had been reduced to rubble and ash.

"We're here." JD's voice cut through the reverie and Buck shook himself, suddenly aware that the car had stopped and they were parked outside the Federal building. "Can't take you into underground parking," JD mumbled, blushing. "I'll meet you on the seventh floor."

Buck nodded and grabbed up his briefcase before climbing out of the car. He'd had to turn in his security clearance pass when he'd been put on suspension and he wasn't allowed to enter the building except through main reception. If humiliation was a part of his punishment, it was working pretty damned effectively.

He checked in at the front desk and was given a temporary pass by a pretty young thing he might have considered flirting with, under other circumstances than these. He was grateful that he didn't encounter anybody he knew on the elevator ride up to the seventh floor; nobody to wish him luck while they silently gave thanks that it wasn't them in the crosshairs, nobody to gloat that it was about time those arrogant pricks on Team Seven got taken down a peg or two.

The elevator doors opened and Buck stepped out, shockingly glad when he saw the rest of the team, everybody except Chris, gathered in the hallway outside the boardroom.

Josiah was the first to move, pushing himself off the wall he was leaning against and walking the few steps down the hallway towards him. He reached out a hand and they shook, holding on a few moments longer than was necessary.

"Good to see you, Buck," Josiah said.

"And you," Buck replied, squeezing Josiah's hand firmly.

"Miss you, brother. Nothing is the same without you."

"Even I find it a little… tedious," Ezra said, coming up behind Josiah and nodding a greeting. "And our leader has been more than a little churlish in your absence."

By now Vin and Nathan were gathered around, patting him on the back, and moments later JD joined their circle and the hum of voices increased so that nobody heard the boardroom door open.

"Gentlemen." A sudden hush fell as a voice boomed, cutting through their chatter. Josiah stepped aside and Buck caught a glimpse through the open door. His stomach did a weird roll when he saw the three-person panel sitting solemnly behind a desk. Orin Travis, that was to be expected; Team Seven reported directly to him and he had the right to adjudicate any case brought against them. Sitting beside him was Elaine Chappelle, a fellow Assistant Director and head of ATF recruitment. Beside her was Director George Randolph, and although Buck had known he'd be here, still he felt a cold shiver of dread tingle down his spine. If he didn't know it before, he knew it now. This was some serious shit.

"Agent Wilmington?" Randolph's assistant beckoned. "This way please."

Buck detached himself from the comfort of the group, barely acknowledging their murmured good wishes and he followed the secretary into the boardroom. He stopped just inside the door, registering the carefully schooled expressions on the three faces turned towards him, and the back of Chris's head, freshly cropped hair bristling just above his starched collar.

"Please have a seat, Agent Wilmington." Travis gestured to the empty chair to the left of Chris. Buck swallowed noisily and crossed the carpeted floor, dropping with a thud onto the wooden seat and sitting ramrod straight in an unconscious imitation of Chris's posture. Chris didn't make a move to acknowledge him, and the knot in his stomach tightened almost unbearably.

"For the record," Randolph began, "this is an inquiry into ATF file 1445, hereafter referred to as the Symington case. Do you understand, Agent Wilmington, that this is a Disciplinary Board and that we are here to review your conduct in this case?"

"Yes, sir, I understand," Buck replied.

"And you have waived your right to legal representation at this stage?"

"Yes, sir," Buck said.

"And you understand that your senior officer is supporting the charges brought against you?"

Buck had to clear his throat before he could squeeze an answer past his dry lips. "I understand, sir," he said, noting the slight tensing in Chris's tightly clasped hands.

"Very well," Randolph said, his pen poised over the notebook in front of him. "Let's start by hearing your version of what happened on March 18th."


Being part of a multi-departmental taskforce wasn't their favorite position to be in, especially when they'd only been called in at the last minute. Too many things could go wrong when the plan they had to work with wasn't their own. But Travis had made it crystal clear that they had no choice in the matter, so they'd had to suck it up.

They were deployed strategically outside an abandoned factory and Buck knew how much Chris hated feeling like a hired gun, how it irked him that his men were being positioned like so many chess pieces on somebody else's board. Buck was more philosophical.

"Why can't you just enjoy the ride, pard?" he asked, wincing at the thunderous look that had been plastered across Chris's face since they'd arrived at the scene and been summarily dispatched. "Look at it this way, if the shits hits, at least it won't be your ass they'll be chewing on."

Chris only grunted and muttered something about being treated like a lapdog. For ten minutes the place crawled with covert activity as agents from several Federal and State departments jockeyed for position.

"It's like a Forces convention out here," Buck marveled, taking a moment to locate the rest of the team. He waved to JD, who looked calm and serious, then turned his attention to the three agents who'd been assigned with him and Chris to the unit headed by Cliff Palmer, a senior FBI operative.

"Buck Wilmington, ATF," he said, unable to shake hands due to the assault rifle balancing in his arms.

"Blackwell," one of the men said curtly, his eyes never moving from the targeted building. Okay, not the friendly type, Buck thought. He turned to the two other agents, who looked barely old enough to be out of basic training.

"I'm Agent Mulroney and this is Agent Foster," one of the young men said. "You're ATF, right? Team Seven? John and I are getting our first assignments end of next month, we've heard a lot about your team. You thinking of taking on anybody new?"

Buck shrugged and inclined his head towards Chris. "You'd have to speak to my boss about that."

Agent Mulroney glanced over at Chris, who was looking even more severe than earlier in the day and Buck didn't blame the kid when he mumbled, "Maybe after this mission is over," and backed away a step or two to huddle with his friend.

Buck winced when Chris growled, "This isn't the fucking company picnic, Buck."

He sighed and turned his attention back to the front of the factory. This wasn't their bust, they were just here to add window dressing and placate the squabbling brass. But he knew better than to say that in front of Chris.

"Doesn't hurt to be friendly, pard," he said instead. "We're on the same team, after all."

Chris snorted and muttered darkly about being turned into fucking babysitters, and Buck decided to give up trying to talk to Chris and just settle in for the wait.

After several more minutes a signal was given and the first wave of agents swarmed the building, accompanied by shouting and a barrage of gunfire. Buck breathed in deeply, reaching for that space they all knew as the zone, where nothing mattered but getting the job done and keeping each other safe. He sprang forward on a signal from Chris, whose black look was now replaced by a fierce frown of concentration, and they moved as one towards the building.

Once inside they were waved towards a stairwell and ordered to secure the basement, and Buck barely had time to register the overwhelming noise and smell before they were picking their way down the stone stairs into the gloom below. Chris gestured and the agents cautiously fanned out behind him to begin a standard sweep. The long, narrow corridor at the bottom of the stairs opened onto a large room almost filled with wooden crates. Palmer started to move forward and Chris hissed out his name, stopping him momentarily.

"We need to secure the perimeter," Chris said, his voice low.

"We've just cleared the only access route. We need to get into that room now," Palmer countered.

"SOP…" Chris started, but Palmer cut him off.

"I'm not concerned with ATF procedure, Agent Larabee," Palmer snapped. "FBI has the lead here and my orders are clear. Deploy the men and get me into that room."

Palmer turned away abruptly and Chris bit down on his lip.

"Fucking feebs," Buck muttered, coming up beside him. "Want me to go back and secure the route?"

Chris shook his head. "That bastard would likely charge you with deserting your post. You take the right flank, Mulroney and Foster are with you. You," he signaled to Blackwell, "you're with me."

They moved out, Palmer falling a step or two behind Chris's position, and once they crossed the threshold into the large, murky room they fanned out left and right. They had barely all stepped inside when the air filled with the sound of gunfire and Blackwell crashed to the ground, screaming.

"Down!" Chris barked, unnecessarily as all the other men were already scrambling for cover. Mulroney and Foster started to return fire, shooting wildly until Chris shouted, "Hold your fire," no doubt recognizing, as Buck did, that the crates stacked all around them were labeled RDX. Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine to give it its technical name; fairly stable, but no explosive material was going to react well to being hit by a stray bullet.

So that's why the ATF had been invited to this party, Buck thought fleetingly. RDX was the base element of a number of military explosives, and a component of the plastic bonded explosive used in nuclear weapons. Which sure explained why half the country's agencies were gathered outside and why the brass had their collective panties in a twist. If military equipment had been jacked and offered on the open market, there would be a hell of a lot of happy domestic terrorists running around out there and a hell of a lot of bureaucratic heads lined up at the chopping block.

"Buck," Chris hissed, "clear the area."

Buck nodded and started to move, but another round of shots whistled through the air, ricocheting off the walls and the stone floor. "Fuck," he breathed. Looked like they were pinned down.

"ATF," Chris growled, forgetting or not caring that most of the men were not theirs and that this wasn't his mission. "You've got nowhere to go. Give yourselves up."

As expected, his words were met with another short, sharp volley.

"Looks like none of us are going anywhere fast," a voice called.

On the ground, Blackwell groaned and clutched at the seeping wound in his side. Chris's mouth thinned into an all too familiar line. "Let the wounded man go," he said tightly. "Nothing to be gained by keeping him here."

A second voice barked out a laugh and Chris looked over at Buck and signaled with his head in the direction the voices were coming from. He held up two fingers and Buck shook his head. Not likely that a cache this big would be guarded by just two men. He raised his head from behind one of the crates and scanned the area frantically.

"I think we can find some use for your friend." The third voice came from behind them, and too late Buck realized that they'd been cut off and surrounded. He spun around to find two heavily armed men blocking the doorway, their guns trained on the agents now floundering helplessly on the ground. Buck caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and a second later a shot rang out and Mulroney screamed as his gun clattered to the ground, blood spurting from a bullet wound in his hand.

"Stand down," he snapped, reading the uncertainty on Agent Foster's face and realizing the kid didn't know how he was supposed to react. "Fuck," he breathed again. They'd been out-flanked; trapped like a bunch of goddamned rookies. He didn't need to look at Chris to know that he was spitting nails right about now, knowing that this wouldn't have happened if procedure had been followed.

"Throw your weapons into the middle of the room."

The two men who'd been in hiding stood up, pointing their rifles - army-issue M16A2s, most likely taken from whatever hijacking had netted them the rest of their haul. Yeah, Buck thought grimly, somebody was going down big time for this fuck up. Glancing at Chris and following his lead, Buck slowly tossed his own assault rifle into the centre of the room.

"On your knees, hands behind your head." The order was barked out and Buck rolled up onto his knees and assumed the position, grimacing alongside Mulroney as the man struggled to carry out the order, blood dripping freely now from his shattered hand.

From what Buck could see and hear Blackwell was in pretty bad shape, blood pooling on the ground underneath him, his moans waxing and waning as he faded in and out of consciousness. "Let me see to him," he said, and started to edge closer to the agent, but a crippling kick to his stomach doubled him up on the cold stone floor. He sucked in an agonized breath, almost choking as bile rose up in his throat. His guts clenched sharply and he couldn't stifle a loud groan. He heard Chris hiss through his teeth, and he looked up through the involuntary tears of shock and pain stinging his eyes. He could actually see Chris's clenched jaw throb, and for a moment his body literally shook, then his eyes widened in question and Buck nodded briefly, spat a mouthful of blood onto the ground and hauled himself back onto his knees, trembling with the effort.

"I'll take care of him," one of the perps said, and Buck watched in mounting disbelief as the man pulled a pistol out of his belt and leaned down to discharge a bullet into the wounded agent's temple.

"No!" Buck screamed, his anguish echoed in the shouts of the others.

The air was suddenly putrid with the sickening stench of bodily waste as the dead man's bowels evacuated, and Buck gritted his teeth together when Mulroney and Foster leaned over and retched violently onto the floor, a dark urine stain spreading across both their groins. He didn't blame either of them. They were probably young enough to have never seen death this close and ugly and both had been splattered, as he had, with flecks of brain and flesh and blood. To his credit, Cliff Palmer remained as still as a stone carving, only the glazed look in his eyes giving away his emotional state.

"You goddamned son-of-a-bitch," Chris snarled and was rewarded with a vicious kick to his back that sent him sprawling forward, his hands skidding through the dark blood already congealing on the ground. Buck sent up a quick prayer of thanks that it wasn't a bullet that had pitched Chris into the gory mess. He could only watch helplessly while Chris struggled back up onto his knees and dragged his blood-stained hands down the front of his pants, barely wiping off the worst of it, before clenching them behind his head again unable to conceal a grimace of revulsion.

Buck knew things were going to move quickly now if the perps thought they had any chance of escape. Sure enough they motioned with their guns and shouted, "On your feet," and all of the agents climbed up unsteadily, Mulroney weaving dangerously, blood draining from his face, cradling his wounded hand against his chest.

"Who's in charge here?"

Buck saw Chris draw in a breath to speak, but Palmer beat him to it. "I am. Special Agent Cliff Palmer, FBI."

"This is how it's going down, Palmer," the man said. "We need four of you. One body each as a shield. You, because you're the senior agent here and likely least disposable." He pointed to Mulroney. "Him. The blood will show them we're serious. And two others. You've got one minute to choose who gets left behind." The perp's eyes flickered to the body of the dead agent and Buck caught the flare of understanding that registered briefly on Chris's face.

Left behind.

With a bullet in his head.

Chris glanced at him and Buck could read in his eyes that Chris knew he'd figured things out for himself. He'd scarcely processed that before Chris was speaking, addressing himself to Agent Foster. "You're going. Buck, you too." He started to turn away but Buck caught at his arm and yanked him back around.

"Foster and you," he said.

"Don't argue with me, Buck," Chris spat. "There's no time for it. You know the procedures. You're trained for this…"

"So are you…"

"Remember the Redbird take down and do it just like that," Chris said, ignoring his protest. He shook Buck off him and turned towards Palmer. "Buck knows the play, follow his lead." Palmer's mouth tightened but he nodded his head.

"No fucking way am I walking out of here without you," Buck snapped.

"You don't have any choice, Agent Wilmington," Chris said coldly. "That's a direct order."

"I don't give a rat's ass about orders. This is just you and me, Chris, and I'm not going…"

Chris moved so quickly that Buck had no time to sidestep and he found himself spun around and slammed face first into the wall, one arm bent painfully up behind his back. "I am your superior officer and you will damn well do as you're ordered," Chris blazed. He shoved hard and the side of Buck's head bounced off of the brick wall, tearing his skin painfully. Chris leaned all his weight against Buck's back and whispered right into his ear. "You're walking out of here and you're leading these men through the Redbird maneuver and getting them to safety. And I will fucking destroy you if you keep defying me, understand?" Buck bit his lip, refusing to answer. "Do you understand?" Chris snarled, and he yanked Buck's arm up so hard that he felt the burn and pull of muscle and tendon.

"Yes," he grated, the word torn unwillingly from his throat, and the pressure immediately subsided as Chris stepped away.

Buck turned around slowly, his face and arm throbbing, and he looked into Chris's stormy eyes. "Please don't do this, Chris," he pleaded, his voice pitched low enough so that only Chris could hear him. "We can find another way."

"There is no other way," Chris said, quieter now, and certain. "If we don't choose, they'll do it. I won't risk letting those kids get…left behind," he finished lamely, unable to meet Buck's eyes.

"I could…"

"No," Chris said vehemently. Then his voice softened. "Don't make this harder than it already is, Buck. Help me out here."

"Time's up," a voice growled. "Who's staying to keep your friend company?"

"I am," Chris said, and for a brief moment his eyes widened and Buck saw unfamiliar fear swimming in the hazel depths.

"Chris," he whispered, reaching out blindly and grasping Chris's hand in a bruising grip.

Chris looked at him steadily, and squeezed his hand tightly and Buck read so much passion in that unguarded look, so much life. His heart clenched momentarily, a tight hot feeling in his chest, and then his mind cleared so suddenly that he felt light-headed.

"Whatever happens, remember that I love you," he whispered urgently.

The perp motioned with his revolver, and Chris disentangled himself and stepped away from the group, picking his way through pools of blood and gore to stand beside the body of the fallen agent. He turned and his eyes locked with Buck's and the hazel color deepened as Buck felt the heated gaze mapping his face. He let Chris's eyes travel over him for a moment, then he pulled in a deep, steadying breath.

"He's the one you need to take with you," Buck said, his voice strong and clear and echoing in the stillness. For a split second Chris's brow furrowed in confusion, then incredulity swept over his face. "He's the head of an ATF unit…"

"Buck, don't," Chris shouted.

"…specializing in armed hostage situations," Buck continued, flatly.

"He knows all the plays they'll use to try to take you down."

"God damn you, Wilmington," Palmer screamed. "I'll have your fucking head for this."

"He's your best chance out of this," Buck said, directing his comments towards the armed terrorists, but meaning them for Palmer and the other two agents. Chris was the tactician, Chris was the strategist, Chris was the man who had led Team Seven out of every hostage situation they'd ever worked or simulated. He was their only chance of survival.

"Coward," Palmer spat, and Buck knew that if there hadn't been a gun jammed into Palmer's back, that he'd have launched himself at Buck and tried to strangle him with his bare hands. He only hoped that one day Palmer would understand what he'd done, and possibly rescue his memory from the shit heap of treachery and betrayal.

And maybe one day Chris would forgive him too.

"Take him," the leader said, and two of his men grabbed at Chris and dragged him through the slimy tracks of blood towards the door.

"You, out." Buck walked past Chris, who was struggling and screaming, almost blue in the face. "Down," the leader said, and Buck sank down onto his knees, his hands automatically clasping behind his head.


Chris screamed out his name, and their eyes locked again, and he murmured Chris's name as the leader of the gang pressed his pistol against Buck's temple and cocked the hammer…


"I need a break."

Chris's voice was shaking, and Buck stopped mid-sentence in his account and glanced over at him. He was ashen-gray, and a line of sweat coated his upper lip.

"Ten minutes," Randolph said, and Chris stood up quickly and bolted for the door.

Buck nodded to the three supervisors and rose, following Chris out of the boardroom. The team was still gathered outside, even though they wouldn't be needed at this hearing; a gesture of solidarity that Buck appreciated, even as his eyes searched the group quickly.

"Bathroom," JD said, and Buck flashed him a grateful smile and walked to the end of the corridor. Vin was inside, and Chris; head over a toilet bowl retching up the contents of his stomach.

Buck didn't need to ask what had brought this on, he'd done more than his fair share of vomiting in the past two weeks, waking up night after night in a panicked sweat, always the same dream – on his knees in a sea of blood, the feel of cold metal against his clammy skin, the click of a round chambering, and Chris screaming out his name.

Chris straightened up and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and Buck could see that two weeks had done nothing to quell Chris's helpless fury. He opened his mouth to speak, to say something that might ease the pain, but Chris pushed roughly past him and walked out without a word.

"Chris," Buck murmured hopelessly to the retreating form.

"Give him time, Buck," Vin said. "You scared him. You know he doesn't react well to that."

Buck dragged in a breath. "Don't think time's gonna heal this wound, pard," he said, his voice shaking almost as badly as Chris's had.

When they returned to the hallway Chris had disappeared and Buck took the opportunity to sit down and savor the company of his friends again. They talked of inane things, all of them skirting the obvious subject, until JD glanced sideways at Buck and said, "I guess if they uphold the charges this will stay on your permanent record. Do you reckon they'll extend your suspension, or maybe bust you down a level?"

Buck cleared his throat. The time had come to let JD know what he was sure most of the others had figured out for themselves.

"JD, son…" Josiah started, but Buck waved him off. Grateful as he was, he knew he was the one who had to let the kid in on this.

"JD, this isn't about dropping down a pay grade or getting benched for a couple of weeks. Chris is pressing for a transfer."

JD's face remained totally blank, as though the words hadn't penetrated.

"He wants me off the team, JD," Buck clarified gently.

"He wants what?" JD said, his voice cracking, his already pale face draining of what little color had been there. "You don't mean that… He wouldn't…"

"He doesn't think he can trust me anymore," Buck said, trying to explain it as simply as he could.

"But you were willing to lay down your life for him," JD whispered.

"That's the problem, son," Josiah said softly.

"What about you and Chris?" JD asked. Buck glanced around at his friends, all watching him intently, obviously as interested in the answer as JD. He shook his head, and for the first time gave voice to a foreboding that had been slowly taking shape over the past two weeks.

"I reckon it will be the end for me and Chris," he said, feeling a sick twist in his gut. "I don't see how we can carry on after this."

Five minutes later, when Buck resumed his seat, he risked a glance to his right. Chris stared straight ahead, unmoving, unblinking, every line in his lean body rigid, but some of the color had returned to his pallid cheeks.

"I believe you can fill in the rest of the details, Agent Larabee," Randolph said.

Chris nodded and cleared his throat and when he spoke his voice was completely devoid of emotion. "Agent Wilmington was about to be executed."


"Buck," Chris screamed, struggling frantically against the hands that gripped him.

Buck looked up and their eyes locked, and Chris could see his name forming on his lover's lips. In that split second before the perp pointed his revolver and cocked the hammer, Chris saw a riot of emotions in Buck's eyes, love and loyalty laced through with fear and dread, and he knew in his soul that Buck didn't want to die, that everything in his nature rebelled against the choice his heart had made, and that this horrifying sacrifice would haunt Chris until he drew his own last breath.

He heard a single revolver shot and his eyes closed reflexively and some part of him knew that the anguished animal howl of grief that rent the air was his own. He wasn't aware of anything else, except that his captors must have relaxed their iron grip because his legs buckled and he slumped to his knees on the hard stone floor. And then all hell broke loose around him as the air filled with smoke and bullets, and bodies began to fall.

Mere moments later an eerie silence settled for the space of several heartbeats, and in that time he looked up through the veil of tears and the fog of anguish and saw Buck; kneeling still, hands clasped behind his head, dazed and bewildered, but alive.


The world stood still while their eyes found each other, and Buck slowly lowered his arms. Chris unfroze at the action, his heart wildly battering against his rib cage and he lurched up onto his feet, aware suddenly of noise and movement all around him as dozens of federal agents swarmed the room.

Chris staggered the few paces to where Buck knelt, blood and guts slippery underfoot, and he reached down to cup Buck's warm and tear-stained cheek and press his thumb gently against the pulse point in his neck.

"Chris," Buck whispered raggedly, horror still contorting his face and clouding his blue eyes and Chris caught the flash of comprehension just before his fist connected with Buck's already torn and battered face, and his partner dropped to the ground like a dead weight, face down in the waste and gore; tasting the bitterness of his colleagues' death, what should have been his own death.

Chris turned and allowed himself to be hustled out of the room, ignoring Buck screaming his name, and he was pushed and prodded down the hallway until he finally stepped out of the stink of the factory and was able to pull great mouthfuls of clean air down into his lungs. Vin appeared out of nowhere, then JD, shouting for Buck before taking off at a run, and he presumed that Buck had emerged somewhere behind him.

He didn't wait.

He moved as though underwater, the weight of his own failure and powerlessness dragging at his limbs, and with every step he took further away from Buck, he felt a piece of his world crumble.


At noon Randolph called a lunch break and Chris hurried from the boardroom, barreling wordlessly past his men, knowing they would wait for Buck and spend the hour with him. He retreated to his office and closed the door firmly behind him.

He'd known that seeing Buck again would be tough, but he hadn't been prepared for the way his throat tightened and his mouth dried, for the rivulets of sweat trickling down his spine, for his heart hammering against his chest – the exact same symptoms he'd felt two weeks before, when Buck had traded his life for Chris's.

His body had still been thrumming with that endorphin rush of grief and shock when he'd informed Palmer that he would back his version of events. Buck had been insubordinate, he'd disobeyed an order, Chris didn't bother to fill the FBI agent in on Buck's reasons.

Since then he'd spent endless hours wondering how he and Buck could have been so stupid, how they could have gone into this so blindly. Six months after the fire it had been Buck who'd persuaded him that he needed to shake his paralyzing grief and consider Orin Travis's proposition that he form his own ATF team. He hadn't felt he could cope, so debilitated by loss that he'd hardly been able to function, wouldn't have lasted past the first week without Buck.

They had argued fiercely over it, Buck insisting that Chris was ready, uncharacteristically harsh in his assessment of Chris's unwillingness; "wallowing in it," Chris recalled, the sting of the words still making him wince. Buck had walked out on him that day, gone back to his condo, and it had only taken one night apart to make Chris reconsider his refusal. After a fretful night of sweating terror, he'd called Buck, his voice shaking, and even though dawn had only just broken Buck had crawled out of his own bed, and an hour later crawled back into Chris's to calm and soothe.

They'd been sleeping together for almost three months at that point. Buck had moved out to the ranch after the fire to help Chris clean up and rebuild. Weirdly the master bedroom had been virtually undamaged and they'd huddled together in the big bed at the end of each awful day, isolated by their private nightmares, woken constantly by each other's panicked gasps and screams. Weeks of nightly comfort had eventually led them back to the sexual relationship they'd played at before Sarah, and when Chris took up Travis's offer they hadn't even considered finishing things between them, hadn't so much as mentioned the possibility.

Chris realized now, six months too late, how near-sighted that had been. The job was filled with countless threats; from firearms and explosives to bomb threats and arson, it came with the territory. He'd foolishly believed they could minimize the risks, that years of rigorous training, meticulous planning and dedicated teamwork could mitigate the dangers. It had taken a gun pointed at Buck's head to make him see how wrong he'd been.

Chris shook his head, trying to dislodge the memory. He desperately wanted a drink to steady his trembling hands, but knew that was out of the question. Besides, he'd consumed more than enough alcohol these past weeks; sometimes to calm his nerves, sometimes to make him forget, sometimes to help him reach oblivion.

Several times in the past two weeks he'd picked up the phone, been within a single digit of completing the call to Buck's cell phone, when that image of Buck on his knees, a heartbeat away from death, pounded inside his head and he'd cut the connection, cursing and trembling.

He knew how fucked up it seemed, to come within seconds of losing Buck and, instead of holding him tight and close, to sever all ties, refuse all contact; to ache with loneliness and loss as though Buck actually had been obliterated that day. It was part perverse punishment, part atonement for his failings, and partly a test of his own resolve. Because he had vowed that he was never going to allow that to happen again. He was never again going to stand by helplessly watching his world shatter around him. And if he had to destroy the life they'd made in order to safeguard their future, then that was a price he was willing to pay.

*** T

he afternoon session began with Director Randolph reading the deposition that had been submitted by Agent John Foster who was still in hospital recovering from a gunshot to the side. His statement was perfunctory; nothing more than the bare outline of the events as he'd witnessed them, including the fact that Buck had argued with his superior officer and appeared to have countermanded a direct order. Buck didn't refute the claims, and the statement was filed into the folder Randolph had placed on the desk in front of him.

Later in the day Cliff Palmer was summoned and he entered the room staring directly ahead, not making eye contact with either Chris or Buck. His testimony was even-handed and fair, explaining exactly what he thought he had seen; insubordination, refusal, betrayal. He didn't venture personal opinions, nor did he speculate about motives, save once, when Chappelle asked him why he thought Buck had offered up Chris.

Palmer shook his head, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. "I can only surmise that he thought he stood a better chance of staying alive if he stayed behind."

"You believe he was trying to save his own skin?" Travis asked, his eyebrow arching skeptically.

"That would be my guess, sir," Palmer said. "What was certain was that the four agents who walked out of that room would be used as human shields. Our chances of survival were… uncertain. I believe Agent Wilmington thought the odds were better if he remained where he was."

When he'd finished answering the questions that were put to him, Palmer left the boardroom and Randolph turned to Buck.

"Did you believe you stood a better chance if you stayed behind?" he asked.

"No, sir," Buck said. "I believed Senior Agent Larabee was better qualified to lead the other agents to safety."

"Or you thought the odds were better if you stayed where you were instead of being marched out at gunpoint," Chappelle observed dryly.

"I thought the odds were better for the group if Agent Larabee was in command," Buck repeated doggedly.

"Yet you told the leader of a terrorist group that your commanding officer could help them evade capture," Chappelle pressed.

"So they'd take him instead of me…"

"So that you could stay behind in relative safety…"

"No." Chris's voice cut through the air and silenced the other raised voices. "That's incorrect, ma'am," he said, more quietly. "Agent Wilmington did not trade places with me to save himself."

Chappelle turned to face Chris. "You're supporting charges of insubordination and disobeying orders…"

"I'm not supporting charges of cowardice," Chris snapped.

Chappelle's lips thinned in displeasure and she turned back towards Buck.

"Were you surprised, Agent Wilmington, when your senior officer suspended you after the mission?"

Buck shifted on the hard seat. "No ma'am," he replied evenly, glancing at Chris's stern profile. "I pretty much knew what was coming."


Buck raised himself slowly off the ground and spat out a mouthful of gore and grit, his eyes frantically fixed on Chris's retreating back.

"Chris, Chris," he shouted, but Larabee kept walking without a backwards glance. "Damn it," Buck swore. He struggled to his feet, trying to push past a medic, whose latex-gloved hands were roughly prodding his ribs.

"Stand still," the medic snapped. "You're hurt."

Buck shoved the man backwards. "I'm fine. Help them." The two younger agents were sprawled on the ground, Agent Foster groaning and clutching at his stomach while another medic tried frantically to stem the tide of blood pouring from a gaping wound; Mulroney ominously still and silent, with Palmer crouched over him.

Suddenly Palmer swore out loud and looked up, his eyes black with rage. "He's dead, you piece of shit," he screamed, leaping to his feet. "I'm having you up on charges, Wilmington…"

Buck's stomach heaved at the sight of Agent Mulroney, looking impossibly young and lifeless. "Do what you have to do," he whispered. He had to get to Chris, he had to make him listen, make him understand. He walked as quickly as he could down the hallway, aware now that the rush of adrenalin had left him that his ribs were aching where he'd been kicked and his face was a throbbing mass of cuts and bruises. When he stepped out of the building and into the brilliant sunshine JD almost bowled him over.

He shook the young man by the shoulders, no time now for the niceties. "Where's Chris?" he hissed.

JD looked bewildered. "He's gone. God he looked like crap. I thought you were…" he trailed off as Buck stalked away to spend the next twenty minutes combing the area unsuccessfully searching for Chris. What he found instead was a medic who wouldn't take no for an answer and who bandaged his cracked ribs, cleaned up the abrasions on his face and put two stitches into the cut Chris had opened over his eye. Then he spent almost two hours holed up in a windowless office back inside the factory giving an account of the operation to a team of FBI agents who asked him the same questions six ways from Sunday.

By that time, his head had been spinning and he was getting sick of the stench of drying blood and piss and vomit that clung to him, in his hair and on his skin, all over his clothes, even in his shoes.

Finally the FBI let him go and he stumbled outside, startled to note that it was almost dusk. He was a little surprised that nobody had stayed to pick him up and he looked around feeling stupidly at a loss until Sam Mitchell from Team Eleven offered him a ride back to the Federal building.

Mitchell kept up a running commentary about his end of the bust, which seemed to have been pretty uneventful, and it was only when they were pulling into underground parking that he thought to ask Buck how his part in the raid had gone.

"Fine," Buck said, rousing himself out of his stupor. "Bad guys went down."

"Those god damned feebs can't do shit without the ATF," Mitchell laughed. "Hey, Wilmington, I think you could use a shower, man. You reek."

His nose wrinkled and Buck mumbled an apology and climbed out of the car. He made his way to the basement, suddenly feeling completely exhausted, and he pulled his towel out of his locker and headed for the shower area.

He stood under the hot water, watching in mild disgust as the rivulets running down from his hair turned pink. He pumped soap from the dispenser into his hand and worked up a lather and when he reached up he felt a sticky mass coating the back of his head and knew that it was blood from Blackwell or Mulroney, or maybe something worse than blood. Blackwell's face swam before him, half blown away by the bullet that had ended his life. When Buck thought that it might have been Chris lying there… His gut spasmed and he fell to his knees, vomiting a stream of bile onto the blue tiles of the shower floor. He saw Mulroney's lifeless body, swimming in a pool of his own guts, and he shuddered as his stomach clenched further, expelling its contents.

When he'd choked up everything inside, and the dry heaves finally subsided, he climbed unsteadily to his feet and resolutely finished cleaning himself, scrubbing until he was red raw. Then he went back to his locker and dressed in the spare clothes they were all realistic enough to keep here for these kinds of occasions. He tried to keep his mind trained firmly away from the one area he could hardly stand to remember – Chris's face, first the mask of incredulous fury, then the anguished hopelessness, and finally, just before the man's fist had connected with his face… what? Something he'd never seen before, and he thought he knew Chris inside and out, something that chilled him deep down inside.

He wandered upstairs to the office, on automatic pilot, not even sure what he planned to do once he got there. When he pushed open the door he was surprised to find the whole team gathered, in dead silence. He made his way slowly to his desk, painfully aware of all the heads that followed him, of the unnatural silence, and he'd only just collapsed into his chair when Chris's door opened and he walked out.

Buck raised his head, and his heart plunged into his stomach. He barely recognized the man standing in front of him so bleak and cold was Chris's expression. He didn't realize he had moved but he found himself on his feet, almost standing at attention.

Chris didn't waste a breath asking if he was okay. "Agent Wilmington this is an official warning advising you that you will be called before a Disciplinary Board to account for your actions in the Symington case today. FBI Agent Cliff Palmer will be filing a misconduct complaint against you, I will be supporting his charges."

There was a collective hiss from the rest of the team, and JD stood up, his mouth working although no words came out immediately.

Chris ignored the shocked expressions on his team's faces and pressed on. "You disobeyed my direct orders, you were insubordinate, and you put the lives of several field operatives at risk. What's more you jeopardized the entire operation…"

"That's not true," JD shouted, finally finding his voice.

"You weren't there," Chris thundered, turning furious eyes on the young agent. JD flinched but he didn't back down.

"I don't have to be there to know Buck would never do anything like that."

Chris's eyes swung back to pin him with a glare. "Why don't you tell him, Buck?" Chris snarled. "Did I give you an order, did I tell you what you had to do?"

"Yes," Buck murmured, wishing the others didn't have to witness Chris's meltdown.

"And did you follow those orders?" Chris snapped, his eyes growing impossibly colder.

"Chris, please," Buck said, not even sure what he was pleading for.

"Did you follow my orders, Agent Wilmington?" Chris repeated, each word spat out like a curse.

Buck shut his eyes briefly. "No," he whispered.

"No. You did not," Chris said, and something changed in his eyes that made Buck shiver. "You thought you knew better. You countermanded me, you undermined my authority, you showed total reckless disregard for the situation…"

"It's okay, Chris, everything worked out in the end." Vin cut in, and Buck winced knowing that Vin thought he was helping. He didn't see the look that Chris turned on his friend, but he saw the way Vin recoiled from it.

"They made him kneel down," Chris said, his voice quiet now, almost hollow, and Buck saw the looks of confusion his team-mates traded at the sudden change that seemed to have swept over him. "In the blood and the shit and the vomit. And they pressed a revolver against his temple, the same revolver that had just taken the life of a wounded agent. And if the FBI hadn't come blasting through that door his goddamned brains would have been decorating my flak jacket." His voice had been rising and it cracked on the last word, and he turned his face away from the bewildered men and covered his eyes with his hand.

Buck stood absolutely still, every muscle straining to reach out and gather Chris to him, to whisper promises he knew he'd never keep, but instinct screamed that it would be the worst thing he could do right now. So he stood by helplessly while Chris pulled in a deep, shuddering breath, then raised his head. His eyes glittered, hard and bright as diamonds, and his voice now was biting as an arctic wind. "Agent Wilmington, you are immediately suspended without pay pending the outcome of a Disciplinary Board. You are to have no contact whatsoever with any member of this team." He turned back abruptly and stared down the increasingly mutinous looks on the faces of the other agents.

"Anybody who communicates with him for any reason will be automatically suspended. JD, the same won't apply to you, for obvious reasons, but if I find out you've said one word about anything that happens at the office, about any of the cases we're working on, I'll have you up on charges of insubordination. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," JD mumbled, obviously dazed.

Given what Chris had said to the kid Buck wasn't surprised when he whipped back around. "Turn in your security pass and get the hell out of my sight," he growled. "I don't want to see you or hear from you until the Board convenes. Nothing. Am I making myself clear?"

Buck almost laughed, he didn't think Chris could have been clearer if he'd taken out a billboard. "I hear you," he said quietly. "I made my choice, now you have to make yours."