The Long Weekend graphic by Sammy Girl

The Long Weekend
(ATF)

by Sammy Girl

Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money
Author's Note: My Thanks to Firefox for proof reading this for me.
Pairings: Primarily Buck/Ezra, some Vin/Chris.


Back to: Entertaining At Home

Part 1

Ezra was as miserable as a person could be. It was the Labour Day weekend. They had it all planned out. Saturday at the ranch with the guys, a nice long ride with a picnic and maybe even a swim in the hot springs. Sunday as always, with the guys at Josiah's house watching baseball. Ezra didn't actually like baseball, but he didn't mind because he still got what he did like - a whole afternoon stretched out on Sanchez' huge sofa wrapped around Buck. Wilmington would lie out flat and turn his head to the screen, Ezra would lie alongside him, their legs intertwined, his head resting against Buck's shoulder, one arm under his lover's neck, the other across his broad chest. Like that he could sleep for hours, no matter how exciting the game or how loud the room became.

Buck, for his part, couldn't be happier, he was with Ezra - his favourite place to be in the whole world was wherever Ezra was. He was watching sport - though he no longer bellowed at the screen as if the players could hear him, or jumped out of his seat at moments of high tension or celebration. And on top of everything else, he was waited on hand and foot, since Ezra's slumbering bulk made it impossible to get up. And Monday he and Ezra were going to spend together, at home, just the two of them.

What actually happened was his latest case took an unexpected turn and Ezra ended up in a tiny rural community, way down south in what he thought of as the boil-on-the-ass of the most backward, bug infested, uncivilised, hell hole it had ever been his misfortune to visit. It wasn't even his case; he had just been 'borrowed' by the DEA when they needed an experienced undercover operative at short notice. What had him really worried was how well his cover had worked. It was disquieting to think he could pass for someone who actually belonged in the shit heap of a place. But the villains had been apprehended, and a fine advertisement for not marrying your cousin they made, so Ezra was on his way back home.

He had managed to secure the last seat on the last plane out of the nearest city on Friday night. Said bastion of more or less civilisation was a good six-hour drive away and he had no intention of being late, so set out with plenty of time. It was hot; it was very, very hot. When Ezra had first moved to Denver he thought he would never get used to the cold and craved the heat of his native south. But these memories of warmth he now saw as flawed, he had forgotten just how unremittingly hot it could be, and humid. That Friday the heat was in the hundreds and the humidity in the high nineties. Worse still the hire car's air conditioning had failed. And then, just when he thought it couldn't get any worse; he had a flat tyre.

With the air conditioning broken the car windows were already all the way down and he had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He had to take his bag out of the trunk and put it on the back seat so he could liberate the spare wheel from under the trunk floor. He was dripping in perspiration as he struggled to get the wheel off, when he heard a vehicle draw up. Thinking or at least hoping someone was coming to his aid he looked up from the far side of the car to see a black pickup stop beside him. Then, before he could react, a young man in an old cap leaned out of the back and grabbed his jacket off the front seat while the similarly dressed youth who was driving, snatched his bag from the rear seat. With trophies still in hand held out of the windows, the car sped away. Ezra tried to at least get the number plate, but it was strategically splattered with mud.

With a sickening feeling in his gut, Ezra realised that everything was in his jacket, his ID, cell phone, keys, wallet. All he had was the car key, and his gun, safe in its ankle holster. Worse still his address book was in his bag. In the car all he had were the keys and the hire papers - which just happened to be in a false name - Edwin Staples.

After letting loose a string of expletives that would have had even Vin blushing, he turned back to the flat tyre. Several hours later, with every knuckle skinned, his wrist sore and beginning to swell after he wrenched it, and drenched in sweat, he gave up. One wheel nut just wouldn't come off. In truth he knew it wouldn't come off after twenty minutes, but stubborn pride wouldn't let him give up. Men changed tyres, real men didn't call for help, real men didn't need the auto club, real men could change their own tyres. But nothing was going to move that nut, he had tried everything, up to and including hitting the wheel brace with a rock.

All hope of reaching the airport in time to catch his flight was now long gone as he locked the stranded car and set out to walk to the nearest town.

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Buck watched the clock in Team Seven's offices move with excruciating slowness toward five. Normally five o'clock on the Friday of a holiday weekend would be a joyous time. Normally, but not today, because today he was alone. Four of the others were there, and there had been office banter as always, but it wasn't the same, not without Ezra.

The other missing team member was Chris, and it was his absence that had lightened the atmosphere. Ever since Buck and Ezra had come out to the rest of the team, Chris was against their relationship. Whether he was against it because they were on the same team or just against same sex relationships in general or both, wasn't clear. Buck knew, and therefore Ezra knew, that Chris was attracted to Vin, but wouldn't or couldn't admit it. For his part Vin was desperately in love with Chris, though Chris appeared to be oblivious to it. How much the others knew about Vin and Chris wasn't known because no one ever talked about it.

But whatever Chris' feelings, they didn't change the fact that they were Team Seven, and no matter what the problems within the team, to the outside world they were as close and united as ever. They would back each other, and protect one another, no matter what; even Chris would stand by that, irrespective of his personal feelings. But on this particular weekend Chris was away in Washington, he had been called to testify to a congressional committee about illegal explosives. He had decided that instead of flying back, he would spend the weekend visiting Sarah's sister and her family. It was a move that had surprised Buck. Chris and Jane had always got on but he hadn't seen her and especially her children since the funeral. Jane was Sarah's older sister, her two daughters were already teenagers when Sarah and Adam died. Now one was at collage and one had graduated, got a job and left home. Sarah's husband Mark was a career Navy officer and he and Chris had always got on well. Part of Buck was pleased, he had always thought it a shame that Chris had seemed to cut himself off from his wife's family, he was happy his old friend had made the first move to maintain the relationship - and yet - he couldn't help but wonder if Chris was just using it as an excuse not to have to spend time with him and Ezra, or worse, face telling them they weren't welcome at his ranch any more.

Yet despite his absence, Chris had insisted they still go out to the ranch on the understanding someone, preferably Vin or Ezra, gave his horse a good run out. The actual plan was for Casey to come along and ride Pony. Casey was living with JD at the former CDC. Former, because Casey had put her foot down and the three of them had spent the first weekend they were there, cleaning and scrubbing and throwing out. They had filled one whole dumpster all on their own! Ezra had not participated, he had supervised and provided food - catered of course - and inspected, Ezra never cleaned. One of the biggest changes Buck had to get used to when he moved in with Ezra, was that Ezra employed a cleaning and laundry service who did everything, cleaned house, washed the clothes, did the ironing, sent and collected the dry cleaning and bed linen. He did own a washing machine and a dryer, even an iron, and used them, though only for underwear and his meagre collection of casual clothes, claiming he couldn't possibly send jeans, much less a plaid shirt, to the cleaners. Buck had expressed a concern that the cleaners could 'let the cat out of the bag' about their relationship or even blackmail them. But Ezra had assured him there was nothing to worry about.

"Buck have no fear, 'Butler's Exclusive Cleaning and Laundry Service', are well known, one pays over the odds for discretion, they service some of the most exclusive 'clubs' in the state," he explained.

"Really?" Buck raised an eyebrow. "The Belmont?" he asked.

Ezra knew of the club, it was the best, most expensive bordello in the Rockies, it called itself a gentleman's club, but if you were in the know and could get in through the front door, it offered a full service - whatever your tastes. He had no doubt the police knew what went on inside too, but given the number of judges, DA's, senior police officers and even various federal agency personnel who were members, their chances of a successful bust were minimal. Besides, it wasn't hurting anyone so they left it alone. Now he wondered if Buck was a member, and if so how he could afford it.

"Indeed, can I ask why you ask?"

"Oh I'm a life member," Buck grinned. "And before you ask, I got it free, seeing as how I used to live there."

Ezra's eyes opened in amazement, but he waited for the explanation he knew was coming.

"See - me and Ma moved here from Vegas when I was sixteen, she got a job at the Belmont, you got to realise she was only 32 and she looked more like 25. At the Belmont, they wanted experience and looks, and Ma was a looker."

It still never ceased to amaze Ezra how casually Buck would talk - when he felt safe - about his mother and her 'profession'. That he had loved her and she him, was so evident it was sometimes painful to listen to, when compared to the relationship he shared with his own mother. Buck's mother, if her picture was to be believed, was more than a 'looker', she had been stunning and her early death a real tragedy.

"We came here and lived in a couple of rooms over the garages at the Belmont, it was a good time, well until she... you know, until she was killed."

Ezra knew she had died in a car crash, it was no one's fault, her car suffered a blow out on the freeway, it was a snowy day, and she had had no chance, dying instantly. Buck had been just nineteen and in his first year at college.

"It was a sort of gift, from the manager, after Ma... when I moved out." To him it was nothing, something he had but hardly used. Explaining how he got it he realised must sound odd to someone not part of the world he grew up in.

"So..." Ezra continued, "you accept they can be trusted to clean the apartment and do our washing safely?"

"I guess, just don't think I can afford it, an' I ain't got much in the way of fancy clothing," Buck confessed.

"Buck, beloved, we are a partnership - yes?" Ezra asked.

"Yes, of course."

"Then what is mine, is yours," he reached out and placed his hand on the back of Buck's neck, pulling him down so that their foreheads touched. "And that includes any extra income I may have from investments and trust funds. What use are they if not to make life a little easier? Besides," he smiled, "...we are using a lot more bed linen aren't we?" With that he pulled Buck down further and kissed him lightly, then more and more passionately, until they were forced to part for want of air.

"You planning on needed fresh linen in the next hour or so by any chance?" Buck asked hopefully.

"Could be, so you okay with this?" he asked.

"I guess. Living with you is a learning curve, you know?"

"For both of us, beloved." Ezra's lips returned to his lover kissing gently, then he moved kissing along Buck's jaw line. He moved up to kiss and nibble at Buck's ear.

"Mmmm," Buck moaned. "Ez?"

Ezra broke off for a moment. "Yes beloved?"

"Bedroom?"

"Bedroom," Ezra confirmed.

The huge bed was perfectly made as ever. The crisp white Egyptian cotton sheet covered the deep pocket sprung mattress, with its two-inch deep quilted pad, covered by a washable quilted cotton cover. Huge, white, Oxford pillowcases, on each one of the mountain of goosedown filled pillows. The thick, down-filled European style quilt was covered in a white striped percale cover.

Ezra led Buck to the edge of the bed, and standing in front of his tall lover he began to undo the buttons on Buck's soft, faded, pale blue shirt, kissing each bit of newly exposed skin as he revealed it. Ezra had initiated this and Buck was letting him lead, doing nothing but stand and enjoy the sensations. He suddenly gasped as one of his nipples was captured and nuzzled, nibbled and sucked, rising instantly to become so hard it was almost painful. He gasped, his hands came up and he began to run his long fingers through Ezra's silky chestnut hair. Finally, the shirt dropped to the thick carpet. Neither man was wearing shoes, it was a habit now to abandon them in the hallway and just enjoy the underfloor heating and thick, soft, natural fibre carpets. Ezra hadn't even noticed that as they stood there Buck had managed to get his socks off.

Ezra moved his oral ministrations to the other nipple, which was already hard and aching for attention, but then he moved quickly to kneel before Buck's groin. Making short work of the belt and zip, and opening the figure hugging jeans, he pushed them down. Slowly, he pushed his hands into the top of the navy boxers, letting them move around under the soft, well washed cotton to rest on the twin globes of Buck's firm, muscular buttocks. His well manicured fingers met in the middle and ran down the crack. Instinctively Buck moved his legs apart a little to facilitate Ezra's ministrations. With a little sigh, Ezra moved his hands back to Buck's hips and firmly but gently pushed the boxers down to his lover's ankles, where Buck stepped out of them. The half hard cock rose before him and Ezra smiled. The sight of Buck's long, pleasantly thick, ultra smooth member always made him smile, always, no matter how aroused he was - and right then that was very - the sight made his groin give an involuntary spasm of pure pleasure. He bent forward and without touching Buck with anything but his lips he bestowed just the lightest of kisses on the head. Then, in one swift graceful movement, he stood and looked up in to those deep midnight blue eyes.

"Hold that thought," he all but whispered.

"And how do you know what I was thinking?" Buck breathed.

"Because I love you, because I can read you. My beloved, the light of my life, my protector, my strength, my everything."

Ezra stepped back just enough to give himself room to undress. Buck gulped as he watched and his cock gave a little jerk as he became fully hard. Finally when Ezra was himself naked, his own cock rose impressively hard from its nest of luxuriant chestnut curls. He took Buck's hand and led him to the bed. Ezra used his free hand to pull back the plump quilt and moving on his knees he crossed the bed to the far side leading Buck behind him. Eventually they were kneeling in the centre of the bed facing one another, gazing into each other's eyes.

"Love you," Buck breathed.

"Love you too," Ezra responded.

His hand came to his own neck and he lovingly fondled the gold St Christopher hanging there. The token of Buck's love, entrusted to him by his mother to bestow on whoever he most wanted to keep safe in all the world. Now engraved with their initials and a love knot. Buck watched him, instinctively his left hand moved over to touch his own right wrist and the white gold bracelet around it, engraved with Ezra's declaration of love, albeit in Latin.

Moving as one, both men moved their right hands to lovingly cup and stroke the other's cheek, and again, as one, they pulled each other closer to join their lips. Until now Buck had let Ezra lead, but now he began to assert himself. He was by nature a leader and instigator in the bedroom, and while Ezra wasn't exactly a submissive, he preferred to be the passive partner, he liked to be taken care of, to be led and loved. Buck's skilled tongue now probed the soft inside of Ezra's mouth, exploring and exciting the senses. Hands mutually explored the other's body, bodies they knew as well as their own and yet delighted in exploring time and time again.

Finally, still exploring and sensualising each other, they sank down to the pillows to lie side by side facing each other. The kissing stopped, as again by mutual, but unspoken consent, eyes were to be feasted. With fingertips still exploring, they gazed at each other.

Buck looked deep into emerald jewels, which seemed to glow with an inner light, a light of love but also of vulnerability. He felt he could almost see all the hurt Ezra had lived through, all the times he had been used by callous lovers who took their pleasure from him and gave him nothing. He saw all the slights and jibes and put-downs he suffered from Maude. All the rejection and distrust he had overcome when he was in Atlanta. And he vowed yet again that never would Ezra suffer like that, he was going to protect Ezra from now on. Protect him, comfort him, love him, now and forever.

Ezra looked dreamily into seemingly bottomless midnight pools of love. Eyes that were so full of love and strength and courage, he couldn't help but feel safe under their protective gaze. Yet he knew better than anyone just how easily that strength could be undermined. That Buck's self worth was a fragile thing, that his belief in himself as a person who was valued and of use could be very easily dented or even pulled out from under him. The demons of his childhood were only buried not vanquished, but Ezra vowed to keep them six feet under forever.

Their unspoken communication worked again as simultaneously, lips were rejoined and for the first time, hands moved to touch their aching erections. Holding, stroking, rubbing each other's shaft as they kissed and stroked with their free hand. As they moved ever closer and ever more urgently, the heads of their cocks bumped and ground against each other, heat rising, sweat glistening on their bodies as the intensity of the mutual stimulation rose. Finally and almost simultaneously the dams broke, warm sticky cum flowed, coating their stomachs and chests. As the climaxes broke over them the kissing had become so intense both men knew their lips would be bruised and swollen the next day, but they were beyond any measure of control. Melting into each other's arms, heedless of their slick, sticky bodies.

Buck enveloped Ezra in his long limbs, holding him close and safe, he needed to be needed, to protect, to care for someone, and Ezra needed to be protected, cared for and loved. This symbiosis of need was what made their relationship so strong. But it was a strength that was backed by love, a total all encompassing love.

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Casey had known all about Ezra and Buck almost as soon as JD did, and was as positive about it as JD. She had always liked Buck, it was after all Buck who kept the man she loved alive and sane, how could she not love him and want him to be happy? Casey was about to start her first job as a grade three teacher; this was to be her last weekend - as she saw it - as a child, a carefree student. On Tuesday she would start work for the first time (to Casey part time jobs and summer jobs didn't count) and she was going to celebrate by spending her first ever weekend as 'one of the guys'. She walked into Team Seven's office, proudly wearing her visitor's badge.

"Hey guys!" she called as she stood in the doorway.

"Hi Hun!" JD greeted from his desk.

Casey checked her watch and the clock on the wall. They agreed it was 5:01.

"Are we going or what?" she asked.

To anyone just glancing casually at the five men in the office, it would appear they were diligently working past five on a holiday weekend. Closer inspection would have revealed four men playing poker via their computers and one staring off into space, lost in thought. The shared computer poker was a secret the six of them had, Chris didn't know about it. JD had configured a secret network that only linked their six computers and to which no one else on the network had access to. It was infuriating that even with the computer dealing Ezra still won most hands. When Ezra wasn't there Josiah tended to come out on top most of the time - though only just - or he had until Buck had moved in with Ezra, now he was winning more than he lost. The computer played with thousands of cyber dollars, they counted each thousand as one dollar. Between them Ezra and Buck were well ahead. But today Buck didn't want to play, he just wanted Ezra.

Josiah shook his head. "Well, well, Nathan you sneaky devil you," he commented.

Nathan had just taken the pot, which stood at thirty-five thousand cyber dollars or thirty-five real dollars, on a bluff. The four men closed down their computers and rose almost as one, stretching as they did.

"Buck?" JD asked, seeing his best friend and former roommate unmoving. He got no response, Buck's unfocused eyes were still staring out past the window at a blue Colorado sky, his computer screen saver - a cartoon bucking bronco - silently ditching its rider once again. "Oh Buuuuuck," JD called softly coming up behind the big man. Finally he bent down so that his mouth was only inches from Wilmington's ear. "BUCK!" he suddenly yelled.

"What!" Buck suddenly sat up turning around as he did. "Christ Almighty kid! Don't do that, you could give a man a heart attack like that!" He studied JD's amused and distinctly less than remorseful face. "What do you want?"

"You coming with us or not?" JD asked.

"Coming with you where? It's only..." He looked at the clock.

"Gone five?" JD offered.

"But..." Buck sounded slightly lost all of a sudden.

"Brother..." Josiah came to his side and placed a huge hand on his shoulder. "...you have been daydreaming for the last two hours."

"Oh, no I haven't," Buck instantly denied, looking at the others, "have I?"

They all nodded.

"Jeez I'm sorry guys, why didn't you say something?"

"'Cause we was too busy playing poker, is why. He'll be back tonight, don't worry." Vin crossed the room still smiling. "Now, you coming to the saloon with us or are you planning on camping at the airport for the next six hours?"

Buck blushed as he ducked his head; Vin was closer to the truth than he knew. He had indeed been fighting the urge to go straight to the airport and just sit and wait for Ezra's flight to land; it was due at eleven fifteen that evening.

"Buck?" Casey's soft voice sounded behind him.

"Sweet Pea where'd you spring from?" he asked smiling sweetly at the diminutive young woman. Whatever relationship he had with Ezra, Buck just couldn't help turning on the Wilmington charm in the presence of a lady.

If anyone but Buck, including JD, had called her 'sweet pea' Casey would most likely have decked them, even with an eighteen-inch height difference. But Buck had privileges with Casey no one else had. He was going to be - if her plans all worked out - the closest thing to an in-law she was going to have; and besides if it weren't for his gentle and discreet tutelage of both of them, she and JD would probably still be unable to speak more than three words to each other with out getting tongue tied.

"I'm going with you guys tomorrow? Remember?"

"So you are, reckon you're up to riding that ornery mule of Chris'?"

"I can ride any horse you ever met," she boasted.

"Even Peso?" JD asked.

"Well... okay, maybe not Peso, not if what JD says is true..." She looked sideways at Vin, who was looking mightily offended - on Peso's behalf. "...he says Peso's just plum evil."

"Now that jist ain't true!" Vin protested, rounding on JD, "you take that back!" JD was now backing up rapidly, holding his hands up in a show of peace, as the enraged Texan bore down on him. "He's jist an individual is all, he's got personality, not like that puppy Buck rides."

"What did you just call my horse?" Buck demanded.

Vin forgot JD and turned on Buck. "Well he is, don't reckon he minds who rides him so long as he gets a bucket of mash and a tickle behind the ear."

"And that's a bad thing? As opposed to attempting to bite or kick everyone and everything that comes anyplace near him?" Buck retorted.

"Well hell, least they ain't spoiled and stuck up, like that prima donna of Ezra's," JD pointed out.

Vin and Buck turned back to look at him, suddenly both broke out into a smile. "Well that is true," Buck admitted. "But if you tell him I said so, I'll deny it to my last breath!"

They headed for the bar together; Buck no longer focused on his absent love, at least for a short while.

Josiah and Nathan followed on behind the others, Sanchez silently thanking Vin for effectively distracting Buck.

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Part 2

Ezra was hot, tired and very, very pissed off. His feet hurt, he was sure he had blisters on both feet, on his heels and toes, on the balls of his feet, basically everywhere, his wrist was now very swollen and painful, some of the cuts on his hands stung as the sweat dripped into them. He trudged on up the hill to who knew what hellhole, back of beyond, one horse town? Not one vehicle passed him; it seemed the only people to use the road were thieves and unlucky ATF agents. He had been going for about three hours; the sun was setting, shining directly into his eyes as he crested the hill. Squinting directly into the sun, he made out a building. As he got closer it proved to be a filling station, old, dilapidated, but apparently open. Once he got closer he could see that beyond the filling station were a few other buildings down one side of the road. A store, a bar, what looked like it could be a sheriff's office, and four other buildings. He knew he should go to the sheriff, but he just couldn't be bothered to walk any further.

The pumps were old but not ancient, the store was small but he could definitely see people inside. He placed his hand on the handle of the door and pushed. The door did not move. He tried pulling, but it still didn't move. Ezra peered at the two men inside who were ignoring him; frustrated, he rapped sharply on the glass. The men continued to talk, so he banged on the glass rattling the whole door. One of the men walked lazily over to the small window at the side of the door. Ezra followed him.

"We're closed fer ever'thin' 'sept gas," he informed Ezra lazily.

"I need assistance, I was just robbed." Ezra pointed down the road. ""About seven or eight miles that way, I need to use your phone."

"Pay phone's jist up the street a ways." The man waved his hand ineffectually in the direction of the other buildings.

"As I told you sir, I have no money, I was robbed," Ezra explained again.

"Well ya should go tell the sheriff, an' you c'n make a collect call, can't ya?" With that, the man closed the tiny window and was gone.

"God give me strength," Ezra said out loud. *Buck I need you,* he said to himself.

Right then he really needed to have a strong pair of arms close around him and say those magic words "I'll take care of you baby. I love you." Forcing himself to concentrate on his current predicament, and not on the vision of Buck on his big white horse charging over the hill to rescue him, Ezra headed for the phone. He contacted the operator and asked to place a collect call to Denver, asking for the office number. The operator told him there was only a machine answering and she couldn't place a collect call to a machine. It was just gone five in Denver, so he guessed they had all gone to the saloon. Unfortunately he couldn't remember the number, after all he had an address book so he didn't have to remember numbers. The operator wouldn't put him through to information without money. He asked her to try Buck's number. After Buck had moved in officially, they had installed a second line, so they could have different numbers, and separate message machines, it was just easier that way. Again, all that answered was the machine. Ezra never carried change in his trouser pockets because he said it spoiled the line of his clothes and ruined the pockets, Buck had pointed out that there was no point having pockets if you never put anything in them! But Ezra insisted a gentleman carried his change in a wallet. This unfortunately meant if your wallet was stolen, you were left penniless. The only other number he knew was Buck's cell, but he was informed it was not possible to put a collect call through to a cell, and the ranch. He didn't think anyone would be there, but he tried, only to be told yet again that only a machine was answering.

Tired, hungry and with no options left, he headed to the sheriff's office.

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To begin with Buck was his normal jovial, 'life and soul of the party' self at the saloon, but within only an hour he was thinking of the time and the journey to the airport, and Ezra, and he grew steadily more quiet. It was only seven thirty when JD sat down beside his best friend.

"Why don't you go? No one will mind," he said quietly.

"It's too early, I mean his plane's not due for what? Four hours yet."

"You might as well sit there and wait silently as here, it's what you want to do, isn't it?"

Buck wished that what JD was saying was wrong, that he wasn't so pathetically needy he had to sit for hours in an airport lounge because he couldn't function without his partner, but he was. He had been fine while Ezra was away although he missed him of course. When Ezra could, he called each night - though when he was undercover it wasn't always possible, and they talked for hours. Buck threw himself into work, and kept busy. But with Ezra's return so close, his mind was concentrated on the love of his life to the exclusion of all else.

"Go brother." Buck looked up to see Josiah's kind, wise eyes looking back at him across the booth. "We understand, and we'll see both of you tomorrow at the ranch."

Finally Buck nodded. He drained the coke - all he had drunk - in front of him and stood.

"Drive carefully pard." Buck looked around to see Vin at the pool table with Casey.

"See you tomorrow," Casey added.

"You winnin' Sweet Pea?" Buck asked as he headed past the table to the door.

"Ain't but one of you guys can touch me!" she boasted.

"See that they don't." With that he was outside and heading for the Jag. He had driven it in preference to his truck, because even though it was a warm, dry night, Ezra hated to place his luggage in the open back of the classic vehicle. Nathan was outside, he was making a call to Rain, and had stepped outside to get some quiet. He looked up mid-call, smiled and waved.

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That all - well, almost all - their close friends had accepted their new relationship had been a great source of comfort and strength to Buck and Ezra. About three days after they came out to the team, all seven of them were in the Saloon when Inez came up to Buck as he leant on the bar waiting for his order to be filled.

"JD told me," she said quietly, as she filled the glasses with beer.

"Told you what, Hun?"

"He told me of your relationship with Señor Ezra, I am most happy for both of you, he is a very lucky man."

Buck frowned at her. "No darlin', I'm the lucky one, to have someone like him, for a person like me, no I'm the lucky one."

"You forget Señor, before you fell in love with him, you used to be interested in me. I know what it is like to be wooed by you, kissed, and romanced. Señor Ezra is very lucky to have such a man as you. Perhaps if I had been a little more receptive, it would be me you look at with such love?" There was just the hint of regret in her voice. In truth - no matter what she said - she found him very attractive, fun, strong, safe, every girl's dream, in fact.

Buck smiled at her sweetly. "Inez honey, if I were gonna settle for good with a woman it would have been you, but I honestly believe Ezra is the only one for me, that we were destined to be together, you know?"

"Sí, I know, and I think you are right. I will keep your secret and you can come here or call me for help if you ever need it." Buck leant over the bar and kissed her cheek, in thanks.

"And what was all that about?" Ezra had whispered in his ear when he returned to the booth with the round of drinks. There was just a hint of mock jealousy in the question.

Buck smiled and leant over to nuzzle and gently kiss Ezra's ear. "She's happy for us," he breathed into the ear, turning the words into a seductive warm breeze that made Ezra shiver with desire.

"Buck don't, someone might see," he chided, pulling himself together.

"So? Let them see, I'm so proud of you, I want the whole world to see just what kind of fine man loves me."

Ezra had to work very hard to retain his poker face after that.

"I'm flattered beloved but we still have to work in this town, within its law enforcement community, don't we?"

"Mmmm." More warm air had wafted over Ezra's ear. "To hell with them, lets move to 'Frisco and just be us."

"Tempting, but I don't think we could persuade the others to come too - do you?"

"Probably not," Buck sighed, sitting up and taking a pull on his beer.

But as he sat there drinking, one hand remained behind Ezra. To the casual viewer it just looked as though he was resting it on the seat beside him, whereas in fact his hand was under his lover's jacket, under his linen shirt and tracing lazy circles on the warm soft skin of the small of his back. Ezra was transfixed, it was all he could do just to sip the imported lager in front of him and not moan in pleasure. He leant forward to rest his elbows on the table, not because he was tired or particularly enthralled by the light banter at the booth - banter Buck was fully involved in - but because it gave Buck more skin to work his magic on.

Ezra's back was warm and smooth, the hard muscles encased in the softest of coverings. Buck ran his finger up the spine and then down again, spreading his hand out to cover the taut muscles either side, he smiled as he felt his lover's body give an involuntary shudder. Then he went back to rubbing and stroking as he chatted to the others.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

It was memories like that he clung to as he drove to the airport. Parking the car for that long was going to cost a fortune, but he daren't leave the Jag in the long stay car park, it was too far away and too vulnerable, so he pulled into the short stay 'Departures' car park and parked as close to the exit as he could.

"What are you doing Buck?" he asked himself out loud. "You're pathetic, you know that, acting like some love-sick teen whose heart-throb is just about to land."

Nevertheless he shook his head, exited the car, making sure it was locked and the alarm activated before he headed into the terminal building. Since nothing much happened in 'Departures' he headed for 'Arrivals'. His stomach growled at him and he regretted leaving the saloon before he had had the chance to eat. It was only just gone eight, so he had a good few hours to go, time to get a meal and buy a paper and read it cover to cover he decided. What he actually did was eat a meal he couldn't remember five minutes later, buy a paper he didn't read and spend two hours looking for a coming home present for Ezra in the many shops in the airport.

He considered a book, since moving in with Ezra he had begun to read again. As a boy, forever moving and never having any money, he read a lot. Lonely nights alone in strange motel rooms, long bus trips, long weekends when he was new in town and had no friends, or had been in town too long and no parent would let their child play with him. Once he got older, he had found other 'distractions' and lost the reading habit. But Ezra liked to read in the evening, and on Sunday mornings. Generally they made love on Sunday morning, washed, changed the sheets, made breakfast and then got back into bed with their food and their books, for another hour before finally getting up. Buck liked thrillers, Grisham, Clancy, Forsyth, but little by little he was being pulled into Ezra's literary world. Ezra wasn't that fond of fiction, he liked to learn. 'Knowledge is power' was his motto, and he would stop every now and again and read an interesting bit out to Buck. His current book was called 'And The Policeman Smiled' it was about Jewish refugee children fleeing Hitler to live in England. But the airport bookshop had nothing he thought Ezra would be interested in, or hadn't already read.

He bypassed the souvenir shops and boutiques, considered some wild honey, and a box of chocolates but dismissed them as too transient, not counting his mother's St Christopher, that Ezra wore permanently, this was the first gift he had given Ezra. Finally he found himself in a tie shop. Purchasing ties for Ezra was a brave thing, the chances of finding one the fastidious man would find acceptable would be tricky. But if he got it right, it would mean so much more to Ezra. Ezra could wear it at work and they would both be able to revel in the memory of this reunion without anyone being any the wiser.

Glaring at the assistant, who kept a safe distance, he searched the small shop for the perfect tie. There were several he liked for himself, but none of them would do for Ezra, especially the one with Scooby Doo on it! In the end it came down to one of two, the first had Jaguar XJS's on it and the other was silk, it looked to be - at first glance - mid blue with odd little silver grey triangles on it, but up close they were stags heads, bucks. Buck himself only owned three suits, a tux - he had worked out years ago it was cheaper to buy one than keep renting them - a dark suit for court appearances, funerals and if it ever became necessary, job interviews, and a grey Armani suit the ATF paid for, for use undercover. He had quite a few ties, but only ever wore one of five. The bow tie for the tux, his black tie for funerals, a navy tie with the DPD badge on it, a dark red tie with little Denver Bronco's logos on it and a dark grey tie shot with burgundy, to go with the Armani - Ezra chose that one. In the end there was no contest, he chose the stags, it was nearly twice the price but Buck could afford it.

Living with Ezra had made him richer. He was paying only one third of the mortgage on the loft, instead of two thirds. JD was under the impression the rent he paid Buck was half the mortgage, it wasn't. Now he was living at the loft with Casey, she was also paying one third. Nothing would make Buck tell JD the truth or even if he found out, make him accept the money, the subsidy was his 'thank you' to JD. Since Ezra owned his apartment outright and would accept no rent from Buck, he was considerably better off each month. Some of this extra income he let Ezra invest for him, but the rest sat very nicely in his pocket.

"I'll take these three." He handed over the three he had chosen, the Scooby tie for himself, maybe he'd save it for Halloween. A dark red tie with a small herd of broncos racing across the bottom, for Vin's upcoming birthday, maybe if it had horses on it Vin might be persuaded to wear a tie without complaining quite so much, and the silk tie for Ezra. "Can you gift wrap that one?" He pointed at the last tie.

"Certainly sir," the young female assistant confirmed.

He stood and watched as she placed the tie in a box and tied a silver ribbon around it, finishing it off with an ornate bow of curled ribbon. Glancing at his watch he noted that Ezra's plane was due to land in half an hour.

*Time to head for 'Arrivals',* he thought.

So once he had his purchases he headed for the Arrivals lounge. He had literally just walked into the hall when he all but ran into a woman on her way out.

"Mr Wilmington!" Maude Standish greeted him.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Part 3

Ezra had always known he was going to have to report the theft to the local law enforcement, he just wasn't looking forward to it. It was, needless to say, embarrassing in the extreme to admit that he had been so easily divested of all his valuables. He was a Federal Agent. And not just any Federal Agent, oh no, he was a member of Denver ATF Team Seven, the most successful tactical team in the whole damn country. In fact, the closer he got to the sheriff's office, the worse it got. It wasn't just the local law that were going to have a heyday with his ineptitude, the rest of the team would no doubt have a high time at his expense. This unpleasant realisation was tempered by sadness, because it made him think about Buck and how much he missed him and a comforting realisation that the teasing wouldn't go too far - because Buck wouldn't let it. His knight in shining armour would always protect him.

He pushed open the door and entered the small office. The name on the door told him he was in some place called Pikes Hill. On entering from the gloom outside he had to squint in the glare of the harsh neon lighting. There was a counter barring access to the rear of the building, in front of it was a small open area with a long wooden bench under the window, next to the door he had just passed through. Above the counter was an old four bladed fan and an ultraviolet bug zapper which crackled into life every now and again, and the whole place smelt stale and sweaty. It was also deserted; stepping up to the counter Ezra scanned for some way to attract attention. A bell had rung when he entered but no one came to investigate. Finally he spotted a button on the wall by the counter, an old and faded bit of paper taped to the wall next to it read 'Push for Service', as if the local populous were so lacking in normal intelligence they needed the operation of a door bell explained to them. He duly pushed and somewhere in the distance he heard a second bell ring.

He was just contemplating ringing again when a man in a tan uniform ambled through the door behind the counter. He was about JD's age but somehow where JD looked almost childlike, this man looked old, like an old man in a young body, he had none of Dunne's life and innocence in his eyes, none of their young friend's exuberance in his movements.

"Yeah? What?" he drawled.

"I have to report a robbery and ask for your assistance," Ezra explained calmly, taking an instant dislike to the man, who was apparently a deputy sheriff.

He was about Vin's height, and had probably been slim in school, but was now beginning to put on weight, despite his youth. A beer gut hung just over the edge of his regulation pants, it was pushed up tight against the heavy belt with its gun, night stick, radio, and cuffs. His hair was fine and sandy, just beginning to thin, his blue eyes dull and bored looking.

He sighed with exaggerated exasperation.

"Here..." he pulled a pad out from under the counter, "...fill in one of these forms." With that he turned to go again.

"Sir, I do not think you have understood the problem. I cannot fill out your form as I have no pen, I have n..." The deputy felt his pockets and then looked under the counter before locating a rather tattered pen and placing it on counter top.

"I wan' it back," he growled.

"As I was saying," Ezra continued. "I have no money, no credit card, no phone and no ID. I..."

"You from Georgia?"

Ezra looked at the man somewhat bewildered.

"Yes, but that is of no import at this juncture sir, I require the use..."

"I met a guy from Georgia, he's a faggot. You a faggot, boy?" He eyed the expensive, if sweat drenched shirt, designer tie hanging undone around the collar and what were, even to his untutored eyes, expensive suit pants and shoes. "'Cause you sure dress like one. You a cock sucker like that other Georgia boy?"

The man was laughing, clearly enjoying his own joke; the unmistakable aroma of stale beer assaulted Ezra's finely attuned olfactory sense. He wanted to say 'yes' and further more he was damn proud of it! As it happened he gave great head, a skill he was refining and practising all the time. But he didn't.

"Sir," he injected as much menace as he could into the one word. "While I am from the fine State of Georgia, your comments and suggestions are offensive. I need to report the theft of my valuables, arrange for someone to go out to my car, which is about seven or eight miles down the hill, and fix it, further..."

"What's wrong with it?"

"It has a flat tyre and I was unable to remove it. While I was trying to accomplish what, as it turns out, was a task requiring Herculean strength; two young men in a pickup drew up beside the car and snatched my bag and my jacket. Unfortunately their licence plate was obscured by what was clearly a strategically placed quantity of mud."

"Jeez! You sure you ain't a faggot?" the deputy asked again, as he tried to make sense of Ezra's words.

"Officer, I need assistance," Ezra pointed out, trying to change the subject.

"Fill out the form, then ya cin' use the phone, ya say ya got no money?"

"No, I was robbed, how many times do I have to tell you?"

"You'll have t' call collect. Here."

Before Ezra could explain that calling collect was no good, the form and the old pen appeared before him. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour for now, he sat on the bench and looked at the form. It had apparently been reproduced on a Xerox machine about a thousand times, most of the words were indistinguishable black blobs and the page was covered in little (and some not so little) black fleck marks. *Doubtless,* Ezra mused, *their copier takes a lot of abuse.*

Needing to get off his very sore feet, he moved back and sat on the bench. To aid his filling in of the form he crossed his right leg over his left and instantly things changed!

"Gun!" someone shouted.

Instinctively Ezra began to reach for his own gun in his ankle holster.

"Move and you die asshole!" the voice shouted.

Ezra froze; realising just in time the command was directed at him. He looked up at the deputy, who now had his big revolver in his right hand, his left clamped under his right to steady it. Behind him a second man in the same uniform had just arrived gun in hand. Ezra held his hands up slowly.

"Sir," he began. "I apologise. I am a Federal Agent, I should have told you that, and about my gun, at the outset."

The gun facing him did not move.

"Good story, prove it!" the first deputy responded.

"I have told you, I was robbed..." *Just how often do I have to say it before it penetrates?* he wondered, "and I have no ID. If you would allow me to call one of my fellow agents he could vouch for me."

"You think I's born yisterday or what? How'd I know who I's talking t'?"

"Well perhaps you could call the ATF offices in Denver? They will vouch for me. My name is..."

"Denver? What's a Georgia boy doin' in God damn Denver?"

"Where I choose to live and work is my own affair sir. As I was saying my name is Ezra Standish, I am a member of Team Seven, my boss' name is Christopher Larabee. The number is..."

"We'll look up the number, in the meantime keep ya hands up. Walt?"

The man inclined his head to his fellow deputy, who nodded and moved behind him. With both guns trained on him Ezra stayed just where he was, not moving a muscle. He remained like that as Walt removed his gun, and stepped back.

"That the only one?" Walt asked.

"Yes."

Ezra's tiny pistol, which he always kept with him undercover, was in his jacket pocket, ready to declare at the airport. It was unloaded and since it was a specialist gun he doubted the perpetrators would be able to acquire any ammunition, without drawing attention to themselves, besides it was unlikely they would have any interest in such a small calibre weapon. In this neck of the woods size mattered, in all things.

"Look, I told you I'm a Federal Agent, we have to do something about the felons who have absconded with my possessions, collect the car, and contact my fam... friends."

Ezra was finally losing his patience. He was hot, tired, hurt, aggrieved, he had missed his flight, at best it would be midday Saturday before he was reunited with Buck and his only source of help were the two sorriest S.O.B's to ever put a uniform on. He had almost said family, to him Buck was family, and to a lesser extent so were the others, and Maude? Was she family in the true sense of the word? Technically yes. By blood yes. But true family? No, not really. All this flashed through his head in a millisecond.

"Well Pete?" Walt asked.

"'Far as I know, you're a dangerous armed, serial killer, and until I know different you go in a cell," Pete said, his gun still on Ezra. "Cuff him."

"Cuff me? Cuff me? Why? Where are we going?" Ezra protested.

"Cell, out back, it's not far but it's the regulations, you gonna co-operate?" Walt asked, holstering his gun and taking out his cuffs.

With due resignation and dramatic eye rolling and sighing Ezra held his wrists out.

"Do I at least get my one phone call? I am permitted one call, you know," he pointed out.

"Now see if you was really a Fed you'd know that ain't so."

Ezra cursed himself for underestimating the two Neanderthals.

"I don't have t' let ya phone no one. Now git like a good boy."

With that Walt pushed Ezra ahead of him and toward the small cellblock at the rear of the building. Ezra noted all the cells were empty.

"And a meal, I am entitled to a meal," he pointed out, though in truth he shuddered to think what passed for prison fare in such a place. There might be some bread that was edible at least.

As the cell door was opened, he was uncuffed.

"It's gone nine, supper's all over, ya got a drinking fountain in the cell, now git in there." With that Walt gave him a shove between the shoulder blades and slammed the cell door shut.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

"Errr hello Mrs Standish," Buck all but stammered, for once at a loss for words in the presence of a lady.

Maude frowned at him, unable to understand why her presence should cause him to be so flustered and flustered was the only way to describe his current state. And from her few meetings with the tall ladies' man, she knew it to be very uncharacteristic.

"Are you alright Mr Wilmington?" she enquired.

"Yes!" he responded all too quickly. "I mean, yes I'm fine, what brings you to Denver?" he asked more calmly. *As if I didn't know,* he said to himself.

"I find myself en route from the east coast to the west with a weekend free, so I thought I would stop and visit with my darlin' boy for a few days," she explained.

This was what Buck was afraid of. Ezra had promised him he would tell his mother all about him and Buck, but he wanted to do it face to face, and Buck respected that. But he didn't want it now, in a public airport, and he sure as hell didn't want to share his reunion or his holiday weekend with Maude Standish!

Buck just continued to stare at her. "Oh," he finally said.

Maude raised an eyebrow, but continued, "Why are you here Mr Wilmington, whom are you meeting?"

"As it happens Ezra, he's been on assignment, just finished today."

"Well that is perfect." Maude smiled at him. "You can put my luggage in your car... wait, what kind of car do you have?" She wasn't about to travel in the old jeep she had seen Mr Tanner drive or the elderly and unreliable thing the nice Mr Sanchez had once driven up in.

"I've got the Jag here," he explained.

"Ezra's Jaguar?"

"Umm yeah, he err... asked me to look after it, you know keep it turned over."

"Very well, the Jaguar will be acceptable, kindly place my luggage in the trunk, I will wait here and then we can meet Ezra together, it will be a wonderful surprise for him."

*Oh yeah he'll be surprised all right!* Buck acknowledged to himself, but he could see no way out of it without making her suspicious, so with a nod he took her luggage trolley from the porter, who had been standing in impassive silence the whole time. Since Maude made no move to tip the poor man, Buck fished in his pocket and found a $5 bill, which he thrust into the man's hand.

Maude's luggage didn't fit in the Jaguar's limited trunk space; he was forced to put some of the smaller ones on the back seat. He had to wonder how anyone needed seven cases and a suit carrier? But cursing Maude's vanity was just a way of not thinking about what was to come. Ezra wouldn't make a scene in the airport, but on the ride home or when they got home he would tell her about his new domestic arrangements. Of that Buck had no doubt, Ezra had promised him to tell his mother about Buck and the role he now played in her son's life, and Ezra would keep his word. After all with Buck's clothes in the guest room closets and the two men sharing a bed, it would be hard not to.

The two of them waited in the arrivals hall as the screen told them Ezra's flight had landed. Buck stood and occasionally paced, Maude sat, impassive. Passengers eventually began to file out, Buck stood up against the rail and scanned every face, but Ezra wasn't there. The throng thinned out and still Ezra wasn't there. He pulled out his cell and called his lover's cell phone. He was told the phone he was calling 'may be switched off'. Frustrated he put the phone back. Maybe Ezra had spotted his mother and snuck out another way, a Federal Agent's badge could get you places the general public couldn't go. But he dismissed the idea, Ezra wouldn't do that without telling him, or at least switching on his cell phone, unless... Maybe it wasn't switched off but out of power? Buck clung to this ray of hope, he would establish that Ezra wasn't in the airport, then go home, he was sure Ezra would be there, composing himself for the coming fireworks with Maude.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Chris stared out of his hotel window at the capital's skyline. The Washington Monument drew his eye, it was floodlit and stood out, even with the light pollution. Chris forgot sometimes just how bright cities were. Out at the ranch, the night sky was black as ink, the stars so clear and bright you could almost drown in them, even the Milky Way was clear as it snaked across the sky. Here he had trouble finding the Big Dipper! His eyes moved back to the monument, and his mind drifted to Vin. His mind drifted to Vin more and more these days. It made him angry, but he couldn't decide why. He still couldn't understand his feelings about Buck and Ezra. One thing he was clear on was that he was mad at Buck.

"You don't know me." That was what Buck had said, they had been as close as brothers, closer than many real brothers, and yet Buck had kept part of himself hidden, secret, he had lied to him, for years. The trouble was, as mad as he was, he couldn't blame Buck. How do you tell your best friend, a friend who has told his fair share of anti gay jokes, that you're bi-sexual? And since, as he said, he hadn't been actively involved or even looking at any men since before they met, why should he? Still he was angry.

He remembered watching the two of them on Sunday, stretched out on Josiah's sofa together, Ezra asleep as usual, his head resting on Buck's chest, tucked up under his chin. They looked content, like two cats on a sunny porch, relaxed, and peaceful. Buck had caught him staring, and given him a knowing look, that just made Chris madder. So much so that later that day when he had walked in on them in the kitchen, kissing, he had exploded.

"Christ almighty! Can't you two do that some place private?"

The lovers broke apart, Buck moving instinctively to stand between Ezra and Chris.

"Christopher Larabee!" Josiah came into the kitchen behind him. "This is my house, and you will not speak to my guests in my house that way."

Rarely did Sanchez use his size and age against anyone, much less Chris, but when he did, nothing and no one was going to stand against him. Chris glared at all three of them and turning on his heels, without the beer he had been seeking, left.

Buck just stared at the closed door, still standing protectively in front of Ezra. When it became clear he wasn't going to move, Ezra stepped around him to face Sanchez.

"We are sorry, Mr Sanchez, we will refrain from physical affection in your home, from now on. I, that is to say we, do not wish to be the cause of ill feeling, we..."

"Ezra son, stop right there. This is my home, and as far as I am concerned, you can kiss and cuddle as much as you want under my roof, wherever you want. Love is a beautiful thing, a gift from God and I like beautiful things in my home."

All this Chris heard from the other side of the door. He hadn't seen Buck staring at the other side of the door, silently imploring him to understand, nor had he seen or heard Ezra turn the big man's face from the closed door, and, gently stroking his slightly stubbled cheek, whisper to him to have patience with his old friend.

When the two of them returned from the kitchen, he was back in his customary chair, and didn't look up when the lovers came back. He was therefore surprised to find an open bottle of beer handed to him as Buck walked past on his way back to the sofa. It was a peace offering, of sorts, and it just made Chris even madder, because even though they were the ones doing wrong, he was the villain, somehow everything was all turned around. Chris didn't like that. He liked things straightforward, clean cut, good and bad, right and wrong. Grey was just confusing, it blurred the edges, made you weak, indecisive and vulnerable.

Shaking off these memories, he went back to just staring out of the window at the Washington Monument and wishing he had worn looser-fitting pants.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck walked back to where Maude Standish was waiting impatiently, her toe tapping out a rhythm of pure irritation.

"He wasn't on the flight," Buck said solemnly, unable to hide the worry his news brought with it.

It wasn't a worry Maude shared.

"Why am I not surprised? The boy always was tardy, no doubt he missed the departure." She stood, brushing some unseen speck of dust from her immaculate suit jacket, in a gesture that was so reminiscent of Ezra, Buck had to hold back a whimper as he fought to control his fear and disappointment. "Come let us depart this place and retire for the night, I..."

"Ezra wouldn't miss a plane and not call, he wouldn't let m... us, worry about him," Buck stated firmly.

"My dear Mr Wilmington, I don't think you know my son very well, he..."

"No! You're the one who doesn't know him. He knew I was coming to meet him, he called me to say he was on his way to the airport, he would have called if he missed the flight, my cell has been on all evening." With that and without waiting for a reply from the stunned woman, he pulled out his cell phone again and dialled up his own answer machine, and accessed the messages, there were three but none from Ezra, then he called Ezra's number and did the same, there were no messages.

Turning back to Mrs Standish he composed himself. "I'll drive you to your hotel and then I have to make some calls."

"Hotel? I do not stay in hotels when I visit my son, he has a very acceptable guest room, I have a key to his apartment, so please drive me there now."

Buck stood in stunned silence. He really couldn't handle this now, not until he knew Ezra was all right.

"Right... okay... umm," he stammered out. "We have to go some place first." With that he turned and left, leaving her to follow as best she could as he stretched his long legs in an effort to get to the car as fast as possible without actually running.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Ezra lay down on the narrow iron frame bed and tried not to think about the unpleasant odours that wafted from the mattress and less than fresh bed linen every time his weight disturbed it. He interlaced his hands behind his head, unwilling to let his hair touch the pillow, and stared at the ceiling. *I'm not here,* he told himself, *this isn't happening.* He closed his eyes, he was at home in bed with Buck. Strong hands were stroking up and down his chest, the calluses on those long, talented fingers giving a nice sensation on the upstroke, that countered with the softest touch of the downstroke. He was lying on his side; his back pressed up against his lover's chest. Long, strong limbs enclosed him in a protective cocoon of love. Soft breath warmed his neck, the gentle vibration of his lover's heartbeat, detectable through his skin, reassured him he was not alone in the world.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Part 4

Buck drove straight to the Federal Building. As they pulled into the underground car park Maude finally spoke, having ridden in stony silence.

"And we are here, why?" she asked pointedly.

"Told you, I need to make some calls." With that Buck was out of the car. "You can come or stay here, your choice."

Maude was confused. In her limited experience, Mr Wilmington was a little coarse, and loud, but he was never less than polite and respectful to her. Now he was being downright rude.

"I have no intention of sitting here, for who knows how long." She exited the car with her usual elegance, but as the car's doors locked automatically, she had to almost run to catch up as Buck stepped into the waiting elevator.

He led her to Team Seven's offices, or more accurately he strode to the offices, she trotted in his wake. On arrival, he flipped on the lights and headed toward Chris' office, leaving her standing in the deserted bullpen. She took in her son's place of work. There were six desks, arranged in three pairs facing each other. Wondering just which desk was Ezra's and with nothing else to do, Maude began to examine each desk.

To her left was a desk covered in gadgets, souvenirs, and executive toys. There was a huge pile of files to one side of the computer and an overflowing 'in' tray to the other side. The computer's keyboard was well worn, the most popular keys had long since lost all markings. On top of the monitor was picture of the team, all mounted on horses and lined up in a long line. She squinted at the picture, picking out Ezra on his fine boned gelding in the middle of the line. Next to this was a picture of JD and Buck. JD had his left arm in a sling and was holding up a small misshapen bit of metal in the other hand. Buck stood behind him, one arm around JD's neck, while the other ruffled his hair. Both men were grinning like loons. Tucked into the corner of this picture was one of a young woman.

This was clearly not Ezra's desk, the desk opposite it was not that dissimilar, the computer keys were not so worn, the piles of files slightly neater, the 'in' tray almost empty. There were also pictures on the desk. A picture of the team, in this one they were gathered around a barbecue brandishing different cooking implements. In this picture Ezra was standing next to Buck smiling broadly, a large pair of tongs in his hand. There were also pictures of Buck with JD, and Buck with a small blond haired boy with green eyes. The last picture was of Ezra and Buck, they were sitting side by side in a bar, toasting the camera with what appeared to be whisky.

She turned away from Buck's desk to the one next to it. This desk was a complete contrast, it was neat, only a few files were piled on the desk, no toys or gadgets cluttered up the work area, but, like the first two desks there were pictures. One was of a beautiful black woman and another of the team. In this one Nathan Jackson was lying in a hospital bed, his leg in traction, surrounded by the others who were all holding up champagne glasses to Jackson, who had his hand over his eyes.

The desk opposite this one was clearly Josiah's. It was also neat, there was a mini dreamcatcher hanging from the computer monitor. A well-thumbed bible was halfway down a stack of reference books to the side of the keyboard, most of them on psychology. There was the ubiquitous team picture. In this one they had clearly been fishing, Josiah was standing in the middle of the group holding a huge fish. In this one Ezra was standing in front of Buck, a fishing pole in his hand, but no fish, smiling contentedly.

This left just two more desks. The closer of the two was fairly untidy, the edge of the computer monitor was surrounded with little yellow Post It notes, most with just one word on, written in scratchy uneven hand. There were pictures, lots of pictures. A picture of a black horse with a white blaze. One of Vin and Chris, looking very drunk, each with an arm around the other and a glass of beer in the other hand. Another of Vin and Chris, sporting matching slings on their left arms. One of an elderly lady, somewhat on the scrawny side, in an evening dress standing next to Vin, who was wearing a suit. And as with the others, one of the team. This one had clearly been taken at Christmas, Vin was wearing a Santa hat, as were the others, all smiling and laughing, sitting at a food strewn dining table.

That meant that the last desk, the one opposite Vin Tanner, was Ezra's. Maude walked around it slowly. Yes, she could see her son at this desk. It was neat, very, very neat. Not one file or scrap of paper littered the desk. The note pad beside the telephone had a leather cover and was closed. A fine quality pen set lay in its own tray beside the leather bound blotter, next to the computer keyboard. There were just two pictures on the desk. One of Ezra and Buck, they appeared to be in a house, but not her son's and not, from the look if it, the ranch house she had seen in so many of the other pictures. Ezra was standing in front of Buck, who had his hands on her son's shoulders, the two men looked happy, even contented. There was also the ever present team picture. In this one, all of them where standing around the Jag, buckets, hoses and sponges in hand, all that was except Ezra, who was just leaning against the sparkling car, in a suit, apparently drenched to the skin!

She shook her head. How had her son forgotten so much of her teaching that he had let his defences drop so far? The picture was clear evidence of what she perceived as a weakness. There he was, Ezra P Standish, southern gentleman, a member of one of the most distinguished families in the country - a federal agent, a civil servant no less, risking his life for a meagre paycheque and for his friends. Maude shook her head again; she had failed the boy, somehow. She had tried, Lord knows she had tried, to teach him all he needed to survive in the world, to be independent, to rely on no one, to take every opportunity to make money, no matter what the cost or who it hurt. "Never give a sucker an even break" that was creed she lived by and had thought she had instilled in her only child, clearly she had failed.

"He left on schedule," Buck announced exiting the side office.

Maude looked up from Ezra's desk.

"Sorry?"

"Ezra, he left the DEA offices where he's been working on time, no one has heard from him since. I'll take you home and then round up the others, we'll most likely be heading out." With that he headed for the door, not waiting to see if she had followed.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Ezra had removed his shoes and socks in order to examine the blisters on his feet. They were if anything worse than he had anticipated. On each heel were raw and bloody, several smaller ones had burst and were weeping copiously. He had put on his new shoes to travel partly because he wanted to get away from the personae he had been forced to adopt while on this assignment, and partly because he wanted to look his best for Buck when they were reunited. He knew they were a little tight but then he hadn't been planning to walk eight miles in the summer sun in them. His wrist was now very swollen and all but useless, though he had managed to keep this infirmity from the attention of his captors. Some inner instinct told him not to show them any weakness.

He had not slept as he lay in the cell, but his daydreams had passed the time more quickly than he had hoped, allowing him to distance himself from the pain and the surroundings. The door leading from the cell area to the main office opened, Ezra looked up to see a new face. The uniform was the same, but this man was older, he was about Buck's height and age, his face was long, he was heavy set, probably had once been well muscled, but now the muscle was going over to fat. He approached the cell with a clipboard in his hand.

"Hey you!" he kicked the bars.

Ezra pushed himself up on his elbows and regarded the new deputy.

"Your name Standish? Ezra Standish?" he asked.

"Yes," Ezra admitted carefully, pushing himself up and swinging his legs around to sit on the edge of the bed. He winced as his bare and sore feet hit the cold concrete. "Why do you ask?"

"Someone found a car with a flat, plates match a car hired to Edwin Staples. So is that you?"

"Yes that is me, but I can explain."

"Well go on then explain."

"I am a federal agent, I was working undercover and to that end, I rented the car under a false name. My name is actually Ezra Standish, as I told your colleagues when I was incarcerated."

The deputy held up his hand. "Yeah, yeah it says all that here. I put a call into Denver but with the holiday weekend and all, might be a while 'for we git a reply."

Ezra groaned inwardly, he too had been worrying that this might be the case. Even if he was let out, he was still stranded in a town he seriously doubted had even one horse to its name. This deputy did at least appear to be a little more reasonable and possess more than one brain cell.

"Sir I might be able to expedite things if I were able to make a call, I have not been allowed to make even one phone call yet," he pointed out.

The new deputy regarded him. His two colleagues on the previous shift were notorious for locking people up just before a shift change and leaving all the work for the next shift. It being the night shift that was just one man. He regarded the prisoner and decided he believed him.

"Okay I'll bring ya to the phone, you got money?"

"For the hundredth time NO! I. Was. Robbed." Ezra really was getting very tired of saying it.

"Look buddy, you want a favour you act nice, you hear me?"

Ezra took a moment to rein in his temper, he was at this man's mercy after all.

"My apologies sir, as I was saying I have no money and having tried earlier, calling collect may not be a viable option. But, as it is the holiday weekend, I am sure you don't want me here all that time, you will have to feed me, check on me, you can't leave me here alone - can you?"

He suddenly prayed the man wasn't about to say 'yes'.

After what seemed like an age, the cell door opened and the man placed the handcuffs on just one wrist and led Ezra to a pay phone on the wall at the end of the cellblock. Ezra didn't bother to put his shoes back on so walked slowly with small, carefully placed steps. The deputy handed over a handful of change and attached the other handcuff to a sturdy pole set into the brickwork beside the phone. Once Ezra knew he was alone he dialled Buck's home number.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck unlocked the door of the apartment without even thinking how it would look to Maude. She followed him in and waited in the living room while he carried all her luggage in. She had been in her son's apartment enough times to quickly detect the subtle changes. There were a lot more videotapes on the shelves, more CDs in the rack by the music centre, there was in fact a whole new rack. She wandered around the room, noting the copies of 'Sports Illustrated', 'Classic Truck' and 'Guns and Ammo' that filled the shelf under the coffee table. She could just about imagine Ezra reading 'Guns and Ammo', for professional reasons, but not the other two. Her curiosity roused she made her way into the kitchen, and while making a cup of tea for herself cast her expert eye over that room as well. She found a box of Cheerios, something she didn't recognise called Pop Tarts, crunchy peanut butter - Ezra loathed peanut butter - and a large quantity of bottled beer. And as she searched for a cup and saucer she came across a large coffee mug bearing the legend, 'Stud!', this could never be Ezra's, of that she was sure.

Just then Buck came in through the door with the last of the bags. "I'll put these in the guest room," he called as he passed the kitchen.

Maude followed him.

"Mr Wilmington?" she asked before he had even put down one case. "Just how long have you been living here?"

Buck almost dropped the case, almost but not quite. He had been preparing an answer, he just hadn't expected to need it quite so suddenly.

"Um... well a while, see JD's at my place and young Casey - she's his girl you know? Well she just graduated and they are spending a bit of time together, before she starts her first job, as a teacher." It wasn't a lie as such, everything he said was true, he just left some bits out. Maude just stood looking at him impassively.

"I'll get my personal stuff out of the bathroom and take it into Ezra's room. The bed is clean, done fresh this morning." Now that was a lie, it was done a week ago, but no one had been in it since then. He didn't stop long enough to give her a chance to see the deception in his eyes as he hurried to the bedroom. He pretended to remove his personal items and place them in Ezra's room - where they already were. His clothes were in the guest room closets, because there was no room in Ezra's, but his underwear was in a drawer in the master bedroom.

As he walked back into the living room he found Maude sipping tea while sitting in one of the armchairs.

"The message machine is flashing, is that significant?" she asked casually.

"Why the hell didn't you say something?" Buck bellowed as he crossed the room in two strides snatching the receiver up and hitting the 'play' button. The relief as he heard Ezra's voice was so great he all but keeled over, he didn't even hear the full message. He had in fact to play it back three times to get all the details, and then three more times just to hear Ezra's voice, and those last few words.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck gazed out of the window, watching the clouds pass by, oblivious to the normal goings on of the flight, he just watched clouds and imagined his reunion with Ezra. He'd kiss him first, just gently to begin with, then more forcefully, his hands would run through Ezra's silky soft hair, cupping and holding his head as his tongue probed the warm, soft, mouth. Ezra would respond of course, Ezra was a great kisser. The hand that wasn't holding Ezra's head would run down his lover's back. Ezra would shudder with pleasure, the way he always did when Buck stroked his back; it was one of his most erogenous zones. He would be able to feel the heat rising in Ezra by now and they would have to stop or find some place private.

"Can I get you anything sir?" the hostess asked the tall handsome man by the window, but he didn't respond. "Sir are you alright?" she asked again.

Finally he looked up at her, his deep blue eyes seemed to be miles away.

"What was that darlin'?"

"Are you alright sir? Can I get you anything, breakfast?"

"Oh... errr... coffee I guess... um, thanks."

She looked at him for a second more, he looked, well she wasn't sure how he looked, but not right somehow. "Are you sure you're alright sir?" she asked one more time.

"No," he admitted. "But I will be. Coffee would be great though."

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Chris drove his hire car out of the city toward his former sister-in-law's home at Annapolis, where her husband now taught. He still wasn't sure why he was doing it, he sent a card at Christmas, but he simple signed it 'Chris' and sent it to the whole family. In return they sent him three, one from Jane and Mark and one each - addressed to 'Uncle Chris' - from the girls, each card contained a detailed, personal letter telling him about their year. Jane even sent him birthday cards. In every Christmas letter Jane asked him to come and visit; now for the first time in six years he was going to see them.

The house was large, standing in a leafy street of other large houses. The sounds and smells of Labour Day cook outs wafted to him as he parked the car outside the house. There were several cars there already, somehow he hadn't been expecting other people to be there. For a moment he considered getting back in the car and driving off. But then what would he do? He would be all alone in a strange city on a holiday weekend, not an appealing thought. So with a nervousness he was unaccustomed to, he rang the bell and waited.

The door opened. Jane didn't look that much like her sister, for which Chris was grateful. She was shorter, much heavier and blond, while Sarah had been dark.

"Chris," Jane greeted him. "Glad you came."

"Jane."

She could see he was hesitating, on the verge of running. She gently took his arm and stepped to the side.

"Come on I'll take you through, Mark's just got the barbecue lit, he's a bit outnumbered by us women so he'll be grateful for the company."

The garden was large and well manicured, Mark was standing at the barbecue surveying his handy work, he waved at Chris as he stepped out into the sunlight. As Jane had said everyone else was female. He was introduced to Mark's sister, who was recently divorced, and her young daughter. Megan had called him 'Uncle Chris' just as she always had. Later, just as they were about to eat, Megan's sister Beth arrived with another young woman, called ZoŽ.

The day passed pleasantly enough, Mark plied him with beer, and persuaded him to spend the night. His nieces reminisced about summer vacations on the ranch, how Chris and their other 'uncle' Buck had taught them to ride. Jane had watched him carefully, worried about his reaction to these memories but he seemed to enjoy remembering long past summer days. Later he talked cars, guns, sports and the finer points of outdoor cooking with Mark, while he and Mark watched the big baseball game together. Various friends and neighbours came and went but by the evening only Chris and ZoŽ remained; she and Beth seemed inseparable.

It was still warm as the light faded; Beth, ZoŽ and Megan had headed out to walk the family's two black Labradors, leaving the 'adults' alone for a while.

"Chris?" Jane started tentatively as the two of them sat alone on the deck overlooking the garden that Mark was now watering.

"Yes?" he responded, thinking nothing of it.

"Why are you here?" she watched for his reaction, seeing confusion.

"Well I was in DC and since it was the holiday weekend, I just thought I'd come over and see you, I..."

"Chris it's been six years, why now, what's changed?"

"Nothing's wrong, what makes you think..." Chris was beginning to get angry, he was there to eat, drink and relax, not be analysed.

"Sorry." She backed down quickly. "What do you think of ZoŽ?"

He frowned; it was an odd question, to say the least. "She's nice enough, they seem very close." He was desperate to move the conversation away from him. "Her and Beth."

"Yes well they would be wouldn't they?"

He turned to look at her, frowning.

"Lord! Chris you can't be that dense, they're a couple."

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The new deputy at the Pike Hill sheriff's office was called Ralf. He didn't like Ezra much and the feeling was mutual, but he did play by the rules. He brought Ezra breakfast, and a first aid kit to tend to his blisters. He even gave him yesterday's paper to alleviate the boredom. But it was the message he brought just after breakfast that made the whole thing bearable.

"Standish looks like one of us managed to get hold of someone," Ralf announced.

"Meaning?" Ezra asked from the bed.

"Someone called Wilmington is coming to vouch for you apparently, I just got a call from the county head office, said he'd be here this evening."

Ezra's heart soared, he felt he had grown wings and if it weren't for the cell bars around him he could have lifted off and floated away. Buck was riding to the rescue, just like he knew he would, he was going to rescue him, Buck! His Buck, his hero, his Beloved. Something of his reaction must have shown through his poker face, because Ralf asked if he knew this man Wilmington.

"Yes, yes we work together," he admitted.

He lay back on the bed, closed his eyes, and he lost himself in the vision of Buck striding in to the miserable little cell block and taking him away.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Chris turned to look at Jane.

"A couple? As in a 'couple-couple'?" he asked.

"Yes, don't tell me you're shocked... well okay you're probably shocked, or at least surprised, but you don't disapprove, do you?"

Chris regarded her for a long time. She didn't look like his Sarah, but she sure as hell sounded like her. Not just her voice but the way she talked. Sarah always accepted everyone, she never judged, always took people as she found them and was always challenging his assumptions. In that way she had been very like Buck, maybe that was why the two of them had always got on so well together? Maybe that was why he was still friends with Buck, after all they had been through?

"Um, no, no of course not," he finally managed to say.

"It's not been easy for them. ZoŽ's family won't accept her, so we try to do the best we can. They met at work, in the Pentagon. ZoŽ's boss, he found out. Of course they're both civilians so that's not a problem, he can't fire her, but... well he is making it very difficult for them both. We knew about Beth, oh... way back in high school, but ZoŽ only came out to her family a few months back. Their rejection was very hard for her, poor lamb." She looked back at Chris. "It's not what you expect of course, but so long as she's happy that's what counts, isn't it?"

Chris barely heard her, all he could see was the hurt, lost look on Buck's face when he had confronted him and Ezra in Josiah's kitchen. 'So long as she's happy' why couldn't he accept that Ezra made Buck happy? All his old friend had ever wanted in life was a family, someone to love. And just because it didn't fall into some neat little, conventional pigeonhole he wouldn't accept it. Two basically lonely people had found each other, he should have been happy. JD was happy, he should have been sad or even mad that he was losing his big brother, but no, he thought it was just fantastic. Nathan had had reservations but seemed to accept them now, Josiah thought all love was a gift from God and not to be questioned, indeed it should be celebrated. And Vin? He stopped, what about Vin? Vin was happy for the lovers, but he had that look in his eye when he saw them together. A look of wistful envy, even jealousy. Thinking about Vin made him uncomfortable, so he stopped and turned his attention back to Jane, who was still speaking.

"I just hope it lasts as long as Mark and me and that Megan finds someone just as special. True love is rare, isn't it?"

She suddenly noticed the expression on his face and misinterpreted it.

"I'm sorry Chris, here I am going on about true love, and that is just what you lost, sorry, I should have thought, sorry - oh shut up Jane you're digging yourself in deeper!"

Chris finally worked out what she was saying. "No, it's alright, I was thinking about something else, don't worry about it, and yes - true love is rare, I was lucky."

"We both were." She cast her eyes out over the gloomy garden to where her husband was watering the raised beds.

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Even daydreams of Buck couldn't stop time dragging as Ezra waited for salvation. His wrist throbbed incessantly, he could no longer move it, it was so swollen. He just lay on the bed and tried to will time to pass more swiftly. The shift changed, Ralf left, Walt and Pete returned. At first they basically ignored him, but they were drinking, not very heavily, but steadily. It was about three in the afternoon when Pete wandered into the cell area. He was grinning, an open bottle swinging from his fingers.

"Hey Georgia! How ya doin' there? Comfy?" he asked.

"The accommodation is basic but adequate," Ezra stated flatly.

"See I know'd you was a faggot, ya talk like one, I knewed it soon as ya opened yer cock suckin' mouth." He took another swig from his bottle.

A knot of fear grew in Ezra's stomach, as Walt came in. He was also carrying something, not a bottle, a small tape player. He held it up to the bars and pressed play. For a second his heart soared as he head Buck's voice, only to fall when he realised it was the recording on Buck's machine, then he head his own voice, telling Buck where he was and what he needed. Finally the recording of his supposedly private phone call came to an end, he listened to himself.

"...Hurry my Beloved, I miss you."

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Part 5

"Beloved? Mmmm, sounds like something you would call a lover, but you were talking to someone called 'Buck'. Now..." Pete stopped to take a swig of beer, belching before he continued, "...I can believe in a Jo or Sam or even a Chris, but Buck, no ain't never heard of no girl called Buck."

Walt pushed the tape machine into his pocket as he turned the key in the lock.

"So that would make you a cock sucking, ass fucking, faggot - wouldn't it - boy?"

Ezra suddenly stood up, the pain in his wrist and feet forgotten in the adrenaline rush of instant fear.

*Think Ezra! Think fast!*

"Look, Buck is my partner, as in the man I work with in Denver, it's a joke between us, just a joke - I call him Beloved, he calls me Darlin'- like an old married couple, that's what people say we're like, and old couple, because we bicker all the time." He was thinking and talking fast. "Believe me, ask anyone in the Federal building in Denver, Buck Wilmington is straight, ask the women - all of them! They don't call him 'stud' for nothing!"

He couldn't help it, he silently added *I sure call him that, and he earns it. Every damn time!*

The two men hesitated, and for a moment Ezra thought he had done it.

"So he's straight, what about you? All them women gonna vouch fer you too?" Walt asked.

There was no way they were actually going to be able to check any of what he said so he just told them what they wanted to hear.

"I am more discerning in my choice of companion, but there are indeed a few young ladies who will vouch for my virility," he lied smoothly.

"Now see, ya almost had me convinced, then ya go an' use all them fancy, faggoty words ag'in." From seemingly nowhere, Walt now had a nightstick in his hand as he opened the cell door.

"Look, just because a man has some education, it doesn't make him a homosexual. I am a Federal Agent, a colleague is on his way here now. Have you any idea the trouble you two will be in if you don't treat me, while I am in your custody, within the letter of the law?"

"Yeah we know about someone coming, Buck's coming ain't he? 'Beloved', don't think he'll be much trouble, do ya Walt?" Pete leered drunkenly at his partner.

"Not much, no. Maybe we'll leave him a little present, a callin' card kind 'o thing? Right pal?"

Ezra watched the interplay between the two men, and a thought came to him. *Methinks they doth protest too much.* The part of Ezra that liked to revel in his superior intellect and wit, wanted to see if he could push them with this insight into their own repressed feelings, but the pragmatist stopped him. *Live to fight another day Ezra, that is one of mother's teachings that is actually valid,* he mused. *If only I could teach Buck the value of retreat.*

All this time the two uniformed lawmen were sharing the remains of the beer. Suddenly his attention was fully back on his two tormentors, as the now empty bottle smashed against the bars.

"You tell a good story boy, but it don't wash, yer a queer, a faggot. Ain't right! Ain't normal! Don't you know it's a sin, boy?" Walt advanced on him. "Your kind, yer contaminating decent white folk!"

*Oh great, racism as well as stupidity and ignorance - perfect!*

"Sinners gotta be punished, don't they? Well, Walt and me we're gonna do it good!"

Ezra began to move as both men advanced on him. His plan was to circle around, drawing the two men into the cell and hopefully allowing him to back out of the door. But the two lawmen while bigoted, were not stupid. He only got as far as the bars beside the doorway. He knew some of the broken glass littering the floor had penetrated his unprotected feet, but that was the least of his worries at the present time. Cornered by two men, with only one hand, he didn't have much hope of defending himself. But he would be damned if he would go down with out a fight!

The night stick came down, in a flash he raised his damaged arm to block the blow with his forearm, the blow sent vibrations of pure agony down to his injured wrist, but he ignored it as he delivered a pile-driver of a blow to Walt's groin. The man bellowed as he doubled over, making incoherent sounds like a cow in labour. Dropping the weapon he rolled on the floor clutching his - what Ezra was sure was a very small - manhood. But Ezra too, was half doubled over, the pain in his arm blocking almost every part of his consciousness.

"Fu...ck...in' bas...tard!" Walt gasped. "Fu...ckin' git him!"

Pete moved forward, a look of pure hatred on his face. He grabbed the fallen nightstick and raised it. Ezra knew he could no longer fight back, with only one arm all he could do now was defend himself. He raised his good arm in preparation for the blow. It never came.

"WHAT THE HELL?" Pete bellowed, as someone grabbed the nightstick out of his hand behind him.

"Ez?" Buck asked as he now held the nightstick to Pete's throat, while glancing at the still incapacitated Walt.

"I'm alright," Ezra stated, once he realised what was going on and who it was who had saved him.

"You sure? Yer foot's bleedin'," Buck made a quick visual survey of his lover's condition and wasn't a happy man. "And what's wrong with yer arm?"

Ezra used the bars to pull himself upright again. He noticed that, while Walt was on his hands and knees, Pete, held fast by the nightstick around his neck, was turning an interesting shade of blue.

"Umm Buck?"

"Yeah?"

"You might want to let him breathe?" Ezra pointed to the gasping deputy. "He's going blue."

Buck tore his gaze from Ezra, to the man he had apprehended attempting to beat the living daylights out of the light of his life.

"Oh, yeah, so he is." With that Wilmington - who had given this observation no more import than if he had just noticed the corral water trough overflowing - shoved his prisoner in the small of the back, as he released one end of the nightstick. Pete was propelled forward and tripping over Walt, brought both men down in a tangle of arms and legs as they crashed into the bed.

"Just what in the hell was going on here? Who are these clowns?" Buck demanded, even as he spoke his gun came into his hand and he advanced on the two fallen men.

"They call themselves deputy sheriffs, the sandy haired one is called Pete the other one is Walt. Gentlemen," he addressed his erstwhile captors. "Meet Agent Buck Wilmington of the ATF, out of Denver." Ezra took great satisfaction in the look of shock and fear his statement brought to the two deputies' faces.

"So Ez what did you do to piss them off this time?" Buck asked as Ezra moved past him to limp out of the cell.

"It would appear that these 'gentlemen', and I use the term advisedly, have an objection to the 'love that dare not speak its name' and furthermore believe that you and I are involved in such a relationship."

Buck took a moment to switch on his own internal 'Ezra translation programme' and run the statement through it. "You mean they're anti-gay?" he clarified.

"Precisely."

"And they thought you and me...?"

"Indeed, they recorded my phone call to you asking for assistance and heard me call you 'Beloved'."

"Really? They have a warrant to tape your private phone call?"

"Unlikely."

The two men in question were just beginning to realise the enormity of their mistake and what they could do to get out of it.

"Look," Pete began. "we don't doubt he is who he said he was, but we had no evidence and he was trying to escape, we..."

"Just shut up! You lying little weasel," Buck's voice had dropped a whole octave and was half the volume it had been. To anyone who knew him, this was a bad sign, this was not the voice of the easy going, life loving, take everyone as they come Buck Wilmington, this was the voice of a man who could, and had, killed, when he needed to. "I am going to be believing my partner here not you, I don't care if you say sky is blue and he says it's green, you got me?"

There was silence.

"I asked you a question." The voice was, if anything, laced with even more menace.

"Yes," Pete whispered.

Buck looked at Walt, still clutching his groin, still looking alarmingly pale. He nodded.

"Good." Buck's voice suddenly returned to normal. "You..." he pointed at Walt, "toss me them keys ya got there."

With one look at his friend and receiving a nod, he tossed the keys at Buck, who caught them mid air in his left hand, his gun still held steady and covering the two men. He then stepped back through the door, locked it, and holstered his weapon, before turning his attention to Ezra. A sizeable pool of blood had emerged around his feet, especially the left one, he was leaning on the cell bars cradling his injured wrist, but looking very happy.

"You came," Ezra breathed, still amazed anyone would bother to travel more than a thousand miles to rescue him.

"I'll always come, always," Buck assured. "Come on, we have to get you cleaned up and then out of here, don't suppose this God-forsaken flea-pit has a doctor?" He hadn't been looking at the two deputies, so they hadn't responded, now he turned to look at them. "Well?"

"Um, no. No the nearest doctor is the community hospital at Chad, that's about..." Pete began to explain where it was.

"I know where it is, I started there, at the county sheriff's office, needed directions to this shit heap of a place," Buck explained, cutting him off.

"What about us?" Walt managed to say, now that he was finally able to straighten up.

Buck surveyed the cell and its facilities.

"Hell boys you got water, a pot t' piss in, yer okay." He looked at Ezra. "When's shift change round here?"

"Last night it was around midnight."

Wilmington checked his watch. "Well that's about nine hours from now." He gave them a look that was pure devilment. "Have fun, who knows what you two could find to occupy yourselves in nine hours?" With that he turned his attention back to his lover, looking down at Ezra's battered and bloody feet. "You can't walk," he stated, and before Ezra could react Buck was picking him up. Standish was short in comparison to his tall lover, but he was no lightweight, and Buck grunted with the effort, but once he had Ezra safely in his arms he grinned. "I missed you."

Ezra grinned back. "Missed you too."

Buck bent his head to meet Ezra's, as it rose toward him. They kissed, a long, slow, deep kiss that left them both breathless and blocked out any physical pain and discomfort in a mutual adrenaline rush.

"You mother fucking bastard!" Pete exploded from the cell. "You really are a cock sucker!"

"While the idea of 'relations' with my mother is quite repellent, it is entirely possible my parents were not married at the time of my conception, or indeed ever, so yes I may well be a bastard, and I am the best damn 'cock sucker', as you so charmingly put it, you ever met, and damn proud of it!" Ezra boasted.

"I'll vouch for that," Buck added with a gin.

"Really Beloved?"

"World class Babe, world class - and I talk as a man who knows what he's talking about. Now as they say in the movies - let's get the hell out 'a here!"

"Amen!"

Leaving the two stunned deputies, they exited the cellblock, Ezra still in Buck's arms.

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Chris lay on the guest bed at his former sister in law's house, it was three in the morning and he still hadn't had a wink of sleep. Since he hadn't come prepared to stay the night, he didn't have the necessary items with him, but Mark had insisted he stay.

"You're too drunk to drive and besides, I need the support, they outnumber me four to one!" he had explained, waving a hand dramatically down the long table on the deck. His wife, two daughters and one daughter's 'life partner' all grinned at him before adding their vocal encouragement to Chris. He had to agree about the drunk bit. He wasn't visibly inebriated but he was way over the drink-drive limit, and he knew it. The guest room was liberally stocked with toiletries from hotels all over the world, not to mention several airlines, so he didn't want for a razor, soap, toothbrush etc. He hadn't packed any clothes, so he rinsed his boxers through in the wash hand basin and hung them on the towel rail to dry.

So there he lay, buck naked and wide awake, in the stifling August heat. No wind moved the curtains at the wide open windows. If he concentrated he could hear the sea, two streets away. The occasional car and the sounds of wildlife in the garden were the only distractions. He had considered trying to read, but he couldn't summon the energy, even putting on the light seemed too much effort. So there he lay, hoping for a breeze, wishing he was back home. Normally when he couldn't sleep he would walk out to the barn and talk to Pony. The black horse would just stand there, resting his big head on Chris' shoulder, dozing as Chris told him his troubles.

The trouble was whenever he thought about Pony, there was Peso in the next box. His mane long and untrimmed, that wild, slightly untamed, slightly feral look in his eyes, a creature once tame and docile, now wary, untrusting and easily spooked, made that way by the cruelty of others. But Peso had found a home in Chris' barn where he was safe and cared for. Six other horses were now there to form his herd. Nathan's old bay, steady, unflappable, bomb proof, always there. Josiah's big chestnut, he put up with a lot, he wasn't the alpha but he was the biggest, and just occasionally he put the others in their place. JD's spirited little bay was young and skittish, playful, he never seemed to worry when Peso nipped at him or tried to kick, he just skipped out of the way and started the game all over again. Chaucer, now there was a quality piece of horse flesh and he knew it. When the horses were turned out, and while the others all kicked back and had a good roll in the dust, Chaucer would be doing a couple of laps around the fence, showing off. Sometimes Chris caught Peso following him, mimicking the part thoroughbred, if Chaucer stopped to look around, Peso would run off, kicking his hind legs as he went. On the other side of Peso was Buck's grey, Max. Max was patience personified, he just took everything Pony and Peso dished out and never turned it on another horse or human, the gentle gelding remained as gentle as ever, always there with a snort of greeting and a playful nuzzle, looking for food and affection but never demanding it. And Pony, it was his barn, his ranch, his corral and he made sure the others knew it, but with Peso he was lenient, he let the black, blaze-faced horse get away with equine disrespect, without the swift bite to the neck or a kick on the rear, he used to keep the others in line. Somehow Pony knew Peso wasn't seriously challenging his position as alpha, he was just asserting his independence, while remaining within the herd.

It was no good, he was never going to get to sleep like this! Chris sat up only to find he had a raging hard on.

"Damnation!" he cursed almost under his breath. There were now two options, bring himself off, pleasurable but messy and hot making, or the tried and trusted, cold shower. It really was too hot to be exerting any unnecessary energy, so he headed for the en-suite bathroom.

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Part 6

Chris wasn't the only one who was hot, not that it was particularly hot at his ranch, in fact when the sun went down it was very pleasant, but Vin was hot. He had stayed at the ranch after the others had left, to see to the horses' late feed. Josiah had offered to stay and help but Vin insisted he was fine and would see all of them on Sunday at Sanchez's as planned. Once the feed was done he was meant to go home - but he didn't. Instead he wandered around the empty ranch house. It was a house he knew very well and yet felt as if he were seeing it for the first time. Now he had time to really see it, with no distractions, a chance to stop and stare at things without feeling self conscious about it.

He was in the small room Chris used as a home office, a room he had only ever seen from the doorway before. He felt slightly guilty as he finally crossed the threshold. Turning on the desk light he stared at the pictures on the wall. There was Chris' PD academy graduation picture and squinting and scanning along the lines Vin eventually found Chris, or what he thought was Chris. Next to it was one of a very young Chris in uniform and an even younger Buck, and one of Chris still in uniform next to an older man with sergeant's stripes. And there were pictures of the team, fishing, hunting, riding, cook-outs and lazy days.

Leaving the room he wandered into the bedroom. In a small frame beside the bed was a picture of Sarah and Adam. It was clearly a studio portrait, Sarah, her long dark hair cascading off her shoulders, was holding Adam on her knee, he looked to be about four or five. Mother and son looked so happy, so in love. Not for the first time Vin wondered how he would have coped in Chris' situation. He had died a thousand silent deaths, more than once when Chris had been injured on the job; he didn't even want to think about the possibility of Chris' dying. When Buck had called to say he was having to fly out and bail Ezra out of jail, Vin almost laughed. But then he stopped, because he knew just how worried Buck had to be, and how he would worry if it were Chris.

Chris, everything in his life seemed to come back to Chris. For so long he believed his love would never, could never be acknowledged or returned. Then Buck had told him, not directly but in so many words, that there was hope. But since then, if anything, Chris attitude had hardened against the two love birds in their midst. For all he loved him, Vin hated how casually cruel Chris could be, especially to Buck. He could understand that Chris felt betrayed that in effect Buck had, by omission, lied to him for years. But even with all that it didn't excuse the way Chris had gone out of his way to show Buck he disapproved and believed it was a sham and a mistake. Vin understood that finding out that your oldest friend, the very epitome of straight manhood was involved with a man was a shock. Hell it was shock to all of them! Ezra, well they had all had suspicions about Ezra, but not Buck, never Buck. He wondered if they had suspicions about him, well the others, not Buck and Ezra, who seemed to know already.

Vin was gay, and unlike Ezra, had known it almost as long as he could remember, certainly from puberty. It was the one thing that was made easier by being an orphan, he had no family to disappoint, no parents wanting grandchildren, no father wanting a 'chip off the old block'. And living in children's homes surrounded by other boys, you didn't have to hide it much either. He had had some bad experiences, but he was careful, and he could look after himself, most of the time he was happy with the odd night of mostly anonymous pleasure. Then he met Chris, and his world narrowed down to one man. In the early days he had to stop himself staring at Larabee, especially his ass in those damn tight black jeans. It sent a shudder of pure pleasure to his groin, just thinking about those jeans. The fact that he believed the object of his lust to be totally beyond reach didn't stop his fantasies.

In his dreams he led Chris to the bedroom, for some reason always at the ranch, and gently undressed a willing, pliant but shy Larabee. He would kneel on the bed in front of Chris and undo his shirt buttons one at a time, once the shirt was open he would run his hands over the taut muscled chest and down the rippled abdomen. His lips and Chris' would meet; they would kiss for a very long time, while Vin's hands roamed all over the compliant Larabee. Then he would push the shirt back and let it drop. Smiling up at the blond he would undo the man's belt and ease the figure hugging jeans over those, oh so narrow hips. In his dreams Chris never wore any underwear or footwear, and he seemed to pass from fully clothed to naked at some point, but it was never clear when. Once they were both on the bed, Vin would very slowly and gently make love to Chris.

He would lay him down on his back and kiss him everywhere until he finally made it to his erect cock. Although he had seen Chris naked in the shower a number of times, he had never seen him erect, and occasionally worried the real thing wouldn't live up to his fantasies, but since he believed he was never going to see it, there was no point worrying. In his dreams Chris' erection was ramrod straight, sticking out at precisely 90°, long but not excessively thick, it was soft as velvet to touch but hard as iron, the skin was like the finest porcelain, almost translucent, so he could all but see the blood filling it. He would only take the tip in his mouth to start with. Chris would shudder and gasp as he did this, and he would look up and reassure him, tell him to relax and enjoy, Vin was going to take care of him. This was one of the main parts of the fantasy, that just for once he took care of Chris and not the other way around. Vin was convinced Chris needed someone to relieve him of the burden of leadership, just occasionally. He would work Chris' cock in his mouth, deeper and deeper, doing to Larabee all the little things he loved having done to him, all the time Chris would be writhing and screaming his name in ecstasy. And Chris' cum would be as sweet as nectar, as he drank every last drop.

Sometimes the dream come fantasy ended there, at other times it went further. He would run his hand over Chris' opening, looking into those fern green eyes and receiving a silent permission to continue he would push in just one finger - his pinkie - then little by little he would work Chris open. Eventually he would hit that sweet spot inside and be rewarded by Chris gasping out his name and begging for more. When he was ready Vin would ease his way inside Chris, and it would be perfect, tighter and hotter than anyone else. And when they came, synchronised together in perfect harmony, Chris would cry and hold him and tell him he loved him.

It was a daydream that had seen him through a lot of lonely days, and a dream that had woken him numerous times, usually with the need to change the sheets. He stood in Chris' bedroom staring at the bed, he was hard, his erection pressing painfully against his jeans, even so he had no desire to do anything about it, he wanted the feeling of need to last. Without thinking about it, he walked to the bathroom, opened the laundry hamper and pulled out a tee-shirt. He held the soft fabric to his face and inhaled. Chris was there in the odour, his own special scent; soap, nothing fancy just basic soap, but all the soap in the world never seemed to take away the slight horse smell, and under all this was the musky, very masculine smell of Chris himself. Carrying the shirt with him, he lay down on the bed - Chris' bed - and hugging it close, settled down for the night, happy - for now at least - to be where he most wanted to be, in Chris Larabee's bed.

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Once they had exited the cellblock and shut the door, Buck put Ezra down on the closest desk.

"Oh God I missed you so much," he exclaimed, as he stood and hugged Ezra to his chest, interweaving his fingers through Ezra's hair. Then he pulled back to look down into the deliriously happy eyes of his lover. "What did you mean 'you came' did you doubt me?"

"I'm sorry Beloved, I tried to tell myself you would come, or you would send someone to rescue me, but deep down I always feel no-one will come, no-one came so many times before. Forgive me, I honestly do not doubt you, please believe me."

Buck's heart melted instantly as he saw and heard the old, deep hurts that had wounded his love. The main perpetrator of those hurts was even now in their home, awaiting their return. He decided not to tell Ezra about Maude just yet.

"I do, I will, just remember you have me now, and I will always come and I will always protect you, okay?"

"I know, I do honestly. Beloved take me away from here - please, take me home."

"Soon but not yet."

Buck hated to see the disappointment in Ezra's eyes but he needed to take care of his feet, find Ezra's gun and other possessions and finally make some arrangement to get the hire car back to where it belonged. After scouting around for a bit he found the first aid kit Ezra had been using earlier. The problem of how to wash the feet was not so easily solved. In the end he carried Ezra to what served as a kitchen and clearing off what looked like a months' worth of dirty dishes, sat Ezra down next to the sink. Then he made him dangle his feet over the edge while he washed them. No glass appeared to be in the wounds but several were deep and all were dirty. Several were still bleeding freely, Buck was competent at first aid, it was a prerequisite in their job, and in those years, trying to keep Chris alive and in one piece.

He managed to dress the wounds, applying closure strips to the worst ones to at least slow the blood loss. He even managed to fit a sling to support what was clearly a broken arm or wrist.

After finding Ezra's gun and car key and settling him in the roomy and air-conditioned car he had hired, Buck set out to sort out the car. Once he had bribed the garage owner to return the car, threatening him with every federal agency from the IRS through the ATF to the CDC if he messed up, Buck joined Ezra and they finally left Pikes Hill. If Ezra's soul passed over the place while he wandered the astral plane, it would be too soon and too close!

"Buck I need to clean up, I need fresh clothes," Ezra explained having remained silent until they were out of the town.

"I know, and you need a doctor too."

"No you fixed me up just fine, I'm okay now, I..."

"Ezra!" There was real annoyance in Buck's tone. "You need a doctor, your foot needs stitches and that arm needs x-raying." Ezra opened his mouth to protest, but Buck cut him off. "Not one more word Ezra, I'm drivin' and we are going to the hospital - but - you can wash up first, and I have some clothes for you in the back." He glanced over at his partner. "What? You think I don't know you by now, think I wouldn't remember to bring you fresh clothes, shaving kit..." He reached over to stroke Ezra's stubbled chin. "Think I wouldn't bring you some decent food - look in the glove box."

"I knew there was some reason I was in love with you!" Ezra reached forward with one hand and opened the glove box. There, inside, was one of his hip flasks, a bag, which proved to contain an apple Danish, and a box of Scottish shortbread - his favourite cookies.

"I was gonna bring some of that real dark, French chocolate you like, but I figured it would 'a melted," Buck explained.

"It's aw...ll wright," Ezra mumbled as he devoured the pastry, before unstopping the flask and taking a long pull on the twelve year old malt whisky inside.

By the time they were nearing the outskirts of Chad, Ezra had had a nap and eaten all but three of the shortbread sticks, the three he hadn't eaten he had fed to Buck as he drove. They passed a motel, Ezra seriously doubted Chad boasted more than one motel so he was surprised when Buck didn't pull in.

"Um, Beloved why are we not stopping, I need that bath you know?"

"Ez, Babe, do you really think I would let you set foot in that place? Even for a few hours? That place is the Bates Motel and the Roach Motel rolled into one."

"You know some place else around here?" Ezra asked with incredulity.

Buck just gave one of his eyebrows up, pure devilment smiles, as they drove into and then out of town. About three miles down the road was a small motel, it looked even more neglected than the first one, it didn't even have a proper 'Motel' sign outside, just one that said, 'Rooms'.

Buck slowed and pulled in, taking the car to the side and parking opposite the side door of what looked like the office.

"Buck what are we doing here? This place is worse than the first one."

Buck just winked at him. "Never judge a book by its cover Ezra, you know that. Stay put, I'll be back."

Buck exited the car and knocked on the side door. As Ezra watched the door opened to reveal a short, plump woman with very obviously dyed red hair, she could have been any age from forty to sixty. She and Buck had a conversation. To begin with, as Ezra read her body language, she was weary, and then she was intrigued and finally sympathetic and maybe a little amused. Finally Buck kissed her cheek and turned away as she went back inside. He was grinning as he opened the passenger door.

"Your bath awaits within sir," he announced as he bowed dramatically, "allow me to assist you."

The long car journey had caused Ezra's mind to forget how to deal with the pain and he gasped as his feet hit the ground.

"Come here you," Buck commanded as he bent to once more carry Ezra.

"I can do it, you don't have to..."

"I know you can, but you don't have to, come on."

Ezra looked up to see no pity or contempt at his weakness, just loving concern. "Someone will see," Ezra warned.

Buck just smiled and lifted him up. It soon became clear why it didn't matter if they were seen. Ezra lay on the truly huge bed as Buck filled the sunken Jacuzzi. The room was red, very, very red. Red drapes, red walls, red carpet. The bed sheets were red satin.

"Let me guess, this is the 'Red Room'?" Ezra asked.

"Reckon so."

"Buck do you know every cat house in the country?"

"No... no of course not, but..." There was that devilish smile again, "I do know how to speak the language, you might say."

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Ezra lay back against Buck in the warm bubbling waters, his feet rested out of the water on the other side of the tub. The bleeding had finally stopped and Buck insisted he didn't get them wet and start it all over again. His injured arm floated on the water, in front of him. Buck's strong hands encircled him as he worked a soap-laden washcloth over Ezra's body, cleaning him, purging him of the whole experience. As he did this Ezra's other hand came up past his shoulder to lay along Buck's jaw, stroking and caressing as he relaxed into his lover's gentle ministrations.

Eventually Buck put aside the cloth and just ran his hands over Ezra's torso, the callused fingers trailing up and down his chest, just as he had done in Ezra's fantasy. Inevitably his hands drifted to Ezra's groin, he entwined his fingers in the thick curls at the base of Ezra's shaft, enjoying the way the soft hairs floated around him in the water. He moved to cup Ezra's balls, which brought a gasp from Ezra.

"Please, Buck, yes," he gasped, needing to be loved, cared for, pleasured, needing to have his love for this man who held him so dearly, validated, made clean and shame free again.

Buck enclosed the hardening shaft within his large hand, he rubbed it up to the tip slowly, and then down. He repeated the action, adding just a little more pressure. Little by little he increased the pressure and the speed, every now and again he would let his finger nail run along the shaft and revel in the shudder of pure pleasure it brought his lover.

Ezra was dimly aware of Buck's erection poking him in the small of the back, but he was too close to release to be able to think coherently enough to do anything about it, even if it was physically possible. Little by little he began to move, arching his back in time to the deft touch of his lover. Buck was so lost in the joy of having Ezra back and being able to care for him once more, he didn't even realise he was hard until Ezra began to move, rubbing his back against Buck's aching shaft. Ezra didn't cry out or shout as he came, he just gave the most contented sigh Buck had ever heard, as his seed was lost in the churning water. It was some minutes before he even opened his eyes to gaze up at Buck.

"Thank you," he breathed. "Thank you so much my Beloved." Then he suddenly looked worried.

"What?"

"You?"

"All taken care of Babe, you saw to that."

Ezra was suddenly aware the pressure on his back was gone, his writhing had been enough of a stimulation to bring Wilmington to his own climax, but so intent on Ezra's pleasure was he, Buck had hardly noticed himself.

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Ezra had all but fallen asleep then and there, close to his love, supported in the soothing warm waters and sedated by a post-coital hormone induced haze, he had begun to drift pleasantly away. But Buck had not lost sight of their objectives; get Ezra seen by a doctor and get home. Home meant Maude, but that was an issue for after Ezra's injuries had been seen to properly. It was no mean thing to get Ezra out of the sunken tub without getting his feet wet, but they managed it. Ezra had demanded food before they ventured into the hospital, but Buck refused. He was worried Ezra might need surgery on his wrist and any more food now would delay things.

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Chad community hospital was small and worn, it looked like it had been built in the fifties and was in need of a good lick of paint, but inside, despite the obvious signs of age to the building, it was clean and well equipped. Ezra only had to wait half an hour to be seen, an hour after that the doctor, a small compact man called Chapman, came to the exam room with the x-ray films.

"Well do you want the good news or the bad news?" he asked cheerily.

"Why do doctors always have to say that?" lamented Ezra.

"Sorry Mr. Standish but we have to, it's part of the training, Grey's Anatomy, Diseases: Signs and Symptoms, and the 'What do you want first' speech, can't take the Hippocratic oath without them. So what is it to be? Good or bad?"

Ezra couldn't help but smile. "Good is always preferable to bad."

"You do have a broken wrist, but it's a simple fracture only affecting the radius, just here." He tapped his own arm, just behind the wrist in line with his thumb.

"And the bad?" Buck prompted.

"The wrist is out of alignment by nearly twenty five degrees, so we are going to have to set it under anaesthetic, sorry." The doctor saw Ezra's crest-fallen expression before it disappeared behind a blank mask that was impossible to read, but he did see the hand of his patient's friend gently squeeze Standish's leg. "It's not that bad, while you're out we will clean out those wounds on your feet and suture them, so you won't have to go through that while you're awake. You should be on your way by lunch time tomorrow."

Ezra was given a bed for the night, surgery was planned for seven thirty in the morning, and all being well he would be discharged at around noon.

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Once his head hit the pillow Ezra was asleep, with Buck right beside the bed, watching, gazing in fact. How, he wondered, had he been so blessed, how come, after looking for love for so long, it had just walked into his life like that. He remembered the day Chris brought Ezra in to meet them, how he had seen that face, those jade green eyes, those dimples, the way his chestnut hair caught the light which accented the slight wave in it. From that moment on he had been lost, totally, hopelessly lost. That had been amazing enough, but to have his love returned was a miracle, beyond his wildest dreams. Sure there had been a hiccup, and truth be told he still didn't feel he was good enough for Ezra, he was still, deep in his heart, the poor white trash all those people told him he was growing up. But whatever his secret fears and insecurities, he loved Ezra, and nothing would tear him away from that love. It sustained him, fed him, comforted him, gave him hope and courage, security, a future - it was in fact his whole world. Now finally he understood the enormity of Chris' loss, for as much as he had lost, he now knew how much more Chris had lost.

He was sitting beside the bed, his elbows resting on the mattress just gazing, when Dr Chapman walked in. He stood in the doorway for a moment, taking in the scene before allowing the door to close. The sound drew Buck's attention away from the bed.

"I guess you're not planning on finding a room for the night some place?" Chapman asked quietly.

"No, I've seen the Motel for a start."

"Yes, not very inviting I admit, besides I have the feeling I could offer you the Ritz and you would still be here."

Buck blushed and looked back at the bed, where Ezra his face angelic in repose, shifted in his sleep, and shook his head.

"He is... what I mean is... he needs a friend here with him right now," Buck tried to explain.

If they were in Denver it wouldn't have been a problem, all the hospitals knew how to deal with Team Seven and their very 'hands on' approach when one of their number was in hospital. But out here in the back of beyond it was harder to explain.

"I can see that, and maybe you need to be here as much as he needs you?"

Buck looked up into the kind eyes of the doctor, seeing understanding and acceptance. He nodded.

"Is that what happened, did some of my less enlightened neighbours take exception?"

"Indirectly," Buck admitted, with a sigh. He went back to gazing at Ezra.

"I am off home now Mr Wilmington, I will see the two of you bright and early tomorrow, sleep well, if you can."

Just then Ezra began to mumble and finally call out for Buck, who, heedless of his audience of one, took the unsplinted hand in his.

"Hush now, I'm here, you're safe, hush darling, go back to sleep," he soothed.

The doctor smiled to himself as he left the lovers together.

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Part 7

Chris sat in the dark outside, smoking a cheroot. He heard someone coming out onto the deck. Instinct made him wary and he was ready to move when he detected the footfall of a woman.

"Hello?" he called softly.

"Oh, hello Mr Larabee." It was ZoŽ, "I couldn't sleep." She approached and saw the tell-tale glow of his cheroot.

"Cigarette?" she asked.

"No... not exactly, do you mind?"

"No, I came down for a smoke myself, Beth hates it, and I've cut down, I have been days without one, but sometimes there just is no substitute." She sat on the edge of the deck in front of him, he could just make out her silhouette.

"I know what you mean," Chris admitted, as he saw her light up her cigarette, "And please call me Chris, I never did like 'Mister' much."

"Sure, if you want, it's just that..."

"What?"

"You seemed uncomfortable with me tonight."

"No, not with you, it's just..."

"I'm not going to apologise for being what I am, and I do love Beth, I won't hurt her, I promise."

Chris was at a loss as to what to say for a moment, but there was something about talking to someone you can hardly see that made difficult topics easier.

"It's not that, it's not you, not directly, not really. Jane told me about your problems at work, and well... it made me think."

"About what?"

"Me, how I have been behaving, my own preconceptions. The thing is, two of my team are involved, a couple."

"A gay couple?"

"Yeah, I haven't been very supportive, I have been... difficult." He took a pull on his cheroot; ZoŽ did the same but didn't speak, so he continued. "I told myself it was dangerous, it would compromise the team's safety."

"You're a federal agent aren't you?" she clarified.

"Yes, an ATF tactical team, we rely on each other to keep ourselves alive. I told myself they wouldn't be able to remain professional, in the face of the person they loved being in danger. The trouble is they had been having an affair for nearly three months without me or most of the others knowing, nothing changed, they were as professional as ever."

"So what is the problem?"

"One of them - and I have to ask you not to tell anyone, not even Beth."

"I understand, I work for the Pentagon after all, I can keep a secret."

"Well one of them is a very old friend, and I never knew he swung that way, I felt... feel, betrayed, we have known each other for a long time, at one time we were very close, like brothers, but he didn't trust me."

"So you're mad at him because you didn't make him feel safe enough to tell you his deepest secret, a secret that is a social taboo, something people lose their jobs over, are attacked, blackmailed and even murdered for?" she asked in a matter of fact voice.

"Shit! You don't pull any punches do you?"

"There any point, I mean, here and now?"

"No I guess not. And you're right, totally right, about all of it."

"Can I take a guess at something, might be a bit of a taboo topic?"

"At this point, I don't think anything is taboo."

"Beth told me about your family, and..." She sped up so he couldn't interrupt. "You see these two, your old friend and his lover, day in day out, happy, and you're jealous, he has what you lost."

He was going to deny it, but he couldn't.

"It's not their fault though is it?" she continued, "you can't punish them for what you don't have."

"But I want it again, I miss it." He didn't say 'them', this wasn't about Sarah and Adam, it was about love, the whole concept of it, the feeling it gave you, the feeling he got whenever he thought about Vin.

"And there is no chance you will find it? No chance that out there, there isn't someone you could love? I know it wouldn't be the same, but your wife... would she want you to be alone, if you found someone?" Darkness was giving her the chance to be bold, in a way she could never have done face to face.

"No she wouldn't, it's just, I don't think she would have expected me to..." he trailed off.

ZoŽ turned around, she could just make out his outline. "Expect what? To find love with a man?"

There it was, it was said; she had detected what he had barely acknowledged in himself.

"Yeah." He finally admitted it, he had feelings for a man, for Vin, that were not platonic.

"Would she mind, your wife? Would she have minded you having a relationship with a man?"

"Sarah? No not her, all she ever wanted was for people to be happy." He looked out into the black garden, away from ZoŽ, even though she couldn't see his face and the tears that ran down his cheeks. "And what do I do? How do I find out how he feels, how in the hell do you know? How?"

"You ask. Worst that can happen? He says 'get lost' - at least you'll know, one way or the other."

"Then what? I'll have lost my best friend."

"Can you go on like this, seeing him all the time feeling the way you do?"

"No... no I don't reckon I can. So what do I do if he says yes?"

ZoŽ got up and came over to him; she knelt down in front of him, her face just visible.

"One day at a time Chris, you take it one day at a time. Love is so precious and so wonderful, it is worth seeking, and if you find it - wherever you find it - worth fighting for. If you don't do this, you will live with the 'what ifs' for the rest of your life."

Very few people penetrated the formidable Chris Larabee's defences, but on this hot night, far from home, a young woman, a stranger, finally made the great Chris Larabee face his fear and his desire.

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Buck was there when Ezra woke up and he was there when he came around from the anaesthetic. He smiled groggily at his lover, and then at the dark navy blue cast on his wrist. He had been given a choice of colours before he was taken to surgery, and although he had dallied with the idea of black, the dark blue, the colour of his love's eyes, a colour that was fast becoming his favourite, called to him.

"Hello there sleepy head," Buck whispered, as he offered him a cup with a straw.

Ezra took the drink of water gratefully and then finally spoke. "Hello you, can we go home now?"

Buck couldn't help but smile, Ezra sounded like a whiney five year old. *The next thing you know,* he thought, *he'll be asking 'Are we there yet'.* "Soon, Babe, soon. First you have to convince the docs you're fit to fly and I have to go out, after breakfast, and get some stuff from the town, I'll be back soon I promise, and then, if the Doc says it's okay, we can go, alright?" Ezra pouted and put on a pretence at sulking but Buck just sat down beside the bed and ignored him.

Some five hours later Buck strode into the hospital with his purchases and Ezra's clothes. He had only brought one change of clothes with him and knowing Ezra always felt better when he was smartly dressed and clean, he had set out on a mission. Taking all Ezra's clothes, the suit pants and linen shirt he had been wearing when he found him, the chino's and designer polo shirt he had brought from Denver as well as all the underwear, he returned to the brothel where they had cleaned up and asked a favour. The madam, who now saw him as was an 'honorary member of the sisterhood' so to speak, let him use her laundry and even an iron. Buck wasn't the world's greatest with an iron, he had his shirts laundered, and did his best to purchase casual clothes you could wear straight from the dryer. Eventually one of the girls, a blonde called Candy, took pity on him and did it, muttering all the while about how helpless men were.

With the freshly pressed clothes on the back seat of the car, on hangers also provided by Candy, he had headed for the shops.

"What are those?" Ezra asked, eyeing Buck's purchases with a mixture of horror and disgust.

Buck looked at his gift, and wondered if Ezra could be so very elitist as to have never seen a pair of flip-flops. "Um, flip-flops, for your feet?" he offered.

"I can see that."

"Well why did you ask what they are? Honestly Ezra I can't go second-guessing you all the time. You can't wear them shoes that gave you the blisters, and I didn't bring any others," Buck explained.

"They have the Stars and Stripes on them," Ezra pointed out.

"Cool ain't it? They didn't have many in your size, there were these, some pink ones with a flower on and sort of clear ones with glitter in."

"Did it occur to you that just maybe you were looking at the ones meant for women?" Ezra asked, with the just a hint of amusement.

"Yes, I was, but they didn't have any small enough for you in the men's section." Buck winked as he held out the footwear, he did so like to tease Ezra about his small feet; though he was very pleased that the old adage about a man's shoe size and the size of his manhood wasn't true - at least in Ezra's case.

"Couldn't you find any loafers or deck shoes?" Ezra asked, still eyeing the offending objects.

"With them dressings on your feet and the blisters, you're better off with these - trust me?"

Ezra snorted.

"He's right you know," Doctor Chapman announced as he came in with Ezra's notes "and you had better be getting dressed because you are out of here." The doctor smiled as both men's faces lit up. He handed over a copy of the notes and the x-rays to Buck, for the doctors in Denver, he had to get another x-ray in a week and then the cast needed to be on for another four weeks. With luck and a little physical therapy, he would be fine in six weeks. There were more instructions for the sutures.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Ezra had called and cancelled his various stolen cards on Saturday, and by Sunday was able to pick up replacements for the two major credit cards at the airport. With those he traded up their tickets to business class. As the plane got closer to Denver, Buck became increasingly uncomfortable, he still hadn't told Ezra about his mother. After all it just didn't seem fair, he had a broken arm, his feet were so sore he could barely walk, he had been robbed - the paperwork alone, for the tiny gun in his pocket, was a total nightmare - he had lost half a good suit, all his credit cards had to be replaced, some were issued by the ATF and replacing them was a real pain in the ass. And on top of all that, just as he was happy he was going home, Buck had to tell him his mother was at home waiting for them.

Buck looked all around him, apart from a snoozing businessman behind them, they were alone.

"Look Ezra, there is something I haven't told you, I know I should have, and I meant to, but... well you were hurt and you needed a bath and a doctor and so I didn't and I should have... I'm sorry, but I didn't know how to, so I..."

"Buck, stop." Wilmington stopped mid-sentence and looked into Ezra's eyes. "You sound like JD. What is it you didn't tell me?"

"Umm, well, the thing is, I mean there wasn't any way around it, so I just made the best of it."

"What?"

"You have to promise not to make a fuss, don't get mad, it wasn't my fault."

"Buck, darling, Beloved, whatever it is we can deal with it. I could never be cross with you, now tell me."

"Well I went to the airport to meet you, and she was there... I mean what could I do? I couldn't say no, so she just sort of came along."

"Buck are you saying you met one of your old girlfriends, that you...?"

Buck had been looking down, avoiding eye contact, now his head snapped around to face Standish, eyes blazing. "NO! No nothing like that, I would never, you know that."

Ezra instantly felt guilty about doubting his partner. "Sorry, yes I know you would never do that. So who? Who did you run into at the airport?"

"Maude."

"WHAT!"

"Ezra ssshhhh!" Buck soothed urgently.

"Where was she going?"

"Um, well, to see you. What could I do? You were missing, I was worried, I couldn't think straightÖ"

"Buck? Buck where is my mother now?"

"Errrrr, in Denver?"

"Buck?"

"At our place."

"WHAT!"

"Look you have to be quiet, please," Buck begged.

"Alright, alright." Ezra took a calming breath or three and then called the flight attendant and asked for a bourbon. Once he had the drink he looked back at Buck, who was so pale he looked like he was about to faint. "I know it wasn't your fault, I know what she's like. She's in the apartment?"

Buck nodded.

"So she knows."

"No, not necessarily."

"Buck you don't know mother, if she's there she knows, believe me."

But Buck told Ezra all about his explanation, and all his precautions. He had moved his underwear from the drawer to a grip in the bottom of the wardrobe, so it looked like he had just moved it. For the same reason, he had put his toiletries in his old leather wash bag. All 'incriminating' evidence - like the lube from the bedside cabinets - he had wrapped in a clean pair of Ezra's older boxers and put it at the bottom of the laundry hamper, sure Maude Standish wouldn't investigate in there.

Ezra thought about this and what else there was around the apartment that would have given them away.

"Your washing?" he asked

"In a pillowcase, by the washing machine," Buck reassured.

"Books, the ones by the bed?"

"In the bag with the underwear."

Ezra was proud of Buck, he really had thought of everything, as far as he could see.

"I am going to tell her, just as soon as we get there, you know that don't you?" he assured.

"I know - but..." Buck took Ezra's hand, "only if you want to, I don't want to come between you and your mother."

"Between us? No you could never come between us. Between mother and I there is a gulf so wide the whole Grand Canyon could fit into it. She will either accept, which would be preferable, or not, in which case the gulf will widen just a little more, I sincerely doubt anything will ever close it."

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck and Ezra were not the only members of Team Seven flying home to Denver that day. Chris had cut his journey short and flown home. He didn't want to bother anyone, so, despite the expense, he took a cab to the end of his driveway and walked the last half-mile. The sun was warm, the breeze sweet with the smell of summer and horses, home. As the house came in site he spotted Vin's jeep. It wasn't unexpected; no doubt Vin was tending the horses before heading over to Josiah's house. After checking the house and dropping off his bags he headed toward the barn. Sure enough, he found Tanner mucking out the stalls, whistling tunelessly as he did. He had his back to Larabee, stripped to the waist, wearing his faded old jeans, the ones with no pockets left that were so threadbare, Chris reckoned one tug would cause them to just fall apart in your hands.

"Vin?" Chris called, trying to concentrate.

Vin looked up and over his shoulder. "Hey Cowboy! You're early." He straightened up and turned around, leaning - as he always did - on the pitchfork. "Thought you weren't due back until t'morrow?"

Chris just stood there staring at him, trying to think straight and breathe normally.

"What's up? Chris?" Vin took a step closer, his whole posture suddenly stiffer and ready to move fast. "Is something wrong, is someone hurt? Is it Ezra?"

Chris finally gathered himself together. "No, everyone is alright as far as I know. Why would it be Ezra, what's wrong with Ezra?"

Vin visibly relaxed again, going back into his customary slouch. He related what he knew about Ezra's mishap. Buck had called him the day before, to say they were on their way home.

"Trust Ezra," Chris muttered. He looked up into those sky blue eyes. "You better put your shirt on." *'Cause if you don't I'm never gonna be able to concentrate,* he thought. "And come in the house."

Vin took a step closer. "Why?"

"We have to talk," was all he would say, as he turned to go.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Maude had spent a pleasant Saturday exploring the shops of Denver, she had even made a purchase or two. In the evening she had spent her time having a meal at the city's top hotel and sitting in Ezra's very expensive recliner, reading one of the books she had found by her son's bed - a biography of J P Morgan. But something was nagging at her, something was not quite right. She spent some of that evening and much of Sunday morning wandering around the apartment. Mr Wilmington had admitted he was living there, and indeed there was evidence to support this. And yet something didn't ring true. A nagging thought entered her mind, one she had had on the odd occasion before. In all modesty, her son was a handsome man, charming, witty, he had money - not as much as he could have had, but he was comfortably off and yet there never seemed to be any women in his life, he seemed to live a celibate life. But even as she had the thought, she dismissed it. Everything she knew about Buck Wilmington told her it just could not be, and if she found it unlikely her son and the rather uncouth Mr Wilmington could share an apartment, how much more unlikely they could be... no it just couldn't be true.

She was just wandering back from the master bedroom yet again, when she heard the key in the lock.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Part 8

"Buck I can manage by myself, really I do not need you to..."

"Alright, alright, have it your way."

Maude stood where she was and listened to the two men, as the front door swung open and she watched Ezra manoeuvre into the apartment, he was limping heavily and his left arm below the elbow was encased in a navy blue cast.

"Hello darlin'," Maude announced.

Ezra looked around to locate his mother; he gave her a thin smile.

"Mother, you're still here, how... delightful."

"Goodness boy, what have you done to yourself?" Maude asked, running a distasteful eye over her distinctly battered son.

Before he could answer, Buck came in with his bag.

"Mrs Standish," he greeted her, trying to retain a neutral tone in his voice.

Maude ignored Buck as she watched Ezra limp over to the sofa and ease himself down into it.

"Mother, I believe Buck greeted you?" Ezra glared at his mother.

Maude frowned and then looked over at Wilmington, still standing by the front door.

"Darlin'?"

"It is impolite to ignore someone who has acknowledged your presence," Ezra ground out.

Maude was still unsure just what was going on but she finally turned to face Buck. "Hello Mr Wilmington." With that she turned back to Ezra. "Dear boy, just what do you have on your feet? Have I taught you nothing? Appearance is everything, remember?"

"Well Mother, they are called - in medical circles - dressings, and they are used to cover wounds in order to prevent debris and other contaminants entering an open wound, furthermore they..."

"I was referring to the footwear boy, not the no doubt unnecessary ministrations of the medical profession."

"Flip-flops, mother, they are called flip-flops, and Buck was kind enough to purchase them for me, I was in need of footwear that would not aggravate my injures, and these were most appropriate and comfortable."

Maude finally sat down in the chair opposite her son. "What is wrong with your arm?"

"It is broken, that's why it has a cast on it," Ezra announced, as if he was talking to a three-year-old.

Maude regarded the cast as if it were an alien invader.

"It is most unbecoming, dear, is it really necessary?" she asked.

"Yes mother, it is necessary, the bone is broken, I wish it to mend in such a way as to be of some further use to me, it was also most painful."

Maude sat back in her chair, clearly unconvinced. "If you say so dear, don't make a fuss." Without changing her voice or looking up at Buck who was still standing in the hallway just outside the living room, she asked, "I believe some refreshment is called for, can you make Earl Grey Tea, Mr Wilmington?"

"Reckon so," Buck admitted non-committally. In fact Ezra had taken great pains to teach him how to make tea. Ezra liked tea on a Sunday morning, and since Buck was an early riser and insisted on getting the breakfast ready, he had to teach him how he liked it.

"MOTHER!" Ezra exploded.

"Darlin' what is the matter now?"

"Buck is not a servant, you cannot just order him to make tea," Ezra fumed.

"Ez it's okay, I'll leave you two alone fer a bit, while I get it," Buck said, as he headed to the kitchen. He could see Ezra wasn't happy but he wanted to give mother and son some privacy.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Ezra leant back to rest his head on the back of the sofa and closed his eyes, in a vain attempt to rid himself of the pounding headache he had acquired as they drove in from the airport. He didn't exactly want to have this conversation with his mother, but then he didn't wish to have to keep hiding and lying to his only living relative. He had more than once planned the conversation, often to the last detail. He would take Maude out to dinner, to the most exclusive restaurant in town; she would never make a scene in public. He would then wine and dine her, slowly introducing the question of his personal relationships; eventually he would reveal that he was gay. At this point he would signal to Buck, who would be watching them from another part of the restaurant, he would join them and his mother would then understand - at least in Ezra's imagination.

"Dear what is the matter? Really you do make a fuss about the smallest things," Maude tutted irritatedly.

Ezra took a huge breath and sat upright again.

"Mother, how kind of you to grace me with some of your precious time this holiday weekend," he started.

"You know I like to see my darlin' boy whenever I can," Maude purred.

*So long as it doesn't get in the way of making money, being seen in the right places and involve any sickness or injury on my part,* Ezra silently added. He remembered bitterly the times his mother had left him, dumped him or refused to come to him when he had been sick or hurt as a boy. *You just hate the fact that I'm hurt don't you? Somehow a less than perfect son reflects badly on you and that can't be allowed, can it?*

"Mother," Ezra started.

"Yes dear?"

"Mother I have to tell you something."

"Yes dear, what is that?"

"You are aware - indeed you have seen fit to comment on it from time to time with increasing regularity - that I have had no personal relationships for a great many years."

Maude turned her emerald eyes fully on her only child. She had worried he would never find anyone to settle down with, time was ticking on for him, she just hoped it would turn out to be someone suitable, acceptable.

"Indeed.""

"Mother I have found someone. Someone special, someone amazing."

"Really darlin'? Well it is about time, and while discrimination is a fine thing, I have been telling you that suitable young women will not just fall into your lap... especially all the way out here," she kept her eyes on him, "so far from proper 'society'." The disdain in her voice, not just for Denver, but for his chosen profession, was all too evident.

"Yes, really, someone amazing, someone strong, someone who loves me as much as I love them, someone who needs me, cares for me, cherishes me, who gives me a reason to live every single day."

"She sounds like a paragon of virtue, dear," Maude observed.

Ezra laughed, the idea of Buck as a paragon of virtue was amusing, no matter how much you loved him.

"No, no I wouldn't say that exactly, but loyal, honest, brave, caring, considerate, intelligent, insightful, loving..." *Actually maybe he is a paragon?* Ezra silently considered.

"Sounds too good to be true dear, I hate to burst your bubble, but there has to be a catch, there always is, and unless you find it now, the marriage will never last."

Ezra snorted. "You are giving me marriage advice, you? A woman who has been married - what? Five times? Besides who said I was getting married?"

"You have to be married son, or the children will not legitimately carry the Standish name."

"Now we get to the truth, you want grandchildren to carry on our glorious, or should that be insidious traditions, my happiness is only of peripheral import. There will be no children mother, not ever."

He could see she was about to speak, but he didn't give her the opportunity. "I'm sorry, we both are, but that's just the way it is. And no... there is no chance that medical science will be of any help."

He watched his mother processing this information, her eyes never left him, looking for what she knew was not being said.

"So who is she? Do I know her? Is she from a good family?" his mother finally asked.

Ezra took a deep breath. "She is a he, yes you know him and his family background is irrelevant."

He waited, waited to see if she had actually heard him, and just what the reaction would be.

"He?" she asked in a very quiet voice, that was nevertheless laced with ice.

"Yes, he."

"But that would mean that you..."

"Yes mother."

"But that can't be."

"Why not?"

"But... but... you're a federal agent, you have a gun..."

"So? Mother, some of the world's greatest warriors were gay, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Lawrence of Arabia, that is just a few. One in ten adults is gay - whether they know it or not - so believe me I am not the only gay man with a gun!"

"Do stop saying that word," Maude admonished irritatedly.

"Why mother? What word would you like? There are lots, some less savoury than others, how about..."

"Stop, I know what the words are. Dear... how long have you been... you know, when did youÖ?"

"Gay mother. The word, currently and as we have just established, is gay. Since college, that is to say that was when I recognised it in myself, but probably always, since puberty anyway. You don't choose it mother, it just is, I was born gay, if you like."

"This is not my fault!"

"No mother, it is no-one's fault, it is not a 'fault' at all. I am not ashamed nor do I regret it, these past few months have been the most blissfully happy of my life."

"Months!"

"Yes mother, and don't go getting on your high horse about this, if you bothered to stay in touch, to ever let me know were you were, I would have told you sooner, I just didn't want to do it over the phone or in an e-mail."

"You say I know this person?"

Ezra knew Buck was listening so he just tilted his head back and called softly.

"Beloved?"

Buck stepped into the doorway.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Maude looked up at Wilmington. She had had the thought and dismissed it. She still couldn't reconcile what she knew about him with what her son was telling her. The image of her son in the many team pictures she had seen came to her. In almost all of them he was next to Wilmington, the picture of him and Buck was the only other one on his desk, and on Buck's desk a similar picture. As she remembered this, Buck walked into the room and sat down beside Ezra. He had kept his eyes down, other than a quick look at Ezra, but Ezra was having none of it. He reached out and captured his lover's neck and pulled him over for quick gentle kiss. He had promised Buck he would tell his mother about them, and he wanted it clear to her just what they were talking about. Filled with Ezra's strength of purpose, Buck looked up into Maude's green eyes.

"Son of mine, your mind is clearly addled by lust. Him? I may not know Mr Wilmington that well - but - I do recall you regaling me with tales of his Casanova like behaviour with the female population of Denver. And besides, any lasting partnership must be one of equals, you cannot believe you can have a lasting relationship with this... this..." She waved her hand in desperation at Buck. "This red-neck oaf!"

"Mother!" Ezra cut in, his voice hard with warning, "take... that... back!" he ground out, "and apologise to Buck."

"It's okay Ez, leave it, least I know where I stand," Buck all but whispered.

"No Buck! No, it is not okay. Mother you don't know Buck, very few people do, this man..." his hand reached out and captured Buck's their fingers intertwining, "is so much more that what you see before you, he is intelligent, and gentle, and intuitive and.... Why am I doing this? I don't have to justify myself to you! I'm a grown man, an adult and I will live with whomever I choose. I told you - face to face - out of courtesy, take it or leave it!"

Maude stared at her son for a long time, as an uneasy silence descended on the room. Finally, she took a breath before she spoke.

"I see, well I believe I will have to think on that for some time, I do not take kindly to ultimatums, especially from my own son." She rose sedately from the chair. "Good night dear." She was about to leave when she caught Ezra glaring at her. "Good night Mr Wilmington." With that she disappeared into the guest bedroom.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

"Well, that went well," Ezra commented.

"Ez don't joke about this." Buck sat back against the sofa.

"I'm not, I had envisioned a far more volatile reaction from her - she is still here after all. All in all I think that went better than could be expected."

Buck cringed inwardly for Ezra, that he thought what had just passed was a good reaction, spoke volumes for his expectations of his relationship with his mother. Did Ezra think everyone had this kind of relationship with their mother? Sighing, Buck sat forward again.

"Come on Babe, she's right about one thing, let's head for bed, you need a bath - for that matter so do I."

Ezra looked sideways into the midnight blue eyes that smiled back at him with such love.

"And how are we going to achieve it this time?" He held up the cast. "You planning on taking me to the Belmont?"

"No, but I have a plan in mind, trust me?" With that he did the one thing guaranteed to get Ezra to say yes. He tilted his head to one side and smiled, with hint of a smirk. It was a little trick he had learned, and Ezra was helpless against it.

"I always trust you Beloved, you know that."

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck helped Ezra limp into the master bedroom and sat him on the bed. He then went into the dining room and returned with one of the designer bar stools. Ezra gave a questioning look, but Buck just grinned at him and disappeared into the bathroom. The bathroom was large, the heated floor was made of blue slate slabs with narrow grooves running between them, the walls were tiled with mosaics in different shades of blue, from almost navy at floor level to sky blue at the ceiling. The shower in one corner was set directly on the floor, the huge dark blue corner tub had no overflow, it could be filled right to the brim, all excess water just flowed onto the floor and disappeared between the slate tiles into a hidden drain. Buck stripped off quickly and took a swift but thorough shower, then he placed the stool in the middle of the room and returned, not even bothering with a towel, to Ezra.

Ezra watched Buck stride back into the bedroom, water still clinging to his hair, and dropping occasionally on to his broad shoulders, like tiny diamonds. As Ezra watched a huge grin spread across his face, Buck was already half hard as he strode, with his usual unselfconsciousness, over to Ezra. Kneeling down, the taller man smiled up at his lover.

"Your bath - for want of a better term - awaits you, sir."

With that Buck reached out and began to undo the fastenings at the top of Ezra's pants.

"I can do this myself, I'm not helpless you know?" Ezra put his hand over Buck's larger one.

He looked down to see the look of disappointment on Wilmington's face as he pulled his hand back.

"Sorry Ezra, I know you can do it yourself, I just..."

Guilt washed over Ezra, he remembered Buck telling him how much he enjoyed 'unwrapping' his presents. He reached out to capture the retreating wrist, holding it gently, he ran his thumb over the bracelet.

"Just because I can do something, doesn't mean I want to do it, doesn't mean I wouldn't mind someone else doing it for me." He was rewarded with a hundred-watt smile from his lover, as he placed his hands behind him on the bed and leant back to enjoy Buck's skilled and talented ministrations.

His long, surprisingly nimble fingers, made quick work of the button and zip and in no time he was peeling back the cotton waistband. Ezra levered himself up so that Buck could slip both pants and boxers down and past the firm twin globes of Ezra's, tightly muscled ass. Then gently he eased them the rest of the way down the well-muscled legs, pausing only to remove Ezra's patriotic footwear. Once Standish was divested of his lower clothing, Buck sat back on his heels to admire the view. The fine linen shirt was now tented as Ezra sat there smiling seductively.

Buck didn't bother to remove it as he bent closer, he just brushed it aside, so that Ezra's cock peeped invitingly out between the folds of white fabric.

"Mmmm, now that is very tempting, it must be said, most inviting," he commented.

"Well don't let me stop you taking up the invitation," Ezra purred.

Buck was sorely tempted, much as Ezra had been boasting about his cock sucking abilities, Buck considered himself no slouch in that department.

"Inviting but no, bath first." Buck stood and extended a hand to Ezra.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

It took a little doing, but eventually Buck had Ezra sitting - bare-assed - on the high bar stool, which he had set in the middle of the room. With infinite care and maddening slowness, Buck undid the buttons on the shirt, eventually removing it. The bathroom had been lit with candles, all around the big room and on every surface they burned, flickering, a warm glow bathed Ezra's finely defined body in a honeyed light. And as Buck lifted the full pitcher of warm water, the light caught the little droplets that fell from it as he carried it over to Ezra, sparkling like jewels as they splashed on to the warm slate floor, which in turn, as it became wet changed colour from grey to shimmering blue.

"Tilt your head back," Buck whispered.

Ezra complied, and closing his eyes, enjoyed the sound and feel of the warm water as it was poured over his hair. He heard the pitcher being returned to the counter beside the twin wash basins and then relaxed even more as Buck began to massage in shampoo. Strong caring fingers worked not only on his hair but also on his scalp, kneading and rubbing, working out the last vestiges of tension, pushing Maude as far into the background as possible. When the head massage was finally done, he all but whimpered as the physical contact was lost, but sighed contentedly as clean water rinsed his hair. Ezra really did like to feel clean.

"Don't move." The command whispered in his ear was so low and soft it was barely audible, but to Ezra it was as sweet as music.

The next thing he felt was soft warm lather being spread on his face, and he prepared himself for a nice, close, wet shave. Buck had shaved him in the Red Room, it had been the first time his lover had performed this very intimate, masculine ritual for him. He had shaved Buck every day for nearly a week when he first got home from the hospital, the very fine motor control needed was one of the things affected by the head injury and one of the last things to return to normal. Shaving another man is a tricky thing, not the same as doing yourself, Ezra had learnt as he went along, the first attempts were not too close, but he had at least not cut Buck, whose open regular features made the job easier. Buck on the other had seemed more than competent, he moved the triple bladed safety razor with practised confidence, even in candlelight. Curious but not bothered, Ezra sat back to enjoy the sensation, a good, well executed, wet shave was one of life's little joys.

"There, pretty as a picture," Buck announced, as he patted Ezra's smooth, hairless chin dry.

Ezra sighed and sat up to look at Wilmington. "Buck?" he asked.

"Yeah." Buck was putting the towel he had just used in the hamper.

"Where did you learn to practice the barber's art so deftly?"

Buck took a moment to run that through the Ezra translator. "Oh, at the Belmont." He turned back to Ezra, to see he was going to have to give more information.

"They offer a 'Full Service' remember, including a barber, I used to work evenings for extra money. I can do you with a cut throat, if you want, it's like riding a bike - you never forget how." That devilish smile was back. "I can shave more than chins too!"

Ezra couldn't help it, his eyes betrayed his amused shock. "Really?"

"Oh yeah, all shapes all sizes - both designs!"

"A man of many talents."

"Babe, we have only begun to scratch the surface of my talents," Buck boasted with a wink.

With that he picked up a wash cloth from the basin of warm soapy water. He then stood in front of Ezra and so slowly it was almost in slow motion, he worked the cloth over Ezra's left shoulder, squeezing it so the soap-laden water ran out and down his chest and back. Ezra just sat and gazed as the light danced and flickered in those midnight blue pools of pure love. Not giving any verbal instructions, Buck lifted Ezra's arm, as he washed his armpit and underarm thoroughly and tenderly, the only sound the slosh of the cloth on bare skin and the plop, plop as drops fell to the floor. Still working excruciatingly slowly, he worked his way across those broad muscled shoulders, talking time to clean the neck and even behind the ears. He worked the water and soap down as far as the small of Ezra's back but, much to his disappointment, stopped short there. Then he worked to the right shoulder, arm and around to the front again.

"Miss me?" he whispered.

"Mmmm." Ezra was all but flying.

Buck refreshed his wash cloth and began on Ezra's chest, working up a rich, fragrant lather with Ezra's expensive sandalwood soap. As he worked, he let his fingertips stray onto the smooth hairless skin, finding already hard nipples and playing with them. Ezra gasped, his back arched so that he was thrusting his chest forward, seeking greater contact, but Buck was not ready to move up a gear yet. Much as he was enjoying giving Ezra pleasure, he had other plans. Leaning forward he captured Ezra's lips and kissed him gently as he knelt down in front of the southerner. Taking care not to get the dressings wet, he washed the legs and feet, with a reverence and care that was almost spiritual.

The job was almost done, the last part would be the most difficult because it required the most self-control. He retrieved the biggest, thickest towel they had and folding it to form a thick mat, lay it at Ezra's feet.

"Babe?" he asked softly.

"Mmmm?"

"I know it hurts, but I need you to stand up now, here on the towel."

Ezra looked down, not just at the towel but at his lover, kneeling before him, naked, somehow vulnerable and invincible at the same time. If Buck asked him, he would have walked through fire. So he just smiled and eased his way off the stool, suppressing a wince of pain as he stood on the soft towelling. But pain was soon to be banished, other more powerful feelings took over, as the warm, fragrant wash cloth passed over the small of his back, little rivulets of warm lather ran between his ass cheeks. Instinctively and with no verbal instruction, he moved his legs further apart as the cloth moved deeper, following its own trail of soap. Deeper it worked, until it passed that special opening and Ezra almost fell as his body gave an involuntary spasm of pure erotic pleasure.

"Easy tiger, we ain't got to the main event yet," Buck chuckled as he reached up to clasp Ezra's hand and steady him.

"You mean this isn't it?"

"Hell no boy, this is just the trailers."

"I always like the trailers."

Buck suppressed a laugh and continued to wash. He moved around to face his lover.

"Just one last thing to do," he explained.

"Leaving the best till last?"

"Absolutely."

Buck squeezed out the wash cloth just above the now fully erect penis, coating the proud shaft with thick creamy lather. Then he abandoned the cloth and worked the soap in around and under the shaft with his fingertips. He coated the balls in their sack with such gentleness it was as if nothing more than a feather had touched him. Ezra's head swam, he swayed, reaching out and taking hold of Buck's head to steady himself.

"Soon Babe, very soon," Buck assured.

"It had better be Beloved, your ministrations are most stimulatingÖ" he suddenly gasped and swayed as Buck's thumb passed over the slit at the end of his shaft. "Oh good Lord."

Buck smiled to himself and repeated the action, ignoring the almost painful ache in his own, rock hard shaft.

"I don't care if you're done or not, please Buck," Ezra all but pleaded.

Smiling wolfishly to himself, Buck released Ezra and stood to face him. "Very well, my eager little bea..."

"Don't you call me an 'eager beaver'!" Ezra warned. "JD is an 'eager beaver' not me."

"Oh really, so what are you?"

"Desperate!" With that Ezra finally took back some control, when he reached forward and pulled Buck down to kiss him, long, deep and hard. Buck relaxed into the kiss, running his hands down Ezra's back and over his ass cheeks. Taking a firmer hold, but without breaking the kiss he managed to lift Ezra up enough to allow him to wrap his legs around Buck's hips. Now locked together Buck carried Ezra out of the bathroom and into the bedroom once more. Finally settling him down on the edge of the high bed.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck ran his hand up Ezra's thigh, it was still slightly damp. As he reached the top of the thigh, he let his thumb spread out and slip down into the side of Ezra's groin. He leant down and captured Ezra's lips, briefly, only just long enough for Ezra to return the kiss before he moved on, brushing gentle kisses down the side of Ezra's neck, along his shoulder, stopping briefly to nuzzle his ear, before moving on to the collar bone. Ezra lifted his head back to expose more flesh at the same time as running his uninjured hand through Buck's thick, luxuriant, slightly damp hair. His hand suddenly clenched, holding on to a lock of hair as Buck's kisses reached his nipples, kissing the left one while toying with the right. The thumb resting in Ezra's groin was moving, pressing down as it rubbed up and down in the crease at the top of his thigh. As Buck released his nipple and moved further south, Ezra became a boneless heap, falling backwards to lie down on the bed, his legs still hanging over the edge.

He knew what was coming and he didn't have to wait long for it. The head of his shaft was captured and held in soft, warm, exquisite captivity. He gasped as the skilled mouth moved deeper; the stimulation became more intense.

"Oh good God, oh Lord, oh... oh my God!" He raised his head. "Buck, my mother is in the next room!"

Buck heard him, but didn't stop; in fact he ran his lower front teeth along the ridge at the back of Ezra's shaft. Ezra practically came off the bed in sheer ecstasy. Buck released the member, and looked up at his lover.

"Want me to stop?" he asked, totally serious.

"Only if you want me to shoot you!"

"Sure?"

"This is my... our home, and I shall do as I please in it."

"Well alright." Buck grinned and stood up.

"Aren't you going to..." Ezra looked imploringly at his now weeping cock.

"Nope I want us to do this together, joined, one." He held out his hand, their mutual signal for lube. Ezra could just about reach the drawer in the nightstand, his hand groped about in a totally empty drawer. He looked desperately at Buck.

"Ooops!"

"What?"

"It's still in the laundry hamper." Buck stood up, he grinned down at his lover, laying on the bed with his lower legs dangling over the edge, slightly spread, his erection standing to attention, a look of pure want in his eyes.

"Hold that thought!" With that he was running back to the bathroom.

While he was out of sight Ezra decided wanton was a good look for him, so spread his legs a little wider and propped himself up on his elbows to await Buck's return.

"Oh my!" Buck exclaimed as he ran back.

"Come here big man I need you," Ezra cooed, "Need you inside me, need you to make sweet love to me. Need you to..."

"Take you to heaven and carry you home?" Buck was now back beside the bed.

"With a rocket!" Ezra added. "And such a big rocket!"

The first time Ezra had seen Buck fully erect, he had been slightly alarmed. There was no denying it was in proportion to the rest of him, which was to say big; very long, an impressive width - impressive but not impractical as it turned out. He had been worried he would get hurt, that he couldn't accommodate Buck safely. His fear had lasted just until the first time Buck made love to him. He had done it with such tenderness, such care, so slowly and gently, with such consideration for his new lover, that Ezra had felt just incredible, earth shatteringly good pleasure, no pain, only love. That was when he knew, in his heart, that Buck was different, that he wouldn't hurt him.

Buck had opened the lube and quickly coated himself; both of them were now so in need of relief, it was painful. Stepping up close to Ezra he ran a slicked finger over Ezra's sensitive opening. He was ready to work Ezra open but it was clear to him this wasn't needed, Ezra was more than ready.

"Well, well and you said you weren't an eager bea..."

"Don't even think it, let alone say it! Just for God's sake do something!" Ezra gasped out, spreading himself even wider.

Buck moved in, with practised ease he slipped inside Ezra, using all his skill and self-control - as he always did - he took it slowly and carefully until he felt himself pass the powerful muscle ring. He had become an expert at knowing just when Ezra was ready for him to move. There it was that gentle, half cry, half sigh he gave, Ezra melted into the mattress as Buck began to move, just a little, not too fast, not too deep - not yet. His wide hands spread out around Ezra's hips, he began to pull Ezra's smaller frame toward him to meet his thrusts. Ezra instinctively moved his hands to reach for Buck's, their fingers touched and instantly intertwined. Ezra gave a little tug, his eyes locked with his Beloved. In response Buck pulled him up, gently, in one smooth fluid movement, putting no pressure on the broken arm, not risking the connection between them. As he came up Ezra bent his legs around Back capturing him around the thighs. Their hands slipped up to come to rest, with Ezra's on Buck's shoulders and Buck's cupped around Ezra's neck.

They were now moving as one, building speed and friction, heat rising between them, perspiration breaking out all over their bodies. Lips found lips; the kisses became more urgent and more intense. Buck's hand broke contact with Ezra on the left side, allowing him to reach down between them and take hold of Ezra cock, which was now weeping copiously. It felt so hot it was almost burning in his hand, as his skilled fingers worked their magic, just as it had in the Jacuzzi. Knowing he was close to the edge he sped up his ministrations, feeling Ezra's body trembling, it was as if they were both vibrating at the same pitch, making their own sweet music - if a dog had been in the room Buck reckoned he could have heard them. And then it came, the release, together, as one, in perfect harmony, just as they wanted it.

Ezra dragged his mouth from Buck's and threw his head back.

"Oh God!" he breathed, his voice low and throaty with emotion. "God? What did I do to deserve this?" He pulled his head up to look dreamily into Buck's eyes. "I can't have done anything to be so rewarded, it must be you." But Buck wasn't able to answer, or even comprehend what he said, his world had darkened at the edges and he was holding on to Ezra, just to stay upright.

"Oh Ez, oh..."he finally muttered as the world came back into focus. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that was... oh my God!"

"My thoughts exactly, my Beloved, my one and only, my Buck." Ezra had just enough strength to pull himself forward and kiss Buck once more, gently this time, not on the lips but on the forehead. "Thank you," he breathed.

Then his head slipped past to rest his chin on Buck's broad shoulder, Buck mirroring him on the other side. They remained locked together like that, even as Buck's cock softened within Ezra they stayed locked together, clinging on to each other, each feeling the other's heart beat against their own chest.

"I do love you so much," Buck whispered.

"I love you my Beloved one - always."

How long they remained like that neither was sure, but eventually Buck eased himself away, as he slipped out, Ezra all but whimpered as the connection was lost, his legs, still locked around Buck's thighs, tightened.

"I have to clean us both up," Buck explained in his softest, most velvet-coated voice. "I will be back very soon my darling."

Ezra relented and opened his legs just enough that Buck could go, but would feel Ezra's feet running along his legs as he moved back.

"Soon?" he pleaded.

"Very soon, I promise."

"Bring two," Ezra called as he watched Buck walk away, delighting in the rear view of his tall, lean lover.

Buck cast a glance over his shoulder and raised a quizzical eyebrow, Ezra just smiled, so Buck shrugged and went in search of two fresh wash cloths. By the time he got back Ezra had turned down the quilt and was sitting up against the headboard propped against a pile of pillows. Buck settled himself on the edge of the bed. He leant over to rest one hand on the bed on the far side of Ezra's legs, and dutifully handed over one of the wash cloths. As he washed Ezra's abdomen, chest and groin, Ezra did the same for him. In truth Buck didn't need much cleaning, but that seemed to be beside the point, long after Buck had finished Ezra was still washing Buck's chest with meticulous care. Buck indulged him, sitting up he let Ezra take his right hand, and gently turn it over palm side up, and with the same meticulous care, clean it, even though Buck had washed his hands while he was in the bathroom. Finally Buck placed his hand over Ezra's as it worked on his hand.

"It's clean now," he whispered.

Ezra looked up. "I like doing it, I like to..." He looked up at his lover.

"What?"

"Sometimes I like to be the one who takes care."

Buck reached out and ran the back of his finger down Ezra's cheek. "I know my love, and when I was just out of the hospital, you did - remember?"

Ezra nodded.

"You take care of me every day Babe, every day that you are with me, every day that you make me feel I am worth something..." Ezra was about to speak, but Buck placed a finger on his lips. "You take care of me with your eyes - so full of love, with your touch, your very voice takes care of me, even that you let me look after you, that, takes care of me."

"You are worth something Beloved, you are worth everything to me, everything. And I'm never more happy than when you take care of me, however you do it."

Buck leant forward and kissed him softly, while he gently removed the wash cloth from Ezra's hand and put it on the floor. Usually there was a small bowl in the bottom of the nightstand specifically for used cloths, but it too had been removed by Buck to deflect Maude, so just for tonight Buck placed the damp cloths under the bed, the carpet would survive, just this once.

Buck was about to manoeuvre over Ezra, to settle on the far side of the bed, when he remembered something. Suddenly he stood up and crossed to the wardrobe.

"What are you looking for?" Ezra enquired.

"This!" Buck stood up holding the gift-wrapped tie he had purchased at the airport, just two days ago; he had almost forgotten it. "I got you a welcome home present."

By now he was back at the bed, sitting on the other side, next to Ezra. He thrust the package at Standish.

"If you hate it I can change it - no problem - so if you hate it say so, 'cause I know how particula' ya are, I won't mind honest, it's just I wanted t' get you a present, there wasn't much selection, at the airport I mean and I didn't have a lot of time, so I..."

"Buck stop, you're babbling again, I will love it whatever it is." He began to open the box, letting the silk tie fall into his hands. The room was lit only with one bedside light, so at first Ezra didn't see the little motif for what it was. But in the poor light, the blue matched Buck's eyes, that alone would have made it perfect, then he looked closer to see the little silver-grey triangles for what they were. "Buck it is quite, quite perfect, I shall treasure it, and wear it, knowing it is a mark of your love. My own Cervus." He wrapped the soft material around his casted hand and held it to his cheek. "I would have purchased a gift for you also, I was planning on it, it's just that... well, you know."

Buck was now lying on his side, propping himself up on his elbow. "I know Babe." He reached out to stroke Ezra's cheek. "I don't need anything, I have you, that is gift enough for anyone."

Ezra turned on his side as Buck pulled the quilt up over them both, then he wiggled back so he was pressed up against Buck. Buck's arm came over his shoulder, his hand came to rest against Ezra's heart, his other arm snaked under the pillow and under Ezra's head, Ezra's hand reached out and their fingers interlaced. Finally Ezra reached out with a hand that still had the tie wound around it, to turn off the light, and they settled down for the night, content and safe within each other's embrace.

<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>*<>

Buck wasn't sure what woke him, but as he came full awake he was aware of two unpleasant sensations, his arm, the one under Ezra's head, was asleep, 'pins and needles' assaulted him. Second, his stomach was growling at him, audibly. The only food he'd had all day was the meal on the plane, though since it was first class, it hadn't been too bad. But it wasn't enough to keep a big man like Buck going. In the hospital, while Buck did his laundry, Ezra had had a meal - he complained bitterly that it was inedible but had clearly eaten it all. And they never did have the tea Maude had sent him to make. He tried to ignore both problems and get back to sleep, but it was no good, so eventually he slipped his arm out from under Ezra, careful not to wake him. Then equally careful not to wake Ezra, he slipped out of the bed. Normally he wouldn't have bothered with dressing, but this night he got a tee shirt and a pair of boxers from the wardrobe and pulled them on in the dark before setting out for the kitchen. The very act of getting dressed had worked off the 'pins and needles' so he now only needed food.

The kitchen light was on, though the apartment was quiet. As Buck turned into the kitchen he was confronted by Maude, she was leaning up against the fridge, dressed in what appeared to be a silk kimono; her hair tied back in a ponytail. She was sipping a cup of - from the smell if it - tea. Her eyes lifted to acknowledge his presence but she said nothing. His first instinct was to run, or at least retreat. But Buck Wilmington was not a retreater by nature. He stepped into the well lit room and crossed to the stove, turning on the heat under the still hot kettle. He then prepared a mug with some instant drinking chocolate, while the kettle re-boiled. Maude watched but said nothing. Once he had made the drink he turned to the fridge.

"Do you mind?" he asked politely but with enough edge for her to know he was not happy.

She moved to her left, far enough to let him open the door. Inside he scanned the contents, as it happened he had stocked up before the weekend, so precious time with Ezra would not be lost on shopping. He pulled out some cream cheese and oak smoked salmon and moved to the counter. After removing a bagel from the breadbox he began to fill it with the cream cheese and smoked salmon. Maude watched him silently as she sipped her tea. Finally as he ate his late night snack she spoke.

"Do you really think this little charade of yours can work?" she asked icily.

Buck didn't respond.

"What do you want from him? I may be rich but Ezra isn't, you won't get any money you know?"

Still Buck didn't respond.

"Did you corrupt my son? What did you offer him? Did you promise him something?"

Buck slowly and deliberately finished his bagel and picked up his mug of chocolate.

"Did I corrupt Ezra?" he asked. "Me? Did I abandon him with strangers because he inconvenient? Did I leave him to fend for himself when he was hurting and in trouble? Did I teach him he could rely on no one and nothing but himself? Did I teach him that only one thing in life is important, the acquisition of money? That friendship, loyalty, helping those less fortunate or weaker, serving your community, is all just useless and a sign of weakness, did I teach him that? Did I belittle his achievements? Did I make him feel he was a failure, no matter what he did? Did I do all that?" He looked straight into her eyes, the same colour as Ezra's. "No I didn't corrupt your son - you did."

"How dare you!" Maude fumed. "I raised my son the best way I could, he never wanted for anything. I taught him how to survive, I..."

"I dare because I love him. Love him, real love, not the sham you call love. I will never let anyone hurt him if I can stop it, and that includes you. I want you to be part of Ezra's life, but not if you continue to hurt him. That's what I offered him, love."

"I am his mother, I love him, I do not hurt him." Maude had put down her cup, unwilling to let Wilmington see how much her hands were shaking.

Buck looked her in the face. "What is your son's name?" he asked.

"Excuse me?"

"What... is... your... only... child's... name?" he ground out.

"I don't understand," Maude did indeed look puzzled.

"Just say it, say his name?"

"Ezra?"

"Right. Do you realise that is the first time you have used his name all evening, you call him "darlin'" and "dear boy" and "son" but never "Ezra". It is like he is a possession to you, a thing you were saddled with to use, as you want. Well he ain't, he's a person, a very remarkable person, he has done stuff, stuff you wouldn't believe. He saves lives, he helps make this country safe, he enriches the lives of his friends, and all that is worth more than any amount of money." He put his own cup down and pushed himself off the counter he had been leaning on. He took a step closer.

"No one 'corrupted' Ezra, but you, his own mother. No one made him gay, he just is. We are what we are. He - your son - makes me happy, more happy than I thought I could ever be, more happy than I deserve to be. And I believe I make him happy, he tells me I do and he doesn't lie to me. Can you say the same? Well?" He took a step closer, forcing her to look up to look him in the eye. "If you make him choose, you will lose him - forever - think about that. I made him a promise all right. I promised him I wouldn't let anyone hurt him, that I would protect him, and I will, no matter who threatens him or hurts him - you understand me? What have you ever promised him? Have you ever even kept a promise to him?"

Without another word he put the cup in the sink and walked past her and out into the corridor, she moved to the doorway and watched him disappear into the master bedroom. Leaving her alone with her thoughts. She remembered Ezra the boy, so eager to please her, so desperate for her approval, he would practice his card manipulation, work diligently at card counting, try so hard to get top grades, all so she would notice him. And she used that to make him stronger, better, smarter, by denying him the approval he so wanted, she had forced him to get better. But what harm had she wrought?

As she thought, Maude Standish found herself doing something she hadn't done in years - tidying up after someone else, she was absentmindedly washing up Buck's plate, knife and mug along with her own. Finally she made her choice, she walked up to the master bedroom and finding the door not quite shut, she pushed it with her fingertip. It swung silently open, allowing a shaft of light from the lit corridor to spill into the room, it reached just as far as the edge of the bed. As she looked in she could make out Ezra's bare chest above the white linen, behind him the dark mass of Buck Wilmington's unruly hair, a strong, naked arm draped protectively around her son. As she stood there Buck raised his head to look her in the eye. Nothing passed between them for what was probably only seconds but felt like hours. Then Ezra's arm moved, his fingers found Buck's forearm and closed around it.

"M' B'ck," he mumbled, pulling the strong arm closer to him in his sleep, like a child with a comfort toy.

As Maude watched Buck bent his head and gently kissed Ezra's cheek, he looked back up at her. Finally she nodded; just the merest hint of an affirmative, but it was enough. Buck smiled as he lay his head back down and Maude backed silently out of the room, bathing it in darkness once more.

THE END

"Safe in the arms of love."

Adiutor Amor Cervus Index On to: First Encounter

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