Contingency Plans

by Charlotte C. Hill
Written for the Mag7 bingo game, 2011

Chris Larabee strode out of the federal building's cafeteria, a man on a mission. He shouldered into the third floor elevator, suppressing the urge to repeatedly punch the "12" button to make the elevator move faster. He took the high ground instead and just stood there, ignoring anybody who felt the need to enter or exit before he reached his floor.

It was only when he stepped out of the elevator that he paused to think, to let his mind race through a wild barrage of threat assessments and any weaknesses he might have missed in his defensive positions. One of his talents--Buck liked to call it a curse, when it got in Buck's way--was his ability to think through a situation and see most of the potential outcomes. It made him a great team leader, but sometimes it made him a lousy lover.

This particular topic he'd thought through before, and pretty much the only outcome he hadn't imagined was hearing cafeteria workers whispering any group of words that included "Chris" and "Buck" and "relationship" and "doing it". He and Buck had been lovers longer than they'd been working for the federal government, and more than two years on the ATF payroll without a peep from the higher-ups had lulled him into thinking it was never going to come up. But here it was, and Chris was willing to bet good money that the only reason anybody had anything to gossip about was Buck running his mouth.

Buck called that easy conversational habit of his a talent; Chris liked to call it a curse, when it caused a problem he didn't want to deal with. Buck's talking made him the life of a party, but sometimes it made him a lousy lover.

Chris let out a slow breath and started walking again. He had contingency plans out the ass for this, but that didn't mean he had no right to confirm his suspicions that it was Buck's fault those plans might need implementing. It sure as hell didn't mean he'd expected to find himself outed by the cafeteria staff while he was scanning the daily specials on the chalkboard menu.

As he rounded the bend in the hallway he looked from man to man until all of his team members were accounted for: they were all working at their desks, or making a damned good pretense of it. They all looked tired--and they should after the last few weeks they'd pulled.

He tempered his urge to walk over to Buck's desk, smack the back of his head, and ask the man what the hell he'd been thinking; the conversation they were about to have was no more anybody else's business than their relationship was. So he breathed in deep, calling on the mantra some ex-girlfriend yoga instructor of Buck's had tried to teach him. Nodding in response to the various acknowledgements from his men, he pushed open his office door and called over his shoulder, "Buck! Get in here."

Casual taunts Vin and JD tossed Buck's way suggested plenty of things Buck could be in trouble for and, more importantly, told Chris he sounded more pissed than he'd meant to. He rounded his desk, dropping heavily into his chair. Buck tossed a wadded up piece of paper at JD's head as he stood up and Chris just watched, his brain ticking through that same mental checklist he'd been running for twenty years now: lean, broad, loose-limbed; dark hair and strong jaw; loud mouth, noise, good humor. And surprises. Like it or not, with Buck the surprises kept coming.

Buck reached Chris's office door and met his eyes, and the grin that had started faded. His forehead furrowed with concern. He shut the door behind him and Chris watched for the head twitch, an aborted urge to see if something had happened to somebody on the team in the two seconds he'd had his back turned, or if there was something wrong that could be fixed easily. But Buck kept his eyes front, squared his shoulders, and headed for the guest chair.

"Chris?" he asked as he settled into the seat.

Chris just said it: "Everyone thinks we're doing it."

Buck's head twitched again but this time he gave in, turning in the chair to look out into the bullpen. "What?" he asked, sounding honestly confused.

Chris felt his mouth tighten briefly, and tried to decide if he needed to use smaller words. "Every. One. Thinks. We're. gay."

Buck raised his eyebrows and slid a little lower in the chair, relaxing his arms and extending his sprawl. "Well Chris, what the hell else would somebody call two guys who live together?"

"That's not the goddamned point!" Chris snapped, and before he was halfway through the words he knew he'd let his temper get the better of him.

"Then what is?"

Chris wanted to smack the back of Buck's head again. Instead he tried spelling it out. "We've been on the job here over two years."

Buck nodded. "Yeah."

"And we decided when we signed on for this that we'd keep our mouths shut to avoid the fraternization bullshit."

Buck nodded again. "Yeah..."

"Which is why you've still got stuff at your place and someplace to go when we fight."

Still nodding. "Yeah."

"So there's no reason for the goddamned rumor mill to be grinding about us."

Buck looked confused, but he nodded again. It didn't look like Buck was putting the pieces together, which was ridiculous.

Chris should have told Travis right from the start that he and Buck were together, but honest to God he hadn't been sure yet that it wasn't just more of the same. They'd meandered into each other's hearts and beds for weeks or months at a time over the years, and meandered right back out. The year they'd been together before Travis approached him had been a personal best between them, and it had certainly felt like the real thing. But it hadn't been enough for Chris to waste energy on the politics of relationships in the workplace. Now, they both knew they were in it for good. And now, two years and more was too long for him to have left Travis in the dark. "You mind telling me how the cafeteria staff knows anything?" he groused, annoyed as hell--at himself or Buck, he hadn't decided yet. Probably both: Buck for being the likely leak and himself for not settling this a hell of a lot sooner with Travis.

"How the hell should I know?" Buck shot back, stiffening a little. "And why the hell should I care?"

Angry laughter choked and died in Chris's throat. Buck cared, all right. Buck cared, and he still preened for the ladies, and he still flirted shamelessly. To this day he told wild stories about wilder exploits with women. But he'd never told one about a man, not in Chris's hearing, anyway. Buck had gotten plenty comfortable halfway in the closet.

Chris had let him--hell, he lived in there too, and he paused to take stock of what that meant. Everything he'd considered before he'd signed on with the ATF, everything he and Buck had thrown back and forth, had been about making it through the federal training period. He hadn't been as worried about the idea of being outed back then as he'd been about the fact that the man he was with was Buck. Horny, loud, flirtatious Buck who Chris had been sure would blow their cover before the first month was out and settle things one way or the other.

The fact that Buck hadn't, that months had ticked by while the team members had figured them out and lightning hadn't struck, while Travis hadn't called to tear into him, and knowledge of their relationship hadn't left the bullpen, had lulled him into a false sense of security.

"Chris? Seriously, give me one good reason why I should care."

Chris blinked away the rare self-analysis and looked Buck square in the eye. It was the 21st century, dawn of a new age. It was also Denver, the center of a red state in a red region and a law enforcement job in the federal government with chain-of-command implications. And Buck loved his reputation as a ladies' man like he loved his own good looks.

Chris glanced out toward the bullpen again before spearing his partner with a glare. "You won't be the life of the party anymore," he said, daring Buck to deny it.

Buck held Chris's eyes for all of three seconds before glancing away, and Chris didn't resist the sneer that tightened his mouth.

But Buck chose that second to suck in a breath that lifted his chest and his chin, and he met Chris's gaze again, head-on. One long look as Buck took in Chris's face, accompanied by pursed lips and the shrug of one shoulder. Chris felt his face relax a little and he nodded a non-reply. Buck wasn't good at tolerating cowardice, and those few seconds were as long as it had taken for him to recognize his own.

"There's more than one party," Buck said.

Gratified by Buck's response, Chris moved on to reason two: "You don't like the idea that women won't get wet when you walk by."

Buck's eyes tracked upwards, and he was obviously thinking hard. When he looked back toward Chris, he smiled. It was the smile that had, since Buck was a gangly kid of sixteen, made him look like he was trying not to laugh at something only he knew. It was a smile Chris remembered from a thousand moments over a score of years, one that said Buck had a secret joke he didn't want to share but he was just barely holding it in. That smile reminded Chris exactly why they'd been friends for twenty years. It reminded him why they'd kept becoming more.

"Don't say it," he said, like he knew what Buck was thinking. He didn't; he couldn't even guess what might be fueling that smile today. But it looked like Buck had made some deal with his ego.

"Don't say what?" Buck asked as he leaned back far enough to hook his fingers inside the waistband of his jeans and spread his knees wide. "Don't say this is actually gonna up my reputation? Used to be, people only knew I could get any woman I set my sights on." The smile blossomed then, and the laugh lines crinkled around Buck's blue eyes.

Chris huffed out a breath of laughter. Assuming Travis didn't fire or transfer one of them and this life went on, Buck would get his fair share of shit--from homophobes, from spurned women, from anybody who had an axe to grind. But the smile eased Chris, because it reminded him that Buck had known how to be the outsider since high school. He might not choose it, but he knew the rules of being an outcast and how to work them. If Buck Wilmington didn't want your opinion, well, he just didn't listen to your opinion. No matter how many times or how forcefully you shared it.

Chris had ample experience with that practice.

Buck sobered pretty quickly, though. "I don't much like the idea of taking shit from other teams," he admitted.

Chris felt a headache coming on. Travis was the problem. The rules were the problem. Other teams standing them up, taking an extra minute to respond, that was the problem. And it wasn't just his and Buck's.

"The rest of the boys get a vote?" he asked.

Buck frowned again and straightened up in his chair. "You're a glass is half empty kind of a guy, you know that?" he groused.

Chris shrugged. He tended to think of himself as a pragmatist, but he was man enough to admit that sometimes there wasn't much difference. "You know what I mean."

"I still don't even know why you called me in here," Buck huffed.

Chris felt a headache coming on. He glanced around his desktop, looking for something to throw at Buck that was light enough for his partner not to take it the wrong way. He settled for a word. "Bullshit. I heard it in the cafeteria, Buck."

Buck squinted at him, trying to size him up, and Chris couldn't believe it was taking his lover this long to see the obvious. At least the man finally got there. "You think I outed us?"

"Well I sure as hell didn't!"

His accusation got Buck up and pacing, and Chris felt himself winding down a little now that Buck was winding up. "It's not like nobody knows, Chris. Hell, all the boys do--"

"You think one of them blabbed?" he countered.

"I'm not saying that, damn it!" Buck said, stopping to tower over Chris's desk for a second before nerves got him moving again. "I'm just saying, it ain't the best kept secret in the world. We live in the same damned house six days out of seven."

"You invite the lunch ladies or Travis's secretary out there recently?" Chris shot back. He couldn't say why he was so dogged about finding the leak, except that he was still pretty sure it was Buck and that just pissed him off. Besides, not knowing where the leak was could mess with his contingency plans.

"I ain't the only one who talks," Buck griped. "You tellin' me you never mentioned us to Vin?"

"No, I haven't!" Chris snapped.

Buck blinked and stopped pacing, turning his head to stare out into the bullpen again. "Huh. He said you did."

"That make you spill your guts?" Chris taunted, but then he remembered that he had talked to Vin. Sort of.

Early on, in the first couple months of the team's founding, Vin had been looking for a place to board his horse and Buck had volunteered them. "You can keep him at Chris's place."

"You say that now," Chris had said to Buck, "but you'll be the one getting up to feed it when Vin gets tired of driving out every morning."

Vin had looked at him for a second too long, and Chris had realized what he'd said.

He'd shrugged and looked away, but after that, Vin had always called before he came up the drive, even when Chris was expecting him. And he'd never asked about how come Buck was crashing out there again.

Chris pursed his lips in fresh annoyance. Vin would call that "talking about it." And Buck would have thought Vin saying, "Chris told me about it" meant some kind of heartfelt conversation over beers on the back deck.

He leaned back in his chair to stare up Buck's long body. "Vin wouldn't talk."

Buck frowned again, like he was disappointed. "But I would."

"Tell me you haven't, then," Chris challenged.

Buck looked guilty instead, so Chris bit back a curse.

"It ain't like that," Buck said, in a tone Chris knew was meant to soothe. Buck walked around the desk and parked his ass on its edge, closing the space between their bodies to less than a foot. "I've talked to the boys at one time or another," Buck said, "when they asked. Well," Buck's fire subsided a little, "J.D. after he put it together that I was at the ranch most nights. He tried to tease about it and I warned him off. That was just a couple-three months after we formed up the team. I've talked to the boys some, yeah, but it's not like we sit in the break room and discuss positions or your pissy moods." Buck tapped Chris's boot with his shoe, so Chris moved his feet out of the way before Buck started stepping on them to emphasize his points. "Hell, Chris, how could the kid miss it? He lives at my place."

Chris mulled over that information while he stared out his office window toward J.D. "If he's the one started this gossip, I'll kill him." He felt his mouth compressing into a hard line.

Buck waved the suspicion away. "I don't think so. I don't think it's any of the guys. Hell Chris, probably we just slipped up somewhere. A party, the ranch in front of somebody's girlfriend, the Saloon..." Buck trailed off and glanced up toward the ceiling, clearly searching his memory. "I might've talked about you there a time or two," he said after a moment. "That's the most public place I can think of."

"Pretty goddamned public," Chris sighed. Somewhere in this conversation he'd remembered that how they'd been outed was less important than that they'd been outed. It didn't mean that learning the how of it wasn't important. If it was somebody jawing--if it was Buck jawing--he might be able to defuse this mess. Either way, he resented the person who thought it was their business to meddle in his.

It wasn't like they'd even planned on keeping their relationship a secret, but a dozen years of professional partnership had made it work out that way. Chris never had brought his personal life into his work life. Not even when it followed him in and sat on the edge of his desk.

What personal stuff they did share, people thought was something else, that it meant something else. People thought--hell, he didn't know what they thought. Probably wondered why he put up with Buck, or Buck with him. But those were just the people who didn't know them, who didn't know they had decades between and behind them. Even home alone, even to this day, they still spent more time on chores or bitching at each other or arguing over who was going to cook or fetch the next beer than they spent on intimate talk or lovemaking. Well. Out of bed they did all those things more... well, out of bed and out of the living room when Buck was--

"There you go," Buck said softly, sounding satisfied.

Chris raised his eyebrows. "What?"

Buck grinned. "You were smiling. Thinking about just how little you care what people think of you? Decide you'll enjoy watching me squirm if the secretaries get pissed at me after all? Or are you just thinking about what I'm gonna do to you when we get home to take our minds off of this?"

Chris quirked a grin at his partner and shook his head. Some things never changed, and he was a lucky man for that. "Little of both, maybe," he said, rewarding Buck. Still. "You sure you're not gonna blow a gasket when the women stop eying you?

Buck chuckled. "Nah. That game hasn't meant much for years now. You know that."

Chris pushed away from his desk and stood up, moving to lean by the window and avoid the temptation to touch. "Long as you remember you're not a stray anymore, you can sit on the porch and bark at the cars all you want."

Buck aborted a move to stand, and Chris smirked when long fingers hooked under the edge of the desk like an anchor. "Hell, Chris, maybe I oughtta make an honest man out of you. Guarantee one of us gets the other's hefty government pension."

Chris waved a hand, mostly because Buck was making a joke. If Buck ever asked him for real, or if they made it to an age old enough to worry about such things, Chris might do the asking. But not today. "I can see Travis loving that," he replied with a smirk.

Buck shifted and stood tall. "How much trouble do you think Travis is going to be?"

Chris ran over the strategies and options he'd considered when he'd decided to bring Buck into the ATF with him. No one had raised an eyebrow yet, not even his team members, as far as Chris knew. Orrin Travis was parochial enough that it would bother him, but if whoever was gossiping had the intel that he and Buck had been together from the start, Travis might have to treat it like water under the bridge. "I think he wouldn't ask unless he thought he had to," Chris said.

Buck took long strides to where Chris stood and leaned against the wall beside him, wedged in between the window and the little couch. "Then what's the problem?"

Chris stared at Buck again, thinking out loud. "Chain of command is the problem." It was the only rule they were breaking, and that wasn't a change in their status. They'd bucked enough rules that Chris should be able to find a way to buck this one, if need be. "Screw it. I'm not about to change who I am." He wasn't about to back down, either.

The gears shifted in Chris's head, down from churning grinding annoyance to a smooth, easy idle. "What did the boys say?"

Buck grinned and tilted his head down and sideways, like he did when he wanted to share a secret or a kiss--like he'd been waiting for Chris to ask for forever. Hell, probably he had. "Josiah gave us some kind of blessing in Spanish and offered to preside over any, uh..." Buck trailed off and cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Ezra said he thought I had better taste."

"You?" Chris blinked, surprised. The rare times he'd imagined Ezra's smart mouth, he'd always expected the judgment called into question would be his own, not Buck's.

"Yeah," Buck admitted. "That surprised me too. But then," Buck grinned, "you'd just chewed his ass out for a padded expense report. I reckon he'd marry up."

Chris smirked and shot a glance out the office window, watching Ezra's clean profile. Ezra, ever canny, chose that moment to look up from his computer, glance toward the office, meet Chris's eyes and present a quizzical, what? kind of frown. Then he went back to his computer, dismissing Chris entirely. He hadn't even looked at Buck, as far as Chris could tell.

"It's going to bother you," Chris repeated, feeling stubborn about it because it would. Buck was a showy guy who liked an appreciative audience, and like it or not, this news was going to change things. The people who wouldn't like it could find plenty of ways to give Buck a hard time and knock some of the shine off his workdays.

"Maybe," Buck said, then he shrugged fatalistically. "Not like there's anything we can do about it now."

"No," Chris muttered, "not like there is." Or that either one of them would choose to if there were. They were long past those questions. "Still gonna change things."

"I'll manage," Buck said. "Make new friends if I have to, knock some heads together if I have to. The boys'll help."

"If they have to."

"Yeah," Buck said, more quietly now. "Still, I'd rather deal with whatever's coming than not have you, Chris. You know that." The tone was matter-of-fact but quiet, and Chris didn't have to look to know exactly what Buck's expression would be: earnest, soft, and sure.

"Remember you said that."

Buck chuckled, barely a breath of air. "You just plan to make me feel better after a rough day, and I'll be fine."

The snort passed Chris's lips before he could rein it in. The simple fact was, they weren't changing their minds now. If Chris had to, he could start over somewhere else; if Buck and the ATF had taught him anything, it was that he was better at starting fresh than he'd ever imagined himself to be. These days, independents got government contracts all the time without all the government regulations. Chris knew for a fact that JD, Josiah and Nathan would be as happy off the federal payroll. Ezra and Vin he wasn't as sure about, but if everyone else got on board he reckoned they'd follow too.

He didn't tell Buck any of that, didn't tell him that he'd thought about this before, considered all the possible fallout and all of his possible responses to it.

He didn't have to. Buck already knew.

JD's head popped up from behind his computer monitor, just checking the lay of the land. Chris watched the kid look to Buck first, then swing his gaze briefly to Chris before turning back to Buck. Buck gave the kid a thumbs-up signal, and JD returned it and went back to work.

Chris frowned a little and tilted his head Buck's way. "You really didn't start this?"

"Scout's honor," Buck said, holding up the wrong number of fingers and proving what Chris already knew.

With no place for his pissed-off to land, Chris decided he was better off letting it go until he had reason to exercise it. "You'd best get back to work. If the shit's going to hit the fan, it's gonna start soon." Jesus, the fucking cafeteria.

Buck's quiet chuckle finally got Chris to look at his partner. "What."


Chris just stared. No way was Buck going to keep whatever it was to himself.

"Just, I can do this now," Buck said, and turned along the wall toward Chris.

Chris stuck his arm straight out and planted his palm square against Buck's chest to hold him at bay. "The hell you can," he shot back.

"Damn," Buck said, frowning. He leaned in with a little more weight, testing Chris's resolve. "You know how predictable you are, Larabee?"

Chris didn't drop his hand. "Oh, I'm predictable."

Buck reached and covered Chris's hand with his own, and Chris let him for about two seconds before he pulled away. "Get out of here."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm goin'."

The remainder of the day felt a little bit surreal. When he went to someone else's office or meeting, he measured the length of people's glances, but he couldn't tell if people were looking at him with the same resentment or admiration they always had, or if those looks meant anything new. Whenever he entered the bullpen, either to pass through to the head or to bitch about Ezra's latest expense report, he received more than one sideways glance of speculation, but nobody said anything. He was sure he knew what the grins on Buck's face meant, and mentally threw in the towel. He was in the eye of the storm, and it was either going to hit them hard or it was going to make for a lot of rain and wind and then slide right on by.

Either way, the specter of hard times to come compelled him to appreciate what he had right now, and by four o'clock when he headed out for an advance logistics meeting with the head of the local S.W.A.T., he was feeling weirdly content. If the storm came, they'd weather it. Time had proven that, too.

And if push came to shove, the team would stand with them.

So he detoured the four steps to get to Buck's desk while he jockeyed his keys and briefcase into one hand. Buck looked up at him, handsome face the very definition of confusion, dumb enough and ignorant enough that Chris snorted under his breath. "Vin and I are headed out."

"Tell Marty I said hi," Buck said easily, just watching him.

Chris nodded. "I'll see you tonight."

Of course Buck had to push it. He made a lightning-quick grab for Chris's empty hand, caught it up, and squeezed it gently. His eyes sparkled, and his mouth traveled in every direction at once, like it did when he wanted to smile and was trying to stop it at the same time. "Yeah," Buck said. "See you at home."

Chris checked his team. It was ingrained in him to assess his people, to make sure they were handling whatever the job was throwing at them. Even if it was Chris himself doing the throwing.

Especially then.

Nathan and Josiah nodded without any other reaction. JD looked surprised, then threw a wadded up piece of paper at Buck's head. Vin was smiling slightly to himself over by the exit door, hefting the big canvass bag loaded with test ammunition. His gaze didn't meet Chris's or Buck's, but lay focused somewhere between them. Ezra wasn't even looking their way.

So. Right. Everybody really did think they were doing it. His own team didn't even have any doubts.

That faith called for action, though, and Chris rarely hesitated once he'd made up his mind. "Guys?" he called, getting everybody's attention. When he had all eyes on him, he said simply, "Buck and me aren't a surprise to any of you."

Various "no's" and headshakes, and Ezra's smirk, confirmed Buck's recon, and Chris nodded to himself.

"Looks like you aren't the only people around here who know, anymore. There's talk. Somebody asks you, you say whatever you want."

"Like it ain't nobody's damned business?" Vin asked.

Chris smirked. "That'd work."

"I think I'll just ask the naysayers if they're interested in one of you for themselves," Ezra replied airily, and Chris felt his grin widen.

JD looked worried, though. "Chris? The fraternization rules? Won't they try to split us up? Transfer Buck to some other team, or promote you, or--"

"They can try," Chris cut in with a smile sharp enough to cut diamond. "They cause too much trouble and I'll find somebody else to pay us all for what we do."

Ezra leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his belly. "Much as I have enjoyed the unwanted respect of the establishment," he said, "I always have believed I warranted more than a G8 pay grade. Independence has a certain cavalier appeal."

Chris was surprised. He'd thought that "unwanted respect of the establishment" meant a hell of a lot to Ezra after all the shit the feds had put him through, but maybe after two years on this team, he'd gotten all he needed.

"Anybody else got an opinion?" he asked, meeting each man's eye in turn.

"Glad to see you both so prepared," Josiah said.

Chris nodded. He was always prepared. "That's it, then. See you boys tomorrow."

"Hey," Buck said, soft as a whisper. Chris still stood close enough to him that all he had to do was tilt his chin down to meet the man's eyes. Buck, smiling, said, "I could kiss you right this minute."

Chris chuckled and squeezed Buck's shoulder. "You could try," he taunted, and headed for the door.