Lest I Should Forget
Disclaimer: They don't belong to me... and the universe belongs to Mog (many thanks to her). So I guess the only thing that belongs to me is the dialogue. And the gratuitous use of the comma.
Summary: This is not your normal amnesia fic. I have no idea where this story came from, but I love it, and loved letting it whisper itself to me. Maybe just because Chris gets to let go, finally, and lord knows he needs to. No sex, so smut, just lots of angst. I'll have to see if the comfort part of that equation happens in a sequel. Poor Ezra, I do love him so, but he suffers a lot in this narrative.
Feedback: I thrive on it.
He never would remember that day. What happened before.
It was funny, later, thinking back on it.
The strangest things he could remember with the most incredible accuracy. Little details. Things most people would never notice. That was his stock in trade. A successful sting is all in the details. He could remember the phone numbers of the last five places he'd lived. Atlanta, Reno, D.C., Montreal, St. Thomas. He could remember his mother buying him ice cream when he was five. It was orange sherbet, and he didn't like it. The girl selling it had red hair. He could remember the license plate number on his first car and the combination to the safe in a bank he once helped rob in LA, but he never would remember that day.
Not at least until he woke up.
Everything after that he remembered...
There was a roaring in his ears like standing beneath Niagara Falls. So loud, it hurt to think. A pressure on his chest like an anvil, and a blacksmith was hammering a whole suit of armour. Each attempted breath and the hammer would fall; sharp, concussive pain resounding through his entire body. The heat around him made it all the more difficult to breathe. And he couldn't see. Not for the longest time, minutes that felt like years, would his eyes register anything other than a blinding, pervasive white.
And then there was the smell.
The olfactory sense preserves memory the longest, the most accurately, with the greatest specificity. Elephants don't forget; it's true. He knew that. Sometimes, later, he would be driving his car and a smell would come to him through the open windows of his Jag, and instantly he would be transported somewhere else in time, to some other place he had lived or had known. A restaurant in the Latin Quarter. A train station in Prague. A leather boutique in the Mercato di San Lorenzo. Chris.
But at the time...
He remembered smelling flesh burning, and hair, and had the miraculous presence of mind to roll. He remembered rolling over and over and over on what could only reasonably be debris-ridden cement. Then there was grass. He could smell the grass, feel it beneath him as he rolled. Down. An incline, then. Cool, damp, soft. Breathing was coming easier now, but still nothing was before his eyes. Instinctively he lay still. A fear, a premonition he couldn't yet understand kept him absolutely silent and motionless, face down in the grass. For a little while.
Pounding, pounding, pounding. His heart and his head in turn now. A rush of blood inconceivable for someone still lying prone. Oh mother of God it hurt. The blacksmith was trying to remove the vertebrae from the back of his neck and forge a molten metal plate to his skull. So hot and agonizing he almost cried out, mouth opening into the grass, hands cling to handfuls of the stuff. His legs thrashed behind him, and he gasped and convulsed like a fish on the tile amidst the shards of its shattered bowl.
Then stillness again. The initial agony passed, leaving in its bloodthirsty wake relentless, slow-ebbing waves of pain. Breaths coming in short pants. Voices and shouting filtered through the haze and he stiffened. It was hard to make out their words, hard enough to hear anything over the hissing flow of lava where his brain used to be.
Sirens cried in the distance and for some reason this did not give him hope. No, they mustn't find him. Above all else, they mustn't take him.
Crawling on the earth, he began to plan his escape. Escape from what or to where didn't concern him as much as the desperate need to try. Never lifting his torso from the ground, he used his arms to pull him along, grabbing cupped handfuls of earth and grass and rock to inch him forward. Filthy. He must be getting absolutely filthy. Something was digging into his ribs and he risked bending an elbow to finger it, pat it beneath a suit coat he didn't realize he was wearing. It was hard, angular, holstered. A gun! Excellent. He would remember it was there, should he need it.
His body was listing, the slant of the earth begging him to descend, further from the noise, further from the heat. Heat blaring like a jet engine, unbearably loud and buffeting. But lower was cooler, cooler and quieter, and he followed it. Attempting to see made him angry, frustrated and terrified, so he closed his eyes against the light and lowered his face to the grass. Abruptly, like a mountain, or a stone to an ant, something rose before him solid and punishing to his hands crashing into it and scraping on its sides. More concrete. A curb. Not a mountain, then.
He slithered along the curb, keeping it on his left and the chaos, behind him now, on his right. Soon enough, but too close still for the fear of being seen, the curb ended, sloped off to meet his ground. The safety of the ground, the safety of lying down. But he knew he had to move. The thought of escape clamored like a gong inside his head. An effort to open his eyes, squinted shut in pain and struggle, gave him hope. Not everything was a sheet of white. Nighttime. It must be. There was darkness now along the edges, blending inward toward the sunspot at the center of his vision. Dim things and shady made themselves known. An aluminum can. A stick. A rock. Fuzzy and mutated, they were there, and it gave him hope.
A tall, glowing shape loomed before his warped plane of vision, tall at least to someone who is flattened on his belly, and he attempted to make out its dimensions. Wide enough for a car. Tall enough for a man. Light dancing on its surface like a flame through a watery window pane. He could hide behind it. Just that much further and then he could rest. Heroic effort brought him to his hands and knees. He could feel particles of gravel embedding themselves in his knees and wondered what had happened to his trousers. Logically, a suit coat has matching trousers. A shame that his were so ruined. Slivers of glass made themselves known, and he grit his teeth as continued movement only drove them deeper into the meat of his palm. And then the heat and the brightness was gone. The sound was muffled, but echoed, as he crawled behind the thing he sought. Smooth, metal, not empty as he rapped upon it and felt his way behind it. It stank. A garbage bin most likely. All manner of filth and degradation to be found no doubt. An oily, oozy smell and something slick beneath his hands. Nastiness.
But it was safe and he was hidden. And he could rest. Thank God.
"What the fuck happened! Can somebody tell me that? Can anybody tell me what the fuck happened!?"
Wearing an expression that JD silently referred to as the "Hell hath no fury" look, Chris Larabee was shouting at the top of his lungs, arms and hands extended from his sides in total exasperation. And confusion. And shock. All those feelings and more pummeled him, rocked him, and made him momentarily numb, before anger won out and he exploded in rage. Exploded much like the warehouse had half an hour ago.
Firemen with hoses and EMTs with field kits and police and the inevitable gaggle of reporters that always show up at any major scene of disaster were swarming about in semi-organized chaos. Buck was in the back of an ambulance being given oxygen, being treated for minor burns. His prize moustache was singed. Nathan, looking far paler than any black man should be able, was standing watch over Vin. The sharpshooter was out cold, bleeding hot, and might not live. Shrapnel is a vicious thing. Shock waves and long drops are worse. Josiah was right there, at his friends' sides, saying what prayers he knew, making up the ones he didn't, staunchly driving away the urge to recite the Dies Ire. JD was lost, not daring to get too close to Chris, not wanting to leave Buck's side, wanting to be of some help, any help, in a situation that was pretty much helpless. So he wavered, paced, chewed on his thumbnail, and tried like hell not to cry.
One of the firemen, more guts than brains, was trying to keep Chris back, telling him he was only in the way. JD wondered if on the weekends the man also tried holding back the tide.
"One of my men is in there. One of my men!" Larabee was pointing and yelling as if the volume of his voice or length of his arm would make the message any clearer to the poor bastard who was just here to do his job - put out a fire resulting from an explosion that had nearly leveled the entire structure. It had blown out all the windows and doors and mostly collapsed the ceiling. The fireman wiped a greasy hand across his sooty face and looked like he wanted to say something reassuring, but God only knew what that could be. No way in hell anyone survived that blast. And if they had, the fire would have killed them. Chris knew it. Everyone knew it. So finally, he handed Chris hard hat and told him, no, asked him to stay with the fire engines. He'd be of no use to anyone if he collapsed from smoke inhalation.
So Chris just stood there in disbelief, having no answers, feeling nothing but an ever expanding hole where his heart used to be. If he hadn't made the mistake of re-growing that useless organ, it wouldn't hurt as bad as it did now. Like the fire raging in the building was somehow burning him slowly from the inside out. And soon there would be nothing left but soot and ashes there too. Something dark and charred, hopeless and lifeless. Maybe this time he'd just leave it dead. This was too much déjà vu, and Chris turned his back on the engines and the water and the raining ash and groaning metal. A sob, a gigantic dry sob leapt out of his chest, and he battered it back down where it belonged, in the hollow wreckage of his soul. The last thing he was going to fucking do was cry.
JD was doing enough for both of them. Buck had asked him, when Buck was able to speak again, if Ezra had gotten out in time, and JD didn't have an answer for him. Not any answer he wanted to hear. Buck had taken hold of the kid's collar in both fists and had shaken him like a dog with a chew toy, yelling in JD's frightened face that he didn't want to hear that Ezra was dead. Ezra couldn't be dead, so JD better Goddamn well tell him something else. Only there wasn't anything else to say. So Buck had finally gathered the boy in his arms while he cried, while they both cried, while they stood there crying and trying to tell themselves that it wasn't true.
Chris didn't want to be anywhere near that, so he avoided them and sought out Nathan and Josiah. He didn't want to be there either, but he knew he needed to be. Vin needed him; he needed all of them.
"How is he?" The expression on his face would have fooled anyone else to thinking that he really didn't care. The thin line of his lips, the hard set of his jaw, the clearly impassive shutters drawn on his eyes. But the way he held Vin's hand and stroked it absently, looking anywhere but at his friend on the stretcher, and all the tubes, and the EMTs working alongside him, didn't fool Josiah one bit.
"They're about to take him out, Chris." Nathan looked up with watery eyes, and nodded once, for hope, maybe, or out of a stubborn conviction that Vin would be just fine Goddamnit. As many times as he had heard that bullshit line, as much as he hated hearing it from he members of his team even when they couldn't stand or walk without aid, the medic would give his right arm for Vin's blue eyes to open and hear that lie one more time.
On cue, the stretcher lifted, wheels clanking against the back of the ambulance as the paramedics shoved him inside, and Vin was being taken. There was that sob again, the gasping, sucking breath that Chris couldn't fight. And all he could do was nod back.
"They've got him stabilized, brother. He made it off the roof by way of," Josiah stopped then, laughing despite himself, hoping it wasn't the last time their sharpshooter would turn into the Human Fly and do something perilously stupid, "the power lines that came into the building. Damn fool used his belt to swing down them toward the," he waved his big, blunt hand in the general direction of the place Vin had been found. Somehow the word pole escaped him just then. The pole against which Vin had been flung when the shockwave hit. The pole at the base of which they had found him, upside down and backwards, pieces of metal and glass embedded in him so that he looked like a porcupine. Or a stegosaurus. That was JD's impression, though he didn't say it at the time. He was to busy throwing up.
A slam of doors and a slapping hand on the back of the ambulance, and the vehicle was all lights and sirens, wheeling off to Denver Memorial, their second home.
"You can go with him, Chris. We can take care of things here and start on the paperwork." Josiah meant well, but he didn't know that what was left of Larabee's heart had died in that building, and now he was just watching until they carted out the charred remains of yet another person he was stupid enough to care about. Ludicrous. Absolutely asinine to fall in love. Ever, much less a second time. Much less with a teammate. Much less with a man. Too stupid to even bare exposing to the light of day, to the harsh light of hope. The irony was choking him, and Chris tried to cough it up. He expelled a rough phlegmy noise like a clotted laugh, and shook his head.
No, this was part and parcel of the Larabee experience. Pulling loved ones from fires, identifying their remains and then burying the pieces of their bodies in big, cushy coffins. Planting flowers on their graves. Like the dead fucking care if their coffins are lined in silk and someone puts fresh flowers on their graves. But this was his life, to live with death.
How he could always recognize the sound of Buck's footsteps he didn't know, but he turned around to see Buck and JD approaching, still hanging onto one another, still drying their eyes. He wanted to hit them, both of them, or at least someone. He could hear it now, the eulogies, the kind words. Oh and wasn't Standish a brave agent, sacrificing his life in the line of duty. He was a good friend and an even better teammate. An all around good guy. Kind to orphans and widows, or some such shit. Maude would be there, would probably wear a veil, and some black designer creation by Vera Wang no doubt. She would cry gigantic, perfectly formed crocodile tears and tell them all how much she loved her boy. Her boy who never came to work before 9:30, had to be coerced to join them at the saloon, and hadn't really ever tried to get to know his team in a year and a half. He was a good guy alright, damn good at what he did, and even better at never getting close to anyone. And Maude would host some over-the-top, grotesque wake with food catered by Wolfgang Puck and tell such wonderful, fond, self-centered stories about Ezra and his childhood. A childhood she hadn't even bothered to be a part of. Bitch.
At fifty paces, Buck could see the rage billowing like steam off of his best friend, and kept at least three paces back as he spoke. Halting, hiccupping words that he tried to patch up for JD's sake if nothing else. "Me 'n JD are goin' to the hospital. They say I'm ok," he averred, seeing objection rise within Nathan as well as he could recognize the anguish rising in Chris. "We'll be there when you wanna join us." A nod, and a tight reign on JD's shoulders, and the two of them walked off toward Buck's big red truck glowing like charcoal in the emergency lights.
Chris wanted to yell at him. Yeah, run you miserable cowards. Leave me here to deal with this. But he knew that wasn't right or fair, and frankly he couldn't breathe right at that moment. The fire was almost out, so he couldn't blame the smoke. Josiah saved him from having to speak. The bulky giant of a man addressed Chris by way of Nathan.
"Let's see if we can't go help 'em sift through the rubble, Nathan. It's all water and smoke now."
"I've got extra Maglights in the van."
The two of them set off as though they could accomplish any damn thing of any use, and Chris found that his feet and legs had turned to lead. He couldn't make them move, but somehow the ground moved to him. He met it face first and didn't remember anything else for a while.
Biting, pungent, God-awful. "What the hell is that!?" Larabee struggled against the arms holding him and the reeking pestilence at his nose.
"Ammonia, brother. Poor man's smelling salts. Here, take a few deep breaths."
"Not with that fucking thing at my nose." Chris swiped at it with all the energy and coordination of a newborn. Maybe a newborn colt, as he tried to stand and found himself grappling for purchase and balance. All wobbly legs and gangliness.
"You doin' ok?"
Compared to what exactly, he wanted to retort, but the words wouldn't come as his mind hadn't quite yet grasped the gist of standing upright.
"Smoke will do that to ya," some foreign voice next to him informed them.
Josiah's keen eyes never missed much. It wasn't the smoke, he wanted to say. Grief also does that to a man. And a nose-dive to the pavement would be the least of their worries with Chris.
"I'm fine," he finally said, the usual line. "Let go, let go, I'm fine." He sniffed and wiped at his nose, not caring that it felt like and smelled like blood.
"Lemme take a look at that, Chris." Nathan's voice, so kind, so helpful, so unyielding.
"You touch me and I'll rip your fingers off." Snarled more than spoken. Chris didn't want to be touched, looked at, poked, prodded, examined, or so much as spoken to. "Are we gonna go in there and take a look or what?" Now he remembered what he was thinking before he passed out. Yes, he passed out. He most decidedly did not faint. And it was the smoke that caused it, not the vacuum effect of knowing a gold tooth and a golden ring might be all that was left of the man inside that sucked all the air out of his lungs. He pushed past all the comforting, concerned arms of whoever the hell was next to him, he didn't turn to look at them, and skulked toward the ruins of the warehouse.
As much as he had been gripped by the horror of entering minutes earlier, surely it had only been minutes, now he was consumed by a desperate, frantic need to find him. He had to find Ezra. He had to keep strangers' hands off of him. Give the man the respect he damn well deserved and not treat him like another statistic or a lab rat or whatever those CSI guys did. This was Ezra in there. Ezra's in there.
That was the last thing he had yelled when the bombs went off.
It's strange how the mind can rapidly, fervently deny all those things that its senses tell it. There was no sound of explosion, no singeing, booming heat, no smell of things dying and burning, no sight of Vin's body flying twenty feet and clothes catching on fire. There was no animal wail of grief that burst from his mouth.
It's equally bizarre what things the mind creates and recreates in the place of all its senses are telling it. Chris could swear he heard Ezra's laugh just around the corner. That self-amused, haughty, aristocratic sound he made when he had just said something that no on would understand until five minutes later. Or that infinitely rarer, more precious, honest twitter he made when caught unawares, surprised and entertained by something. He could see Ezra standing there smirking into his dimples, gold tooth catching the sunlight, emerald eyes wicked and clever, and never ever telling. He swore for a second there he could smell him. That heady, complicated, beguiling hint of something deeper. Just like the man himself.
I am the quintessence of diligence and vigilance, Mr. Larabee. He had always been so amused at his tongue twister vocabulary. You needn't worry on my account.
"I ain't worried for you, bloody Dixielander, you'll be perfect as always."
"Was that a compliment that just issued from your lips, Mr. Larabee?" How was it possible to hear a smirk over the phone? Ezra made it possible.
"Yeah well don't hold your breath til the next one. Watch your back."
That was the last conversation they'd had, and he could hear the words in his head as clearly as if they were speaking it now. And he hadn't even said goodbye.
One loathsome foot at a time, Chris stepped across the blackened threshold into the warehouse to join the men already working on clearing the rubble, stabilizing the structure, and finding the bodies. "Goddamn you, Ezra. Goddamn you to Hell, cause if you ain't there when I get there, I'm gonna find you in Heaven and kill you a second time." Chris kicked a piece of glass at his feet and put on a pair of gloves. Josiah and Nathan were right behind him. They had the good grace not to gasp.
"Second degree burns on his back and legs. We had to shave off most of his hair. Sir?"
It usually didn't take more than a glance or half a smile and Buck Wilmington was all eyes and ears, and hands, for any female anywhere near. This one was having trouble getting him to pay attention.
"Sir," she looked down at her charts again, tucking one wayward lock of brown hair behind her ear, "a Chris Larabee is listed as next of kin. Should I speak with him?"
Wearied blue eyes turned on her, accompanied by the vaguest excuse for his roguish smile. "He'll be here later ma'am." He hoped. "I'll do for now."
She had kind eyes, chocolate brown, sympathetic eyes that took in the grief and worry surrounding the man in front of her, and she reached out a hand. "He's going to be alright, Mr. Wilmington. He is." At the hopeful lift of his brows, she looked at him as if to say would I lie to you? And then she smiled, a warm, gracious smile as kind as her eyes. "A friend is he?" Obviously a close friend, as the man before her simply nodded and looked away to hide his tears. "Well your friend has a lot of fight. We re-inflated his lungs and got his heart to beat better on its own. He's going to need skin grafts on a couple of tricky spots and he has sustained a fairly serious concussion, but other than that, he is stable now. None of his wounds ran deep. Most of his injuries were from the force of and proximity to the blast." Seeing that she was losing Buck to the details, she gave him a little squeeze on his arm and nodded towards the private room in the ICU, and the prayerful form of JD sitting by the bed. "You can sit with him too for a while if you like. I know it isn't allowed, but I break the rules from time to time. Go on."
Buck almost forgot to thank her; he didn't even ask her name. A first for him.
He hadn't heard much past the 'he's going to be alright' part. That's all he needed to know. Vin looked like a shorn sheep. Or Sampson maybe, Josiah might say. All that wonderful hair gone. An ugly bare patch in back covered with some sort of foul-smelling goo. And bandages everywhere. He was on his stomach, positioned strangely, breathing steadily; the beep on his respirator attesting to that fact. Buck wanted to laugh at how Tanner would struggle and complain and curse and howl to be tied up to all those tubes and crap, made to lie face down. He never kept his back to any door. But it was too sad to be funny, and as close to home as it was for Buck, he knew it was exponentially closer for Chris.
Buck placed a gentle hand on JD's shoulder and heard him sniffle. He knew the young man's eyes were as swollen and red as his, so he spared him the embarrassment of looking. "He's gonna be fine, JD." God he wanted to sounded more convincing than that. "Doctors say he's stable, and that most of his injuries are superficial. He'll be back to being able to shoot tics off a dog's ass in no time." Weak humor at best.
JD found a bare, uninjured patch of skin and laid a hand on it, reassuring himself that Vin was alive, maybe reassuring Vin in his sleep. The other hand carded through his long, dark hair, not succeeding in bring it to any order, but at least giving his anxious fingers something to do.
"I always told him I'd cut my hair when he did." JD looked up then, at Buck, eyes so full of sorrow Buck didn't know he could stand it. "I just didn't think it's be like this." His narrow shoulders hitched in an unvoiced sob, and he turned back to watching Vin. "I just can't," a fierce shake of a dark head, and he continued, voice smaller than before, "Ezra should be here. He'd complain about the chairs and the bad food and the badder coffee, and he'd make us laugh. He'd make Vin laugh. He always made everybody laugh. And he'd sneak us Starbucks and weird pastries and I can't believe he's gone." A sob was voiced then, and Buck slowly drew one of those damned uncomfortable chairs to sit beside his young friend. "How're we gonna tell him when he wakes up?"
The slow drip of fluids and the beep of monitors filled the stale silence for a few heartbeats, and it occurred to Buck that time is measured differently in different parts of the hospital. In the ICU, it's always measured in heartbeats. "Ya know, Vin, JD." His voice not any louder than a hum, he tried to infuse it with strength. "It'll probably be the first thing he asks when he wakes up. He'll know already, but he'll ask just the same." Buck rubbed slow circles on JD's back and snuck a hand onto the bed, laying it quietly on Vin's lower back. "And then we just tell him, son. We just tell him."
Tell him that there would be a departmental funeral and a lot of hours asking stupid questions like why bad things happen to good people. But that's what hospitals are, the places where bad things have happened to good people, mostly, and other good people try to undo them. They are places where everything blends into hours of waiting in rooms painted unnatural shades of vapid colors, Ezra had said, with furniture engineered by sadistic chiropractors in collusion with malevolent osteopaths. For all the words the man used, he always hit it spot-on. An actor who never missed his mark, never broke character, never once invited them to his town house for cards. He folded himself in and out of their lives like a contortionist. Or a magician. Sneakiest, trickiest, most unreadable bastard Buck had ever known.
"You believe in Heaven, Buck?" JD sounded like he desperately needed the answer to be yes.
"Sure, JD." Nowhere else Sarah and Adam Larabee could possibly be. "I believe in Heaven."
"You think Ezra made it there?"
Such an innocent, sweet, totally heartbreaking question. And it made Buck laugh. "Kid, if he ain't picking the lock, then he's playing St. Peter in the highest stakes game of his life. And you know as well as I do that even God can't win playin' cards against Ezra." He laughed even as fresh tears slid down his face.
At least it got him a perk of a smile from one corner of JD's mouth, a wistful smile he wished wasn't associated with any memories. Just memories now. He sniffed as he spoke again. "Buck?"
"Yes, JD?" Still there, after all.
"You don't think it would hurt any to pray for him? Just in case?"
In case God didn't love Ezra Standish as much as they had? "No, son. It wouldn't hurt any." At least Josiah certainly wouldn't advise against it. Buck didn't know of what use he thought prayers for the dead, but if anyone's might be heard or heeded at all, it would be JD's.
Silence expanded around them, long and heavy, but not so heavy as it might have been as Buck watched JD fold his hands neatly next to Vin on the bed and move his lips in silent petition. Old tears glinted on the edges of his dark lashes and shone on his pale cheeks, but none new fell. And if prayer gave JD the strength not to fall apart, then maybe they could all borrow some of that, ride on its coat-tails for a while. They'd need it. Especially Chris.
Steady breaths. Deeper than before. That was encouraging. There were no sirens now, less shouting, no heat.
His hands unconsciously fumbled in his coat for a handkerchief and he blew his nose. It stung, like his eyes, and most of the skin on his hands and face. He smelled like the inside of a fireplace. Then he brought his hands close to his face and began biting the shards of glass, still embedded, out of his palm. The wounds were irritated, but already healing. They itched.
Folding the cloth in half, and then in half again, he began to clean some of the stickiness off his face, and apparently that was a very bad idea. The cloth might as well have been made of needles. Tentatively, he used his other hand to tap at his cheeks and forehead. Swelling. Stinging. Like a very bad sunburn. Not blistered, not at least that he could feel. Not bleeding, not like his hands and knees were bleeding. A rhinoceros was still sitting on his chest, and evidently his head was caged inside a maraca belonging to a violent Mariachi.
Trying to see produced more positive results, however. Blurry yet, and dim, but he wasn't blind.
If only he knew where he was, why he was there, and what the hell he had been doing to get there. More importantly, he needed to know how he was going to get away. There was great danger and he had to warn someone. And someone was after him, he knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Standing sounded more plausible than it had when this adventure began, so he felt along the wall behind him, shoving against it for leverage, and slowly stood. It took a while still for this to seem like a good idea. Gradually, his balance returned, or arrived for the first time, and he cautiously crept around the side of the dumpster.
There was another building. Yes, naturally. Hiding between one thing and another means, obviously, that there are two things involved. One of which was a corrugated tin structure. He groped his way around the corner and along the side, hands fluttering across the warped metal, body creeping like a large drunken vermin on the wall of a sewer. He smelled like a sewer. Or rather, that was the smell that lived behind the dumpster and had now taken residence upon his person.
He kept walking, limping, using the noise of activity behind him like compass, heading due south from its north pole. Soon he had to leave the security of the building beside him, and more than once he stumbled as he fled. Pretty slow and lumbering for flight, but he couldn't shake the impression that he must get away, fast and far. More ground sloped, longer stretches evened out, and before long the sound behind him was dim. His vision was clearer, not that there was much to see, but he made his way toward the trees. Trees. He must be outside the city somewhere. Denver. That is where he had been. Where he lived. That knowledge bubbled up like a balloon of air out of deep water and popped on the surface of his mind. As did his only clear memory of one other person.
No name, just a face, with stormy gray eyes. Someone he knew he shouldn't trust, but he did. Someone he knew he shouldn't anger, but he did. Someone he knew he mustn't love.
Resin-scented darkness engulfed him. The crunch of sticks and leaves and cones underfoot. Bark was sharp and unfriendly, but he lowered himself behind the bole of a great tree and sat with his forearms draped over his knees. He was far more exhausted than he should be. Or maybe not, considering he didn't know how, exactly, he should be. But it had taken all his strength to walk to where he was now, and drop like dead weight upon the ground.
Furtive scrabbling in the undergrowth. The sigh of wind and creak of branches. Cool. His senses registered these things as if they were important. As if he had spent a lifetime cataloguing minute detail. Before sleep claimed him, he tried to fit together odd pieces of things that played on the backs of his eyelids. Violence, fear, treachery. Guns and men with guns. Living in hiding; hiding in plain sight. Shuffling cards. A hotel room with a green bedspread. A house with many tall windows and wooden floors. The smell of cheroot and hay. The smell of wood polish and gun oil and leather. And the last thing he remembered hearing. Watch your back.
The trees stood sentinel as his head drooped upon his breast and he drifted into strange dreams.
Nathan got over the shock first. He was trained medically, after all, and was more accustomed than some at seeing carnage and death in its various forms. Chris was beyond shock, or maybe too steeped in it to notice. Josiah felt overwhelmed.
An arm here, a leg there, a torso disembodied at the waist. Everything burnt and blasted, mostly unrecognizable. Synthetic clothing melts to flesh when burned. Airline safety engineers recommend that all passengers wear natural fibers, cottons and wools and leathers, in case a fire should break out in the cabin. Panty hose will attach itself to the skin never to be removed without hours of surgery. Evidently so will polyester shirts and nylon socks.
There were, in all, twelve bodies removed from the warehouse, each one less recognizable than the last. And it took several hours to bag them and label them, and label the scene, and photograph, and always more water dripping on their faces. Outside, a midnight moon was riding high.
There was nothing more they could do there, they were told. The Medical Examiner would determine which limbs belonged to which people and then they would be called to identify the body of their undercover agent. Chris just stood in the midst of ruin and the stench of death wearing a vacant, concave expression. His eyes and nostrils stung from the fumes; his hands were scraped and cut; his jeans were sodden and soiled. He tried to keep his mind from imaging Ezra's last thoughts before dying. At least it would have been a quick death, better than a gunshot, the way that man lived, or a car wreck, the way he drove, or cirrhosis of the liver, the way he drank. Larabee was one to talk. All he wanted for the foreseeable future was a bottomless bottle of whiskey and a glass. He might even forgo the glass.
"We're gonna head over to the hospital, check in on Vin. You need a ride?"
Nathan stood at a respectful and safe distance, sharing a worried look with Josiah, watching the lifeblood drain little by little out of Larabee's face. Chris shook his head.
"Ok, chief. See you there."
Each one of the men had a different nickname for him: Chief was Nathan's; Josiah called everyone brother; Vin teased him with cowboy; Buck had several. JD played it safe with boss or sir. He still didn't know that he was treated as an equal. Each one of them had some diminutive or endearing pet name that they called one another, except Ezra, who steadfastly refused to address them by anything other than their formal names. Mr. Larabee. Mr. Sanchez. Mr. Tanner. Time and time again Chris had told him it was unnecessary, it was irritating, it was ridiculous, it was almost condescending. And Ezra's jade eyes would twinkle and he would respond, "Nevertheless." As if that explained it. As if that excused it. As if he didn't have twelve thousand other words he could say.
The retreating footsteps of Nathan and Josiah drew him round, and he followed them out of the bombshell into the equally black night. They made the drive to the hospital, lights and sirens, in half an hour, Chris following Nathan's car in his big, black Dodge. Ezra had once joked that it was difficult to see him if he was standing next to his truck. As a matter of fact, he should just die his hair black and be done with it, since his clothing is as monochrome as it is unimaginative. Only Ezra had said it more eloquently than that, more personally, like it was his way of mentioning how much he liked the wheat-blonde mess of Chris' mane. Circuitous and lengthy. Prim and circumspect. Ezra. All the things Chris wasn't, and it drove him to distraction. That absurd gold tooth, and his neurotic disinclination to drink domestic beer, Ezra was such a confused mixture of pretense and idiosyncrasy, and loyalty and sense of duty, and Goddamnit Chris missed him. He wasn't supposed to miss him, not yet, not already. Missing someone was supposed to come later, after the tears and the shared memories and returning to work to find an empty desk, not driving eighty miles an hour on the highway with only the sound of road noise and the wail of sirens.
All of Team 7 knew its way to the ICU. They knew their way around the Emergency Room and the waiting rooms, and all the floors and levels of Denver Memorial. Knew most of the orderlies and the graveyard staff. Vin even talked with the janitors, but that was Vin. As much as they hated hospitals, they sure spent an extravagant amount of time in this one. Chris wondered if they all weren't suicidal in one way or another, or just possessed a really unhealthy disregard for their own personal welfare. Actually, it was Ezra who had wondered that, and damnit but Chris could actually hear him saying it in that unhurried, caramel sweet Southern drawl.
Josiah stopped in the hospital chapel for a quick prayer, probably not so quick, and Nathan and Chris rode to the ICU in silence. They didn't stop to check in at the desk, just walked the length of the hall until they found Vin's room. Regulations be damned, the nurses knew better than to try to kick them out. JD was asleep in a chair, which was a medical miracle as far as Chris was concerned, how anyone could sleep in those chairs. Buck was still awake, and looking the worse for it, bent low over Vin's bed, murmuring to him in his sleep.
"He's not in a coma, Buck. Talking to him won't help." Insensitive bastard to the core, those were the first words out of Chris' mouth.
"Won't help him or me, pard?" Buck's eyes were hard, but unaccusatory. He'd dealt with Chris for too many years to count and wasn't about to be phased by any of his moods. Sour, sourer, and just plain nasty. So he turned his gaze back to the man on the bed wrapped in miles of gauze and plastic tubing, and told him that Chris was here.
Larabee wiped his mouth with his hand and took a spot opposite Buck where he could see Vin's face. This would normally be the point where he would move hair away from Vin's eyes or mouth, anchor it behind an ear or something, only there were no long, curly brown locks, and Chris had to settle for reaching out and touching his cheek. Then he withdrew his hand and leaned back in his chair, looking over at Buck with tormented eyes.
The nurse with the kind smile appeared in the doorway; she was new, Chris didn't know her, and Nathan went out to confer with her in the passageway. He always wanted all the details, encouraging or not, and always asked to read the charts. It made more sense to him than it did anyone else, so that was fine. Kept him purposefully busy too, in stead of just waiting and waiting, and letting his stomach congeal with worry.
"He's gonna be fine, Chris. He'll need skin grafts and they've given him something to... lessen the swelling in his brain. I wanted to tell 'em that their ain't much brain there that a little swelling could hurt." Despite his jest, Buck stretched out his fingers and laid the gentlest of touches on the back of Vin's head, somewhere that wasn't scalded. "They'll have to wake him in a few hours, but for now they're letting him sleep. I reckon we could all use some of what they're giving him. 'Cept JD there. Kid's plum tuckered out."
Chris tilted his head to look at JD and allowed himself a small smile. Somebody should be able to sleep this night. "Do we know what happened, what went wrong? This was supposed to be a straight gun deal. Nobody said anything about explosives."
"We won't know much til Vin wakes up. He was the one with the birdseye view." Buck sighed heavily and shook his head. "Trainer wasn't there. Just his thugs. Stands to reason that he knew the jig was up and set the place to blow. Thank God Vin saw the place was loaded and got the hell out of there when he could."
"What kind of animal blows up a dozen of his own men?" Chris was voicing his thoughts aloud, wondering how in the hell Ezra's cover had been blown. That was a near first. Ezra's cover was never blown by him; it always came back to a traitor or a mole or some heinously negligent slip of investigative work. In this case, Chris feared the latter. Thank God indeed that Vin had spotted the C4 strung around the barrels of gasoline on the warehouse floor. His near hysterical shout into his earpiece had brought the team barreling out of the surveillance van, but hadn't been enough to save Ezra. Ezra who wasn't wired. Ezra who had gone in alone. "And what made you charge out of the van like that," Chris demanded, coming round to it. Buck had led the charge, and like lemmings, everyone else had followed. "You think that running into an exploding building is standard operating procedure?"
Buck didn't dignify the remark, his usual style and flare for banter understandably curbed. In stead he averted his glance and said, "I already called Travis. He said he'd be here within the hour. He sends his condolences."
"I don't need his fucking condolences. He hated Ezra more than I did."
"Oh and we all know how much that was."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Chris let his ire get the best of him, his voice rising above acceptable levels for the ICU ward. JD jumped awake, and Nathan stuck his head in the door with a hissing warning to watch their mouths. Like some insipid school grade teacher reminding them to use their inside voices please.
"Only that in all the time we knew him you never said one Goddamn thing to let him know how much you cared, never did anything to show him how much you appreciated him, and never gave him half the slack you give the rest of us."
"That's total bullshit Buck," except that he was right about the caring part, "And it's none of your business anyway. He knew his place, knew how important he was. He was as much a member of this team as any of you."
Buck snorted, couldn't resist, and leveled Larabee with a sneering, "Yeah, he knew his place alright, and you did your level best to put him in it."
Chris gripped the arms of his chair like he was ready to vault from it, leap right across Vin and throttle the snotty life out of the son of a bitch across from him. "Just who the hell do you think you are to tell me..."
"Guys..." A scratchy, raspy slurring voice cut right through the shouting. "Guys, would ya mind shuttin' the hell up. Yer scarin' the kids. 'N some of us got blowed up today 'n are tryin' ta sleep." A foggy blue eye was open, blinking back the grog and trying to focus. Stubborn cuss that he was, Vin was speaking past his respirator and around the tube in his nose, which meant he was probably using air his lungs couldn't afford to spare. And Buck and Chris shut their mouths, right before hovering over their prone friend and inquiring after his health. That made him chuckle, roughly, coughing as much as laughing. "How the hell d'ya think I am?" Then his brow furrowed and he struggled to move.
"Lay still now," that was Nathan's voice; he recognized it. Their resident part-time jailor and full-time mother hen. "You aren't supposed to move, and if you try to, we'll just tie you down where you are. You're mighty banged up and you have to lay still for a while."
"How's it look?"
"Like fried chicken, Junior."
That was Buck, damn him, and Vin mumbled something obscene, giving him a one fingered salute with his left hand.
"Hey Vin," JD now, soft and hopeful, eternally sweet, "it's good to see you awake. You had us all really worried. Really worried, Vin."
"S'ok JD. How's Ezra? Did he make it out?"
The long leaden silence that followed that question sufficed for his answer and Vin attempted to bury his face in his pillow, thumping weakly on the mattress with one fisted hand. He heard Nathan say something about getting a nurse, and Buck say something comforting to JD, but all he could really hear in his mind was a repetitive soliloquy of blasphemy, damning God in all his names and forms and in several Indian dialects.
"They haven't found him yet, Vin, but they will. And I swear, we'll get you to the funeral even if we have to wheel you there in this bed, IV stands and all." Chris had put his hand on Vin's forearm to stop his futile pummeling of the mattress. "You did what you could, pard, you did what you could." Like that was any consolation.
Vin just nodded against his pillow, but didn't say anything else as the nurse came in and began to run her tests, and take her notes, and say all the requisite, even heartfelt, chirpy nonsense that is somehow supposed to bolster a man who has been nearly killed in an accident that took one of his best friends.
Chris took it as his cue, or his excuse, to leave, and swept like a harbinger of doom from the crowded room which had gotten far too upbeat for his frame of mind. He refused to dwell on Buck's words even as they nagged at him. Refused to admit that he'd treated Ezra any differently from any of them. Buck didn't know the half of it. How he'd never given in to the craving that carved out his gut, never let himself act on feelings that weren't supposed to feel right or good, never let himself dream of it. And now he never would.
And never is a Goddamn long time.
Buck knew where to look for him.
Orrin Travis had arrived at the hospital, as promised, and had spoken almost exclusively to Chris. Buck knew they would all hear about it come morning, so he hadn't pressed. The Assistant Director had said a few words to Vin, or over him, had spoken with Chris, and had left in a dour mood. Had left Chris in a dour mood. As if Chris needed any assistance in that department. Chris had disappeared shortly afterwards, without a word, just got in his truck and drove away.
And now, Buck knew to go looking for him, and knew where to find him. There were only a couple of places Larabee could or would be at this hour, could or would allow himself to drop his guard and get royally plastered. In all fairness, Inez Recillos had called Buck when it first became apparent that Chris was off the wagon. Again. He hadn't just fallen off the wagon, he was taking an Olympic spring-board dive. She had already locked the bar, but she knew better than to send Chris away. He was industriously working himself into a solid, angry drunk, the tried and true method of escapism by way of liquor, which no matter how often he tried it, never really worked. But damnit that didn't mean he wasn't going to try some more.
Buck met Inez at the back door, the expression on her olive-toned face telling him just how bad the situation had gotten. This was an familiar dance, watching over Chris while he silently or violently self-destructed, and they knew the steps well, but it had been so long since the last time they had to do this, Inez just handed Buck her keys and kissed him good night. The swish of her skirts and exotic scent of her hair receded into the night.
Luckily, lucky for whomever had been at the bar that evening, Chris had arrived near close, and there had been few patrons left to witness the onset of his precipitous decline. Fewer people to start a fight is always a good thing. Chris was in the dark, in a corner, cradling a nearly empty bottle in his lap. He had scratched the label off with what looked to have been a knife, shreds of paper littering the mahogany table top, long, thin lines scarring the shiny glass of the bottle. His hazel eyes didn't twitch as Buck hooked the leg of a chair with his ankle, scooted up, and sat down with all the appearance of a man who intends to stay. Come hell or high water. Knowing Larabee, he was bracing himself for the former.
Chris' gaze was fixated on some point the wall opposite, and Buck sufficed himself to wait it out. If it took Chris all night to speak, he'd be there; when Chris finally passed out or puked, he'd be there. He'd been there for twelve years and - how do they say - for better or worse, this was his place. Maybe his penance. He used to laugh, "Lord knows I love ya, Chris, cause sure as hell nobody else does," and Chris had laughed with him. He hadn't always been like this, but grief does funny things to a man, and Buck had seen them all. All the things a man does in the throes of an emotional agony so deep it nearly kills him. And every time, every single ugly time, he had held on and waited it out.
Of all things, of all the weird or aggressive things Buck had expected, singing wasn't one of them. In an off-key, croaky lilt, Chris began to sing. Words to an old song, a song that every jazz musician worth his salt knows, but Buck only knew because of Ezra.It's quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So set em up, Joe
Got a little story I think you should know
We're drinkin' my friend to the end of a sweet episode
So make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.
Buck didn't think Chris could get that drunk. He'd never heard him sing before, but Chris' hand was fairly stable as he ended the line and raised the bottle to his lips for a noisy swig, so maybe not as drunk as Buck had worried. Granted, there weren't many people he'd ever heard of who could take on an entire bottle of Johnny Walker and live to tell the tale.
Chris sloshed a glance at his friend, his annoying, ever-present, shadow of a guardian angel, and tilted his bottle to one side. "You gonna sit here, 'n knowin' you you are, then you best have a drink." When Buck accepted and swallowed a mouthful, shuddering as it hit his empty stomach, Chris smirked. "Everybody still at the 'spital? Good." The fewer witness the better, he seemed to think. "Inez give you her keys?" He nodded back, mirroring the bob of Buck's head, and took another drink. "You wanna know the one single most thing...," he paused, retracing his tipsy verbal steps, "The one thing that annoyed me the most?" About Ezra was the implicit ending to that question. "The way he used to eat his food."
Buck's eyebrows drew together in a neat, bushy line. He had never given half a thought to the way Ezra ate, much less how the man's totally impeccable table manners could be of annoyance to anyone. Chris ate like the rest of them, like it might just be his last meal, so he was hardly one to complain.
"He used to cut his salad in pieces before takin' a bite. An' he always held his fork in his left hand like some bloody European. 'N he always kept his food separate," this statement was accompanied by hand gestures, Chris partitioning and erecting imaginary walls between nonexistent food on the bare table top, "Like he couldn't stand it if, God forbid, the asparagus touched his steak. Prime filet mignon, on the rare side of medium rare. Why he didn't just eat it raw is beyond me."
Buck supposed he could, if asked under threat of death, tell someone what kind of steak Ezra ordered, but Chris had obviously paid much more attention than he had.
"But then again... he always was." That puzzling declaration made sense to Chris, somewhere in his addled mind, and Buck took a moment to respond.
"He always was what, pard?"
A fey little smile turned one corner of his mouth, and Chris uttered, "Beyond me." For a flash of an instant, heart ache indescribably profound washed over his face, eyes glossing, jaw tightening. Then it was gone, replaced by morbidity, and all that anger that forever simmered beneath the surface.
Buck's mouth opened on a small gasp, eyes widening with new comprehension. "You sure sound like you loved him an awful lot, for someone who hated him so much." It was an unfair gauntlet to slap down on the table, but he never was one to mince words. A hateful, truly ferocious glare was shot at him, and then Chris laughed, a snide bark of a sound, and rose from the table, heading for the bar. He bumped into tables as he moved, kicking chairs that had the audacity to be in his way, and swung around the end of the long counter to retrieve another bottle.
So that's how it was.
Buck sat there dumbstruck, his mind rehashing all the conversations he'd had with Chris about Ezra, all the things Chris swore he hated about the other man, all the irritations and the things that got under his skin, and Buck remembered with equal clarity conversations just like it that they had shared about Sarah. How she got under his skin, drove him crazy, he couldn't understand her, she ticked him off. Arithmetic was never Buck's forte, but he should have been able to add one and one long before now and come up with something other than absolutely no clue that Chris had very soft feelings for their undercover agent. That was a convoluted sentence even for Buck, and he tried to pick his way through his jumbled thoughts as he watched Chris crack open another bottle and grab two glasses from the shelf.
All he found himself doing was shaking his head, part denial, part disbelief, part total un-comprehension. Like a recipe for a really bad shot. It wasn't right, wasn't natural, wasn't like anything he thought he knew about Chris Larabee, and soon his face wore an expression that squinted his eyes and left his mouth ajar.
"You're gonna catch flies, Bucklin." Chris tumbled the glasses to the table and somewhat accurately poured them both a drink. Buck still had nothing to say, another first for him on this day, or maybe that would make it a second, but suddenly he knew he needed that drink. He would have downed his in one swallow, but Chris stayed his hand, raising his own glass and pronouncing a toast.
"To Ezra P. Standish. Conman, card-sharp, impostor, swindler, thespian, and one of the best men I'm ever likely to know." Buck saluted the toast, agreed with all of it, swallowed, plopped his glass on the table, and was still searching for a coherent sentence. Sad when a drunk can out-think you.
"Didja know he ironed his socks?" One blond eyebrow was arched, smugly confident that Buck didn't know any such thing. Chris was talking, which was good in and of itself, but Buck was having trouble following, playing catch up to Larabee's inebriated musings. "And," a hiccup broke his stride, "an' he only called Maude mother. Never mom or ma. I bet he called her mother when he was three years old." Hazel eyes shot wide open and Chris' head lolled back a few inches. "That's a terrif...terriffing... scary thought. Ezra as a child. I bet he could play poker before he could read. I wonder if Maude read to him or if she had the hired help do it. I wonder how many nannies Ezra went through, I bet he went through lots, or maybe not, like I bet he never made a mistake in his whole perfect little manipulated existence."
Over the initial surprise of it all, Buck felt a swell of earnest sympathy build within him. Chris had worked with Ezra all this time and never said anything. Buck had known him since the Navy, and Chris had held this secret from him. He'd been carrying this dead weight around with him for a year and a half. And never let on.
"So that's why you treated him different." Buck hadn't meant to say the words aloud, but there they stood.
"He was different." Honest, immediate, solemn. A shrug of one shoulder, and then a withering, derisive half-grin. "I guess I don't have ta worry about 'nymore. Do I?" Chris threw another mouthful of whiskey down his gullet and slammed the glass to the table. "I just with I'd had the chance to tell him anything." It was miserable, the tone and the words, heart sick and grief-stricken, and with that, Chris shoved the table away from him and stood, stumbling toward the door.
Startled, "Where do you think you're going?"
"Hospital." He waved a hand in the air as if shooing gnats away from his head. "Need to walk some of this off. I'll pay Inez tomorrow." He struggled with the front door for a moment before unlocking it and pushing his way out into the wee hours of night, leaving Buck just sitting there. Stunned. Bewildered. A bunch of adjectives Ezra could have come up with. And he would sit there a while longer, until it dawned on him that Chris was out there somewhere walking in a drunken stupor and was likely to get himself hit by a car.
Buck roused himself and followed in Chris' wake, remembering to lock the door.
Daylight awoke him, the first hint of it creeping with long pink fingers over the horizon, pulling back the thick quilt of night and tucking it away behind the trees. His eyes were slow to open, and vision slow to register, but it came, gradually and somewhat painfully. The pain in his skull reawakened but it was subdued, less of a devastating flood and more of a lapping tide. He was chilled. His muscles were stiff with residual ache and with sleeping upright against a tree. Good heavens. Sunlight also allowed him to see the extent of his injuries.
Most of the front of his clothing had been burned off, pin-striped wool fibers hanging in strips and tatters along his legs, the hair of which had been cleanly singed off. A leather belt still held to the waist of his trousers and there was something stuffed down the front of them that he hadn't even noticed the night before, something that had, angles and saints be praised, saved the most delicate parts of his anatomy from the fate of his legs and torso. It was a journal, a log, a leather-bound register with names and dates and dollar figures. Money exchanging hands, and quite a significant sum of money by the looks of it. Of course, a vast portion of the back of it was singed and charred, but the front half was intact, and for some reason this came as an enormous relief.
Taking the time to learn a little more about himself, he began to pat his various pockets searching for clues. A wallet was a wondrous discovery. Being in his rear pocket, it had been spared the explosion that must have eaten up everything in front of him. That must have been what happened. He was near the fire when it happened. A fire meant for him, perhaps. His name was Ethan Saunders. He had green eyes and brown hair. He was five foot nine, too short in his opinion, and weighed 165. Not bad. And he was handsome. To his eye, very handsome. That was most excellent.
Abruptly, like an electric shock nearly making him jump out of his skin, he could hear a voice in his head. Your name is Ethan Saunders. You've been in San Quinten convicted of embezzlement for the past 5 years. And you hold a grudge against Chris Larabee and the ATF team that put you there. He was a criminal. He shook his head fiercely, regretting that he did so, and tried to get the voice to come back. To tell him more about himself and fill in the mammoth gaps that seemed to be all he had going for him as far as memory was concerned.
Disconcerting. Very, very disconcerting. He was a criminal with a vast amount of information regarding the financial operations of whatever group of people he dealt with, yes he was sure it was a group. He was not alone, of that he was certain. He had friends and associates. And a grudge against the ATF. This was a start. Unhappy, but, nevertheless.
A little fishing in his other pockets produced what was left of a hotel key to the Regency downtown, too bad he couldn't tell which room, and another pair of keys attached to what must have been a little electronic fob. Poor thing was toasted right out of its wits. Other things in his wallet included a remarkable amount of cash, credit cards, naturally, and a slip of paper with a series of hyphenated numbers on them. Curious, that. A locker, a safe, a brief case. He tried to think of all the things that used combinations, and immediately put the numbers to memory. Out of habit, he guessed.
He also came upon a knife and a little gun, both in holsters on his ankles. Attempting to remove the holsters caused him to hiss and swear through his teeth, so he left them in place and wondered if the metal as well as the leather had fused permanently with his flesh. He didn't appear to be too horribly burned, not beyond say a day's worth of lying out on a beach in St. Tropez. Yes, he could smell the salt and the sand and remember drinking a Puligny-Montrachet, Grand Vin. Apparently he'd been there. And knew something about wine. Good to know.
Hunger voiced its displeasure loudly. And thirst. Movement would be necessary, then, so he raised himself slowly and stood for a moment trying to decide where he should go. Away was his first instinct, and it sounded like a good idea, but he still wasn't quite sure away from what. The noise and the activity of the previous evening was gone, or at least couldn't be heard from where he was. He risked a stealthy glimpse around the trunk of his tree. Quite a distance he had achieved for himself in his wanderings last night. There was a shocking vision of what had once been a building, a warehouse perhaps, clinging precariously to the top of a small rise of land about two hundred meters away - to the south, as the sun was to his right. What remained of the edifice was black and wretched looking.
A chill ran up his spine that had nothing to do with the temperature.
He had to get away from that, whatever it was, and go home. Yes, home; even dressed, or undressed, as he was. There was something vitally important he had to do and he was sure that it would reveal itself the closer he got to Denver. There was what looked to be a dilapidated landing strip for aircraft a bit to the east. No planes, only weeds and white gravel. West, then, felt the best choice of action. An amusing thought came to him that this was what homing pigeons must feel like, knowing in their gut which direction was home. He was certain Denver, and home, lay to the west.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends." His own voice surprised him. Very Rhett Butler. Perhaps too much Scarlett O'Hara. His driver's license had said New Jersey, but he knew that wasn't right. Then again, since he was a criminal, he probably had a dozen aliases and as many falsified pieces of identification. And apparently he could quote Shakespeare, which made him smile. Why, he didn't know.
It was strange, how his determination led him across so many miles and his innate paranoia kept him out of sight most of the way. It was hilarious how easily he stole some unsuspecting person's clothes out of the back seat of their car. They had just left it unlocked like that, silly people, and the clothes didn't fit, but they were a damn site better than what he had been wearing. He disposed of his suit, and everything but his socks and underwear in one of the dumpsters behind the Wal-Mart, and continued to walk into town. Stronger daylight brought with it a stronger headache, but his vision was vastly improved. He even stopped at a café for breakfast, playing off the concerned looks and inquisition of strangers, saying that he had been in vacationing in the Cozumel and had used sun oil in stead of sun screen, foolishly believing that staying in the water would protect him from ultraviolet radiation. Lord but it was easy to lie; it rolled off his tongue with effortless efficiency and fluidity.
It was only when he stopped in the restroom, a room in dire need of cleaning, and looked in the mirror that he realized he should pick a better lie.
Perhaps six or seven days straight of lying under the sun, or even being dipped face first into the sun, would produce the color of his face. Now he knew what crème brulée felt like. That sounded heavenly, come to think of it.
Open-mouthed he stared at his reflection and turned his head from side to side, arriving at a full, sobering apprehension of how close he must have come to death. And all his beautiful hair, which was auburn, not brown, thank you very much, was much abused, making his forehead much taller than it once had been. Neither had his eyebrows escaped maltreatment. They were sadly black around the edges and dusted off onto his finger tips when he touched them. The whole thing was bizarrely amusing, hilarious in fact, and he found himself doubled over in a royal fit of laughter. It hurt to laugh, but he couldn't help it, and goodness gracious was that his laugh? Too high-pitched and feminine for a gentleman. Gentlemen do not guffaw. Collecting himself, he looked again at his reflection and shrugged.
A little water wouldn't hurt, or rather, would do him good, because it did sting, so he kept it cold as he washed his face and hands. But he let them dry on their own. The paper towels looked vicious. He left the washroom with a little better understanding of how he should act and what he should say, and made the executive decision to call a cab. He had enough money on him, after all, to take a cab to Las Vegas. All he needed to do was go to the Regency Hotel, and perhaps, God-willing, find a different pair of shoes.
Team 7 had spent the night at the hospital, most of them taking up well-worn space in one of the waiting rooms, trying to make themselves comfortable on the narrow little sofas. Chris and Buck, when they drifted in, had stayed in Vin's room, not speaking, just brooding. Buck was brooding on Chris; Chris was just brooding.
The dismal mood of the night before held sway as they stretched and groaned and prepared to leave for the day. Josiah would stay with Vin, somebody would need to or he would tear himself apart getting out of bed, and as for the rest, they knew their work on the Trainer case was far from over. They all took time to go home first, knowing that this was one day Travis would not be requiring punctuality of any of them.
Buck brought coffee to the office. Starbucks. He didn't care that Chris would be pissed at the gesture, so very Ezra; it made him feel good. And, maybe out of sheer spite or orneriness, he was honestly hoping Chris would be pissed. JD brought pastries in answer to Buck's coffee, and some muffins, and as an afterthought bought a blueberry scone. He placed it on a napkin on Ezra's desk and just left it there like a memorial wreath. Nathan smiled at it, and said hello to the two of them, but pretty much they were silent until Chris came down from Travis' office around 10 am.
He looked like they felt, like the wrath of God, and stood there in the doorway to his office running his hand through his hair. The hand made a path over his scalp and down to the back of his neck, which he held, more like gripped, before turning around and letting them all know his first order of business.
"Travis is bringing Team 4 in on this. He knows we need a few days to adjust and figures we could use the help." He took the hand off his neck to wave it in the air like he couldn't care less. "He wants us to go by the hotel and collect all of Ezra's stuff there, and store it in the town house until we can figure what to do with it. He's gonna try to find Maude." Chris snorted at that, disgusted, and made a face like he'd just sniffed limburger cheese. "When and if she ever resurfaces, then she gets to decide what to do with everything at his home. I figure," and he paused then, sincerely weighing it, "that we should take something, whatever, some part of, I don't know, something. I know Josiah would like his Dizzie Gillespie albums. I'm not talking furniture or antiques or electronics. Anyway, if you see something of his that means something, then feel free. Maude won't care, or notice. Then after that, this afternoon, we have to kick ourselves into gear and focus on finding Trainer." Another pause, and his jaw clenched so hard that JD swore he could hear molars grinding, followed by words spit out from tight lips. "I don't need to stress just how badly I want to find the motherfucker. And Travis agrees that what the fuck is that doing on his desk!?" He abandoned the beginning of his sentence and pointed a shaking accusatory finger at the innocent scone. "That had better not be somebody's idea of a joke because I will personally rip out your lungs out through your eye sockets." No one in the room was certain if there would be eye-socket ripping whether or not it was a joke, so everyone sat very still.
Chris swooped down on the desk and snatched the biscuit in his fist, strangling the life out of it and tossing it into the nearest waste basket. Turning furious eyes on his teammates, he took several loud breaths through his nose, like a bull preparing to charge. "I am going to clear out his desk my self this afternoon and I had better not see one fucking thing on it ever again." He speared each of them with a murderous stare just to emphasize his point and stormed into his office, slamming the door behind him.
Buck shushed JD with a discreet wave of his hand just as the kid was about to speak. His blue eyes were understanding and comforting as they shared a look, and then Buck said, "Don't worry about it."
"I just wanted to..."
"I know, kid, I know. Don't, just don't." Don't try to apologize or talk to Chris about it. Don't worry about it or let it make you feel worse. And for God's sake don't ever do it again. Buck knew Chris would handle things badly, or not handle them at all, and it would be walking on egg shells for a while around the office. This was like taking a step back in time, many steps, back many years that he didn't want to think about. Years of acting as Chris' buffer, keeping everyone away from him and him away from everyone else. Right or wrong, he knew he'd have to break into Chris' desk at regular intervals to make sure he wasn't hiding a bottle of whiskey in there. He used to.
A few tense minutes later and Chris re-emerged, flinging his door open with as much force as he had closed it. "Let's go," was all he said, and no one in room had a doubt as to where.
On the elevator to the basement he told JD to ride with Nathan, and ordered them to grab some boxes on the way out. Maybe, on any other day, he would have asked them to, and if they noticed the change, they sure as hell didn't say anything. When he was alone in the truck with Buck, Chris turned and interrogated him about the stupid scone.
"Chris, it was just JD. He said it didn't feel right going to Starbucks and not getting Ezra a scone."
"And was that your bright idea - the coffee? Christ Buck, like we need to be reminded he's not here."
"Just a reminder he's not forgotten, pard."
Chris threw him a look that would curdle milk and took off out of the parking garage.
For the time being, Buck was going to pretend they hadn't had their conversation last night, not that Chris would remember it, or even suspected that Buck suspected anything. But all the same, playing it safe sounded, well, safe. All of them loved Ezra, ok maybe some more than others apparently, but they would all miss him something fierce, so Buck wasn't going to act as if it were otherwise. And he'd be damned if Chris was going to light into JD just because the kid handled grief better than he did.
A forcefully silent, tense drive. Rush hour traffic was thinned out by now, and they would be at the Regency in fifteen.
When he arrived at the hotel, he stood there a moment running his thumb over his lower lip and staring at the entrance. It was familiar, more familiar than it should be for a place he didn't remember, and so he entered and let his feet lead them where they wanted. They wanted to go to a suite on the fifth floor. He stood outside his door, assumed that it was his door, and thought about how to break in. His key was no good, but the housekeeper's wouldn't be, and he found her down the hall and around the corner. He bumped into her, apologizing for his clumsiness, and picked her pocket with astonishing agility. It came with an astringent feeling, growing on him like a choke vine, that he must be a criminal, no matter how he felt or what he thought about himself. He didn't feel like a villain, didn't know if he could shoot someone if he had to, but bits and pieces of things were floating through the viscous matter of his mind, and all of them were unpleasant. The only memories he had were of lying, cheating, sneaking, and hiding. It did not bode well.
That the maid had not yet visited his suite was manifestly clear. Things were strewn everywhere, tossed, dumped. Ransacked. Immediately he felt on edge, on his guard, and drew his gun without thinking. Assuming a pose that felt all too natural, he began to search through the rooms, three of them, opening the closets with the nose of his pistol and always keeping one eye on any given door. No one. Whoever it was had come and gone. He breathed a sigh and reholstered his gun, one of his guns he reminded himself.
But this was it, the hotel room with the green bed spread. He remembered it! Some of it anyway. It had a wide balcony overlooking the pool. He was still convinced that he lived in Denver, which made the use of a hotel room that much more confusing, but if he were a criminal, perhaps he needed a neutral base of operations. What that in mind, he began to look around, picking through the things in the rooms, searching for more clues.
He was wealthy, that much was certain, and he had very refined tastes. Expensive clothes. Diamond-studded cufflinks. Silk ties. Several pairs of shoes - hurray. There was a briefcase after all, but it had been forced open and its contents spilled. Papers, more documents. More names and dates and figures that he couldn't comprehend. Incriminating evidence. He put them pack in the briefcase and closed it. There was a bottle of brandy, spilled and broken, but only one glass. Drawn by an instinct he was beginning to trust, he walked to the bed and felt behind the headboard, down towards the floor, where it was closest to the wall. Eureka! He had no idea what he had found, but that he knew it was there was a wonderful thing. He put the little paper-wrapped parcel in the brief case and felt as though he'd accomplished something grand.
Clothes. Bath. Toothbrush. A man can tell a lot about who he is by what he keeps in the bathroom, he mused. Expensive cologne smashed on the floor. The entire room was filled with its scent. Mouthwash, undamaged. A manicure kit. He stood and smiled with wonder at the old-fashioned cake of shaving soap and attendant shaving brush of soft animal hair. There was also a straight-razor folded neatly in upon itself. How archaic. He knew the shower would make too much noise, and a bath would take too much time, leave him too vulnerable, so he took a moment in the bathroom to stand in the tub and wash himself with a warm cloth. Personal hygiene would have to bow to caution in this case. This case. Case. Case. That word had weighty significance that he couldn't place. Damnit! The more he tried to remember, the more his head hurt, and his head hurt enough as it was. Thank God he had aspirin.
As he brushed his teeth he caught sight of something shiny, and stopped. He pushed up his right lip and eyed with wonder the gold tooth that peeped out at him. There was a memory there, a strangely fond memory of losing a tooth in a rugby match when he was young. Lord, had he ever been that young and guileless? Maybe, once, for a moment. There was a lot of bitterness in him for a man who had no memory. He shrugged in resignation at his image and finished brushing his teeth.
The sensitive skin on his stomach, his pleasantly washboard stomach he noted, and on the front of his shins was beginning to blister, but he had nothing with which to treat it, so he dressed carefully, in his own clothes for a change, and stuck his backup gun in the rear of his waistband. And then he was back to square one, standing in a place he didn't really remember trying to figure out what to do. He still felt he needed to be somewhere, needed to get some vital piece of information to someone.
Suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck began to bristle, and he stood very still, listening.
Footsteps and voices neared and then stopped at his door. Panic, fevered panic rose upon him and he ran for the balcony, flinging open the door and hiding just out of sight, just in time.
"Holy shit, guys. Looks like we weren't the only ones who had this idea."
That voice he recognized, young and bright. Vaguely Bostonian.
"JD, keep watch at the door. Buck you're with me."
That voice he knew too, only it brought forth such a surge of conflicting reactions he nearly keeled over onto the cement.
"It's clear. Damnit!" Chris was standing in the center of the bedroom, surveying the damage, wishing to hell he knew what Trainer and his thugs would have been looking for. "I will put a bullet between his eyes next time I see him."
"Um, Chris, somebody's been here, pretty recently." Nathan was in the bathroom, rubbing his forehead and pursing his lips.
"I'd say that's a given, doc, but what'd ya find?" Buck still had his gun drawn, not entirely trusting that the place was clear.
"Guys," Nathan came back out to the bedroom, "there's two wet towels in there and water in the tub. Somebody was here real recently and made himself at home."
"What're these?" Buck was holding up the discarded pants and shirt, tilting his head like a dog hearing something that sounds a lot like dinner. "So he just came in here and trashed the place, took a shower and changed into Ezra's clothes?" Whoever it was must be one mighty weird guy.
On the balcony, Ethan had drawn his gun and was listening in rapt attention. Whoever was inside sounded too familiar to be an enemy, to inquisitive to be trustworthy, and at least one of them wanted to put a bullet between his eyes. If he could just make it to the door and out, he could escape.
"Guess we better call the lab guys and have them dust for prints and such. We better not touch anything else." A pause, a sequence of beeps, then, "This is Larabee. Tell our little ATF forensic junkies that we need them at the Regency downtown, Suite 512. Yeah. We'll be here."
Ethan felt his heart plummet. The ATF. The last people he wanted to see. Or were they? Part of him wanted to run to that gruff, surly voice and grab hold of the person it belonged to, and never let go. The more rational part of him told him to beware, told him to stay put, reminded him that he was a criminal who had in his possession a lot of very damning evidence and only nebulous glimmers of a memory.
"JD," Chris shouted around the door to the bedroom, "you can come in now. Lab techs will want to run a clean sweep of the place, so don't touch anything. I'll have the phone company give us a printout of all the outgoing and incoming calls. Maybe our guy stopped to use the phone after he showered and changed clothes." Bizarre as that was.
Ethan wished he could better hear their conversation, over the ringing in his ears. However, all of the men were in the bedroom now, which meant that past this abominable fichus plant was an entrance to the living room and a path to the exit. He whipped his head around the visual encumbrance, marveling that he knew the word encumbrance, and spotted a clear path to the door. It was now or never.
With infinite care and stealth, he opened the door leading onto the balcony and began his silent pursuit of the front door. The men were talking again in the other room and he tried to block them out, listening only to the lack of sound he was making as he tiptoed across the carpet. His own breathing sounded uncommonly loud to his ears and his hands shook, one carrying a gun, the other a briefcase, and he was holding onto both for dear life. A movement and a gasp crushed his hopes for escape.
JD thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye as he crossed the bedroom, and did a double take, then nearly fell backwards on the bed, sucking the air out of the room and covering his mouth with his hand.
Guns drawn immediately, Buck, Chris and Nathan took position beside and in the doorway to the bedroom. And they froze.
The freezing happened on several levels. First, there was a 44 caliber handgun pointed directly at them. Second, Ezra was pointing it. Chris blinked a thousand times in an effort to convince himself he wasn't imagining things, but the fact that everyone else was staring at what he was staring at meant that he hadn't simply gone insane. Buck was holding his breath, perhaps making up for the fact that JD was panting. Nathan was the first one to speak.
"Ezra. Ezra, it's us now. You can put down your gun."
This produced absolutely no results, except for a slight confused expression that filled the man's eyes as he stood there, looking at them as though they were extraterrestrials. Or enemies. Chris moved then, motioning for all of them to lower their guns. He dropped his gun arm to his side and raised the other hand in front of him, palm out, an effort to calm, and took a step forward.
Ethan dropped the briefcase to the floor with a thud and cupped that hand beneath the grip of his gun, steadying his aim on the blond man approaching him. The eyes. The man's eyes were hauntingly familiar. Not gray, no, but gray and green with a rim of yellow around the iris. Changeable with his moods. He had a glare that could reduce most men, maybe entire cities, to rubble. He knew those eyes better than he knew his own. That didn't mean much under the circumstances.
"Ezra?" Chris tried to keep his voice steady and calm. "Ezra, it's Chris, your friend, your boss. We thought you were dead, pard." A shake of a chestnut head warned him to stay where he was, but the frightened look in the green eyes implored him to keep coming. "We thought you died. In the fire. You can put your gun down. It's Chris."
"Chris. Chris Larabee?" Ethan wanted to be sure, be perfectly sure they were on the same page. What a poor liar, to be telling him that he worked for Chris Larabee. He could hear snippets of conversations in his mind, distracting and confusing him. This was a man to be feared. A mean, relentless son of a bitch with a drinking problem. He never was the same after his wife and son got blown up. I'd personally shake the hand of the genius who pulled that off. And he sent you to prison for five long years. That voice conflicted garishly with the softer one that spoke of love and friendship and burning desire. I'll always be here for you, just not in the way you want me to be. We can't. And you know it as well as I do.
"Yeah. It's me." Chris kept walking, very slowly, keeping his gun down and his hand out, only he flipped the palm upwards, not expecting Ezra's gun, only asking him to trust him. Take his hand. Show some sign that he knew him at all.
Ethan read his expression, the unvoiced relief and near joy in the blond's eyes, and was caught in a moment on the horizon of his mind, seeing the same unfettered happiness, the openness, the want. And also a wariness, a fear keeping all the rest at bay, that had nothing to do with the gun aimed at his chest.
Donning a seamless, broad smile and a purposeful light of hope in his eyes, Ethan reached out and took Chris' hand, lowering his weapon against his thigh and pulling the two of them close together. He forced a shaky breath of relief and ran his hand up Larabee's arm to cup his jaw, and before he could say anything, Ezra raised his chin and drew their lips together. He kissed him fully, like he was trying to capture his soul; open jaw, moist breath, delving tongue, losing his hand in Chris' hair and plundering his mouth. He felt a hand curling about his waist and heard a whimpered moan as the world dissolved and he kissed the familiar stranger with all the tangled, lost, disoriented emotions in his being.
And then he cold-clocked Chris with the butt of his gun, and made a dash for the balcony.
He snatched the briefcase from the floor mid-stride and, giving absolutely no thought to the utter madness of his actions, leapt over the rail of the balcony and plunged fifty feet into the hotel swimming pool. The briefcase left his hand upon impact and he skewered the water like a scythe, feet hitting bottom, legs propelling him back to the top where he surfaced spluttering and dazed. Perhaps not the wisest of decisions in retrospect, as he felt most of the wind knocked from his body and the ringing in his ears increased with a vengeance. Sheer instinct drove him on, compelled his limbs to swim, hands to recover the case, knees to bend and straighten as he stepped out of the water and began to lumber towards the nearest exit. Heedless of the shouts of alarm and gasps of concern from passersby, he jogged across the ground feeling he was still upon the water, on a ship, the earth rolling and unsteady beneath his feet.
He left the hotel grounds and a suite full of stunned ATF agents behind.
Chris was reeling from the blow to the head, and only the blow to the head he fiercely told himself, and had fallen to his knees, holding his scalp against the flow of blood he felt trickling between his fingers and down his face.
Buck had reacted first, not running to Chris, who had a head harder than rock, maybe made of rock, and had sped to the balcony, watching Ezra gracefully leap over the railing like he was in a ballet, like it wasn't five stories to impact. JD was right behind him and they both turned their heads as Chris shouted, "Go after him!", JD thinking for just a second that Chris meant that far more literally than he had. Buck yanked him away from the edge he was about to jump over and spun him in the direction of the hotel room door, shoving him into a flat out run. They still had their weapons drawn, which proved very distressing to the hotel guests who ducked, screamed, flattened themselves against walls, and generally tried not to get bowled over by the two galloping, shouting, gun-waving men.
Nathan was at Chris' side pressing a towel to his head and telling him to stay still a minute. A minute sounded inordinately long to Chris, already struggling to stand and give chase. "Chris, you're in no condition to go charging down there. Let JD and Buck catch him."
"What in the hell went on just then? What was that?" He ignored Nathan and finally managed to stand, holding the towel to his head as he marched out of the suite. "Get Josiah on the horn and tell him to get his ass down here. I'll call Travis and tell him to postpone the funeral. Shit. Why the hell would he hit me?"
Already dialing Josiah, Nathan paused mid-number to stare at the back of Chris' head and wonder why the kiss wasn't the most disturbing part of what had just occurred. He was unable to make sense of any of it, and was still lost in thought when he heard their team profiler answer the line.
"Josiah, we need you to get down to the Regency. Meet us in the lobby. You'll never guess who we just saw."
"I have a feeling it wasn't Elvis."
"It wasn't Marilyn Monroe either. How's Vin?"
"Sleeping like a babe. Be there in ten." Josiah clicked off, and Nathan hurried to catch up to Chris.
Winded, discouraged, and more than a trifle baffled, Buck and JD met up with Chris and Nathan just as they reached the front doors. Chris looked like a man who wanted an answer to an impossible question, and stood there dressing them down with his livid gaze.
"Witnesses said he just took off running, but there's no sign of him." Buck leaned over, resting his hands on his knees and catching his breath.
"Well, you two obviously didn't try very hard."
"We don't even know the direction he went, Chris..."
"How difficult could it be to follow the big, wet footprints, JD..."
"You wanna go after him, Larabee, be my guest." Buck straightened to his full height, enjoying that one advantage he had over his friend, and tried to return Chris' glare. "But you know Ezra. He can disappear in plain sight like David Copperfield if he wants to. What in the hell went on up there?"
"I'm gonna have DPD put out on APB on him..." Nathan had his phone still in hand and was dialing.
Chris grabbed it and folded it closed, shaking his head, staring out the doors like he was seeing a ghost. Which in his mind, he had. "No. Not a word of this, not to anyone. Whoever ransacked his room thinks he's dead. Best keep him that way for a while til we can figure out why he would..." A faraway gaze ended that sentence. Why he would return to his hotel. Why he would act like he didn't know them. Why he would, well, do anything he did up there, not that Chris wanted to remind everyone that he had kissed Ezra as hard and as totally as Ezra had kissed him. "None of this makes any sense. What does Ezra have that they want?" Then he stopped being a Senior Agent in Charge long enough to let a brilliant smile split his face. "At least this spares me from having to find something nice to say at his funeral."
"You mean you're capable?" JD snapped his mouth shut even as the words spewed out, and took a small step behind Buck. The kid really needed to develop an internal censor. He was saved, not by Buck, but by the arrival of the ATF Forensic unit, so he was free to resume breathing and other normal bodily functions, which had almost included peeing his pants. Chris didn't appear to have heard him, or was just in a freakishly weird mood, because was still wearing the wide smile, and as they went to meet the team entering the lobby, he grabbed JD by the scruff of the neck and smacked his forehead with a loud kiss.
JD decided that that might actually be the scariest thing he'd ever seen him do. And he kept his distance the rest of the day.
Team 7 hovered outside the door to Ezra's suite, letting the forensic guys do their thing. Lots of dusting for prints and shining blue lights on everything. Many rolls of film. Josiah arrived somewhere during the proceedings wearing an understandably inquisitive expression, and Chris commandeered a pass key, ushering them all into an empty room. He tried to scrape his hands through his hair, only to wince when he encountered the blood-matted patch above his wound. Everybody else situated themselves around the room and waited for him to talk, some patiently, some very impatiently, but those some had learned their lesson in the lobby and were now chewing on their thumbnail to give their mouth an occupation.
Chris stopped pacing, restarted, and stopped again to stand in front of Josiah, the only man in the room with a Masters in psychology. "Ezra isn't dead. He's alive." Redundant, but to the point. Best make it clear from the get go. To JD's amazement, Josiah didn't erupt in spontaneous relief or anything, but remained seated wearing his professional neutral expression. "When we arrived, he was already here. He had taken a shower and changed clothes. And then," Chris stopped and shut his eyes, replaying the scene, speaking with slow deliberation, "then he looked like he was trying to sneak out. When JD spotted him, he drew his gun on us." Opening his eyes to a narrow slit, like he was trying to peer through dense fog, he continued haltingly. "He, we, he... We lowered our guns and tried to get him to... it was like... like he didn't know who we were. He just stood there, and then he repeated my name like it was the first time he'd ever heard it. And when I finally got close enough, he hit me over the head with his gun and did a Peter Pan right off the balcony into the swimming pool. And disappeared."
JD's mouth opened comically wide, and then snapped shut with an audible pop of back teeth; he couldn't believe that Chris would just leave out the best part of the story! But a snarling glance from Buck kept him silent, and if anyone else in the room had seen the exchange, they feigned ignorance.
Satisfied that Chris was done, Josiah cleared his throat and folded his hands in his lap. "Was his room ransacked when you got here?"
"And housekeeping hadn't come? He hadn't tried to straighten it at all?"
"No. But he was there long enough to shower and change clothes."
"That's typically the first thing he'd be worried about. How did he look - when you all saw him?"
The question was directed at the entire room, and JD felt the muzzle was off, so he quickly offered, "Like he was sneaking out of the room. Like he didn't want to be seen."
"I meant physically," Josiah explained, "I meant did he appear badly injured?"
Pondering the statement, each of them donned very serious expressions, looking off in different directions as though they were watching the scene unfold on the walls. Nathan eventually spoke for everyone. "He wasn't bleeding, showed no signs of having been shot or hit by debris. He wasn't limping or favoring any limbs. But he did look burned. Not disfigured burned, but scorched. Sunburned. Beet red."
Josiah nodded pensively. "And he didn't say anything - other than your name." It was a clarifying statement, more than a question. "And did he ever lower his gun?" There seemed to be some indecision at that point, an enormous gaping chasm of silence, and Josiah perked a sandy brow in curiosity. "Well?"
JD was positively squirming in his seat, biting his tongue, and Buck was staring a hole in the back of Chris' head.
"Yes," Chris finally answered, terse. "Yes, he did lower his gun."
Josiah had the oddest impression of trying to loosen lug nuts on the tires of his SUV. Or maybe coaxing some wild animal out of its hole. "And?" He rotated a hand in the air as if to propel movement of thought, but nothing more was forthcoming. JD looked like he was about to have a grand mal seizure. Whatever it was, Josiah would have to pry it out of the later. "Ok, Ezra lowered his gun before he hit you... and then he ran away, by means of a fifty foot drop." This seemed to satisfy him. "Nathan, how much concussive force do you think the warehouse explosion carried?"
"A lot." A very technical amount, that.
"Enough to blow him right out of his wits?"
"Maybe." Another very precise answer. "But nobody could have survived that if they were still inside. Oh," a lightbulb came on over his head, "But what if he wasn't inside?"
"What if he made it out, or wasn't in the direct path of the explosion?"
"Wait a minute," Chris was either not following this train of thought, or was at least a few box cars behind, "So he gets himself blasted out of the building and then just walks his way into Denver and ends up here? He remembers his hotel room, but not his teammates. He remembers to change clothes and grab his briefcase, and then clocks me on the head with his gun." Josiah and Nathan both shrugged in response. Like that made as much sense to them as anything would at this point. Chris sat down on the bed, looking peevish.
Buck was smoothing out his bedraggled moustache and had to speak past his fingers. "Why don't we go back to the scene and see what we can find? I mean, he wasn't there when the fire trucks arrived, or at least not right after when they started sifting through the rubble. Right? Ok, so, he had to have gone somewhere. If he wasn't dead at the time, obviously, and he was far enough away not to be hurt like Vin, then there has to be some evidence of his movements. Right?"
"Vin was near more glass, right?" JD remembered seeing that. "Up top." He pointed to the ceiling, as thought they might be unsure of the direction up. "And he fell twenty feet - onto his head."
"He could have been behind that wall."
Nathan seemed to think he'd seized upon something important, and everyone turned to listen. "There was one wall standing, remember? Solid steel, eight inches thick. Load-bearing. What if he was on the other side, through the doorway and got whooshed out?"
"Whooshed? Is that a clinical term?" Buck chuckled at himself, and Nathan glibly flipped him off.
"But why wouldn't that kill him?"
"It should have," was Nathan's honest reply, looking at Chris unapologetically, offering nothing by way of explanation.
"Ok. But it didn't."
"But it may very well have knocked him silly." Another highly clinical explanation.
"Well then, let's go." Chris slapped his hands against his thighs and stood, like it was a done deal. "Why not start at the beginning?"
"A very good place to start," Buck and JD chimed in unison.
Josiah gave them a weary look that clearly said Heaven help us, while Chris just shook his head in disgust. They left en masse, stopping to tell the Forensics team where they were going, and took the elevators down, in silence, feeling less reassured than they should. Less depressed, but definitely less certain of anything that had happened twelve hours ago. And they all needed sleep.
Ethan stopped running when he thought he was going to pass out. His lungs burned and his head swam. No, he wasn't going to think about swimming again. Pain had reawakened in every part of his body, and he felt as though he had dropped onto the cement in stead of water. His entire left arm was numb from impacting on the surface of the pool.
How brilliant it had been of him to surmise that Larabee would be receptive to such a shocking thing as that kiss had been. What a marvelous distraction it had proved to be. Of course, he didn't want to contemplate exactly how distracting it had been. Or how good it had felt. Or how right. Or any number of things he could have said to describe the moment. Terrifying was one. But surely it had been the right thing to do.
To hit the man and escape had been the right thing, his mind clarified. Just to be sure.
Lack of knowledge of his surroundings didn't unsettle him as much as it might have, should have perhaps, but he was getting used to the feeling. He hadn't been followed, or at the very least wasn't being followed at that moment, so he rested against the side of a building and tried not to throw up. His left hand was cramped around the handle of the waterlogged briefcase and his right was still holding his gun. His gun that he had drawn so instantaneously. Can 'instantaneously' have a modifying adverb? His thoughts were wandering again; it was very difficult to think.
One thing was certain, he drew the gun out of reflex and was prepared to use it. More proof that he was a criminal. Idly he wondered if he had ever killed anyone. He must have. A number of his only memories were of deaths, were of dead bodies, shooting, being shot. He didn't feel safe anywhere, least of all on the open street in broad daylight, so he made the decision to find somewhere to hide.
Downtown. He was still downtown, which meant that in a city this large there must be a number of homeless shelters, or better yet, seedy hotels in which a criminal at large could hide. Sleep sounded necessary, and with that thought in mind, he began to walk at as quick a pace as he could manage, in a direction not facing the sun. Which must logically be west, his mind whispered. Lord, how his head hurt. Another wave of nausea pummeled him and he stumbled against the nearest wall. He was stronger than this, he chided himself. He could overcome this. He could overcome anything he put his mind to, another voice echoed in his ears.
You can do anything you put your mind to, my dear boy. There is no such thing as luck or fate. It is all about learning to manipulate the situation you are dealt and direct it towards a favorable outcome. You can control anyone if you learn their weaknesses, and there is not a person in this world without weakness. You simply must learn to conceal your own, and then you can rule the world. You must never, ever show any sign of weakness.
His mother's voice, but this did not fill him with peace, only a strange mixture of acrimony and resentment. Or maybe it was just the bile in his throat leaving that unpleasant taste in his mouth. Whichever, he resumed walking and continued on his uncertain path for some time until he saw another hotel in the distance. Salvation. It was unkempt and poorly lit and a number of women who made no pretense as to their profession were lingering about in the lobby, but Ethan paid for a room and slowly ascended to its door.
It too was unkempt and poorly lit, and the bed was certain to be crawling with things unmentionable, but Ethan couldn't quite muster the indignation to care. He sat on the edge of the lumpy mattress and placed the briefcase beside him, forcefully uncurling his fingers. He felt compelled to open the thing and see how badly its contents fared. So he did, and it turned out to be not as bad as he had anticipated. Good. He would look at them later.
He was leaving a very wet spot on the matress, so he stood and stripped, laying out his clothes upon the other disreputable pieces of furniture in the room, hoping that when he woke up at least his pants wound be dry. As much as he shuddered at the idea of climbing into the bed wearing only his boxer shorts, silk ones at that, he did just that without much regret. The entire room now smelled of chlorine, an improvement when he thought about it, and the tang brought vague memories to life in the aqueous matter of his brain.
Many pool-sides, iced drinks, laughter. And something darker. A memory of being choked, gagging, held down by cruel hands. He wished for the life of him he could remember pleasant things, that not everything he knew had been ugly or fearful. Or idle and indolent. No, he wished to escape that, the feeling of doing absolutely nothing good or productive in his life, and he felt that he had escaped it. But to what? And now he was alone, trapped in his own mind like a firefly in a jar, thoughts battering themselves to death against the walls of his amnesia.
Abruptly, he recognized one of those flittering thoughts and tried to capture it. The house he had remembered, the place with the tall windows. He was by the pool looking at the back of the house, and he knew it belonged to him. He lived in a place with a pool and a fenced-in yard and one large tree. Oak. Ash. Maple. Birch. That was the name of his street!
He nearly sat straight up, dizziness preventing him from doing so. Home. He needed to go home and tell someone something. Something depended greatly on his going home, and now he knew his street. Happiness. He fell asleep with a faint smile on his lips.
All was not lost, even if he was.
"Well, where should we start?" They were back, returning to the scene of the crime no less, and they were standing in a semi-circle, each man looking as indecisive as the next. Chris, for once, was looking to them to lead him, and was, for once, looking pretty hopeful. "You wanna start with the alleged, life-saving, load-bearing wall?"
Everybody headed that way but Josiah, who had his own inscrutable methods of reading a crime scene. He watched the others walk through the rubble and squatted down on the ground, picking up loose rock in his hand. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply and let his mind and body relax, searching for inspiration and direction by the only method he knew how. Prayer. He didn't guide the prayer, just let it guide him.
Chris had given up on anything so transcendental years ago, not that it was helping him any at that point, but that's why he surrounded himself with such perceptive minds. Nathan appeared to be doing some sort of arithmetic in his head, probably judging force of impact, the amount of explosives used, the distance from the epicenter to the wall, all sorts of factors that Chris couldn't begin to sum up. JD and Buck were talking in hypotheticals, tossing round conjectures as to where Ezra might have been at the time of the blast and how he avoided serious injury, why he didn't recognize them, why he leapt off the balcony, what was in the briefcase he carried. Chris glanced at Josiah, still crouched on the ground, and decided to look the one place that had been out of their line of sight at the time: the back.
Getting inside people's minds was Josiah's job. This shouldn't feel so difficult, then; he should be able to construe the motivations of someone he knew so well. Except that none of them really knew Ezra, a fact that had saddened him on more than one occasion. Ezra always appeared, to him, to be a sheep lost from the fold, and not just liturgically, although if asked, he would be willing to bet Ezra had more faith than most. Just no religion. This was all beside the point - where was he? Ah yes. A man who doesn't know his friends, but knows the last place he stayed. A man who lives through an explosion and has to seek refuge. A man who lives through an explosion and considers his friends his enemies. A man who wakes up and walks back to his hotel. Only it wasn't his hotel, and if he had woken up, that meant he had to have slept somewhere. It didn't appear that he had slept in the hotel or else whoever had broken in would have found him. He had to have been somewhere else all night.
With that thought in mind, and another thought he had been waiting for the proper occasion to voice, the profiler rose and joined Buck and JD in the remains of the warehouse. Chris was walking alone out back, but Josiah kept his voice low nonetheless.
"Alright, children, what aren't you telling me?" At their confused expressions, he rephrased. "What didn't you tell me at the hotel? JD looked about to have a fit of apoplexy back there."
"They kissed," JD exclaimed in a stage whisper, finally able to say it.
Buck smacked him on the back of his head, and looked ready to do it again, when Josiah stopped him. "Who kissed?"
Stubbornly, angrily, JD clammed up and glared at Buck, who was left to answer the question, albeit reluctantly. He tugged on his moustache a minute and cast a cautious glance at Chris. "Ezra, when Chris tried to get him to lower his weapon, Ezra pulled Chris to him and kissed him. Hard."
This totally inexplicable, cataclysmic piece of news appeared not to shock Josiah in the least. He ran a hand across his mouth and nodded, and JD couldn't stand it.
"I mean they really kissed, like they were spelunking, diving for sunken treasure. And Chris let him, I mean, he more than let him, he..."
"Thank you, son," Josiah cut him off looking at him sidelong, "I think I am well aware of what a kiss is like." He nodded again, and started to turn away, then asked, "Was the back of Ezra's head burned? Was there any hair missing?"
"Not that we saw for that brief flash when he ran."
"Thanks Buck." Another solemn nod. "JD, close your mouth. You're gaping." With that, Josiah did something characteristically odd, walking several feet outside the building and lying down on the ground. Buck, relieved that Chris hadn't heard, and JD, still frustrated that no one seemed to care, both shrugged and joined Nathan, who was still measuring distance between this and that by footsteps, and adding things on his fingers.
After a minute or two, a shadow fell across Josiah's face, and he opened his eyes. Chris was wearing his 'well are you gonna tell me' expression, and Josiah winked at him. Then he rolled over onto his hands and knees and began to crawl across the pavement. Another minute or two of this and he stopped and sat back on his haunches, pointing to a corrugated tin building about fifty yards away.
"If I were a man who had just been thrown from an exploding building, I would want to escape the fire, put something between me and the heat. And no one saw him, at any time, after the blaze, which meant he was out of sight." He stood then, and walked towards the swath of grass behind the building, stooping like a bloodhound on a scent. Shortly, he stood up again, turning and showing all of his teeth in an exceedingly pleased smile. "Nathan!" His booming bass voice filled the air. "I think I've found him!"
They came running, the three that remained inside, and everyone crowded around Josiah who was pointing at the ground. Nathan squatted down and sucked in a lung-full of air, gesturing for the others to join him. They looked like hoof prints, the round gouges in the earth, grass and mud displaced, just as if, "Someone crawled along the ground. Look. He was dragging his feet. And the imprints here, they're like hand holds, like rock climbing."
The five of them moved in a line, hunched over like geriatrics, following the trail that lead towards, "That building there," Nathan was pointing again, just as Josiah had done. They didn't waste time scurrying to it, and there, the signs were even more unmistakable. A staccato trail of blood was smeared along the metal wall of the building, the blood Ezra had left from his wounded hands.
"We're doin' pretty damn good, even without Vin," JD whispered low, like somehow this was a moment for observing silence.
"Shit," Chris said then, "We haven't even told Vin. What time is it? If he wakes up and we're not there... He'll have escaped by now." As though he were escaping prison. "That's next on our list of places to visit."
Josiah walked ahead a little, stopping where the trail of blood stopped, and closed his eyes again. "He either stayed here, behind this building, or went on to the trees. But he was walking, so unless you all are better at tracking than I think you are, there's no way to tell for sure." It would be nearly impossible to track the man on debris-strewn pavement unless he was seriously leaking blood.
"So he crawled away from the fire and slept out here somewhere, and walked back into town at first light."
Chris looked at Buck approvingly, and followed with his own deduction. "Which means that whoever broke into his suite probably did it while we were at the hospital with Vin." And while he was at the bar drowning his sorrows, he thought with a grimace of self-censure.
"So this tells us what happened, more or less. Good job, Josiah." Nathan was very proud of his old friend, as always. "But it still doesn't shed any light on why he pulled his gun on us."
"Or why he was in his hotel in the first place," Chris back-tracked, "Or what Trainer was looking for."
They were back to that, still at that, and none of them had even the faintest suggestion as to why. Even when the others had walked to their vehicles, preparing to leave, Josiah remained standing at the corner of the outbuilding, eyes closed, humming to himself. If he were an undercover agent, what would he do? What would he be doing now?
Ethan awoke drenched in a cold sweat. Vaporous shreds of a dream still haunted him, and he was breathing from some great exertion his sleeping self had undertaken. Dusk had fallen on the city while he slept, unless it was just the dimness of his vision. Rubbing his eyes proved that it was, in fact, twilight, and not just inside his own head. He was hungry again, and horribly thirsty. His clothing was unhappily not quite dry, but he dressed anyway, feeling that nagging sense of urgency that had plagued him since, well, for as long as he remembered. That notion made him laugh; it didn't count for much. His memory extended almost exactly 24 hours.
Stumbling across the briefcase reminded him that he had yet to open the package he had retrieved from the hotel. He took a moment to turn on a lamp and inspect his booty. The weight of the thing felt familiar, and the shape. It was a little black book. A cliché, then. No mystery is complete without a little black book. He was nervous about opening it, but did so, and when he did, it was like opening a window over the grand canyon. An impossibly wide, yawning, spectacular amount of memory, for someone who has none, came jumping up at him.
The numbers on the scrap of paper in his wallet were the combination to a safe - a safe from which he had taken this book - this book which contained names which corresponded to the code names - the code names in that leather bound journal he had been wearing in his trousers. Money, names, shipments. Weapons. Clattering like dishes to the kitchen floor, memories broke upon the opaque surface of his mind, and he could see himself retrieving the book, hiding it in the hotel room, making a phone call, drinking a glass of brandy. Trainer. He worked for a man named Trainer and this belonged to him. It was the key, the thing that would be able to decipher the log book. Trainer was a gun smuggler, an east coast-west coast intermediary. He was like a regional Don of illegal weapons trade. And Ethan remembered his phone number.
This was huge.
He sat there, dazed and blinking, sweating again. He needed to get these things back to Trainer, and then hopefully the man would be able to fill him in on what happened before. Before everything.
Rising unsteadily to his feet, he started to scrub a hand across his face, and then stopped himself, knowing that would only hurt. Home, he should head home and change clothes and find something to eat. Keys! He reached into his pocket and grabbed the keys, fingering them and deciding that one must he a car key. Which meant the other must be a key to his house. And that meant that he had a plan and a purpose, and those were awfully reassuring things. He found the telephone next to the bed and called for a cab.
Birch street, he told the taxi driver, who asked what part of Birch street, to which he had no answer. He told him to just arrive at one end and he would walk until he got home. That sounded good, even possible, considering that he'd been running on instinct this entire time. However, even as he congratulated himself on that, he remembered how much of an instinct it had been to kiss Chris Larabee. His enthusiasm wilted as he rode in the back of the cab, ignoring the music from the front seat and the jabber on the CB radio. He had absolutely no explanation for the heartache he felt when he thought of that man, a man who had sent him to prison evidently, but a man he thought he knew. Knew well.
He has horses and drinks Johnny Walker. He has an incomparably dreadful temper, and the most piercing, intense eyes. He's known Buck for a dozen years and the two of them were detectives in Denver Homicide. He is ferociously defensive of his team, and protects them like family. He had a wife and son who were killed by a bomb meant for him, and he's never brought their killer to justice. He smells like leather, and hay, and Kenneth Cole cologne, and smokes when he drinks, and hides his smiles behind his glass. And hides his pain behind his anger. Larabee grills in his backyard every Sunday when he invites his team to his ranch. On Saturday mornings he and Buck exercise their horses. Buck! Another name he almost forgot he remembered. That was a truly incongruous thing to think.
"Obviously I've spent a considerable amount of time studying Mr. Larabee, learning his movements and habits." That had to be the explanation - not the tugging, longing, mawkish sentiment welling in his eyes as he thought about him.
"You talkin' to me?"
Ethan was startled from his reverie by the cab driver's voice and he stammered for a moment. "No, no, sir, it's nothing." Nothing worth thinking at any rate.
"Well anyway, we're here." And they were. They were on his street. Ethan paid the fare, tipped handsomely, and stepped out onto the pavement just as the street lamps were coming on.
It was unsettlingly eerie, déjà vu all over again, standing on that street, carrying a brief case. Going home. And he saw his car. He nearly sprinted to the thing, sitting all sleek and low in his driveway. A Jaguar XKG. His heart was pounding as he bounded up the walkway and the steps and stood at his doorway. That he didn't remember the front of the house wasn't of much concern, as the key fit in the lock and the door swung open soundlessly on its hinges. Directly he walked into the kitchen, took out a glass, and poured himself cranberry juice from the fridge as though he'd done it all his life. It was exhilarating! He set the briefcase on the counter, and set about making himself an omelet.
Oh blessed Lord in Heaven, it smelled good. And tasted better. As did the toast with mascarpone cheese and strawberries he consumed thereafter. And the prosciutto which he discovered with a small dance of glee. Which he ate wrapped around the slivers of melon he found wrapped up in the vegetable crisper. He didn't ever remember being this hungry, but then again that was rather stupidly axiomatic, and saints be praised there was a cappuccino machine in the corner. His thoughts were rambling, but that was okay, and his face hurt from the enormous grin he couldn't wipe off. But that was okay too.
He started to think that he couldn't remember ever being this happy, but stopped himself. Those post-facto realizations were beginning to come with an massive amount of fear and sorrow; fear of learning his sordid past coupled horribly with perverse sorrow that he couldn't remember it. No, he didn't have time for any of that. Showing emotion can get you killed, or at least can get you to having a conversation with your coffee. He set down his cappuccino and went into the living room to use the phone. There was a phone in the living room, and not in the kitchen, and he knew that, and that was a marvelous feeling.
Briefly he wondered whether or not his phone might be bugged, so he pried open the face plate and inspected the insides. Nothing. That didn't mean they didn't have a wire on his phone line, but he was willing to risk it. Dialing the only phone number he seemed to remember, he waited three rings before someone answered.
"I would like to speak with Mr. Trainer, please. This is Ethan Saunders."
At long last, after prying Josiah out of his thoughts, the team had eaten a very late lunch, very quickly, and had gone back to the Federal Building. Someone had to talk to Travis, and naturally that someone was Chris. Travis promised him all available resources to help locate Ezra and bring him in safely, in whatever condition. Team 4 was not to be told; they had their assignments and would remain on the Trainer case while Team 7 was busy with, let's call it, a 'classified' mission. Travis was greatly disturbed by the thought of possibly having an armed, trained, delusional, rogue agent on the loose, but Chris convinced him that Ezra was of no danger to any of them, and probably of no greater menace to society than he was normally.
Normally he was only a menace to Chris. No, that wasn't fair. He was a distraction, to be sure, and a bloody nuisance at times. But beyond that, above that, he was a friend, no matter how precarious the friendship, and he was terribly loved, no matter how impossible the situation. Chris refused to remember what it felt like to believe him lost. It was better to forget, just wipe that off the table and set things back up the way they were. They way they had been. He could just forget the night before, and sobbing his eyes out as he stumbled drunk and despairing, and promising himself that if he could have just one more day, one more chance, he'd give anything and everything just to hold him. Because that's fucking pathetic.
He would forget, and he could go back to how it was before. As if in the history of the world that has ever worked for anyone.
The sun was just dipping toward the horizon when Chris finally emerged from the meeting with Travis. He rounded up his team from where they were wandering idly about, and piled them back in their cars for the drive Denver Memorial. And they arrived just in time. There seemed to be a crisis in the ICU, and none of them had to speculate as to the cause.
"Damnit, Tanner, you ain't got the sense God gave a radish! You cannot just get up and wander about!" If Chris hadn't said it first, Nathan was going to.
"I could if'n I had my pants," Vin shot back, as irritably as a man can shoot back while strapped face down to a bed with his naked rear end on display for the world. They were preparing him for surgery and a move to the burn unit. "They want to take skin from, well, from places on my body that likes its skin where it is, and try to grow it on other parts of me. And it hurts!"
That admission alone was a terrible testament to just how badly it hurt. Vin who once walked on a broken leg for six weeks before complaining of a slight ache. Vin who had once been shot in the arm and had returned home to remove the bullet himself with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.
God help them, everyone in the room snickered.
"Mr. Tanner, you have to have the surgery or you'll have horrible, deep scars for the rest of your life. And the wounds as they are can get infected so easily... you have no idea how easily. And you still have a concussion." The nurse this time, much more kindly than she should be feeling. She was a regular, or rather, they were regulars and she knew all of them. Had dated Buck. Although that wasn't news.
"I'll be fine, Goddamnit!"
Buck leered and stuck out his hand, accepting a ten dollar bill from JD who handed it over without a fuss.
"What'd you bet," Josiah whispered loud enough for all to hear.
"I bet on the inside of five minutes. JD thought it'd take longer than that for him to stop bitching and moaning."
"I'm still here, ya bastards." And he was in the middle of a world-class pout. "And my ass is wavin' out in the breeze. And I have this damn tube stuck up my..."
"It's called a catheter, Mr. Tanner." The nurse actually blushed as she said it, and mouthed to the rest of them that she thought his rear end was really very cute.
The resulting giggles and titters brought forth a heated and colorful stream of invectives from the bed. And then they remembered why they had come, the mood shifting, and Chris asking the nurse to please leave them alone for a moment. Cheeky devil that he was, Buck took three tissues from a box and placed them over Vin's exposed posterior, being careful not to actually touch him, muttering that he'd have to wash with steel wool and borax if he did.
"Go to hell, Buck. What's wrong, Chris?" Vin could feel the mood swing when it hit, and wished he could look at them as they talked. Usually one look from Chris said more than a whole lot of talk. "Would some of ya come over to this side where I can see ya?"
Chris and Buck went around, exchanged a brief glance, and Chris figured he'd go first. "Ezra isn't dead, Vin. He made it out."
Vin smiled wide; he just knew it. Slipperier than a greased hog, that was Ezra. "How'd he get out?"
"We don't know for sure, but we saw him in his hotel suite. And, well..." Chris looked to Buck for help.
"I don't know that he knows us, Junior. He pulled his gun on us and wouldn't come with us. He didn't look like he had any clue who we were."
"Do ya know why he returned to the hotel?"
"Do ya know where he is now?"
"Maybe he went home."
That was such an absurdly simple thing. After all, why wouldn't he go home?
"Wouldn't he figure we'd look there?" Nathan had thought of it, but dismissed it as being too blatantly obvious.
"No." That syllable was drawn out and blithely surprised, Josiah putting his hand to his forehead, clearly wondering why he hadn't come up with it first.
"No, he'd figure we'd figure that," JD followed, feeling uncommonly obtuse, "Like Buck said, disappear in plain sight." Like, well, duh.
"And I'm the one with the concussion. Jeez," Vin could be heard muttering from the bed.
"We'll be back to check up on you. Be. Good," Chris admonished, "Or I will make Ezra determine your punishment." And that was a threat indeed.
They rushed back to their cars and sped off across town, all the while, some lingering feeling nagged and pressed and bothered both Josiah and Chris.
Needless to say, it wasn't the same feeling.
Mr. Trainer had been very surprised to hear from him. They talked like old friends, or rather old criminals, and Ethan informed him that he had something that belonged to him. They would meet in an hour, and where was he now, he was at home, and no it would be safer to meet somewhere else, yes just in case his home was being watched.
Ethan was enjoying his second cup of cappuccino, allowing himself a moment of relaxation. He had changed clothes again, totally astonished by the number of closets he had full of nothing but clothes, and had slathered his chapped face with a very thick Vitamin E and Aloe balm. Chapped - there was a euphemism if he'd ever heard one. No matter; his skin would heal, and his memories would return, and he would be alright. Now if he could just make himself truly believe that, maybe his head wouldn't hurt so much. Although he had, with great elation, discovered a bottle of prescription pain relievers in his bathroom cabinet, and they should kick in soon.
If he had taken the time to really look around, perhaps more of his memory would have returned. If he had checked his voicemail, maybe he would have remembered the real reason he felt so compelled to return home. If he hadn't been standing in his living room, looking out those long plate glass windows, he would have been able to escape out the back door.
The scratch of the key in his lock didn't give him enough warning. He nearly dropped his cup.
Too many thoughts leapt out at him - the briefcase still in the kitchen, the smell of food that would give him away, how many bullets he had in his gun, the fact that there wasn't any good place to hide, the fact that he didn't have time to think. He dropped to the floor, placed his cup gently on the dark wood, and slunk behind the leather sofa. That would have to do. The people who opened his door, and there had to be several by the scuffle of feet, didn't enter straight away. There was a pause, and then his worst fears were confirmed as Chris Larabee spoke.
"He's been here. Recently."
"Smells like coffee and eggs." Other than Vin, JD could put away more food than any of them, more than was conceivable for someone his size. "Should we draw our guns?"
Chris didn't want to say yes, but he knew they had to. So he nodded and indicated that they should say anything else; they had probably already given themselves away. Using hand signals, he indicated that Josiah and Nathan should go upstairs. He and JD would take the rooms on the main floor off to the left, the study and den and whatever else was back there. Buck would keep an eye on the front door, after making sure the kitchen and pantry were clear. They nodded their agreement and split up, moving carefully, guns drawn but not cocked.
For all of them but Chris and Josiah, this was the first time they had ever been to Ezra's. Burnished wood and carved furniture, everything polished within an inch of its life, not a book or glass or carpet fiber out of place. Triple-glazed windows forbade any peripheral noises from infiltrating the town house. Ezra's inner sanctum. A Chippendale hutch with fine china. A fireplace with no ashes, and an fanciful antique clock on the mantle that still kept its time, inner pendulum ticking steadily. Chris knew that on the half hour little people came out and danced. It was Bavarian. A gift from Maude.
Everything seemed so perfectly neat and quiet and pristine, and incredibly lonely. JD was afraid he would break something if he breathed too hard. It was too quiet. Josiah and Nathan appeared at the top of the stairs giving the 'all clear' signal; it was the same from Buck, and he indicated he would go outside to see if the car engine was warm. Bedrooms not slept in, no papers disturbed in the study, no towels used in the bathrooms, the only things that had been used recently were the dishes in the kitchen. Chris was beginning to think they had arrived only moments too late, and directed JD to return to the living room, to watch the front while Buck went out to check on the Jaguar.
The silence was starting to get to him; JD felt creepy. Creeped out. And then something caught his eye. A darker smudge of a vague reflection in one of the tall windows. Why hadn't any of them thought to check behind the sofa? That was sheer stupidity. On cat feet JD moved that way, hands shaking as he held his gun, and he stopped, head askew, when he saw the little cup of cappuccino sitting so out of place on the floor.
The clock over the mantle chimed the hour, a sprightly tune ringing suddenly loud in the silence, and JD whipped around, taking aim, then heaving a very foolish-feeling sigh at his own nervousness. And then he felt the cold nose of a gun pressed hard behind his right ear and the hiss of a command to drop his weapon. Talk about feeling foolish. JD didn't say a word, just did as he was told, tossing his gun onto the sofa.
Ethan maneuvered around the couch and wrapped his left arm around the young man's shoulder, keeping that arm secured to his body, while levering his own hand beneath the chin in front of him and tilting the head so that it partially obscured his own. He was taller than his captive, but not so much so that any of the ATF agents would try to shoot him. He had a human shield. The front door re-opened at the same time as Larabee rounded the corner from the study, and everyone in the room froze, unblinking and tense.
"Remove yourself from my door or I will kill him." Ethan walked clumsily with his captive until he was certain his back was to a wall, the wall between the kitchen and living room. JD moved with him, knowing this was Ezra and pretty darn certain that Ezra would shoot him. His fearful eyes pleased for help from either Buck or Chris, but they didn't look like they had the first idea what to do in this situation.
Chris held out his left hand, keeping Nathan and Josiah from descending the stairs as he heard them on the steps. "Ezra, you do not want to do this. That's JD you've got there, and you do not want to hurt him. You know him and he knows you."
"Nevertheless," Ethan sneered, and Chris flinched when he said it. "I will hurt him if you do not allow me to leave."
"JD, you doin' ok there, pard?" Buck's first concern, as always, was JD, but he kept his gun trained on Ezra. As much of Ezra as he could see. God help him if he actually had to pull the trigger. He didn't want to shoot either of them.
JD licked his lips and responded in a voice smaller than he knew he could produce. "Yeah. I'm okay." Not fine, everyone noted, which may or may not be a good thing.
"But he will cease to be so if you and your friends do not put down your weapons." Ethan increased the pressure on JD's neck with his gun, making JD let out a small yelp.
"Buck, move away from the door."
"I can't let him leave, Chris."
"Do you really want him to shoot JD? Cause he will." It was the worst sort of epiphany to realize that. He could tell beyond a doubt that Ezra was going to shoot any or all of them in order to escape. In a hostage situation, you have to protect the hostage. JD was the hostage, Ezra was now the hostage taker. This sucked. "Everybody put down your guns. Buck, get your ass away from the door." Chris slowly, inch by inch, bent down and placed his gun on the floor, all the while keeping his eyes locked with Ezra's. "Goddamnit, Buck, do as I fucking tell you!"
Buck appeared to struggle with the command for a moment longer, and then capitulated, walking steadily away from the open door and tossing his gun to the floor with a loud crack. He stood by the fireplace huffing and seething, looking far angrier than JD had ever seen him.
"Very wise decision," Ethan scoffed, a cold smile hanging on his lips. "Now, if you will excuse us." He kept a firm hold on JD and edged along the wall, past the doorway to the kitchen, around the side table in the entryway, stopping only as Chris had the nerve to address him again.
"Ezra, you don't want to do this. We're your friends. You would never hurt JD." Please let that be true. Please don't make me shoot you.
The response was low and controlled, but powerfully intense for all its calm. "My name is not Ezra, as you well know, and you have no idea what I am capable of."
Chris and Buck could only watch in helpless confusion as their friend and teammate drug another friend and teammate backwards out of the house. The instant the two were out of sight, they picked up their guns, and Chris told Josiah and Nathan to go out the back door and circle around front. "Shoot him if you have to, but we can't let him take JD." They didn't want to follow that order, but knew they had to, and jogged to the kitchen as Chris and Buck went to the front door.
Ethan told JD to keep both his hands on the hood of the car, head down, don't move an inch, while he crouched on the other side of him and opened the driver's side door. It was a good thing, really, that he already had the car door open and that both Chris and Buck had their weapons ready. A long black sedan pulled up to the curb, two windows were rolled down, and a hail of bullets ricocheted off the side of the Jaguar.
Chris and Buck flattened themselves on the inside of the town house and took turns returning fire on the street. Ethan pulled JD down behind the open car door and returned a little fire of his own. Josiah and Nathan ran to the front and threw themselves to the grass, taking aim at the black sedan.
"Who the hell is that!" Chris let his spent clip clatter to the floor and loaded a new one.
"How the hell should I know!" Buck popped his head around the door frame and took aim at the tires of the foreign car, one of them hissing loudly as it deflated. "That ought to start something."
And it did. The opposite doors of the sedan opened and slammed shut, new gunfire coming at the house from across the hood and trunk of the vehicle. Ethan used the confusion and distraction to pull JD around and shove him head first across the front seat of the Jag. It was a strange action, given that a moment ago he had been so willing to blow the kid's head off and was now trying to save his life, but at that moment he didn't stop to consider it. He slid in behind JD, pushed him out of his way and started his engine. The car was in reverse before he had his door closed, and he kept his head down as he backed partially out of his own driveway and then bowled over the hedges in lawn next door as he made his escape.
Two of the gunmen from the sedan stupidly came out of hiding in an effort to shoot the Jag, and died where they stood. The third died a moment later when he made a run for cover across the street.
"Josiah, Nathan, you two OK?"
"Yeah, Chris. You? Buck?"
"We're fine, Nate."
"Buck, put out an APB on his Jag. Let them know he's armed and dangerous and has a hostage. Shit! What in the hell happened here? Goddamnit!" Chris pulled out his own phone and called in the shooting, knowing that this just meant more time they would have to waste with the local PD while two of his agents were out there, and he wasn't sure which one was in the greatest danger.
Josiah and Nathan moved their vehicles to block off the street as they were forced to wait for the DPD. Chris ended up sitting on the front lawn holding his head in his hands, while Buck was pacing the drive, every now and then swearing aloud and throwing angry questions at the air. This was a scenario none of them could have anticipated and had no real idea how to handle.
Nathan hung back, watching the street, watching Buck, watching Josiah approach Chris and take a seat on the grass facing him. "He'd never hurt him, Chris."
"Wouldn't he? You didn't see him in there. Fuck!" That word seemed to make up for a lot of things Chris would like to say in any given situation. He used it in every part of speech, Ezra once noted with disdain, adding that it would do him credit to learn at least a few more creative, if not less inappropriate, ways to curse. "Not only does he not appear to know us, he doesn't know who he is. You heard him."
Like great cogs slipping into place, the feeling that had been nagging Josiah for the past six hours finally clicked. Finally made sense. "Oh my God." A very rare blasphemy from Josiah got Chris' full attention. "No, I'm afraid he does know who he is. All this time we've been asking why he would return to his hotel room, and what Trainer could be looking for... except that it's not Ezra's hotel room, Chris. It's Ethan Saunder's."
The sun was almost gone, for which Ethan was extremely thankful. There was only so much that pain medication could do, and even now, when daylight had all but given up and night had all but taken over, he was wearing the sunglasses that had dropped into his lap when he lowered his sun visor. After trampling his neighbors bushes and scraping the bottom of the sportscar on the curb, both of which somehow irritated him more than the myriad bullet holes peppering the driver's side, he had driven his car just long enough and far enough to ditch it. And JD wouldn't shut up. He talked like to never draw breath. Where had he heard someone say that? Well, whoever the someone was, he was right. JD wouldn't quit talking until Ethan was forced to backhand him into silence.
Hot-wiring their current vehicle had come all to easily for his young companion, and Ethan had been certain that the kid had known how. Kid. That wasn't exactly an accurate or fair description; he simply looked 16, with a wide-eyed, candid innocence about him, and terrible habit of biting his fingernails. He seemed calmer now, less fidgety and agitated, and he kept staring at Ethan as though he expected him to speak.
For his part, Ethan was running through a million contingencies, trying to calculate the odds of retrieving his briefcase, returning the evidence to his employer, and handing over his hostage without getting himself, or both of them, killed. If he was being honest with himself, and considering he wasn't really sure who he was, it seemed like the best option, he did not want circumstances to deteriorate to the point that he would be forced to return John to Mr. Larabee in a body bag. John.
"Your name is John Dunne, is it not?"
"Yeah, Ez. We've worked together for..." A flash of chilling green eyes warned him not to finish that sentence, and JD licked his lips, returning his attention to memorizing the route they were taking and gauging their possible destination. They had been driving north for ten minutes, after a long period of circling with no apparent reason or aim. Attempting to convince Ezra that he couldn't hotwire a car had failed. Ezra, Ethan, Ezra had been absolutely certain he could do it, whereas JD was not absolutely certain he wouldn't get himself shot. He had never truly appreciated what Ezra did for a living, nor how damn well he did it, until he was faced with the realization that his teammate wasn't just acting. He was totally fucking lost in the part.
So this was how Ezra always got in and got out and got the bad guys. By being someone else so flawlessly that even he started to believe it.
And how long had Ezra been an undercover agent? He was with the FBI for six years before he joined the team, which meant that he had spent the better part of the past 8 years pretending to be other people. Being other people for very long stretches of time. He was indisputably the best deep cover agent in the field, had been when he was with the FBI, and now it made sense, all the crap Larabee went through, all the time it had taken him to pry Ezra away from the feds. Deep undercover was his thing, and JD had always assumed that meant something thrilling and very Mission Impossible. He always wanted to be a spy. Well, before now.
Now he was just wanting to get out alive and get back to his job of being the kid computer genius who gets to set up the surveillance and never gets to be on the floor when the bust goes down. Yeah. Never again would he complain to Chris about being left out. Out sounded wonderful.
They were slowing down, pulling over behind an abandoned building on a bad side of downtown. When they stopped, Ethan put the car in park but didn't kill the engine. If JD had honestly wanted to escape, this would have been the time, but something in him made him stay. This was Ezra Standish next to him, no matter what else the delusional man seemed to believe, and JD knew he couldn't abandon him. He needed help, or at the very lest, someone to keep an eye on him, and damnit why couldn't it be Chris or Buck in this car!
"Give me your cell phone, please, Mr. Dunne"
"I don't have it on me." He tried to sound as convincing as possible.
That lie brought forth a small snort of laughter from Ethan and a very frightening glare. Why hadn't he ever used that look on Chris? Chris would be impressed; JD definitely was, and reached into his back pocket to pull out the incredibly slim and lightweight cellular phone he had been so excited to buy.
"Thank you. And if your hand so much as moves in the direction of the door handle, I will shoot it off."
Christ, could Ezra actually hear him thinking? "I'm not gonna try and escape, Ez. You need our help."
"Try to escape, Mr. Dunne, and it is an amusing statement given that you are the one in most dire need of assistance."
JD wanted to smile when Ezra corrected his grammar. That was the man he knew. He was just sitting there fingering the cell phone and working something over in his mind, and JD didn't know if he should venture to speak or if he should just sit and watch. Watch and listen. That's what he normally did; that was his job. Only now he was in the thick of things, without his gun, and maybe a few questions wouldn't hurt.
"Who're you gonna call?" Oh, if Buck had been there, JD could have counted on him to shout Ghostbusters at the top of his lungs. As it was, he had to restrain himself from saying it, and waited in grim silence for Ezra to respond.
"Chris is speed dial two. He's your boss too, Ez."
"I really don't know why any of you persist in perpetuating that falsehood. I should hardly think I would be in the employ of the man who sent me to prison. Incidentally," and Ethan's lips twitched a miniscule grin, "I am also going to telephone my boss."
JD had once tried to explain the thrill of roller-coasters to Ezra, who would never set foot in one, thank you very much. That sensation when you're at the top of a very steep drop, at the front of the carriage, looking down and over and knowing that you're stomach is about to end up somewhere around your esophagus. The thrill of falling. And that's what JD was feeling now, the moment before the precipitous drop - only without the roller coaster. Ezra was going to get them all killed.
The little phone beeped rapidly, Ethan holding it with his right hand against his ear while his left continued to rest his service revolver across his stomach, aiming the barrel at JD. "Greetings, Mr. Larabee, and whoever else is listening. You have something that belongs to me, and I have someone who belongs to you. What I desire at this juncture should be manifestly clear." He nodded, and glanced over at JD. "Yes, he is right beside me. Would you like to speak with him?"
God, Ezra sounded so congenial, so kind, that honeyed Southern accent so genteel. And he handed the phone across to JD with a little bow of his head.
"Hi Chris. Yeah, I'm fine." He didn't mention the split lip or the bruise he was going to have. "You remember the Vasquez case when we..." The phone was ripped from his hand and he flinched, his heart doing small flip-flops.
"Now that you have ascertained his well-being, might I suggest we meet somewhere to make the exchange? Oh please spare me your impotent threats, Mr. Larabee. I am immune."
And wasn't that the truth. He always had been immune, to Chris' threats, his glares, his tirades, and his Caesar-esque demeanor. Without exception, everyone was in bend-over-backwards awe of Chris Larabee - except Ezra.
"And spare yourself the trouble of trying to trace this call. We are currently at the locale where I wish to meet you. So feel free to drop by in, say, half an hour? Green and Burlington, the defunct packing company on the corner." A pause and a small chuckle. "It has been such a pleasure speaking to you again." Ethan closed the call and immediately dialed another number. "Tell Mr. Trainer that if he wishes to gain possession of that information which his associates failed to take from me this afternoon, then he should meet me in the building on the corner of Green and Burlington in one hour. One hour. And let him know that I will also have a gift for him."
Green and Burlington. That was two blocks away, and JD wondered if he was the gift, or if Chris was, and why did it have to be another warehouse? And why did Ezra pick this one? And why did he think he worked for Trainer? JD prayed that the tiny hint he had dropped about the Vasquez case would make sense to one of them, would let them know that this was going to be a set up. Would let them know to bring backup. That was too much to hope for, though, to be honest. Chris had the tendency to ignore that piece of protocol - okay, lots of pieces of protocol - when one of his teammates was in danger.
Ethan shut off the engine and pocketed the cell phone, then turned to JD and said, politely, "Shall we?"
At this point, JD would have gone with him, gun or not, because he knew he was the only one of his team who had any idea what was about to happen. Well, besides Ezra of course. But that didn't really count, did it.
"You realize you're gonna get yourself killed." JD kept his hands out at his sides as he walked, the gun jammed into his ribs reminding him to do so, and tried to keep the hysteria out of his voice. "Trainer is not going to let you live. You know too much about him. And Chris will shoot you if he has to."
"I have no doubt that Mr. Larabee would seize upon that occasion should it present itself. However, he will have too much else to think about when the time comes. You, for one. I do apologize, Mr. Dunne, but between the two of us, I fear you are the one who will not emerge from this unscathed."
"Ezra, you're not thinking straight."
"Stop calling me Ezra." He punctuated the order with a shove as they arrived at the back doors of the building on Green. JD ducked as Ezra shot the chains on the door and pulled them free of the handles, letting them clank to the cement. "After you."
Another shove and JD was through the doors. It was only then he noted that Ezra took off his sunglasses. It was pitch black inside, and JD stumbled as he was pushed across the floor and up a flight of stairs, and another, soon to find himself seated in a chair in a corner office on the top floor. It had windows overlooking both Green and Burlington, and suddenly he knew why this building had been chosen. The buildings in this part of the city pre-dated the modern ones, and were built extremely close together. The team had almost lost a suspect once because he had been able to hop from one rooftop to the next, and had ended up several blocks away before he jumped off a fire escape and broke his ankle. From here, JD realized Ezra could leave his team to shoot it out with Trainer - and just vanish.
Ethan was rifling through the desk in the room and soon produced a roll of duct tape, with which he began to bind JD to his chair.
"Ezra, you have to know that this isn't right. You have to know that you'd never do this to Chris. You would never make him choose between my life and yours."
"For the last time, stop calling me Ezra."
"Then what should I call you? You've been Edward and Eric and Emeril and Enrique and... oh my God. Oh my God, you think you're Ethan. You think you're Ethan Saunders."
"Funny I should think that." He was finished with the tape and threw it carelessly to the floor. Then he checked the ammunition in both his guns, and placed the smaller one in the back of his pants. His knife he slid past his right shirt cuff and tested it, to make sure it would slip out if he jerked his arm just right.
"God, Ez, you... shit... you aren't Ethan Saunders, that's just your cover. You got hurt in that explosion in the warehouse and you aren't thinking right. You have to remember. Your name is Ezra Standish. Your middle initial is P, but you won't ever tell anyone what that stands for. You were born in Atlanta, Georgia, September 29, 1971 and you started working for the ATF a year and a half ago. Your mother's name is Maude and you hardly ever talk to her. You and Chris fight like a married couple, and you always correct everyone's grammar, and you..."
His words were falling on deaf ears. Ethan was making himself busy about the room, checking the door that led to the roof, pulling the blinds on the windows, wishing for the love of God that his head didn't hurt so damn much. It was making him dizzy again, and nausea seemed to be making a permanent home in his gut, and that stupid kid wouldn't stop chattering. He was going on and on and on, and Ethan finally had enough. He walked across the length of the room, pulled out his gun, and silenced the young man rather effectively, he thought.
Peace at last. Now all he had to do was wait.
"Wait, wait, wait, what are you telling us?" Chris was pacing the floor in an apparent effort to wear a permanent groove in the wood. One hand on his hip, one raking through his long-past-disheveled and hair, he was trying to keep his patience with Josiah and his slow-to arrive, circuitous way of making a point. Buck and Nathan had dealt with the police all they could, ultimately telling one of the Lieutenants that anything further would be coming to him by way of his Captain, by way of the Assistant Director of the ATF. Unsatisfied and irritated, the man had left them alone, and they had hustled inside.
"He said his name wasn't Ezra and we all knew it. It isn't that he doesn't know us, Chris, it's that he thinks we're on the wrong side. Who was he last?"
"Speak English, damnit!" Chris was in no mood for Josiah's interminable mind games.
"You know as well as I do that when Ezra is under he won't even let us call him by his real name, that is, if we ever speak to him, which is rare. He never leaves character. You remember the last time he went under - when he got back he had to take three weeks off just to get right in his head. That case was hell."
Yeah, Chris remembered. And it was hell. Ezra had been under way too deep for way too long, had gotten too close to one of his marks, and was personally devastated when the young man got killed. Ezra had almost been unfit to testify at the trial, and afterwards, he had sequestered himself in his house and started taking a prescription for migraines. But Josiah was still talking, so Chris had to tune back in.
"Ezra uses the Regency when he goes undercover and needs a room. I'm saying that when he woke up, that morning, he didn't go back to his hotel room. He went to Ethan Saunder's." This was third time he had repeated that, and he didn't know how to make it any more clear for any of them.
"So you're saying that he thinks he's his own cover? Is that even possible?" What Nathan knew of mental illness only extended as far as the general, daily insanity that ran rampant among his teammates.
"Yes, and if there's one person who's taught us that anything's possible, it's Ezra. Besides, no one knows how bad he's really hurt."
"So you're saying he's schizophrenic or something?"
"No. I'm saying that he's in horrible shock, has amnesia, whatever, and that his mind reverted to the last thing it knew. I'm saying he believes his name is Ethan Saunders. Even his driver's license, all his credit cards, all his papers say so. Come to think of it, where is his briefcase? Look around for the briefcase."
Josiah rose from the sofa, and Chris held his hands up in an exaggerated shrug. Josiah was making sense, a twisted, bizarre sense, but this entire fucking thing was both twisted and bizarre, so why not play along for a while.
"So, how did Trainer's men know he was here? Do you think he called them?" Buck stopped as he said it, and did an about-face, walking to the phone in the living room. "Do any of you recognize this number? It's the last one he called."
Chris joined him and read the little LED display. "Yeah, it's Trainer's business number, his front. The metalworks place north of town. Shit."
"Yeah. Shit is right."
"Why would he call Trainer?"
"Guys, in here," Josiah called from the kitchen. He had found the briefcase, right where Ezra had left it. "Brothers, the last communiqué we had from Ez indicated that he had found what he was looking for." He opened the case and dumped its contents on the kitchen counter, spreading them about with his large hands. "And he had said he was looking for a key. Do you see a key in here?" He began feeling about in the inner pockets.
"Why, what difference does this make? We need to be out there looking for them..."
"Chris." The patient, serious tone of that syllable clearly said Listen to me while I'm talking to you. "Chris, if this key means as much to Trainer as Ezra thought it did, and if I were Ethan Saunders, then I would be wanting to return the key to my boss. Remember Ethan's story, Chris. Think about it." Josiah stopped searching through the contents of the case and placed both his hands on the counter, staring down at them but not really seeing them. "He is a smuggler, a money launderer, who just got out of prison, a prison where you sent him. And he has been working with Trainer for the past, what, nearly two months, working on rerouting his financials, working on streamlining his business. The buy in the warehouse was supposed to be huge, the last one, because Ezra had found the last piece of evidence he needed to close the case." His clear blue eyes turned on Chris then, a look of dread descending on his pale features. "He called Trainer to meet with him, to give him back the evidence."
"My head is starting to hurt." Buck sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So... he thinks he's Ethan and he called his boss to give him back the evidence that he, Ezra, stole from him? That's just fucked up. I need a drink."
Chris jumped when his cell phone rang. He pulled it out and stared at it a moment, wrinkling his forehead. "It's JD. Everybody shut up." He cleared his throat and took a deep breath, before answering, "Larabee." Everyone in the room listened to the heavy silence that hung, hardly daring to breathe. "Is JD with you? Yes, let me talk to him. How're you doin' JD?" Chris' shoulders dropped in obvious relief, then straightened again, bristling with tension. "Listen to me. If you hurt him, they will never be able to identify your body. Do you understand me?" His free hand clenched the side of the kitchen counter until his knuckles went white. "Yeah I know it. Half an hour. Fuck!" He lifted the phone from his ear and stared at it, then let go of the counter to drag the hand across his mouth. "JD's fine, sounds scared, and tried to tell me something about the Vasquez case before Ezra, Ethan, whoever, took the phone back. He wants his briefcase. He wants to meet us at a place on the corner of Green and Burlington to exchange the case for JD."
"Can we trust him?"
"Shit, Buck. On any other day I'd say yes. With my life I trust him. But this..." Chris shook his head and dug into one eye with the heel of his hand. "Nathan, I need you to call Travis for me. I know he's not at the office, but try his cell and his home number. Fill him in. Buck, I need you to drive like a bat out of hell back to the office and get as much hardware as you can, and then meet us at the site - with your vest on. We'll put ours on when you bring them. Josiah put everything back in the briefcase and hang onto it."
Buck and Nathan left the room, Buck at a jog, and Nathan at a nervous shuffle into the other room to make his phone call. Chris collapsed into the chair Buck had just vacated, still holding his phone, still squinting against the headache that appeared to be plaguing all of them. Josiah fished in a cabinet for some aspirin and poured a glass of water, placing both on the table and taking a seat beside his boss. No, his friend. It was strange, as much of a hard-ass as Larabee was and tried to be, Josiah knew he thought of all of them as family. They were the only family he had, the only family any of them had, really. That was, perhaps, what made them work so well together, so closely, so smoothly, and what made Chris lose his mind when any of them were in danger.
"Chris, I need you to tell me something. If we have a chance of getting both of them back, alive, I need you to be honest with me." Pain-filled hazel eyes met his, and he smiled gently, pushing the little white aspirins closer with a nod that Chris should take them. "Why did Ezra kiss you?"
Chris swallowed the pills, and half the glass of water, before responding. His voice was weary, defeated, even more so than the words he spoke. "I don't know Josiah. Cause he wanted to distract me? Cause he wanted to throw me off balance?"
Josiah hummed a moment and pursed his thick lips. "Why would he think that would throw you off balance?" Chris balked at that, looking like the answer should be pretty self-explanatory. It would throw anyone off balance. "What I meant," Josiah continued quietly, "What I mean is - why do you think Ezra would kiss you? Why would he try to, why would he assume you would accept such a gesture, and why would he know it would distract you long enough for him to escape?"
"But you said yourself that he doesn't know he is Ezra."
"Nice try, Christopher, but I need you to be honest with me." Josiah knew a misdirection when he heard one.
Chris slumped back in his chair and let out a long hiss of air. "Because, hell I don't even know where to start. And don't tell me to start at the beginning cause I don't even know where that is." He rubbed his eyes again with the heels of his hands and huffed out another sigh. "I've been here once before, to this house. We, Ez and I, we... needed to clear the air between us. I had been royally pissed at him that week, for what I can't remember, but... Christ, Josiah do you really need to know this?"
"Yes, Chris I do. Because I believe that if anyone can reach him, you can. And I think you know why. And I'm just wanting to be certain that you're willing to try to talk him down before you feel you are out of options."
"I don't want to kill him, damnit. I don't want that to have to be an option."
"Then you need to put yourself in a position where that isn't an option. You need to make him remember you."
"And just how in the hell do you propose I do that!"
"By not getting off track by arguing with me, and by finishing what you were about to explain a moment ago." Josiah was wearing that horrible, patient, knowing expression, with his hands folded in his lap, like a father ringing a confession out of a small child. And Chris wanted to hit him. "You were angry with him that week. And?"
"And it was late. Everyone else had gone home and I had him come into my office so I could yell at him about whatever it was, and he just sat there all neat with his legs crossed and that look on his face like he knows something I don't and he's not going to tell me. And I lit into him, and I was pacing behind my desk, and he had the nerve to yawn at me. I was so pissed I yanked him up out of his chair and shoved him against my office door." Chris paused and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. His words came slow and difficult, churned out like thick cement. "And he didn't fight or even look shocked, like he just knew I wasn't actually going to hit him. He just stood there with my hands on his lapels, and his eyes smiled. You know how when he smiles and half the time it don't reach his eyes? Well, this time his eyes were all smiling, not laughing, just grinning to beat all. And all I wanted was to wipe that conceited grin off his face, and I think he was the only person in the room who wasn't surprised when I kissed him. I shoved him up against my door and kissed him hard enough our teeth knocked. Only then it turned into... more than that. We didn't have sex in the office, if that's what you're thinking. I mean... it turned into two people who really wanted to kiss."
"And you think this is what made him return the gesture in the hotel? Even though he doesn't remember who you are - even though he probably doesn't remember that evening in your office?" Chris's head came up wearily, turning to look Josiah in the face. No, he was thinking, I guess that's not it, is it. "Chris, I think the way he knows you runs deeper than his mind. Yeah, he probably kissed you to distract you, but I think he knew you'd let him. I think he knew you wanted him to." Chris looked like he wanted to deny it, and Josiah just shook his head. "Christopher, I've watched you two for a long time now, and I can't decide which of you stubborn fools tries the hardest to deny the fact that you're seriously in love with each other. I've never said anything because it isn't my place. Neither is it my place to pass judgment."
"Yeah," Chris interrupted brusquely, "you're one of those 'judge not let ye be judged' people."
"No, I'm more of a 'God loves the sinner but hates the sin' man, myself. And of all the truly atrocious sins mankind commits on a daily basis, I know with certainty that falling in love isn't the worst of them."
"It's not like I planned on it, I was married for chrissakes, it just... I can't believe I'm discussing this with you." He started to get up to leave, but Josiah's hand on his arm stopped him.
"Chris, it always just happens. There's no way to control it, direct it, or plan it, and as much as those three factors must drive you absolutely insane, you need to find some other way of dealing with it than taking it out on him, or us. You can't talk yourself out of it, or talk him into it. But of all of us, you are the one person who can possibly reach Ezra, and you're going to have to do it on some other level than in here." Josiah tapped an index finger against his temple. "You're going to have to reach him here." He stood, then, and laid the palm of his hand against Chris' chest, holding Chris' gaze with steady compassion.
"How?" The question was pitiful, as was the look in the eyes that accompanied it.
Josiah squeezed Chris' shoulder and smiled. "You'll have to figure that out when you get there."
Nathan interrupted them, telling them that they really should leave, that Travis had been informed and he wanted them to wait for backup. There was no time for backup, Chris informed them; they only had eighteen minutes to get downtown.
Seventeen minutes later, Chris' truck screeched to a halt right behind Buck's, and Josiah and Chris jumped out, not bothering to close the doors. Nathan was right behind them, and there were few words spoken as they strapped on Kevlar, put in their ear pieces, and checked their ammunition with a reflexive, mechanical speed and precision. Buck covered them as they jogged across the street to the warehouse, and they covered him as he joined them. At the back door, Chris and Buck paused on either side of it and shared a look that conveyed the regrettable decision that they would shoot to kill, if they had to, and the mutual understanding that they would both hate themselves for it. If they had to.
And they went in.
As soon as they stepped inside, Chris' phone vibrated in his pocket. He answered it without speaking, just waited for Ezra to talk. Then he put it back in his pants and gestured for the others to follow him upstairs. And still in the back of his mind was the almost forgotten hint JD had been trying to drop him about a case they had closed almost a year ago. He had to wipe nervous sweat out of his eyes more than once by the time they reached the top floor, and by that time, he had turned off his inner dialogue, not paying attention to anything except his surroundings.
"That's far enough, Mr. Larabee."
Chris held up his hand and brought them all to a halt, then pointed to the back office, in the corner. The one with the door slightly ajar.
"Simply leave the briefcase there on the desk to your right, return to your vehicles, and I will send the boy down to you."
"I need to speak to him. You know how this works. I need proof of life and then we can talk." Chris gestured for Buck and Nathan to flank the office door, close enough to shoot if they had to, but keeping down behind the desks until absolutely necessary. "Let me talk to JD."
In the office, Ezra was watching Team 7 distribute themselves around the outer office floor. He had taken the time to remove a mirror from the bathroom across the hall, and had positioned it in such a way that he could out without letting anyone else see in very clearly. If they really wanted JD dead, the could just continue doing what they were doing. Sighing, he reached over to JD and tapped the side of his face several times, telling him to wake up.
It took some time for JD to come around. When he did, the blood in his left eye made him blink and try to move his arms to wipe away the stinging. Then he remembered where he was, and was roused into stiff and sober consciousness. At least he couldn't feel blood freely flowing, so that gave him an idea how long he had been out since Ezra had clocked him with his gun. And since when was that Ezra's favorite method of prisoner interrogation? He shook his head a few times and said, "What?"
"Your friends need proof of life, Mr. Dunne."
"Buck?" He blinked a few more times and then craned his neck to shout out the office door. "Chris!?"
"Yeah, JD, we're here. How are you holding up, son?
"I'm fine, Chris. You really need to give him the briefcase and get out of here."
"We're not leaving without you, JD. You should know that."
"You have to, Chris. Give him the briefcase and leave." A gun to the back of his head prompted him to shut his mouth.
"Your young friend has more sense than you do, Mr. Larabee, and it does him credit. I will even allow you this. Put the briefcase on the desk and I will send him out to get it. When he hands it to me, I will let him go."
"Listen to him, Chris. Do what he's saying." Please, for once in your life, do what someone else tells you to.
There was an awful lot of silence then, and JD prayed that Chris would just do it, just give up the briefcase and get the hell out of there before Trainer showed up. He was sure to show early, and this situation was sure to end in to a bloodbath.
Chris was standing with Josiah, whispering to him that he was planning to let JD snatch the briefcase and duck behind the desk with Nathan; Josiah was shaking his head and telling him to talk to Ezra, to try to get him to come out.
"Talk to him, Chris. You have to try."
"I don't know what to fucking say. I'm no negotiator!"
"Ethan, this is Josiah Sanchez," the big man called, "the rest of us are going to go downstairs. Chris is gonna stay here, and he's gonna be unarmed. He has something he needs to say to you."
"What the fuck do you think you're doing? Damnit, Josiah..."
"He has nothing which I wish to hear, Mr. Sanchez. He merely need leave the briefcase and this can all be over."
"Give us sixty seconds, Ethan, and we'll be gone," Josiah kept speaking as though Chris wasn't there. Then he motioned to Buck and Nathan to retreat, which they did, wearing quizzical expressions, and looking to Chris to tell them something different. But Chris didn't. He just shut his eyes and pressed the top of the gun against his forehead, resting it against the barrel, while he tried to think of anything he could do or say to bring both his agents out of that office alive. "We'll be right outside that door," Josiah assured him softly with a squeeze to the shoulder. And then Chris was left by himself, crouching next to the accursed briefcase in the dark.
"Ezra, this isn't how it needs to end. We only want to help you."
"Chris! He says if you call him Ezra one more time he's gonna splatter my brains all over the wall! Just leave the fucking briefcase and get the hell out of here. Please!"
"I can't do that JD. I won't leave either of you. I'm gonna walk towards your door. I'm leaving my guns on the desk here." Which he did. It was total lunacy, but he did - leave all three of his guns right on top of the desk and walk unarmed towards the office door.
"Shit, Chris, stop, stop! He's cocked his gun and is counting down from ten. For God's sake! You have to get out of here."
"What does it matter to him how long this takes, JD? If he likes, he can just shoot me and then he won't have to listen to me. But then he'll be charged with murder. As it is, all he's got against him is some fraud charges." I think. Well, and kidnapping and assault and - Fuck! Chris had never been one to ad-lib, had never been one to negotiate. He was more a Lone Ranger hero type with an itchy trigger finger. "If he turns State's evidence, then he doesn't even need to worry about that." Please, Jesus, don't let him shoot JD. Please, God, please.
A harsh whisper behind him made Chris turn his head. "Talk to him," Josiah was saying. "Don't negotiate. Talk. To. Him."
So Chris shut his eyes and took three deep breaths, trying not to think about what he was saying, trying just to let the words come. "Listen to what I have to say, Ezra, and if when I'm done, you still don't believe me, then you can have the briefcase. No arguments. No firefight. You can have what you want and I'll just walk away. Alright?"
"You are only wasting time. Time that you do not have," came the cold reply.
"You know, that's pretty funny coming from a man who talks more than anyone I've ever known. You pride yourself on it, your Princeton education, and your way with words. How you can cut a man to pieces and make it sound like a compliment. But you're not proud of your money. Your almost embarrassed by your own wealth, and you're so private with it. You treat it like a burden or a curse. Maybe that's why you don't ever invite us over, I don't know." God, he was rambling. What did he know? What did he know of the man, what could he possibly say? "You know, Ezra, most people wouldn't believe how generous you are. You're only generous when no one will notice; you're only kind when no one will try to pat you on the back for it. I know for a fact that you gave ten thousand dollars to the homeless shelter Josiah was helping build for St. Jude's. Ten grand. And to you that's pocket change. I bet Maude would be horrified if she knew. Just like she's horrified at the work you do, the fact that you aren't putting all those skills she worked so hard to teach you into some scam, some con that she's running, some effort to cheat other people out of their money. I figure that's why you're so embarrassed by your inherited wealth, knowing where it came from. But you know what else I know? That you're far more than Maude ever tried to create you to be. That you're worth more money than you'll ever have, and more money than she could ever swindle."
"Is there a point to this incredibly touching outpouring of sentimentality, Mr. Larabee?"
"Chris, just leave the damn case and go!"
"JD, shut the hell up. Ezra, there is a point. You're the point. Getting you back is the point. You've lived all over the world, in places I've never been, and you speak five languages, not counting English, and you can do accents so that it sounds like you're from anywhere. You were born in Georgia, in a suburb of Atlanta. You have no brothers or sisters that you know of, and you never met your father. Your mother was on her fourth husband at last count, and that's when you came back to the States for college. You have a degree in psychology, but what nobody else knows is that your minor was in music. You sing, when you think no one can hear you, and you play the piano by ear. I've heard you at the saloon when you think you're alone. I've stood there and listened to you play the most amazing things that you just make up. And you always have a snifter of brandy beside you, and half the time you close your eyes when you play, and you play with such, I don't know, such pathos. It's heart-breaking. And you remember everything you read. You know poetry, especially French, and you know everything Shakespeare ever wrote, and you don't quote it to be a snob, you quote it because it moves you and you know that those people said it better than even you could, as hard as that is to believe."
"Chris, he says he's gonna shoot each of my arms and legs one at a time until he gets what he wants! Just leave!"
But Chris didn't listen, he kept talking, as though his force of will could make this happen.
"Ezra, your reports read like prose, and you always turn them in on time. You help Vin with his because his grammar is like a sixth grader's, only I'm not supposed to know you help him, because he's ashamed of his poor education. And I heard you tell him that it was okay because you had more than enough education to go around. But that's not even the real reason, Ezra. Goddamnit, you have more than enough heart to go around. And you let people break it, like your mother and Johnny Parillo and me, and you never show it. You care so Goddamn much about everything and never ever pretend that you do. Even little things, like, like the way you keep the break room stocked with ant-acids and aspirin because you know I eat both by the handful, and with real cream because you know Josiah likes it in his coffee, and you, you... You always step in and cut Buck down with some terribly witty counter-remark when he's said something that actually upsets JD, only JD won't ever let on. I think he got that from you. You love opera, but you don't like Wagner. You love jazz, but not Miles Davis. You learned how to tango in Argentina for God's sake, and you learned how to ski in the Alps, and you only buy olive oil from Sicily, and you only drink imported beer at room fucking temperature, but you have a secret weakness for greasy hamburgers at this tacky diner on 6th Avenue and the Dulce de Leche cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. God, Ezra, you have to remember. You have to see that I know you. I know you. Only not half as well as I want to."
Chris broke his monologue because his voice was cracking, and he felt more exhausted in this long-winded, one-sided conversation than he ever did running down criminals on foot, or engaging them in man-to-man combat.
"Go on, Chris." Josiah saw him lean over and brace his hands on a desk like he needed the support. "You're doing good, Chris, keep talking."
The startling, explosive report of a gun shot rang out, echoing in the silence, and JD could be heard fighting back a cry of pain. "How many limbs are you willing to sacrifice, Mr. Larabee, before I get what I want?"
"Ezra, Jesus fucking Christ, Ezra, you don't want to do this!" Chris had almost bolted for the office door, had stopped half way, and was standing with his fists clenched tight, arms petrified at his sides.
"Yes, actually, I think that I do."
"No. No, you don't. It's not you. You would never hurt him and you know it. You would die first. I've seen you, I've seen you when you think that one of us is hurt. You try to hide it and you can't. The others think that you don't care," which wasn't precisely true, if he'd known it, "Or think that you don't want to stick around at the hospital or at the scene. But I know it's because you're practically sick you're so worried, and you can't stand to see other people in pain. It's your weakness, and I don't know how you do your job with what you have to see, but you can't stand to see other people hurt. It eats you up. And you just let it eat you up. You never let it out, and you never let anyone in. You'll never forgive yourself when you realize that you've just shot the kid we all look on as a little brother. He loves you. He's not your enemy, and Goddamnit neither am I. You can't do this, you can't do this..."
Chris' lost his voice as tears finally broke free. He didn't know if he could go on; this wasn't working; he hadn't cried in years. He hadn't cried since...
"Ezra, do you remember a year ago last August, the anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths. I didn't come to work and Buck couldn't find me. He was on 'Larabee watch,' although he doesn't know that I know he calls it that. But he couldn't find me, and you did. I don't know how you knew where I was, and at the time I was too drunk to ask, but not drunk enough to forget what you said. I still remember you. You sat down next to me, right on the ground, and you didn't even say a thing about getting dirt your million dollar slacks, and you sat down and didn't say anything for the longest time. And I told you to leave, that I didn't want you there, that you were the very last person I wanted to fucking see. And you know what you said? You told me that you thought Sarah and Adam were the last people I would want to see, the way I was trashing their memories by trashing my own life, and that it was such a shame that I hated them enough not to let them go. That they'd feel a lot better if I could let them enjoy Heaven in stead of bringing them into my own Hell."
Chris laughed, then, stopped talking and let out a genuine laugh even as tears were streaming down his face.
"And then you got up and dusted yourself off, like you were dusting me off too, and you gave me this look, this disgusted, revolted look like you couldn't stand the sight of me, and you left. You just left me sitting there with my misery and I bawled my eyes out. I cried like I didn't even let myself cry when I buried them. And I never thanked you, Ezra Percival Standish, I never thanked you for that day. I went home that night and I aired out Adam's room, and I made his little bed, and put away all his little toys, still out, still sitting there on the floor where he left them collecting dust. And I washed Sarah's handwriting off the chalkboard in the kitchen, and put away her running shoes that were still sitting in the washroom by the back door, and I boxed up her letters and her earrings she had taken off that day, and the stupid book she was reading that had been sitting in the den for four fucking years. She said that she was just gonna run some errands with Adam and be right back. And you know what - you brought her back to me, you stupid, motherless, arrogant, effete, beautiful son of a bitch. You brought them back so I could finally let them go. And I never told you and I never thanked you, and I never got drunk like that again, not until the day I thought you died."
Chris' hectic words were speeding out of his mouth in one huge, run-on sentence. He didn't even stop as he hiccupped, as he cried, didn't even stop to wipe his eyes.
"You died and I never got to tell you goodbye. You died and I never got to tell you anything I wanted to say. And I don't mean all the shit we said in your town house that night, trying like hell to convince each other that we could never work. You and me. Us. We had a conversation there in your living room, and we talked about your antique clock, the clock Maude gave you. We talked about your childhood. We talked about us. You and I... We listed all the things that annoy the crap out of us, about each other. We talked and laughed about how we'd end up shooting each other before a week was out. We agreed it would never work. I can't give you what you need, and you won't let me have what I want. Only..."
"Chris, he says he's gonna shoot me again! Please, you have to leave. You have to get out of here before it's too late and none of you will be able to!"
"No, Ezra, please, listen to me, please." Chris walked until he was nearly standing in the doorway, but was still shouting, looking at the ceiling and desperately calling to the other side of the door. "If this is the only chance I'm gonna have, then you have to let me have it. Let me have this one fucking chance to talk to you! That's all I wanted was a chance, all this time, that's all I've wanted and you told me that it wasn't worth it. You told me that you're not worth it. And that's bullshit, Ezra, that's a lie you tell yourself to keep everyone else at bay. You only care and won't let yourself be cared for, and you even try to hide that! You told me that you would be willing to love me despite all my obvious and monumental flaws, but that you wouldn't risk letting me love you because you'd only let me down. But you never have. Goddamnit, Ezra, you never have. It isn't even possible!" He stopped on another breathless laugh. His tears were drying, and he kept spitting out his words so fast they were almost hard to understand.
"You're so fucking perfect in every single fucking thing you do, and you only see the imperfections. You work harder than anyone I know, and you never give yourself a break. You feel responsible for everything and everyone in every situation and you take risks that drive me out of my mind! You told me you'd always be there for me, just not in the way that I want. And you always are there, for everyone, all the time, only in ways we don't ever notice. You watch our backs, but you never let us watch yours. That's the last thing I said to you, on the phone, I told you to watch your back. And then I hung up the phone before I could tell you I'm sorry, that I'm sorry for being such a die-hard, world-class asshole, before I could tell you that I was worried sick because you had to go undercover again so soon, before I could tell you that until the day you came home safe, I would lie awake at night wondering where you were and what you were doing, and if you were safe, and dying to hear your voice. I never once told you what you really mean to me. And I..."
"Chris, Chris, get Nathan!" Loud crashing sounds were coming from the office, along with JD's hyper-active little voice, shrill and frightened. "Get Nathan in here. Ezra just collapsed!"
Without thinking, Chris burst through the door to find JD hurling himself against a wall in an effort to break his chair apart. Ezra looked awake but not really conscious, slumped in a corner beneath the windows. His gun was still in his hand, but he wasn't holding it; it just lay against his lap.
"Chris, Chris, get Nathan." JD stopped pummeling himself and dropped awkwardly to the ground, pieces of chair still attached to him with duct tape. But Chris didn't need to leave the room. The rest of the team came bolting in, guns drawn, Buck running to JD, Nathan kneeling next to Ezra.
Chris was shivering, standing in the middle of the room shivering as though cold, his tear-streaked face drawn and tight, eyes heavy and shrouded. Josiah laid a hand at the small of his back, and stood next to him, reassuring him with words that Chris didn't really hear. He was trying to calm down, trying to fight back the urge to beat on someone in the room, just because he needed to. He was trying not to start crying again. Too relieved and too frightened and too exhausted, he just stood there and let other people handle things for a minute. Just a minute until he could feel sane again.
He felt drained. He wasn't even angry anymore, at anything. Just tired.
Buck cut all the duct tape off of JD and stood him up, grabbing him in a bear-hug that lifted him off the floor. "God, damn, I thought we'd lose you. I... God..."
JD held on to Buck just as tight, until he was finally let down, and then he tried to tell everyone everything at once. "He held his head and staggered back against the wall when you said the thing about watching his back, and he fell down, and I'm just shot in the arm, except that my head's busted too, but I'll be fine, and we have to get out of here right now, he called Trainer to come here too."
"I think he's gonna be okay, Chris. He's just in shock." Nathan was taking his pulse and lifting his eyelids, trying to determine level of consciousness.
Ezra was conscious, though he sorely wished to be otherwise. It was sickening, the full horror of what he had done and what he might have done that came crashing down on him. Watch your back. He heard the words and staggered back as though stuck - stricken dumb and blind - memories pouring over him like water breaching a dam. All the walls fell, and he was inundated. And he collapsed beneath the windows in the corner, pain both physical and emotional sucking the air out of his lungs.
Chris was right. He would never forgive himself.
"Chris, we have to leave. We have to get the briefcase and get out of here." JD had crossed the room to him and was trying to get his attention. Chris seemed as spaced out as Ezra, just staring off in that direction and not doing much except shaking a whole lot. "That's what I was trying to tell you about the Vasquez case. Remember that last bust was a set up, and so is this."
"Shit, pard." Buck was at the office windows, peering through the blinds. "We've got company."
"Damnit, guys, why couldn't you just leave when I told you to!"
"Give it a rest, JD. I count nine, Josiah. Nate, is he in any condition to be moved?"
"Who died and put you in charge?" Chris was back among the living now, or at least among the lucid, and he was wiping his face dry, feeling past his Kevlar for, "My guns. My guns are out there. So is the briefcase." He moved faster than he thought he could just then, dashing out into the main room and grabbing both his guns and the case, right as footsteps started to sound on the stairs below. He ran back to the corner office and shut the door, locking it as though that would keep out men with automatic weapons. "We're gonna have to make our stand here, boys, unless any of you have a better idea."
"Mr. Larabee." Everybody in the room whipped around at that. "That door there leads to the roof. You, we, someone can jump to the next rooftop with relative ease. I don't know if I can manage it, but frankly I don't care. The rest of you need to leave while you can."
Before Chris could formulate a response, JD was in Ezra's face, grabbing him by his shirt collar. "If you think for one fucking minute that I'm gonna let you shoot me and get away with it, you've got another think coming. You're gonna live through this just so I get to enjoy watching Chris punish you, that is if Buck doesn't beat you to death first. Do you understand me?!"
Weakly, Ezra managed a smile and reached out to cup JD's cheek with a clammy hand. "I understand you perfectly, son, and I will gladly let you shoot me in return if we make it out of here alive."
"JD, go with Buck. How's your arm?"
"Then go with Buck. And Nathan, you go with them. Go up and onto the roof and come around from behind. We'll hem these bastards in. Shit!"
Gun fire exploded all around them, and they dropped to the floor, crawling into a mass huddle behind the desk in the middle of the room. All except Ezra that is, who stayed slouched in the corner, paying no heed to the hailstorm of bullets breaking through the thin outer wall of the office. Glass shattered above them and rained down on their backs as the windows were shot out above their heads. Chris waited about three seconds before breaking cover and dragging Ezra back behind the desk.
"Wait for them to reload, then we'll cover you," he said to Buck. Then he glared down at the man he was still crushing in his arms. "And you, you and I are gonna have to have another little chat about your worth on this team, and how after all I've been through, if I wanted you dead, I'd shoot you myself."
"Your concern is overwhelming, Mr. Larabee." Ezra was still dazed, and his vision was horribly out of focus again. His head was pounding so hard he thought he would be ill; his stomach bubbled and objected loudly.
Chris snorted a laugh and motioned for the others to go, he and Josiah laying down a healthy round of cover fire through the swiss-cheesed outer wall of the office. "Ezra, have I ever told you exactly how much I hate you?" Sarcastic and jovial at worst, his words were punctuated, perhaps even highlighted, by his emptying his clips and loading fresh ones.
"Yes I believe you've mentioned it upon occasion. And I hate you too. More than I have words to say."
"Good. Just so we understand one another." Chris was grinning from ear to ear, rather maniacally. "And don't forget it cause I hate to repeat myself."
"Apparently I am unable to forget it, even when I have forgotten all else."
Chris didn't want to think about how warm that statement made him, how deliriously glad he was to have this infuriating, frustrating, gorgeous man back at his side. "You wanna get off your ass, princess, and help us kill these bastards?"
"My pleasure, sir." Princess was a new one. And Ezra, naturally, would have to make him pay for it later.
Josiah was wearing a smile of his own, listening to the two of them, figuring that that was about as close either of them would ever get to a declaration of love. Whatever works. "Chris, Ez, if we scoot this desk up to the door, we can fire over it and through the leg space here, and maybe we'll have a chance of actually hitting something."
"Sounds like a plan." Better than any Chris could come up with right then. "How will we break a hole in the door?"
"Leave that to me." At that, Josiah drew out what could only be described as a hand canon, and smiled a terrifyingly cheery smile.
"On three," Ezra offered with a little shrug.
"Sounds like a plan. One... two... three."
They shoved the desk as close to the door as they could, swearing at all the gunfire being lobbed their direction. Josiah lay down on his belly underneath the crawl space of the desk, and fired his enormous gun at the base of the door, which burst outward in a number of pieces. There were shouts of anger and cries of pain, and he crawled backwards to relative safety still wearing his grin. A grin that only widened as he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out two hand grenades. The look on Chris' face was one of 'where the hell did you get those, ' but Ezra sighed and said, "God Bless Buck Wilmington."
With a mischievous wiggle of eyebrows, Josiah pulled the pins and propelled the hand grenades under the desk and out the hole in the door. Dismayed cries of terror preceded the detonation, the force of which broke the rest of the windows in their office and rattled what was left of the wall. Without warning, Ezra chose that moment to slide over the top of the desk and kick open the office door, of all inexplicable things, and empty his gun into whatever men had outlived the grenade blast and were sprawled around on the floor. He somersaulted back off the desk with his gun was empty and landed uncomfortably on his rear end as his feet slid out from under him.
"I know, I know," he tossed out at Chris upon landing, seeing the threat of dire retribution on his face, "You can shoot me later."
Other shots were fired outside the office, but none further were aimed at them. After a minute or two, which at that point who could keep track of time, Buck's voice could be clearly heard. "We got 'em Chris. We got 'em. We've even got Trainer outside in his car. JD and Nathan have him. The kid's got grit, I'll give you that. He actually knocked him out with his gun. And I don't know how many times I've told him that it'll cause a misfire, but I think he's picking up bad habits from Ezra. What do you think?" Buck's rascally face appeared then above them in the doorway. He was leaning over the desk, smiling wide, acting like he always acted when a plan comes together and everybody comes out alive. Everybody they care about anyway.
"You boys can come out now. Nice ta have ya back, Ez. I'm gonna call the DPD and call Travis and get an ambulance down here. Two ambulances. Looks like Vin's gonna have some company for a day or two at least." And with a wink he strode off towards the stairs, stepping over the bodies and leaving his three friends sitting with their backs to the desk, leaning against one another and breathing hard.
If Josiah noticed that Chris and Ezra had their eyes closed, he didn't say anything. And if he noticed that they were holding hands, he pretended not to, slowly getting up, turning his back on them and clamoring over the desk with a casual, "I'm gonna go see if I can help Buck."
Chris and Ezra sat in silence for quite some time, just breathing. When Chris did speak, it wasn't more than a whisper, as though he either didn't have the energy for anything louder, or maybe just wanted it to be between them.
"I meant what I said."
"Which part? Or just all of it in general?"
"All of it. But specifically you and I are gonna have to have that little talk again."
"Oh excellent, for I always look forward to our conversations with relish."
"You are an insufferable little bastard, you know that?" Chris squeezed his hand and moved it to his lap. Just for sake keeping.
"I've learned from the best, Mr. Larabee."
"I guess you have, at that. I'm known for being a role model to so many."
"Terrifying as that is." Ezra leaned a little closer, turning his head into Chris' shoulder and letting himself form a memory of what that felt like. Lest he should forget.
"Would you have really killed him, in here?"
"I don't know. I hope not." He shuddered at that, and swallowed convulsively. "I suppose I've earned myself a very long vacation and a thousand or so hours of therapy."
"You could bet your ass on that." Not that Ezra would ever gamble something so valuable. "You know he already forgives you. He doesn't have it in him to hate you for this."
"I know. I do enough of that for... everyone." Ezra gulped back his tears, not really having the strength to contain them, but giving it an effort nonetheless.
"We need to work on that, you know."
"This will never work, you know."
"Yeah, I know." And he did know. But maybe, right then, they could pretend for just a little while. They could hold hands and sit on the edge of ruin, and try to remember the last time anything felt this good. It could be just him and Ezra, and nine dead bodies. And about three hundred rounds of spent ammo. "At least I got the chance to thank you, finally. Got the chance to, well, you heard it."
Ezra chuckled softly, his shoulders hitching with either that or tears. Chris couldn't tell; his eyes were still closed. "You never did say the words, you realize. You never actually thanked me."
"Yeah." Chris turned his face far enough to press a kiss to the top of Ezra's head. "Well, don't hold your breath."
"I do that every time you walk in a room, Mr. Larabee."
"Ouch. That's a low blow, Ez."
"Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for, Chris."
"You just make that up?"
Ezra was smiling now, Chris was sure of it. He could actually hear it when Ezra smiled. "All's fair in... how's it go?"
"War, Chris." He raised his face until his lips met with skin, somewhere along the neckline. "Just war."
Another long pause stretched between them as they listened to the activity below, the sirens, the voices, and they just sat there, out of sight, out of both their minds, not caring if anyone ever found them.
Chris stared at their hands, still clasped in his lap, and looked up at the moon coming in through the broken windows, and then looked down to the floor beside them at the glass-covered briefcase. They never had found what they thought was a key; maybe Ezra would recognize it. "I still have something that belongs to you, you know. Do you still want it?"
Ezra just smiled. No, whatever it was, Chris could keep it. His hand, his gun, the briefcase. His heart. So he just shook his head. And smiled.
This was nice.
It was funny later, thinking back on it.
Josiah joined the rest of the team outside the Packing Company, reading Trainer his rights, dealing with the police, getting Trainer and his bodyguard into a squad car, getting JD into an ambulance, filling out reports - and no one saw either Chris or Ezra for nearly twenty minutes. No one even asked. And if anybody noticed they were still holding hands when they came down, they didn't mentioned it.
As far as Josiah was concerned, it was about damn time Chris finally allowed himself to be happy. Whatever works. He sent a little prayer of thanks into the evening sky, took off his vest, and then went back upstairs to get the briefcase. They didn't want to forget that.
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