QUATRE-MAINS

PRELUDE

When dealing with Chris Larabee, there's only one thing more important than not looking scared and that is not being scared. Fear sets him off. Hell, it makes him crazy. I ought to know, because I've spent twenty years and then some backing him, and I still get the once-over every day. Not the searing glare which everybody gets, but the lazy look that scans me for sweating and increased blood pressure like a goddamn polygraph. 'Scared, Buck?' his eyes taunts me. 'Do I scare you yet, pard?'There've been times he held a knife to my throat, a loaded gun to my temple or his own, while asking.

People think he changed after the Event which cannot be mentioned. Truth is, he always was a daredevil who'd take on anyone, do anything. Sarah was the same way, wild and fierce and proud as sin. But he didn't equal fear with guilt until after the funeral. Exactly twenty-four minutes after the first handfuls of dirt had hit the larger coffin and the smaller one, Chris Larabee drew out his gun from under his coat and emptied a full clip over the guests' heads. Bang. Bang. Bangbangbangbang.

When he was finished, I was the only one standing. It wasn't from lack of fear, believe me. My knees were shaking so badly, I could barely keep myself upright. But the moment he drew that gun, I knew that if my best friend did this, I might as well be dead too. So I didn't duck. And Chris took that to mean that I alone among the guests was not guilty of any trespasses against Sarah and Adam.

I've been there for him since. I've been there whenever he did his goddamn best to drink himself to death or stepped into the path of a bullet or got himself beat up in a fight he'd picked. I've seen him risk civilian lives, I've seen him shoot first and ask later and I've seen him do things I can't talk about or he'd never work in law enforcement again. But each time, no matter what he'd done, no matter if he was bleeding, his eyes would seek mine afterwards, looking for signs of fear. If he found them, I knew we'd be done. So what I did was to stare back, telling him with all I was worth: 'Try harder, cowboy. Ol' Buck ain't scared of ya.' You could say I've made a career out of not being scared of Chris Larabee and you'd be right. And I keep doing it, I keep passing this crazy test of his, because if there's another way to keep the two of us alive, I haven't found it.

FUGUE

Things changed the day Vin Tanner walked through the door. I didn't think I'd ever see Chris look like he'd found his way home again. Or that I'd see a tough as nails, scruffy ex-Army Ranger look as vulnerable as if he'd been gutshot. Like he'd found a place to call home for the first time. Their eyes met and suddenly there was food for the starving and water in the desert.

Or, less charitably, you could say that Tanner met a more upscale mental disorder than his own. Because if you're not scared of Chris Larabee, some pieces are missing. And there really is no fear in Tanner, which makes me wonder what he's seen and done. How he found his balance, precarious as it may be, and what it cost. For all his eerie calm, you don't want to cross him. He doesn't need you. He doesn't need anything. He taught himself to go without, and he doesn't need any fuck-off money to tell you to fuck off.

I don't know what Chris sees in him. To be fair, it's not like I ever knew what Chris sees in me either. Most of my life I've been no damn good to anybody. Except to Chris. And lately, perhaps, to JD Dunne. Fool kid and I mean that in the best possible way. His worship of anything ATF threw us all. The first day at the office, he upset Josiah with questions, embarrassed Tanner into silence with his praise, grated on the nerves of the already skittish Standish, turned politically correct around poor Nathan and stared adoringly at Chris. Before the Event, I know Chris would have taken JD on, taught him the ropes, kept an eye out for him. Now he didn't and that, more than anything else, tells me how much he's changed.

But he's still worth it. All the trouble throughout the years. And I can't answer why in words. You'd have to see him, hear him, feel the force that is Chris Larabee and larger than life. Once you do, you'll follow his lead to hell and back. He commands love, is the closest I can come to describing it.

JD got sucked right into that. A recent orphan, he tried to latch onto Chris, only Chris wouldn't have him. Seat was taken by one Vin Tanner, thank you very much for your interest, don't call us, we'll call you. The rest of the team was wary around him; as a computer whiz kid, he'd done his research on his teammates and knew more about their pasts than they would have liked. He needed someone to tell him it'd be unwise to talk to Josiah about Waco or ask Nathan about the Gulf War, someone to steer the conversation away from Columbia drug cartels in Standish's presence or Bosnia in Tanner's. Didn't even want to think about what would happen if he mentioned the Event, but he had the sense not to. Anyway, since Chris wouldn't take him, I figured I was better than nothing.

Next thing I knew, he was living in my spare room. Put one over me, did he, young JD Dunne. Soon, I was laying down ground rules about laundry and fighting him for the shower in the mornings. Took him downtown, too, to teach him the basics about bar-hopping and fill him in on the team. On one of those nights, he spilled his guts about his mother and started crying into his drink. I waved to the bartender to keep them coming and we drank until someone poured us into a taxi. It was the first and last time he spoke of his mother to me. Another topic that never came up was Chris.

It's not doubt, understand. Tanner's a decent enough guy and a crack shot. And Chris is smiling again, not very often, but I've seen it. He's cut back on the booze and started drinking Tanner's coffee. Whether Tanner can keep him alive longer than I could is still an open question. Not least because losing Tanner would kill Chris as surely as a shot to the head.

CODA

There is not much blood, which means the worst damage is internal. Blood's pooling inside his chest, putting pressure on the lungs and he can't get a good breath. Chris is kneeling beside him, pinning him to the spot with his glacial green glare. Not letting him slip away. Nathan shoves Chris out of the way in his hurry a nd Chris does nothing, says not a word, only moves to the side. Ez and Josiah are outside, doing their job and ours. Me, I'm standing over here with the kid, who is trying his best not to be sick.

My place used to be wherever Chris was. Lieutenant, wingman, right hand, Kay to his Arthur. The only one who could get close enough to take him down if he ever lost it. Vin is losing consciousness now and Chris'sface goes slack with shock and failure. By now, I'd be watching his hands, my own fingers touching the gun butt.

Nathan is too close. Gunfire will bring Ez and Josiah running inside, straight into the line of fire. I should be there, but I can't leave JD. I won't, not even for Chris.  I can't go back to what used to be and if he whips out his gun this time, I'm gonna be the first guy diving for cover. I've got things to live for now, not the least of which is a fool kid.

The EMTs are yelling and Nathan is yelling back at them. Chris gets up, dark blood barely visible on the black. JD loses the battle with his stomach and throws up on my shoes. Chris is looking for me. At me. JD moans. He'll need stitches for the scalp wound and he's not getting out of the hospital until he's had a CAT and a MRI. Chris is looking at me.

That's when I fail the test. I see it in his eyes. And God, sorry as I am about it, I can't do this anymore. Don't know how I got through the last months, what with Chris and Ez going toe to toe, Vin undercover and Josiah in court.

"Course I'm scared," I say out loud, my voice rough with anger. "Whaddya think I am, stupid? Or crazy?

Like you, I don't say. Chris says nothing and for a moment I think he's really gonna snap. Then his eyes soften and I see emotions warring in his face. Old grief and longing. Loneliness remembered and anticipated. Last and hesitantly, fear.

It's not in Chris to do the Me too. Or the Sorry or Thank you. But he doesn't have to with me, no more than with Vin. He raises his hand to what I think is a salute and follows Vin's stretcher out the door. Seeing him go, I feel something breaking inside me. Or maybe something is finally released, it's hard to tell.

FIN