Willow '06: End Of The Road (II)

The sun had set and the world outside the window was already dark when Randolph called for a half hour recess. Buck wasn't surprised when Chris rose quickly and left the room without so much as glancing his way.

He stood up, wincing at the stiffness in his side. He was tired. He'd barely slept the night before, hadn't been getting much rest at all lately. He wondered if it was possible in so short a time to fall out of the habit of sleeping alone. He certainly hated it.

He wandered out of the boardroom into the empty hallway. The rest of the team must have finally given up their wait, realizing that this thing wasn't likely to get resolved too soon and they'd probably gone back downstairs to the bullpen. Buck felt a pang of loss, imaging them all in their places. Continuing without him.

His side was hurting so he sat down in one of the straight-backed chairs lining the hallway and leaned his head against the wall, closing his eyes.

"You don't look so good."

He shot up straight, wincing as his tight muscles pulled painfully. Chris was standing in front of him, a worried frown creasing his forehead.

"I'm fine. Just tired I reckon."

"What's wrong with your side?" Chris pressed.

Buck shrugged. "Couple of cracked ribs…" he stopped as Chris hissed out an angry breath.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he growled.

Buck raised an eyebrow. "You weren't exactly in a sympathetic mood," he said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Damn it," Chris said. "You should have asked for a postponement."

"I just told you I'm fine," Buck said irritably.

"Bullshit," Chris snapped and Buck could only sit and wonder as Chris stormed off into the boardroom. Minutes later he returned and stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at Buck.

"I've put them off until tomorrow," he said, ignoring Buck's open-mouthed consternation. "You're coming home with me," he continued firmly.

Buck straightened and shook his head vehemently, stirring up the headache that had been playing behind his eyes for the past hour. "I'll go to the condo," he said. "I just need to lie down for a half hour…"

"You're coming home," Chris said, more sternly. "Christ, look at you! You obviously haven't been taking care of yourself. You're a damned mess. You're coming back to the ranch, you're going to have a decent meal and a good night's sleep and for once in your life you're not going to argue with me."

"Fuck," Buck snarled, but he couldn't summon up enough strength to refuse. He desperately needed to ease his aches and pains, and he needed to sleep. He hauled himself to his feet, trying not to waver as Chris watched him, hawk-like, his mouth narrowing into a thin line of disapproval.

"Come on," Chris ordered tersely, and Buck moved slowly and carefully, following Chris to the elevators and down into the underground parking. He allowed himself to be steered towards the RAM and climbed up into the front seat, relaxing gratefully into the soft leather and soon he was dozing lightly as Chris revved up the engine and slid the truck into the late-afternoon traffic.

Several minutes later Buck swam vaguely into consciousness when he heard Chris's voice and he glanced over to see that Chris was speaking quietly into his cell phone, obviously telling whomever was on the other end that he was going home and that he had Buck with him. Buck squirmed on the seat, trying to find a comfortable spot, and soon he drifted off again, feeling more relaxed than he had in weeks.

An hour later the truck stopped, and Buck woke with a surprised start. Chris glanced over at him and said, "You okay?" and he managed to nod and drag himself out of the truck. He was still feeling light-headed when he reached the house, and Chris steered him towards the den and pushed him down gently into his favorite armchair.

"Sit there and don't move," Chris said. "I'm going to fix you something to eat."

Buck considered arguing, slightly irritated at Chris's bossy tone, but in the end he was too tired. Instead he settled into the warmth of his chair, feeling instantly comfortable and secure, and he nodded in and out of a doze until he heard Chris's voice from the kitchen.

"You want to eat out there?"

Buck shook himself more fully awake and climbed to his feet. The pain in his side had eased and he felt surprisingly clear-headed, and more rested than he'd felt for days. He sniffed the air appreciatively and followed the delicious smells coming from the kitchen. Chris had warmed up a pot of his home-made chili and heaped an enormous serving into a bowl that he pushed across the counter as Buck walked in.

"You on prescription painkillers?" Chris asked, pulling open the refrigerator door.

"Sometimes," Buck mumbled, avoiding the scorching look Chris sent his way.

"You have them with you?" Chris demanded.

Buck shook his head and Chris sighed deeply, plunking a can of ginger ale onto the counter in front of Buck then reaching into the cupboard over the sink and rifling through the bottles until he found the extra-strength Tylenol. He shook out two capsules and held them out, and Buck took them, feeling stupidly sheepish at Chris's coddling.

They ate in silence for several minutes, Buck aware that Chris was looking at him closely.

"What else, other than cracked ribs?" Chris finally asked.

Buck glanced up briefly. "Bit of bruising, couple of stitches."

Chris's mouth tightened, but thankfully he didn't pursue it.

"How's work?" Buck asked.

"Fine," Chris said brusquely and Buck knew that as far as Chris was concerned, the subject was now closed. He felt his irritation flare again.

"Things seem to be going your way today," he said, unable to resist the jibe.

Chris had the grace to wince but he didn't drop his gaze and the warm hazel eyes traveling over his face like a caress made Buck ache with longing.

"I won't let them get it wrong," Chris said quietly. "I won't let them call you a coward."

"You're not so picky about insubordinate hot-head who can't obey orders," Buck said, but he couldn't muster any real heat.

Chris didn't rise to the bait, just looked at him sadly, and Buck could see the real grief etched on his face and felt his heart clench in sympathy. "I reckon the barn will need a new coat of paint this year," Buck said, wanting to change the subject. Chris shot him a brief, grateful look and they finished dinner talking about inconsequential things.

After dinner, Chris changed into his old jeans and a sweatshirt and Buck followed him down to the barn. Chris wouldn't let him do anything to help, despite his vehement protestations that he wasn't made of goddamned glass and wasn't about to shatter. In the end he gave up the unequal argument and just watched Chris work while he petted his big gray mare, slipping her an apple as he stroked her muzzle.

"You spoil that animal," Chris muttered. It was an old complaint that Buck had long since learned to ignore.

"She deserves it," he said, "don't you, girl?"

"She missed you," Chris said gruffly, and Buck could hear the wistful note in Chris's voice, understanding the subtext only too well.

"I missed her, too," he said quietly, glancing into Chris's face to see if he read the underlying message.

"Yeah," Chris breathed, their eyes meeting briefly before Chris looked away quickly and Buck knew he'd understood.

When Chris was finished they walked up to the house through the rapidly cooling night air and Buck went back into the den and settled back into his armchair, flicking aimlessly through the channels while Chris crashed around in the kitchen, eventually appearing with two coffee mugs. He handed one wordlessly to Buck then sat on the couch, his eyes drifting towards the screen although Buck felt sure that he wasn't taking anything in.

"I did what I thought was right," Chris blurted suddenly. "I did the only thing I could under the circumstances"

Buck sighed. He knew they'd have to have this conversation sooner or later, but he'd hoped to postpone it until he'd had a good night's sleep. "It wasn't your decision to make," he challenged.

"I'm your boss, Buck," Chris snapped, his head turning to pin Buck with a hard glare.

"You're not just my boss," Buck countered, the resentment he'd so carefully suppressed building in him again. "We're supposed to be partners, too. You don't just steamroll over me on something like that."

"We were on the job," Chris persisted, his own rage surfacing quickly. "There's a goddamned chain of command…"

"You expected me to stand by and watch you take a fucking bullet?"

"I expected you to follow orders. We didn't have the time to argue the finer points of who was going to get his head blown off." Chris's voice had risen as his fury reignited, and with the last words he leapt to his feet. "It was my call and I wasn't about to blow it just because I'm fucking you."

"Fucking me!" Buck sputtered. "That's all this is to you? A fuck? I've lived with you for a almost a year and I'm still just the guy you order around and screw when you feel like it..."

"Damn it, you're twisting my words," Chris snapped. "All I'm saying is that I made the only decision I could…"

"And I did exactly the same," Buck cut in. "But I'm being punished for it. We should have talked about it, Chris. Afterwards. You could have screamed and shouted all you wanted. But this? Having me up on charges, trying to get me thrown off the team? That's bullshit."

"It won't go further than a preliminary inquiry. You'll get re-assigned…"

"You don't know that," Buck challenged hotly. "Christ, even a prelim could go on my permanent record and if I end up being charged with insubordination I'll be branded a discipline case, you know that. None of the other teams will touch me. What in God's name were you thinking about?"

"You," Chris exploded. "The only thing I ever think about. This wasn't the first time, Buck," Chris's voice was suddenly dangerously cold. "This just opened my eyes. It made me realize what I've been doing all these months."

"What?" Buck asked.

"I second guess myself every time I put you into the field," Chris said. "The first thing I think about after an operation is where you are, if you're safe."

"That's because you're a damned good team leader," Buck argued.

"It's because I'm too focused on you," Chris countered. "There's a reason they discourage couples working together." He paused and Buck knew that the cold dread he was feeling could be clearly read on his face. "It's because we can't make impartial decisions, we can't separate our personal lives from our work lives."

"That's not true," Buck sputtered.

"It is for me," Chris said. "I've done it already, put your safety ahead of the others. I've told myself it was because Vin's a better marksman or Ezra's a better inside man, but that's not the whole truth. It's because I didn't want to put you in the dangerous situations. I won't do it again, Buck. I won't compromise the job or risk the others because of you."

He turned his back and strode to the window, and Buck watched his reflection in the darkened pane, saw him bite down on his lip, a sure sign he was angry or hurt, or both. When he spoke again his voice was soft, pained. "What if the choice hadn't been between me and you? What if it had been between me or Vin, me or JD? Have you thought about that?"

Buck closed his eyes briefly. He'd scarcely thought of anything else. For endless tortuous hours that same question had arisen over and again, tormenting him with every permutation, every variation until he could no longer bear to conjure up the images.

"We should have seen this coming," Chris said, his voice firmer now, more decisive and Buck knew he'd spent hours going over this in his head, worrying at it like he did everything that was important to him. He wished that he'd been there to help Chris through the agony of the process, although there was no doubt something deeply masochistic about wanting to help your partner figure out how best to cut you out of his life.

"It isn't like it happens every day," he tried. "We've worked together before…"

"Yeah. Together," Chris said, turning away from the window to face him. "You and me have been the team. It isn't just us now. Don't tell me it wouldn't destroy you if something happened to one of the others because you put me first, because you had to choose me over one of them. You wouldn't be able to live with yourself."

Buck felt a helplessness he'd rarely experienced before; felt his earlier reawakened hope slowly bleeding away. He rose unsteadily to his feet and crossed the floor to stand behind Chris. "We can do things differently," he pleaded, wincing at the note of desperation in his voice.

"How?" Chris asked. "I can't keep you out of the field, that wouldn't be fair on the rest of the team."

"I'd never ask you to do that," Buck said. This close he could smell Chris's aftershave, and underlying that the faint, erotic musk of his body. The effect was dizzying, and he felt momentarily light-headed. The urge to reach out and touch Chris was so strong in him that he literally swayed on his feet.

Chris reached out a steadying hand. "Go to bed," he ordered gruffly. "You're exhausted."

"We need to talk this through," Buck said, but Chris waved him off impatiently.

"I'm not having this conversation while you're so messed up," he said firmly and Buck could only throw up his hands in resignation knowing that Chris wouldn't be pushed.

He took a step towards their bedroom but felt a sudden stab of unexpected awkwardness. "I'll bunk in the spare room …" he started, but Chris cut him off.

"Sleep in your own bed. You need the rest. I'll crash on the couch."

"Okay, whatever you want," Buck mumbled tiredly. He turned and walked into the bedroom, quickly shucking down to his boxer shorts and crawling gratefully into bed. Despite the fact that he was tense and unhappy, the familiar surroundings soothed him. He rolled carefully onto his aching side and pressed his face against Chris's pillow, breathing in the comforting scent, and within minutes he'd drifted into a deep sleep.


Chris tiptoed out of the steamy bathroom as quietly as he could, a towel draped around his waist, hair and skin still damp from his shower. He grimaced when Buck scrambled up into a sitting position.

"I didn't mean to wake you, go back to sleep," Chris whispered.

"You coming to bed?" Buck whispered back.

Chris hesitated. "I was going to take the couch," he said.

"Aww, hell, Chris, we're not in high school. Come to bed, for Christ sakes." Buck wriggled back down under the covers and turned his back and a moment later Chris shrugged and climbed in behind him.

When Buck's breathing had evened out, Chris realized that he himself was wide awake and he turned slowly onto his back and clasped his hands behind his head, looking up at the darkened ceiling. It had all seemed so cut and dried when he'd put this thing into action but now the edges were beginning to blur. He'd been so damned pissed at Buck, and so scared for him. All he could think about was regaining control and ensuring that they were never put in that position again. It was easier in hindsight to admit to himself that he'd let fear and anger drive him. And Buck was right; a charge of insubordination on his file would definitely restrict his options.

He turned his head, his eyes tracing the planes of Buck's shoulders. It felt both absolutely right and somehow weirdly strange to be lying here, the warmth from Buck's body seeping through the sheets, the familiar, sensual smell of him tickling at Chris's nose making him long to turn and bury his face against Buck's fragrant skin. His cock stirred and he groaned quietly, not needing this right now, not when things between them were so confused and complicated.

"What's this really about?"

Buck's voice was soft, and it was obvious that he wasn't asleep and that his mind was still turning over furiously.

"I've already told you…" Chris began.

"Cut the crap," Buck interrupted, rolling onto his back. "I want the truth, not that line of horseshit you've been feeding me. It's not because I disobeyed an order. You solve your own problems, you don't go running to the brass. And it's not because you think you've been favoring me, sure that might be a part of it, but it isn't the real reason."

Chris swallowed and turned his head. "I can't do this anymore, Buck," he said quietly.

"What?" Buck asked, his brow furrowing.

"This. Us." He hesitated as Buck sucked in a shocked breath. "We shouldn't have let it get this far."

"You're overreacting," Buck said, his voice shaking.

Chris struggled into a sitting position and watched as Buck did the same, wincing as pain lanced through him. Chris tried to turn away but Buck reached out and grabbed at his wrist, stopping him. "Chris?" he asked, confusion clear in his voice. "Talk to me…"

Chris yanked hard and pulled away from Buck's grasp. "I thought I'd seen you die," he exploded. "Don't you understand? I thought it had happened all over again." He groaned as the anguish welled up in him; a tangle of emotions that he couldn't separate, the real devastation of loss and grief mixed with the savage horror of seeing Buck with a gun against his head. In those moments after the shot rang out, sure that Buck was dead, he'd felt the tie that tethered him to life snap and knew he wouldn't survive this loss. He couldn't be the one left behind, not again. He couldn't be the one forced to carry on alone, to live with the endless reproaches, the self-loathing, the overwhelming guilt.

He shuddered, his body literally shaking with emotional overload.

"Jesus, Chris," Buck whispered. His hand shot out and this time his fingers closed around Chris's arm and he tugged. When Chris tried to resist Buck pulled harder until he was halfway across the bed, wrapped in Buck's arms.

"That's what this is about?" Buck murmured. He tightened his grip and Chris sucked in a breath then suddenly relaxed against Buck's chest.

"I thought you were dead," he whispered again.

"Don't, Chris," Buck said sharply. "I'm here, I'm fine." He reached up and began to stroke a soothing hand through Chris's hair. "I'm here," he whispered again.

Chris concentrated all his attention on the strong arms banded around him, on Buck's soft skin against his lips, on the familiar planes of Buck's body pressing against him. He breathed in deeply of the faintly citrus aftershave that scented Buck's throat and gasped out loud when a warm hand closed around his rigid shaft.

"Buck," he breathed, half protest, half plea. He reached down, meaning to stop Buck's ministrations, but when his hand closed around Buck's wrist he couldn't bring himself to halt the gentle movement of much-practiced fingers along his aching length.

"Let me," Buck pleaded, and when Chris lifted his head he saw Buck's eyes shining in the pre-dawn light that was slowly filtering into the room.

"It won't change anything," Chris groaned, involuntarily arching his back and pushing himself into Buck's stroking fingers.

"Let's forget about everything tonight," Buck whispered. He rolled them gently until Chris was lying on his back, legs spread with Buck settled between them. "We'll figure it out tomorrow." Buck smoothed a hand down his taut body and a single finger rubbed gently against the puckered opening to Chris's body making him moan out loud. "Let me, Chris," Buck pleaded again. "We need this."

He knew it was a kind of betrayal, that it would doubtless complicate things beyond what they could handle, yet Chris found himself tightening his grip on Buck's wrist and bearing down steadily until the blunt digit breached the taut ring of muscles at his ass. He whimpered out loud and Buck covered his mouth with soft lips and all further resistance fled as he allowed himself to take the comfort Buck offered.

He surrendered to the flow of their bodies, aware only of hard muscle and lithe limbs, of hitched breath and whispered requests, of intense pleasure and profound aching sorrow. As they moved in familiar rhythm he looked up at Buck's beautiful face above him, into deep blue eyes dark with desire and suffused with bliss, and wondered whether this would be their goodbye. Tears slid from the corners of his eyes and Buck leaned down to kiss them away and murmur words of love that tore at his heart so that he had to turn his face away.

As though by unspoken consent they both held back, making this last, taking each other to the brink then withdrawing until both were drenched in sweat and shaking with the need for release. When it came it was so intense, so shattering, that Chris had to close his eyes and simply ride out the ecstasy as it tore through him.

He lay still, panting in the moist air around him, his body wrung out and his pounding heart had just begun to slow when he heard Buck's voice close to his ear, "We'll get through this, Chris. We'll work it out and we'll go on."

He froze, his body stiffening with renewed tension. "Buck…" he tried, but Buck hushed him with a finger placed over his lips and a look of such intense pleading that Chris couldn't bring himself to argue any further. Buck snuggled up against him and sighed deeply and soon his breathing became soft and regular and Chris knew he'd drifted off to sleep, content now that he thought they could settle things between them.

His arms tightened around the familiar body and he buried his face against Buck's damp hair wishing that he had Buck's unshakeable faith.


Chris woke with a strangled gasp, his heart thudding against his chest, his body doused in sweat, his head pounding with a terrifying jumble of fragmentary images. It was always the same dream; fire licking high against a crumbling wall while motes of ash danced in the flickering air, Adam's smiling face literally melting to nothingness, Sarah running away from him, refusing to turn as he frantically called her name. He'd had the nightmare for months after their death, waking up petrified and screaming, Buck always there to pull him into a shaky embrace and ease the horror.

He no longer woke up screaming, although the terror pulsing through him was just as real. Buck was here now, Chris realized fuzzily, tucked up tightly against his side, and his hand moved instinctively to close around the big body.

The dreams had come back that horrible night two weeks ago and had tormented him ever since. But there was a difference. Now, when Adam's face melted a new face appeared; Buck's face. Only it wasn't really Buck, it was Blackwell, the agent Chris was supposed to have commanded, but who had ended up dead on a cold, stone floor with a bullet in his brain. Chris sucked in a pained breath and closed his eyes, but the grisly image was deeply imprinted and rose again. Half the agent's face had been blown away and the jagged skull gaped open. It was what Buck would have looked like if…

Chris groaned and gently loosened himself from Buck's grip. He rolled to the side of the bed and swung his legs out, wincing as they touched the cool wooden floor, then he buried his head in his hands. God, he couldn't go through it again; the black emptiness that had all but engulfed him after his family had been killed, the jagged intensity of their loss, the all-consuming guilt, the shame of being unable to protect and keep them safe.

He remembered each painful brick in the protective wall he'd had to construct; each unheralded milestone that had almost shattered his determination to go on. Adam's birthday, what would have been his sixth; his wedding anniversary, those seven wonderful years together that he and Sarah would never get to celebrate; that pitifully empty first Christmas, and on and on for a horrific year, only to realize that he'd have to go through this over and again until death claimed him too. It had been almost too unbearable to face.

No matter how much Buck had reasoned, the guilt and shame had never gone away. He'd pushed them down deep, for Buck's sake, but they had survived to claw their way back now, to take over every waking moment and intrude into his nights.

He half turned on the bed and looked down at Buck so peaceful now, positive that they'd work this all out and carry on as before. He gently swept a stray lock of hair off his friend's forehead, but his hand was trembling so violently that he snatched it away before he could shake Buck awake. The clammy sweat had dried on his body and he shivered convulsively. He'd never felt so shockingly vulnerable as that day two weeks ago, realizing that for all his training, for all his planning, he had absolutely no control over his life or Buck's. It was a lesson he supposed he should have learned the first time, when Sarah and Adam had been snatched away from him, but his own helpless failure had blind-sided him all over again.

It had taught him something else too, something agonizing, something he simply couldn't live with. If he hadn't known it before, the events of that day had made one thing clear, Buck would always choose Chris's well-being over anybody else's, would always put him first, would sacrifice everything, including himself, for Chris. The responsibility was too much for him to bear.

He could end their relationship now, but that wouldn't change anything. He'd still agonize for hours whenever he assigned Buck into the field, he'd still break into a cold sweat waiting to see if his partner made it out alive. He loved Buck with all his heart, all that was left of it after grief and loss had shattered it into a thousand pieces, that wouldn't change just because they no longer shared a bed. Reaching down he tucked a blanket carefully around Buck's shoulder, skimming warm skin with the palm of his hand. It was clear to him that he and Buck could no longer work together but Buck refused to accept that. He knew how this would go. Buck would persuade him that they could change and he'd let himself be convinced. They'd be a little more cautious for a few weeks, a few months, but soon they'd succumb to the pressures of the job and return to old ways; until the next time a gun was put to Buck's head, or one of them was forced to choose who to protect and who to sacrifice.

He rose quietly and left the bedroom, slipping into his small office in the room next door. A few keystrokes brought his computer humming to life and took him to the ATF's internal email system. He typed in Orin Travis's name, and in the subject line he wrote `Buck Wilmington'. In the ghostly electronic glow of the computer screen, he carefully composed his text, then read and re-read the message, erasing a word here, changing a sentence there, until he was finally satisfied. Then he paused, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. Buck would be furious with him for this, there would be consequences he wasn't sure he had the strength to face.

The furnace suddenly kicked into life and the metallic click made Chris flinch. The sound threw him back forcefully to that blood-soaked room and the gun being cocked against Buck's temple. The look of soul-deep horror in Buck's eyes had been the most devastating thing Chris had ever witnessed, save the smoldering shell of the ranch almost a year ago. He shuddered deeply. Whatever their future held, Chris was determined that he would never again allow himself to be the cause of any threat to Buck, not through any of his choices, not through forcing choices on Buck that were made with his heart instead of his reason.

He knew that Buck would see what he was about to do was a betrayal, an unforgivable breach of trust, but if Buck wouldn't make the right decision, he would have to. With a last glance at the damning words, he pressed down hard on the `send' key, deliberately sealing their fate.


The first thing Buck saw when he stepped off the elevator was Vin, his head cocked to the side speculatively. Buck couldn't help grinning at the question so obvious on his friend's face, and Vin broke into a broad smile as he approached.

"So you and Chris…"

"Hold your horses, boy," Buck laughed. "We talked, but we've got a long way to go to settle this."

"But it's a start, right?" Vin said, his smile spreading. "He listened this time?"

Buck nodded. Chris hadn't been in such a talkative mood this morning, in fact he'd barely said a word all through the drive in. Buck figured he'd been preoccupied with how to handle the Disciplinary Board, after all, Buck hadn't contested any of the charges brought against him and it would require some serious backtracking on Chris's part to dig them both out of this mess.

He'd been worried as hell about Chris last night. He wasn't holding up very well through all this and it had been heartbreaking to see how the old demons had come back to haunt him. Buck hated being the cause of Chris's endless recriminations, of the deeply unshakeable guilt that rode him and he was determined that when this was all over, he'd work as hard as he could to resolve the painful issues that sometimes still divided them. He could see Chris now through the open boardroom door, talking to Orin Travis. Travis was unusually animated, gesticulating wildly; Chris was grim-faced but calm and Buck supposed that he was getting flak over his sudden change in direction.

Buck patted Vin on the arm. "Looks like Chris is taking a beating over this. I'd better go take my licks, too. I'll catch up with you later."

Vin nodded and Buck walked into the boardroom. Travis's head swiveled sharply and he stopped talking, and Chris glanced over too, something flickering across his face that Buck couldn't read. Chris said something to Travis, then he turned away and took his seat, refusing to meet Buck's quizzical look.

Buck resumed his own seat when Randolph and Chappelle walked in and he watched closely as Travis crossed the floor to huddle with them. Their voices were too low for him to hear what was being said, though it was obvious that the discussion was pretty heated. Buck presumed that Travis was trying to sell whatever plan Chris had come up with. He wished Chris had told him what he was going to propose so that he could prepare himself, but Chris had been tight-lipped and on edge this morning and he was already so emotionally fragile that Buck hadn't wanted to push too hard.

He risked a glance at Chris, but his eyes remained fixed intently on Travis. Eventually all three of the adjudicators sat down behind the long desk and Randolph began frantically scribbling on a piece of paper in the file in front of him. Buck tried to keep his unease at bay, but the odd, tight look on Travis's face and Chris's tense body language combined to send a thrill of anxiety through him.

The silence in the room lengthened almost intolerably until finally Randolph tucked the sheet of paper he'd been writing on back into the folder, and leaned forward, his fingers steepled, his cold blue gaze directed at Buck.

"Is it true, Agent Wilmington, that you and Agent Larabee are cohabiting?"

Buck gasped and every muscle in his body suddenly clenched hard. He shot a look at Chris, expecting to see the same incredulous shock on his partner's face, but the stony expression on Chris's face hadn't changed. He turned an accusing glare on Travis. Outside of the team Travis was the only one who knew about his relationship with Chris. He must have disclosed their secret to Randolph, none of the others would have given up the information.

As he watched, Travis darted a nervous glance at Chris. Buck looked back at his partner, who turned his head slowly until their eyes locked. He frowned at Chris's level gaze, wondering at his cool composure. Surely he realized that this would force them apart, that they'd no longer be allowed to work on the same team. Chris's eyes widened momentarily and Buck suddenly read the truth in his unwavering stare. His gut clenched as understanding hit him full force.

It was Chris. Chris had given them up.

He remembered last night as they'd trembled on the verge of orgasm, buried so deeply in his lover's body, watching the tears slide from the corners of Chris's eyes; he'd felt they had never been so close, so intensely connected, he'd thought he's seen such profound love on Chris's face. When he'd woken this morning Chris was already up and dressed and barely spoke to him, but before they'd left the house he had pulled Buck into an embrace, clinging so tightly that Buck's sore ribs screamed in protest. Chris had kissed him then, a brief tender promise that had filled Buck with hope and he'd whispered, "Remember that I love you," against Buck's ear, then broken away before Buck could respond.

How much of that had been a lie, he wondered as Chris turned his head away. Had Chris been planning this even as they'd made love?

"Agent Wilmington?" Randolph's voice cut through the silence and Buck flinched. He dragged his eyes away from Chris.

"We are partners, yes," he said, grudgingly.

"Sexual partners?" Randolph pressed, the sibilance hissing through the hushed room like escaping steam.

"Yes," Buck affirmed.

"And how long has this relationship existed?"

"Almost a year," Buck replied hoarsely.

"So, you were already in a relationship before Team Seven was formed? And you continued the… partnership, knowing that liaisons between team members are discouraged?"

"Discouraged, but not forbidden," Buck said.

"Strongly discouraged, and I think it would be disingenuous to pretend you don't know what that actually means, Agent Wilmington," Chappelle interjected.

Travis cleared his throat. "Irrespective of when it began I think we've all been given a perfect example of why relationships between team members are frowned upon. There is too much inherent partiality, regardless of how good the intentions of both parties."

"Our relationship has never compromised our work," Buck protested weakly.

"Until now, Agent Wilmington," Chappelle said smoothly. "Agent Larabee has already testified that you didn't trade places with him to save yourself. Given the relationship between you it now appears obvious that you traded places in order to try to save his life, that's correct, isn't it?"

Buck's hands tightened involuntarily but he remained silent.

"Agent Wilmington?" Chapelle pressed.

"That is correct." Chris's voice was quiet, but all eyes turned towards him.

"Explain," Randolph ordered.

"Agent Wilmington knew that whoever was left behind would be executed," Chris said. "The gang had already murdered a wounded man. They weren't about to allow a trained agent to sit in a room full of explosives in the rear of their position."

"Which is why you ordered Agent Wilmington to leave. You both knew the person who got out of that room stood the best chance of surviving."

Chris nodded.

"So, both of you allowed personal considerations to take precedence." Chappelle said, her voice rising sharply. "You are the ranking officer, the more experienced agent, you should have led that group out of there yourself, you know all of the options for circumventing a hostage situation."

"So does Buck," Chris cut in. "You won't find a better qualified agent…"

"You are the senior officer…"

"That's right Ms. Chappelle," Chris hissed. "And there is no way I'd offer up a subordinate to take a bullet to the head while I saved my own skin. And that applies whether I'm fucking them or not."

"Larabee, you're out of line," Randolph barked.

Chris stared down Elaine Chappelle as she continued to bristle, until eventually both of them relaxed back into their seats. Randolph pinned Chris with a hard look.

"Assistant Director Travis advises that you are withdrawing your support for the charges of insubordination against your agent," Randolph said. Buck stiffened, realizing that this must have been what Chris had negotiated with Travis. He was going to get the charges dropped, and the trade-off was their relationship.

"That's correct, sir," Chris said. "I've filed a revised deposition with A.D. Travis."

"You realize that in the light of this new information Agent Wilmington will have to be re-assigned, regardless of the outcome of this Disciplinary Board?"

"Yes sir, I understand," Chris replied.

"Agent Wilmington?" Randolph asked.

Buck's mouth tightened into a thin line. "The sooner the better," he said grimly.

Chris sucked in a noisy breath and felt his heart clench. Even knowing how Buck was likely to react hadn't prepared him for the stinging pain.

Randolph rose. "You'll be contacted within the week with the decision of this Board." Chappelle and Travis stood up and all three walked out of the room.

The sudden silence pulsed with tension and Chris was intensely aware of the hurt and confusion practically radiating off Buck who sat as if frozen, every muscle clenched, his eyes staring fixedly at the wall and Chris had the impression that if he moved, if he relaxed for an instant, he would shatter into a thousand pieces.

"Your suspension is going to be extended for two weeks." Chris said, trying to keep his voice cool, business-like, dismayed at the way it trembled. "Then you'll be re-assigned to Team Eleven. You'll keep the same grade and this won't go on your permanent record."

The words seemed to release Buck's rigid body and he turned his head slowly and Chris forced himself to look into those deeply pained blue eyes. "That the deal you made with Travis?" Buck asked. "What makes you think the others will go along with it?"

"They will," Chris said with conviction. "Nobody wants to railroad a good agent." Those had been the conditions he'd insisted on and he'd known before the Disciplinary Board reconvened this morning that Travis had successfully sold the plan. Randolph had been happy with what he'd seen as an easy out, an orderly resolution to a messy business. Buck would be disciplined and removed from Team Seven, but they'd avoid the distasteful task of pressing charges against one of their own. Randolph had been privately pleased at how neatly all ends could be achieved.

"I thought we'd figured this out," Buck said, his voice cracking. "Last night, I thought you agreed that we could make this work."

"You weren't listening, Buck," Chris replied sharply, feeling nauseated even as he said the words. "I told you I couldn't do this anymore. Nothing that happened last night changed my mind."

Buck's eyes widened in shock and Chris pressed on coldly, "I'm not about to destroy this team, I'm not about to put lives in danger because we were too dumb to end this when we should have."

The heartbreak on Buck's face made him shudder with shame, but Chris swallowed down the bile that was rising in his throat. He was doing this to safeguard the team, he was doing this for Buck's sake as well as his own. He couldn't weaken now.

"You used our relationship to get what you wanted," Buck said, shaking his head.

"I was trying to protect your career," Chris countered.

"So you lied to me, went behind my back," Buck spat, and Chris knew that the harsh tone he could hear was Buck's struggle to protect himself from the misery Chris was inflicting. It tore at his heart. "I've always known you were a manipulating sonofabitch," Buck continued. "I know you'll do whatever it takes to make things work the way you want them to, but to use our relationship as some kind of bargaining chip?"

"Christ, Buck, we can't work together. Can't you see that?" Chris said desperately, his resolve to keep this cold and clinical almost derailed in the face of Buck's hurt. "We went over all this last night…"

"Was that part of your plan too, Chris?" Buck interrupted. "One last fuck before you cut me loose?"

Despite himself, Chris flinched. "It doesn't have to be like this," he said. "We'll work in different units, that's all this means."

Buck laughed incredulously. "You supported charges against me, you got me kicked off the team we built. You fucked me over, Chris and you think we can carry on playing house together?" He rose to his feet and started to leave, but he stopped in front of Chris's chair. "I'll get the rest of my stuff cleared out of the ranch," he said tonelessly and Chris tried in vain to steel himself for the next blow. "It's over, Chris," Buck said. "This is the end of the road for us."


Buck turned the truck into the gravel driveway leading to the ranch and slowed to a crawl, his eyes darting across the landscape in an attempt to imprint the place into his memory. The trees were barren, and the ground was patchy and stiff with frost, but it wasn't difficult to imagine the place alive and verdant under a late summer sun, the horses ambling through the paddock, the smells of fresh cut grass and newly baled hay, the soft song of birds and the loud shouts of raucous laughter. Buck cut the engine and sat in silence, allowing the memories to come; joy and pain, calm and storm, friction and harmony, and always love.

He wasn't aware of how much time had passed, but eventually he pulled himself out of his reverie and started the truck again. It was time to put all of that behind him, time to face up to the new life he had to build. He'd heard from Travis within days of the Disciplinary Board. Chris had been right, they'd offered him a place on Team Eleven to replace an agent retiring at the end of the month. But the thought of working in the same building as Chris, likely seeing him every working day, was more than he could handle. Travis had been speechless when he'd turned it down flat, doubtless presuming that Buck had been in on the proposal Chris had put together.

When it became clear that Buck absolutely refused the internal transfer, Travis had offered him assignments in Chicago and Atlanta instead. He'd assured Buck that neither team would know the details of his relocation. They'd only be told that he'd disagreed with his team leader and was being re-assigned, so at least he could think about starting life with a clean slate. Not that he intended to make a decision any time soon, not until he'd taken some time to get his head on straight.

He'd spent the rest of the week signing papers, packing his stuff and saying his goodbyes. He hadn't felt in the mood for a large farewell and had said goodbye to each of his team mates privately; sharing a quiet, home-cooked dinner with Nate and Josiah in Nathan and Rain's cosy house; polishing off a bottle of Dom Perignon and an illegally procured Cuban cigar with Ezra in the smoking room of his club; hunkering down to pizza and the football game with JD in their condo.

He and Vin had gotten gloriously, thoroughly shit-faced at the seediest dive in Purgatorio, then staggered back to Vin's apartment. He'd woken in the early hours of the morning in Vin's bed, knowing that they'd been too drunk to do anything more than fumble blindly at each other before passing out. It had been exhilarating to feel the hard planes and dense muscle of a man's body next to him again and they'd seen each other in the following days, and done more than just fumble. Buck knew that there was something there if he wanted to pursue it. He just wasn't sure he needed the complication in his life right now.

Buck rounded the sweeping bend at the end of the driveway and the house came into view, with Chris standing on the wraparound porch, still as a statue, and his heart lurched painfully in his chest. He hadn't thought Chris would be here this morning. He'd purposefully chosen a weekday in the hopes that Chris would already be at work, and in the voicemail message he'd left he'd been deliberately vague about what time he'd be coming by. They hadn't seen each other since the hearing, and he'd refused to answer any of Chris's phone calls or read his emails. He hadn't even been back to the office to clean out his desk. JD had done that for him, right before he'd presented Chris with his own transfer request. Buck had tried to talk the kid into staying with the team, but it had been half-hearted at best and JD had adamantly refused to even consider it.

He parked the truck and climbed out, shivering slightly in the damp, cool air. He felt Chris's eyes on him as he walked up onto the porch.

"Got a pot of coffee on," Chris said. "If you have the time," he added.

Buck looked down at the knots in the pine decking under his feet and shook his head. "Got a long drive ahead of me," he said, surprising himself. Now that he was here, he realized that he couldn't face walking into the house knowing it might be the last time.

"That my junk?" Buck asked, to break the painful silence between them. Chris glanced at the neatly taped box on the porch and nodded his head.

"Wasn't much left," he said. "A few photos, a couple of books…" he trailed off and shrugged, a helpless gesture that tugged unexpectedly at Buck's heart.

"Better get Lady loaded up," Buck said gruffly. He busied himself hefting his box off the porch and onto the back of the truck along with the rest of his possessions, unable to look Chris in the eye.

He was surprised when Chris followed him down to the barn, and stood mutely with his hands jammed into his pockets. Lady raised her head when he walked in and nickered loudly and Buck gentled her with a soft word while he stroked a hand down her nose.

"You decided where you're going yet?" Chris asked.

"Nah," Buck replied. He knew which way he was headed, pretty much knew where he'd land, but he wasn't about to share that with Chris.

Chris's face screwed into a grimace, and Buck figured he knew he was being lied to. He'd never been much good at keeping anything from Chris; never really felt the need to. It had to hurt. But Buck couldn't think about that right now, he was nursing too many wounds of his own.

He slipped a halter over Lady's ears and threw open the gate to her stall, then led her out of the barn. Her head reared and she sniffed the air and danced a few steps sideways. Buck remembered when he'd first stabled her here, how many times Adam had sat in front of him, chubby legs banging against her sides begging his uncle to go "faster, faster." It all seemed so long ago now, a different life.

Lady balked when he tried to lead her up the ramp and into the trailer, and Buck fancied that she knew she'd never see her home again. He cajoled and sweet-talked until she reluctantly clambered in, then he walked back into the barn, past Chris who was staring fixedly at the ground, and he swung his saddle up into his arms and carried it out to the truck. He made the journey twice more, sorting out what was his, each time having to walk past Chris's silent presence.

Finally everything was stored away and he took a last look around the barn, breathed in deeply of the smell that had always been such a comfort, and turned his back on the place. Chris followed him again, an unnerving shadow and when Buck stopped beside the door to the truck, Chris all but barreled into the back of him.

He turned, Chris so close to him, the tight lines of stress and unhappiness deepening on his face.

"Guess that's it," Buck said, his voice cracking.

"Will you call? Let me know where you are?" Chris asked.

"I'll let JD and Vin know," Buck said softly. It seemed kinder than making a promise he knew he wouldn't keep.

Chris bit at his lip and nodded. "Take care of yourself," he said, and he finally raised his eyes to Buck's face.

Buck could feel a lump rising in his throat and he swallowed hard. He'd thought about this moment for weeks, and now that it was finally here there was nothing left to say.

He dug into his pocket and pulled out his set of keys, holding them out to Chris, who blanched and said, "Keep them," his voice painfully raw. Buck shook his head and pressed them into Chris's warm palm. Although he'd planned to say, "I won't be needing them," something in Chris's face made him hesitate. "You might need them," he said instead, wondering why even now he cared enough not to want to hurt Chris unnecessarily. He climbed back into the cab of his truck and threw a half-wave towards Chris as he reversed the truck.

He watched Chris in his rearview mirror, receding into the distance slowly, the lone figure standing motionless in the same spot, disappearing as Buck rounded a bend. He felt the prickle of tears under his lashes but knew they wouldn't spill over, not now that his home and his job and his friends were behind him. Not now that Chris was gone. He'd already started the process of building a wall around his heart; bricking off half a lifetime of beautiful memories. He reached the end of the gravel road and turned his truck westwards and he pushed the accelerator down hard and sped away without another backward glance.


Chris stretched, groaning as his sore muscles tightened painfully. He knew he'd overdone it in the barn today, but the hard, mindless work was the only way he could get through the long and tedious weekends. The rest of the team rarely came out to the ranch anymore, even Vin finding plenty of excuses for being elsewhere, and he missed the company more than he'd have thought possible.

He pulled a beer out of the refrigerator and wandered into the den, skirting the armchair and dropping onto the couch. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, always aware these days of the silence in the house, the painful emptiness in each room. The ache of loneliness throbbed through his veins, so much a part of him now, its sharp edges dulled with the temporary salve of alcohol.

It had been almost a month since Buck had walked out and Chris had to work a lot harder to maintain hope; but he hadn't given up yet. He knew they could survive this; that he could count on Buck's unfailing sense of fairness, on the depth of his love and commitment, and that Buck would eventually come to realize that what he'd done was for the best, for both of them. It had been a blow when Buck had refused to accept the transfer to Team Eleven, but Chris knew his partner just needed some time to get his head together. Then he'd come around. Surely he'd come around…

For the hundredth time he wondered if he could have done things differently. Maybe if he'd insisted on talking it through that last night, instead of letting Buck make love to him; maybe if he'd been honest enough to let Buck see that offering himself up that day had been a matter of self-preservation and not just the order of a commanding officer. He shook his head, irritated that he'd allowed those useless thoughts drag at him again. What was done was done. No help for it now. He had to concentrate on going forward, on getting Buck back here where he belonged.

He'd persuaded Travis to keep the position on Team Eleven open until the end of the month, sure that when Buck cooled down enough he'd see how they could work this out. He had compulsively checked the national ATF staff lists so he knew that Buck hadn't accepted either of the out-of-state transfers he'd been offered and that had fueled his hopes, especially late at night, tossing and turning in their lonely bed, when the outlook seemed bleakest.

It would have helped if he'd heard anything from Buck, but there had been no contact at all. He knew that Buck spoke to the rest of the team, especially to Vin now that JD was no longer with them, but he couldn't bring himself to ask any of them directly where Buck was, although he'd weakened more than once to ask how Buck was doing.

The phone rang, startlingly loud in the quiet house and Chris picked up the receiver and barked "Larabee." There was silence on the other end of the line and Chris felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in anticipation.


"Hi, Chris." Buck's voice sent a shiver of raw emotion pulsing through him. He had so much he wanted to ask, so much he needed to say but he couldn't marshal his thoughts quickly enough.

"How've you been?" Buck finally asked, breaking the silence.

"Okay," Chris lied. "Where are you?"

There was a pause and Chris wasn't sure that Buck was going to answer his question until he heard the quiet voice. "I'm in Vegas."

Vegas. Buck's old stomping ground. He should have guessed that Buck would return to the place he'd felt most at home, where his mother had lived and worked in the last years of her life.

"How long are you planning on staying there?" he asked.

"Just until I figure out what I want to do," Buck said.

"Listen, about that…" Chris started.

"Listen, Chris, the reason I'm calling…" Buck said simultaneously.

They both stopped mid-sentence.

Buck cleared his throat. "Listen, Chris," he began again, "Travis called yesterday. He said he was still holding the position on Team Eleven open for me…"

"It's a good opportunity for you," Chris interrupted, trying to rein in his eagerness. "Murphy's taking early retirement next year, you'd be in line for team leader…"

"I turned it down, Chris," Buck interrupted firmly, and Chris felt his guts clench so hard that he had to clutch at his stomach with his free hand. "I'm thinking about Atlanta," Buck continued. "It'll be a fresh start, something new. And I guess I can learn to like the Braves," he joked weakly.

Chris breathed in deeply, trying to calm his racing heart. Atlanta wasn't the end of the earth…

"That's why I'm calling," Buck continued. "I've got to update some paperwork, insurance stuff, my bank records, all that crap. I thought it might be a good time to make a few changes."

"What kind of changes?" Chris asked, his brow creasing into a frown.

"Well, you still have my medical proxy and my power of attorney." Chris heard a roaring in his ears and his stomach muscles cramped suddenly. "And you're still listed as my next of kin," Buck was saying, his voice sounding so distant. "I'm thinking that doesn't make much sense anymore."

Chris couldn't seem to find any words, his mind a sudden blank.

"I've asked JD to take over all of that," Buck said into the silence. "I thought maybe you'd want to make some changes too."

"Why?" Chris mumbled, too stunned to think it through for himself. It had never crossed his mind; it had never, ever occurred to him that Buck would want to separate them so completely.

"I won't be coming back to Denver…"

"You won't?" Chris echoed, dully.

"Not for a while, anyway," Buck said, his voice soft as though he was speaking to a spooked animal. "Not if I transfer to Georgia. There's other things, too; the deed to the ranch, you'll probably want to take my name off it." They had changed the registered title to the land after the fire. Buck had spent so much time and energy rebuilding the place, then had moved in with him when they'd finished. Chris had wanted his name to be on all the paperwork. He had a vivid flash of memory, of the way Buck's face had first crumpled then broken into a wide smile the day the updated deed came through the mail; they'd both seen it as an affirmation of what was between them.

"Vin's coming out to see me next week," Buck said, "I figure you could give him anything you need me to sign."

"Yeah," Chris breathed, hardly able to process what he was hearing. He'd remembered okaying Vin's vacation request, and now that he thought about it Vin had been pretty vague about what he was going to do with his time off.

He swallowed hard against his rising panic. He wasn't prepared for this. He wanted to stall, he needed more time, he wanted to find the words to stop Buck from doing this to them, from slamming the final door shut. Instead he heard his own voice betray him. "Yeah. I'll get onto it right away."

"Okay," Buck said, and the awful silence fell again. "Well, I'd better get going," Buck filled in the empty space. "I'm doing a little security work to pay the bills. My shift starts in twenty minutes."

"Right," Chris croaked, forcing the word from his bone-dry throat. "I'll give Vin the papers when they're ready."

"Okay. Say hi to the guys from me," Buck said.

Chris was still trying to find the words to say to make Buck reconsider when he realized that the phone line was already dead. His brain was suddenly teeming with everything he'd wanted to tell Buck; that he'd replaced the old fence surrounding the paddock, that he'd finally given the barn a fresh coat of paint, that some of the shingles were coming loose off the roof… He hadn't even asked Buck for a phone number or address.

He replaced the receiver, aware of the slight tremble in his hand.

After weeks of planning he realized that he hadn't told Buck the most important thing of all, how desperately he missed him, how much he loved him.

How pushing Buck away had been the biggest mistake he'd ever made in his life.