House Of Cards (Part Two):
Watching Them Fall
Back to: House Of Cards (Part One): Setting Them Up
Ezra's fingers trembled as he took another sip of whisky from his flask before tucking it back inside his jacket pocket. Well, the pocket of the black leather jacket Chris had thrown at him that morning along with the advice to 'wear it or freeze'. Since his own coat had went missing during the gay bar incident the night before, Ezra had decided to wear it. But he didn't have to like it. Even if it did seem to be permeated with the faint scent of Chris -- whatever that was supposed to mean to him.
Trying to ignore the comforting warmth of Chris' leather, he looked out over the surrounding rooftops before letting his gaze drop down to the forgotten play park nestled against the rear of the train station. The neighbourhood on this side of the train tracks had definitely seen better days. While the lights of the more prosperous part of town on the other side of the station gleamed through the night, the buildings surrounding the park were dark, burnt out shells besieged by heaps of garbage.
Before Ezra could depress himself further with an apt analogy or two, Vin shifted restlessly beside him, making the roof gravel growl its own discontent. Narrowing his gaze, Ezra tried to see what could be unsettling his lookout companion. But his eyesight, only aided in the gloom by the flickering floodlights of the station, was soon defeated by the darkness.
"Something's moving over behind Buck's position," Vin said softly as if aware of Ezra's own efforts. "If that breeze would only change direction a little, I could pick up a scent..." he trailed off in irritation.
Even though Ezra knew Vin's frustration wasn't aimed at him, he was still acutely aware of what Vin must be sensing from him. There was no doubt that Vin's enhanced abilities could hear his hammering heart and barely controlled breaths, pick up the scent of rushing adrenaline mingled with the stronger smell of whisky, but could he sense the reasoning behind it?
After studying Vin's profile for a long moment, Ezra took a steadying breath and turned to look across the rooftops towards the buildings on the northern side of the park. Then he remembered that Chris was positioned to the north and deliberately looked south instead. The last thing he needed to think about was that insufferable man. It was bad enough that any escape plan he contemplated seemed to die stillborn at the thought of--
Vin clicked on his comm. link and said low, "You got a stray dog behind you, Bucklin. It's just looking for food, don't startle it."
"Got you," Buck's voice hissed back with the static.
Vin went back to scanning the area without another word.
Ezra was trying to work some of the tenseness out of his shoulders when Vin finally spoke again.
"I know it don't hardly seem it right now, Ezra, but Chris has taken a liking to you."
"Really?" Ezra returned, hiding his surprise behind a Sahara dry tone. "How can you tell?"
"It ain't nothin' I wouldn't say to his face, so I'll say it. Chris ain't got too high an opinion of people in general. He measures them up and most fall short."
Since it didn't take a telepath to work out the nature of Chris' criticising glares, Ezra waited for Vin to go on.
"But you had him confused from the start." Vin smiled. "First I couldn't work out what it was, thought it was because of the charm, but it ain't."
Ezra blinked at Vin's calm expression. "Charm?" he asked lightly. "What makes you think..." he trailed off at Vin's unimpressed look then swallowed against a sudden sinking feeling. "Does he know?"
"If you mean Chris, yeah, I told him," Vin said, frowning as if he could sense Ezra's unreasonable flash of anger. "But it ain't the charm that's got him partial to you," he went on as if taking Ezra's measure. "He wanted to like you right from the start. I ain't never seen that with Chris before."
Ezra scowled back at Vin, trying to make sense of the man's words while his own thoughts whirled in confusion. If Chris knew about the charm, then that would explain his coldness at breakfast, his anger at--
"And Chris don't let just anyone stoke him up like that neither," Vin said as if reading Ezra's thoughts.
Ezra blinked. "What do you mean by that?"
"Bet you thought he tore those strips of you this mornin' because he thinks you're a few beans short of a decent chilli?" Vin returned lightly, looking across the park to the train station once more.
"You could say that, among other things."
"Well, you'd be wrong," Vin said flatly. "He wouldn't waste his breath hollerin' at you if he did."
"He insults because he cares? How charming," Ezra managed to sound coolly sarcastic while his worldview unexpectedly titled to a nauseating degree.
"If he didn't trust you, didn't think you're worth the effort, you wouldn't still be here," was Vin's next bombshell.
Ezra looked away, out across to the most distant city lights that sparkled along the skyline. The night seemed to be closing in around him. He didn't know what disturbed him more, Chris thinking ill of him or Chris trusting him. But worst of all was the sudden burning need to be worthy of Chris' trust. It was so strong he could almost taste it.
Chris was on edge. From the low roof of the old print shop, he could barely make out Buck's position on the other side of the park. He knew Buck would still be there waiting for the signal, but he had to bite back the desire to call him on the comm. link to make sure. Nothing was going to plan. The train was overly late and there was no sign of the Meta Cops. On the other hand, if Nathan and JD had ran into trouble evacuating Mary and the people in her care, he would have heard about it by now.
Ignoring the need to call Vin to confirm all was quiet, Chris settled for looking up at the hotel roof where Vin and Ezra were positioned. It didn't take long before he was mentally berating himself for putting Ezra way up there with Vin. The man probably couldn't even see anyone from that distance never mind actually conjure up an illusion for them.
The truth was he couldn't seem to think straight when Ezra was around. Since he distrusted his first instinct to have Ezra with him and Josiah, he had ended up putting Ezra way out of reach with Vin instead. It was a knee-jerk reaction he wouldn't repeat.
"This is all wrong." Chris glowered impatiently down the visible length of train track. "We're missing something. If--"
"Chris," Josiah hissed, drawing his attention to the dimly lit park below.
Searching for movement in the half-light, it took Chris a moment to focus on the two figures just approaching the floodlit side of the park. He recognised Vin's long, easy gait and Ezra's cocky stride a moment before they stepped into the light. "What the hell?" Chris snarled, picking up his comm. link only to find it hissing dead air. He looked over at Josiah who was holding up his own receiver.
"Mine's gone too."
Chris turned his attention back to Ezra and Vin, who were making steady progress towards the station. There was only two possible explanations for their comm. links being down: either Vin or Buck had sabotaged their frequencies with their pass codes, or someone else had learned of their presence and was jamming them. Either way, danger was close at hand and Vin and Ezra were probably walking right into it.
Getting up to move to the roof's fire escape, Chris was just about to tell Josiah to round up Buck and get the hell out, when the familiar shrill of a Meta Cop warning siren cut through the night air. Chris watched Vin drop to his knees beneath the assault on his sensitive hearing while Ezra stood by helplessly as a pack of Meta Cops descended on them brandishing their weapons and demanding compliance.
"Hell," Chris cursed as the Meta Cop squad captain swaggered up to gloat over Vin then force Ezra down to his knees.
His mind running through countless rescue scenarios but discarding them one after another, Chris barely heard Josiah tell him that Buck was making his way over to their position. By the time Buck crouched down beside him with a curse at the Meta Cops' proceedings, Chris had come up with a workable plan.
But he was too late.
A split second after he drew breath to tell the others what to do, a gunshot rang out across the park.
He watched, frozen, as Ezra slumped lifelessly to the ground.
No one moved for the longest time. Even the Meta Cops seemed dully surprised by their squad captain's abrupt action. But then the captain was moving towards Vin, raising his gun to Vin's head, and Chris' stunned disbelief turned to broiling fury.
He didn't know what combusted first, the boarded up station wall, the overflowing trash cans or the Cops themselves, but raging flames soon engulfed the whole scene, leaving only Vin and Ezra untouched. Wasting no time staring at the violence he'd wrought, Chris made for the roof fire escape, shouting at Buck and Josiah to follow him. "Let's get Vin and get the hell out of here!" he bellowed above the crackling flames and panicked screams.
Even though the Meta Cops fell away trying to douse their burning clothes, the smoke and heat of the engorged fires was almost a physical force beating Chris back from Vin's position. Through the choking confusion, he could see Vin still kneeling on the ground as if in a state of profound shock. However, when he was almost close enough to reach out and pull Vin to his feet, a cloud of smoke passed between them and his friend disappeared.
"Vin!" Chris bellowed, squinting around him as he crouched down beside Ezra. Even though the bloody damage to Ezra's head told of a fatal gunshot wound, he still tried to find a pulse as he called out to the others to find Vin. As Buck and Josiah moved off shouting their friend's name, Chris gave up on a pulse and rolled Ezra's body into his arms. His intention was only to move Ezra a safe distance from the devouring flames. However, when Buck and Josiah came back out of the smoke with Vin safely in tow, he found himself carrying Ezra's body all the way back to the front steps of the hotel.
"Put him down there," Vin said hoarsely, indicating the boarded up hotel doorway.
Supposing it was as good a place as any, Chris was kneeling down, preparing to ease Ezra out of his arms, when Vin quickly shrugged off his buckskin coat and spread it out over the concrete.
"He's gone, Vin," Buck said softly but Chris went ahead and laid Ezra down on the coat.
He wasn't sure what it was, but something made him support Ezra's head and shoulders as Vin leaned in to examine the gunshot wound.
"Damn, how'd you talk me into this?" Vin spoke low as if addressing Ezra. "This blood looks damn real to me." He touched Ezra's face gently but there was no response. "Hell, Ezra!" he cursed before meeting Chris' gaze. "I can't tell if he's really hurt or not. He's in some kind of projecting trance."
"Projecting trance?" Buck repeated, crouching down beside them before putting a hesitant hand on Ezra's chest. "Vin, he ain't breathin' and there's no heartbeat."
"Well there wouldn't be if he was pretending to be dead," Vin snapped back. "We'll have to wait until he comes out of it."
Chris frowned down at Ezra's lifeless face again before looking Vin in the eye. Unable to find anything but concern and a little impatience in Vin's gaze, Chris realised why the Vin he saw kneeling in front of the Meta Cops had acted so strangely before suddenly disappearing. "Just what did you two get up to?" he demanded while nodding at Buck to come pick up Ezra.
"Wouldn't have anything to do with hiding that train now, would it?" Josiah asked from where he stood looking out over the park towards the station. "Maybe getting that young family out of harm's way?" he went on as Chris stared at the six carriage long train that had somehow appeared out of thin air.
Vin nodded as Buck gathered up Ezra and he picked up his coat. "I took the young folks and their little girl off the train and over to Nettie Wells' place for safe keeping while Ezra flushed out the Cops. They were waiting for us, Chris, listening in and waiting for the train," he continued, turning to lead them down an alley in the opposite direction of the approaching sirens. "Ezra thought we'd be spoiling them if we gave them both."
Chris was just glancing over at Ezra's still form in Buck's arms, when the terrible wound on Ezra's head suddenly disappeared. He had literally blinked and it had gone.
"Hey, did you see that?" Buck said but Chris had already moved over to investigate.
"Still no breathing and no heartbeat," he growled before resting the back of his hand against Ezra's cheek. The skin was getting cold. "Hell." He slipped off his coat and tucked it over Ezra's shoulders before turning to Vin. "How far is he going to take this?"
Vin shrugged. "He told me he'd wake up when the last illusion stopped."
No one mentioned what it would mean if the head wound turned out to be the last illusion -- they didn't have to.
"Great," Chris snarled before stalking on.
Lost in their own thoughts, no one spoke on the walk back across town towards the church. For his part, Chris was beginning to distrust his own senses. If Ezra could hide a whole damn train, who could say he wasn't cheating them now? Just say that wasn't Ezra in Buck's arms but a dead Meta Cop. If that was the case, Ezra could have escaped on the train and be miles away.
Looking over at the lifeless body in Buck's arms, Chris considered this line of thought then quickly discarded it. No telepath could influence others over such a distance. It was impossible. But impossible or not, Chris realised he was only considering it in the hopes that it could be true. If this really was Ezra here with them now, there were only two explanations for his current condition. He was either dead or still in a projecting trance and well on his way to permanent brain damage.
"Hell, I didn't see any of this mess," Josiah's voice broke into Chris' thoughts as the big man stopped abruptly to scowl around the alley. "But I'm getting a real bad feeling now."
Chris looked at Vin who shook his head. "My senses are all screwed up with the fires and the train and all. A herd of elephants could be sneaking up on us for all I could tell."
"Could it be the past you're picking up on, Josiah?" Buck asked, carefully adjusting his hold on Ezra. "I'm pretty sure there was a murder in this alley a year or so back."
"That isn't it." Josiah frowned back. "I can feel that poor soul but there's something else." He met Chris' gaze. "We have to get off the street."
Nodding Chris immediately looked towards the fire escape a little further down the alley. "Will up do?"
As Josiah agreed, they made for the metal staircase and were soon snaking up the side of the dull brick building.
"Not another night on a roof," Buck complained as he brought up the rear. "We're all going to catch arthritis before we're fifty."
"Maybe not," Josiah said, looking up the building. "There's an empty apartment on the fourth floor."
"You can tell that with your visions?" Vin asked in mild surprise.
"No." Josiah grinned. "No drapes."
"Could be they just ain't shy," Buck replied, brushing past the others to take the steps three at a time to the fourth floor.
Sure enough, the apartment looked empty. Bare floorboards and empty light bulb sockets told them all they needed to know. Buck handed Ezra over to Chris before turning to wrestle the window's iron security bars out of their cement settings. Even though Buck made short work of the metal bars, Chris' arms were tiring fast by the time he passed Ezra through the open window back into Buck's care.
When they'd all climbed inside, Vin slipped the iron bars roughly back into place. He then closed the window before joining Chris at the open plan apartment's only other window that overlooked the main street. Just as Chris was thinking how quiet the street looked, a Meta Cop patrol came around the corner to meet up with another patrol coming from the opposite direction.
"That was damn close," Vin said low.
"Looks like Chris is the Meta Cops' most wanted again," Josiah said dryly.
"So what else is new?" Buck said from where he sat on the floor beside Ezra. "We should really start thinking about a new town, Chris. There are lots of folks out there that could use our help."
"And that's the truth," Josiah said as he sat down tiredly. "We're getting a tad popular around these parts."
"How long before the Cops clear the area?" Chris asked bluntly.
"About an hour." Josiah shrugged, closing his eyes.
Buck stood up to join Chris and Vin at the window. "I mean it about getting out of here. The Cops ain't gonna rest until they get you, Chris. We can get the Judge in another town. He owns half the damn coastline."
"Buck's right," Vin agreed. "We can't fight the Judge and the Meta Cops at the same time. Ain't no way we can keep this up for long."
Chris looked down at Ezra's still form before replying. "All right. When we get back to the church, I'll lay low. You three get that last family and head over to Mary's pick up point, make sure everyone gets out safe. As soon as Mary leaves, head back to the church and we'll start making the arrangements."
Nodding, Vin and Buck went to settle down beside Ezra while Chris turned his attention back to the patrolling Meta Cops. He was watching them arrest a group of rowdy young men who'd obviously said something they didn't like, when someone muttered something that sounded like 'well, that went well' -- and it sounded like Ezra.
Chris frowned around to see Buck, Josiah and Vin looking down at Ezra too.
"Did you hear that?" Vin said quietly. "He still ain't breathing though."
"Ezra?" Buck said, gently shaking his shoulder. "You with us, buddy?"
In response, Ezra muttered something about carriages and rolled onto his side to snuggle into Vin with a sleepy grumble of discontent.
Vin looked up at Chris bemusedly. "No breathin' or heartbeat but he sure ain't dead."
"Maybe he just forgot we're supposed to know he's alive?" Josiah asked lightly.
A smile tugging at his lips, Chris turned his attention back to the street. The Cops were already moving away.
To say Ezra's head hurt was like saying the Titanic took on board a little water. With any luck, someone would decapitate him before he had to open his eyes. But, unfortunately, self-preservation got the better of him and he briefly opened them to find himself in a sparsely decorated bedroom. Well, that made sense since he was lying on a bed, he chided himself dully. A sharp stab of pain shot around his skull in payback. No doubt about it, the next few days were going to be delightful. He sighed tiredly -- and someone moved on the mattress beside him.
While part of his wet cotton wool brain slipped into panic mode, another part, probably the part that got him into these messes, noted quite calmly that it must be a nice big bed. However, when a strong hand wrapped itself around his throat, even the calm part of his mind began to have second thoughts.
Heart thumping in his ears, he lay still and held his breath. It was only then he noticed that the relatively calm part of his mind was still projecting the remnants of an illusionary trance and, for all intents and purposes, he must have appeared dead to the outside world.
What kind of a sick bastard tries to choke a corpse? the panicked part of his brain wailed at the stupefied part, and Ezra had to get out of his own head before he drove himself insane. Besides, the hand wasn't choking him; it was just kind of sitting there warmly. It actually didn't feel so bad, Ezra decided as he squinted around to find Chris propped up on the bed beside him, scowling down at him.
"Are you a zombie or something?" Chris growled, withdrawing his hand.
Ezra had to admit he'd had gentler wake up calls. "Yes, it's true, my chief vice is eating human brains," he returned dryly. "But don't worry, you're quite safe."
Chris smirked a little in response before asking low, "You all right? I couldn't find a pulse."
"Trick of the light." Ezra closed his eyes and settled into the mattress. "All mirrors and magnets. I'll be fine... in about three years," he finished with a sigh. "I trust Mr Tanner succeeded?"
"He got the family out. Said it was all your idea."
"I'll try to take that as a compliment."
Ezra opened one eye to find Chris watching him studiously. "I'm sure you've worked most of it out for yourself, Mr Larabee. From our rooftop lookout we were able to discern the position of the Meta Cops and deduce their intent. Since warning you was out of the question in case they were listening in to our frequency, I took it upon myself to disguise the train's arrival from all concerned."
"I get that part," Chris returned softly, "but why pull that stunt with the Cops? You didn't need to draw them out to warn us."
"It was the most expedient way to achieve all the necessary goals. Kill four birds with one stone, if you will. Besides, my legs were cramping and I needed the walk."
Chris frowned. "Four birds?"
Ezra met his gaze impatiently. "Rescue those on the train, draw out then distract the Cops, and get close enough to the action to complete the illusions smoothly. The Meta Cops knew we were there. I thought it best to use the inevitable altercation to our advantage. Unfortunately, they decided to kill me rather than the illusionary Vin but these little mishaps happen."
"Mishaps?" Chris glowered. "We thought you were dead. I almost left you there."
"I-- I see." Ezra blinked back at Chris' ferocity. "I did warn Vin it may happen."
"Warnin' ain't the same as seeing," Chris snapped back. "How'd you dodge that bullet?"
Ezra shrugged. "In potentially hazardous situations I've found it prudent never to be quite where I'm supposed to be."
"How about the rest of it?" Chris demanded. "I thought telepaths needed to see their targets. How far can you throw an illusion?"
"My telepathy isn't quite the norm," Ezra returned, his temper rising. "I didn't really need to see them with Vin describing them to me and the distance from the hotel to the station is probably as far as I can push them. Now could I get some rest?" He closed his eyes pointedly. "My head is killing me and I feel like I could sleep for a week."
"Why are you still pretending you're dead?"
"I'm not," Ezra ground out. "Not consciously anyway. What's left of my telepathy's sort of stuck in a rut. It happens sometimes."
"What's left of it?"
"I'm tired," Ezra finally snarled, snapping open his eyes to glare at Chris. "Can we reschedule this inquisition for sometime in the future?"
Chris met Ezra's gaze in silence before asking bluntly, "What about your charm?"
"My charm?" Ezra managed to repeat while a vision of he and Chris kissing on the bathroom floor flashed before his eyes. "What about it?"
"Can you get tapped out of that?"
"It doesn't work like that." Ezra swallowed against the feeling of dread crawling up his throat. "It's there all the time like a background noise. I can crank it up but it only works on one or two people at once."
Chris narrowed his gaze. "Use it on me."
Ezra stared. "Now?"
"You said you weren't tapped out."
"Do it," Chris insisted.
Frowning, Ezra took stock of Chris' determined expression. Then he let his gaze meander over Chris' face, paying particular attention to those lips that kissed even sweeter than they looked. He thought about how much he wanted Chris to kiss him again and, a moment later, he felt his charm power working.
There's wasn't anything specific at first, just the odd feel of that tingling sensation running down his spine, but then Chris' expression softened. It was just a blink that got rid of the suspicious narrowing of his eyes, and a slight smile that broke the rigidity of his lips, but it made all the difference.
Ezra's heart was hammering in his mouth as Chris' fingers stroked down his cheek before settling under his chin. When Chris leaned in for the kiss, Ezra's eyes snapped shut against the heat of his need. Lost in the kiss, Ezra was bringing up a hand to mirror Chris' touch when he forgot about exerting the charm and Chris pulled away, blinking confusedly.
It took Ezra a moment to compose himself under Chris' perplexed gaze. "I take it that demonstration will suffice?"
Chris studied Ezra's expression for a few more rapid heartbeats before rolling off the bed and standing away. "I've got things needing done before the others get back," he said as he headed for the door. "I'll be around if you need anything."
"Thank you," Ezra managed to say before Chris stepped out the door and closed it firmly behind him. "I think," Ezra finished to himself then lay back to frown at the ceiling.
Nothing seemed to make sense any more.
|Illusions Index||On to: The Economics Of Fear|
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