Behind Closed Doors
Notes: This fic deals with the end of an abusive same-sex relationship so you may wish to give it a miss. There's no more violence than in one of my normal fics though. I know nothing about court cases so please excuse any mistakes. Somehow, I don't think watching Perry Mason qualifies me as a lawyer!
Ezra saw the change in his lover's demeanor and knew what was coming. It was only a slight alteration, but he'd come to know the signs well. He didn't even have the chance to move aside before Marty's fist hit him square in the face, knocking him off his feet. The man followed it up with several savage kicks to Ezra's ribs and stomach. Marty was a tall, well-built man and the smaller agent was no match for him physically, as had been proved on many occasions in the past. The undercover agent curled into a ball as he clamped a hand to his bleeding nose, while tentatively hugging his chest at the same time.
As quickly as the violence had started, though, it was over. As usual, Ezra was in a daze and hadn't noticed that things had suddenly stopped and gone quiet. Realization only dawned when he felt hands on his body as Marty began checking for the damage that he must have inflicted on his lover. Marty, you see, was already fully dressed and wearing shoes, whereas Ezra only had his pajamas on. The thin material hadn't provided his body with much protection from the assault by the shod man.
"Ez? I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. Let me help you, baby. I won't ever hurt you again, I swear," Marty apologized when he saw the blood seeping between Ezra's fingers that were still clamped to his injured nose.
Ezra shrugged the hands off and struggled drunkenly to his feet and hurried as fast as he could to the bathroom: his usual refuge after violence. He locked the door behind him and headed to the sink as his legs wobbled alarmingly. He leant against it to keep himself upright and tried to hold back the tears that were pricking his eyes. He knew that some damage had been done to his ribs but he had no idea whether they were broken or just cracked. Either way they hurt like hell when he threw up shakily. He then reached for a washcloth and held it against his still-bleeding nose as he tried to ignore the insistent knocks on the door.
"Ez? Let me in, babe," Marty begged from outside.
Ezra ignored the plea as he threw up again and groaned at the pain that the movement caused in his chest. He moved a hand and clamped it to his ribs and stayed hunched over, waiting for the pain to subside.
He began to question the reasons for the abuse, as he did every time that Marty hurt him. *Why do I stay with him? I always think he'll change and I do love him so much. I just can't live with this abuse much longer and I really don't know why he does it. Does he love me or not?*
He sighed and cleaned himself up as best he could with the help of the bathroom mirror. He then took some time to get settled before opening the door to find Marty still hovering anxiously outside.
"Babe? Let me help," the man said immediately.
"I'm fine and I have to get to work. Chris will be angry if I'm late," Ezra muttered, wanting to get away from the man as fast as he could.
"I made ya some breakfast. Eat that before you go, babe," Marty said, making it sound like an order rather than a suggestion. "You won't say anything about what I did, will you? You know I didn't mean it," Marty pleaded.
"Of course I won't say a word. I know you love me," Ezra replied automatically.
Ezra walked to the bedroom first and put on some clothes slowly. His body was seizing up and he found it hard to lift his arms over his head. When he did, he couldn't help sobbing at the pain. He tried to cover up the damage done to his face but he knew that he hadn't done a very good job. He'd have to come up with a good excuse for the cause of the bruise instead. The injured man then made his way to the kitchen and sat at the table without looking at his lover. He really wasn't hungry but Marty was hovering over him so Ezra literally force-fed himself, feeling like throwing up after each mouthful. He didn't dare refuse because he didn't want to provoke his lover into more violence. Not that he ever knew what set the man off in the first place. His lover was a very volatile man, as he'd just proved. He was mainly kind, but possessed a very violent streak, which surfaced every so often for no apparent reason. There had been times when Marty had done real harm to his lover. However, when anyone had asked about them, the injuries had been easily explained away as simple accidents. Today though, it was obvious to anyone's eyes that Ezra had been very recently punched.
The undercover agent put a hand to his face and rubbed it gingerly after finally finishing his meal. He then stood up stiffly to leave but was intercepted by his partner.
"See you tonight, sweetheart," Marty said as he kissed Ezra fiercely.
Ezra really couldn't bear to be touched by the man, but he had no choice. Marty was definitely letting Ezra know that he was the stronger man, and the alpha-male in their relationship. He was very rough with the brittle man that he held and Ezra winced in pain as he was clasped in what was supposed to be a loving embrace. Ezra could feel Marty's groin pressed against his own but he didn't even struggle. Marty reached round and caressed Ezra's ass as he drove his tongue deep inside Ezra's mouth. The undercover agent just hoped that the man wasn't going to take things any further. Luckily Marty didn't do anything other than show his physical superiority, though, which was quite enough for Ezra to deal with at the moment. He was finally released from the iron grip and he mumbled a few words before hurrying away from his lover before anything else could happen.
Ezra finally arrived at work still trying to decide which of his two excuses for his bruise he should go with. His friends were bound to ask what had happened and he wanted to be prepared. He was coming to realize too that he was feeling worse with each passing moment. His body throbbed with pain and he began to feel physically sick. He wandered along the hallway to the office and, while rubbing a hand over his face, he accidentally knocked his nose and started it bleeding again.
"Dammit," he muttered as he dived into the restroom.
He headed to the sink when he saw, with relief, that no one else was in the room. His nausea was still increasing after his enforced breakfast and he gave it free rein. He threw up and then grabbed some paper towels from the dispenser and held them over his nose to try and staunch the continuing blood flow. As he stood hunched over, he heard the room's door open and the sound of footsteps heading his way. He couldn't help but vomit again and he then let out a loud groan at the pain in his body.
"Ez? Ain't ya feeling well? Maybe you should head home, pard," Buck said as he approached his bent-over friend and rubbed his back.
"No, I don't want to go home," Ezra mumbled through the towels. *But not for the reason you might think,* he added to himself. He could feel his body start trembling as he spoke, so he quickly reached out his free hand to hold the side of the sink.
"You bleeding?" the ladies' man asked in concern when he saw the growing patch of blood in the sink.
"Let me see."
"It's only a nosebleed. It will stop in a minute," Ezra muttered desperately, trying to fend his friend off.
Buck could feel Ezra shaking under his hand and he frowned worriedly. "Ez? What's wrong? Yer shaking, pard."
"Well, I don't agree." Buck reached out and pulled the reluctant man upright and saw his damaged face. "Jeez, nasty bruise, Ez. How'd that happen?" The tall man thought Ezra looked upset and uncomfortable and he wanted to know why.
"I walked into a door," Ezra muttered and immediately regretted his choice of untruth. His whole life had become one big lie he realized. At work, when he was undercover, he pretended to be someone he was not. Now, he taken to lying about relationship with Marty, pretending everything was fine and dandy when it was anything but.
Buck growled in exasperation. "Come on, not that old line. Tell me what's *really* goin' on, Ez. That was caused by someone's fist in my opinion," the ladies' man said as he flicked his hand to the dark developing bruise under Ezra's eye.
"Please just leave it," Ezra pleaded as he turned to try and leave.
Buck reached out a hand and clamped it round Ezra's upper left arm to stop him moving.
"Ow!" The undercover agent flinched and yanked his arm out of Buck's grip. He cried out again and put his right hand up to the slowly mending tender spot as he bent forward slightly and gasped.
"Sorry, pard. I didn't grab you that hard to hurt ya, did I?"
"No, it's nothing," Ezra said as he backed away from his friend, seemingly scared.
"I ain't gonna hurt ya, Ez," the tall man said when he saw the fear in Ezra's face. He opened the restroom door and indicated for the man to leave. "Let me see what's paining ya so bad. We'll go somewhere private."
Buck herded Ezra to the empty conference room and turned to face the smaller man once they were both inside. "Take off yer shirt."
Ezra bowed his head and didn't move. Buck saw him shiver and the ladies' man's heart began beating faster at the sight.
"Ez? Come on, pard. There's only me here to see. No one else is due in yet."
Ezra turned red, knowing that he couldn't deny Buck's request any longer. He had to admit that deep down he was secretly pleased that his problem would soon be out in the open. He had a sudden, uncontrollable urge to confide in someone. He still dreaded the consequences though, and he couldn't help wondering what would happen next. He flicked an embarrassed look at Buck as he shrugged out of his shirt reluctantly and groaned when his ribs protested mightily.
The ladies' man drew in a sharp breath at what was revealed to his eyes. "Shit, Ez! What the hell's going on? How did ya get in this state? You didn't get all those bruises from walking into a door, did ya? You been mugged or somethin'?"
Ezra could quite easily have pounced on Buck's offered explanation, but that would have meant coming up with believable details and he really hadn't gotten the energy to think at the moment. It was much easier to be truthful. "Marty," Ezra whispered, breaking his promise of silence to his lover.
"*He* did this to you? Why?"
"I displeased him."
As they talked, Buck circled the man slowly, taking in every bruise and cut that covered his torso. "Jeez, there's a real bad cut on yer back, pard. Best get Nate to look at it 'cause it's infected, I reckon," the ladies' man said as he reached out his fingers and gently probed the vivid red wound on his friend's body.
Ezra flinched in pain at the touch and swung round to face Buck. "No, *please*. Everyone will know how weak I am if they discover what happened. He'd have to notify Chris, wouldn't he? I can't face Nathan or anyone else at the moment. This was all my fault anyway because I musta provoked Marty in some way," Ezra said, suddenly regretting his honesty.
"Well, it musta been *one hell* of a provocation to get this response from him. This ain't all one beating's worth either, is it? There are old and new bruises and cuts mixed. How long has this been going on for?" Buck asked as he looked at Ezra in concern.
Ezra dropped his gaze to the floor. "A while."
"Will ya go to the hospital to get the cut seen to, instead of seeing Nate, then? You can't leave it as it is, pard, 'cause it's oozing pus and needs stitches," Buck pointed out reasonably as he studied the wound in more detail.
Ezra nodded and put his shirt back on before anyone else arrived and saw his battered body. "Okay," he whispered tearfully.
Buck stood looking at the seemingly frail man before him. "This *ain't* your fault, Ez. No one should hit their partner, no matter what. You ain't weak, you hear me?"
"I hear you," Ezra whispered, just agreeing so that the man would shut up.
Buck and Ezra arrived back at the office after being at the hospital for several hours. They had, of course, been missed by their work-mates.
"Where the *hell* have you two been?" Chris ranted when he noticed the two men heading toward their desks.
Ezra flinched at the loud voice and seemed to shrink in stature. He could feel the eyes of the rest of his friends on him and he didn't know how to keep control of his emotions. He hadn't wanted to come back to work but the ladies' man had persuaded him otherwise. He wanted Ezra where he could keep an eye on him. Buck also knew that the safest place for the man, anyway, was at the office surrounded by his friends and as far away from Marty as possible.
"I need to tell him everything, Ez. You can't go on like this and I ain't letting you go home to Marty tonight," Buck whispered when he saw Ezra cringe at the blond's obvious anger.
"No, don't say anything," Ezra pleaded as he took a step forward and looked up at Buck anxiously. "It's alright. He won't repeat his actions."
The ladies' man shook his head in exasperation. "Yer a fool if you believe that, Ezra. You've got a chance to shake loose from him forever. *Take* it, pard."
"Buck, get in here. *And* you, Ezra," the blond ordered when the two men failed to appear in his office to explain their absence.
Buck escorted his very stiff friend into the office and sat him gently on the couch, totally ignoring the looks he was getting from Chris. He made sure that the man was as comfortable as possible on the seat before going to close the door so that they could talk in private.
Chris watched proceedings in alarm and curiosity. "What's going on? No one knew where you were," the black-clad man said in a more reasonable tone. He had the distinct feeling that he was going to be told some disturbing news. He could see the damage done to Ezra's face for himself and he wondered if that had anything to do with the men's disappearance. The blond studied Ezra carefully as he sat hunched over on the couch. The man seemed to be in pain judging by the groans that he was producing at regular intervals.
Buck turned to face the blond and said quietly, "I just had to take Ezra to the hospital, pard."
"What's wrong? What was so bad that Nate couldn't deal with it?" Chris asked. The undercover agent was obviously not too badly hurt to warrant a hospital stay, so why had they gone there when they had a perfectly good medic on the team?
"Ez didn't want him involved at that point, so I didn't even ask for his help, pard. Ez had a real nasty cut on his back, which was badly infected and needed stitches. He's also gotten several broken ribs, so he ain't feeling all that sprightly at the moment."
"How'd he get the injuries? Ez? You gonna talk to me?"
Silence. The blond could see that Ezra was on the verge of tears and that fact worried him. Chris turned his confused gaze back to Buck and stared at him questioningly.
"Marty's been hitting him," the ladies' man informed him sadly. "He's covered in bruises and cuts. Today is the first day that the bastard has marked Ezra's face, which is how I noticed the abuse. Plus the fact, that when I first saw him this morning, Ez was puking in the restroom *and* had a terrific nosebleed."
The blond couldn't believe what he was being told. "Ez? I don't usually interfere in the private lives of my agents but I think I'm gonna make an exception this time. Why do you stay with him if he hurts you?"
"I love him." Ezra shrugged in embarrassment.
"Well, the feeling don't seem mutual if this is the way he returns yer affections." Chris frowned. "Are you up to telling me what's been happening."
After a moment of contemplation, Ezra did so, and he went into quite some detail. He had to admit that he felt a bit better for finally getting everything off his chest. His two friends sat and listened in horror to the myriad of abuse that Ezra had suffered at his lover's hands. He didn't divulge *all* the abuse, though, but he knew that at some point it would have to come to light.
"Will you let me see what he's done to you today?" Chris asked tentatively once the sorry tale was over.
Ezra reluctantly lifted the front of his shirt to reveal the bandages and massive bruises on his torso from that morning's punching and kicking session.
"Jesus Christ," the blond whispered quietly.
"Chris? I want him to come home with me tonight. Can you accommodate JD?" Buck asked once Ezra had covered up again.
"Sure, I'll take him home with me at the end of the day. Why don't you two head off now? It ain't long 'til you'd be knocking off anyway. I'll talk to the others and tell them what's been going on." Chris turned to the injured agent. "Ez? Maybe you need to call Marty and give him some excuse for not going home. Tell him that I've asked you to work on surveillance for the next few days and nights, or something. Why don't you use my phone so that you can have some privacy?"
Ezra did as he was told and spoke to his partner. "Marty? Look, I'm really sorry but I've been assigned surveillance for a while so I won't be home. I know you had something planned for tonight, but can I take a rain-check?" He hoped his voice sounded normal to the man because, to him, it sounded different.
"Okay," Marty replied, seemingly satisfied. "I'm sorry about this morning, babe. You know I love you, don't you?"
"Yes, I know you do and I feel the same," the undercover agent said shakily. "I'll communicate with you later because, at this precise moment, I need to organize several things for this surveillance mission." As he talked, Ezra could hear the sound of traffic on the phone but he didn't think anything of it. His lover was quite often out in the open if he was with a private client from the gym, either jogging or indulging in some other form of outdoor activity.
"Keep safe, babe," Marty said as he disconnected.
Ezra put the phone down and sighed as he ran a shaking hand over his face. Buck patted his arm and then escorted him outside. Neither man said goodbye to their friends and Buck herded Ezra gently out into the hallway with a hand on the small of his back.
"Chris?" Vin asked after watching the two agents leave. "Something wrong?" It was unlike Ezra not to talk to them and the sharpshooter had to admit that the man looked terribly uncomfortable and sick.
Chris nodded. "You could say that." The blond then turned to JD without elaborating on the reason for Ezra's early departure. "Kid? Buck has asked if you can spend the night with me 'cause he's taking Ez back to the loft to stay for the foreseeable future. At least until Ez has sorted himself out, anyway."
"Why can't I go home too? I could sleep on the couch if Ez wants my room."
"It ain't as simple as that, unfortunately, kid," the blond said as he shook his head.
Vin really wanted to know exactly what was going on. "Chris? What's *wrong* with Ez? Why does he need somewhere to stay? Has he split up from Marty?"
"Kinda. Buck found out that Marty's been hurting Ezra physically. He had to take him to the hospital today 'cause it got so bad."
"Marty? Jeez, I can't believe it."
Chris leant against Vin's desk wearily. He then rubbed a hand over his face as he thought back over Ezra's story. "I know it's hard to accept but it's true 'cause I saw some of the damage for myself. Marty's always appeared real pleasant when we've met him and they've seemed real happy together, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors. Anyway, it all kinda came to a head today when Buck found Ez in the restroom with a nosebleed."
"Jeez. Ez ain't gonna go back to him, is he? He *is* leaving him?" Vin asked with an anxious frown.
"I should damned well hope so and we need to support him as much as we can. It can't have been easy for him to admit what's been going on. He's feeling pretty low but Buck's been real good in taking care of him so far."
"They've been living together for ages. Did Ez say how long the abuse had been going on for?" Josiah asked, totally appalled at the terrible secret that Ezra had kept hidden from them so well.
The blond sighed dejectedly. "Last six months. Ez apparently left him once before, but went back soon after. He always thinks that Marty won't do it again. Ez says Marty's always so apologetic and gentle afterwards, but a leopard won't change its spots, will it?"
Ezra and Buck headed to the loft, unwittingly with Marty in tow. The worried man had been hanging around all day outside the office in order to collect Ezra when he left off work. He wanted to make sure that Ezra *did* go home with him. Earlier in the day, he'd followed the two agents to the hospital and knew it was because of the abuse he'd inflicted on Ezra that morning. He just hoped that his lover had come up with a viable excuse for the injuries and not just blurted out the truth. He could see how much pain Ezra was in just by looking at him and he felt some pangs of guilt at the sight. Marty had then received his partner's phone call, once the agents had gone back to work, and the man began to get suspicious that Ezra hadn't kept his mouth shut after all. It just seemed a coincidence that his lover was now doing a job that would keep them apart for a while. Was it deliberate or not? Marty shrugged, undecided, and was on the verge of leaving when he saw Buck and Ezra emerge and head off together again. They weren't equipped for surveillance by the look of and the man wondered what they were really up to. Marty saw Buck touch Ezra's back gently but he misinterpreted the contact as being loving rather than comforting. He watched as Buck placed his arm round Ezra's shoulders and pulled the man toward him in a gesture of support, but Marty growled unhappily at the sight. The angry man started his motor and followed them home, his worry building with every passing minute. He watched them go inside the condo together and he automatically assumed that Buck would be sleeping with his partner that night. Not that he really thought that Buck was gay or bisexual, but that was definitely the way Marty was thinking right now. The fact that Buck lived with JD was more than enough evidence of a possible homosexual tendency to Marty's mind. If Ezra had but known it, one of the real reasons behind Marty's violence was his blind jealousy of the undercover agent's good friendship with Buck. Ezra only had to mention the tall, good-looking man's name for his lover to react violently.
Marty sat in his car outside the condo and fumed. "Surveillance, my ass," he complained. "Sneaking round behind my back. I'll teach you to cheat on me, you lying bastard. I know you've told him what I did."
Buck and Ezra, meanwhile, had reached the loft's front door still unaware of their unwanted shadow. The ladies' man opened it and then settled his friend on the couch in the living room and stood in front of him worriedly.
"There ya go, Ez. Home sweet home. How ya feelin' now, pard?"
"Sick and shaky. I really can't imagine what Marty's going to say when he realizes that I'm deserting him. Maybe I need to enlighten him straightaway. It's only fair," the undercover agent said as he looked up at his tall friend.
Buck shook his head negatively. "I'd leave it a bit, pard. Give yerself time to settle yer nerves and compose yerself."
Ezra wiped a hand over his face wearily and leaned back carefully in his seat. "Maybe you're right. I'm going to have to face him at some point though, and I admit to dreading it."
"I know, Ez, but that's for some time in the future. Try not to fret about it now," Buck said as he leant down and patted his friend's shoulder. "You hungry?"
"Let me get you a drink then."
Ezra didn't argue and drank the resulting hot liquid quietly. He cupped the mug between his palms and blew across the top of it to cool the drink down. He watched the steam swirl away from his lips and let his mind drift, although he didn't relax for a second.
Buck sat beside Ezra and waited until he'd finished his drink. "Feel any better, pard?"
Ezra shook his head. "Not really." He sighed dejectedly. "I did love him, you know. Still do."
"I know, pard, but he ain't gotten the right to treat you like he has. Why don't you head off to bed and catch up on some sleep and we'll talk again in the morning." Buck showed Ezra into JD's room and left him to get settled and headed to his own bed later that evening.
Meanwhile, outside, Marty settled down to watch the condo to see if the two men would leave again later for their supposed surveillance duty; they didn't. Marty became consumed with thoughts of Ezra's assumed betrayal and kept dreaming of Buck making love to his partner. Marty didn't even acknowledge the fact that he was totally to blame for his lover's possible desertion. If he could find some other excuse for the breakdown of their relationship he would, because in his own mind, it wasn't his fault at all.
Back inside the condo, the ladies' man heard movement downstairs so he got out of bed and went to see if his friend was alright.
"Ez?" he said when he saw the man on the couch in the living room.
Ezra flinched and looked round. "Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you, Mr. Wilmington. I can't sleep and I admit that I'm still experiencing a certain level of nausea," the smaller man said as he rubbed his stomach slowly.
"What can I do to help? Do ya wanna talk some more, or do ya just want something to settle yer stomach?" Buck asked as he headed toward his friend.
"Neither, thank you. I don't know what would be of use to me at the moment. I'm just very uneasy and anxious." The undercover agent quickly raised a hand to his mouth and swallowed awkwardly. "Excuse me," Ezra mumbled through his fingers as he rose and headed to the bathroom.
Buck sighed and rubbed his eyes before following his friend. Ezra met him in the doorway and Buck reached out a hand and rubbed his back.
"Sick?" he asked.
Ezra nodded and raised a shaking hand back to his mouth as he began to cry softly.
"Oh, Ez, please don't cry, pard. Come and sit down," Buck said as he herded the man gently back to a seat. He eased him down and then sat on the arm of the couch while keeping a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Nothing to be sorry for, pard. The end of a relationship is always sad, but you have to admit that you couldn't stay with him. He's hurt you emotionally and physically. It's not an equal partnership by any stretch of the imagination and that means that it don't stand much chance of survival."
Ezra looked up and smiled sadly as he wiped his eyes. "I apologize for dragging you into the chaos that my existence has become."
"I'm yer friend and I wanna do all I can to help you through this. I hate that you've been treated in this way and I intend to be around all the time you need support."
"Thank you, Bucklin."
"Think you can sleep now?"
Ezra shrugged but headed back to bed anyway. The ladies' man returned to his own room but he heard no more from his friend that night. When he rose in the morning, he went to check on the injured man to make sure that he was alright. He opened the door to JD's room and poked his head round. He saw that Ezra was still asleep so he closed the door quietly and retreated to the kitchen.
Ezra finally woke, rolled out of bed and slowly got dressed. His body had seized up during the night and he decided to take a couple of painkillers to help get him through the day. He then wandered through the condo and was drawn toward the kitchen when he heard the sounds of clashing pots and pans. He smiled nervously at Buck and sat down at the table with a groan.
"Okay, Ez? Sleep alright in the end?"
"Yes, thank you, but I apologize once more for disturbing you early on."
"No need. You up to going to work?" Buck asked as he studied his friend critically. He could see that the man moved carefully and guessed that he was still suffering from the effects of his beating.
"Yes, it'll keep me occupied."
Buck smiled as he saw the crumpled clothes that Ezra had on. "Okay, well you'd better borrow some of JD's clothes, if ya can bear it. Yer looking a bit past yer best in yer own."
When the two men left the condo an hour later, Marty was still outside watching from his car. His thoughts on Ezra having an affair increased when he saw his lover with Buck, having obviously stayed overnight. He noticed that his lover wore a totally different style of clothes and that fact, for some reason, made him even angrier. He'd also noticed that JD hadn't come home all night and Marty couldn't help but wonder what was really going on between the three agents. Maybe Ezra and Buck had chosen this time to rid themselves of their respective partners so that they could shack up together instead. Marty growled as he convinced himself that that was exactly what *had* happened.
Buck and Ezra traveled to work with Marty following behind like a human magnet. The two agents headed straight to the office on arrival and hadn't spotted the car on their tail at all. Ezra was apprehensive about facing his friends, but he knew they would offer him nothing but support.
Vin greeted the undercover agent and patted his back. "Hey, Ez. Chris wanted to see you when you came in. Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm managing with Bucklin's help, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied quietly as he wondered what his colleagues really thought of him. He didn't wait to find out, but hurried straight through to see the blond. "Mr. Larabee?" The black-clad man smiled and beckoned Ezra into his office. "Hello, Ez. Take a seat. Sleep okay?"
"Not particularly, but I'm used to disturbed nights."
"This is different, Ez, and I want you to take some time to sort yerself out," Chris said as he studied the injured man seriously. "Do ya know what yer gonna do about Marty?"
The undercover agent shook his head slowly. "I need time to contemplate my predicament. Marty will think it odd if I don't go home to get a change of clothes, though. I always have in the past when I've been on surveillance, you see?" Ezra pointed out nervously.
Chris shrugged and said, "I could always go and collect some on your behalf and tell him that you won't be home. Would that help? You wouldn't have to talk to him at all then."
Ezra looked up gratefully, although he felt a coward at being so eager to take up the blond's offer. "Would you do that for me?"
"Sure I will," Chris said with a decisive nod.
"Thank you. It's just that I know if I saw him, I'd probably give in and move back with him. I always felt that I was to blame for his violence anyway."
"*No*, Ez, you ain't got nothing to reproach yerself for."
Ezra looked at Chris speculatively. "What do you think of me?"
"In what respect?"
"*You* wouldn't have let someone treat you in that way," Ezra said with a shrug.
Chris shook his head and said sternly, "Neither did you, Ez. You didn't *let* Marty hit you. You didn't say, 'Come on, punch me,' did ya?"
"I didn't stop him either, did I? He terrified me when he lost his temper. He was so physically strong that I couldn't deal with him. It was like a flea trying to wrestle a rhinoceros. He's so fit and muscular because he works in a gym that I'm no match at all. The first few times that he hit me I fought back, but I soon leant that it was a mistake. He broke my collarbone once, you know?"
Chris frowned and asked, "Was that the time when you went on vacation together? You said you broke it skiing."
"Well, I was hardly likely to say he broke it deliberately, was I? We had an argument and he was furious that I hit him back. He twisted my right arm round my back and then forced it upward between my shoulder blades. He then easily broke my collarbone by pushing me up against a concrete column. The bone was under such pressure from the twisting of my arm that it snapped like a twig. He didn't seem to care about what he'd done, just commented that at least I wouldn't be able to retaliate for a while."
Chris stared at the younger man in disbelief as an unwelcome thought came into his mind. "He only ever hit you, didn't he? He never... you know... forced you sexually?"
"No, never that. Or not yet, perhaps I should say. He likes to prove to me that he could if he ever wanted to." Ezra seemed uncomfortable talking about such things and he sighed. "The physical abuse was bad enough without contemplating other matters. I left him once, as I told you before, but he pleaded with me to go back to him. He promised he'd never hurt me again and I stupidly believed him. What a damned fool I am."
"No, you ain't. You loved him."
Ezra shrugged dejectedly. "Didn't choose my partner very well, did I? Not a very good judge of character at all."
"Why did you feel attracted to him in the first place?"
"Well, his looks for one thing, but he was also a tremendously good listener. I was able to talk to him about work and he made me feel better about things. He was so understanding and comforting." Ezra thought back to the beginning of the violence, forgetting that he'd already told Chris the same things the day before. "Everything was fine for the first few months but then circumstances altered. I uttered some comment or other and he went berserk and then punched me hard, once. He saw what he'd done and immediately reverted back to his calm, loving self. Very Jekyll and Hyde. He was apologizing, begging me not to leave him. I forgave him but matters just escalated."
"You've done the right thing in leaving him, Ez. I know it may not seem like it but don't *ever* think of returning to him. He won't change. Abusers never do."
Ezra sighed and grimaced at the blond.
Chris decided to leave the conversation there because he could see that Ezra would become upset if he continued talking about the abuse. "Well, I'll go and get you some clothes, I think, 'cause JD's stuff don't quite have the same impact as your own suits."
"Take care, won't you?" Ezra said worriedly as he looked up at his boss with a frown.
"Sure, I will."
Chris knocked on the door of Marty's house and tried to remove all expression from his face. "Hey, Marty," he greeted when the man opened the door.
"What do you want? Is Ez okay?"
Chris *nearly*, so *very* nearly, lost his cool. How the hell could the man ask after Ezra's welfare after what he'd done to him? But then Chris wasn't supposed to know anything, so he kept a grip on his emotions and replied, "Yeah, he's fine. He asked if I could collect a change of clothes for him. He's doing surveillance 24/7 so he ain't gotten time to come himself."
The bigger man knew that that statement was a lie because he'd been watching Buck and Ezra since the previous day. Marty had only just returned home after making sure that Ezra was definitely going to stay at work all that day. Ezra's lover gave no outward sign that he knew what was really going on and he stepped back in and showed Chris up to the bedroom. The blond collected a couple of pairs of pants and a few shirts and filled a bag with other essentials. He didn't pack too much because he wanted to make it seem that Ezra would be returning at some point. Both men thought that they had the upper hand in the situation, but only one of them did: Marty.
"Thanks, Marty. Appreciate it," Chris said as he was shown back out into the yard. He turned toward the Ram and missed seeing the look of pure evil that Marty sent him as soon as his back was turned.
The blond went back to the office totally unaware of the growing seriousness of the situation. He handed the clothes to Ezra who changed into them slowly in the blond's office.
"How was he?" the undercover agent asked, once he'd finished.
"Seemed unaware of what was going on. He still thinks yer on surveillance," Chris said, unknowingly lying. "Look, why don't we all come over to Buck's tonight and work out some kinda plan? Yer welcome to come and stay with me at the ranch long-term, if ya like, 'cause JD's already missing town life. We can get things sorted properly tonight, though, when everyone can have their say."
"Thank you. That is most kind," Ezra said gratefully as he carefully packed JD's clothes into a bag so that they could be washed and handed back to the youngster later. "I appreciate your support," he said as he made his way outside.
Six of the agents congregated at the condo that evening. Buck handed out drinks and the men gathered in the living room and began talking.
"Where's Ez?" Chris asked with a frown.
Buck smiled to ease the blond's fears. "He's just popped out to get some supplies from the local store. He needed some fresh air and some time to himself 'cause he's really finding things tough. I think he was getting a bit stifled."
Chris nodded and settled down. "Heard anything from Marty, has he?"
"Not a word. As you say, he don't suspect a thing," the ladies' man said with a shrug.
Meanwhile, outside, Ezra exited the store with a bag of food in his arms. He stepped out onto the sidewalk, consumed with his inner thoughts as he put his money back in his inner jacket pocket.
The undercover agent's head snapped up and he unwittingly took a step backward. *He knew that voice.* He whirled round and came face-to-face with Marty. The undercover agent swallowed quickly and tried to keep the fear out of his face.
"Babe? What ya doin'? Thought you were doin' surveillance," the taller man said, sounding innocent.
Ezra collected his scattered thoughts together and said, "Finished early. I was just collecting some supplies to celebrate. We're having a party at Mr. Wilmington's."
"Is that so? Didn't invite me, did ya? Why was that, I wonder? Maybe yer celebrating for *another* reason," Marty said meaningfully with a sneer. He saw his lover trembling and he enjoyed the sight, knowing that he had control of the situation.
"It's just a work get-together," Ezra replied quietly, uneasy about the man's mood. He clenched his jaw anxiously as his mouth suddenly became dry.
Marty shook his head and took a step forward. "Well, I reckon you've been lying to me, babe. See, I was outside the office yesterday 'cause I was waiting to take you home at the end of the day. I saw you leave with Wilmington and I followed you to the hospital and then back to the office afterwards. You then left with him again and went back to his apartment after you'd phoned me to say that you were going on surveillance. You didn't leave Wilmington's condo again, so that was a lie, wasn't it? You two-timing me? He couldn't keep his filthy hands off you from what I saw yesterday. So tell me, have you shacked up with him?"
"No, he's a friend, that's all," Ezra stuttered as he clutched the bag of shopping closer to his chest as if it would provide some protection.
"That's alright then. You can come home with me *now*, can't ya?"
Ezra knew that it was the time for him to stand up for himself, so he took a deep breath and blurted out, "No, I will be staying with Bucklin for the foreseeable future. I'm leaving you."
"You just said he was only a friend. He's your *lover*, ain't he? You bastard. You're *mine*," Marty growled, his eyes sparkling with anger, as he balled a fist in readiness.
"I don't belong to anyone, Marty," Ezra said defiantly, realizing that he'd have to back up his words with some action.
"Yes, you do. You belong to *me*," the bigger man said as he pointed to himself angrily. "I don't want Wilmington touching you. I don't want him fucking you." He reached out a hand and pulled Ezra toward a nearby car. Marty had borrowed a friend's vehicle so that Ezra wouldn't recognize it if he saw it parked nearby. "Yer coming home with me, right now."
Ezra tried to walk away in another direction as he pried Marty's fingers from his arm, but the man readjusted his grip so that Ezra couldn't get free. "Release your hold. I'm never accompanying you anywhere again," the small agent protested loudly.
"What did you say?" Marty asked menacingly, his face clouding with fury as it turned bright red.
Ezra's eyes got a steely look in them as he stated his desires clearly. "I'm going to Bucklin's. I don't want to cohabit with you anymore. I no longer love you."
Marty drew back a fist and hit Ezra square in the face. He immediately let go his hold on the man's arm and Ezra was knocked over and lay sprawled on the sidewalk surrounded by scattered food. The undercover agent clamped a hand to his bleeding face and could feel his heart pounding hard in his chest. The storeowner came out to intervene but backed off quickly when Marty threw a punch at him too. Ezra's potential savior staggered backward and went back into his store leaving Ezra to his fate.
Marty reached down and pulled Ezra upright and began once more to lead him toward the vehicle. Ezra kicked out and struck Marty's shin hard. It was the wrong thing to do. The fact that Ezra was standing up for himself infuriated the bigger man because he hadn't expected any resistance whatsoever. Marty pushed him forcefully backward to collide with the wall, luckily missing the large store window by inches. Ezra fell to the ground again and looked up to see his ex-lover move forwards quickly. The big man began hitting and kicking Ezra in earnest now that he was completely at his mercy. In his anger, Marty kicked Ezra's stomach so hard, that he lifted the smaller man into the air with the force of each strike. In the process, the pointed toes of Marty's cowboy boots were doing untold damage to the fallen man's midsection.
"Right, get up and get in the fucking car," the bigger man ordered, when he thought that Ezra would concede defeat.
"No," Ezra groaned through his split lips as he hugged his battered belly. "I'm going to Buck's."
Marty scowled. "*Fine*, he can have you, for all the good you are to me. Yer a lousy lover, so don't come crawling back to me when you've had enough of yer new boyfriend. I never loved you anyway, and I don't want you back."
There was a knock on the front door of the loft. Buck ambled along to answer it and was confronted by the sight of Marty holding a barely conscious Ezra upright by his hair. Buck flicked his eyes from one man to the other and was dumbstruck for a minute.
"You want him? You can have him," Marty yelled as he literally threw Ezra at the mustached agent.
Buck reached out quickly and enveloped the falling agent in his arms to prevent further injury to his friend. Marty took advantage of the situation and made good his escape while Buck was otherwise occupied.
"*Nate?* Jesus, *Nate?*" Buck yelled frantically as he eased Ezra down to the ground and held him in his lap. He reached out a shaking finger and held it to Ezra's neck and was relieved to find a faint pulse there.
The medic appeared in the living room doorway and gasped at the sight before him.
"Help me, Nate. Damn, but Marty's beat Ez half to death," Buck said as he continued cradling the injured man carefully in his arms as he knelt on the floor with him.
"Chris? Get an ambulance," Nathan ordered as he dropped to his knees beside Ezra. "Alright, Ez, yer gonna be okay. Just let me get a good look at ya." The medic shook his head worriedly as his hands trailed gently over Ezra's body. He lifted the man's shirt and saw the new deepening bruises developing there. Ezra's whole belly and chest area was discolored.
"Shit," Nathan cursed as he reached out probing fingers tentatively.
"Oh, God. Hurts. Aaahhh, hurts," Ezra muttered as he tossed around in Buck's arms when the medic touched his stomach. Even though Nathan had been as gentle as he could during the examination, the undercover agent still felt as if he'd been set on fire.
"I know, son. Nate's doin' all he can," Josiah said soothingly. "Just try and lay still, Ezra."
"Was Marty here? Where did he go?" Chris demanded, his temper on the verge of breaking spectacularly. His eyes were fixed on Ezra and he took in every mark on the man's body.
Buck looked up in anguish and apologized, "I'm sorry, Chris, he left. I had my hands full with Ezra so I couldn't tackle him as well, pard."
"Keep him away from me. Please," a delirious Ezra begged as he grabbed Buck's hand and tried to pry it off his arm, thinking it was Marty touching him.
"He ain't here, Ez, and he'll never touch you again if I get my hands on him," Chris promised quietly. "*Bucklin's* holding you, son, not Marty."
Ezra calmed at the blond's words and he allowed his eyes to close. He opened them briefly and stared up at the circle of anxious faces that were staring down at him before sighing and closing them again.
"Ez? Talk to me. Don't go to sleep, do ya hear me, Ez? Stay with us. Dammit," Nathan cursed as the undercover agent lost consciousness.
The emergency vehicle could be heard arriving downstairs and two paramedics finally came hurrying along the hallway to Buck's condo. They knelt down beside Ezra once his friends had moved aside, and Nathan told them what had happened. Ezra was lifted onto a gurney and whisked off to the hospital with Nathan for company.
Chris watched his agents leave, and he then turned with a scowl to face his remaining men. "Vin? Take some of the others and track Marty down. That bastard ain't gonna get away with this."
"Sure, cowboy, we'll get him. Let us know how Ez is, won't ya?"
Chris nodded curtly as he turned away. "I will."
Ezra was taken straight for surgery after his initial examination in the ER.
"Nate? Where is he?" the blond asked when he finally tracked the medic down. Buck had accompanied his oldest friend to the hospital and the two men stood awaiting an answer.
Nathan clenched his jaw and knew that his news would make the blond explode. He sighed and said, "In the OR. That bastard kicked him so hard that he ruptured his spleen. He's done a whole heap of damage to Ezra's stomach and chest."
"Dammit. How could he do that to Ez? He was supposed to love him," Chris ranted as he strode round the room once, wishing that he had a punch-bag to hand.
"Who knows why abusive partners do it, pard? It's all about power, I reckon," Buck said from where he'd turned to stare out the window.
Chris scowled and kicked the wall. "Yeah, well, it ain't right. I could *never* hurt anyone I loved." "That's the difference between us and him, pard," Buck said resignedly.
The three men sat down and waited anxiously for news. Nathan finally went out seeking an update, when Chris became more and more impatient. The medic came back quickly and his two friends rose to meet him worriedly.
"He's out of surgery," Nathan said breathlessly, but was interrupted by the blond before he could say anymore.
"Is he gonna be okay?"
The medic nodded slowly. "He was bleeding badly internally because of his spleen and the other abdominal injuries that he received. They've stopped it, but he's in pretty bad shape at the moment. One of his lungs collapsed too because of the injuries to his chest, but they've re-inflated it and he's breathing okay. They're hopeful that he'll recover fully but they'll be watching him closely for the time being. He's in a lot of pain and his body is covered from top to toe with bruises. He was lucky that Marty didn't kill him. He could quite easily have done with just a few more kicks to his guts."
The ladies' man looked down at the floor and sighed dejectedly. "I shouldn't have let him go out alone. I never thought Marty would know where he was though."
Chris reached out a hand and patted the man's shoulder. "You weren't to know, Buck. Marty's just a persistent, suspicious bastard. I'm just pleased that you discovered what was going on between them and have been able to help Ez. Abused partners very rarely have the strength to leave a relationship on their own. You've been a good friend to him."
"I shoulda put a stop to it earlier."
"What? What do you mean, *earlier*? You only found out recently, didn't ya?" Chris asked sharply as he looked at his friend in confusion.
Buck met his gaze and grimaced as he admitted, "I saw something that made me suspicious before, but I stupidly just let it ride. I was going to visit Ez one day at his house. I was on the sidewalk and saw that Ez and Marty were out in the yard arguing. Marty grabbed Ez's arms roughly and really yelled at him while he shook him like a rag doll. Ez cringed away from him just like he thought he was gonna be hit. I stopped and kinda watched from a distance 'cause I wasn't sure what to do. Marty then shoved Ezra back real hard against the house and just walked away. I sorta waited until Ezra had gotten himself back in control before arriving. I pretended I ain't seen nothing. I asked if he was okay, just in greeting like, and he said he was fine. I then asked if Marty was home and he said no. Why lie if it was all innocent? Anyway, I thought it weren't none of my business and I didn't let on what I'd seen. I shoulda acted then."
"You couldn't tell from that one incident what was really going on. Everyone argues."
Buck shrugged. "Yeah, but not so that even when you know you've upset someone you don't show any remorse. You didn't see Ezra's reaction to Marty. I swear he was expecting to be hit, and now we know that he probably was. He cowered, literally *cowered*, Chris."
"No good going over the what ifs, Bucklin. The main thing is that he's outta that cretin's grasp now," Chris said.
"Yeah, but at what price?"
Ezra woke periodically during the following day. Perhaps *roused* was more accurate because he never opened his eyes fully, but his conscious state was certainly lighter during these times. He moved slightly on the bed and mumbled incoherently but never truly woke.
Chris and Buck sat with him continuously, keeping guard over the fragile agent. Buck just couldn't get over what Marty had done to Ezra. He kept seeing his friend's battered body after Marty had hurt him.
"Bucklin? You okay?" Chris asked when he saw his oldest friend shiver.
The tall man shrugged as he ran a hand through his hair worriedly. "How did Ez keep it a secret for so long?"
"I don't know, Buck. Just seems to be a trait with abused people. They have a knack for hiding the truth."
The mustached agent looked at Ezra and reached out to take his hand as the man began mumbling again. "It's okay, Ez. Yer safe, pard," Buck said quietly over and over again until the agent had settled once more. "Any news about Marty?" he asked the blond quietly so as not to disturb his slumbering friend.
"No, Vin called a while ago. He ain't at the house or the gym. They're keeping watch but God knows where he is now." Chris shook his head angrily and wondered if the violent man was really going to escape punishment.
One week later
Ezra was slowly improving, although he still hadn't woken up. The doctors seemed hopeful about a full recovery but the injured agent was still being observed continually in ICU.
After going outside to get some fresh air, Chris was walking back along the hospital's corridor when he stopped dead in his tracks. Marty was heading straight toward Ezra's room.
"What the hell do you think yer doin'?" the blond yelled and ran forward, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny floor as he did so. He caught hold of the other man before he could get anywhere near his ex-partner.
"I've come to see Ezra, of course," the man replied in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do.
The blond stared at him in disbelief and felt his anger gathering. "*You're* the one who damned well put him in here. You think he's gonna want to see you, you fucking *bastard*?" Chris asked as he pushed Marty back forcefully, making the man stumble in order to regain his balance.
"Of course he will. He loves me."
"Not anymore he don't. I'm arresting you for what you did to him. How dare you turn up here as if nothing's happened and expect him to take you back," Chris ranted.
Marty ignored Chris totally. "Is that bastard Wilmington with him?" He then turned to face Ezra's room and yelled, "Wilmington? You'd better not have been fucking Ezra. You'll pay for taking him away from me. He's mine, you hear me? *Mine*."
"He ain't yer damned chattel and *no one* took him away. You *drove* him away 'cause of the way you treated him. Buck's just been helping him out."
"Yeah, and I know exactly what he's been helping him *with*," Marty sneered. "He's been *screwing* him, I know it."
"You don't know *nothing*," Chris snarled.
Marty turned in an effort to escape when Chris produced some handcuffs, but the man ran straight into Josiah, who had heard the disturbance and come to lend a hand. The profiler had just arrived to take over nursing duties but had seen the scuffle in the hallway and had run to intervene. He knew that Chris was on the verge of letting go of the tenuous grip on his temper, so he wanted to act before that happened. The big man got hold of Marty roughly and kept a grip on him as Chris quickly cuffed him.
"How about picking on someone yer own size, Marty?" Josiah asked as he shook Marty angrily. "I'm more suitable than Ezra and I'd damned well give you a taste of yer own medicine if I weren't a law-abiding citizen." Josiah turned to Chris. "I'll take him, brother, while you tend to Ezra. I'll come back later to relieve you, if you can cope for the moment."
"Thanks, big guy. Can you tell the others that we've caught him too?"
Chris hurried into Ezra's room and saw Buck standing over the injured man trying to calm him down. Ezra had heard Marty's voice and had become very agitated. The man was tossing and turning on the bed and moaning continually in distress.
"Lay still, Ez. You'll hurt yerself," Buck ordered as he gently held the man down until he'd subsided.
"Guess you know who turned up then," Chris said quietly as he took a seat by the bed again.
"Yeah, couldn't help but hear him, pard. Ez recognized his voice and went ape even though he ain't awake properly. Guess that bastard can get to him even when he's unconscious."
"Well, Josiah's taking care of him so he won't be treated too kindly. You heard what he said about you, did ya?" Chris asked as he wondered how Buck had reacted to the words.
"Yeah, I heard. His mind's twisted, pard. I won't take no notice and I certainly ain't telling Ez what he was insinuating," Buck replied, unaware that Ezra already knew of Marty's suspicions in that respect.
Chris scowled and stared down at Ezra. "Do you want me to get the doctor to take a look at him?"
"No, he'll be okay. Just overdid it a bit but he's calm now."
The two men settled down, and several hours later, Ezra woke properly and stared up at the blond dizzily.
Chris leant forward in his chair and smiled in welcome. "Hey there, Ez. I'm afraid that Buck's eaten all the grapes while we've been waiting for you to wake up properly. Been waiting a long time, son."
"Hate grapes," Ezra muttered, still not totally awake. "Thank you for sparing me from them, Bucklin."
"Yer welcome, pard," Buck grinned. "How ya feelin'?"
Ezra gasped as he moved too quickly. "I hurt."
"Dare say ya do. You took a nasty beating," Chris said sympathetically as he patted the man's hand gently.
"Has he come?" Ezra finally asked when he'd come to his senses completely. He was totally unaware of his semi-conscious panic earlier in the day when Marty had turned up.
"Yeah, but we arrested him. We'd been searching for him all week and then he had the gall to turn up here today. That was the last thing I expected him to do, but I guess you knew better." Chris sighed. "You *do* want him charged for what he did to you, don't you? He'll only go and do it to someone else," Chris said quietly.
Ezra was silent.
"I need time," the undercover agent mumbled as he clutched the sheet in agitation.
"Time for what?"
"Gaining some courage. I'm not sure that I can face going to court over this."
Chris moved so that he was sitting on the bed. "Next time he could kill, Ez. Hell, he very nearly killed *you*."
"Chris? Leave it, pard," Buck instructed as he put a hand on the blond's arm. Ezra didn't need to be upset right now and that was the way he was heading. The man had, after all, only just woken up and was still very sick and could do without the added pressure being put on him by the blond. "Try not to fret about it now, Ez. Marty's in custody and he ain't getting out on bail. Get some sleep and I'll be here if ya need to talk."
"Ez? You okay?" Chris asked as he saw the smaller man pale, knowing he shouldn't have tried to get an answer from the man at such a time.
"I hurt," he repeated with a loud groan.
"Yeah, I know ya do," Chris said as he ran his fingers though Ezra's hair gently.
"How long do I have to stay here?"
"Another week, but it'll be at least a month before you recover properly after the surgery you've had."
"Ez? Come on, no more talking. Yer exhausted, pard," Buck said as he indicated for Chris to leave.
The blond nodded and stood up before leaving the room.
"Now close yer eyes and relax, Ez," Buck ordered quietly as he ran his hand over Ezra's cheek and then through his hair. The ladies' man kept up a quiet stream of words and watched in satisfaction when Ezra finally fell asleep. Buck then stood up and joined Chris in the hallway.
"He okay?" the blond asked worriedly.
"Yeah, he's sleeping," Buck replied as he leant back against the wall, feeling exhaustion creeping up on him. He was finding the whole situation emotionally draining.
"Do ya think he'll go through with standing up to Marty?"
Buck shrugged and fixed Chris with a meaningful stare. "Don't know, pard, but I don't want you forcing his hand on this. It *has* to be his decision in the end."
"I know, but what will happen if he let's Marty walk? Marty won't forgive him for running out on him," Chris pointed out. "He'll react twice as bad as last time if he gets his hands on Ez again."
"There are restraining orders, pard."
"Yeah, and how fucking successful are they?" Chris asked sarcastically as he scuffed his foot angrily against the floor.
The ladies' man put out a gentle hand and lay it on Chris's forearm. "Don't jump the gun, Chris. Ez ain't even made up his mind yet. Give him time to come to terms with what happened."
"I will, but this whole situation has just made me so angry that I want to see that bastard behind bars for what he's done." Chris sighed. "Look, I promise I won't pester Ezra to make up his mind, but we can only hold Marty in custody for so long, you know?"
"Yeah, I know but we can release him on bail and get him back again if we need to. Look, I'll see ya tomorrow, pard. I'll be okay on my own until Josiah gets here and I'll let you know if Ez tells me what he wants to do."
"Sure. Thanks for taking care of him, Bucklin. Now I remember why I chose you for a friend all those years ago," Chris said as he patted Buck's back and headed out to the Ram.
Buck smiled in thanks and went back to sit with the injured man. He picked up the book that he'd been reading previously and flicked through the pages until he found the place he needed. He took a sip of water from the glass on the nightstand and then settled back to read about the exploits of Bilbo Baggins.
Ezra woke again several hours later and groaned loudly as he accidentally touched his stomach. Buck immediately put down his book and smiled at his friend.
"Hey pard. Feelin' any better?" the ladies' man asked kindly.
"No." "Ain't surprised."
Ezra looked round the room and frowned. He knew that there had been someone else beside him earlier but he couldn't quite remember who. He lay quietly for a minute and finally recalled that the other visitor had been his boss. "Where's Chris?"
"I sent him home."
"Any reason?" the undercover agent asked curiously as he scratched his chin.
The tall man stated quietly, "I didn't want him bugging you about Marty."
"Oh, I see," Ezra whispered. The undercover agent then looked at Buck seriously. "I want to go ahead with charging Marty. I'll see him in court."
Buck nodded warily. "Yer sure?"
"Yes, I won't change my mind," Ezra replied in quiet defiance as he held his friend's gaze.
The ladies' man nodded when he was sure that Ezra meant what he said. "Okay, bud, I'll let Chris know. You've done the right thing, Ez, so don't ever feel guilty about this."
Buck took Ezra back to the condo once he was released from the hospital. The undercover agent had healed pretty well, all things considered, but he was still on strong medication. His abdomen continued to trouble him most of all and he seemed to have a hand permanently clamped to the tender area. He had to be very careful what he ate because his intestines couldn't handle all the foods that he liked at the moment. He tended to eat things like soup simply because they suited him best.
The ladies' man escorted his friend inside the loft and put his bag of clothes straight in JD's room. "Yer gonna stay here 'til the trial, pard. Now, anything I can get ya?"
"No, thank you," Ezra said as he lowered himself gingerly onto the chair in the kitchen. He rubbed his face and then ran a hand round the back of his neck to ease an ache that had appeared there.
"Do ya feel okay? Still look kinda pale, pard."
"I feel drained of energy and I still hurt," the younger man admitted. He rubbed his stomach and leaned back in his chair carefully, feeling as if his body might break in two if he moved too quickly.
"Yeah, well, it's gonna take time 'til yer back to normal. Just take it easy and don't be too eager to get back to work," Buck said seriously.
"That's hardly likely. I'm obeying Nathan's orders to have a month off. Look, Bucklin, would you mind if I retired to bed? I think I'd be better off being horizontal at the moment," Ezra asked as he slowly rose to his feet feeling like a ninety year old man.
"Sure," Buck agreed as he followed the man anxiously and settled him on top of the bedclothes. He couldn't help but be concerned about Ezra's continuing fragile state.
A couple of days later, Buck wandered into the living room and studied his friend seriously. He could see that Ezra looked highly uncomfortable. The injured man fidgeted constantly as he clenched his jaw and then swallowed quickly.
"Hungry, Ez? What do ya want for breakfast?" the ladies' man asked.
"Nothing, thank you," Ezra mumbled, sounding as though he had trouble even uttering the words.
"What's up?" Buck asked as he reached out a hand and felt Ezra's brow. He didn't think the man had a temperature but Ezra certainly didn't look well. "You sick or somethin', pard?"
Ezra shrugged as he shifted uncomfortably on the seat. "I'm not sure to be truthful. I feel a bit odd, but not exactly sick."
Buck pursed his lips worriedly. "Maybe I'll get Nate to check you out, just to be on the safe side. You don't look real well to my eyes and you sure don't sound right neither," Buck stated as he headed to the phone.
Nathan arrived quickly after hearing Buck's thoughts and he sat beside the injured man and looked at him critically. "Ez? Can you tell me yer symptoms?"
The undercover agent listed his ailments slowly and then Nathan carried out a few tests of his own.
"Has he gotten an infection?" Buck asked nervously from where he was watching.
"No, I think some of the medication is upsetting him. I'll see if I can get it changed to something that he can handle better, but at the moment, I want him in bed."
"I *beg* your pardon?" Ezra exclaimed at the incongruous words. He was feeling slightly better now that he knew what was wrong with him. "*Alone*, I hope you mean. I'm not sure that I would welcome you as a bed-fellow. No offense, Mr. Jackson."
"God, Ez, nothing wrong with yer sense of humor. Things can't be too bad, can they?" Nathan laughed. The medic took Ezra into JD's room and settled him in bed. "Now stay quiet and do as you're told. I'll be back with some new medication soon. Are you sure you really feel okay other than that?"
"Just dizzy and shaky but I'm better now that I'm lying down."
Ezra grinned. "I'm also immensely pleased that you didn't join me in bed. You really had me quite worried for a moment earlier."
Nathan made as if to hit the man and then left the room laughing.
Ezra's condition improved on his new medication but Buck could see that the man was deeply troubled about his upcoming trial. The undercover agent was eventually allowed to return to work but he found it hard to concentrate on anything because of his fears. All his friends noticed his preoccupation so Chris finally decided to have a serious talk with the man.
"Ez? Can I have a word?" the blond called from his office.
The younger man wandered through to Chris's room and sat down on the couch, where the blond joined him.
"We've all noticed that you ain't very happy, Ez. Do ya wanna talk about it?"
The undercover agent studied his hands in embarrassment and then shrugged as he shifted on the seat awkwardly.
Chris frowned. "I figure it has somethin' to do with the trial," he stated quietly as he raised his eyebrows questioningly. He watched in concern as Ezra paled and shivered at the words.
"Yes, I know it's stupid but I'm absolutely terrified."
"It ain't stupid at all. It can't be easy going up against a man that you loved but you ain't the one to blame in all this," Chris said as he watched the emotions flicking across Ezra's face like clouds on a breezy day.
The undercover agent kept his gaze down and rubbed a hand over his face nervously. "I'm just so scared of facing him. The more that time passes, the more I feel I should just let it go."
"*No*, Ez. You've come this far, so please don't give up now. I know it's gonna be real hard for you, but you can't move on if he's still free to do as he pleases, can you? He really could kill someone next time and how would you live with that? It only ever takes one person to have the courage to stand up to a bully like that for them to get their just deserts. I know that you possess that courage, Ez," Chris said as he rubbed his friend's back in encouragement.
"I'm not sure that I agree with you, but thank you all the same," Ezra said, taking strength from the blond's convictions.
The blond kept a hand on his friend's shoulder as they talked. "What is it about the trial that is *really* worrying you?"
Ezra sighed. "I just can't imagine talking to strangers about what he did to me. I'm a man and I should have been able to cope better. It just seems so weak to admit that I couldn't protect myself and that I was too much of a fool to leave him."
Chris moved his hand to rub Ezra's back again consolingly. "You *have* left him, so you ain't a coward *or* a fool. If yer gonna use the argument that a man can cope with anything and shouldn't suffer such abuse, just imagine how a man must feel when he has to admit to being battered at his *wife's* hands. It happens, Ez, to all sorts of people, so you've gotten nothing to be ashamed about."
"I *know* that, deep down in my soul, but it's still so hard to accept."
Chris patted Ezra's shoulder in comfort. "We're all gonna be there at the trial, so you ain't gotta face Marty on yer own."
"Thank you. That is what has kept me going, knowing that I have your support. I am blessed to have friends such as you."
The day of the trial finally came and Ezra sat in the hallway waiting for the case to be called. He looked up whenever he heard footsteps heading his way and he resembled a startled rabbit expecting to be caught by a fox. Buck sat beside him for company and both men stood when the time came for them to enter the courtroom. The undercover agent looked up at Buck and shivered, so the ladies' man patted his back and smiled encouragingly.
"We're all behind you in this, Ez. Don't let Marty get to you, pard."
Ezra smiled nervously and entered the court with his lawyer while Buck went to join the rest of his friends. As Ezra sat beside his attorney in the courtroom, he couldn't help but look over at Marty. He could feel the man's eyes boring into him and he just wasn't able to stop turning his head. Marty grinned and Ezra looked away quickly while shivering. The undercover agent felt a gentle hand on his back followed by the sensation of his shoulder being squeezed. He flinched at the unexpected contact and turned round fearfully only to find Chris behind him.
"Sorry, Ez," the blond apologized with a wince when he saw the haunted look on his friend's face. "I just wanted to say that even though Marty's staring at ya, try to rise above his behavior and ignore him. Pretend he ain't there. If it helps, stare at me when ya testify and don't look at him, unless yer asked to. Don't let him unnerve ya," the blond advised, unknowingly repeating Buck's words.
Ezra nodded and smiled anxiously as he turned back to look at the judge. He'd attended many court cases in his capacity as an ATF agent but this was entirely different. He felt like he was standing buck naked in the middle of a room of elderly ladies. He was letting strangers see right into his life and he felt very uncomfortable with that thought. He watched proceedings unfold before him but he really couldn't concentrate on what was going on. He felt apart from it all.
He then heard his name being called and he shook himself back to the moment and stood up to go to the stand. His lawyer took him step-by-step through his evidence, and the undercover agent's gaze kept returning to Chris. When he faltered in his evidence, the blond's eyes steadied him and gave him the courage to continue.
"Mr. Standish? Could you tell us when the violence first started in your relationship with Mr. Lane?" his lawyer, Mr. Richards, asked.
The undercover agent tried to begin talking but his voice cracked, so he stopped and cleared his throat before starting again. "It commenced a few months after I took up residence with him. I really can't comprehend what I said, or did, to make him react with violence, but something angered him and he punched me hard. He only hit me once that first time, but on subsequent occasions the abuse was much worse."
"Can you give an example?"
Ezra flicked his gaze from Chris to his lawyer, then to the jury, along to his friends and back to Chris again. Chris nodded his head to encourage Ezra to speak. The undercover agent hesitated, but finally began talking. "We arranged a barbecue, just for the two of us, and Marty was in charge of cooking. I made a joke, which obviously upset him, and he grabbed my hand and held it palm down on the grill, which was red-hot at the time. He released me fairly expeditiously but I still had to be transported to the hospital to have the burns attended to." Ezra could see the horrified look on Chris's face at the admission. That was one instance of violence that the undercover agent hadn't divulged to any of his friends. They, of course, knew that he'd injured his hand at the time, but he'd, once again, lied about how he'd gained it.
"How many times have you had to seek hospital treatment because of the abuse?"
Ezra did a quick mental count and sighed. "Six times in all."
"Did you *never* defend yourself?" Mr. Richards asked.
Ezra felt his face turn red. "Yes, I did to start with, but on one occasion when I fought back, Marty broke my collar bone. I soon learnt that it was advisable, and safer, in the long run *not* to defend myself."
His lawyer nodded and looked toward the jury meaningfully. "Can you describe exactly how he broke your collarbone?"
"He twisted my arm up behind my back and pushed it up as far as he could. He then threw me against a concrete column as he kept hold, and because of the pressure already being put on the bone, it snapped very easily. It broke in five places."
"What injuries did you suffered in his latest vicious attack?"
"*Alleged* attack," Marty's lawyer, Mr. Bennett, interjected loudly.
"Mr. Standish?" Mr. Richards asked after nodding to his colleague to acknowledge his use of words.
"I had a ruptured spleen, which had to be removed as a result. I also had internal bleeding from various other abdominal injuries as well as a collapsed lung," Ezra replied as he unconsciously rubbed the injured area.
"How long were you in the hospital for?"
"Just over two weeks but it was another month or more before I'd fully recovered from my injuries."
"Thank you, Mr. Standish, no more questions. Your witness," the prosectutor said as he turned to Marty's lawyer with a nod.
The man stood up and wandered toward Ezra like a cat after its prey.
"My client's version of events differs somewhat from yours, Mr. Standish. He said that *you* started the most recent bout of violence and he was just defending himself when he hit you."
"That is not true. I would never, could never, hit anyone that I loved."
"But you've *just* told us that you *did*," the lawyer said sharply.
"I only did so to defend myself and never more than on one or two occasions. I never hit him first, is what I really meant. I loved him," Ezra said, regretting his earlier choice of words.
The lawyer pursed his lips as he wandered to stand in front of the jury to watch their reactions to his next statement. "Now, can I just go back to the barbecue incident that you were talking about earlier? There was no note at the hospital to say that my client had inflicted the injuries on you. According to their records, you said that you fell and accidentally reached out to save yourself but touched the barbecue by mistake."
"That is what *Marty* told them," Ezra agreed. He knew exactly what the lawyer was trying to do, so he pointed out reasonably, "I couldn't tell them the truth because Marty was there with me, could I?"
"Are you sure that my client's version isn't, in fact, what precisely *did* happen?"
"No, he held my hand deliberately on the grill," Ezra said insistently.
"What about when you broke your collarbone? Did you not just lose control while skiing and slam into the concrete post? My client has assured me that that is what happened. It was an accident, pure and simple, and it was reported as such at the time."
"No, he broke it deliberately. I had not even been skiing that day because I was feeling unwell," Ezra said insistently as he stared at Chris intently. He could feel that he might lose his temper at the twisting of the evidence but he took a deep breath and gained some stability from Chris. *I've really only gotten myself to blame, because as the lawyer says, each incident was reported as an accident at the time,* Ezra said to himself with regret. *I should have admitted what was going on from the start and then it wouldn't be so hard to prove otherwise.*
"All the previous alleged attacks were just accidents too, according to my client. You are now just embellishing your story with these incidents but twisting facts to suit your needs. You're altering reality to make it seem that Marty had been inflicting violence for a long time. In truth, the only *real* violence occurred during this last incident and *you* instigated it. My client had turned up to plead with you to go home with him but you refused. He tried to tell you how much he loved you but you hit him instead and pulled a gun on him," Mr. Bennett stated.
"Objection!" Ezra's lawyer said loudly. "Is there a question in there or are you just giving testimony, false testimony at that, on my client's behalf?"
"Sustained," the Judge agreed. "Stick to asking questions, Mr. Bennett, if you please. Your client will get his chance to tell his side of things later on."
Marty's lawyer nodded in agreement but knew that he had done some damage to Ezra's case with his statement and previous questions. "Did you strike my client during the last bout of violence?"
"Yes, I kicked him but only...."
"Thank you, just yes or no will be sufficient. Now, as I said before, my client insists that he was just defending himself. At the time of his final alleged assault, you had obviously decided to end your relationship with him once and for all. You resorted to violence in order to do so. Isn't that true?" the man asked quickly when he saw Mr. Richards on the verge of making another objection because of his sweeping statement.
"No, *he* hit *me*. Why was I the only one with injuries..."
"*Just* yes or no, Mr. Standish," the lawyer interrupted quickly, knowing what Ezra was going to say. "What did you argue about?"
Ezra took a deep breath and tried to show that the man wasn't getting to him. "As you said earlier, I had refused to go home with Marty. He accused me of having an affair, and when I disagreed, it made him angry."
Mr. Bennett flicked through his notes with seeming interest. "The affair was with someone you work with. A Mr. Buck Wilmington, isn't that correct?"
"There was *no* affair. He is just a very good friend," Ezra said as he clenched and unclenched his fists in agitation. The room was very quiet, which was usual during a court case, but to Ezra it was more like the atmosphere found in a church. A reverend silence, which it seemed sinful to break. Ezra's words seemed to reverberate around him continually and he found it quite unnerving. He usually liked the sound of his own voice, but not today.
"Did you stay overnight with Mr. Wilmington on the day you told Mr. Lane that you were supposedly on surveillance? Why did you lie to him about that?"
Ezra flicked his eyes between his lawyer and Chris before answering. "I needed time to prepare myself for telling him that our relationship was over. Mr. Larabee, my boss, suggested that I tell him that I was on surveillance so that I didn't have to go home that night. Marty had broken my ribs that morning and my work-mates finally found out what had been going on. Buck, Mr. Wilmington, insisted that he wouldn't allow me to return to Marty, so I went home with him instead."
"Really? And what did you do that night?"
"I slept," Ezra answered with a frown.
"*Yes*, alone," the undercover agent snapped.
"Were you having an affair with Mr. Wilmington?" Mr. Bennett asked, interrupting Ezra's musings.
"Objection! My client has already answered that question. Can't two men be friends without it being assumed, just because *one* of them happens to be gay, that they must be having an affair?" Ezra's lawyer asked loudly as he stood up.
"Sustained. Do you have anything new, Mr. Bennett, or are you just going to go over and over old ground?"
Mr. Bennett shook his head and turned back to Ezra. "Mr. Standish, as I have said, your account differs greatly from my client's. If you now realize that you have been mistaken, now is the time to say so."
"The violence happened *exactly* as I said. I am *not* lying."
"No, just altering the facts," the lawyer stated wryly as he faced the jury and stared at them sternly.
"Objection!" Ezra's lawyer shouted as he got to his feet once more.
"No more questions," Marty's lawyer said as he sat back down beside his client.
After giving his evidence and being interrogated by Marty's lawyer, Ezra felt mentally and physically drained. He re-took his seat gratefully and heard Marty being called to the stand. Ezra sat up straight but stared at his hands, rather than at the man, as he strode across the floor to give his evidence.
Mr. Richards stood and walked to stand directly opposite Ezra's ex-lover. "Mr. Lane, would you say that you were *not* a violent person?"
"How can you explain the extent of my client's injuries after the last alleged incident then? Did he perhaps hit *himself*?" the lawyer asked with a bemused smile and a raised eyebrow.
"He fell against a car."
"Repeatedly? He must have fallen against it a lot to rupture his spleen and do the amount of damage that was inflicted to his abdomen. How do you explain your complete *lack* of injuries?"
Marty shifted slightly on his seat and seemed uncomfortable. "I learnt self-defense and martial arts and know how to deflect punches."
"Are you saying that my client never landed one punch on your body?" Ezra's lawyer asked as he pursed his lips.
"Yes," Marty replied with a shrug as he raised his eyebrows.
"How fortunate for you," Mr. Richards said wryly. He then began pacing back and forth, stopping in front of the jury before proceeding to stand before Marty again. "You say my client pulled a gun on you? According to the ATF weapons expert, Mr. Standish had handed his weapon in to him for some work to be carried out on it. Does he own another gun? Do *you* perhaps own a gun?"
"No, I don't know where he got it from."
The lawyer decided to go back to his previous line of questioning. "Can we just discuss my client's *accidents* again? Let's see, he *fell* on the barbecue, he *fell* while skiing, and he *fell* against a car. He falls rather a lot, doesn't he? How can you explain such clumsiness?"
"Some people are just accident-prone," Marty mumbled.
"Come, come, the man sounds like a walking disaster area. I think the jury can make up their own minds about the circumstances surrounding my client's unfortunate habit of *falling* and severely hurting himself, don't you?" The lawyer smiled in thanks. "No more questions. Your witness."
Mr. Bennett stood and walked toward his client. "Mr. Lane, you have heard Mr. Standish's evidence, what can you tell me in reply?"
"Ezra is lying because I am the victim in all of this. We had arguments, as all couples do, but up until the last incident there had *never* been any violence."
"Has Mr. Standish ever reported any abuse to the police before this?" Mr. Bennett asked with interest. He wanted to keep his questions short and to the point to try and make the answers stick in the jury's mind. So far it was one man's word against the other, and he wanted to use this small opportunity to plant doubt about Ezra in the jury's mind.
"No," Marty replied forcefully as he flicked a look at Ezra.
"Why do you think that was?" the lawyer asked as the turned to face the jury. "Maybe because there *never* had been any prior violence, as my client has just stated on oath. No more questions."
As Ezra sat listening, he turned to watch the jury member's faces to see their reaction to Marty's evidence. The man certainly sounded very convincing and he could see the doubt on the jurors' faces.
After Marty had retaken his seat, Ezra's lawyer studied his notes and called the storeowner who had witnessed Ezra's beating. He smiled at the obviously nervous man in an attempt to put him at ease. He watched quietly as the man swore on the Bible, and then moved to stand in front of him.
"Now, Mr. Cole. Can you tell me about the night you witnessed the fight between Mr. Standish and Mr. Lane?"
The witness sat with fingers intertwined and fidgeted in the seat uneasily, but answered the question forthrightly enough. "Mr. Standish had been in my store buying some groceries. When he left, I heard raised voices outside and I saw a man hit him. I went out to try to stop the fight but the man hit me too. I'm afraid I went back into the store without trying to help further, although I did call the police, for all the good that proved to be. They turned up two hours later."
Ezra's lawyer put his head on one side and asked, "Can you see the man who hit you and Mr. Standish in this courtroom today?"
"Yes, he's over there," the man said as he pointed straight at Marty. "He was very angry and was real rough with Mr. Standish. It was definitely more than a lover's tiff to my eyes."
"Objection, personal opinion," Marty's lawyer shouted.
"I think Mr. Cole is more than capable of telling the difference between a violent fight and a little slap and shouting match, your Honor. He did after all become embroiled in it for a brief time, as he has just told us."
"Thank you, your Honor." Mr. Richards turned back to his witness. "Now, according to Mr. Lane, my client threatened him with a gun. Did you see him produce a weapon at any time during the fight?"
"No," the man answered firmly. "I watched the whole thing from inside the store and Mr. Standish never drew a firearm. He hardly even defended himself except for the one kick to Mr. Lane's shin."
"Thank you, no more questions," Ezra's lawyer said as he sat down in satisfaction.
The Judge looked at Bennett. "Your witness."
"No questions, your Honor," Bennett replied, knowing he had probably lost the case after that damning evidence. He really couldn't think of anything to ask that would turn the situation back to his advantage. He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers thoughtfully as he looked at Mr. Richards.
As his last witness, Ezra's lawyer called the doctor from the hospital who had treated the undercover agent's injuries. The medical man was very thorough and was adamant that Ezra couldn't have fought back after such a vicious attack. Now that the jury had heard from all the witnesses, it was time for them to make their minds up about what had truly happened.
The jury was sent off to make their decision after the two lawyer's had summed up their evidence. They came back quickly and re-took their seats. The foreman stood up and Ezra felt his skin erupt in goose-bumps as he anticipated what the verdict would be. He couldn't tell just by looking at the man's face whether it was going to be good or bad news.
That was the sweetest word that Ezra had ever heard. He let out his breath in a whoosh and felt Chris pat his back again, although he didn't turn round to face the man. The undercover agent rubbed his face slowly and felt his hand trembling, so he flexed his fingers to try to stop the movement. Ezra then couldn't resist the urge to look over to where his ex-lover was sitting. Marty looked pale as the verdict sank in, and Ezra couldn't help feeling bad. He still loved the man even after everything that had happened between them. The undercover agent sighed and shook his lawyer's hand gratefully before making his way outside shakily.
"Okay, Ez?" Chris asked when all the men met up outside the courtroom.
Ezra shook his head negatively and sighed. "He can still get to me even now. I feel guilty about getting him convicted. Why should I?"
The blond studied the younger man quietly and then put a gentle hand on his arm. "You have a conscience, Ez. He don't. You loved him, but he abused that love. Don't let him ruin the rest of yer life. You deserve better than him."
Ezra smiled. "Thank you all for helping me during this rather nasty experience." The undercover agent turned to the ladies' man and held out his hand, which Buck clasped strongly in return. "I want to thank you most of all, Bucklin, for making me see sense through all this. I would probably have gone back to him if it weren't for you."
"That's alright, pard. Now, I want you to stay with me for the next few days, or however long you want to. I want you to have company until yer feeling better."
"What about Mr. Dunne? I've deprived him of his home for far too long already."
"Ezra?" JD said from behind. "I'm fine with Chris. There ain't no hurry for me to go home. I'm getting used to the country life and it's great to ride horses whenever I want."
The undercover agent studied the younger man to make sure that he wasn't just trying to placate him with the offer. He could see, though, that it was a genuine offer.
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne. I need to regain my own life again though, so I will stay for one more week and then pick up the pieces of my shattered life. At least, thanks to you all, I have a life to pick up." Ezra smiled and accompanied his friends out of the courthouse to start afresh.
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