Through The Heart Of The Jungle
(Welcome To The Jungle)
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Pairing: Ezra/Chris, Ezra/other
Rating: NC-17 for violence, m/m, and a few naughty words
Feedback: Yes, please. :-)
Author's notes: Thank you to my wonderful betas, Sherri, Tehomet, Antoinette, and to Chris J. Ueberall for her support.
Summary: While lost in the African jungle, FBI agent Ezra Standish makes some new friends. Chaos ensues.
Part I - Into the Wilderness
Shambala country, Africa
He was going to kill Bruce, he really was. In an extremely slow, painful way. Perhaps even involving some sort of excruciating torture before delivering the final blow. Chinese torture, that would do.
Ezra bit his lip as yet another sharp, low-hanging branch scraped against his body, ripping cloth and tearing skin. He was covered in cuts and bruises, beyond exhausted; he would kill for a single drop of water, and the remorseless sun beating down on him made it seem like he was inside a sweltering oven.
Not to mention, since his watch had been smashed in an earlier fall, he'd lost track of how long he'd been wandering through the dense jungle. And it was all Bruce's fault for abandoning him in this endless labyrinth of tropical vegetation, at the mercy of the perilous fauna.
What the hell had he been thinking, taking up with a self-centered, arrogant, prickly bastard like Bruce? What the hell had him thinking a relationship between them could possibly work? They couldn't even see eye-to-eye on the most basic of topics, let alone important stuff.
But this, this took the cake. Being invited on a vacation in an exotic country to 'patch up' their differences, only to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere after a fight... Oh, yes, Bruce was going to regret it. Assuming, of course, a band of starving lions didn't decide to have Ezra for lunch, or he didn't die of dehydration first.
As if triggered by his crazed thoughts, he heard a most welcome sound; running water. There had to be a river or stream nearby. He stood frozen for a moment, trying to discern where the noise was coming from, his legs taking him in that direction of their own volition.
He nearly sobbed as his eyes spotted a stream of clear water right before him. He knelt on the bank, submerging his head and neck into that marvelous freshness, then drank his fill, remembering not to swallow too rapidly, lest he fell sick. He remained seated for a long while, enjoying a well-deserved rest, before deciding to proceed with his mission. Sooner or later he would find civilization, a way to return to Shambala City, and then Bruce would get his just desserts... With icing on top.
He had barely risen to his feet when suddenly he sensed he wasn't alone any longer.
"Bruce?" he whispered, hoping his lover had come back for him. "Is that you?"
The sound of rustling leaves reached him from several directions. He shuddered, realizing he was about to face more than one person or animal. His breath caught as the bushes were pushed aside, and he found himself abruptly surrounded by a dozen black men. All of them wore nothing more than a loincloth at the waists and bone necklaces at their throats. The paint smeared on their faces and chests and the spears in their hands as they drew closer didn't exactly reassure Ezra he was in safe hands. Especially as he recognized some of the bones adorning their necks as being human vertebrae.
'Oh, I can see the headlines now,' he thought inanely to himself. ''FBI agent on vacation in Africa eaten by tribe of cannibals'. How low can you get, my Lord?'
That was his last coherent thought for some time, as the men chose that moment to attack. He managed to evade the spears, punching and kicking as best as he could, but he was at a great disadvantage and still fatigued, and soon began to lose ground.
Two of the cannibals had succeeded in throwing him on the rough earth and were attempting to subdue him when gunshots echoed. In less than a second, he was free and the tribesmen had vanished out of sight.
Ezra remained on the ground, eyes closed, panting for breath as he silently thanked whatever deity was responsible for saving his sorry hide. He finally opened his eyes as the familiar purring of a motor halted next to him. It was a jeep, carrying three white men, all of them armed with machine guns.
"Gentlemen, am I to assume you are my timely saviors?"
One of the men, in his forties and sporting a goatee that contrasted dramatically with his bald head, grinned wickedly. "You are. My name's Benzin; these are my friends, Collins and Bloom."
Ezra sat up slowly. "In that case, I must thank you. I would have deeply regretted leaving this life as someone else's gourmet dinner."
The men chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't thank my lucky stars just yet," Benzin said, his grin widening.
Ezra raised an eyebrow in query.
"We've been looking for you," Collins said. He was a giant of a man, big and strong, and would have probably given most wrestlers a run for their money. "We witnessed your fight with your... er, friend. And how he took off in the jeep you'd rented and left you alone. Perfect opportunity, as far as we're concerned."
"Perfect opportunity for what?" Ezra echoed, dread surging through him. Talk about getting out of the frying pan and into the fire. It would seem his 'saviors' had a hidden agenda.
"We were... doing some business in Shambala a few days ago, when we saw you and your loverboy." Bloom leered. Contrary to the other two, who did look like mercenaries, Bloom resembled anything but. Short, slim, and with the face of a weasel, he was as different from the others as could be. "We recognized Bruce Fraser immediately; after all, he's one of the biggest millionaires in the US. Then we realized how... close you two were. We've been following you around, hoping to get you alone."
"Yeah. I'm sure Mr. Fraser will give up a small fortune to have his lover back at his side." Benzin laughed merrily. "Up and at 'em, boy. We have places to be and ransoms to demand."
Ezra sighed and rose to his feet, allowing Collins to bind his wrists. There was no way he could escape, not with three firearms aimed at his head. Perhaps the only solution was to wait for Bruce to pay the ransom and hope these men wouldn't kill him afterwards. At least he would stick to that plan until a better one came along.
Bruce got to live after all, and without having to suffer any torture. It was an annoying thought.
Ezra was expertly driven through the jungle, until they reached a clearing where a pavilion had been erected. Benzin shut down the jeep's engine just as a fourth man exited the pristine white tent.
"That's our boss, Geils," Bloom said helpfully, pulling Ezra out of the jeep and towards Geils.
"I see you finally managed to capture our prey," Geils said softly, a smile playing on his lips. Ezra watched warily as the mercenary's blue eyes explored his body with a cool, smoldering interest. It made him uneasy to realize Geils was openly showing sexual interest in him. "Did you search him?" the gang's leader finally asked.
"No." Collins replied.
Geils chuckled, approaching Ezra slowly. "Then, by all means, allow me." Ezra gritted his teeth as Geils 'searched' him thoroughly, or in other words, pawed at him more fervently than strictly necessary. The only thing found was his wallet, and Geils raised his eyebrows in surprise as he looked inside. "FBI? An idle millionaire and a Fed? You two are quite the pair, aren't you?" He looked at Benzin. "Go back to town, find Fraser and tell him we have his boyfriend. Tell him he either gives us two million dollars by Friday or we will deliver Agent Standish here back to him... piece by piece." He brushed his fingers lightly over Ezra's jaw. "And it would be such a shame to ruin perfection. Bloom, take him inside."
"Right, boss." Bloom dragged Ezra inside the tent, throwing him on the floor. "Now, behave or we'll be forced to hurt you. I'm sure your boyfriend wouldn't be too happy to get you back with a broken arm or leg, would he?"
Left temporarily alone, Ezra didn't waste any time exploring his surroundings. The inside of the tent was spartan. A table and four chairs stood near the center, a few backpacks were tucked in a corner, along with two lamps, four bedrolls, canteens, jerry cans of water, and crates of provisions.
"We travel light," Geils said, having walked in during Ezra's inspection of the place. "Due to our... profession we're forced to move often."
"What happens now?" Ezra asked.
"Now, if you give me your word not to try to escape, I'll let you to have some food and water, and a change of clothes. I believe we're about the same size."
"I'd appreciate that. However, that's not what I was referring to."
"I know," Geils replied, as he cut Ezra's ropes and helped him stand with surprising gentleness. "It's up to your boyfriend. If he pays the ransom, I'll let you go. If he doesn't, I'm afraid I'll have to kill you. Although I confess that in your case it will pain me to do so. But we do have a reputation to uphold round these parts."
Ezra snorted. "Of course." Geils gestured for him to sit at the table, and brought him some food and water, which Ezra gladly devoured. "So, you are actually attempting to convince me that if Bruce pays the ransom you won't kill me? You might be able to break camp at a second's notice, but even assuming you're using aliases, I have seen your faces. How can you let me live?"
Geils shrugged slightly. "It doesn't matter who knows our names or faces. It's not the first time we've done this. The authorities will do nothing. This country is a gold mine for the right people. Most tribes are at war with each other, and are as primitive as they come, even by this continent's standards. Only the capital city shows any promise, and both the government and the big shots running it care only about power and the American dollar. We've been here for years and we're still running free. Right now, only Larabee's crowd poses any threat to us."
"Larabee?" Ezra asked, biting into a juicy peach, and frowning as Geils' eyes darkened and focused on his lips.
"A group of do-gooders who recently settled down in Shambala country. Their aim is to improve the tribes' living conditions, help put an end to their petty wars, if possible. And of course, put a stop to operators such as myself."
"What exactly do you do, besides kidnapping FBI agents and holding them for ransom?"
Geils smirked. "Oh, this and that. Whatever the guys with the big bucks want me to do. Now, I think it's time for that change of clothes." He rose from the table and set a basin on the wooden surface, which he filled with water. "I'm afraid showers are out of the question, but you can still wash away the dirt with this." Next he brought out a pair of cream khaki pants and an army green t-shirt. "I'm sure this will do for now."
"Thank you," Ezra said. Realizing Geils was still standing there looking at him expectantly, he added, "I suppose asking for a little privacy would be too much?"
The mercenary laughed. "You're a Fed, Ezra... Can I call you Ezra?"
"Oh, please do," Ezra muttered sarcastically.
"Thank you. As I was saying, you're a Fed. The moment I turn my back, you'd very likely try to leave my company. Besides, I'm certain I'll enjoy the show very, very much."
Flushing with both anger and embarrassment, Ezra stripped off his torn shirt, using it to clear the worse of the dirt clinging to his torso. He could feel Geils' eyes glued to his body, but refused to acknowledge the man or to make matters worse by snapping at him. After donning the t-shirt, he took off his equally ruined pants, rushing to clean himself up and nearly sighing with relief when he was once again fully clothed. Geils seemed about ready to pounce on him and that was the last thing he needed.
"I can see what Fraser sees in you," Geils said, his voice husky. "You have a beautiful body, Ezra. Tell me, are you a top or a bottom?"
"None of your business," Ezra snarled angrily, sick of the man and his disgusting stare.
Geils didn't seem offended or upset at his tone. "Perhaps. But I would love to find out. And maybe I will, soon."
With that Geils finally left the tent, but before Ezra could even think of an escape route, both Bloom and Collins were back to guard him. It seemed more urgent than ever for Ezra to make a break for it as soon as possible. He didn't think Geils would resist the forbidden fruit for long, no matter the outcome of his 'business' with Bruce.
Ezra hadn't meant to fall asleep siting at the table, but after hours tramping through the jungle and the fight with the cannibals, he had been exhausted. He woke up to the sound of the jeep returning, night having fallen long ago. Collins was waiting for Benzin with Geils, but Bloom was still keeping an eye on him.
Ezra watched through the open tent door as the three men outside talked quietly by a small fire; Benzin was obviously recounting his talk with Bruce. After a while, Geils nodded and walked in, leaving the other two to sit by the fire.
"Out!" he ordered Bloom, who rushed to obey.
The mercenary sat near Ezra, the light from the two oil lamps illuminating the pavilion enough for the man's grim expression to be perfectly visible. Ezra's heart tightened at that; something was amiss.
"What's wrong?" he asked, hardly aware he was whispering.
"I'm afraid I have bad news, Ezra," Geils said, and he seemed honestly sorry.
"Bruce refused to pay the ransom?" Ezra ventured, only half-surprised.
"Not exactly. When Benzin arrived at the hotel you two had been staying in, Bruce was gone."
Ezra shot up from his chair, not sure if he had heard correctly. "What?! What do you mean, 'gone'?"
"I mean that he paid for the room, asked the receptionist to hold your things for a few days and caught a flight back to the States. He left you behind."
"The little..." Ezra snapped, angrily. "I suppose it's too late to hire your services and have you torture that son of a bitch to death?"
Geils chuckled. "Way too late. I'd be arrested the moment I set foot in the States. Same thing with Bloom and Benzin. But I still know a few people in the right circles. If you really want it done..."
"No! No," Ezra repeated more calmly. "I was merely... blowing off steam. I can't believe he left without so much as a second thought, after our fight this morning." He sat dejectedly on the table. "Now what?"
"Normally, I'd kill you, since I'd have no further use for you. Fraser having left means we'll get no money. But there's something about you..." Geils shook his head, a rueful smile on his lips. "I'd like to propose a deal."
Ezra narrowed his eyes. "A deal?"
Geils nodded. "Stay here, Ezra, with me. I'm not a man who often indulges in his carnal desires or allows others to witness them. But I lost it the moment I laid eyes on you. I'd very much like you as part of our team, and being a Fed, you have what it takes."
"How can you trust me not to run the first chance I get?" Ezra asked, curiously.
"You'd be watched for a while, of course. But in this business, there comes a moment when there is no turning back and you'd be in as deep as we are."
"Meaning I would be stuck with you," Ezra drawled sarcastically. "I assume there would be other... duties I would be bound to perform for you?"
Geils didn't pretend to misunderstand. "My bedroll has been empty for a very long time, Ezra. Perhaps I'm not what you consider appealing, but I'm sure you'll come to enjoy my touch in time, and I promise never to hurt you. Not unless you give me cause to."
Ezra pretended to think about it, while in reality attempting to discover a solution to his plight. There was no way he was going to become a mercenary, and worse, Geils' plaything, but he was certainly in deep water. Bruce had been the one with the money, the one who had offered to pay for the vacation. Ezra was stuck in Shambala without a penny to his name and no way back home. Still, first things first.
"All right," he finally said. "It's not like I have any other choice, and I value my life."
"Excellent!" Geils jumped up from his chair, taking hold of Ezra's hand and pulling him to his feet. "You won't regret this, Ezra, I promise," he assured him, just before his mouth came down on Ezra's.
Ezra forced himself to respond to the hard and demanding kiss, parting his lips. An idea suddenly sprang to mind. Making sure Geils had his eyes closed, he reached for the lamp sitting on the table, his lips never losing contact with the other man's. When the lamp was firmly gripped in his hand, he slammed it against Geils' head, grinning as the man crumbled to the ground in an untidy heap.
"Serves you right, you disgusting bastard," he muttered.
Fearful the loud sound might have been heard by the others, Ezra peered outside, but the mercenaries were still sitting by the fire, sharing a bottle of whiskey. With luck, they would drink themselves into an alcoholic stupor, allowing him to steal the jeep and get the hell out of here.
But before he did that, he had to make certain Geils wouldn't make any noise. Checking to make sure he hadn't hit Geils too hard, he rummaged in the backpacks until he found rope and a piece of cloth. He then bound and gagged his would-be lover, and set out to wait until the other three were out of commission.
Bloom was the first to drop, then Benzin, and finally Collins. Obviously his larger build made him more resistant to alcohol. Ezra waited until he was certain they had passed out before slowly crawling out of the tent, towards the jeep. He reached it without a hitch, only to realize there was no key in the ignition.
Fiercely glad he had learned how to hotwire a car at a young age, he spent precious seconds doing just that, always keeping an eye on the drunken men snoring by the fire. He sighed with relief as the vehicle purred to life, then set the headlights to maximum, and began to drive through the undergrowth.
Bloom staggered abruptly out of the darkness and into the bright gleam of the headlights, his machine gun aimed at the jeep. "Stop!" he slurred, swaying dangerously.
"Get out of the way!" Ezra retorted, having no intention of surrendering now.
"No, you stop!" Bloom shouted, adjusting his aim.
"Fine." Ezra stepped on the gas pedal, purposely hitting Bloom. The impact flung him into in the air. He landed on the jeep's windshield before collapsing on the ground.
Ezra didn't stop to see if Bloom was still alive; he kept driving through the tangled thicket, holding the wheel in a white-knuckled grip as he prayed he wouldn't hit a tree or any of the night creatures he glimpsed occasionally as he sped by. Lady Luck must have been on his side, for he kept going steadily, making good time, getting further and further away from Geils' camp.
It was dawn when the jeep finally made a sputtering noise and halted. It had run out of gas. Ezra got out of the vehicle and glared at it, as if willing it to start again. Now, what?
Part II - Chance Meetings
They had been returning to their camp after a night spent with the Durak tribe when Chris heard the rumble of a jeep driving in their direction, then suddenly dying down. Signaling the others, they made their way towards the sound, weapons ready, as there had been sightings of Geils and his lackeys in the area recently.
The vehicle was Geils' all right. Chris recognized it as soon as he saw the license plate, but the man standing next to it wasn't one he had seen before. He would have remembered. Tight cream khaki pants and an even tighter green t-shirt framed a lithe, but muscled body that spoke of controlled strength and fluidity.
Chris cocked his gun. "Hold it."
The stranger turned at the sound, green eyes throwing daggers at them as he huffed, "Well, and what do you gentlemen want with me? To eat me, fuck me, or kill me?" he asked bluntly.
By Chris' side, Buck laughed heartily. "Seems like you're having a bad day there, pard. Something we can do to help?"
"That would depend on you," the man replied. "And what your intentions towards my person are."
Nathan pointed towards the vehicle. "That jeep belongs to Geils."
Chris noticed the increase in tension in the stranger's body.
"Are you and Geils acquaintances?" the man asked softly.
JD snorted. "Hardly. We've been trying to catch him for months now."
The stranger tilted his head, pensively. "One of you gentlemen wouldn't happen to be named Larabee?"
Hiding his surprise that this man should know his name, Chris nodded. "I am. Chris Larabee."
"Ezra Standish," the man introduced himself with a lopsided smile. "Geils did mention you, as a crowd of do-gooders, if I'm not mistaken. And before you ask, no, I am not one of his henchmen. I was merely unfortunate enough to run into them yesterday. If you still wish to pursue him, you might follow the tracks I left as I drove here. Shouldn't be too difficult. However, considering I wasn't a willing guest of Geils' and that I managed to escape last night, I highly doubt his camp remains where I last saw it."
"We'll chance it anyway. Mind going with us? We might need a hand," Josiah said. "They're a small group, but nasty. I'm Josiah Sanchez, by the way. This is Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne, Nathan Jackson. Chris you already know."
Ezra nodded. "All right. If Mr. Larabee has no objections, I would appreciate joining you. It would be a pleasure to witness Geils being apprehended."
"No objections," Chris assured, trying to get a feel for Standish. The man was soft-spoken, obviously intelligent, and quick on the uptake. He also appeared fearless and seemed to adjust to a situation with amazing ease.
"We have two jeeps hidden not far from here," Vin said. "Come on."
JD drove the first one, with Nathan, Josiah and Vin as his passengers. Chris took the wheel of the second, with Ezra by his side, and Buck in the back seat. They began to backtrack Ezra's path through the jungle, going as fast as they could considering the terrain, but Chris had to agree with the mysterious man by his side; Geils and his men were probably long gone.
"So, what do you gentlemen do out here in the middle of all this flora and fauna?" Ezra asked, eyes on a pair of monkeys playing tag through the tree-tops.
"Didn't Geils tell you?" Chris took the opportunity to glance at the other man without being noticed.
"Not much. Besides mentioning you had been attempting to capture him, all he said was that you wished to improve the local tribes' living conditions and prevent them fighting each other."
"That's true. We were hired by Judge Orrin Travis to come down here. You might've heard of him, he was pretty well known back home for speaking his mind," Buck said. "His son, Stephen, was with UNICEF. Two years ago, Stephen visited Shambala during a charity operation and ended up staying. He divided his time between helping out the poorer tribes and running a small newspaper that did its best to unmask the government's illegal dealings with mercenaries, and their shady business deals with other companies, countries and so on. He turned up dead last year, murdered. No one knows what happened, the killer was never found. The Judge and his daughter-in-law, Mary, decided to keep Stephen's work alive. She runs the newspaper, although at a more low-key pace, and he throws fund-raisers so we can remain here and do what we can for these people."
"What exactly does each of you do?" Ezra asked.
"Nathan's a doctor, Josiah is an anthropologist, JD can drive or fly anything with an engine, Buck and I were hired to keep the peace, and Vin is our guide," Chris told him. "His folks were explorers, came to Shambala when he was five and ended up dying in a cave-in accident. He was taken in by the Durak tribe, can speak most of the local dialects and knows the backcountry better than he knows himself."
Ezra gave Chris a shrewd glance. "And what did you and Mr. Wilmington do before you were hired to 'keep the peace'?"
"We were mercenaries."
Ezra nodded. "Like Geils."
"We're nothing like Geils!" Chris snarled, offended. "That bastard raids villages and kidnaps women to sell into the sex trade, or the strongest men to be taken to the diamond and gold mines the government insists don't exist."
"I'm sorry," Ezra said, contrite. "I didn't mean to suggest you were like him, just that you had at one time shared the same profession. Not all mercenaries are the same, like not all doctors, or teachers, or politicians are the same. But I sense a particular urgency for finding Geils?"
"Yeah," Buck chimed in. "He stole a shipment meant for us. It had medication and vaccines, among other things, that we desperately need to stop a virus spreading to some of the local villages. It's harmless to us, a sort of influenza virus, but for these people... We're talking malnourished, never vaccinated, lacking everything we take for granted. Their bodies just can't fight it."
"And Geils stole the shipment?" The anger in Ezra's voice was clear.
"Yes. Somehow he was told about it and got to the airport before we got there. We know he sold it to someone and we need to know who, so we can get back as much of it as possible. It'll be months before Travis has enough money to send us more vaccines," Chris said grimly, remembering the deaths he had witnessed during the last weeks. The virus didn't spare anyone, not women, not children, not men. It was ravaging the villages like the plague, killing by the dozens to a point that some tribes were even at risk of disappearing completely as all their members were dying.
"I wish I had known. Perhaps I could have made him tell me who he sold it to." Ezra shook his head. "I didn't hit him hard enough."
"You hit him?" Buck sounded surprised. "How did you run into him anyway? And since we're on the subject, what do you do for a living?"
"Ah... I'm an FBI agent. As for my run-in with Geils... a friend and I were here on vacation. My friend is Bruce Fraser, the -"
"The millionaire?" Buck interrupted.
"Yes. Geils and his men saw us together and decided to follow us for a few days and kidnap me when the chance arose, so they could ask Bruce for a ransom. Only by the time they finally captured me, Bruce had been forced to return to the States and they lost the ransom. Knowing they were going to kill me, I provided for my own emancipation. I managed to knock Geils out, waited until his men were passed out drunk and stole the jeep. I did run over Bloom, I'm not certain if he's alive. I drove all night and then met you gentlemen."
Chris frowned as he heard the story. Somehow he knew there were some details missing, but he wasn't about to press Ezra for them. It was none of their business and it didn't feel right to pry. Besides Chris had to concentrate on the important thing; catching Geils. They needed to get that shipment back before it was too late for the people in Shambala.
Even with the help of daylight, it took them a few hours to reach the location of Geils' camp. And as Ezra had predicted, the mercenaries were gone. All except for Bloom, whose body was lying lifeless on the ground.
"Guess you did kill him after all, Ezra," Vin said as he kicked the dead man lightly. "Couldn't think of a better end for this slimeball."
"Now what?" JD asked. "Maybe Vin can track them? We can look for their new camp."
Chris shook his head. "It'd be a waste of time. Geils will be sure to cover their tracks and is probably miles away by now. We better head back. We can take Ezra to town and ask around. Maybe someone knows who Geils sold the meds to."
"Can't find any trace of them anyhow," Vin said, while checking the ground in several different directions. "We'd be going round in circles. 'Sides, the vegetation is damn dense in these parts. Even if they weren't being careful, it would be hard to find anything."
"We should take Bloom's body with us. There's a reward for him, dead or alive," Josiah said. "We could buy some medication with the bounty, enough to treat the worse cases for a couple of days."
Nathan rubbed his forehead tiredly. "That's like trying to stop a gunshot wound from bleeding with a band-aid. But I guess it'll have to do."
Chris nodded, and they tied Bloom's body to the front of one of the jeeps. When they reached Shambala City, the two vehicles separated. JD and the others went to deliver Bloom to the authorities and collect the reward, while Chris and Buck went to see Ezra off.
Once parked in front of Ezra's hotel, Chris was oddly reluctant to see him go. He followed Ezra to the main entrance.
"You going back to the States?" he asked.
"Eventually. I might stay for a few weeks. After all, I was here on vacation before Geils came storming into my life."
Chris handed him a card. "This is the address of a bar here in town run by a friend, Inez. If you ever need anything, or if you want to get in touch with us, go there. She'll know how to reach us."
Ezra looked down at the card. "The Four Corners Bar. Inez. All right. Perhaps I'll pay you a visit before I leave. After all I didn't get to say goodbye to your friends. Or to thank you all for your assistance. If not for you, I would still be in the middle of the jungle waiting for a miraculous rescue."
"Well, you got us Bloom, so consider it even." He shook Ezra's hand firmly, holding it for a little longer than necessary. "See you around."
He went back to the jeep, sat behind the wheel, and watched as Ezra went inside the hotel.
"Nice, isn't he?" Buck said as he jumped from the backseat to the passenger seat.
Chris glared at him. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
Buck chuckled. "Nothing. Just that I saw the way you were looking at him. It's been a while since I've seen you take an interest in anyone."
"Well, don't get your hopes up. He's leaving for home, remember?"
"Yeah. But I'm sure he isn't going today. You know where he's staying, you could see him tonight, maybe ask him out to dinner... Afterwards, you go up for a nightcap, one thing leads to another..."
Chris shook his head. "I don't think so. He didn't give me any hint that he's interested, and he didn't seem like an one-night stand kind of guy."
Buck shrugged. "So? Neither are you."
Chris gunned the jeep, not bothering to reply. Buck was right. He had liked Ezra a lot; the way he looked, his voice, the way his face dimpled as he smiled, even the way he felt, on the few occasions they had sort of bumped into each other. But he wasn't about to jump into bed with someone he had just met. No matter how desperate Buck thought him to be, he just didn't need the aggravation. Better to let it go.
Ezra watched through the tinted glass of the hotel doors as Chris and Buck finally drove away. A small, annoying part of himself had wanted to stay with those men, or at least with Chris. The man was an enigma, and as such extremely dangerous. Ezra had trouble turning down a challenge, and the occasional glance he had caught the blond giving him had assured him should he make an advance, Chris would definitely say yes.
The more cautious part of his brain reminded him that he had better things to worry about, and that he was still smarting from Bruce's careless attitude towards him. He should have ended that relationship long ago. It wasn't as if they loved each other madly. But he was his mother's son after all, and Bruce's money called to something dark and ugly inside of him. But no more. As soon as he got back to Atlanta he would tell Bruce what he could do with his money, or more precisely where to stick it.
How could two men be so different? Larabee obviously had no money, his chosen profession was dangerous, he lived in the middle of the jungle, and was basically everything Ezra had been taught all of his life to stay away from. And yet, Ezra knew Chris was a useful human being, doing what he could for his fellow men, while a bore like Bruce was only taking up space and consuming precious air.
But Ezra wasn't about to make any moves on Larabee. Firstly, the last thing he needed was to further complicate his life for the sake of one night of sex with the man. Secondly, after his encounter with Geils, all he wanted to do was take a hot bath and wash the mercenary's tainted memory from his body.
He shook his head to clear his jumbled thoughts, wondering how just a few hours in Larabee's company could have left him so confused. With a sigh, he walked over to the reception desk, ready to take over the reins of his life once again.
Half afraid the receptionist would refuse him a room without paying for at least a night in advance, he was relieved when she remembered him as Mr. Fraser's 'good friend' and not only rented him a room, but also made sure all his belongings - which Bruce had left abandoned at the hotel - were brought up immediately.
Once inside the room, he took a long, hot bath, then got dressed. The first thing on his list of things to do had been accomplished; he had a roof over his head. Next on the agenda was to get his hands on some money. He wasn't about to call his mother for help. More likely than not, she would refuse to lend him any. That left gambling. And the hotel's casino seemed like a good place to start.
Ezra resisted the urge to cackle gleefully as he looked down at his cards. Four days of playing poker at the casino and he already had enough money to go back home and live off of his earnings for a few weeks. Good thing he had been told about the backroom and the high stake games held there; he would have been wasting his talent on the tourist game played in the main hall.
He glanced at the man sitting before him, the last of the original players. The Shambalan was sweating profusely, and swallowed thickly on occasion, but there was something about his posture than warned Ezra he might have a good hand. Not enough to beat Ezra, though.
"Well?" Ezra finally asked.
His opponent smiled. "I win this time, Mr. Standish," he said proudly, placing his cards on the table. "Full house."
"A very good hand indeed, Mr. Jabulani," Ezra said. "However, mine is better. Royal Flush." He spread the cards on the wooden tabletop. "I win."
He made to reach for the winnings, but Jabulani's voice stopped him. "Mr. Standish, wait, please. How about a rematch? Winner takes all? Please?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow at the man. "I don't see any money on your side of the table."
Jabulani ran a handkerchief over his forehead, his whole demeanor somewhat nervous. "Yes, well... I confess that was the last of my money and the reason why I would like a chance to win it back. While I may not have any immediate cash, I do have something far more valuable. Something worth ten times the amount you won, especially if handled properly."
"And that something is?" Ezra asked, unable to curb his curiosity.
Jabulani leaned forward, while at the same time speaking in a whisper. "Have you heard of the virus plaguing this country's population?"
Ezra frowned in puzzlement. "The influenza virus? Yes. What of it?"
"I have recently... come into possession of an amount of medication. And I mean a large amount. Probably enough to vaccinate and cure the people in more than half of our villages and tribes."
"Have you, now?" Ezra drawled, fighting the compulsion to punch the smirk off the man's face. So this was the buyer of Larabee's medical shipment. This was the man who Geils had sold it to.
Jabulani nodded eagerly. "Indeed. Sold on the black market it'll be worth twice, maybe three times the amount I paid. I will play you for it."
Ezra wanted very much to ask some questions, like how and why the man had wanted the medication in the first place, and if he knew how to get in touch with Geils. But asking those questions would make Jabulani suspicious and he would probably withdraw his offer. And after meeting Chris and the others every night at the Four Corners Bar, he knew they were slowly going crazy trying to find the missing shipment.
The solution was to win the medication and then let Chris have a go at Jabulani. After all, Ezra knew where the Shambalan was staying and where to find him most of the day.
"Very well, you're on."
Jabulani rubbed his hands together. "Good, good. Let's play."
Ezra had played with Jabulani the day before as well, and both games had proved fairly easy to win. This one was no exception. In the end, he was the last one standing.
"It seems one man's misfortune is another man's luck," he said to Jabulani as he pocketed the cash. "Now, perhaps you could lead me to the remainder of my winnings?"
Jabulani was clearly brooding, but nodded sullenly. "Of course. Please, come with me."
To Ezra's surprise, Jabulani took him to the hotel's underground garage. There - hidden in plain sight - stood three trucks marked with the insignia of a local fertilizer company. Ezra raised the canvas of the closest one, whistling softly at the pile of boxes filling it; row after row, going as far up as possible. He opened two of the boxes at random, wanting to make sure he wasn't being swindled, then smiled, satisfied.
"It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Jabulani," he said, hoping the dismissal was clear in his tone.
It was. Jabulani bowed slightly and left without another word, leaving Ezra alone with his treasure. Walking over to the entrance, but holding a position in which he could watch the trucks and his surroundings, Ezra reached inside his wallet for Chris' card, and dialed the bar's number on his cellular.
"Inez? Ezra," he said when there was an answer on the other end of the line. "Is Chris or any of the others there? Good. No, no need to hand over the phone. Just let him know I need them to meet me immediately at the underground garage in my hotel. It's beyond urgent. Good. I will be waiting, then. Goodnight, my dear."
He finished the call and leaned against the wall, watching the crowd thinning as night lengthened and the witching hour grew closer. His eyes strayed to the three trucks and he shook his head ruefully at the irony of it all. While Chris and his men had been desperately searching for those same vehicles and their contents, they had been resting right under Ezra's nose. Life's little mischiefs were diabolical at times.
Part III - On a Mission
They left the two jeeps parked by the side of the hotel and continued on foot to the garage. As soon as Chris spotted Ezra, he knew there was something wrong. While the man himself had a poker face and was definitely not easy to read, Chris had begun to grasp Ezra's body language. Not to mention that for all of Ezra's nonchalance regarding certain matters, all you had to do was search within those wide green eyes, and all the other man's carefully hidden emotions would suddenly become clear.
At the moment, Ezra was standing against a wall, glancing around, body tense and at attention, as if he feared an unexpected attack. He turned his head abruptly as he heard their footsteps, and to Chris' pleasure, he relaxed as soon as he realized who they were.
Before Chris could say a word, though, Ezra gave them an enigmatic smile and gestured with a finger for them to follow. They moved through the ground level quietly, until finally Ezra stopped.
"Gentlemen, I believe this is your property," he said, moving aside a canvas covering the back of a truck.
JD gasped. "Oh, wow," he breathed. "How did you -?"
"Come to be in possession of such a precious loot?" Ezra quipped. "I won it at a poker game, if you can believe it. I thought it best not to ask any questions of my opponent, but I can tell you he resides at this precise hotel, goes by the name of Jabulani, and works at InfoShambala. What you do with that information is up to you. Now, I suggest you remove these trucks out of here immediately. I wouldn't put it past Mr. Jabulani to attempt to retrieve his former merchandise."
Chris nodded. He would make sure to send Vin and Buck to have a 'word' with Jabulani in the near future. But for now, they had more important things to focus on.
"JD, Vin, Nathan, drive the trucks back to camp. Buck, Josiah, take one of the jeeps and go with them. I want to have a word with Ezra. I'll follow as soon as possible." Once they were alone, Chris smiled at Ezra. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome, sir," Ezra replied, sharing his smile. "I didn't have much to do with this happy occurrence, really. Blame it on Lady Luck, or destiny, if you will. My role was but a small one."
"But very important. Listen, now that we have the vaccines, we'll be away for the next three to four days, trying to get that stuff to as many people as possible. You wanna go with us? Nathan can show you what to do. It would mean sleeping in the trucks or on the hard ground for a few nights, eating canned food, no modern comforts, no showers... What do you say?" He noticed the hesitation lurking in Ezra's eyes and played his trump card. "Please, Ezra?"
Ezra gave him a feigned scowl. "Oh, very well. In any case I could use a change of scenery."
Chris grinned. "Great! Go to your room and pack clothes for a few days, and anything else you think you'll need. Keep it light, though. I'll wait in the jeep."
He walked slowly back to the jeep after they parted, feeling something warm inside at the thought of having Ezra with them for a few days. The more he saw of the man, the more he enjoyed his company. They seemed to have crossed the line from perfect strangers to friends in only a few days. And Chris liked that feeling very much.
The next morning, the seven men divided themselves among the three trucks and headed in different directions. Josiah and Nathan went north; Vin, JD and Buck, south; and Chris and Ezra, east. The capital was to the west, and so far the local hospital had been able to control the virus in town.
Ezra had been surprised to realize just what was required of him on the mission; since Nathan was the only medical professional among them, and couldn't be everywhere at once, all of them would have to play doctor and vaccinate and medicate the population themselves. He'd had a swift crash course on what to do, how to do it, and what quantity each person should be allowed to take, and then they had departed.
By nine they were arriving at the first village. Ezra had been enjoying the ride, alternated between comfortable silence and small talk, when Chris spoke to him, his voice suddenly very serious.
"Brace yourself for what you're about to see, Ezra. You might've seen something similar on TV, but the real deal is a lot more intense."
Somewhat puzzled by what Chris meant, Ezra nodded. Once the truck had stopped he jumped out of his seat, relieved to be able to stretch and looked around. His breath hitched in his throat at the sight before him. The village couldn't have more than twenty huts altogether. They looked like they were made of dry sticks, not hard wood, and only a piece of cloth served as a door.
It had rained during the night, so the ground was muddy and small puddles were visible all around. A stream floated near by, its water brownish and obviously not fit to drink, but still women and children were filling pots and pans made of orange clay, and taking them to their homes. A few yards away a small group of women were washing their cooking utensils and clothing, and men were watering their livestock.
A few chickens were walking about, among the humans, like they hadn't a care in the world, and he spotted a dog or two. But it was the people and the way they looked that shocked him. Men, women and children alike were thin to the point of death, the children in particular. In most of the kids you could see their ribs clearly, while others had blown-up bellies, a clear sign of malnourishment. Some of the women seemed to curve with age, almost hunchbacked, and the older men walked slowly, as if each step took an enormous effort.
"My Lord," he whispered, feeling his eyes misting.
"It's painful to look at, isn't it?" Chris asked quietly by his side, a comforting hand resting on Ezra's shoulder.
"Makes me want to turn around and run," Ezra confessed softly. "How do you -" he trailed off, lost for words.
"Stand it? Get used to it? We don't. It hurts everytime. Gets worse sometimes when you realize you can never do enough, not until the government starts to care for its own people. One in three of these people are malnourished. They use the stream for bathing, washing and the children even pee in it, increasing the risk of sickness and disease. One year they have floods, the next droughts. There's no sanitation, no medical care, and not enough food as their crops rarely survive the unstable climate. It's... a nightmare. Buck and I, we were supposed to stay for just a few months, to make sure the others got settled in. But we just couldn't leave, not after seeing these people. But we do make a difference, Ezra, even if it's a small one." He smiled at Ezra, eyes filled with understanding. "One day at a time."
Ezra found himself smiling back at the other man. "One day at a time," he echoed. "How about we start this one?"
"I'm with you, Ezra."
For the rest of the day, Chris watched with a sense of awe as, without so much as understanding a word, or counting on Chris' limited help in that respect, Ezra nevertheless charmed the Shambalese in the villages they visited, in particular the children. He seemed to connect with them on levels that required no language skills. They managed to travel to eight villages and in all of them the same would happen. As soon as everyone was vaccinated and medication had been handed out, Ezra was certain to have a bunch of children laughing and chasing him around, a modern pied piper in a ravished land.
By the end of the day both men were sweaty, covered in mud and both wore matching satisfied grins. They crawled back into the truck, and remained seated for a while without saying a word. Finally Ezra sighed, relaxing against the backrest, and closing his eyes.
"Now what?" he asked softly.
"We've done enough for one day. Now I'll take you to paradise."
Ezra laughed at his words. "Is that a promise?"
Chris ignored the thrill the husky voice sent all over his body, and joined in the laughter. "Yep. You've earned it. You did good today, Ezra."
"Thank you. So did you."
Chris gunned the engine and began to drive slowly to the spot he had in mind, looking curiously at his companion as Ezra chuckled softly. "What?"
Ezra shook his head. "Nothing."
"Come on, let me in on the secret. What's up?"
"It's rather silly," Ezra began. "But I seem to be experiencing a wonderful sense of fulfillment," he grimaced playfully at Chris. "Silly, yes?"
"Silly, no," Chris reassured him. "I feel the same, Ezra. It's only natural."
"It's such a peculiar feeling, though. I became an FBI agent because I wanted to accomplish something, to make a difference. And although not as often as I would have liked, I have made that difference. But I have never felt anything even remotely close to what I'm feeling at this moment."
"Like I said, you earned it, we both did. Now, we're here. Close your eyes."
Ezra frowned at him. "Why?"
"'Cause it's a surprise. Go on, close your eyes." When Ezra obeyed, Chris got out of the truck, then helped Ezra out too, taking both of his hands. "Keep your eyes closed. Trust me, I won't let you fall."
Step by step he took Ezra closer to his goal, until Ezra cocked one head to the side. "I hear water," he said. "Sounds strange. What is it?"
"Open your eyes and see."
The waterfall was hidden behind thick forest and rock ledges, and was such a breathtaking sight that Ezra remained silent, lips parted in wonder as Chris grinned at his reaction. It had been his reaction too, when Vin had first showed him that piece of heaven. All around the tall waterfall, the jungle was at its lushest, the water was crystalline, and the splashing of the water created a small rainbow that filled the deep pool created by the falls with color.
"Paraphrasing Mr. Dunne, 'Oh, wow'!" Ezra looked at Chris. "How did you discover such a great place?"
"Vin. Like I told you the day we met, he knows this country better than he knows himself. It's getting dark, we better make camp. I think it's going to be a warm night, so we could sleep outside. There's still too many boxes in the back of the truck and it'll be more comfortable lying on the ground than curling up in the cabin. What do you say?"
They made a small fire, brought out their sleeping bags, then went to the pool and washed their faces and hands before preparing something to eat. They were sharing a cup of coffee, gazing up at the dark sky as more and more stars became visible, when Chris decided to say the words going around in his head.
Green eyes looked up curiously at him, the light from the fire making them look oddly catlike. "Hmm?"
"I'm glad you're here."
Ezra gave him an affectionate smile. "I am too. I've done many things that I have deeply regretted afterwards. This is definitely not one of them. Thank you for inviting me." He yawned widely. "I apologize. I wasn't aware I was this fatigued."
Chris chuckled. "It's okay. It's been a long day and we worked hard. Go to sleep. We have round two tomorrow."
He stoked the fire as Ezra slipped into his sleeping bag, then after making sure the camp was secure, Chris joined the other man, placing his bag close to Ezra's. He relaxed into its warmth, sighing deeply as his body finally relaxed after the grueling day.
"Goodnight, Ezra," he murmured, already feeling drowsy.
Half an hour later, however, Chris was still very much awake, and torn between amusement and annoyance. The reason why he wasn't resting was lying by his side, wriggling and twisting continuously.
"Ezra," he finally said. "Would you keep still, for pity's sake?"
"Everywhere I lie there's a root sticking into my back," came the whined reply, muffled by the bag.
Biting his lip to keep from laughing, Chris couldn't help but mutter, "Be glad it isn't sticking somewhere else."
"You're hilarious, Mr. Larabee, simply hilarious."
So they were back to 'Mr. Larabee' again, were they? Chris leaned forward, rubbing his hand gently over Ezra's shoulder. "Just close your eyes, imagine you're back in your own bed, with a soft mattress and a lovely down pillow."
He kept his touch light, feeling the body beneath his hand grow less tense until finally Ezra's breathing changed into one of deep sleep. Shaking his head and chuckling again softly to himself, Chris laid back down and closed his eyes. Yep, he was damn glad Ezra was there with him. Even if it would make the next few nights a challenge.
Chris awoke just as the sun began to rise. He looked up into the thick trees above him, at the blue sky peeking through the near-solid blanket of leaves, and wondered for a moment where he was. Rolling onto his side, he spotted the empty sleeping bag lying on the ground and looked around for his companion.
His breath caught in his throat as he saw Ezra bathing in the pool, water up to his waist, pale body glistening in the early morning sun. He watched as the appealing form vanished for a moment, ducking under the water to rinse the suds from the smooth skin, only to resurface seconds later, dark hair clinging carelessly to his face.
Chris shifted restlessly in his sleeping bag, filled with something akin to dread as he realized that his body was responding to the vision before him. He would never be able to get rid of his erection without Ezra noticing, and now that he was getting close to the other man, he didn't want his attraction to Ezra to ruin everything.
Just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, Chris watched as Ezra made his way to the waterfall, standing on a rock and allowing the spraying waters to bathe him gently. Head thrown back, body arching, tossing the dripping hair from his face and his eyes, Ezra was a wet dream come to life and Chris moaned hungrily.
Finally, Ezra jumped into the pool, swimming lazily to the bank before he got out, water running in rivulets from his hair and down his naked chest. Chris laid back down, pretending to still be asleep, not wanting to be caught spying. He listened as Ezra came closer, recognized the sound of cloth rubbing against moist skin, stifling a sigh as Ezra got dressed.
The air shifted as Ezra sat beside him, his voice startling Chris. "I know you watched." Ezra's voice was hushed.
Chris opened his eyes, seeing Ezra looking down at him with an easy smile. "I'm sorry."
Ezra shook his damp head. "Don't be. I didn't really mind; in fact, I'm flattered. I know there was an instant attraction when we met. It's satisfying to know that hasn't changed."
Chris sat up as well. "No, it hasn't changed at all, on the contrary. But other things have. The day we met, Buck tried to convince me to go to your hotel, to ask you out. But even then, somehow, I couldn't bring myself to do it. One-night stands you pick up somewhere, take home and screw senseless. There's no need to exchange names, pleasantries, or small talk. I didn't want that with you then, and I don't want it now."
Ezra nodded his understanding. "Same here. So what do we do?"
Chris shrugged slightly. "Let it roll? See what happens? No pressure. I'm enjoying having you as a friend. If something more happens, great, if not... this is enough. I have been meaning to ask you something, though."
Ezra cocked his head at him. "What?"
"Would you consider staying in Shambala? I know you must be used to a whole different lifestyle, and here what you see is what you get. But we could really use another pair of hands, and I'd like you to work with us. You're a natural, Ezra. I'm probably asking too much..."
Ezra shook his head slowly. "I'm still flattered." His expression turned serious. "You aren't asking as much of me as you may think. I wasn't entirely truthful when we met. The real reason Geils wanted to ask Bruce for a ransom was because he discovered Bruce and I were involved. But if I go back, we are definitely over. That relationship shouldn't even have begun in the first place. As for the job... It's becoming harder and harder to go to work every morning. More often than not, the criminals we arrest are back on the streets before we are done with the paperwork. And lately... there have been some rumors that I'm on the take. They're not true, and I have no idea what or who started them, but it isn't making my life any easier."
"I can imagine. So, you're staying?" Chris asked carefully.
"Still want me to?" Ezra sounded just as hesitant.
Chris frowned. "Why shouldn't I?"
"I told you about the rumors that I'm on the take," Ezra said.
"You also said they aren't true. Good enough for me. At least think about my offer, all right?"
"All right," Ezra agreed, a mischievous gleam entering his eyes. "Now, we must get moving and you still need to wash the dirt off of you. And it is only just that I get to watch you bathing as well. Turnabout being fairplay and all that."
It took an effort, but Chris managed not to flush at the heated glance Ezra sent his way. "Geez, you don't play fair," he muttered.
He made his way to the pool, perversely taking off his clothes at a slower pace than necessary, aware of the eyes following his every move. He dove into the cool water, emerging a moment later to a wolf whistle.
"Nice behind!" Ezra shouted from the bank.
Chris turned to glare at the other man, but lost his battle to laughter, joining in with Ezra in shared mirth. It felt good to be that free again, that relaxed and contented. And he owed it all to the green-eyed devil grinning cheekily at him from their campsite.
Part IV - Strangeness
Three days later, exhausted but satisfied with the results of their work, Chris and Ezra arrived at the Durak village where they were to meet with the other men. The Durak were some of the friendliest people in the small country, and thanks to Vin's close relationship with his adopted tribe, the six men had formed good friendships with the villagers, who kept an eye on their camp whenever Chris and the others had to be away.
Seeing an old man approaching them determinedly, Chris got out of the truck, followed closely by Ezra. "That's Hiji, one of the tribe's elders," Chris told his companion. "He's the one who raised Vin." When the man was standing next to them, Chris shook Hiji's hand warmly. "Hiji, this is Ezra, a friend of ours. Ezra, Hiji."
Hiji bowed slightly. "Any friend of these ruffians is a friend of mine," he said in perfect English, a warm smile lighting up his wrinkled face.
Ezra chuckled. "Likewise. Seems like we are the first to arrive," he commented, glancing around.
"Indeed. I was anxious to see you back. Tebogo from the Ubani tribe saw Geils and his men approximately a day's journey away from here, to the north. That was two days ago, plenty of time for him to get closer," Hiji said. "Also, I am not certain if this is to do with Geils, but Obasi found a white man unconscious this morning, some hours walk from the village. He and his wife stopped here a month ago on their way to N'bulungi. They are doctors of some kind, went by the names of John and Becca Isaac. From what little they told us, they had been hired by our government to do some experiments. On what, I do not know."
Chris frowned at the news. "And you found him unconscious?"
"Yes. He was badly beaten. Our healer has been trying his best, but I am not very hopeful. The damage was extensive and he might have internal injuries. We have tried calling for an ambulance to take him to Shambala City, but you know how it is. Without any roads, it will take hours before they reach us. And you know they give priority to cases within city limits."
"And the wife? Any sign of her?" Ezra asked.
"None. I sent men to try to track the man's path, see where he had come from. Perhaps it would lead them to her. They followed Isaac's trail for hours, going north to the N'bulungi region. My guess is that in spite of his wounds, he managed to walk a long while before finally collapsing. Whatever happened, it was within N'bulungi. As you know that place is forbidden to us, so the men came back."
"Forbidden?" Ezra asked, curiously.
"Yes. Very few people who have ventured into the region have ever made it out alive," Chris explained. "We'll have to do it, though. We have to find Isaac's wife, especially if Geils is in the area. Chances are his men were the ones who attacked that man. Come with me?" he asked Ezra, once again aware he was demanding too much of the other man, but unwilling to have Ezra leave his side.
Ezra gave him a sardonic smile. "What, and miss the opportunity to explore a forbidden land and never to be seen again? Why, I wouldn't remain behind for all the money in the world, sir. Lead on, McDuff."
Chris gave him a mock glare. "We still have to pack first. Make sure your canteen is full, N'bulungi is about a six hour walk north of here, and the sun is going to be at its worst in a couple of hours. Hiji, think you could spare us some provisions? Enough for a day or two? We can divide them into our backpacks."
Hiji nodded and left them alone, already calling for some of the women to help him gather everything necessary.
"Why can't we drive to our destination?" Ezra asked, and Chris caught him giving the truck a wistful look.
"No road or path wide enough. Walking is the only way to get there," Chris replied, grinning at Ezra's disgusted grimace. "We should get there mid-afternoon, then we'll have to search for Isaac's campsite. I have an extra gun in my backpack, I want you to have it. If Geils is out there, we might need it."
Ezra nodded wordlessly, obviously realizing the seriousness of the situation. Once they were all packed to go, they said their goodbyes to Hiji.
"I hope the ambulance gets here soon," Chris said. "If not, hopefully Nathan and Josiah won't be much longer now. When all the others get here, tell them where we've gone and to follow us. We might need help."
"Consider it done," Hiji stated, shaking both men's hands. "Be careful, my friends, and watch each other's backs. N'bulungi is a dangerous place."
"We will, Hiji, we will. See ya in a few days."
"I assume you know the way?" Ezra asked as they began their trek.
"Yep. Vin has taken me to N'bulungi's borders a couple of times. Never actually made it into the region, though. Once we get there, we'll have to depend on keeping our eyes and ears open, and on your Lady Luck."
Ezra groaned. "We're doomed."
Ezra dropped on top of his sleeping bag with a relieved sigh. He didn't think he would ever be able to walk again, not without feeling every single one of his muscles protesting vehemently against the day's harsh treatment. But at least they had made good time, reaching N'bulungi around five in the afternoon.
After being entertained for hours with Chris' tales of lost tribesmen and foreigners, Ezra had half expected to be greeted by the Grim Reaper himself, or maybe by a deadly thunderbolt, a hail of brimstone, or something else equally eerie.
Instead, they had been met with absolute silence. An oppressive silence, something so unnatural in an African jungle that it froze one's heart until one got used to it. No animals could be heard or seen for as far as they searched. There was no wind or breeze rustling the flora around them. It was as if they were caught inside an invisible bubble, unable to connect with the world surrounding them.
Finding the Isaac's campsite had taken three hours and the sun was beginning to set as they finally reached it. There were clear signs of a struggle, some blood on the ground, but no sign of Becca Isaac anywhere. Chris had decided they would camp there for the night and try to find the woman's trail - or whoever had taken her - in the morning.
Ezra watched as Chris grabbed the coffee pot and his canteen and made to leave camp. "Where are you going?" he asked softly, almost afraid to disturb the quiet atmosphere.
"Found a small natural well behind those bushes," Chris replied in the same tone. "I'm going to fill my canteen and get us some water to make coffee."
"All right. I'll start a fire."
He gathered some wood and by the time Chris returned, Ezra had a warm fire going. Even the usual sound of wood burning was absent, and now that he thought about it, he also seemed unable to identify its scent or any other smell characteristic of their location. It was unsettling.
They ate in relative silence, both affected by the strangeness surrounding them, but after a couple of cups of coffee they suddenly began to unwind, first talking animately about some funny events in their pasts, then laughing almost hysterically, their voices sounding shrill against the thick void.
In the back of his mind, Ezra knew this new mood between them wasn't normal. He felt almost giddy, as if drunk, and he could see Chris looked the same. There was no logical reason for him to feel flushed and dizzy, alternating between hilarity and melancholy.
His eyes abruptly caught Chris' across the fire, and whatever he had been about to say died on his lips. The mood was changing yet again, the air between them becoming charged. Chris' irises were dark, stormy, dangerous and hungry. For a moment Ezra was certain he was staring into a black jaguar's eyes, and blinked, startled.
When his vision cleared, Chris was moving towards him, fast, some powerful inner force unleashed. Before Ezra could utter a word, Chris tackled him, throwing them both on the ground. Ezra wanted to stop what he knew was about to happen, but Chris' unbridled passion seized him as well, swallowing him whole.
Soon they were tearing at each other's clothes, both desperate to reach bare skin, their lips locked in a devouring kiss. Ezra moaned as Chris' nimble fingers managed to work their pants open and down to their thighs, bringing their hard cocks together.
He arched against the body pinning him down, and then they were moving, bodies sliding against each other, panting into their never-ending kiss, thrusting faster, harder, sweat and pre-come aiding their frantic rhythm, until finally Ezra moaned Chris' name as he climaxed, feeling Chris' frame tremble uncontrollably as he joined him in release.
They remained entwined together on the ground, breaths slowing down, heartbeats calming as their passion receded. And it was there, by the fire, that they remained as sleep claimed them both for the night.
Ezra woke up to the feeling of being watched. He could sense the sun shining down on him from behind his eyelids, but no actual warmth from its usually scorching rays. In fact, even that had been missing since they had entered N'bulungi. He opened his eyes slowly, only to find Chris standing by the extinguished fire, drinking a cup of coffee, his eyes still clouded and forbidding as he looked down at Ezra.
Before Ezra could say a word, Chris gritted out furiously, "What the hell did you do to me last night?"
Ezra blinked in surprise. "What?"
"You heard me," Chris spat. "What did you do to me? I didn't want it to be like that. And not here."
Ezra felt an irrational anger taking over him and jumped to his feet. "It seems to me like your mind is somewhat jumbled, Mr. Larabee," he retorted in a tight voice. "As I see it, you are the one who jumped me. You started it. If anyone's at fault here, it's you, not me."
Chris shook his finger at him, his face a mask of rage. "I just know you did something to me, Standish. And when I find out exactly what, you better watch out. You hear me?"
Ezra was taken aback by the other man's words. What the hell was going on? Chris didn't sound like himself, and what he was saying didn't make any sense at all. Things had been a little out of sorts since they had arrived at N'bulungi, but Chris' words bordered on paranoia.
Wanting something to clear his thoughts, Ezra reached for the pot of coffee, but Chris' voice stopped him. "There's no time for that, Standish. We still have to find the woman, remember? And because of you we're already behind schedule. It's after six."
Ezra considered making a sharp comment, but then decided it wasn't worth it. It would only make things worse between them, and Chris was right; they still needed to find Becca Isaac. He gathered his belongings rapidly, glad he hadn't unpacked the night before, and followed Chris, who was already leaving camp without so much as looking back to see if Ezra was with him.
Ezra sighed. It was going to be a long day.
Around one in the afternoon, Ezra was ready to collapse from exhaustion. Chris had been keeping a punishing pace since they had left the Isaac's camp, and Ezra's body was still recovering from the day before. If they didn't rest soon, he wouldn't be going anywhere in the near future.
"Chris," he called out to the man walking ahead of him. "We need to stop, at least for five minutes."
"What we need is to find the woman," came the growled reply.
"We won't find anything or anyone if we pass out from fatigue," Ezra tried to reason with Chris. "We both need a break."
Chris turned on him suddenly, his face inches from Ezra's. "Are you saying I'm weak?" he asked, in a low, dangerous tone.
"No," Ezra replied calmly, meeting the man's glare straight on. "I'm suggesting that after over nearly seven hours of this forced march, you might be in need of a rest, as I am. The few times you slowed down were merely to drink some water. You must realize we can't go on this way for much longer."
Chris gave a disgusted snort. "You city folks are all the same. No stamina. What's the matter, Standish? Can't keep up with a real man like me?"
Resisting the urge to punch Chris was difficult, but Ezra managed. Barely. "I can keep up with you. I just have no wish to. This is not a competition to see who can outlast the other, Mr. Larabee. As you yourself pointed out, we have to search for Mrs. Isaac."
"You know, I'm getting tired of your constant complaining," Chris said, eyes narrowing dangerously.
Ezra raised his eyebrows incredulously at those words. "Constant? This is the first time we've spoken since we left the campsite!" He took a deep breath, in an attempt to calm himself. "Look, Chris, there is something terribly wrong at work here. We are not ourselves, especially you. These strange mood swings we have been experiencing since last night are not normal. Something has altered us. We have to stop and try to establish what is causing it."
"There is nothing wrong with me," Chris stated through gritted teeth. "Unless I was right and you did something to me. What was it, Standish, huh?" He grabbed Ezra by the shirt-front, pulling him closer. "What have you given me? Did you put something in my food, was that it? Decided you couldn't take me down like a man, so you resorted to trickery? Want to see me dead, is that it?"
Ezra pushed him away, horrified. "No! I haven't done anything to you, or given you anything! Chris, please," he pleaded softly. "You have got to realize this rage you are feeling towards me isn't rational. Think, for God's sake!"
They stood frozen for a long moment, inches apart, looking into each other's eyes, breathing fast and unevenly. Ezra felt his blood turn cold as Chris' hand moved slowly down, closer to his sidearm. It was clear there was no reaching the other man; if Chris wanted him dead, there would be no escape. He now knew why the N'bulungi claimed so many lives; whatever agent had affected them was strong enough to cloud one's judgement and perceptions, to turn friends into fierce enemies.
He remained still, hoping his lack of movement would break through to Chris. Two shots echoed in the silence abruptly, and for a frightening second Ezra thought Chris had actually fired at him. But as his eyes focused, he saw that the other man hadn't unholstered his gun.
They exchanged a brief look of startling clarity, then they were both running towards the sound, their fight forgotten. When they pushed through the last of the foliage to see the source of the gunfire, Ezra blinked at the sight that greeted them. Geils was laughing hysterically while standing near the bodies of his men, Benzin and Collins, a gun in his hand. It wasn't hard to guess that the mercenaries had also been trapped by N'bulungi's fatal power.
A few feet away from Geils, sitting on the ground, bound and gagged, was a woman who Ezra assumed to be Becca Isaac. He was heading towards her when Chris lost control again.
"Geils," he purred, stalking closer to the other man. "Been looking for you, you bastard."
Geils gave him a nasty smirk. "Well, you found me, Larabee. What are you going to do now?"
"Lose the gun and I'll show you."
"It'll be a pleasure." Geils threw his gun away. "Come and get me, Larabee."
Ezra watched with a heavy heart as the two men circled each other carefully, eyes cold and intent, obviously ready to fight until the death. Forcing himself to act, he walked over to the woman, his attention never straying far from the fighters, lest they turn on him. It was clear both men were unstable, to say the least.
He crouched down, cutting through the ropes holding the woman captive. "Are you all right?" he whispered, after removing the gag.
"Yes, thank you," she replied, pushing a few strands of blond hair away from her face. "I'm Becca Isaac."
Ezra nodded. "We've been searching for you. Your husband was found by the Durak tribe yesterday morning."
"Is he okay?" she asked anxiously.
"I don't know," Ezra replied honestly. "According to one of the elders, he was badly beaten. The village healer was with him and they were waiting for an ambulance to take him to the town's hospital. We left before it arrived. What happened to you?"
"Geils and his men attacked our camp at dawn yesterday. He didn't say any names, only that he had been hired to kill us, to prevent us from doing our research. John managed to escape, but one of Geils' men, Benzin, went after him. He returned hours later saying that he had caught up with John, but that John had managed to give him the slip and disappear into the jungle."
"Not that I'm complaining, but why didn't they kill you?"
She grimaced. "Geils decided I was a good 'catch' and that I might be worth some money on the black market. They were taking me back to their camp, but they began to fight over who would 'have' me first and Geils ended up shooting his men."
Ezra cocked his head curiously. "If you don't mind me saying so, you don't sound affected in the least with whatever seems to cause people to go insane around here."
She grinned. "That's because I'm not. That's the research John and I were doing here." Her eyes turned to the two men still fighting not far from where they stood, and Ezra followed her lead.
So far both Chris and Geils had restrained themselves to throwing a punch or two, measuring each other's strength and technique. Even as Ezra turned to watch, Geils suddenly lunged, throwing himself at Chris. Chris evaded him easily, punching the man's stomach violently, then as Geils doubled over, reaching for the man's neck and twisting it.
"Jesus," Ezra breathed, hearing the bones snap. He held his breath as Chris threw Geils' body aside with a grimace, eyes scanning around the clearing until they settled on him.
"We're not done yet, Standish!" Chris shouted. "Don't think I have forgotten you!"
Ezra rose slowly from his crouch, his whole posture non-threatening, allowing Chris to come closer. Before the other man could do anything, Ezra punched him, putting all his strength in his fist, exhaling softly as Chris crumbled unconscious on the ground.
"That felt damn good," he muttered, shaking his bruised knuckles before sitting down by Becca's side. "You were saying about your research?"
She nodded. "The Shambalan government hired us to discover what causes the madness you mentioned. John and I made camp and by the third day we knew there was something wrong with us. We went through several behavioral phases; exhilaration and giddiness, anger, blind fury, and a murderous rage, all in the first two days. It took one hell of an effort, but we managed to put our heads together and figure out what caused it. We had brought our own food, we had no wounds caused by the flora that might have been infected with some foreign substance. That left the water. We had brought some water with us, but not enough for the whole stay, so we decided to save that and consume the water from the numerous natural wells in the area."
Ezra nodded in understanding. "And that's when you began to experience the mood swings."
"Exactly. Just to make sure, though, we stopped using the water from the wells, and used the supplies we'd brought. And soon we were ourselves again."
Ezra sighed, relieved. "So this isn't permanent?"
"No," she replied with a gentle smile. "Your friend will be fine. You don't sound too affected either," she added after a short pause.
"I'm not. I brought two canteens with me, which I filled before leaving the Durak village, and I've had no need to refill them yet. I did drink two cups of coffee last night, made with water from one of the wells, but besides the exhilaration and giddiness, and some anger, I feel fine. My friend, on the other hand, drank at least three cups of coffee and filled his canteen twice. Did you discover what was in the water?"
"A toxin. We hadn't gotten very far when Geils interrupted us. We don't know if it is manmade or if it's natural. All we know is that it has spread to all the wells, streams, creeks, whatever, we sampled. It's all over N'bulungi, but for some reason has never made it past its borders to other regions. My husband and I had only begun to map the region's water table when we were attacked."
Ezra glanced at the still unconscious Chris. "We have a problem. I have half a canteen left, there are three of us, and we are at least a day and a half away from the nearest village. Plus, I'm not certain if I can find the way out of here. How long before the toxin leaves the system?"
"You're referring to your friend? If he drank as much as you said, at least twenty-four hours, perhaps more."
"We can't stay here that long." Ezra looked at her with a slight smile. "Want to give it a shot? I'm fairly sure I can make it back to your camp. The hardship will be discovering the path to the Durak tribe, since we searched for your camp in several directions."
She nodded. "Let's go for it. We still have some of our water at the camp, we can fill your canteens with it and try to make our escape from this place." She glanced at Chris, pensive. "What about him?"
"If you take our backpacks, I'll carry him in a fireman's hold. It will slow us down, but I won't leave him behind."
Soon they were making their way to the Isaacs' camp, Becca with their packs, while Ezra had an increasingly heavy Chris thrown over his shoulder. By the time they reached the campsite, dusk was setting; they were ready to drop, dying of thirst and starving, since none had eaten since the day before. Chris had woken up hours earlier, and Ezra had been forced to tie his hands behind his back with his own belt, as Chris still seemed to be going through the 'murderous rage' stage.
Ezra and Becca drank from the clean water, made something to eat, bound Chris securely to a tree, and fell asleep almost as soon as they laid down.
Part V - Home
For the second morning in a row, Ezra woke up knowing there was something wrong. And if the day before with Chris had been unpleasant, this one promised to be even worse. He could feel the threatening brush of a steel blade against his neck, and opening his eyes, he saw that the large knife belonged to an extremely furious Vin.
He had forgotten the others were supposed to follow them. They didn't know about the water, had probably spent the last day drinking from contaminated sources and were now experiencing its nasty effects. Only that would explain Vin's aggressiveness.
He closed his eyes with a dismayed sigh. "Can't believe you drank the water," he mumbled dejectedly. How was he supposed to fight six irrational men on his own?
Ezra looked up to see Vin regarding him with a puzzled expression, and a little hope sipped into his heart. "Have you drank any water from this region since you arrived at N'bulungi?"
Vin shook his head. "Nope, we brought our own."
Ezra frowned. "Then why are you so eager to slit my throat?"
"Maybe if you tell us why you have Chris tied up to a tree, Vin here can be persuaded to back off," Buck's voice reached him from close by.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Ezra scowled up at Vin. "Would you mind terribly if I got up? There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this. There's no need for violence." Vin moved aside with a mock bow and Ezra rose slowly, glaring at the five men. "You could have asked first, you know?" He saw Becca Isaac sitting on top of her sleeping bag, worry shining in her dark eyes, and smiled. "It's all right, my dear. They might not be acting like it, but they are friends. Merely over-protective when it comes to their leader. Perhaps you could supply these gentlemen with a simplified version of what you told me yesterday?"
Nathan cuffed him on the head for the 'simplified' remark, but otherwise remained quiet as Becca nodded. "I'm Becca Isaac. My husband and I were hired by the government to discover what was causing people to disappear in this area."
"And you found out?" Josiah asked.
She gave them a rueful smile. "Through trial and error, yes. As far as we can tell, all the water in N'bulungi has been contaminated with a toxin that attacks the brain and causes the most sane of minds to become irrational to the point of madness. My guess is that most of the people who disappeared here killed each other. We studied the cases of the few survivors that were found and all of them were extremely violent at the time; some even attacked and killed their would-be rescuers."
Nathan turned to Ezra. "You and Chris drank the water?"
"I merely drank two cups of coffee and that was almost two days ago, the effects have worn off since then. I brought two canteens with me, guessing that if we rescued Mrs. Isaac she would most likely be dying of thirst. I only drank from that water. Chris, unfortunately, filled his canteen twice and drank far more coffee than I. I saw him snap Geils' neck yesterday without so much as a second thought, before he turned on me. I had to proceed in this way."
"Don't listen to him," Chris interrupted, speaking for the first time. "I'm fine. They're up to something and didn't want me in the way, that's why they tied me up."
JD, who was the closest to the tree, gave him a dubious look. "I don't know, Chris. What reason would Ezra and Dr. Isaac have to lie?"
"How the hell should I know?" Chris snarled. "Just get me the hell out of these ropes, or you'll be sorry, you little bastard!"
Buck chuckled. "Well, that settles it, then. Sorry, ol' dog, seems it's the tree for you." He turned to Becca. "This wears off, right? Like it did with Ezra?"
"Yes, but it will take a while. He hasn't had any of the contaminated water since around midday yesterday, so I think he should start getting back to normal sometime this afternoon. With the amount of toxin in his system, though, it'll be tomorrow before his body's fully rid of it." She seemed to hesitate, then, "Can you tell me any news of my husband? Is John all right?"
"When we arrived at the Durak village he was already on his way to the hospital," Nathan told her. "The healer was with your husband when the paramedics checked him over and it appears he's going to be fine. There didn't seem to be any internal damage from the beating."
She smiled gratefully. "Thank you. Now, what are we going to do? Stay here until your friend is well or leave?"
"We still have some of the water Mrs. Isaac and her husband brought with them, but it's not enough for all of us, not if we are to stay here until Chris is himself again," Ezra said.
"I am myself, you weasel!" Chris growled, struggling against his ropes. "When I get my hands on you, I'll squeeze the life out of you, slowly! Nobody punches me and gets away with it!"
"You punched him?" Vin asked, and Ezra thought there was newfound respect lurking behind the surprise.
"Had to. There was a moment yesterday when I was certain he was going to shoot me, and after his fight with Geils..." Ezra shook his head. "I wasn't about to risk it."
"What happened to Geils' men?" Josiah asked.
"Geils killed them himself," Ezra replied. "He was also under the toxin's influence."
Nathan looked at Vin. "We don't have enough water to last us until tomorrow. How long will it take to reach Durak?"
Vin glanced at his watch. "Ten in the morning... About seven hours, without any stops. We have enough water for the day, so I don't see a problem if we leave now. We can even stop for lunch. The only problem is keeping an eye on Chris."
"Yeah. No doubt he'll try to escape a couple of times until his head begins to clear," Buck agreed. "So, we going?"
It was unanimous. Ezra and the others helped Becca pack up and carry as much of her and her husband's equipment as possible, then released Chris from the ropes imprisoning him, leaving his hands bound. They began their trek out of N'bulungi, Vin and Buck keeping a close eye on Chris.
"I guess Shambala will be a myth short when news of the toxin gets out," JD said, sounding disappointed.
"Oh, I don't know," Ezra countered with a smile. "The toxin might explain why there is no life in the region, since animals were bound to become as aggressive as humans and fight each other, and it provides a good guess as to what might have happened to the missing people. But a few things still puzzle me about this place."
"Like what?" Nathan asked beside him.
"Well, have you noticed that while the sun is shining, we can't feel any actual warmth? That there is no wind or breeze? That you can't smell any of the scents associated with the jungle? That there is no sound whatsoever for miles around us? None of these things can be blamed on the toxin. As I see it, N'bulungi will remain very much a myth among the tribes, as it should be."
They continued in silence for a while, the others obviously taking in what he had said. Chris did try to escape three times, kicking and snarling at them until he was subdued and forced to keep walking. They managed to get him to eat something during their lunch break, and to drink some water. By mid-afternoon he was beginning to look haggard and pale, but more relaxed, a sure sign that the toxin was losing its hold on him.
They were about an hour away from Durak when Chris spoke for the first time in hours, "Ezra."
Ezra hesitated to approach him, fearing a surprise attack, even though Chris seemed over the worse, but a reassuring nod from both Vin and Buck had him walking by Chris' side. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry," Chris said, his voice low and hoarse.
Looking into his eyes, Ezra could see Chris was being sincere. "You are back with us, then?" he asked, gently.
Chris shrugged. "Not quite, still feel the anger simmering, but it's under control." He cleared his throat akwkardly. "I didn't mean all the things I said. And... in spite of the rush and the situation, I don't regret what happened that night."
Ezra felt his smile widen. "Neither do I, Chris. Like you, I wish it had happened in some other way, some other location. But sooner or later, we would have ended up at that same instance in our lives. Perhaps the toxin enabled us to move forward without any barriers. Maybe next time we can make it special, as you have said."
"Next time?" There was no mistaking the hope in Chris' voice.
Ezra gave him a cheeky grin. "Precisely. I have been considering your offer and I have decided to accept it. I am staying in Shambala. Of course, I will have to go back to the States; I have to resign, pack, sell the house, speak with Bruce. All that will take some time. And Chris..." He glanced at the other man. "I won't be joining your little troop of merry men, not exactly."
Chris frowned. "Why not?"
"I will assist you in anything you require, whenever and whatever you need. But living in a camp in the midst of the jungle, and having to do without is not for me," Ezra replied honestly. "I would drive you all insane within the first week. I couldn't help noticing that the Four Corners Bar is for sale; I am thinking of buying it. I have some money put aside for emergencies and this would make things perfect. And, of course, Inez would still run it for me."
Chris nodded. "All right, I can understand that. I also like the idea. Anything, as long as you're staying," he added with a smile.
"I will remain in Shambala for the next two days. I wish to make certain you are all right." He chuckled at Chris' scowl. "Then I will leave for the States. I believe a week will be enough to tie up any loose ends, then I can come back home."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Home?"
Ezra felt himself flushing at the words he was about to say, "Yes. I seem to have discovered the absolute truth behind the saying that home is where the heart is."
His flush intensified at both the silly smile lighting up Chris' face and his hungry gaze. He wouldn't take the words back, though. Chris had become much more than a friend, and while lust and attraction had definitely been an instant thing between them from the moment they met, Ezra knew he wanted more than a willing body in his bed; he wanted the whole package, everything Chris had to give. And judging by the emotions lurking within Chris' eyes, it was his for the taking.
Epilogue - two weeks later
Chris watched the skies anxiously, waiting for Ezra's plane to land. He didn't quite understand how he was supposed to arrive at the appointed hour, since there were no flights scheduled from the US that afternoon. Knowing Ezra, Chris figured he had convinced someone to give him a ride, however unlikely that seemed.
"Christ, he doesn't do things halfway, does he?" JD gaped as they watched a large cargo plane come in to land smoothly on the runway.
Chris stayed still as the plane taxi'd to the main hangar, before finally coming to a stop. Seconds later, the cargo door opened and two trucks exited slowly down the ramp until they were securely on the asphalt. The driver's door of one of the trucks opened and Ezra jumped down, walking over to them with a big smile.
"Gentlemen, I'm happy to see you all in good health." Not giving Ezra the chance to utter another word, Chris hugged him tightly, capturing his lips in a passionate kiss. "Hmmm, I could get used to this," Ezra murmured when they parted, but his eyes were wary as he looked over Chris' shoulder.
Understanding Ezra's unspoken fear, Chris grinned. "It's okay, I told them. They're happy for us."
Ezra gave him a dubious look. "Seriously?"
"Seriously," Buck answered before Chris could. "What's all this?" he gestured towards the trucks.
Ezra chuckled. "A gift from Bruce. I had a... conversation with him, about the fact he left me stranded in the jungle on my own the day before I met you gentlemen, which was the real reason why Geils' men caught me so easily."
Vin cocked an eyebrow in obvious teasing. "A conversation?" he echoed.
Ezra gave them a wicked grin. "Well, he will be limping for a while, but I was assured by the doctor at the ER who examined him, that unfortunately it won't be permanent." When Chris and the others had stopped laughing he added, "However, Bruce felt the least he could do was offer me some sort of compensation for all my emotional trauma, and I could hardly refuse. The trucks are filled with all sorts of medical supplies. I'm certain they will not fail to help you in your mission, Nathan. At least until Judge Travis can afford to provide for more."
Nathan nodded, eyes bright. "Thank you, Ezra. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate it. While the influenza virus is now pretty much under control, there are other diseases among the tribes that need tending. This shipment is a godsend."
"JD, Vin, drive the trucks back to town. Meet us at the bar," Chris ordered, before looking at Ezra. "That okay?"
"More than. I might as well make sure no one else buys that fine establishment but me. I need to make a quick stop at the bank to make sure all my savings have been transferred. After that, all I have to do is sign the papers and the Four Corners Bar is mine. I talked with the current owner before I left and he is expecting me. With any luck, I can close the deal today."
"That mean we get free drinks?" Buck asked, wiggling his eyebrows playfully.
Ezra gave him a feigned glare. "Of course not! Business and friends don't mix. You'll pay like any other customer." But then he smiled. "As long as you won't cause me to go bankrupt before I even open, you are all always welcome, my friends."
"In that case, let's go," Josiah boomed happily. "This calls for a celebration."
Chris was content to allow his men to go on ahead, his hand reaching over to hold one of Ezra's, not caring who might see. "Glad to have you back."
Ezra smiled at him, eyes filled with affection. "Glad to be back. I missed you."
"I missed you too," Chris replied, brushing his lips over Ezra's gently. "How about we consummate our relationship the right way tonight? I rented a room at the hotel you stayed at before; the right place. Only thing it takes is you being there to make it special."
Ezra's gaze bore into his, soft and loving. "I'd like that very much."
Chris stopped then, his hands coming up to frame Ezra's face. He looked deep into Ezra's eyes, then pressed a warm, tender kiss to Ezra's lips. He could feel Ezra's mouth curving into a smile. They moved closer, until their bodies were glued together. Chris heard a sigh of contentment as he wrapped his arms around Ezra.
He closed his eyes, happy to finally have Ezra within his embrace, happy to get to touch, smell and take his fill of Ezra, and breathed the words he had been desperate to say for the last two weeks, "Welcome home, Ezra. Welcome home."
|On to: The Diamond Jungle|
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