Queen Of Hearts

by MAC

Disclaimer: I don't own them, or the show they rode in on. I wrote this for fun, and no profit is made from it.
Archive: Starwinder's, You Want Fries With That?, and The All-Ezra FanFic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: A new relationship is threatened when Ezra goes undercover in drag and then is assaulted.
Warnings: Violence, rape, language.
Author's Note: Exploring some rather dark areas.
Completed: 29 September 2002
Feedback: gentlerainfall@yahoo.com welcomes comments

"Gotta go." He leaned down and licked across one cheekbone, tasting the flavors of light musk, lavender water, and spice. A thin slit of green eye opened. Buck smiled and rubbed his mustache against the short straight nose that nearly qualified as snub. The other eye blinked lazily and then both opened a bit wider. "Sleepyhead."

Ezra closed his eyes again briefly, then opened them and studied the large man hanging over him. Those dark blue eyes were like a velvet night, he could so easily get lost in them. Buck was the most exquisite lover that he'd ever had. The man's giving nature made their time in bed together pleasure beyond his wildest dreams. He reached up both arms and encircled the strong neck of the lanky surveillance expert. "I will miss you."

"Me too." Buck slipped his own arms under the compliant body of his lover and gathered the man up closer, nuzzling Ezra's neck as he felt the smaller man hug him tightly. "You be on time today, baby, Chris is gonna get mean if you keep showing up so late."

"Yes, dear."


"Alright, alright. I shall endeavor to arrive timely today." Ezra flopped back on to the mattress as Buck released him and sat up. "I shall not, however, make it a habit."

"Just once in a while, like when you know Chris has a bee in his bonnet."

"Like now."

"Yep. That Curren case left a bad taste in everyone's mouth." Buck rolled to the side and propped himself up on one elbow, to better watch his Ezra wake up the rest of the way.

Both men were disappointed in the outcome of that case, as were the rest of Team 7. The gunrunner had managed to avoid jail time with a plea bargain. It hadn't been pretty in court yesterday. Chris Larabee had been there to testify along with Ezra, who had given a closed-chamber deposition in respect for his undercover status. Neither had expected the DA and judge to release County Curren on his own recognizance after the bargain was set. The whole team had been in shock when Larabee and Standish returned and reported what had happened. The rest of the day was shot as the men grimly finished reports and closed the case, the feeling of betrayal by the justice system leaving a bitter taste in all their mouths.

Buck lay back to stare up at the ceiling, arms behind his head. "Just be on time this morning, Ezra."

"I will." The southerner's quiet, serious response confirmed his own understanding of just what their team leader was going through now.

Then Buck shook his head to rid it of such grim thoughts. "How about we stay home tonight?" He crossed his far arm over his chest to toy with one of Ezra's nipples. The small brown nub rose immediately in response. Buck leaned in and licked it, feeling Ezra's tremor at the special attention. He grinned and blew across the dampened flesh, feeling the tremor turn into a shiver.

Suddenly Ezra was surging up, pushing Buck over and down on his back, straddling the older man with a cocky grin. Thoroughly awake now, he suggested, "How about we stay home all day?"

Buck wriggled beneath his captor. He tried to bend his neck so that he could raise his head and shoulders up to re-attack that sensitive nipple. Ezra simply chastised, "Uh, uh!" and pressed down on the wide shoulders with his hands firmly. "Is that a yes?"

Buck sighed and reluctantly shook his head in the negative. "Sorry, babe, gotta go."


Sitting at his desk, staring at the screen of his computer as he tried to pull together a report on recent street activities and rumors that he had collected from contacts, Ezra gradually lost focus. Buck's long, strong form lounged at the edge of his vision and distracted him. He blinked and tried to concentrate but it was difficult. All his mind wanted to do, apparently, was relive that simple morning scene. Here at work, the hidden nature of their steady relationship was getting harder to maintain for the southerner. He worked hard at keeping his feelings for Buck Wilmington suppressed but, as time passed and it became clearer to him that he wanted more than just a lover, he wanted a commitment, it also became harder to keep his love from shining through when he saw the man who'd captured his heart and mind.

That Buck didn't seem to have that same trouble depressed Ezra. Buck swung both ways and still managed to date the occasional young woman, boasting about it freely in the break room later. On the nights they spent together, he'd always assure Ezra that these short liaisons were only to cover their own long-term affair. Ezra cringed at that word. Affair. He'd been reluctant to take Buck's overtures seriously at first, just after his arrival at Denver, but Wilmington had been persistent and worn him down. Their early times together had been basically sexually driven encounters. But, Buck was such a gifted and tender partner that slowly Ezra had begun to wish for more. The first time that Buck finally chose to spend the entire night with Ezra, the southerner had been deliriously and secretly happy. Hiding his love from his lover was almost as much of a challenge as hiding their new relationship from the rest of the team. Buck had assured Ezra that Chris knew about his friend's double-dipping and had no problems with it, as long as it was discreet. Ezra wasn't so sure.

Ezra lifted up several sheets of printouts and buried his head a bit deeper, blocking his view of where Buck was teasing JD Dunne, their computer expert, unmercifully. Regaling him with advice in dealing with 'the fairer sex.' Ezra's mouth pinched into a painfully straight line. A line of whiteness began to form around it. Vin Tanner, their sharpshooter, who shared a facing desk with Standish looked up at that moment and became concerned. Ezra looked pale and haggard. Damn that Curren case, Vin decided, it's got us all running around biting our own tails. We need a new case, get everyone up and working again.

Just then Chris Larabee strode through the bullpen area of the Team 7 offices. The expression on his face was enough to still the weak joking and feeble attempts at humor that were slowly mellowing the team members. The dark clad team leader slammed the door to his office shut. Josiah Sanchez, the team profiler, leaned back in his seat and began a silent count holding up fingers one at a time. When his sixth finger went up, Larabee's door smashed back open and Chris stuck out his head.

Nathan Jackson, their team medic, who was sitting across from Josiah, aimed his index finger like a gun at Standish.

"Ezra, get in here," Chris barked before ducking back inside his private domain.

JD reached across the aisle and handed Josiah a dollar bill, saying, "I really thought it would be at least seven seconds."

Nathan Jackson leaned across to pluck the bill from Sanchez's hands and stuff it into his own pocket. "Told you." He smiled. "Had to be Ezra. Always is."

Buck looked up from where he was scooping several crumpled paper 'basketballs' off the floor. "What you going on about, Nate?"

Jackson shrugged as Josiah folded his arms and leaned back in his swivel chair. "You know Chris, Buck. When he gets mad, he always has to blow off steam. Ezra's always an easy target. Man's forever breaking the rules."

"Yeah, well, we all do that." Buck wondered why he was suddenly becoming defensive for his friend, that is, more so than usual. He eyed the back of the small southerner as the man rose silently and walked stiffly through Larabee's office door. Buck wondered if Ezra had noticed the side bets. Yep. He notices everything. He sat down in his chair slowly, for some reason finding himself worrying that Ezra might have taken those jests to heart. He's a big boy, can take care of himself. Ezra is like the original Teflon man, Chris will just bounce off him. But, Buck sat serreptiously watching the now closed doors. Waiting.


"You have got to be joking."


"Mr. Larabee, I must protest. I simply will not be comfortable in this assignment."

"Not a choice here, Ezra. Travis wants Herve' Jardain to go and you are the best suited to do the job. And, what's more, you know it." Chris Larabee, leader of Team 7 of the ATF Denver office leaned back in his desk chair and folded his arms across his chest. He was not surprised at Standish's reaction. It had been his own only an hour earlier up in DA Travis' office when the Jardain case was dumped in his lap.

Ezra's green eyes flashed impatiently. "I know nothing of the sort!" He stood up from the chair he'd been sitting in and paced the length of the small office and back to stand in front of his boss. Running a hand roughly through his chestnut hair, he frowned and glared at Larabee.

Chris had to suppress a grin. Ezra's glare was damn near as good as his own. He dropped his arms onto his desktop and placed his hands there flat as he met the glinting, angry eyes of his undercover agent, one of the best, if not the best, in the business. "Ezra, there is no one else in the Denver office who could pull this off and that's a fact. None of the other team's agents even has the physique no less the talent."

"Physique!" Ezra nearly squeaked in outrage. He'd started to pace again but now came to a quivering halt at the front of Larabee's desk, leaning down on his knuckles. "The answer remains the same. NO." Heart pounding, he cringed inside at the way his life seemed to be on a collision course with disaster, just when he was becoming comfortable with his new team mates. And he was not sure what Buck would say to this, something rather acerbic no doubt. Would he even let Ezra do it? Not that he could prevent Ezra from doing his job. Would he care? Ezra's very system curdled at the thought of his private and professional lives colliding.


"Chris, I'll resign first." Ezra swallowed hard and sank back into the chair behind his knees. Despair welled up from within, another debacle. Just like his entire life.

Larabee paused. Ok, this wasn't just Ezra's normal prima donna act. Nope. This was much more serious. "Ezra? What is it?"

Standish dropped his head and began to wring his hands together, an action so totally alien to his normal savoir-faire that Chris began to feel the stirrings of alarm. He tried again. "Tell me." The words came out with uncharacteristic gentleness, causing the smaller agent to raise his head slowly, eyes open for once, showing fear and hesitation. Fear? His undercover agent never showed fear. What was going on here? Chris found himself speaking more quietly, calmly now, impatience dissolving in the face of his agent's behavior. "Please, Ez, what's wrong? You have a history with this guy?"

"No, nothing like that." The southerner spoke in a soft voice now, barely above a whisper. "It's the job itself. Going in like that."


"In drag, damn it!" Ezra's eyes flashed for a moment with his usual fire, then the fire flickered out uncertainly and he began to look anywhere except into his boss' perceptive eyes. This is it. Another career bites the dust.

"Ezra, it's just a dress."

"Chris, I can't, I just can't." He shook his head vigorously, nervously tugging at the knot of his tie that suddenly felt much too tight. How did a day that had started out with sunshine and promise turn into such a nightmare? His worst dream was about to come true.

Chris waited, silently. Watchful, he saw all the signs of panic rising. With a sudden grunt, he was up and circling around his desk to come to a stop at the side of his unhappy agent. Squatting, he put his hands on top of Ezra's where they had fluttered down to fiddle with his trouser creases. Pressing down, he held the fidgeting hands in place and peered up at the southerner. "Calm down. Ezra, it's just us in here. You trust me, don't you? So tell me, what's wrong here?"

The smaller man raised his chin abruptly though he didn't break eye contact. "Chris, my private life is just that. But this might change that." He swallowed and then drove home the dagger to his life with Team 7. "I'm a homosexual."

Chris blinked. "You're gay?"

Ezra nodded, unflinching now that he'd said it. It was as if a great weight had fallen off his shoulders, leaving him calm and centered. The rest was not his to confess.

"Gay." The ruminating tone was not disparaging. Chris tightened his grips on Ezra's hands. We can deal with this. "And this has what to do with the Jardain case?"

"Oh, god, Chris, don't play dumb!" Ezra actually laughed, finding himself nearly hysterical with the irony of the situation. "You want me to go in as a drag queen!"

"If anything, sounds like this makes it simpler?" Chris wasn't sure what the problem was, now more so than ever.

Angry, Ezra sat up abruptly, then drew his hands from beneath Larabee's and stood, stepping away from the other man. "I said I was a homosexual, not that I dressed in women's clothing. For god's sake, Chris, this is like rubbing my face in clichés."

Larabee pushed himself off the floor and stood facing his agent at a distance of mere inches. "Ezra. No one has to know your personal preferences. This is just a job. A job. You are the best at what you do. You impersonate personality types and adjust to the situation. And, damn it, you're good looking." Chris grabbed the man's shoulders and shook him lightly. "Hell, you must beat the fellers off with a damn stick!"

Standish froze for a moment, and then the weirdness of the situation and the double entendres in Chris' last statement caught up to him. He gave a sound somewhere between a cough and a chuckle. Then another. His eyes began to sparkle and his dimples appeared. The next chuckle rippled out into a snorting laugh and by now Chris was smiling too. Then they were laughing together, collapsing into the two visitors' armchairs. Between gasps, Ezra asked, "Then you --- have no problem --- with my proclivities?"

Chris wiped his eyes with the fingers of one hand, the other waving off the question negligently. "Damn, Ezra, you should know me better'n that by now. You're my agent but also my friend. Neither of those things changes just because you like boys more than girls."

As abruptly as his world ended, it began again. It would be alright. Chris knew and didn't care. I still have a job, a place with the team. Emboldened with relief, Ezra flopped back in his seat and let his legs stretch out so that they rested on the heels of his expensive Italian loafers. "A dress." This time it was said with pensiveness. "And I have to sing, too?"

"You've got a good voice." Chris was relaxed now, comfortable with this hidden, seldom seen side of Ezra.

"Yes, but hardly that of a woman, or even of the impersonation of a woman." Ezra was rubbing at his lower lip with one knuckle now thoughtfully. "I shall have to experiment. As to the dress," here he looked over at the man sitting beside him, "I shall have to see what I can acquire."

"Remember it has to be purple."

Ezra grimaced. "Not exactly the best color for my complexion."

"It's Herve's favorite."

"Yes, yes, I know. So it shall be purple." He spoke distastefully. After a few moments of quiet introspection, he raised his eyes to Larabee's again. With daring, he asked the question that might result in this being the last day he worked for the ATF. "As for my private life---"

Chris didn't let him finish. "It remains just that, private." He put a hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed. "I mean that. As far as I'm concerned, we never had this conversation. Unless," here he paused, watching green eyes fill with momentary fear again, "unless you tell me differently." The fear left to be replaced by gratitude.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome." Chris dropped his hand to his side and stood up facing Ezra, offering the hand to him. When Standish accepted it, he pulled the man to his feet and then did something that Ezra had only seen Larabee ever do with Vin Tanner, their sharpshooter. He shifted his grip, reaching up Ezra's arm to clasp it just below the elbow, offering his own in return. Ezra emulated the movements, grasping Chris' arm in a show of brotherly affection, a warrior's clasp.

Now all Ezra had to do was face Buck tonight and tell him. Just lead up to it slowly, tell him about the target first, then the undercover assignment. It would be alright, he thought hopefully. Surely, if he handled it right, Buck would understand. Then Chris was leaning past his shoulder, facing out into the bullpen again. "Time for a meeting, boys. We got a new case." Ezra froze. Aw hell.


The briefing went on in absolute silence. After an initial look of surprise and speculation, Buck had not looked directly at Ezra again. Ezra knew this because he kept his eyes on Wilmington the entire time, wondering why his lover wasn't protesting. Maybe he wants to wait until we're alone. He must know I didn't have a choice in this, mustn't he? Ezra had to work to keep from gnawing at a knuckle in worry and frustration.

He'd left the offices of the ATF shortly after the meeting, to go lay the groundwork for his part in the operation. Which meant dressing the part and locating a safe house that would double as his 'home' within his cover.

Although he kept his cell phone on and with him all day, there was no word. No word at all from Buck.


The jazz club was exclusive and catered to a specific taste that wasn't for everyone, though upper class tourists often found their ways here. Locals tended to be rich, famous, and incognito, or a distinct and unusual segment of the population. Vin Tanner sucked in his breath and scooted close to Buck Wilmington's side. Both men were attractive and knew it, but Vin normally didn't think of that in relation to other men. His gruff manner and fighter's stance kept those who might think differently at a distance, normally. Only tonight wasn't normal. Tonight Ezra was going under big time, and Vin and Buck were there as back up if needed. Problem was that they were going in as a couple. Vin was not at all happy about this. He'd seen the looks some of the bigger men cast his way. He could take any one of them down but that would blow the case. So, he tried to seem an attentive date, only Buck, damn him, was too busy enjoying all the views and Vin was feeling very, very exposed. Gonna kill Chris.

Buck breathed deeply, stretching up his impressive frame above most of the crowd that milled at the door to the club. So, this is where his Ezra was. It had taken him all day to adjust to the thought that he'd have to share the man with some lowlife. He couldn't bring himself to see Ezra or talk with him. For some reason, he still had trouble seeing Ezra as the rest of his life. This might be the perfect testing time, he decided. See exactly what the little guy means to me. If how he felt right now was anything to go on, then he was in serious trouble. He blanked out the anxious thoughts that crowded at the back of his mind and redirected his focus on the here and now.

Buck twisted to see around where he and Vin stood, with passes, waiting to be admitted. He hadn't questioned how DA Travis had gotten the thin wafers of embossed parchment and ink. He could see several rather interesting looking specimens looking his way with hungry eyes. Animal magnetism. He smirked into the collar of his open shirt, the stiff white combed cotton button down seemed to glow in the neon lights. With his experience on the prowl other nights and other places, he knew that simple and stark was the best way to go for a man of his height and build. He noticed Vin's nervous movements, small and jerky. Not at all like their normally placid and laid back sharpshooter. He decided it was time to mind the roost and dropped an arm securely around his 'date.' The boy was acting like he had ants in his pretty little pants. Buck grinned down at Tanner. "Easy does it, Junior. You're pretty as a picture."

Vin shot a look of pure venom up at the merry blues eyes of his partner.

Entrance in the exclusive club required membership, special passes or patience to wait until the door manager saw fit to admit another few of the anxious would-be clientele. Their target, Herve' Jardain, was a long time member of the club. He liked boys and men and often went 'shopping' there, picking up someone from among the customers or from among the performers. Ezra was there to entice Jardain, hopefully making a connection with the man who supplied guns to half the criminal element of the Rocky Mountain basin.


Earlier that afternoon, Ezra had ponced into the stage area for an audition for open talent night at the mike. Wearing generously pleated trousers and a tight fitting white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he'd felt like the Great Gatsby as he strolled in. His clocked socks fit into brown and white saddle shoes with taps in the tips and heels. Not that he was planning on dancing but he liked the clicking noise and knew it would draw attention to him. His slim figure, accented by the wasp waist of the trousers and clinging shirt and by the derriere boldly molded by the design of the back seat of the pants, was attracting second glances even before he hummed then sang softly into the microphone.

Without accompaniment he made love to that mike, half-whispering the words from 'Evergreen,' awarding hard-ons to a number of those in attendance at the rehearsal and auditions. The stage director licked his lips, he knew a good thing when he saw it and hired Ezra on the spot. He'd have to perform three times that very night. Standish hadn't quite expected to move that quickly and had to contact Larabee from a mobile phone as he headed back to the borrowed flat in the pink light district. A friend of a friend had made it available as the perfect flop for a gay cross-dresser. Explaining that he'd be going under that very night, he listened to Chris curse and then congratulate him.

"Ok, we need to cover your ass." Ezra could almost hear the wheels turning as he waited out the short silence. "I'll send in Vin and Buck as backup. They'll go in as guests."

"Chris, you do know what kind of place this is?"

"Yeah, yeah. Buck won't have any trouble. Vin might, but he'll do it." There was, Ezra could swear, amusement in Larabee's voice. Oh, my, I think Mr. Tanner is going to have words with you later, Mr. Larabee.

Buck had stayed away. No visit, no call, nothing. Ezra felt the separation and the silence deeply. It hurt. He'd hoped they had something real. Now it looked like Buck just didn't care. Ezra immersed himself in his plans and work, unable to deal with the emotional turmoil that was tearing him apart just below the surface.


Returning with costume and makeup later that evening, it hadn't taken Ezra long to dress for his performance. Yancy Darling, a real drag queen who loved 'her' work, shared the minute dressing room with the new singer. "Sweetie, you're just the cream on the cake! That milky complexion, that devilishly auburn hair, and, oh, sweet cakes, those wicked green eyes!" Yancy patted 'her' lavishly stuffed bodice theatrically. The middle-aged man, currently dressed in an elaborately sequined cowgirl outfit, complete with blonde Dolly Parton wig and bosom, was applying thick red lipstick to puckered lips, rolling 'her' heavily caked and lined eyes at Ezra with drollery. "Honey, you just watch out for some of the men out there. You're a prime piece. We got some regulars who like to be rough with the 'ladies' and I sure would hate for your first night out to be a bad one." Batting those long black lashes in the mirror to check for evenness, Yancy grinned. "You are fresh meat and, baby, fresh meat to those wolves can be real dangerous so you just stick by this old lady and you'll be fine."

Ezra, who'd come into the room hesitantly, was now shimmying into his panty hose, and mentally listing all the illustrative terms he intended to use to describe Larabee and Travis at the next team picnic. Listening to Yancy, he began to smile, finally seeing some humor in his situation. Darling was easy on the eyes and a gentle soul, he could see. 'She' was friendly and generous in sharing makeup tools and mirror space. Obviously used to competition, Darling was a regular who knew 'her' place in the scheme of life and seemed content. Ezra was envious.

"Thank you, Yancy, I'll do that." Ezra leaned into the mirror to apply his own stage makeup, adding just a dusting of glitter to highlight cheekbones and a few other select spots. He didn't attempt to manufacture a glitzy look such as Darling created, just a sleek, sophisticated lady-like glow such as might have been seen in Bourbon Street jazz clubs in the fifties or sixties. The dark purple silk dress was almost black until the light hit it, then the deep color washed across the raw material in waves. Subtle, it suited the style he was trying for. He knew he'd contrast sharply with the almost honky-tonk looks of most of the stage performers tonight, but that would help him attract attention from their target. He ignored the flurry of butterfly wings beating at the insides of his stomach walls. Oh, god, I can not believe I'm actually going to do this. And Buck is going to be out there watching. A look of sheer panic followed by pained despair colored his green eyes darker and muddied their hue.

Yancy, who'd been watching as Ezra completed his costume and makeup, saw the change come over the younger man. The long time performer wondered who that look was for. This fella is hurting bad. "Honey, you'll be fine. I heard you this afternoon," Darling nodded into the mirror as startled eyes met 'hers,' "and you are very good. It's a different look for the club but different gets attention."

Ezra sighed and nodded without speaking, painting his lips now a deep blue-ish magenta.

Yancy patted the creamy, bare shoulder nearest 'her.' "He real important, hon?"

"He --- who?" Ezra was flustered by the unexpected question.

"Oh, baby doll, I've seen that look before. Someone special has your name on his heart, hum?"

Ezra hung his head for a moment, before drawing a deep breath and suddenly feeling like confessing everything to the chatty performer. "Special, yes, but I don't think his heart is engaged."

"Oh, sweetie! How bad! How sad!" Yancy leaned over and delicately hugged 'her' dressingroom-mate. "You treat him like a hot potato, sweetie, you just drop him! You were made to be loved, if he isn't doing it right, then he don't deserve you."

Ezra actually felt himself blushing. Suffused with color, he raised huge damp eyes at Yancy and smiled. "Don't get me started, Ms. Darling, I'll never get on that stage tonight if you do."

"Sorry, honey. 'Ezra,' isn't it?" Yancy cocked 'her' head to the side. "Nice name, kinda biblical, huh?" 'She' smiled provocatively, clearly trying to change the subject and the mood. "You get to 'know' many guys, in the biblical sense, Ezra-doll?"

Ezra turned back to look at his saucy inquisitor. "Yancy. You are a true piece of work, you know that?" He let the gentle admiration he was feeling for this person color his words.

Now it was Yancy's turn to blush, even the caked makeup not hiding it completely. "Aw, sweetie, you know how to turn a girl's head!"

"YANCY! You're on!" came a knock at the door and a loud shout from the stage manager's assistant.

"Oh, I gotta go. You be good - I know you will!" With a quick brushing of cheeks, the female impersonator trotted out with swaying padded hips and spike heels of ruby sequins, and a swirl of petticoats that foamed around 'her' knees.

Ezra sagged on his stool, the room suddenly dingy and empty without Yancy's larger than life presence. He'd be going on soon, there'd be a short band-only number between Yancy's set and his. He drew a finger across the image of himself in the mirror. "Sweet cakes, you're not going to come out of this in one piece," he told his image. His image simply looked sad and tired as it stared back at him.


"Strangers in the night What were the chances It would turn out right?"

Ezra's throaty contralto husked into the microphone, rising to a clearer sound at the high notes. He crossed his legs, the fine silk stockings catching and reflecting the colors of the dimmed spotlights on his shapely limbs, the illusion created of lots of long, long leg showing. His dark purple satin covered high heels gave his supporting leg an arch and curve to the calf muscles. He had absolutely refused to wear a wig, his own hair brushed softly forward into curling waves of bangs, the simple gold clip earrings glittering as he turned and arched his slender neck. That had been a definite advantage, he thought, as he let one curve of white shoulder rise with the bow of his neck. Although he normally didn't use them, he knew all the moves a female on the hunt or flirt makes. He studied people for a living, among other things.

Seated on the high stool, next to the pianist, he arched his back as he raised the mike and sang the next verse, then leaned back with one elbow on the piano, the draped flow of the silky, shimmering dark purple bodice suggested a well-built 'upper story' without actually revealing anything. The audience was silent, enthralled with the chanteuse, listening to the jazz riffs the trumpet player ran at the interval. One member of the audience in particular was seated down front, center. Herve' Jardain sat moodily drinking gin and tonics and staring at Ezra. Bingo. The man had sat through the first two of Ezra's sets, showing no sign of boredom or restlessness. Neither did he appear all that happy, though. He remained there, alone, studying this new performer.

Ezra let his free hand drop to his lap, then finger the slit in the short, tight skirt, a slit that ran along his thigh, exposing it nearly up to his hip. As the brass man finished, he brought the microphone back to his darkly glossed lips and hummed the first part of the chorus, ending with another breathy, "Strangers---" he paused as the man on bass plucked a few notes, then Ezra warbled, "in the night." The pianist ran the keys up and down and Ezra stood to nod to the audience. He lowered his lashes and looked through them at Herve'. He knew that his eye shadow enhanced the green of his eyes, giving it the appearance of a deeper, clearer hue.

Applause, general and enthusiastic, greeted the end of his third set of the night. He'd do one or two encores in a minute, since this was his last set of the night. He plucked his smoldering cigarette from the ashtray discretely placed at his side on the piano's lid and waved it once in the air as acknowledgement of the praise. Normally not a smoker, Ezra could show as a chain smoker if the role called for it. For this act, he'd decided a nervous mannerism that gave him some scope for enhanced body language would be a good idea.

So he cupped the half-consumed cigarette in the concavity of his hand, pinched between thumb and forefinger as he pulled smoke into his lungs deeply, cheeks hollowing, then lifted his head to blow out a long stream of smoke through puckered lips. The grayish spun cloud rose into the stage lights, adding to the already smoky interior of the exclusive little music club, where all the main performers were men in drag. The musicians were not part of that little quirk in the playbill. The talent had to be just that, dressing in women's clothing was not enough, you still had to have an act and show a professional reach or you never made it to the program at the Soiled Dove.

Standing in the shadows, by the bar, Buck Wilmington shook his head in admiration. Ezra sure made a sweet little bundle up there under the lights. He shifted his position slightly. Easing the tightness of his dress pants. Damn, his body was reacting too. He was supposed to be here to observe only but he was beginning to wonder if he'd be able to stay away. Licking his lips, he put his thumbs into his belt. Hands off, I gotta remember that. Except, well, damn, except Ez sure was an eyeful. Buck twitched his mustached upper lip and pursed his lips in thought. He looked over at Vin Tanner who sat perched on a bar stool beside him. Vin sure cleans up pretty, he thought, but without any special feelings of attraction for the very handsome young sharpshooter.

Currently, Vin was fingering his French boat collar and feeling thoroughly uncomfortable in the dress jeans and tight dark styled tee shirt that he was wearing under protest. The Texan's long golden brown hair was drawn back in a ponytail and he was sipping a beer, keeping a weather eye on both Ezra and Buck. Ezra because that was the job and Ez was his friend. Buck, because he was also a friend, but also because he'd come in with Wilmington and considered the man his 'escort' or to be quite blunt, his protection. Buck had already growled away two would be hitters who'd each laid hands on Vin, on his thigh, on his neck. At the feel of still another groping hand, he gave a sudden shiver and was half off the stool, just to get closer to Buck's personal space and the safety it provided. He knew that Buck was comfortable in this place, but it just wasn't Vin's style. I'm gonna get Chris for this. He set me up, just to give Buck a chance with Ez. I shoulda just told him that they're already together. Only, they don't know that I figured it out. Vin edged still nearer to Buck.

Buck decided to take things a bit closer to the action, he'd recognized Jardain in the front row and did not like the way the man stared so intently at Ezra during each of the agent's performances. He slung his arm over Vin's shoulders, pulling the younger man off the stool completely. "Let's go. There's a table near Ezra opening up."

Vin was so relieved to move away from the bar that he willingly allowed Buck to steer him towards the table in the front. There, in the front row, at the very next table, sat a thick, dark man. The swarthy shape was hunched over a drink, eyes glued to the stage and the singer in the tight, purple dress. The mini-skirted sheath left very little to the imagination, just enough to blur the edges of perception. Herve' Jardain was well and truly hooked. Ezra had done it again. Vin stared up at his friend in amazement. Ezra Standish was barely recognizable in the costumed performer who was husking out old standards to ripples of jazz piano and band accompaniments. If he didn't know better, he'd swear that he was watching a very sexy female up there. A beautiful woman. He stared, not noticing the way Buck Wilmington had taken to glaring at the man at the next table, not even hiding his reaction of disgust and anger.

Fuckin' shit is looking at Ezra like Ez's gonna be the man's next meal. Wilmington no longer saw any fun in this assignment.


Nathan and JD were playing a game of pool in the back as Josiah Sanchez returned to their table where Chris sat staring morosely at his beer. "It's only the first day of the case, Chris."

Larabee looked up at the big profiler and nodded slowly. "Just got a feelin' is all." He looked away and shrugged, pushing the sweating beer mug around the slick tabletop. "Ezra really didn't want to do this."

"He does have a stubborn streak," Josiah said with admiration as he lowered himself into one of the seats that edged the table at the back of Inez's saloon. Scratching at his chin, and taking a swallow of his own beer, he added, "Part of what makes him so successful, I'd imagine."

Chris grunted, his mind already on other things. Or, to be more precise, men. He was wondering how Buck and Vin were doing in that setting. He hoped that Buck would finally take a good look at their undercover agent. Knowing that Buck could go either way when it came to affections, he'd begun to notice how Ezra's gaze lingered on the tall ex-Seal on occasion. Would do them both good to settle down in a stable relationship and they were both his friends. Who'd ever have thought that Chris Larabee might be a matchmaker?

He sighed and lifted his mug to take a sip, then choked on it as a sudden picture of Vin, all slickered up and sitting in that club came to him. Sanchez patted his back with concern at the action. Larabee sat back, waving the other man off. "I'm alright, Josiah, just got to thinking what Vin must be going through right now."

Sanchez face bloomed into a wide grin. "Mighty uncomfortable, I reckon."

Chris chuckled hoarsely, "Yep, reckon he is."


Ezra hummed the final bit of his second encore, the breathy notes registering in the mike held mere centimeters from his lips. His sultry gaze was fixed now on Herve' who was returning the look with interest. Ezra sat back as he finished, resting easily against the piano at his back, retrieving his cigarette for a final drag as he watched through his extra long mascara coated lashes. Jardain had summoned a waiter who materialized at his side. He wrote briefly on a napkin and handed it to the waiter, nodding toward the stage.

Buck fumed, watching the exchange and beginning to regret he'd said nothing earlier in the day at the damn meeting when Chris sprung this assignment on them. He'd kept quiet, decided to wait and see. Now he wondered how he could have been such a fool, and how he could have left Ezra to his own devices all day without a word. Shit, I am a fool. He sat forward in his seat as he saw the waiter slip the folded napkin into Ezra's hand by stepping across the low footlights and up the two steps to the stage level.

Ezra took the offering from the young waiter who looked worried. I fear this isn't the first time this has been done, he thought as he unfolded the cocktail napkin in his lap. //Sit with me.// Hm, well this was the entrée they'd been hoping for. He raised his eyes, opening them wide and nodding silently at Jardain who smirked and sat back, folding his arms on his chest.

Ezra murmured his thanks to the pianist and gave a nod back at the rest of the jazz band members who all looked at him with appreciation. The pianist, Mark, reached forward to catch Ezra's wrist for a moment. "Ezra, be careful. You're very good, we'd like to be able to work with you again." He released his hold and began to play again, a soft roll of melody that the rest of the musicians picked up and began to play around. Mark, who was a slender, wistful looking black man with a balding head and close cut curls, looked away from Ezra now as his fingers ran the keys.

Ezra gnawed for a moment on his lower lip before chastising himself for disturbing his makeup with the uncharacteristic action. He totally ignored Buck and Vin at the table beside Jardain. They were awfully close, unprofessionally so. He didn't have time to speculate on why they'd moved in but it did create an added tension that he resented. Snubbing out the stub that was all that was left of his cigarette, Ezra rose gracefully to his feet, balancing on the high heels as if born to it. He gave a small wave to the second round of applause that greeted his departure, smiling slightly. Subdued elegance, some style, nothing too risqué - that was the way he'd decided to play it and it was paying off.

Jardain rose to his feet as Ezra approached, stepping down off the stage. "Come sit here, Ezra." The man boldly pulled back the chair beside his own, one large meaty hand wrapping around Ezra's nearest wrist firmly.

Standish felt a ripple of repulsion travel across his skin at the touch of the damp, big hand. So unlike his Buck. He refused to look over there. That would be professional suicide. So he allowed his target to guide him to the seat and seat him. Jardain instantly returned to his own seat but dragged it even closer so that they sat with thighs brushing. Jardain had released Ezra's wrist and now slid his hand up the southerner's arm over the cap sleeve and on across the milky white shoulders to wrap it there. He tugged until Ezra sank slightly against him. "Haven't seen you here before, Ezra. In fact, haven't seen you anywhere on the scene."

The undercover operative was ready for this. "Just got into town. Decided that the Deep South was just too humid --- and hot." He let the inferences grow in the silence, as he stretched his neck, finding Herve's lips nibbling and tasting at the tendons there. "Eager, aren't you?"

"When I see something I want, Ezra, I take it." Jardain's other hand came to rest on Ezra's thigh, then slipped up under the hem of the short skirt and fumbled between his thighs, finding the bulge that was between them. Muddy brown eyes looked up from where Herve' was staring down at Ezra's body. Locked with large green ones. "I want you." He said the last on a breath into Ezra's ear.

Buck watched the way Jardain drew Ezra down into the chair and then close. He started to rise to his feet, intent on breaking the two men apart.

Vin Tanner panicked. Holy crap! Buck's gonna blow this case! In desperation, the smaller sharpshooter flung himself at Wilmington as the surveillance expert shoved his chair back. Vin refused to think about what he was doing, just did it. Plunking himself down on top of Wilmington's lap and wrapping his arms around the big man's neck.

"What the hell do you think you're doin,' Vin?" Buck growled, arms automatically encircling the lithe smaller man's form as he teetered on Buck's thighs.

"Saving you and Ezra from a whole heap of grief," Vin hissed into Buck's ear. "You stay put, cause if you go after him now, you'll only screw up the whole case."

Buck lowered his head until his forehead rested against Vin's. He took in a huge lungful of air and sighed it out in a gust. "Yeah." He raised his eyes to look over one of Vin's bony shoulders at Ezra who was now half buried under the bulk of Herve' Jardain. Unconsciously, he gripped Tanner tighter still, eliciting a pained grunt, as he stared slantwise at the men at the next table. "He's touchin' Ez."

Vin ran soothing hands over Buck's back, resting his head on the wide shoulder. "Ezra can handle himself. He'll be alright, honest, Buck. You gotta get hold of yourself." Wilmington's fingers were hooked and burying themselves into Tanner's flesh. He wriggled on Buck's lap, trying to pull the man back from the brink. "Buck, look away, for chrissake! This's not the way to help Ez!"

Finally, reluctantly, Buck turned his head from the view of Jardain rising to his feet and drawing Ezra up with him. Buck closed his eyes and waited, carefully easing his hold on the friend in his lap. Geeze, Vin's really worried if he'd do something like this. That knowledge finally drew Wilmington back from the edge of truly insane action. Ez would never forgive me. He relaxed, feeling the tension leave Tanner as well in response. Together, cheeks rubbing, they watched as Jardain offered his arm to Ezra. Standish didn't hesitate, slipping one well-manicured hand under and around the arm as he stood up beside the bigger man.

While neither Tanner nor Wilmington ordinarily thought of Ezra Standish as feminine, at that moment, the petite shape of their friend against the hulking form of the gangster, the clothing and makeup and mannerisms, all conspired to create a very lady-like image. Ezra didn't look their way, tipping his head back slightly to listen to something his new escort was saying. He nodded once, lashes forming fans on his lightly rouged cheeks as he lowered his eyes again. Together the gangster and the agent sauntered slowly toward the exit, weaving their way through the tables, leaving several sets of worried eyes in their wake. The musicians on stage continued to play but all their eyes swung toward their band leader, Mark, who ran another riff on the keyboard and shrugged sadly, shaking his head in the negative once.

The young waiter, Juan, stood against one wall with two others, watching the couple's progress and sighing. It was sad. The 'lady' Ezra had been a good singer, very refined, he hardly knew 'her' but had liked what he'd seen and heard. Likely last time they'd see 'her' looking so nice. He lowered his head and scuffed at the floor. Nothing to be done.

Vin slipped off Buck's lap and stood, waiting while the bigger man stood also, dropping some bills on the table before putting a hand on Vin's shoulder and pushing him toward the exit. None of them had expected things to move so fast and they didn't have any other back up, no surveillance van outside, nothing. Just Vin and Buck.

Moving quietly out of the club, the agents reached the sidewalk just in time to see a long limo pull away from the curb, no sign of Ezra or Herve' Jardain. Tanner memorized the limo plates. Buck spit on the cement and cursed under his breath before grabbing Tanner's arm and half dragging him over to the rental car they'd used that evening. "Come on! We got to follow 'em."

Tanner began to run, Buck right behind him. They slammed into the car and Buck had it reversed and out of the side street space in seconds, dropping into a rough three point turn and squealing the tires as he spun the wheel and headed out in the direction that the limo had taken.


"Something to drink?" Herve' pulled open the wet bar from behind the limo driver's seat. Ezra, sunk deeply into the luxurious seat cushions, nodded languidly.

Jardain poured out two glasses of white wine and offered one to Ezra.

"Thank you."

"Ezra, you can call me Herve.'"

"Thank you, Herve.'"

"Here's to us. I want tonight to be the beginning of something lasting." The graceful words fell from the grotesque's face in nauseating contrast.

Ezra felt his stomach churn uncomfortably. He managed to keep the faint smile on his lips. It was going to be a long night, he just hoped the man wasn't into anything too kinky. Beyond favoring transvestites, that is.


"We lost 'em." Vin sat quietly beside Buck, listening to the despair in the big man's voice.

"Call in the plates. We'll see what turns up." Tanner turned sideways in the passenger seat and studied Buck. The big man was gripping the wheel tightly, knuckles white. He was slumped forward, staring out the front windshield, a blank look on his face.

"Ezra." The lost sound of Buck's voice worried Tanner, but he couldn't think of anything to do or say so he sat in supportive silence beside his friend.


"We lost them two blocks from the club." Buck's bald statement into the cell phone sent a cold shiver down Larabee's spine.

"You get anything?"

"Vin got the plate."

"Alright, give it to me and I'll sic JD on it. Then get back to the office, we'll all meet there."

Buck nodded, then answered as he realized he was still on the phone. "Yeah, sure."

After giving the plate number, he clicked the flip phone closed and looked over at Vin who was now driving. "Head for the office, Chris said we'll all meet there."

Tanner shot an evaluative look over at Wilmington. "We'll find him, Buck."

Buck turned to stare out the front windshield, whispering more to himself than to Vin, "Just hope it won't be too late."


"We're here." Jardain leaned across Ezra to open the limo door for him, then nudged him out with a thump of hip. Standish turned and dropped his legs out of the open door, hearing a wolf whistle from someone standing outside. Ignoring the uncouth acclaim, he set his high-heeled feet on the curbside pavement and found a hand under his arm, helping him rise and step out of the low-slung car. Before he could get his balance, he was pulled forward only to feel Jardain come up close behind him.

He shook his arm to free it, glancing up in irritation at the tall oriental man with a shaven head who stood impassively looking down at him before glancing back at Jardain. Ezra turned to face the other man, finding him uncomfortably close. "Herve'?"

"Alex, back off. Ezra is a real 'lady.' Show some respect." Jardain was looking peeved as he slung his arm back around Ezra's waist and guided the smaller man forward, past the now obvious bodyguard. "Come on in. I just have a little business to conduct, then we'll have lots of time to get to know each other." He nuzzled Ezra's neck again, leaving a wet, sloppy kiss behind.

The southerner clamped down on his body's reactions, suppressing a shudder at the feel of Jardain's tongue on his exposed skin. He focused on the other man's words. 'Business' could mean the transaction that Travis had reported was due to go down any time now. During Larabee's team briefing, he'd said that their AD had sources that knew of this latest deal and only needed someone in close enough to be a witness. They hadn't found a way 'in' until Travis' brainstorm of using Ezra in a dress to act as a magnet for the sick man's perversities. I wonder if they ever thought about how far it might have gone? Do they really think I'm that good, that I could keep this pig at bay?

Ezra's anger seeped away as his escort led him deeper into a complex maze of empty rooms, a small warehouse divided into partitioned storage areas. Finally, they entered a large room at the back, a number of bodyguards or henchmen at their heels. There in the greater room, waited other men, obviously Jardain's, with folding tables set up with a credible display of armament. Only thing missing is a "for sale" sign, Ezra thought as he wondered that Jardain would haul his 'date' along. With a sinking feeling, Ezra remembered the warnings he'd gotten from first Yancy, then Mark, and even, silently, from young Juan the waiter. He had a feeling that Jardain did not intend for him to see tomorrow. How droll. A disposable 'date.'

Ezra grit his back teeth, his spine straightening as he was pulled tighter against Herve's side. With a leer, the other man grabbed a hold of Ezra's hair and yanked back, exposing Ezra's throat and face. "Herve'? What are you doing?" He tried to play his part though it was quickly becoming clear that game time was over.

"Just having some fun, sweet little Ezra, just some fun." Then Herve captured Ezra's mouth in a bruising kiss, biting at his lips, teeth clashing as he gripped the smaller man's jaw and forced his mouth open with a thumb pressed into the jaw joint. Helpless in the face of the man's surrounding henchmen, Ezra clawed at Herve's suit jacket as the largest tongue he'd ever felt entered his mouth, filling it and punching against his inner cheeks and trapping his own tongue down and back against his throat. Gagging and choking, unable to breathe, furious and disgusted, Ezra struggled to free himself. In desperation, he finally jerked up one knee into Jardain's crotch.

The big man coughed and withdrew his tongue, licking messily at Ezra's mouth on the way out. He laughed then, letting go of Ezra's head and wiping his own mouth with the back of one hand. Ezra stepped away shakily, arms across his chest, hands clasping his upper arms in an instinctively protective gesture. "More later, honey." With a dismissive jerk of his head, two men moved purposefully forward to grab Ezra's arms and drag him back toward a wall.

"Just be quiet, little 'lady,' and you'll be okay." The first one smiled down at Ezra.

"For now," the other added with a chuckle.

The rear wall of the room began to move and Ezra realized that the 'wall' was a pair of sliding loading bay doors. On the other side of the now open space stood the buyers. A motley looking crew from Ezra's limited estimation, crowded back as he was. Alright, do your job, memorize faces, any names you hear, any conversations, actions, get it all down. He regretted not having a wire, or his team with JD's technological arsenal to back him up on this. He briefly wondered if Buck and Vin were near. But he and Jardain had left so quickly, he very much feared that his compatriots never had a chance to follow. Likely I'm on my own here.

Ignored by the rest of the men, at least at first, Ezra stood unmoving between his two current guards. The demonstration and sale went smoothly and a handshake deal with money and sample weapons exchanging hands in front of the ATF agent went down without interruption. Ezra grimly told himself that he was now a valuable witness and as such needed to protect himself, and get away. His job was done. Only, he looked up at the big men bracketing him, it wasn't going to be easy. He licked at the blood on his lips. Herve' had bit deeply, tearing his mouth.

When Ezra moved, his face left the shadows momentarily, exposing his face in blanched hot lights, the makeup fading into his basic bone structure, to the buyers. The lighting and the move were enough to make him identifiable, despite his current apparel and cosmetics. One of the buyer's men cried out, "Standish!" Guns appeared, flourished in hands among both groups as the man who'd shouted, added, "That means the ATF is here!" Instantly, everyone ducked low and began scurrying back out of the room.

Ezra was thrown to the floor and kicked by both men, the unexpectedness of it catching him off guard and flinging him, limply, against the nearest wall. He felt the pain of bruised, not broken he hoped, ribs as he curled up protectively.

Then Herve' Jardain was standing over him, raving madly, waving the largest handgun Ezra had ever seen in his face. "You fuck! An ATF agent! Shit, I'll show you what I do to shitting feds!" And he fired, the shot punching Ezra back in stunned disbelief that it could all go so wrong so fast. The bullet entered his side as he rolled on the floor and tried to twist away from the madman looming over him. Then Jardain was bending over him, straddling him as he lay gasping in pain, blood pumping from the wound. In the background, Ezra could hear other guns being fired and dimly, shouts of "ATF! ATF!" but here, only the heavy breathing of the man who stood over him could get his attention away from the pain that racked him.

Jardain reached down and yanked hard at the elegant dark purple skirt, tearing open a seam in the rear. Shoving the wounded man onto his stomach, he hooked his fingers under the waistband of dark silk panties and panty hose, ripping both free of Ezra's buttocks. "I'll give you what you want, Ezra!" He was panting now, dropping to his knees still straddling the smaller man, effectively trapping Ezra's legs between his knees. "Oh, yes, little Ezra, you are going to get fucked like you never been fucked in your life. No one toys with me!"

And then Ezra felt a pain of enormous proportions in his hips and anus. Unable to suppress it, he screamed. And screamed again. And kept screaming, his hands clawing bloodily at the rough cement floor as it felt like a cold, hard THING invaded his body, scraping, cutting, and tearing as it went deeper and deeper inside.

"Like that?" The voice sneering into his ear finally silenced his cries. Then he heard the unbelievable sound of a gun cocking --- down there. Oh, god. He shoved that gun barrel up my ass. And now he's going to --- Ezra closed his eyes and stopped thinking, stopped breathing, simply stopped.

"You're gonna feel ---" Then Jardain's words were cut off and he coughed hollowly, and fell heavily on top of the frozen AFT agent.

Ezra waited in a no man's land of semi-consciousness as the body of his attacker was pulled from on top of him. Then men were calling out, in horror, for help. For medics. And everything went dim, and then black.


Working frantically, JD had nailed the plates of the limo and was now tracing ownership records through hacked government files. The other men were all manning the phones, trying to force a lead from their informants.

Chris had just stalked back into the bullpen when AD Travis appeared at the doors, looking shocked and pale. Everyone stopped and looked at him. "Well?" Larabee was in no mood. One of his men was missing, this case had been a screw up from the word go.

"It's Standish." Travis swallowed and wiped at his face with a worn, sad look. "The bust went down."

"WHAT?" multiple throats cried out as Larabee stormed up into Travis' space, grabbing the AD by the lapels and snarling a repeated, "WHAT BUST?"

"You know that Team 6 was on the case from the other end. Following the ones we suspected were the buyers." Travis didn't try to free himself from Larabee's hold, simply spoke slowly and clearly. "Jenner of 6 called. No one expected it to happen tonight, but it did."

"Ezra. What happened to him? Is he alright?" Buck was pushing through his teammates, shoving an arm between Chris and Travis and then elbowing his boss back so he could directly confront the AD himself.

Travis met Wilmington's eyes. "He's being taken to Mercy General now." He looked over Buck's shoulder at Larabee and continued. "I'm sorry. It wasn't supposed to go down like this."

Chris was already moving past the older man, grabbing Buck by an arm as he swept by. "I'll be talking with you later, 'sir,'" he spat out with angry disgust. The rest of the team flowed past, no one speaking to the director who still stood stiffly in the doorway.

He wiped his face again, smearing tears. Tears for Standish and his friends. They didn't know yet what he'd found out from the horrified leader of Team 6 when he'd called in. Sick at heart and sick to his stomach, he knew he'd be there with them shortly, in the waiting room, waiting to find out if Ezra Standish would live. And whether he'd still be an agent after this.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. No one had realized just how mentally unbalanced Herve' Jardain really was. Until now. When it was much too late. Travis slowly walked out of the now empty office, closing the doors gently and with finality. After this, there was no telling if he'd even have a Team 7 anymore.


Ezra woke up in the ambulance, Terry Jenner, leader of Team 6, knelt beside him. He stared at the man, unable to formulate any words. Jenner stared back at him, face pale and fearful, blue eyes wide. "Take it easy, Ezra. The medics have you stabilized. You're gonna be alright."

Carefully, Jenner reached out to touch a shoulder for comfort and reassurance.

Ezra's empty green eyes switched from the face of the ATF agent to the disconnected hand that was coming towards him. Strapped down to the gurney, helpless, he choked back another scream, his throat was still raw from his earlier cries. Scrabbling madly, he tried to get back and away from the hand.

Jenner froze, then withdrew his hand and sat back, continuing his murmured words of calmness, telling the scared man that he'd be alright. Ezra's panicked green eyes rolled up in his head and he dropped back to the pallet, unconscious again. Oh, Ezra, I'm so sorry, Jenner sighed, wiping at the sweating brow and brushing back the soft chestnut colored hair.

When he'd seen the big guy on top of someone, ignoring the firefight in progress around them and doing something, 'what' wasn't clear, he'd run over, still shouting out his ATF identity. He'd rabbit punched the bastard in the kidneys, causing him to topple over his victim. Dragging the half-conscious man clear, he'd gotten a look at the man beneath. With a shudder that had nothing to do with cold, at least not cold temperatures, Terry Jenner wished to recall those moments so he wouldn't forever remember the sight of that gun shoved up inside of Standish, cocked and ready to fire.

Kevin Hennessey, his second in command, was by his side by then, seeing the same thing and cursing. Jenner removed his coat and flung it over Standish while Hennessey cuffed and manhandled their captive, who they now recognized as Herve' Jardain. He shoved him off to a teammate who hustled Jardain's wobbling figure after the other suspects that had been captured and arrested. Got 'em, but at what price?

One hand applying pressure to the still bleeding flesh wound in Standish's side, Jenner had decided that no matter what additional injury it might cause, he was taking that gun out. Hunched down on the large warehouse floor, the freckled redhead pulled the weapon carefully free, having reset the safety. With a breath of relief, he set the weapon down and then with one hand, he wiped it clean of the blood smeared on the barrel. That's why it came free like it did. No one else is gonna know about this, except Larabee and the doctors --- and they're gonna know it's going no where else, he decided. Glancing at Kevin he nudged the man where he stood over them, guarding them from intrusion while they waited impatiently for the medics they'd shouted for. "Kev, no one sees this. No one hears about it."

Hennessey, a tall black Irishman, nodded in silence, his shocked brown eyes carrying clearly his agreement. He dropped a hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke quietly. "Terry, Ezra is going to need a lot. You want, we can do that." He bent over slightly to make sure their conversation remained private. "We owe him a lot for helping us get together."

Jenner looked up into his lover's eyes and sighed. "That'll be up to Ezra. For now, we keep this between us. I'll tell Larabee only. Not even Travis hears the details."

Kevin's fingers tightened. "Not even Travis." He looked up. "Medics are here."

They stepped back, quietly secreting the ugly weapon under Hennessey's jacket. Jenner pulled out his cell phone and made a call, Travis had to know that the bust went down unexpectedly. And, that Ezra Standish, Team 7 undercover agent had been at the scene, also unexpectedly, and was down.


Travis took a taxi to the hospital, sure that he'd never make it there safely if he drove himself. How had this happened? He lay his head back against the rear passenger seat and rolled it from side to side. Larabee, Jenner and he were supposed to meet tomorrow to go over coordination plans for the case. Both knew that they were going to work the two ends, but Standish was the key. Jenner's undercover hadn't had a chance to get inside, despite repeated efforts.

Who was at fault in this mess? Standish had gone under almost immediately. He'd only briefed Chris this morning. Jenner's team had been on the buyers now for some time but they'd shown no sign of a buy tonight. IA was going to be hip deep in the shit on this one, but Travis already knew that there really wasn't any blame, just things going wrong, very badly wrong. No one expected Standish to get outfitted, auditioned, hired, and on the bill at the club, The Soiled Dove, in one day. The man set new records all the time. Perhaps they should have guessed he was that good. Chris had sent in two men to watch out for him. Even that wasn't required in the early stages of an undercover, just Larabee being over protective. Not that it had helped. No one had expected Jardain to show tonight. No one expected him to take Standish on at first sight, but Standish was just that damn good. Tanner and Wilmington were going to be kicking themselves over losing that limo for the rest of their lives, he knew. Chris would never forgive himself for not setting up more surveillance. But Standish usually went in alone, without even a solitary watcher, no less two. And they, only at Larabee's insistence. Standish was usually under for days, weeks, even months alone. It NEVER happened this fast!

Moodily, Orrin Travis sat up and leaned his forehead against the glass of the door at his side, feeling the vibration as the cab hit a pothole. Jenner said it was bad. Also said there'd been no sign of a buy until his team actually tailed the buyer's to the warehouse. Even then, they might have settled in to just try to observe from the vans and cars; only, frantic members of the buyer's gang had suddenly emerged like ants from a disturbed anthill, hollering "ATF is here!" to their brethren. Jenner had felt he had no choice except to go in, with his team.

Damn good thing they did. A second call, from Hennessey of Team 6, just as Travis waved down the cab, had been to say that preliminary questioning of the suspects yielded a witness. The young thug claimed his friend had recognized one ATF agent named Ezra Standish from a prior bust despite his appearance. Well, that did happen sometimes. And, Standish had been in heavy disguise, Orrin shook his head, the gods were not in their favor tonight. Or, as Ezra would say, the cards had been stacked against them.

When the cab came to a jerking halt by the ER entrance, Travis moved like the old man he felt himself to be tonight, pulling out bills to pay the driver before trudging into the maw of the hospital.


Buck ran into the elevator with Chris, the rest of the team crowding in quickly behind. No one said a word, faces set in lines of worry. The feelings of helplessness and resentment were building in all six men. When the doors slid open at the garage level, the men spread out to several of their vehicles. Vin ran after Buck, sliding into the passenger seat of the tall man's truck. Larabee, Sanchez and Jackson climbed into Chris' black Ram. JD slung his helmet from his handlebars and on to his head, mounting his bike and kicking the motor to life in a few swift moves. He'd get there first, able to weave through the traffic with the racing motorbike.

Buck was shaking so badly that he had to try twice to pull his keys out of his pants pocket. Then he couldn't get the key in the damn ignition. Kept fumbling with the point, trying to force it in. He began to curse blackly, suddenly pounding on the center of the column with both fists. The loud horn shocked him back in his seat and had Vin turning and shoving him nearly out the door.

"OUT! Let me do it!" Vin spoke sharply, his hard, tight voice penetrating Wilmington's panic. "Go around and get in the passenger side, Buck!"

Realizing he was in no shape to drive, he quickly obeyed. Thank god for Vin, he thought as he ran around the tail gate of the truck, seeing that JD was already gone and the Ram was flashing past, fishtailing out the exit at high speed. Vin was gunning the old truck's motor and they were off. Please god, let him be okay. Please god, keep him safe for me. Buck's mantra continued silently as the two agents roared through the night traffic of downtown Denver.


Ezra slowly began to come to. The incredible pain that was his last memory had subsided to dull aches. His back hurt. A burning sensation in his side reminded him that he'd been shot. Herve'! Oh, dear lord, the gun. Ezra clenched his buttocks tightly, feeling the soreness there. Never had anything like that ever happened to him before. He listened to the sounds of the mechanical monsters that hospitals used to monitor and assist their victims, um, patients. Beyond the sounds of the machinery, he could hear the sounds of voices. His teammates were here with him. As his senses became more alert, he realized that someone was holding his hand. A darkness of despair and self-disgust swept through him as he relived those final moments during the unexpected action at the warehouse. He tried to yank his hand free but whoever was holding it tightened their grip.

"It's okay, Ezra, everything's gonna be okay." Buck.

Oh, Buck! Inside, Ezra was wailing in absolute terror at the thought of Buck knowing what had happened, how he'd been dirtied. He knows, he has to know. Ezra sank back into the thin pillows and let his hand go limp. Go away. "Go away." The dry sound of the whisper had all of the team on their feet and rushing to the bedside of their injured friend. Only Larabee, still silently shocked at what Jenner had privately confided to him in the ER waiting room, hesitated. Buck was clinging to Ezra's hand but the undercover agent was not opening his eyes, despite plenty of signs that he was now awake.

Ezra turned his head away from Buck's direction and hoarsely repeated, "Go away."

The men were still now, surrounding the bed, their friend on it, wondering. Ezra could be abrupt and impolite when he was hospitalized, but he'd never outright demanded that they leave before. "Ezra?" Buck wasn't even sure what to ask, only knowing that he didn't want to part from the small southerner, not now, not ever. The incredible fear that had nearly closed down his own system at the news that Ezra had gone down in that bust had been overwhelming and, had answered his earlier doubts. Yes, he wanted the man. Not for now and then, but for always. Only, now Ezra didn't seem to want him. Buck nervously added his second hand to his first to cup the single hand of Ezra's that he still held trapped with his.

"Go away." Ezra began to cough. Nathan, coming up on the other side, offered him a drink by touching his lips delicately with a straw.

"Just water, Ezra, you need to drink some."

Letting the straw in, Ezra drank enough to ease the dryness of his mouth and throat. He pushed the straw back out with his tongue, his lips and mouth clumsy with stitches from where they'd been bitten. He shuddered at the memory. The pain and the recollections were dissolving his self-control. "Get Buck away from me! NOW!" the last nearly a scream. The other men quickly grabbed Wilmington and pulled him back, not sure what the problem was but eager to do whatever Ezra needed.

Jackson dared approach closer on his side, not touching, he spoke slowly. "Ezra, do you want the doctor?"

Rolling his head back and forth on his pillow, Standish felt like crying. He refused to open his eyes, only to see the accusing eyes of his teammates, filled with loathing and disgust. And Buck, he'd be so angry, so repulsed at the sight of Ezra --- how could he touch me? Why? Tears began to drip slowly down Ezra's cheeks. He raised one arm and covered his face with his hand. "Please, just everyone go away. I'm not worth it."

"Okay, that's enough." Larabee had to stop this now. He was no psychologist but he knew his men. "Everyone out. I'll talk with Ezra alone." He glared around the room at the bewildered and hurt expressions on the others faces. "Out now."

Buck, who'd somehow managed to capture Ezra's hand again, reluctantly released it, kissing it tenderly. "Later, Ez, we'll have a lifetime to figure this out."

His whisper was like acid on Ezra's skin. Why is the man taunting me like this?

Josiah opened the door and held it as the others filed past. Jackson stopped beside Chris briefly. "He's still in shock, Chris, be careful what you say or do." Larabee nodded.

JD followed Vin to the door, Jackson behind them. Buck turned away from his lover and slowly trailed after them. As Buck stepped into the hall, Sanchez did the same, pulling the door shut.

The room was silent. Chris studied the quiet form in the bed. He walked over and purposefully picked up the hand that Buck had been holding. "It's me."

Ezra turned his head toward Larabee and asked, "Is everyone else gone?"

"Yes." Larabee waited.

Slowly, two dull green eyes blinked open and settled on the blond.

"Terry Jenner told me how he found you, Ezra. He also told me that only he and Kevin Hennessey saw you before they covered you. Terry removed Jardain's gun." Chris kept his voice steady and even, no hint of condemnation or anger.

"Oh, oh --- oh." Ezra wished it had been a nightmare. Anything except the reality that was now his forever. His small moans dropped away as did his eyes.

"It was not your fault. Ezra, you are still the same man you were before. Don't let this change that because it won't change anything for me or for Terry and Kevin." He paused. "They even came out of the closet tonight to me, just for you."

Green eyes flashed back at him. "They did?"

"Yes, they did." Chris slowly, carefully reached up and stroked the bangs back from Ezra's forehead. "They care about you. Just like we do." He closed his own eyes for a moment, dropping his chin to his chest, before opening them again and looking back up at Standish. "I don't want to lose you over this, Ezra. None of us do." He held the hand in his even tighter. "Don't run, please."

Green eyes bored into his. Belief growing. "But Buck won't---"

"Ezra, Buck has been glued to your side since they let us in." He looked thoughtfully at his friend and agent. "Vin told me that you two have been together for a while now."

"How did he?"

"Know?" Chris allowed a small smile. "Didn't. Guessed, but I can see he guessed right."

"Not really. Mr. Wilmington and I have been having an affair, but I don't think you can say we are 'together.'" The regret and sadness in those words answered a lot of questions for Chris.

"Think that might have changed, Ez. Give him a chance. He's a good man."

Ezra stared into Larabee's guileless face. He believes what he is saying. But if Buck ever finds out what really happened, then it will be over. And no secret is ever really secret. Ezra shook his head. "No more chances." The tears that had dried up began to fall again and Ezra didn't even pretend to try to stop them. "Go away, Chris." He turned his head to one side and closed his eyes.

Chris sighed and released the hand he'd held. Stubborn son of a bitch. Well, this whole team is that way. This is far from over. He settled himself more comfortably into the seat he'd taken over. Hell, I can out-stubborn this crazy southern bastard 'til the cows come home. "No."


Jenner and Hennessey both leaned on the long counter at the nearest nurse's station, silently observing as five of the members of Team 7 filed out of Standish's private room. That means Chris is still in there with him, Terry Jenner thought as he watched the others. JD Dunne and Vin Tanner both moved slowly, faces still and sad, as they turned and slumped against the far wall of the station's lobby area. This wasn't a normal waiting room and there were no chairs. Just overloaded carts and weird medical paraphernalia that hung or stuck out of the carts. No one looked too closely at those threatening looking vehicles.

Terry nudged Kevin Hennessey with his shoulder, leaning into him ever so briefly, as if garnering strength from his partner. "Looks like Ezra must have come to." Kevin nodded but didn't speak. They were still undecided about what to do or say to the rest of the team. Larabee had agreed to keep their news a secret for the moment, at least until he spoke with Ezra, which he was probably doing now. As they straightened away from the counter, Nathan Jackson plodded by, acknowledging them with a frown. Both Jenner and Hennessey, like the rest of Denver's ATF, knew how territorial and protective Team 7 was of its own. Jackson was on a course for the nearest supervising nurse. That meant he'd be asking questions.

Terry sighed. Despite their best intentions, he wasn't sure how quiet they'd be able to keep Ezra's injury, his forced rape with the damn gun. They'd turned the weapon over to the head surgeon in a private, fast conference. He'd been just a shocked as they'd been earlier and had assured them that since they were law enforcement that he'd consider the matter duly reported already and would make sure it went no further. The lab would have to check the gun barrel to make sure there were no dangerous properties on it that might cause additional grief for the victim. Terry had flinched at the term, but nodded.

He looked over to where Orrin Travis, ATF DA, sat in a wheel chair that one of the nurses had magicked out of thin air when the older man looked to be ready to faint. I did that to him, Jenner thought with regret. Well, not me, just my news. In the end, he'd decided that he had to tell Travis about Ezra's condition. Not sure how he's gonna handle Jardain on this one, Jenner was more worried about how Ezra was going to handle life than he was about the perp. That's his problem. Ezra's mine. Ours, he corrected himself as he watched the remaining two members of Team 7 emerge from the room. Buck Wilmington looked devastated. He was shaking bodily. Josiah Sanchez, the same sad look as Dunne and Tanner on his face, closed the door softly and then laid a comforting hand on the tall surveillance agent's shoulder, guiding him over to where their teammates leaned against the opposite wall, waiting.

"What do you mean you can't tell me?" Nathan's voice rose in anger behind the men from Team 6. "He's a teammate."

The low murmured reply of the nurse that Jackson had captured was unintelligible. The EMT swung around, eyes seeking out another avenue of information, lighting on Jenner and Hennessey. He walked over to them, more energy in his step now as he fought back against non-cooperative bureaucracy. "Jenner, Hennessey." He stopped in front of the two men. This had to be a first. No one from another team ever stayed around the hospitals for his friends before. "You found Ezra, didn't you?"

Terry made a noncommittal sound.

Jackson's eyes narrowed and his stance took on a confrontational aspect. The others, alerted by the sharp words and Nathan's actions, became attentive, moving forward. Jenner began to think this must be what it was like for a victim when a group of sharks began to circle closer. Kevin moved in behind him slightly, one hand fitting flat against the small of his back, offering support and solidarity.

Nathan noted the determined look in Jenner's vivid blue eyes, saw the way Hennessey moved to back up his team leader. Something going on here. They know something. He shifted, sensing his own teammates now surrounding him silently. Go slow. These aren't the bad guys. Whatever's going down, might be a good idea if it didn't go down public. "There's a doctors' conference room just down this hall," he said, knowing the floor layout from multiple previous visits, "Maybe we should take this in there?"

A new, gruff voice interrupted. "That might be wisest." Orrin Travis had recovered some of his balance and was on his feet, to head off the obvious confrontation brewing between Teams 6 and 7.

Buck felt Vin edge closer to him, slipping an arm around his waist casually, supporting him as he trembled in fear for what was not yet said. Deep in his bones, he knew that it would be bad, very bad. What the hell had happened? His eyes flicked to the closed door of Ezra's room. Take care of him for me, Chris. Buck shifted subtly, freeing himself from Vin's touch before any eyebrows could be raised. He appreciated the gesture, but Junior didn't need any of this sticking to him, too. Whatever it was. He managed a faint smile for Tanner as they turned to walk with the rest of the men, following Jackson's lead to the private room.


Ezra squinted down his length. Lord, he hated hospital beds, garb, and accoutrements. With a grimace at the IV attached to his arm, he lifted the hand that Larabee had released and studied the gauze wrapped fingertips. All five of them. He remembered those frantic moments, scrabbling on the cement floor of the warehouse, trying to escape Jardain's evil. He wriggled experimentally, feeling the sharp pain of the gunshot wound in his side, the ache of bruised ribs and the muted pain of his abused lower region. How very crude it had been. He sucked in his breath in sudden emotional agony. Breathless with it, he gagged.

Instantly, Larabee was on his feet and leaning over the bed, ignoring wires and tubes in favor of sliding his arms under and around the pained man in the bed. He sat carefully, not dislodging anything as he pulled Ezra up into his arms and against his chest, holding him there firmly. "It's alright, Ezra. You're safe, you're with me. I'll keep you safe now, I promise." He touched the soft brown hair with one hand as he guided the man's head to his shoulder. "I'm so sorry about all this. So sorry."

"No." Ezra didn't think he could do this. He swallowed, pressing his forehead into Chris' comforting shoulder. "No reason to be sorry. Not your fault, Chris."

Larabee had to smile at the informal address until he realized that Ezra never did that unless things were really bad. The smile disappeared to be replaced by sorrow and worry. Anger would come later, for others, but never for this man, his hurting friend. "Maybe not directly, Ezra, but we all let you down on this one. Right up the line to Travis." He smoothed the rumpled hair and let his fingers rest among the strands, pressing lightly.

Ezra sighed, then sniffed, the crying from earlier having filled his nasal passages uncomfortably. Chris noticed the choked snort and reached out a long arm for some tissues at the bedside rolling tray. "Here, Agent Standish, blow your nose," he offered, leaning back slightly and tucking a few of the flimsy tissues into one curled hand.

Feeling the thin bits of tissue, Ezra sat up a bit and brought them up, blowing deeply into them, clearing his nose with a honking sound. A flash of humor lit two sets of eyes, green and hazel meeting, hazel ones full of understanding and compassion. "Okay, that was good," Larabee encouraged, removing the wad and pressing down again on the back of Ezra's head. "Now settle down again. You've got some listening to do."

Ezra allowed himself to be held closely, taking comfort from it. Feeling the care in Chris' arms. No disgust, no loathing. He began to hope that all might not be lost after all. He'd listen.


Kevin Hennessey was trying very hard not to be angry with DA Travis as the man revealed the full truth about Standish's injuries. That was supposed to be a secret. He felt Terry's hand on his knee just as he began to surge forward. The movement stopped by his lover. If Terry wanted him to wait, he would. I don't like it, but I'll wait. He sat back in his chair and flung one arm along the back of Jenner's chair.

The movements weren't lost on the members of Team 7 that sat in shocked silence. Vin had leapt to his feet as soon as he'd absorbed the information, charging over to where Buck sat as still as a statue, hands clenched together on the smooth mahogany surface of the long table in front of them. Tanner put comforting hands on Wilmington's shoulders and looked pointedly at Josiah Sanchez.

The big profiler got the message. "DA Travis, thank you for telling us. You know that it won't go any further. But now, we'd like some time alone please?"

Orrin stood up jerkily, nodding. "Yes. Of course." He moved stiffly toward the door, again feeling the weight of his years and this incredible guilt. He didn't look back as he left, closing the door behind him silently.

Sanchez turned to face Jenner and Hennessey of Team 6. "Gentlemen. We could use that time alone now."

"Not yet," Terry Jenner spoke firmly. He stood up. "Travis only knows that Agent Standish was violated. He doesn't know how."

This was greeted with silence. Then Jackson spoke. "Do the doctors?"

"Yes. That's why you couldn't get anything out of that nurse. This one is going down in a black box, boys."

"What happened?" Buck Wilmington's hoarse voice was full of pain.

Jenner eyed the other man. This was interesting. He raised an eyebrow at Kevin beside him. Kevin looked thoughtfully at Wilmington, then gave a single nod to his lover. In here, they weren't teammates, this wasn't about work. Both men knew instinctively that the members of Team 7 were here as family as well.

"Buck," Jenner began, ignoring the rest of the men who were all leaning forward, concentrating on the Team 6 leader, "Kevin and I are a committed couple, thanks to Ezra Standish's interventions and assistance. We owe him."

Eyes opened wide around the room. Still no one else spoke. Like punching bags, these men were absorbing shock after shock, no longer reacting to individual strikes.

"Ezra and I," Buck's graveled tones were strained, "we're on our way to that, too."

"Figured." Jenner nodded, wondering if any of the rest of the team had known. Likely Tanner, from the way he's acting. Maybe Larabee too. He spared a glance around at the others. Dunne was staring at Wilmington blankly, mouth slightly ajar. Jackson was focused on Jenner, eyes narrowed in anticipation. Sanchez was looking on mildly, a bit of wonder and sadness in his stare.

Taking a deep breath, he leaned into Kevin who drew him in closer, folding arms around his lover as they faced the scared men in the room. Then Terry locked eyes with the dark blue ones of the tall lanky Wilmington, and told them what had happened. Told them the truth.


Ezra enjoyed the warmth and strength inherent in Chris Larabee's careful hold on him. It was unlooked for comfort from his usually abrupt and reserved boss. He listened to Chris' Midwest accent as the man slowly described all that had happened from the perspective of the rest of Team 7. He described the agonizing that had gone on as the team realized that Ezra was out there alone and at risk, how Vin and Buck had been dragging around with their guilty feelings at losing sight of Ezra.

At the mention of Buck, Ezra stiffened. Buck. He still couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that Buck would know what had happened. He hadn't seemed very angry earlier, before Ezra insisted that everyone leave. But he would be. Once he found out. Ezra burrowed deeper into Larabee's shirtfront and began to tremble.

Chris stopped mid-word in his description of what they'd been doing to find Ezra. What did I say? Buck's name. Even as he asked himself, he knew. Ezra had confirmed Vin's guess that Ezra and Buck were an item. It was alright with him, but he could see it wasn't as simple as he'd hoped. Knowing Buck, the man hadn't committed yet. Hell, Buck was a bee among the flowers of life, had been ever since --- well, anyway, had been for a long time when it came to his love life. Likely still was, except that Ezra wasn't the flower type. Chris began to rub Ezra's back in soothing circles, no longer talking. Larabee thought back over the last few weeks. Yep, he definitely remembered Buck's boasting about Lila in the secretarial pool, and Veralee in accounting, and what was her name? Eunice. Eunice at the shooting range. Chris rested his chin on Ezra's head. Buck hadn't ever, ever mentioned Ezra. Nope. But then, Buck never told when it might be serious.



"Buck is a complicated kinda fella." Chris waited, feeling the other man become quiet. "He plays the field a lot. He got burned bad, back in high school," Chris sighed, feeling his regret at that time, then added, "and he's never tried a steady relationship since then."

Silence met this. Chris began to wonder if he shouldn't just let Buck do this. But Ezra was in a very fragile state right now. A little groundwork wouldn't hurt any. Buck could be very good for the undercover agent. Would be. If they really cared about each other and he could tell that Ezra did. Buck has a heart as big as the world, he'd be the one to keep Ezra safe and happy. If only these two men could get past this.

Finally, a muted voice asked, "Nevah?"

"Nope." Larabee cricked his neck to look down at Ezra's head. "Think he could maybe, with you, though."

Ezra thought this over. Chris Larabee was Buck's oldest, best friend. If anyone knew Buck, it was Chris. If Chris thought things could work out, maybe they could. Only, Buck hadn't been that interested before --- before the purple dress. He did seem a bit upset though, last night, at the club, when Jardain started putting on the moves. Ezra, lost in thought, actually managed to skip over reaction to Jardain's name as he studied the problem of Buck Wilmington, lover extraordinaire, wishing that he could add the name mate to that. As Ezra's quick mind darted about the problem and Buck's behavior, he began to relax in Chris' hold, eyes half closing. He wondered why Buck hadn't said anything to him yesterday. Hadn't been angry, well, at least, not at first.


"Um." Larabee had noted Ezra's calming body language and was feeling more at ease himself. He'd loosened his grip on the smaller man, still holding him for comfort though.

"Buck never said a word yesterday when you briefed us." The hurt in Ezra's voice tensed Larabee again. Ezra felt the tension in the man he leaned against. "Chris, I don't understand."

"Ah, Ezra, Buck can be funny sometimes. He seems so open, so easy to read, but he isn't, not really. Holds things deep and hard against his heart. He'll play the waiting game, move slowly, when it counts. Man is a hidden soul."

Ezra nodded solemnly, as things began to click for him. The early meetings, the heavy handed come on. The sexual liaisons without any meaning. Then, gradually things had changed. He thought just for him, but as he studied it now, he recalled the little signs that Buck was changing. The nudges to get to work on time and avoid Larabee's wrath. The teasing moments, the tender ones. Those hadn't been there at the beginning. They'd emerged slowly, over time, and it was after they started to appear that Ezra began to realize himself that he wanted more, that his casual relationship had mutated into love. Why was it so hard to believe that the same had happened to Buck?

"You think he and I?"

"You'd be good for each other." Larabee sat up straighter and let his hands drift down to grip Ezra's arms, as he looked into the wondering green eyes.

Ezra lowered his eyes and a smile began to flicker across his face. "Maybe I should talk with him some more?"

"Maybe you should." Chris slowly stood up. "You want, I could get him. He's probably out there right now, wearing a track in the floor."

The southerner lay back, eased down by Larabee's hands. He blinked up at his boss. "Chris? Thanks."

"You're a good man, Ezra, you didn't deserve what happened. But, you're a strong man, too, my friend. I think you'll make it fine." Chris brushed Ezra's errant curls back from his forehead and stood up all the way. "I'll go find Buck."


The sound of the cell phone's shrill beep shattered the heavy silence in the conference room. Jenner yanked his free of his belt and spoke into it briskly, turning away from the devastation his monologue had produced. "Jenner."

Listening, he felt Kev move to shelter him, give him some privacy. Conklin and Teak, were reporting in, Bob Conklin doing the talking. Team 6 was coping with the clean up operations without their team leader or the second in command, but it was getting difficult. "Okay, we'll be there in," Terry paused to look down at his wristwatch, finishing, "in about thirty minutes. Hang in there." Flipping the phone shut, he turned back to the other men in the room, sparing a telling look at Kevin. "We have to go. That was Bob. Clean up operations."

Nathan and JD both nodded dismissively, Josiah pulling open the door, face looking ravaged with the new burden of knowledge. Vin and Buck were ignoring them now, Tanner massaging Wilmington's back as the tall man sat slumped forward over the table, his hands covering his face, his whole body shaking. Jenner looked down with regret then met Kevin's eyes. They'd done the right thing. It was time to leave and let Team 7 cope with their tragedy.


Sergeant Loyola Briggs watched the parade of suspects march in to the holding pen. When the ATF got busy, they always filled the pen. He fingered his clipboard, noting down names and charges as the escorts reported in to him. The name Herve' Jardain brought Briggs' head up sharply and he looked across the shoulders of Jaime Mendoza at the arrested man. Trooper Mendoza didn't notice the flash of silent recognition and communication that occurred at that moment because he was adjusting the handcuffs on his prisoner.

Briggs had ceased to write, watching as Jardain was put in the number two cell, along with three other perps. This was going to take a bit of arranging, but he was good at that. That was one of the reasons he'd been on Jardain's payroll for all these years.


Buck finally sat up, hands brushing Vin away from his back, while his eyes thanked the man for his support. He stood up and took a deep breath. Looked around the room. JD was wrapped up in his own arms, huddled against the windowsill of one of the large windows in the room. Nathan was staring at the floor, absently spinning one of the swivel chairs in a slow, continuous rotation. Josiah had leaned back against the door after closing it behind Jenner and Hennessey. And then there was Vin. The sharpshooter was standing close by, looking worried and sympathetic.

Buck dragged both hands down across his face, stretching his skin and distorting his features momentarily. "I've got to see him."

"You sure that's a good idea?" JD asked in a low voice without moving.

"He needs me."

"He needs someone who cares and wants to be with him, not just sometimes, but for all times." Nathan's sharp retort cut across the room. He raised hostile brown eyes and appraised the taller man with reserve. "You say you've been together for a long time now, but you still come in boasting about girls you date."

"That's over."

"Is it?" Josiah walked back toward the table and sat down, looking up at Buck.

"YES!" Wilmington threw his hands up in the air in anger.

"Do you think Ez will believe that?" Nathan sat down across from Sanchez and spun his chair to look directly at Buck.

Vin spoke up now, "Hell, the way Buck was shooting off sparks at Jardain and Ezra last night, it's a wonder old Ez didn't get burned. He knows."

"But, Vin, does he believe?" Sanchez could look like a sorrowful bloodhound when he got serious. "You heard him. He wanted Buck out, away from him."

"That's just crazy talk. Man was raped, beaten, shot." Buck spoke fiercely, through gritted teeth. His face had lost it's hard lines, the anger smoothing out his features, making him look deadly.

JD Dunne saw the change and suddenly believed. He'd been around his 'big brother' long enough to know when Buck dropped his clown act and meant what he said. This was one of those times. "He needs you, then, Buck." JD looked around at the other men. Despite the serious nature of the events and the pain his friends were feeling, JD's young heart saw beyond to the love there. Strong and deep, just now uncovered by the night's happenings. He shook his head. They had to dig themselves out of this emotional crevasse or they'd only make it worse for the man in bed just down the hall. JD's quick mind flashed to the future and he actually found a smile. Someday, Buck and Ez would find a way to tie this knot. He knew that the rest would understand as he said, "Just remember, the rest of us will be there with shotguns if you get cold feet part way through."

Somehow, the comment released the tension in the room. Josiah tossed his head back and laughed. Nathan seemed to settle into himself again, as if he'd puffed up like an adder and was only now backing off. Vin just grinned and ducked his head, punching Buck lightly in one shoulder.

Buck looked around at his friends. "Don't you worry, boys, this is the forever kind of love. Just took me a while to figure it out."

Josiah rose and spoke as he shoved in his chair. "I could use a drink about now." He looked up at the others, brows beetling. "Just you all remember that what happened to Ezra doesn't leave this room."

"Same's true for Terry and Kevin's little secret," Nathan added, getting confirmation from each set of eyes as they met his. He stood up and gestured towards the door. "Alright, Buck, sounds like we have some business downtown at the precinct. You take care of Ezra for us. And tell Chris where we are."

Wilmington, who'd started for the door, stopped now and faced his teammates again. "I don't think you should do that, Nate. Stay away from Jardain."

"Who said we was going anywhere near him?" JD asked as he joined Jackson and Sanchez. Vin Tanner moved over and joined them as well.

Buck worried at his lower lip, torn now. He wanted to go to Ezra, but he didn't want to let his friends, hell, brothers, head into trouble on account of him and Ezra. "Please promise me you guys won't do anything stupid."

The four men facing him all looked at each other, then back at Buck. Josiah spoke for the group. "All we will seek is information."

Buck nodded uncertainly and opened the door. The pull to return to Ezra was too strong for him to stay and argue.


"Chris? Can I come in?" Buck spoke quietly, only his head sticking into the room through the partially opened door.

Larabee looked up at his old friend from where he'd been sitting beside Ezra, reading the newspaper aloud to him. Chris peered over his Ben Franklin's at Ezra, tipping the open newspaper down to see over the top of that as well. "Ezra?"

Faced with seeing Buck again, speaking to him, Ezra paled and seemed to shrink on his pillow. But, he nodded. "Yes, let him in."

Team 7 leader Chris Larabee stood abruptly, folding the newspaper and dropping it on the side table. He pocketed his reading glasses and turned away from the bed to look at Buck. "Come on in. I need to use the john anyway."

Buck slipped into the room sideways, as if afraid to open the door completely. He sidled over to the bed, passing Larabee and ending up in the newly vacated seat. "Hi, Ezra."

Standish didn't answer him right away, instead meeting Chris' hazel eyes, a question mutely asked. Chris smiled encouragingly. "Give him a chance, Ezra."

Ezra smiled slightly, green eyes warming as he nodded to his boss, no his friend. He was happy for the opportunity they'd had to be together alone. They'd built some bridges that would last, he knew. Even if they continued to rub each other the wrong way at work. Ezra's eyes opened wider as he realized he'd thought about returning to work for the first time. Something in his expression must have shown his feelings because Chris bent over the bed and leaned down on two balled fists, one on either side of Ezra's head. He smiled that quirky half-grin of his and his hazel eyes were warm and caring. "Thanks. You'll be glad you did. Just remember, you still belong to Team 7 and I expect your sorry ass back in my office in a few weeks." Even as the words left his mouth, Larabee wished he could call them back. Hell and damnation, 'sorry ass'? What the hell was I thinking?

Ezra saw the stunned look of self-awareness freeze Chris' expression. Just went to show how very normal Larabee was being about all this, back to business as usual. Ezra was overwhelmingly grateful. His eyes filled as he smiled up at his boss. "It'll be there."

The simple words relaxed the anxious team leader who grinned back and winked wickedly at his undercover agent. "See that it is. And take care of old Buck here, he's not as swift as a slow-moving stream these days."

Ezra's green eyes danced over to Buck's face. He smiled warmly. "I shall try," he answered Larabee.

Chris had been backing up during this last teasing exchange and now eased his way out the door, shutting it behind and mentally crossing his fingers. He sighed. No one in sight. Okay, time for the nearest john, then some coffee.

Once the door was shut, Ezra looked up shyly at Buck. "Hello."

"Hello, baby." Buck sank to his knees beside this precious man. "I'm so sorry, about everything."

"You didn't---"

"I damn near deserted you yesterday after Chris dumped that job in your lap." He shook his head. "I'm sorry." He reached out and caught one of Ezra's hands, gently clasping it to his chest. "I don't know what to say to make it all right for us, Ezra. I hadn't figured out that I loved you yet, when this all came down." Buck felt Ezra's hand jerk at his words. Oh, he had a lot of making up to do. "I had thought I'd wait and see."

The bitter self-accusatory tone rang true for Ezra as he listened to the man he had lost his heart to. "Buck---" he started to interrupt only to have one of Buck's fingers gently touch his lips to halt his words, barely touching the injuries to his mouth.

"Wait, Ezra, let me finish. I have to tell you. I was blind, Ez, blind to what we had together. Was why I just kept putting you off, playing you off against the girls. They didn't mean a thing to me, Ezra." Buck lowered his head until it was resting lightly against Ezra's stomach, cautious of the wound on the far side of his torso. Speaking into the hospital gown, he continued. "It was you. Has been for a while now. But I was a fool. Didn't see it. You're too easy on me. You let me do all that shit and never said a word. I guess I just don't read you that well yet, baby. But I'm going to work at it."

When Buck paused to order his thoughts, Ezra tentatively touched the man's thick mane of dark brown hair. Buck froze, then lifted his head a bit, to force Ezra's hand deeper into the strands of hair. "I love you, Ezra." He turned his face to the side and up, so that Ezra's hand slipped from hair to Buck's face. Deep blue eyes sought out crystal green ones. "Aw, Ezra, you are my life."

"You are mine." The whispered response was so soft that Buck caught and held his breath waiting and hoping that the smaller man would repeat himself. Ezra let his bandaged fingers stroke the long jaw line, feeling the stubble growing there. "I love you, too, Buck." Ezra felt at peace now. He let himself lay back down on the pillows, his hand dropping away from Buck's face, to fall on Buck's hand and clasp it to him.


Herve' heaved a sigh of relief as he strode through the dark alley. He didn't look back at where Sergeant Loyola Briggs lay forever still, in a puddle of his own blood. The man should have tried harder, gotten him out sooner. Worthless cretin. Jardain licked his lips as he wiped bloody hands on thick thighs. Have to go to ground now for a while anyway. Then, a new city, new identity. A shame, really. I liked Denver. A face grew in his mind's eye. Liked that little piece of ass, too. Dear sweet little Ezra. He swallowed a sudden mouthful of saliva. Might just arrange to take a little baggage along with me, he thought with amusement.


I don't deserve him, I know it. Buck stroked the soft dark hair, calming himself with the touches to Ezra's head. The smaller man had fallen back to sleep shortly after their exchange of a few healing words. At least, I hope they were healing, he thought as he sighed. He'd managed to crawl up into the hospital bed, carefully rearranging the tubes and wires, so that he could sit with his back against the headboard and lift Ezra up into his lap. The southerner had not protested, merely snuggled closer in his sleep. He was tucked up against Buck's chest now, head resting easily against Buck's collarbone, under his chin. Probably curl a few hairs on the nurses when they show up, but right now this is what we need.

Settling his arms tenderly around the compact form of his lover, Buck raised his eyes to stare blankly out the hospital room window. He really didn't see the blue sky or drifting white clouds that now graced the fullness of another day. Chris had stopped back in for a short time, seen that the two men were at peace, at least for the moment, and left. Buck would stay with Ezra, that was understood.

Understood? By Chris, anyway, Buck mused as he fondled one of Ezra's bandaged hands gently. It had been almost too easy to get back in Ezra's good graces earlier. Now, Buck wondered if he'd still have the same reception when Ezra was no longer drugged with sedatives and painkillers. I've sure been a dope. Only, it's hard to change the ways of a lifetime, or near lifetime, he corrected himself.

Closing his eyes, feeling the warmth of the body wrapped in his arms, he drifted back in time. Sarah. She'd been so beautiful, so breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. He'd fallen hard, didn't want to ever get up and find out she wasn't going to look back at him in the same way he'd looked at her. She'd liked him, sure. Hung out with him and with his good buddy, Chris. They'd been a threesome for a while there, then something changed and he was the third wheel. The inconvenient extra at a cozy dinner. Buck unconsciously gripped Ezra tighter and heard the tiny grunt of pain. Immediately, he loosed his grip and looked down to see that Ezra hadn't wakened. He made a soft, soothing noise to keep his lover sleeping, then closed his own eyes again and returned to his bittersweet memories.

Chris and Sarah were magic. His friends. He'd so wanted to make Sarah his own, but she just didn't love him, not that way. Not that Chris or Sarah ever intentionally hurt him or threw him out. No, they'd kept old Buck by their sides, a best friend to both. His jaw tightened in the remembered pain of his broken heart when he'd finally reconciled his young self to this. It hadn't been easy to continue to smile, joke, and be with those two once they'd recognized their love for each other. They'd been in no hurry and that had given Buck a false hope for the years that he trailed after them to college. When they'd tied the knot upon graduation, he'd been best man. A shell of his former self. His insides burnt away in pain at seeing the love of his life in the arms of his best friend. He loved them both, though, and could not feel any jealousy or anger, just a soul deep wrenching of his own at the knowledge that he'd never find such love again.

He breathed in now, feeling the pain again. Ezra moved slightly in his arms, nuzzling his head in against Buck's chest. And as simple as that, he was healed. Whole again after all these years because he had finally found someone whom he could love with the same, no even greater intensity. And his feelings for Sarah took on a new perspective as he finally saw that what he had felt, however deeply he'd thought at that time in his youth, was nothing to what he felt for this dear man in his arms. He felt a release that was like a joyful epiphany, the knowledge a balm to a torn soul.

He could look back now at all those years after Sarah had chosen Chris, look back and wonder that he'd even survived, he'd been in such pain. No one to confide in, either. He couldn't, not with his best friends the very reason, the cause of his agony of spirit. He pasted that buffoon's face on his personal tragedy and forced himself to find what happiness he could in the company of others. After a while, the face had become his own, and he ceased to realize that he'd donned the mask to hide his true self. Chris had known, though, he thought with new insight. All this time, he'd known and let Buck be. When Sarah was alive, Chris had welcomed him to their home, their lives, shared Adam with him and made him feel at home. Uncle Buck had continued with his jollity, never ever revealing anything else. Yet, Chris had known. But, even after Sarah and Adam were gone and Chris was a burning flame of pain, even then, Chris had made room for Buck, not sent him away like he did all others. Because Chris knew that the loss was just as great, just as painful for Buck. Or nearly so, Buck now admitted to himself. Because now I know. I know what true love is like.

He looked down, resting his chin on Ezra's head, lifting one of Ezra's hands in his to weave his own fingers between his lover's. This, this is true love. If I ever lose you, Ezra, then I will finally know what Chris has suffered. I don't ever want to know that. And, Chris knows. Knows that, too. A single tear trickled down the tall man's face, dripping onto the dark mustache and riding it to fall down onto the dark, sweat matted hair of his lover. I've been hiding out, just like with Chris and Sarah, hiding what I felt, not even letting myself see what I was feeling. Oh, Ezra, I'm so sorry. I've treated you so badly. He put a shaking hand up now to touch the small man's face, pat it lightly. Maybe, if I'd told you, if I'd been there for you yesterday, maybe it wouldn't have gone down this way. I was still hiding, still being the ladies man, the clown. How did you know that I was under all that? How did you see 'me' in here? Ah, Ez, I can only be grateful that you saw, that you came to me and put up with all my shit and still hung on. It's gonna change now, I promise, I'm gonna change. Drop the front and just be me for you. You deserve better, but since you're willing to take me, I'm yours. Forever love.


Four determined ATF agents walked grimly into the holding pen area of the precinct. Only to be met with chaos. It seemed that the sergeant in charge had just been found in the outside alley, dead from a slit throat. And, the prime suspect of the bust was gone. Escaped. Herve' Jardain was out on the streets. Alerts had already started out to all the police and agencies, but he'd disappeared without a trace and hope was faint that he'd be found. Vin, JD, Josiah, and Nathan were alarmed and angry but could see that the locals could do nothing more than they'd already done. They were coping with their own dead now.

"We have to warn Buck and Chris," JD said suddenly as they re-emerged onto the sidewalk, the bright morning light an insult to the eyes of those accustomed to the dark shadows of the night just past.

Vin swung around nodding. "We need to get back there now."

Josiah was already flipping out his cell phone to call Larabee and let him know what was happening, and Nathan stepped off the curb to hail a cab. They'd come in cabs, no one wanting to take Buck's or Chris' trucks away from the two men, and JD's bike was of no use now.

Piling into the taxi, they listened as Josiah finished his short, clipped conversation with Larabee. He slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket and looked over his shoulder at the three men in the back seat of the cab. "Chris had a few words for what happened."

"Yeah, I can imagine." Nathan shook his head. "I do too, but it won't help none."

JD slouched down between Nathan and Vin, winding his hands together nervously. "You don't think Jardain would go back for Ezra, do you?"

Vin turned to look at the younger man beside him. "Damn, kid, I hope not. But, Josiah's warned'em and we'll be there soon."

JD shrugged and nodded. "Yeah."

Josiah shared a look of concern with Jackson, then turned to face forward and had to suppress a groan at the wall of traffic they faced. While commuter hour should be over, due to street construction and detours, regular morning traffic was clogged and slowed to nearly a walking pace. Damn good thing I called Chris, he thought was resignation, not bothering to tell the others, they could see the problem themselves.


Herve' sat heavily in the small dim bar, two of his associates hunched over the table with him. "The heat's going to be up for a spell, Mr. Jardain. Ain't likely we can do much until things chill."

He ignored the softly apologetic words of Rodney, one of his lesser henchmen. All his good men were now in custody or dead. He'd have to recruit aggressively. For now, at least he had a few lackeys to follow simple orders, just as well, what with his picture gracing post office walls just now. He was waiting for one of his other informants, Jose Torres, who was also a low ranking police officer. Torres had promised, when he'd contacted him, to come and meet, let him know what was going on. Herve' flung his cigarette butt on the floor and ground it out savagely with the toe of his shoe. Such a sweet set up and now, all gone. Rebuilding would take some doing. Moving was not that appealing, now that he'd had time to reflect. A new name, some minor changes to face. A new apartment and new operations center. Would it be enough? He had favorite hangouts. Could he still go to them?

He flushed in anger at the thought that that one ATF agent had managed to get through his defenses. The boy was a looker and had used it, and his singing, well, hell, he had the talent. Strange, though, ATF was a fairly conservative agency. To have one of their own in drag, performing in public in a known transvestite nightclub? He shook his head in frustration. That one was a wild card. He wondered where the man was now. Like to have him. He felt himself harden as he remembered shoving his gun barrel up the boy's ass. He shifted in his seat, suddenly rock hard again. Damn, that was good. He remembered the flashing green eyes that had taken on a shocked look of fear. He smiled slowly, thinking, I'm gonna come in my pants, just thinking about that sweet ass. He dropped a hand to fondle himself through his trousers, under the table.

Herve' pulled his hand back in anger. What the hell? If they knew I go to that club, they know too much. No, I'm not going to be able to stay here. Damn, starting over is a bitch. He fingered his lip, deep in thought as his two tiresome henchmen edged slightly further away from him in their chairs. It's all Ezra's fault. Wonder if that's his real name or a stage name? Troy Beckwith. I'll pull in my markers with him. He'll know. Or find out. Jardain's smirk grew and he licked his lips with pleasure. Yes. Beckwith's with the FBI, but those feds all talk to each other. He can find out for me. Then, Ezra, or whatever your name is, then you are going to take a small journey --- into hell. And I shall be your conductor. Herve' leaned back, relaxing for the first time in hours, and laughed. The angry barking laughter did nothing to reassure the two men who sat attentively at his table.


Ezra opened his eyes. He was still in the hospital room but the perspective was different. He wasn't lying on the bed any longer. He was sitting up, leaning against? Buck. He shifted slightly and tipped his head back to find the man snoring softly, head thrown back against the headboard of Ezra's bed. His two arms, though, encircled and supported Ezra's place in his lap, and were still holding firmly, even in sleep. Experimentally, Ezra tried to squirm free only to feel the arms tighten though the sleeping man didn't move nor his snores even alter pattern. Relaxing back into the nest of Buck's body, Ezra was thoughtful.

He's here for now. How long will it last this time? He vaguely remembered his earlier conversations with Chris, and with Buck. Lots of consolation and encouragement. Wryly, Ezra's lip curled. Lots of promises. Only, Ezra'd had a lifetime of broken promises. Promises are not worth the air spent in making them. He loved Buck. No turning back from that, he'd known it for sometime now. But, he'd also known that Buck didn't love him back. No, he was just a convenient lay. A little sex toy for the nights when the little black book didn't produce a date. Ezra closed his eyes in pain at the remembrance of those mornings, in the office, when Buck would peacock in with a satisfied grin and tell JD and the rest of the team about his latest conquest. He'd never even look my way. As if I just didn't matter. Not until the next time he had an itch to scratch and no one else was around to do it for him.

Ezra opened his eyes again and looked up at the quiet face, so handsome, so vigorous, even in repose. Why can't I believe your promises? Because you make them too easily, Buck, and you never keep them. Hell, that last wasn't really true, because up until now, Buck had never really promised to be true to only Ezra. He'd just say some fancy words about wanting to be with Ezra but needing to keep his 'cover' intact. Whose cover? Ezra had wanted to cry out, but never had.

And where were you when I was getting ready for this case? I needed you! Do you have any idea what it did to me? To have to dress up like a fucking fag? Just because I don't want women, doesn't mean I have to be every stereotype of a gay that ever was. I was embarrassed, I was shamed. Humiliated. Hell, I was GOOD at it! And that hurt most of all.

Tears started to flow silently down Ezra's face as the high emotions of the last twenty-four hours caught up with him. That man, that ugly, gruesome, lecherous man touched me. Kissed me! Slurped his vile saliva on me. Ezra shuddered in memory. And he violated me. Even in his mind, Ezra whispered the words. Barely letting himself think. He took that gun. He took that gun and he. He took that gun and he put it. He took that gun and he put it IN ME! INSIDE OF ME! Oh, god. Shaking violently, Ezra twisted and rolled out of Buck's hold and on to the mattress sideways. Floundering and kicking out in his anguish, his turmoil, he didn't see the tubes being ripped brutally from his arms with his actions, didn't feel the others, lower down, pull free. Physical pain would come, but now he was so totally immersed in emotional pain, that the rest didn't register. Crying, sobbing now, nearly hysterical, he shook and cringed, falling off the bed to roll into a ball on the floor, shaking.

What? What? Buck blinked awake and tried to focus. It took a moment for him to realize just where he was. And remember. The bed was empty except for him. Something had wakened him. Ezra! Then he heard the sounds of pain and misery coming from the floor near his feet.


"SHIT!" Chris dove for the floor and Ezra. Coming into the room, furious with the police for somehow letting Jardain get away, he'd only wanted to warn Buck. Instead, he'd walked in on a living nightmare. Buck was crouching down, kneeling and reaching toward Standish as Larabee opened the door. His undercover agent was a quivering mess, sobbing hysterically on the floor of the hospital room, his simple hospital gown askew, blood dripping from where he'd evidently ripped free from IV lines and more. And he was trying to crawl away from Wilmington's outstretched arms.

Chris landed on his own knees, skidding to a halt beside his retreating agent, bracing himself with arms out on either side of the southerner. "Whoa now, Ezra! Slow down. You're safe here. It's just Buck over there."

Ezra's head swung around like a cornered beast's and he let out a low moan, almost a bleat. Red-rimmed eyes and ravaged face told their own stories. Chris sat back on his heels and waited, trying to look calm and non-threatening. Not the easiest task. He smiled a bit tentatively, ignoring Buck who was calling out to Ezra fruitlessly but wisely not trying to touch any more. "Ezra? It's Chris."

The moaning sound stopped and Standish cocked his head to the side. If Larabee was here then he was safe. It was alright. Chris would protect him. "Chris!" He tried to rise to his feet but only tumbled painfully onto his injured side. With an inarticulate cry of pain, he sagged down, green eyes seeking Larabee's with a now silent plea.

Larabee responded immediately, leaning forward to carefully grasp Ezra under his arms, but away from the bruised ribs and gunshot wound. He dragged the man across the short distance of slick linoleum floor to him. With care, he pulled Ezra up against his knees and wrapped an arm around him, using his free hand to wipe at the tearstained face, brush back the damp strands of limp brown hair. "Easy now." Without looking up, he asked, "Want to tell me what happened, Buck?"

Ezra clung to the hand that was so gentle, touching him, giving him safety. Oh, god, can I ever be whole again? I'm nothing now, dirt beneath their feet. How can Chris stand to be near me? He grit his teeth and began to fight free from the comforting hold.

"Ezra! Stay still before you hurt yourself worse!" Chris didn't wait for the still wordless Wilmington to answer his earlier question. "Buck! Snap out of it! Ezra needs help, get the nurses in here now!"

Buck, sprawled back in shock at what he'd found on waking, nodded and pushed himself back up to his feet stiffly. Then trotted out of the room with a last sad, desperate look at Ezra lying in Chris' arms.


Vin was the first one out of the elevator, making a straight arrow for Ezra's room. He slid to a stop as he pushed open the door only to find the room empty. Empty. The mattress bare, the machines silent. No sign of anyone. Whirling, he smashed into JD who'd been right on his heels. Josiah and Nathan stood staring from the hall, easily taking in the scene. "What the hell?" Vin's words broke the momentary tableau.

Jackson swung away and stalked over to the nurses' station where two rather red-faced women were wiping perspiration from their brows with tissues. Both looked at Nathan with blank eyes, clearly still recovering from something. What else? Team 7, Nathan presumed. With a growl, he leaned over the counter top and stared at them. Both stepped back, hands rising slightly in a universal defensive posture. "Where did you put him?"

"Upstairs. Mr. Standish had an episode and needed to be restrained. The doctors decided to take him up to the ward for detox." The blonde who'd spoken looked a bit abashed at what she'd said.

"Your other friends are up there with him," offered the brunette. She gave a room number and simple directions.

By now, the rest of his team had heard enough to summon the elevator and were holding it for Nathan's arrival. He turned and left without another word.

Upstairs turned out to be the wing where drug addicts and overdose victims were placed, with rooms that had been fitted with extra security measures and more male nurses. The beds had restraints. Storming out of the elevator, the remains of Team 7 arrived in front of the new nurses' station looking scared and angry.

An older female nurse who was sitting there working on a flip chart of records looked up and took in the sight with immediate comprehension. "He's in there. Your team mates are with him." That nice Mr. Larabee had warned her, warned all of them, that the rest of the team would be arriving shortly and would no doubt be upset. Couldn't be any more so than that poor Mr. Wilmington though. Both men had been frantic when Mr. Standish had been wheeled upstairs. Poor Mr. Standish. Not that he'd any drugs to fight, but he'd demons enough from what she'd heard. He'd been weeping quietly, clinging to Mr. Larabee's hand, with Mr. Wilmington trudging behind them as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders. "We put in extra chairs for you."

Four heads swiveled to face the indicated door, four men turned and now slowly made their way toward the faceless panel. Panic passed, all four were scared and wondering what they would find behind that door. Josiah stepped up to it and with a hand flat against the surface, pushed the door open soundlessly. Nathan led the way inside, Vin and JD trailing behind. Then Josiah nodded once to the nurse who was watching from her seat behind her counter. He lifted his shoulders as if taking on an added burden and turned back to the room, pulling the door quietly shut behind him.


Torres downed the bottle of beer in three long swigs. Wiping his mouth with the back of the hand that held the bottle, he shrugged. "They haven't found your trail yet. All the alerts are out but no one really expects to find you. Long as you find a way out of town that's not public transport, you're probably in the clear."

Jardain sat back in disgust. What had he bothered with this man for? This he could figure out for himself. "The ones who got us. The ATF agents. What about them?"

"All I know is that it was a Team 6 operation, Jenner is team leader." Jose dropped the bottle hard on its base on the table, thunking the surface, his hand still wrapped around it. "Rumor says they weren't expecting to bust you last night, came as a surprise to them, too."

Herve' Jardain squinted. "How's that?" He really needed better help.

"Not sure, only the one ATF agent that was hurt wasn't on Team 6, he was from another team. Figure there was a mixup."

So, Ezra was ATF but not part of the men that took mine down. Interesting. A loner? He leaned across the table, his anger barely leashed. "So who was he and what team was HE on?"

Torres sat back away from the brutish man in front of him. Glad to see him leave town, money was nice but he's such a piece of trash. "No one's saying." He looked away, not seeing the fists closing and opening on the tabletop as he finished, "Seems to be pretty hush-hush. Not even sure what happened to him, though the medics toted him away to the hospital."

"That's all you know?"

"Yeah." Torres turned back only to find a huge, meaty fist in his face.

He fell back onto the floor and the other man was looming over him, growling. "You worthless crap! Useless!" He kicked Torres in the side viciously. "Useless!" He repeated and kicked again.

"Hey!" Torres tried to roll away but the man kept coming. Kicking. Jose began to worry as he struggled to rise to his feet, twisting to get upright. A booted toe connected with his chin, just under the jaw, snapping his head back with a loud cracking sound. The crooked cop dropped to the floor, unmoving.

Rodney and Ginch, Jardain's two men, hung back, eyes wide. Jardain dusted his hands and looked down disdainfully at the body. "You two take care of this. Clean it up." He moved to the door of the private back room of the small bar, heading out to the main room and another drink.


Buck stood staring down at Ezra's quiet form. The medication had wiped his face clear of emotion, just as a nurse's attentive sponge had cleared it of tears and spots of blood. New IV lines ran down into new punctures of his arm. Velcro wrap, soft but strong fleece backed straps, held that arm and its twin to the inner railings of the bed. Duplicates held Ezra's legs in place. Another larger strap ran high across his chest, above the injured ribs and the healing wound. Buck swallowed, his mind blank.

Chris Larabee sat patiently beside the bed. He had one hand resting on Ezra's nearest forearm, just for the contact. He'd been the only one that Standish would let near him during those crazy moments of pandemonium downstairs, before they'd subdued him. He'd seen the fear and desperation in those lantern-green eyes. Trauma. Shock. The doctors had names for it all. After all, Mr. Larabee, the man was just raped last night. You can hardly expect instant recovery. And, he was shot, Mr. Larabee. Kicked while he was down, Mr. Larabee. Chris closed his eyes. Hell, Ezra had lived through this kind of thing before. Well, not the rape. He flinched at his own heartlessness. This was his friend as well as his agent. And, he'd not stood up to Travis when the man suggested that Ezra go in as bait. Why hadn't they thought it through? Seen the logical outcome of such a mission? Shit. Why didn't I just plain refuse, like Ezra wanted to? He bowed his head and waited. It's going to be alright, Ez, I promise. I'll make it so. Somehow.

The door opened and the rest of his team filed in without a word. Buck looked up and nodded silently to them. Chris stretched, never releasing his hold on Ezra. "Find out anything else?"

Vin answered. "Nope. Just decided you might need us here."

Chris studied his men. Josiah had gone to Buck, laying a long arm over the man's shoulders. Josiah's probably the only one who can do that right now. Nathan had gravitated to the med chart hung at the foot of Ezra's bed and was reading it, his shoulders slumping as he did so. This time, Chris didn't ask anything, he already knew from the doctors and a rape counselor who'd been in earlier. JD was hesitantly approaching the bed, clearly wanting to touch Ezra and equally clearly afraid to do so. Vin padded over to stand at Larabee's side and look down at Ezra. "He gonna be okay?"

Chris met the sharpshooter's eyes. "Yep. Just gonna take time," he added firmly.

There was a rustle as the other men in the room all stood a bit straighter, their leader's tone as much as his words reassuring them that it would be alright. Chris looked back down at Ezra's peaceful face. "Ezra's gonna hurt for a while. Inside and out." He looked back up to meet each set of eyes directed toward him. "And we're going to be here for him, every step of the way." A determination entered each set of eyes.

Buck cleared his throat. Chris blinked lazily at his friend. "Buck, he's going to need you more than anyone, he just doesn't know it yet, so don't go getting your panties in a knot."

JD changed directions and came to a stop beside his best friend. "Hey Buck, Ez is going to be fine. You'll have the rest of your lives together."

Watery dark blue eyes looked down at the computer expert. "Hope he believes that too, JD. I'm feeling pretty helpless here."

Josiah squeezed the man's shoulders with his still overlaid arm. "That's normal, Buck. None of us can ever live through another's pain, but we can be there to help pick up the pieces. Ezra will be alright. You heard Chris. And, he will need your love."

"He's got it." Came the choked reply and then Buck began to cry in earnest, bending over and putting his hands up over his face. JD anxiously moved closer sliding an arm around his friend's waist. Together with Josiah, the two steered Buck out of the room. Nathan, who'd dropped the chart in disgust, came to sit on the other side of Ezra from Chris. He watched Buck's breakdown in silent sympathy, knowing that JD and Josiah were probably the best bet just now on helping the grieving man. Yeah, grieving. He cast his eyes back down on Ezra Standish, the enigma. At least to him. No one should have to suffer as he did. He wished he could do something to make it better but knew that it wasn't actions that Ezra needed now, he needed time.


Terry Jenner sat down with a thump next to his second in command, Kevin Hennessey. The two men shared a discontented look. Ever since they'd gotten word that Jardain had escaped custody, the whole of Team 6 had been driving themselves to find the man.

Nothing, there'd been nothing. Now, Everett, their computer whiz, was backtracking the banking accounts of Loyola Riggs, the dead police sergeant. A whiff of corruption had come up off the streets, from one of Teddy Boeing's contacts. The result was a very complicated and disturbing picture. From what they'd been able to uncover so far, Jardain had kept his own set of informants within the law enforcement agencies. Riggs was only the tip of the iceberg.

Team 6 had found the name Jose Torres only to find the body shortly thereafter. Wasn't going to do much good if every lead they uncovered was a dead one. A dead end. They were meeting in their conference room now, to go over this latest find.

"You know, he's probably out of the state by now." Jim Teak, their sharpshooter, rubbed his fingertips together in an habitual motion.

Conklin, however, shook his head slowly. "No, I don't see it that way. The man is totally self-absorbed, a borderline nutcase to use the vernacular," Bob Conklin, the team's profiler spoke in a fine tenor, almost with a musical cadence. It made everything he said sound more palatable than it often actually was.

Hennessey hid a smile. Kevin liked their profiler but this wasn't the time to inject too much humor in the scene. He just had to think about their friend, Ezra, hurting, and the smile disappeared. He sat forward alertly and added, "Think you've got that right, Bob. From what I saw, the man is a monster."

Terry sat back as his team batted around their findings and options. So far, this was proving unsettlingly non-productive. It was his undercover, Teddy Boeing, a rail-thin man with a dark complexion and hook nose reflecting his Lebanese heritage, who turned the discussion on its head. "I think Standish might be the key, now."

All eyes swung to the dark man, unvoiced questions in the other men's faces as they waited. Teddy leaned forward, splaying his hands on the long table. "The little that I've been able to get points to Jardain searching for information right now. He's pumping HIS sources, too. I figure that's why Torres ended up in the morgue, was one of his insiders but didn't produce." Dragging his long fingers back in frustration, leaving sweat marks on the table's polished surface, Teddy continued. "He got fixated on Standish's persona. He's done this sort of thing before." At this remark, Boeing turned toward Conklin for confirmation.

Reluctantly, the profiler nodded. "Yes, he's done it several times. Never one of ours involved before, only innocents." Bob ran a hand around his collar with discomfort, adding, "The man likes to play with his victims. His personal fetish is young males. He picks them up in these clubs. Uses them until he tires, then basically destroys them. Not always killing them, just mutilating them or beating them until they are physically damaged beyond full recovery." He looked down the table to where their team leader, Terry Jenner sat with a frozen look of horror. "Sorry, Terry, I know that Standish is a friend of yours and Kevin's but unless he's very lucky, Jardain is not likely done with him."

"Even on the run?" Kevin asked harshly, suddenly seeing red.

Boeing answered. "He's not running. Not yet. Gone to ground, and sending out feelers from what I can tell. Nothing leads back to him, though. He cuts off anyone who could help."

Teak, who'd been silently absorbing all this, spoke up in his husky northern twang. "Might mean Team 7 needs to be briefed."

Jenner nodded at their sharpshooter. The northerner never said much, but when he spoke, he was as precise as his bullets. "Got that covered. I'm going in to see how Ezra's doing and speak to Chris Larabee at the same time. From what Travis has told me, the whole Team is still at the hospital with Ezra."

Hill scratched at his head. "How public is it that Standish was part of the bust?" He looked around at the younger men, his grizzled chin never quite free of a shadow, the computer tech and agent was one of the Denver ATF's most senior men. Never very ambitious, more interested in the fascinating world of technology, he had been on the team since its inception. He shoved forward a copy of the daily newspaper. "Mentions our team here, not Ezra Standish. Not even that any agent was hurt." He looked admiringly down the table at Jenner. "You really kept that in the dark."

"Good point, Everett," Terry said, thinking about the picture emerging. If his boys were right, if Jardain was hunting Ezra, then it made sense that he'd stay in the area. Would be why the manhunt and roadblocks, airport surveillances, and other checks had produced nothing. He was hiding under some rock, sending out tentacles, searching for the missing agent. He bit back a taste of bile at the thought of what Jardain had already done to his friend. "Okay," he stood, hooking his thumbs in belt loops as his eyes swept the room, taking in his team, good men, a powerful group. "I'll go talk with Larabee, warn him. The rest of you, see what you can dig up on this angle. And, Everett? See if the ATF security is intact or if anyone is nosing around internally to find Ezra." Shocked looks met this last.

Kevin spoke for the others. "You don't think one of our own? Another team?"

"Don't know what to think. Just want to make sure we don't miss on this one again." Terry stood back now and his men rose slowly to their feet and headed out of the room, toward their new searches.

Hennessey held back, pausing at the door to look at his lover. "Terry, should I come with you?"

Jenner looked back affectionately at the man who held his heart. "No, stay here and keep everyone focused. I'll see Ez. Tell him hi from you, too." He moved closer without touching. They never touched at work. "Thanks, Kev."

Kevin Hennessey smiled and turned away. Tonight would be for them, for now, work beckoned and they had a friend to protect. A fiend to hunt down.


Ezra came around again. He felt as if he was floating above his own body. The experience was unsettling. He tried to lift his hand to wipe at his face. It wouldn't move. He tried again, realizing he was being held back by a restraint. Damn it. He blinked his eyes open wide and twisted his head to see. The floating sensation ended abruptly and he felt the physical pain in his body slam into him. He smothered a yelp of surprise and it came out as a sharp moan.

"Ezra?" It sounded like Buck.

He didn't try to speak, just swallowed against dryness in his throat.

"Here, try this." A straw was pressed against his lips gently. He let it enter and sipped. Tasted like some sort of energy drink, not quite water. He stopped as soon as his throat felt eased by the fluid.

Pushing the straw out with his tongue he tried to speak. The healing scabs on his lips and mouth made movement there difficult. "Buck?"

"Yeah, Ezra, it's me." Wilmington's face, pale and worried, moved into sight over his head.

"Where's Chris?"

"Right here." Larabee sounded from his right side. That meant Buck was actually on his left.

"Why am I tied down?"

Larabee spared a glance at Buck who was drooping back into his seat at Ezra's far side. He wondered if Ezra was intentionally cutting off the other man. "You kind of freaked out on us, Ezra. The doctors decided to restrain you until you were less volatile."

Ezra could almost hear the doctors' voices in those words. Had his team given up on him? Was he in that bad a way? "How bad?"

"Your injuries are actually pretty minor, Ezra." Nathan's voice from the foot of the bed. "The gun shot wound is already closing, it wasn't too deep in your left side. No signs of infection there or around your mouth where you were bitten."

Ezra's world spun. Bitten? Oh, god. It all came crashing back down on him. "Oh, god!" He squirmed and twisted, crying out again and again. He'd been brutalized, ripped up and hurt. Raped by a fucking gun! By Jardain. He needed to get away. He tore at the bindings that held him loosely to the bed.

"Whoa, now, Ezra, steady on, Pard." Buck again, leaning down, holding his arms. In the background, Ezra could hear the voices of other members of the team, calling for help.

Then a new face appeared over him, a woman who spoke slowly, sternly. "Calm down now, Mr. Standish. You are going to be fine. Your friends are all here. We're just going to give you a bit more medication to relax you." She reached up and pressed something on the pole beside the bed. He realized that tubes led from clear bags of liquid down to his arms, his body.

He surged up, breaking the strap across his chest and one of the wrist restraints. "NO!" He whipped his head about, desperately. "Chris! No, not that!" He kicked out and found that his legs were likewise restrained. "Buck! Help me!" He began to cry. Flicking his head back and forth until two large strong hands captured it and held his still.

He looked up and met midnight blue eyes that carried only love and worry. "Ezra, sweetheart, calm down. You'll only hurt yourself. You have got to relax. Please, baby."

"Buck?" The whisper held pain and fear.

Buck Wilmington held back his own tears and gently rubbed his thumbs under Ezra's cheekbones down towards his jaw. "Yes. I'm here, Ez. Will be always here for you." His heart wanted to sing because Ezra was finally turning to him for help, for comfort. He'd been so jealous of Chris but held back when Ezra turned first to their team leader. It was only natural but it had wounded him badly. He understood, too, why Ezra would hesitate to trust him anymore. He'd have a lot to do to convince his lover that he was devoted to him.

"Buck. Don't leave. Please." Ezra's eyes were closing now, the awareness fading as the medication's soothing affects took over.

"Never, Ezra, never gonna leave you." Buck's voice broke, turning hoarse, as he promised to be there. He had dropped to his knees again beside the bed, smoothing back Ezra's hair as he stroked the southerner's face with a trembling hand.

Behind the lovers, JD looked at Nathan. "How long's he gonna be like this?"

Jackson shook his head. "Hard to tell. Ezra's a tough man, but this was more than anyone could face easily. He's going to get better but it will be a while."

Josiah stood up and walked over to peer down at their friends. "I think he's asleep again." He put a hand on one limp arm, pressing lightly. "We should go. Let him rest with Buck."

Larabee rose to his feet, feeling rocky. "Yeah. Only, with Jardain lose, until we know what's going on, we keep watch on the room."

"I'll take first watch," Vin volunteered. None of them had had any real rest since the night before, but he felt guilty still about losing Ezra and that limo. This would make him feel better.

Chris eyed his friend. "You sure?"


"Okay then. The rest of us will get changed, head into the office. See what we can do to find that slime."

Everyone rose to their feet, each man coming to the bedside briefly, to look down on their sleeping friend and to touch Buck's shoulder where he now sat beside the bed. He nodded to each friend but didn't speak.

Heading toward the door, the men stopped abruptly as the door opened to silhouette Terry Jenner of Team 6. "Not interrupting anything, am I?"


Vin sat back on the hard plastic chair and drew one ankle over the other. He was getting used to the looks he was receiving. Not that he was comfortable with them, but he figured if Ezra could put up with it, so could he. Still dressed in his outfit from the night before, skintight pants and boat-necked shirt, that clung to his torso, leaving nothing to speculation, he knew he had a definite 'come hither' look. Only, it was the male nurses that were giving him the eye. The women were dismissing him as too blatantly of the 'other' persuasion. He smoothed back the dusty golden hair he'd pulled into a ponytail. It felt like being a traitor to take any of it off. A betrayal of his friendship with Ezra. There wasn't much he could do for Ezra right now, aside from guarding his door.

The grim whispered briefing that Jenner had given Team 7, at the foot of Standish's bed, had been depressing. The rest of the team was back at headquarters now, trying to find a way to Jardain, shake him out of his hole. They'd come back, one at a time to spell each other on guard duty. Buck would simply stay with Ezra, that was agreed. No one wanted to rely on a police detail to guard Ezra's door. Too many uncertainties in this case, they'd only trust their own.

No one was prepared, though, for how thoroughly Jardain could re-claim his empire, however short-lived it would be. One moment Vin was slumped in the uncomfortable seat, ignoring the interested looks of a rather muscular intern in white scrubs, the next moment the floor was flooded with hooded men in black outfits. Made him think of an old Ninja movie. Tanner had jumped to his feet, back to Ezra's door, pulling free his firearm from the back of his waistband. But, there were too many of them, like ants they came out of everywhere, the hallways, stairs, elevator, even examining rooms. No one spoke. Vin backed up against the door and kicked it hard with his heel. Before he could do that more than twice, he was overwhelmed, men piling on top of him in rigid silence. Vin Tanner was a fighter and he fought, but a pricking sensation in one arm as he wrestled against the throng of men, filled him with dread. The darkness that followed so swiftly, left him unconscious and limp on the floor.

Jardain stepped out of the elevator, smiling congenially at the frozen horror on the faces of the medical personnel on the floor. He nodded to one of the black clad men who seemed to be silently directing his colleagues. With a returned nod, two men dragged Tanner's body out of the way of the door. Jardain strolled over, staring down at the unconscious agent. "Now, I remember you, too," he said with a smile in his voice. "So, you're part of this too? My, my, how the mighty ATF has fallen." He gestured to Tanner's body. "I want him too. Bring him along."

Without waiting for an answer, he faced the door and nodded to his newly hired men. The team was already showing their worth. He smiled, connections with the Korean underground were proving very worthwhile.

Buck had started at the sharp thumps on the door to the room. He stood, moving protectively around the bed to stand between Ezra and the door, gun appearing in his hand. There was silence now. He waited. The door slowly opened and there stood Herve' Jardain. Smiling at him pleasantly. He couldn't believe it. Where was Vin?

As he stared into the dark eyes of the monster filling the doorway, smaller men squirmed around Jardain and flowed into the room. Numbly, Buck felt his gun removed from his hand as Jardain stepped inside the room and Vin Tanner's body was dragged in by two more men behind him.

"You? My, my. An entire crew of delights for my palate!" Herve' moved right up to stand facing the unmoving Wilmington. "I remember you and this one," his toe nudged Tanner's body where it had been dropped by his feet. "So you two were part of Ezra's little play, too? That one," he gestured to Tanner again, "has potential. A very sweet little package. You? You're too macho my friend."

And Buck knew no more as a hard object slammed down on his head.

Herve's smile grew as he stepped over the newly recumbent body and approached the bed of his latest conquest. Ezra. He rolled the name on his tongue. He stopped by the side of the bed and his smile became a delighted grin. His target lay before him, helplessly trussed up with hospital restraints, large green eyes staring up in muddied terror.

"Hello, sweet Ezra." Jardain leaned down and kissed the small man's perfect lips, one hand snarling dark curls of hair to hold the head still. He licked the lips and prodded the teeth with his tongue. When Ezra refused to let him enter, he stood back up and gazed in open lechery at his victim. "You, my dear, are coming with me. I'm not finished with you yet."


George So wasn't sure what kind of sick fuck Herve' Jardain was but he knew that he didn't want anymore to do with the turd. It had been bad enough when he and his team had invaded the hospital floor and captured three ATF agents, spiriting them away drugged and bound. Now he wanted to play tag with two ATF teams as well. Enough. So had been a mercenary since he attained his majority but he had no interest in this weird game that the crime boss was playing. He took his men and departed.

Jardain was lumbering around the second floor room in the old saw mill, part of an abandoned hill town outside of Denver, not quite old enough to qualify as an historic ghost town. He'd owned the land it sat on, the whole town, for nearly two years. He'd been smart enough to follow his lawyer's advice to buy it through several sham corporation fronts. The layers of red tape would protect him long enough to enjoy his playmate and the other little toys he'd acquired.

Now he just had to wait for them to wake up, it was no fun to play with them when they couldn't respond. He nodded to himself as he fingered Ezra's hair, letting his index finger dig into the scalp, drawing blood. He grinned as the young man shifted under the attack, still out with whatever the hell the hospital had given him. He remembered the look of sheer terror in Ezra's marvelous green eyes when he'd looked up from his bed and beheld Herve' standing there over him. It had been too classic that the boy was already in restraints. Herve' drew a ragged fingernail down one side of Ezra's face, leaving a deep red crease mark behind, not quite drawing more blood. "Such a pretty little face, sugar. I'll keep it pure for now. Want to watch it as you get the full Jardain treatment," he giggled. There was a creak of floorboard behind him and he spun around angry at being disturbed.

Ginch stood there quaking.


The lackey seemed to shrink without moving. "They've gone. Disappeared."

"Who has? For fuck's sake, spit it out!"

"Your new men, the Koreans."

Jardain scowled and whirled away from his underling. Smashing a meaty fist into the rotten wood beside the dark mustachioed agent's lolling head, he growled, "Damn it, I need some men!" He turned back to face Ginch. "Call Ira Schwin. He owes me. He can send over three or four roustabouts."

Ginch nodded silently and backed out of the room, swallowing his relief to be away from his master. He and Rodney had lasted with Jardain longer than any other help by being wallpaper as much as possible. He licked at his dry lips. Didn't pay to have an imagination either. He didn't look forward to the sounds he knew would be coming from the upstairs room soon. Too bad about the little Koreans. Good fighters, dangerous men. But they couldn't stomach his boss. Not many could.


"It's bad." Chris didn't have to elaborate, Travis had already gotten prelims from Jenner and Sanchez when the two had returned to check up on Ezra and his teammates. Larabee squeezed the tiny cell phone unconsciously as he listened to the AD.

JD fidgeted and twisted his head to peer down the hallway to where blue suits of the Denver PD were swarming around, herding nurses and medics in one direction, laying out yellow and black tape in another. Plainclothesmen with notebooks and others with cameras were wandering around unhindered. Nathan Jackson had already gotten details on Ezra's medications and the visible conditions of Vin and Buck from an orderly and an intern who had been witnesses. Jenner leaned against a nearby wall, a cell phone against his ear as well, muttering softly. Josiah stood like a rock next to Chris, arms folded, legs nearly thrumming with tension.

"He's already here." Chris flicked a hazel-eyed squint toward the leader of Team 6, met the bright blue eyes that so reminded him of one of his missing teammate's. Shit, don't go there. "Talking to his team, I think. Yeah, on a cell phone." Chris lifted his head and nodded a 'come here' look at Terry. The other man spoke again into his own phone, and then flipped it shut. He moved over to join the leader of Team 7.

"Travis. Wants to speak with you." Chris handed over his phone.

While the team leaders conferred, what was left of Team 7 had a mini-conference of their own. "Where would he take them?" Nathan eyed the hallway as if seeking answers there.

Josiah Sanchez, the team profiler, pursed his lips in thought. He'd read so much about this villain the he felt uncomfortably certain he could predict what would happen to their boys if they didn't reach them in time. "Somewhere close by. To Denver," he clarified.

The youngest of the three nodded vigorously. "Way I figure it too." He gestured to one of the small doctor's examining rooms near them. "I can hook up in here." He had a computer notebook slung over his shoulder. He led the two bigger men inside and quickly set up on the chrome table, jacking into the phone socket in the wall and turning on his little computer.

"What're you going to find with that that you haven't found already?" Jackson asked patiently. No point in ranting now, tense as he was, he knew he'd get down right mean if he let himself.

"I was tracking properties when we got the call to come out." Dunne's shining head was bobbing in time with his finger pecking. "There!" He pointed at a short list that had magically appeared on the screen.

Sanchez bent down to see better, pulling out his spectacles and peering through them. "A fairly diverse set of real estates."

"Yeah." JD eagerly ran a finger down the screen. "There!" He settled on Rock Hollow.

"What's that?" Jackson was leaning on Sanchez now, trying to see some hidden meaning in the innocuous list of addresses.

"It's a town up in the foothills. Not too far from here, maybe an hour's drive." JD was shaking with excitement. "No one left there. Jardain bought the whole place! None of the other sites would work, they're too busy, stores, a racetrack, some apartment buildings."

"JD, he only needs one apartment to hide them in."

"But he's crazy! And he's got a troupe of Ninjas, for god's sake!" Dunne ran a hand through his hair, spearing the dark waves back from his face. "You get noticed when you walk around with a bunch of guys in black suits and hoods!"

"Boy's got a point," Josiah said, patting their teammate on one shoulder. "Go on."

"Well, this place wasn't much ever, just a few houses, a store, a mill, a church."

"A house of god?" Josiah sighed.

"Yeah, and none of it used anymore. They were trying to mine uranium. Permits were pulled and the little they found wasn't pure enough. Real case of boom and bust."

Jackson gripped JD's arm firmly, stopping the nearly manic rocking that the kid had begun as he responded to Josiah's prodding. "JD. These are our friends. If you're wrong ---"

"Then it will be my responsibility." Larabee stood in the doorway. Jenner beside him. Clearly, both had been listening for a while. "JD, what's the best route?"


Buck came awake between one breath and the next. Unmoving, he continued to slouch against the hard wood wall, drawing in information with all senses. His Seal training was never more gratefully remembered. He touched the unfinished, splintery wood of the floor where his hands were tied behind his back. He sniffed, smelling mildewing sawdust. He listened to the rapid sound of water close by, a waterfall, or --- water wheel. Yep, sawmill. He opened his eyes bare cracks, looking out through his lashes without moving his head. No one stood near enough for him to see but he could hear some one pacing nearby, muttering obscenities. Some creative ones at that. What he could see matched with his identification of the building. Rough split planks shoddily laid to form a serviceable but unattractive floor. Bits of bark and sawdust, a few shredded, mangled bits of wood grain, and a shard or two of untrimmed timber.

He risked a gentle rocking back of his head when the footsteps were furthest from him. Oh, shit. Herve' Jardain, with a face like thunder, was spinning on his heel at the far side of the room, punching a fist into a cupping palm as he paced. Sliding his eyes to the sides, first left, then right, he saw Vin, a crumpled heap beside him. Damn, looks like he's out for a while still. Just as he was beginning to slide his eyes away he caught a glint of blue. Nope, wrong, he's awake too, just playing possum. Tied up like me. Ez? He looked the other way. Lying on a roughly sawed piece of timber, really just a squared off log, up on two saw horses, Ezra looked like a trussed up piece of meat waiting for the rotisserie. Hell and damnation. His lover was naked except for the simple hospital gown that wasn't doing much at the moment. Shit.

Jardain came to an abrupt stop beside the undercover agent. "Ezra? It's time to wake up." He fingered the hem of the short gown, sliding his hand up beneath. "It's Herve', Ezra. I've come back for you, sugar."

For a moment, there was no response, then Standish seemed to nearly jump out of his skin, the surface seemed to actually crawl in reaction to Jardain's touch. "Nevah!" The hoarse cry was painfully torn from a bruised and re-torn mouth.

Buck flinched and grit his teeth. "LEAVE HIM BE!" He shouted. Jardain didn't even turn his head to look. Buck wanted to leap to his feet and charge the man, rescue Ezra and Vin and get out of this place. He flexed his arms in frustration and felt the strap that bound him go taut. Could be worse, just feels like a leather belt. He began to frantically work at it while staring at his lover and the insane killer who loomed over him. I'm gonna remember everything you do and you will get payback, he promised silently. "Hold on, Ezra!"

Jardain just laughed and pressed down on the healing bullet wound. Ezra cried out again, unable to suppress the reaction. Oh, mother of god, that hurts. Please, someone, help us!

Tanner had shifted with Ezra's cry, hunkering up against Wilmington, working at his own bonds.

"Pretty little pussy," Herve' crooned, smiling pleasantly as he tickled Ezra's heaving chest. The bandages from the hospital were gone, the puckering wound in his side was red but not bleeding. "I have some of your friends here, Ezra." He grasped the man's head and wrenched it over so that Ezra could see Buck and Vin across the room.

"Oh, god, no." This time it came out in a pained whisper.

"Yes, dearie. Now, I really, really liked you as a singer, Ezra. You were a lovely creature." Jardain was stroking Ezra's arm now, leaning close to murmur in his ear. "I bought you a new outfit, lovely boy, to put on just for me. I want to hear you sing for me again."

"That's all?" Standish looked up in confusion, meeting the dark eyes devoid of any human spark. This can't be real. This can't be happening, it's too macabre. He shuddered and tried again to struggle free, useless.

"For now, honeypie. For now." Herve' smiled slowly, turning to look at Buck and Vin. "I will sample the sweet little piece that came with us, and who knows? Maybe even the macho man." He dug his finger into Ezra's stomach, just above the belly button, laughing at the gasp this produced. He twisted it, scraping and digging deeper. "I won't see this when you're all dolled up." He pulled free and called to an unseen assistant. "Rodney! Bring me that suitcase!"

Both Buck and Vin froze as Jardain turned to face them and started over, while another man appeared at the door. The new man was average size, but seemed smaller since he was cringing. A strange action for someone holding a forty-five in one hand. The other bore a leather bag.

"Good, good." Jardain stopped his progress toward the other two agents and snatched the bag away from them. Dropping it to the floor near Standish, he pulled out a silky spring green negligee' decorated with lace and satin ribbons, black garters, thigh-high dark silk stockings, and two black patent leather high heels. The stilettos were the right size, he'd made sure of that. "Put them on." He dropped them on Ezra's stomach, together with the clothing, and produced a switchblade, snapping free the bindings from Standish's body.

Ezra sat up on the rough-cut log beam, swaying dangerously before catching himself. He cast a longing look over at Buck and Vin, despair writ on his face, his green eyes glistening. Jardain had left him, pocketing the knife and was striding over to the other two agents. Ezra looked to the side. Rodney was aiming the handgun directly at him. Even as he stared at the man, another appeared also holding a gun.

"Ginch, you pay special attention to Mr. Mustache here while I play with Goldilocks." The second man was so pale that he looked white, but he nodded slowly. "Oh, what's the word on those men?"

The second man, Ginch, spoke quietly. "They'll be here in about thirty minutes. Schwin says now you owe him."

Herve' laughed. "Maybe. We'll see." He squatted down next to Tanner and chucked up the man's chin, grinning like a Cheshire cat at the discomfort clearly showing in the other man's face. "Not your usual, Mr. Agent Man?" He poked his thumb hard against Vin's cheekbone and dragged it down until he'd hit the hinge of the jawbone, forcing Tanner's mouth open. He stuck his other hand inside Vin's mouth and wiggled the fingers around, exploring with amusement as Tanner turned red and gagged helplessly.

"You bastard! Let him go!" Buck's shout was ignored.

Then Jardain smiled and withdrew his hand, both coming to the sides of Tanner's neck, lifting the man chokingly to his feet. "Are you dressed yet, pussy?" he asked with out looking back at Ezra.

Hastily, numbly, Ezra dragged the hospital gown off, ignoring the pain in his side as he stretched and twisted. He dropped the silk night gown over his head, forcing the tightly fitted bodice into place. The netting and lace of the short, provocative split skirt caught at his skin where his leg hairs furred lightly over his thighs. He yanked the garters on, one then the other, stealing murderous glances over at Jardain who was dangling Tanner just above the ground. "Kind of reminds me of those pretty white horses that dance up in the air, Ezra. You think I should keep him as a pet?" He laughed again and Vin's eyes opened in horror as he was pulled tightly against the big man's body. "You are pretty too, blue eyes." Herve' smiled down into the sky blue orbs, one large arm encircling the lean man's waist. He twirled them around so that he could face Ezra and watch as the man tried to pull on the long silk stockings.

Ezra's hands were shaking so badly it was as if he had the ague. He pointed his toes and tried a second time to pull the silk sheath up his leg. This time he succeeded. He clipped it to the garter and concentrated on the second one, blocking out the low whimpers of Vin Tanner in the background. Vin was an innocent! Ezra was sure the man had never even considered looking at another man and now he was being used, abused, and the end would likely be the same as for Ezra. He stole a short glance at Buck. Wilmington's face was absolutely blank, smoothed out, his shoulders making minute moves. That's my Buck, Ezra thought with relief. He recognized the signs of the dangerous man that resided inside his lover, seldom seen by any of the team. Chris may be the only other person who knows just how deadly Buck can be. Be quick, Buck, god help you.

Jardain dropped Tanner as no longer interesting, abandoning the man's crumpled body as he saw that Ezra was dressed now, except for the shoes. "Oh, you are just beautiful, Ezra!" He voice had lowered and husked with the words. Stepping over Tanner, he moved to Standish's side. "Allow me to fasten your shoes, m'lady." The falsely gallant tone added just the right touch of unreal to the scene. Ezra let the huge man pick up one of his feet and slip on the tall shoe, buckling the strap and stroking up the silk-clad leg with possessive fingers. "Oh, pussy, you are breathtaking," Herve' murmured adoringly now, leaning in to take a kiss. Ezra braced himself on stiff arms, hands clenched in the splintery wood, a sound of muffled disgust uncontrollably emerging from the forced kiss.

Jardain laughed lightly and laid a wide palm on Ezra's face, rubbing it and then dragging it down his neck, across the lace covered chest and waist, to end in a cup around his lax and shrunken genitalia. "Pretty pussy, will you sing for me now?"

Vin raggedly drew in a deep breath and strained at his wrist restraints, feeling them begin to give finally. He was flush with shame and fear, trembling like he'd never done before in his life. He knew he'd be next but for now, he focused on the sounds coming from his friend Ezra.

Buck wrenched his shoulders, and grunted, his concentration complete. The band stretched and ripped suddenly, his hands striking out and held back with rigid control behind his back out of sight of the man nominally covering him with a gun. Only the man, Rodney, was watching with sick fascination as his boss mauled the trapped agent on the log beam. The other one, Ginch, was supposed to be watching Vin but his eyes, too, had strayed to the unfolding scene of depravity across the room. Buck steadied his breathing. Hold on, Ezra. I'm coming. He inhaled deeply, pulled his legs back and rocked on to his heels slowly, carefully. No one looked his way, not even Vin. No one except Ezra whose huge eyes were fastened on his face with blossoming hope. Buck sent a silent message of love and strength to his lover and surged to his feet.


Ezra switched his attention to Herve' who still stood over him, caressing his now shod foot, holding the second strappy high heeled shoe in one hand. Forcing a smile, though a bit shaky it quickly became his normally smooth undercover persona, he blinked his lashes and looked up through them at Jardain. "Give me the other one, I'll put it on," he whispered, letting a hint of promise in the tone.

Jardain responded like a flower to water, straightening and smiling, he presented the second shoe, releasing Ezra's other foot. "Now that's more like it, my pretty."

Behind him, Buck rose up to his feet like a volcano, hands swinging free with straggly stretched and torn pieces of leather strap hanging from them. Neither of the two watching gunmen even noticed, but Vin did. Tanner gave a final hard yank and was free as well, rising like smoke behind the bigger man, eyes wild with rage and vengeance.

Ezra saw his friends movements and knew he had to keep attention on himself for just a few more seconds. With a sizzle of fury that he'd never before allowed to escape while on the job, he swung his legs down to the floor from the log beam perch he'd been set on. Jardain stepped back to watch, appreciatively, still unsuspecting of the danger ready to erupt at his rear. He hummed as he leered at his small prize, watching avidly as Ezra swiftly raised the second stiletto-heeled shoe and then screamed in shock as the man launched himself at Herve', a long armed swing of the patent leathered shoe ending in a vicious entry to the bigger man's neck at the vulnerable front of his throat.

The scream changed to a burbling, excruciating noise as Jardain gagged and clutched at the straps of gleaming black leather, the unscratched brown sole shining obscenely as it dangled from his neck. Blood was gushing out of the ragged rupture as he sank to his knees, eyes bulging in the new effort to breath.

Ezra didn't wait, scrambling to a ready stance to face the two gunmen who were staring in surprise, their guns automatically swinging around from his compatriots to face him. He bent one knee to better balance against a bare foot and one wearing a four inch heel, his side pounding with the punishment it had received, now stretched and hurting more.

Buck bellowed behind Jardain somewhere, still a good fifteen feet away though he was leaping forward in enormous strides. "Ezra, look out!" The gunman nearest him had raised his gun with a shaking hand and was clearly preparing to fire at his lover. With determination to protect, Buck pushed himself off on both feet and threw his body across the angle of the man's gun and Ezra's exposed body. The sound of the gun was loud, Buck's grunt of pain like a surprised aspiration of air.

Vin Tanner was a whirlwind of motion, his body a blur as he kicked out at the second gunman's hand, the gun pin-wheeling free. Ignoring the cry of pain from his target as the man clutched at a broken wrist, he continued his turn, coming down hard on his front foot as he flipped over once in an eye-opening, hands-free full body cartwheel. He landed with great precision on top of the other threatening man, hands already reaching for the scrawny neck. By the time the two men hit the floor, that neck was twisted and snapped with a small popping sound.

Outside, unheard by the men at war within, a sleek minivan, all black, had pulled up to the steps of the old mill and four very tough looking bruisers were climbing out. Down the single street, a dust cloud and the sound of a roaring motor had the men turning to look as a black Ram king-size pickup slid to a stop just short of ramming their smaller truck. All four dove for cover, yanking out handguns, one pulling free a semi-automatic from a strap around his neck and back, letting it swing out into his hands and throwing a stream of bullets toward the intruders.

Chris, teeth still gritting on his small cigar, slammed the truck into park and jumped clear, not even bothering to turn off the motor. He had his Sig out and cupped in two hands as he stood behind the tall hood of his thrumming vehicle, picking a target and firing even as his men scrambled out of the other doors, all prickling with their own weapons. His aim was steady and the suspect melted to the ground with a final burp of his weapon, bullets stitching a row in the gravel.

It was JD who yelled out their identification, protecting the silent rage of his teammates. "ATF! ATF! Drop your weapons!" The young agent knew their opposition had no intention of doing that but it would be a necessary element of the team's testimony at some time in the future. Despite what his teammates sometimes teased, he was a smart, tough young man and kept on thinking despite the confusion and violence that might spring up around him during a bust, or like now, when a firefight came out of nowhere. He picked his shot, crouched down by the rear wheel well of the big truck, satisfied to see the man running toward him falter and then collapse.

Josiah could move very fast when he needed to and his team was in danger, the missing ones even more than his fellows here. With anger blooming in his chest, he rose up on the side fender of the sleek truck, his toes finding purchase more by sheer velocity than any physical support, and stood on the truck bed, arms coming together with his long muzzled gun held clasped in two large bony fists as he slowly arced it, searching his target, ignoring the burn along one arm of a close miss. There! Meet your maker, brother. He squeezed the trigger and smiled beatifically as his target dropped soundlessly in a heap.

Nathan Jackson was swearing under his breath as he lay on his belly in the churned up gravel and dirt of the mill yard, spitting out sawdust and pebbles from his precipitous dive out the back passenger door. He raised one arm to pull free a throwing knife from his back harness, his loose jacket still on the back bench seat of the truck where he'd shrugged out of it during their careening drive out to the abandoned town. One hand holding a gun unwaveringly, his other instinctively filled and emptied of a flying blade, the glitter of the blued steel like a metal bird as it flew in a shallow arc. With a silent swiftness, it was buried in the heart of one of the four men who'd dared attack Team 7.

The four agents slowly stood up and away from their cover, cautiously turning over the bodies, all corpses, of their opponents, flicking sharp glances around to spot any other potential threats. "Josiah, JD, check out the yard, the buildings. Nate, you're with me." Larabee leaned in the window of his truck and turned off the motor. He started for the mill entrance since that had been the apparent destination of the now dead gangsters.

The utter silence of the yard was only broken now by the harsh panting of his men as they recovered from the short, violent action. It must have lasted all of twenty or thirty seconds at the outside, Larabee thought, pointing his Sig ahead as he stalked wordlessly toward the building hulking in front of him. Jackson had caught up, brushing at clinging bits of grit on his shirtfront, other hand holding steady with a forty-five aimed unerringly toward the empty open doorway they were approaching.

JD and Josiah both spun on the balls of their feet, Chris and Nathan stopping for an instant, at the sound of Ezra's voice crying out "BUCK!" It had come from somewhere inside, up high. Chris cricked his neck back, upstairs! And he was off and running, the other three on his heels, their original assignments forgotten.

Upstairs, the outside firefight was noted by Vin Tanner who was hastily checking the two gunmen now deceased. He'd shot the second one amid the sounds of gunfire outside, when the man foolishly went for his gun again, despite a now broken wrist. Tanner had scooped up the weapon near the limp hand of the already dead gunman beside him and drilled a hole in the dumbass across the room. He sent a worried glance toward Buck who had dropped to the floor at the sound of the single, earlier shot here in the room. Shit, team must have arrived, he thought as the bursts of gunfire outside subsided. The shots had erupted even as he covered the distance between his first target and his second. The shot that hit Buck only one sharp sound among the peppering fire outside. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ezra stagger, bend and rip free the shoe still buckled on one foot. Jardain had fallen over on his side, still breathing noisily, crying out in pain with a muffled sound.

Vin came to his feet gracefully, tense, armed with the two revolvers the henchmen had been using. He crouched and ran for the window the noise had come from, peering out cautiously. Behind him, he heard Ezra cry out, "BUCK!"

Outside, Chris, Nathan, JD and Josiah were moving through the bodies in the large, open mill yard. All four heads snapped up at the sound of Ezra's cry. Vin knew they didn't see him as they all took off at a dead run for the downstairs entry to the mill. Sinking down to sit with his back to the wall beneath the windowsill, Tanner sighed, resting his guns on his cross-legged lap, both barrels finding an unerring home in the middle of Jardain's heaving back. He hazarded a single quick look toward his friends. Ezra was kneeling over Wilmington now, turning him over with erratic movements, fear evident in his shaking hands, though his face was blank, still.

The thundering of men's feet on the wooden staircase alerted Tanner to their team's imminent arrival. Leastways, better be them. He pointed one gun at the doorway, the other still affixed to Jardain's back, though the man had stopped moving. Vin hadn't yet noticed the blood dripping from his wrist where he'd torn skin as he broke free of his bindings.

"Buck! Answer me, you bastard!" Ezra's harsh almost gutteral demand made Vin squint. You better not be hurt too bad, Bucklin, or old Ez is gonna kick your ass but good.

Looking up, Vin relaxed as his eyes met hard hazel ones. Chris stood braced in the doorway, taking in the scene. Behind him, Nathan, JD, and Josiah crowded close.

Ezra fumbled with Buck's shirt and jacket. Dragging them back off of his friend's shoulders, ripping them free. The bullet had punched Wilmington in the back, high up, at an angle near the shoulder. It was bleeding badly from the back, there was no exit wound. He shoved the shirt into a ball and pressed it against the wound, the man's torso draped over his knees as he knelt there on the floor, oblivious to his own gawdy appearance. With panicked motions, he used his free hand to lift and turn Buck's face toward his. The face was smoothly expressionless, eyes closed. "Buck! Answer me, you bastard!" Two dark blue eyes slowly opened, their expression glazed.

Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. The wound was too high to be life-threatening. His heart pounding, he smiled down at the man who'd undoubtedly not only saved his own worthless life, but done it at incredible cost. He was giving his life for me. Ezra bent closer over his friend, his lover. "Ah, Mr. Wilmington, you are a piece of work." He gently kissed the now furrowed brow of his listening love. A smile appeared under the mustache. It was quickly followed by a grimace as pain from the gunshot finally registered.

"Oh, ouch!" Buck's shoulders heaved up once, then he was turning in Ezra's grasp so that he could lay there, supported by Ezra and look up into those beautiful green eyes.

Ezra hastily adjusted his hold, managing to keep pressure on the wound. He met the dark promising look and smiled back. "You are a rascal, you know that?"

"Who, me?" Buck managed a lop-sided grin despite the now throbbing pain in his shoulder. "You're the one in a dress."

"Not by choice, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra gently chastised, ignoring the sudden arrival of more men. Vin would handle them, he had their backs.

"Hate to say it, Ez, but you do look good in drag." It came out in a whisper. "My own private drag qu---"

"Don't even think it, Buck!" Ezra warned with assumed outrage. "I am not, nor have I ever been a drag queen!"

"Queen of my heart," Buck murmured, letting his eyes drift shut.

"BUCK!" Ezra lurched closer in renewed panic. Then Nathan was there beside him, easing the bigger man from his grip.

"Let go a bit here, Ezra. Let me see how bad he's hit." Jackson was gentle, seeing the fear in the wide green eyes that met his for a second before returning to stare at their wounded teammate. Nathan eased Buck down flat on the floor, then lifted him over onto his belly and began to probe beneath the shirt wadding that Ezra had been pressing into the bleeding wound. "You'll live, Buck." He sighed and sat down, pulling free some antiseptic powder from his med kit shoulder bag, and sprinkling it on the open flesh. A bloody, trembling hand grabbed hold of one of his arms. Looking up again, Nathan smiled reassuringly. "He'll be fine, Ezra, just shock setting in. We'll get him to help right away."

Ezra swallowed hard and closed his eyes in grateful relief. He'd thought that to be the case, but Nathan's words still were enough to slow his heartbeat and calm him. He barely felt the heavy tweed suit jacket that dropped onto his shoulders but did hear Josiah's voice.

"Let's get you covered up a bit, Ezra. No sense getting a chill, Buck's going to need you."

In the background, Ezra heard Chris' sharp voice. "JD, go down to the truck. My sports bag is in the big tackle box on the truck bed. Bring it up."

Josiah straightened up as Dunne flashed out of the room. They could all hear his dash down the stairs. Yes, Ezra needed to be dressed when reinforcements arrived. Team 6 would be here soon, they'd called them with their conclusions and Jenner had said he'd have his men on their tail, be back up as soon as he could get there. Said he'd contact Travis, too. The beat of a helicopter overhead meant that likely he had.

Chris walked slowly over to where Herve' Jardain lay on his side, curled up protectively, both hands still wrapped around his throat. With a casual movement, Larabee kicked the man's legs. "Jardain?" Nothing. He stalked around the motionless man to face him, then started back in shock. Bloodshot eyes stared back at him, bulging from their sockets in soundless agony. Between clutching clawed fingers, blood flowed still, slowly oozing out, half concealing what appeared to be a women's high-heeled dress shoe. At least, he figured that was what it was, though the heel was out of sight. Chris smiled, no humor in it, his teeth exposed around the forgotten cigar in his mouth. He looked down to the side and saw a second shoe sitting there abandoned, straps loose, the four-inch stiletto heel's black patent leather gleaming dully in the diffused lighting. Stretching and rolling his shoulders in grim amusement, Chris met the insanity in those dark eyes with his own brand of brutality. "Now, that's what I call poetic justice."

He moved away as Josiah came over and bent down on one knee to examine the injured suspect. Hell, he was guilty as sin, no need to 'suspect' anything. Larabee turned away, knowing that Sanchez had more ability to deal with the piece of crap than he had. He'd just shoot the bastard and be done with it, and that wouldn't read too well in the team report. Josiah would take care of Jardain. Facing the room again, Larabee took in the dead bodies of two men, Ezra sagging in relief next to Buck as Nathan worked busily on Buck's wound. Must be alright or Ez would be screamin' for more help. Assured that his other men were okay, he looked over at Tanner, still sitting on the floor by the far window, a gun in each hand.

Chris smiled more naturally and strode over. "You okay?"

Vin squinted up at his boss. "Yep."


"Just resting."

"Come on." Larabee held out a hand.

Vin started to reach for the helping hand, then seemed to realize both of his own were occupied. He placed the henchmen's guns down on the floor carefully, then reached up and grasped the offered hand of his team leader and good friend.

Yanking Tanner to his feet, Chris looked searchingly into the bright blue eyes. He nodded his question. No bullshit, Tanner, you really okay? The shocky look left the blue eyes meeting his, a small smile answering his silent query. Yep.

"Go help Josiah."

Vin looked distastefully over at where Josiah was kneeling over Jardain. But he squared his shoulders with a nod to Larabee and walked over.

Chris stood by the window, looking around the room. JD fired back inside, clutching his sports bag. "Get out some clothes for Ezra," Chris instructed quietly.

Dunne nodded and crouched next to Standish, looking over at Jackson. "Buck okay?"

"Yeah, he's going to be fine, JD, just a minor gunshot to the shoulder." Nathan was finishing up a temporary pressure bandage as he spoke, not bothering to look up.

JD's tension eased and he got busy with the bag, pulling out sweat pants and shirt. He looked up to offer them to Ezra, eyes widening as he took in the undercover agent's current apparel for the first time. "Hot damn, Ezra! Where'd you get that outfit?"

Ezra, who'd been watching Nathan's actions with attentive possessiveness, jerked at JD's piping question. He looked down at himself in awaking shock. Aw, hell.

"Here." Dunne had almost immediately recognized his own mistake. Apologetically, he added, "Don't worry about it, Ez. Here's some of Chris' clothes, just slip into them."

Standish nodded, shrugging off Josiah's heavy jacket where it rested on his shoulders and taking the gray pants first and pulling them up, tugging the drawstring tight. With a sudden violent action, he ripped the provocative negligee' off, tearing the lacy bodice free and thrusting it away. JD quietly passed him a large sweatshirt and he gratefully dragged it down over his head. The sleeves hung over his hands and he impatiently shoved them up, exposing his bruised forearms, the puncture wounds from now twice torn out IV lines looked red and angry.

"Nate, you best check Ezra too." JD eyed the marks on Ezra's arms with alarm.

Jackson nodded. "I'll get to him soon's I can." He patted Buck's back, knowing the man was semi-conscious and likely beginning to feel a lot of pain. "We'll have you out of here shortly, Buck. Just lie still."

Wilmington shifted slightly, turning his head to look for Ezra. He sighed in relief to see the southerner sitting beside him, nearly swallowed in what were obviously Larabee's sweats. With a quirk of his lips, Buck spoke. "Hey, Ez, roll up those pant legs. Don't want you tripping now."

Irritated green sparks flew at him, the southerner's love still evident nonetheless. Then Ezra ducked and began to do as he was told. "Oh, shit!"

With a wry grimace, Ezra reached down inside his waistband to release the thigh-high garters, then stretched down to drag stockings and garters free of his legs through the pant cuff openings. He flung the offending garments away, heedless of direction. JD ducked now and grinned as one stocking landed on Josiah's shoulder, the big man unaware of his new decoration as he sat back to stare at Jardain, Tanner hovering over them, the sharpshooter's face a closed mask, his eyes hard and unforgiving.

Other engines roared into the yard behind Chris as he held his cell phone. He spoke in a clipped, low voice, his words indistinguishable but the tone satisfied. He watched from the window as Team 6 climbed out of their vehicles, Jenner holding a cell phone to his ear. Terry looked up, spotted Larabee and waved. Chris nodded back. They spoke to one another for another few moments and then both closed their phones.

Team 6 would handle cleanup in the yard. Team 7 would stay here, wait for the air medics that were landing out in the street now, the loud whopping sound of the helicopter blades whumping to silence. Everything would be okay. Ezra was safe. Buck wasn't hurt bad. He let his eyes skim around the room. His boys all looked a bit rough, he saw some blood on Josiah's arm. Not much. Likely a graze. Have Nate look at that when he can. He saw their team medic was crouched in front of Jardain's body, studying the situation. Not much to be done for the man until he was in the hospital. That shoe couldn't be removed or the fuck would likely bleed to death instantly. Not such a bad outcome, he thought with a sigh. As it was, he'll probably live. They damn well better do a good job securing the bastard this time. In his peripheral vision, he saw the white clad paramedics dashing through the yard, bags slung over shoulders, carrying a couple of evac sleds.

With deliberation, Chris Larabee holstered his weapon back in his shoulder harness and pulled at his cigar, taking a puff and blowing the smoke out into the room. It almost felt normal right now, like any regular bust. He eyed his undercover agent, now edged up against his old friend Buck, looking diminutive in the too large sweats, sleeves and pant legs rolled up. Better that than the outfit he was in when we got here. He doesn't need any more of that shit. Chris leaned against the open sill, bracing himself with one hand, the other returning the small cigar, nearly down to a butt, back between his teeth. This may even do Ezra some good, be too busy worrying about Buck to fall back into that funk from his other problems. Chris sighed. Not that those problems were going to go away anytime soon.


Nathan scratched the back of his head, more in frustration than puzzlement. There had to be a way to get his teammates to pay attention to their injuries, follow doctors' orders. Just wish I knew the secret word, he thought in sudden amusement, feeling like Groucho Marx. I could use that foolish, ugly duck dropping down out of the sky with an answer about now. He lifted his gaze from his stubborn friends to Josiah Sanchez who was chuckling in amusement from his seat across the room. Sanchez had appropriated the big recliner that Ezra had in his sparsely decorated living room. After a bit of a push from the team, he'd made sure that there were enough seats - of one sort or another - for all seven men to be seated when they came over.

And come over they did. After all, he had the biggest screen TV of any of them. Sunday afternoon football just wasn't the same anywhere else. It had only been two days since the rescue at Rock Hollow and both Buck and Ezra had been discharged from the hospital. Well, Buck had been discharged. Ezra refused to be re-admitted as a patient, accepting only minimal first aid treatment at the ER for his bloody little holes for IV 's and other alien equipment, as he referred to it, attached a few short times to his body.

It was the strangest thing, but Ezra, who'd been nearly ready to be committed, only two days ago, was now nearly back to normal. Nearly being the operative word. He was still showin' the whites all the way around his eyes if startled and he was nervy enough to be startled more than regular, except when he was fussin' at Buck or close up against him. Like now. Nathan slouched back in the low arty chair that he'd co-opted. It looked uncomfortable, but was really, he'd found through private experimentation, one of the most comfortable chairs he'd ever sat upon. It was his secret vice. Ezra probably knew it, but still. He sat there now, hands folded across his belly, studying his two recovering friends closely.

Ezra was mashed up tight against Buck's healthy side, his own injury a bit further along in the healing process. Nate decided he'd never seen two people look more comfortable together than those two. They fit each other's shapes as if all their angles and curves were two parts of one whole. Like old marrieds. He chuckled, giving up on his pestering advice for now. They were just so peaceful, both nearly asleep despite the cheers from the others at a touchdown on the big screen. The two occupied the plush love seat that sat kitty corner to the big squashy couch.

Vin was sprawled in inelegant abandon on the couch, with JD on the floor, propped up against the front edge of the 'beast' as the boys referred to the couch. It was a new design, kind of like the arty chair, but so soft. Ezra said it was leather filled with feathers, down. Like sittin' on a cloud. Chris strolled back out from the small kitchen area, having sought a refill for his beer. Bottle in hand, he moved slowly, meeting Nate's eyes for a moment with a small smile of his own. He was eyeing the twosome on the loveseat, nodding almost imperceptively. As if satisfied with something.

Chris returned to the big old rocking chair that formed one of the corners of the loose boxing of furniture arranged about the big TV. He suspected that it was an antique, but not a persnickety, delicate, King Luis the something or other, naw, it was a solid, clean-lined American product. Just oldish. And deep honey maple colored, with burls and gnarls showing in the grain of the wide rockers and arm rests, in the flat deep back rests, and in the spreading slats of the seat. Sitting down with that cat-like grace that often went unnoticed due to his overweening personality, Larabee toasted Nate with his bottle neck across the room. Nate raised his own bottle in response. Together, with the others, they would look after the new couple, protect them. Jackson turned his attention to the big screen in time to see the red flag hit the field and hear Vin's curse and JD's groan.

Ezra shifted slightly, instantly feeling Buck's arm tighten. "Ez? Am I crowdin' you too much?" Buck's anxious query was softly whispered in one nearby ear.

Ezra turned and smiled up at his lover. "Never." He reached up and let his fingers stroke down Buck's strong jawbone, then tap his chin once before dropping back in the southerner's lap. "Just trying to keep from hurting you, Buck."

Wilmington reached down with his free hand and captured the errant one of his dearest love. Drew it up to his lips to kiss and nibble gently. "Ezra."


"How are you? Honest, please."

Green eyes flashed back up. "I should be asking you that question, my love."

"Still got some pain in the shoulder," Buck answered complacently, adding firmly, "But, I wasn't asking about me."

Standish's fingers began to curl tensely in Buck's larger hand.

"Ezra, please. Shall we go to the bedroom? Will you talk to me in private?" Buck's tone was serious and determined. The rest of the room was quiet now, someone had lowered the sound almost to 'mute' on the TV. No one was looking right at them, but everyone was listening.

Ezra began to redden. His fingers clenched into fists. "I don't want to talk about it. About him."


"Don't play with me, Buck. You know who."

Thank you, god, Josiah said silently. This needs to happen. Good for you Buck. We're here to back your play.

Larabee began to rock, the action smooth and soundless on the carpeting. Buck was certainly daring but, he agreed, it had to be done. Ezra had thrown up all his walls over the past two days, buried his trauma behind them, focused his energies on the hurt surveillance expert. Couldn't last. Better to force the issue when we're all here to help if needed. He took another sip of beer, grateful for the relaxed attitude of his 'family' toward their two bonded brothers. Could have turned out a damn sight worse if any of the boys had made objections.

JD began to play with the label on his bottle of beer, peeling at the scalloped edge, easing it up away from the cool, sweaty glass. Things change. He could deal with change, but Ezra had a tough hill to climb just now. Not sure I'd be in such good shape, if it had happened to me. He dropped his head back, feeling Vin's leg behind him.

Vin was listening and wondering. He'd spent some time alone with Josiah, after the sawmill. He'd not been real comfortable after the jazz club, but damn, that creep Jardain had really, really scared him at the mill. Terrified him, more like. And what he'd done to Ezra, wanted to do. If I had this much trouble dealing with things, and I just got mauled a little bit, then, damn, what about Ez?

Nathan leaned forward, as if to get up, but then collapsed back at a tiny headshake from Sanchez. He'd listen for now, but if Ezra got in any real trouble, pain, he'd intervene.

"I'm not playing, baby. Never do that, not about something like this." Buck's large hand gently stroked back Ezra's reddish brown hair, as if soothing him. Kissing the wide expanse of brow, he sat back slightly, not releasing the smaller man from his arm's encirclement nor his hand's entwining. "You need to talk about it. Get it out. Don't hold it in, Ezra, it will fester. Hurt worse."

Standish looked away from the too serious face of the man holding him. For two days, as Buck's pains lessened and his own eased as well, nothing had been said. Chris and the others had somehow fought off the doctors that wanted Ezra back in the hospital. They saw that he was coping. Or so he thought. Now he wasn't so sure. He snuck a quick peek up at his boss across the room. Chris was studying the opening of his beer bottle with great intensity. Ezra relaxed slightly, somehow reassured that he wasn't the target of too many eyes. With a bit more confidence, he looked elsewhere. Vin was playing with a twist of licorice, making knots out of the stretchy black length of candy, then undoing them. Only Vin would consider licorice and beer as a likely combination. JD was slowly and carefully removing, intact, the front label on the bottle of beer he'd been drinking. With trepidation, Ezra's eyes slid over to Nathan. The team worrywart was relaxed in the Arts and Crafts period art chair, eyes closed and hands folded on his stomach. Ezra blew out a little breath of air, feeling Buck's eyes on him, but only Buck's. What of Josiah? He flicked a look at the big profiler only to see him running large wooden worry beads, or prayer beads? through his hands, eyes affixed to the bits of rounded wood. They were all waiting, not threatening, not judging, just waiting quietly for him to speak. Ezra opened his mouth, not at all sure what he'd say.


"I'm really not worth it." His voice came out so small that it seemed to match how he felt now.

Buck studied the man sitting beside him, head bowed now. Ezra's brown hair gleamed with reddish highlights, his shoulders were tense, his hands - pulled free from Buck's - were rubbing on the tops of his pant legs. Buck decided that he better not let any silence build after that little jewel. "Bullshit."

Ezra jerked bodily in his grasp. He yanked the small man closer and put his lips back on Ezra's forehead, speaking now as he pressed his lips there, letting the words leak out. "Ezra, you are my everything. AND, you are a very special, very intelligent, very talented man. Even if I didn't love you, I'd like you and respect you. Want to call you my friend."

"We all would. I mean we do, too!" JD's voice was awkward in the quiet room, but very earnest.

Vin swung his legs over JD's head and sat up on the beast, his feet solidly planted on the floor as he edged forward out of the couch's maw. "'s the truth, Ezra. We all feel that way. You're a good man."

"You're one of us." Chris looked up and over at his undercover agent, finding and meeting sad green eyes with his own narrowed hazel ones. "We'd all step in front of a bullet for you, Ezra, and you damn well better know it. A man doesn't do that for a 'nothing.'"

Buck curved one large hand around Ezra's head and turned it until Ezra's face was buried in his shoulder. Then he hugged his friend close. "Ez, listen to them. Listen to me. Don't know where you got this idea from but it's all wrong."

"After what happened---" The southerner's thick accent was hard to understand now, as if he was hiding his words. He shoved his head against Buck's shoulder, then forced himself away enough to raise his head and study Buck. "I'm so dirty now. How can you stand to touch me?"

"Aw shit." Buck sat back against the thick arm of the loveseat and plunged his hands under Ezra's sweater to hook them beneath the smaller man's armpits. He lifted with no visible strain, literally lifting the other man up into the air and then forward, settling Ezra astraddle his legs. "You are the most thick-skulled, stubborn, rattle-brained ---" He shook his head, defeated in trying to find another description of the man's blindness. "Ezra." He wrapped his long arms all the way around the compact form, tugging him into a tight embrace, "Am I touching you now?"

"Yes." The word, like Ezra's others, was small, tight.

"Do I feel like I'm disgusted, upset with touching you?"

Ezra didn't immediately answer, as if testing the question against the tactile sensations he was experiencing. Buck's heart was beating slowly, like a big drum against his cheek. There was no sense of withdrawal or repulsion. Just love. It surrounded him, Buck's love. Something he'd always wanted. But, when he'd try to give his own, it had never seemed to be enough before. Why now?

"Why now?"

"Why what now?" Buck sounded puzzled again.

"Why do you love me now?" The 'and not before' was heard clearly by all the men.

Buck tucked his chin and rested his head against Ezra's, sighing. "I realized something, when I thought I was going to lose you to another. When I saw you on that stage looking so fine, but looking at him, not me. Up 'til then, I just took you for granted. You just gave and gave and never asked for anything, Ez. Don't know when desire became need, but I need you now. Took this to make me realize what losing you would do to me." He released Ezra enough so that the man could sit back in his lap, so that their eyes could meet and Ezra would be able to read the honesty he was trying so hard to share. "Before, I just tried to keep on being the me that'd I'd become. Kept you at a distance using the girls." He felt Ezra flinch and saw the light dampen in those green eyes that were locked with his. "I should have known then what a treasure I'd been given but I didn't 'cause I was a stubborn, thick-skulled, rattle-brained so and so. And, I was afraid. I was afraid to become too serious, to let you into my heart. Afraid I'd lose you, like---"

"Like Sarah." Chris' voice was soft across the room. No condemnation there, just understanding.

Buck's eyes flew up and to the hazel ones that met them with quiet concern. Saw the warmth and care.

Ezra, though, was baffled and full of wonder. Buck had loved Sarah? And lost her to Chris? He twisted his neck around to look over at Larabee who hadn't stopped rocking, one hand supporting a half-empty beer bottle on one arm of the big old rocker. Chris returned his look without anger. "He loved Sarah?" Ezra's question came out before he could stop himself.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, eyes returning to his oldest friend's. "When she chose me, near broke his heart. I'd have given him anything, but I couldn't give him Sarah. She was part of me by then and I couldn't let her go." Chris looked back at Ezra. "He loved her, would have made her happy, too. But, Ezra, from what I can see, his heart didn't break 'cause he didn't love her like he loves you."

Ezra's eyes widened and he swiveled his head back to look up into deep blue eyes that seemed like limitless oceans just now. "Buck?"

"Chris is right. Took me years to figure that out, took you." Buck leaned forward and gently captured Ezra's lips for a delicate, soft kiss. "I love you, Ezra, and it's a love that has no boundaries. I think it crept up on me and then jumped my bones when you were hurt."

"Then you don't think that I---"

"Ezra, stop it. Please stop trying to take any blame in this. You did your job, hell you did it so well that the rest of us were running around trying to keep up with you." Buck sighed and looked back over at Chris. "Tell him, Chris."

Larabee nodded and waited until Ezra looked at him over his shoulder again. "You surprised everyone, Ezra. Even me, and I know how good you are. You got in in less than a day. No one was ready for that. And, you paid for it." Larabee stood up suddenly and in three large steps was standing in front of the couple on the loveseat. Ezra's head was tipped back now to try to maintain eye contact with his boss. "You are that good. You are the best, Standish, the best in the business. We are all proud of you."

The small man blushed lightly and looked down at the floor. Chris reached in and put a knuckle on his chin, raising his head slowly. "Ezra? You did nothing to be ashamed of. Bad things happened. They do. God knows, I've found that out the hard way." Chris' eyes took on a shadowed, pained expression, then cleared a bit as he smiled. "The only enemy you have to face, my friend, is yourself."

Josiah stood up and stretched, feeling the heaviness of the moment. A lot had been said, much more needed saying, but no one was going to be good for anything if they kept at this too long at one sitting. "Know your enemy, Ezra. Know yourself. We'll help you find a way passed the pain, son. There's enough love and friendship in this room to defeat your worst demons. Just give it time." He looked over at his own best friend. "Nathan, I think we all need a break and something healthful to eat."

Vin groaned theatrically and flopped back on the couch, one leg knocking JD under the chin hard. The younger man's head snapped back and he yelped, "Hey! Watch it, Vin!"

Nathan, though, had heard the underlying appeal in Josiah's voice and met it with his own brand of subtle humor. "I think you're right, Josiah, some food to balance the energies consumed in stress. That's medically sound advice." He nodded sagely, hiding his grin at the desperate look on Vin's face as the sharpshooter cricked his neck up to look over and see if Jackson was really serious. "Maybe I could call my health food store? Soycurds and some rucola salad should be good."

Chris had broken eye contact, backing up to prop himself against the far side of the overstuffed loveseat, still near Ezra and Buck, but not touching. He smiled as Vin and JD groaned in unison. "Food's a good idea," he agreed.

"Chris, that ain't food, that's---" Vin was speechless.

"An insult to the palate." Ezra finished, drawing one leg up over Buck's lap and twisting around to sit sideways on the big man. He settled against Buck more comfortably, feeling those wonderful arms continue to hold him close. "I'd suggest something a bit more pedestrian, like---"

"PIZZA!" JD called from the floor where he was rubbing his jaw.

"Or, pancakes." Josiah smiled benignly at the sudden interest thrown his way from around the room. "I happen to know that Ezra's kitchen is stocked with pancake flour AND real maple syrup."

Ezra smiled as well but didn't speak.

"Hm, pancakes and maple syrup." Chris actually smiled over at the profiler. "You offering to make them?"

Sanchez grinned. "My efforts in the community kitchen of St. Martin's should suffice for training for such a moment as this. I think I can make enough to even satisfy the empty legs of a couple of young studs we got here." He cocked an eyebrow at Vin and JD who were both looking very interested and not the least bit insulted.

Nathan, happy at the playful tone that had supplanted the high tension and emotional overload of the room, lay back in his chair, waving one arm airily. "Let us know when it's ready."

Josiah started to nod when Chris spoke again. "I'll help."

Dead silence as everyone stopped in mid-breath. Then Ezra raised his head from Buck's chest and drawled, "I knew it! A 'closet' kitchen chef. Mr. Larabee, you are scaring the young ones."

Chris only grinned and walked past Josiah, catching one suspender in passing and dragging the man after him, chuckles from both men trailing behind.

"This, I want to see." Vin was off the couch and following, JD on his heels.

Nathan suddenly realized that he was the only one left with the lovebirds. Time for a strategic exit, give them some time alone, however short. "Guess I better get in there or those boys will ruin your kitchen, Ezra." He regretfully rose from the wonderful chair and strolled out of the room.

Ezra heaved a big sigh and dropped his head back on to Buck's chest. "Hey there, buddy?" Buck nuzzled at one ear. "You alright now?"

"No." Ezra's voice was still sad, but it was no longer that hollow sounding, almost scary sound. Just pensive. "But I think maybe I will be."


Ezra stood consideringly in front of his wardrobe. His hand hesitated as it glided along just a breath above a row of neatly hung, stylishly tailored suit coat jackets. In the end, it settled on an old football jersey belonging to Buck that hung in lonely splendor at one end of the walk-in closet. Without another look back at the abandoned finery, he yanked the overlarge shirt off its hanger and pulled it down over his head, ignoring the muss that made of his neatly combed hair.

He walked back out into the bedroom, the big shirt hanging down to mid-thigh on him, humming a nearly silent tune. His one pair of jeans slid on in comfortable softness from much use. Rubbing at his jaw thoughtfully, he strolled by the bathroom and on into the living room where he remembered discarding his running shoes last night. Buck would be here soon to pick him up. No one wanted him behind the wheel of a vehicle just yet because he still startled very easily. He listened to the scratchy sound of his two-day beard and began to wonder if anyone was going to say anything to him yet. No one had. Not yet.

He sank into the mushroom sofa, letting the softness of the down filled leather surround him, hold him safe until Buck arrived. This had been their first night apart since --- well, since. Buck had to work late and it was easier to bunk down back at his old shared apartment with JD. He'd called. Several times, to make sure Ezra was all right. Of course, I'm all right. What else would I be? I'm a big boy now. Boy. Pussy. His pussy. Ezra shuddered and blanked his mind, a new technique he'd developed to survive the constantly resurfacing memories of Jardain's treatment of him.

He was still sitting there, staring straight ahead at nothing, when Buck let himself in with a key. Chris was right behind him. Together they moved cautiously into the apartment, down the entryway to the archway into the living room. Buck stopped and sagged back against the wall, his face settling into his recently new and seemingly permanent lines of despair. Larabee laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed firmly, then continued on past his friend and into the big room.

Chris padded over to the furniture, over to where Ezra sat like a statue. "Ezra?"

Nothing. Larabee sat down next to his undercover agent and waited a moment, then tried again. "Ezra?"

Still nothing. Chris carefully covered one of Ezra's hands with his own and squeezed. The smaller man blinked slowly, then swiveled his head to look at Larabee. He started back with a small cry of alarm, nearly falling off the couch. By this time, Buck had hurried in and was prepared, catching his lover whilst murmuring reassurances.

Larabee sat back and watched. Buck's right. He's gotten worse. He waited for the two men to notice him again.

Buck Wilmington had been in fear for several days. Ezra was withdrawing and refused to leave the bedroom, wanting only to hold on to Buck and sleep. Getting him to do anything was a chore, eating nearly an impossibility. It was as if Ezra had decided to withdraw from life itself and Buck no longer believed that his love was enough. He'd had several quiet talks with Josiah on the cell phone when Ezra was asleep. Finally it was decided to try to ease Ezra back into life by removing Buck. Buck had gone back to work. He'd kept in touch with Ezra all day. Phoning nearly every hour at first.

When he'd get back to Ezra's place in the evenings, Ezra would be wandering around in a robe, smoking. Smoking. Ezra didn't smoke. Or, at least, he hadn't used to. He refused to talk about it, actually denying doing it at one point, a burning butt in one hand as he adamantly insisted that he didn't smoke at home. The disjointedness of things was spooky. At the suggestion that he might need to see a psychologist, he'd wrapped himself around Buck's long form and cried, saying Buck was all he needed.

This was progress, sort of, Buck decided. At least he's dressed. He kissed the slender neck and petted the small body, soothing away panic with simple reassurances, waiting out this latest attack. Finally, Ezra calmed enough for Chris to see a spark of awareness. "Chris? When did you get here?"

"A while ago." Larabee sighed. Buck had made no headway, Ezra was refusing to go seek help voluntarily. "Ezra, I came to take you in to see Doctor Fienman. He's holding the afternoon open for you."

"Fienman? The shrink? No." Ezra rubbed frantically against Buck's large form, seeking something, he was no longer sure what.

Buck spoke up now. "Ez, baby, you're getting worse. You need help and I can't seem to do whatever it is you need."

"This isn't you, Standish." Chris leaned forward. "Ezra, you are going with us, one way or another."

"I don't understand." Green eyes were wide with pain and fear, rimmed with panic as they sought out first Buck's, then when his lover ducked away, Chris' eyes.

"Look at yourself." Chris let his disappointment show in his tone of voice. "You're a mess. That's not the Ezra Standish we know."

Ezra sat up straighter, reaching unconsciously for the open pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. Chris' hand snaked out and knocked them out of reach as he continued, "And that's not you either. You don't smoke. Ezra! We have to fix this."

Standish sank down, bending over and ducking his head until he'd curled into a small ball in front of Buck on the couch. Chris looked up into Buck's sad eyes. "Let's go." He stood.

Buck's eyes widened. "Go?"

"He doesn't want help. He wants to suffer. He's enjoying it." Larabee's eyes had dropped to Ezra's form and stayed there as he kept speaking. "He's gone soft. Pathetic. A real wuss."

"Puss. Pussy." The quiet word was hissed from the small man in front of them. Then, again, this time screamed: "PUSSY!"

Buck fell backwards, nearly toppling off the end of the couch himself in his surprise at the sudden violence. Chris stood his ground. "Yeah, pussy. That's a good word for how he's acting." Chris didn't address Ezra directly now, facing a bewildered Buck instead. "Pussy."

"NOOOO!" Ezra was suddenly surging up to his feet, hands out like claws as he launched himself at Larabee.

Chris caught the crooked hands easily and pulled them to the sides, dragging his friend close, then wrapping his arms easily around the writhing body. "No, you're right. Ezra, you're not a pussy." He let one hand come up to stroke the man's head. "Who told you that you were?"

"Jardain." Ezra whispered his reply his whole being rippling with disgust and anger.

"Did you like it?"

"NO!" Ezra tried to jerk free from Chris' arms but without any success. He'd become weak from lack of food and exercise, attitude. "no" he said again, his voice small.

"But you call yourself that now, don't you?"

"I --- I ---" Ezra began to shake his head vehemently in the negative, nearly hurting himself against Chris' chest.

Buck came up behind them, understanding beginning to lighten his eyes. He gently but firmly grasped Ezra's head and held him still. "Easy, baby."

"You think you are one, don't you?" Chris continued, relentless.

"No. Yes." Ezra slumped between the two men. "He said I was his. Said he'd always be back for me."

"When did he say that?" Buck was puzzled, he didn't remember that.

"The other night."

Dark blue eyes and hard hazel ones met in confusion. "What night, Ezra?" Chris demanded.

"When he called."

Buck grabbed Ezra's shoulders and spun him out of Chris' arms and around to face him. "He what?"

Ezra hung his head. "He said he'd hurt you. If I told."

Chris edged over to stand beside Buck, better to see the desperate man in Wilmington's arms. "Ezra, let me get this right. Jardain called you on the telephone? Spoke to you?"

"Yes." Ezra could barely lift his head and face these men. He was so empty.

"Chris." Buck's voice had taken on new animation, determination.

Larabee looked up and nodded. "I'm on it right now." He paused to grip Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra, you aren't alone anymore. You should have told us what was happening. We will take care of this. I promise."

Ezra heard the confident words but doubted. Jardain's ugly, smooth voice rang in his head. The soft, sibilant words poisoned his brain. In the distance, he heard the door to the apartment open and close. Knew he was alone now with Buck. Hesitantly he looked up into compassionate eyes, understanding ones. God, he didn't deserve Buck. But he was grateful for him. Thank you god, he thought as he melted into Buck's arms again.


Larabee was on a mission. He was in a towering rage. Somehow, Jardain, who was still in a prison hospital, was getting to a phone and calling Ezra. Talking shit to him. Brainwashing him from a distance. This is going to stop. He slammed the Ram into his parking space at the federal building and then climbed the stairs, two and three at a time. In the truck, he'd had a short conversation with a quieter, stronger Buck. Buck had called once he'd put Ezra down in bed. Warned Chris not to do anything that would get him in trouble. Larabee grimaced. I just want to shoot that fuckin' bastard. He shook his head. He needed help to deal with this, he needed the rest of the team.


Buck stared at Ezra's cell phone. It sat innocently silent on the kitchen table. He sat in a chair in front of it, willing it to ring. Call now. When I can hear you, not Ezra. Call you son of a bitch.

Silence, except for the sound of a slow drip from the faucet. Have to get that fixed soon. Ezra will have a fit once he's back to normal. Buck finally began to believe that that would happen. After Chris' visit and their discovery that Ezra had been getting calls from Jardain, things made more sense. Ezra's behavior, his withdrawal and fearfulness were explained. Buck's hands curled into fists of anger. The cell phone had been replaced by a new one for Ezra to use. This one, with the known number, would no longer be anywhere near Ezra. How the hell Jardain got the number in the first place was beyond Buck.

He eyed the object of his wrath suspiciously. A movement at the corner of his vision caused him to blink and turn. Ezra, looking more natural, more himself, stood tousled and half-awake in the doorway.

"Hey, baby, you're up." Buck's voice automatically warmed with open affection.


Ezra was not a morning person. And, whenever he happened to wake up, it was morning as far as Ezra was concerned, regardless of the time of day. One of his many endearing quirks as far as Buck was concerned. Let's face it, I'm smitten, he thought happily, more relaxed than he'd been in some time. "Want some coffee?"

"Coffee." Ezra stumbled into the room, rubbing at his eyes and yawning mightily, actually looking relaxed for the first time since all this started.

Buck grinned and stood up, reaching out a hand to gently guide his lover into a seat. "Just sit down, Ezra, I'll see to the coffee."

Busy with the electric percolator, Buck had his back turned to Ezra when the southerner noticed the cell phone on the table. He picked it up and recognized it instantly. What is my phone doing out here? I thought I had it in the back? He puzzled over this miraculously moving machinery as his lover bustled about in the background, fixing his morning eye-opener. "Buck?"


"Why is my phone out here?"

Buck paused, stopping his movements to turn and face Ezra. "I didn't want you to get any more calls on that one. You have a new one in the bedroom."

"New one? I thought I saw one in there." His voice trailing off, Ezra studied the phone in his hand and tipped his head to the side as if waiting for it to talk. It rang.

Ezra dropped the phone, startled. Stared at it as if mesmerized and then slowly brought it up to his ear, activating the receive button. Buck was so frantic that nothing came out when he tried to yell at Ezra not to answer it. The breakfast bar was between him and the table, between him and reaching the damn phone before Ezra could. At the sudden paleness as Ezra's color left his face, Buck felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"Drop the phone, Ez. Don't listen!" his voice sounded hoarse and scared even to his own ears.

He was moving in long strides to reach Ezra but it was clearly too late. He snatched the thing from a boneless hand and slammed it against his own ear. Only silence. He pulled it away and looked down at the number ID on the small screen. The prison infirmary. He knew that number now. He and Chris had done their homework. He recognized it instantly. SHIT! He had to force himself not to hurl the thing into the wall. It was evidence and had to be saved. He turned to Ezra.

Oh god, again! Again with the sick words and hateful names. Ezra felt as if his world was coming apart, all his glue gone. He looked up as Buck now slowly approached him. Green eyes shimmered, then overflowed silently as he stood there helpless to control himself. He felt Buck's arms tenderly encircle him and pull him close. He shut his eyes and let himself be drawn back against his love, his strength. When did I become so damn dependent? he thought angrily. He was unable to muster the will to push away from his man. He swallowed harshly and rubbed his wet eyes against Buck's tee shirt.

"Hey, Ez? Can you tell me about it?" Buck lowered his head and nudged Ezra's with his own. "Please?"

"It was him again. He --- he said I was going to want his --- his dick inside soon, so he was doing special exercises for me. He called me his sweet little pussy. Said he hoped I was saving myself for him." Ezra's voice was soft but clear. Sharing all this with Buck seemed to help, it removed him from the immediacy of it all and he finally began to see it in perspective. He straightened slightly and looked up at Buck's attentive face. "Only, Buck, now that I think about it, I don't think that was really Jardain's voice."

Wilmington only nodded. He and Chris had already checked. Jardain's throat was badly damaged by the blunt spike of the shoe heel puncturing it. The doctors doubted he'd ever talk again. Yet someone was calling. This was proof of it. It wasn't just Ezra's imagination like Dr. Fienman had suggested. Buck sighed and hugged Ezra tighter. "We'll just have to find out who's doing this for him. 'cause someone is, Ezra."

"Yes." Standish had been watching Buck's face and suddenly realized something. "You thought I was making this up?"

Buck's eyes swung down in astonishment. "Never! Ezra, I know you too well, you'd never run a con over something like this, it's not in you, baby." Buck shook his head and kissed Ezra's nose. "We needed some proof though. This call, bad as it was, is the proof we needed." He looked back down at the small phone sitting on the kitchen table. "Chris can get a warrant with this now, his hands were tied before."

Ezra seemed to swell in Buck's arms, his entire being seemed to grow, become stronger, straighter. "I want a piece of this Buck." He spoke seriously. "I really thought that I was losing it. I was doubting myself," he said softly, his eyes meeting Wilmington's with new understanding. He lifted a hand to gently stroke Buck's face. "He tried to get to me again. This time, like last time, I have you and the others. He just doesn't get it."

"Nope." Buck turned to plant a kiss on the palm of the hand touching his face with such care. "You are going to be fine, baby. More than fine. And putting this animal into a deeper hole will be the final thing you need."

"No, Buck, I don't even need that. Not now, not knowing it's him, not me, that's sick. I feel---" Ezra paused and thoughtfully traced Buck's upper lip with one finger, "I feel liberated." He flashed a smile and stood up on his toes, hand going to the back of Buck's neck to drag the man's head down.

Buck let himself be pulled close and eagerly met the seeking lips of his love. He felt his heart begin to throb more strongly, joyfully. Ezra was back! Finally, truly, really back! It had been two long weeks of hell. But now it was over. Well, not until he and Chris and the rest of the boys finished with Jardain and whatever sick confederate he'd used to help him, but now, Ezra would be okay. More than okay he thought with a grin as Ezra's tongue began to probe at his lips, pushing for admittance.

Buck leaned back against the kitchen table, spreading his long legs. Ezra quickly snuggled closer, reaching up with both hands now to loop his arms around Buck's neck and pull himself up against the taller man, his body fitted tightly between those strong legs, his burgeoning cock, confined in the simple jeans he wore seemed ready to press through against Buck's responding hardness. "Buck," he moaned throatily, feeling two big hands cup his ass and lift him higher still, so that they could kiss more completely. Lying there on top of the bigger man's tilted, supporting body, Ezra felt like he was finally coming home.

"Oh, god, Buck, I love you so much."

"I love you too, Ezra, and we'll be alright now. You'll see," Buck spoke huskily against Ezra's mouth.

Then all talking stopped as the two men seemed to meld into one, seamlessly sealed together. Only the soft exhalation of breaths as they pulled back for air gave indication of two where one stood. Buck smiled into his sweetheart's so green eyes and curled his shoulders slightly as he bent to capture and lift the smaller man up into his arms. Ezra, with a single-minded intensity, was once again kissing him, small frantic kisses all over his face, cupped between Ezra's fine boned hands. He seemed oblivious to his new position as Buck strode out of the kitchen and back into the bedroom.

With care, Buck lowered Ezra down on to their bed in the master bedroom, climbing on to the bed with the smaller man, unable and unwilling to be separated. He was on all fours over Ezra now, lightly rubbing his body up and down the length of the southerner's squirming form.

"Clothing?" Ezra panted, nearly mindless with heat and want.

"Yeah," Buck snatched at his own shirt and dragged it off over his head before returning to his rocking, rubbing motion.

Ezra actually giggled, fumbling with Buck's belt, then jean's zip. "No, Buck, ALL the clothing!"

Wilmington blinked lazily and grinned, sitting back on his haunches to help Ezra with the fastenings. His baby was back! "Gotta get these things off you, too," he said in a whisper, hands flying to the simple shirt that Ezra had on and shoving it off his shoulders and down, temporarily restraining Ezra's arms.

The smaller man jerked free and then wriggled and pushed, getting his own jeans shoved away from his hips and down toward his knees. "Help me, Buck---"

Large hands reached down and tugged the crumpled clothing clear as Buck rolled to one side and kicked his way clear of his own pants. Then he rolled back, and savored the feel of Ezra's strong, compact body, skin to skin with his own. He let their chests brush together, the fine hairs on Ezra's scraping against his own, darker fur. With a growl, Buck nuzzled down until he could bite Ezra's shoulder, mark him. "No one else, baby, no one else. You belong to me."

Ezra's glazed green eyes were hot with desire and love as he surged up against Buck's long hard body, wrapping his arms and legs around the man. "Mine! You belong to me!" Ezra licked and chewed his way up one arm and across the shoulder to worry at the side of Buck's neck. "No more women, Buck. You don't stray," he warned with a growl of his own.

"No more. Got you, baby, nothing else needed." Buck's promise was half swallowed by Ezra's suddenly hungry mouth.

The desperation of the coupling was matched by the heat, intensity, and sheer joyous love. The two men clung together, pumping each other mindlessly as they each strove to devour the other's mouth. The explosion, when it came, was so complete that they each screamed the other's name and collapsed into something between sleep and unconsciousness.

Ezra slowly woke to the sound of his door buzzer, relentlessly piercing the silence of his apartment. He felt warm and damp, sweaty. He was pressed tightly against Buck's chest, his head resting on one of Buck's shoulders. He scraped his chin, then cheek against Buck's chest, letting a nipple push back at him. He ignored the buzzer until he felt Buck's body waken beneath him.

There was a moment more of quiet. Then the buzzer began again, this time accompanied by heavy pounding on the door.

Buck wrapped one arm around Ezra's shoulders and tugged him back down on to the mattress beside him. He rolled up on to one elbow and smiled down into heavy lidded green eyes. "The boys are here."

"I love you."

"I love you, too, Ez."

"If we don't answer the damn door, do you think they will depart?"

"Our boys?" Buck shook his head regretfully, though happiness and mischief shone from his sparking blue eyes. "Nope. They never give up."


Buck grinned, his mustache a dark accent to the wide slash of white teeth. "Never." He kissed Ezra lightly. "You stay here. You smell of sex and lots of it."

"You don't?"

"Hell, Ez, I always smell of sex. It's my animal magnetism. The boys will just think I'm normal."

Ezra grinned up in delight. "Normal? Mr. Wilmington, you are exceptional!"

"Well, there is that," Buck said playfully as a thumping sound added to the pounding and the buzzer. Likely they'd taken to kicking at the door too. He pushed himself up and back with a sigh. "Don't go anywhere."


Buck stood braced at the edge of the bed, finding himself almost lightheaded. Experimentally, he took a step away from the large bed and steadied himself. "Alright, alright, I'm coming."

From behind him, he heard Ezra's smiling voice say, "Never without me, Bucky, never without me."

He looked back over his shoulder as he pulled on his discarded jeans, carefully tucking himself in. "Ezra, you are an evil man."

"No, Bucky, not evil, just lustful."

Buck loved the playful quality that sung through Ezra's words, his tone of voice. This was the Ezra he'd fallen for right at the beginning. Oh, yeah. We're back! He flashed a final grin at the slowly stirring figure still on top of the bedclothes, and then slipped from the room, closing the door behind himself protectively.

The sounds at the door were louder out here. He hurried to the door and called out, "Hold on, I'm here!" Then he jerked open the door only to face five drawn weapons all pointed his way. "Shit boys! I ain't even armed!"

The rest of team 7 stared at a very rumpled and happy looking Buck Wilmington standing barefoot and shirtless in Ezra's small entryway. Guns slipped back in holsters, heart rates slowed. It was JD, surprisingly, not Chris Larabee, who stepped forward to punch Buck in the jaw with a strong right hook.

"Ow!" Wilmington let the strike drop him to the floor and rubbed his jaw with one hand, supporting himself with his other as he leaned back to look up at his teammates crowding into the small hall. "Well, do come in everyone."

Chris squatted down in front of Buck and reached out to touch the swelling jaw. "You'll live." He studied his oldest friend. "Something happened. Something good." He relaxed at the smile that shone from Buck's eyes. Standing again, he pulled up his friend. "Tell us."

"Ezra's back." As if that said it all, Buck smiled at his assembled friends, seeing Vin slouched sideways against the wall, with Josiah's and Nathan's broad shoulders filling the width of the narrow hall, JD simmering to one side, rubbing a fist with his other palm and staring squint-eyed at his big brother. Swinging his eyes back to Chris, Buck's face lost some of its good humor. "We had another call, only this time I was there. Kept the phone without disconnecting."

"And it was from?"

"The prison infirmary."

Larabee nodded, folding his arms across his chest. "So he's got someone inside doing his crap now."

"Yeah." Buck began to back and turn, leading his friends further into the apartment, "and, that was when it finally got through to Ezra that it was another attack, that he wasn't at fault somehow. That the guy is just sick." Buck's serious tone told them as much as his words.

By now everyone was standing in the living room, all having noticed the shut door to the bedroom just down the hall, all waiting for more.

"Sit, sit." Buck swept a hand at the chairs and started for the kitchen. "I have the phone here."

Chris followed him in to the kitchen and looked at the device over Wilmington's shoulder. "Got him," he said with satisfaction.

"Yeah." Buck handed it over, glad to be rid of it finally.

"JD?" Chris called over his shoulder. The young tech was instantly in the doorway. "Do NOT disconnect this. I want it traced and entered in evidence. Take it up to Travis' office and get him to see it. Vin!" his louder call bringing the sharpshooter to the door as well. "Go with JD, make sure that this doesn't leave your collective sight until it's logged and witnessed by Travis or one of his assistants."

Vin gripped JD's shoulder as the younger man carefully wrapped the phone in a dishtowel he'd grabbed from Ezra's workbench. "Don't worry, cowboy, we'll see to it."

JD's dark eyes sought out Buck's. "Sorry about the hit."

Buck smiled back. "It's alright, kid, I probably deserved it."

Chris intervened, shooing his two agents out the door. "Buck, you always deserve it, just on general principles."

"Now, Pard, you wound me."

Larabee sat down heavily on one of the kitchen stools. "Tell me." His tone was low and private, demanding more now that they were alone.

"It's really going to be okay now, Chris. Honest. Ezra finally came out of that funk he's been in. I think me being here when he got the call, that's what finally broke through for him." He hesitated, then added, "We had a reconciliation."

"Yeah. You might want to finish zipping up your reconciled pants there, Buck," Chris said dryly but with warmth that told his old friend that Larabee was relieved and happy too.

"Yep," Buck fumbled with his zipper and snap, then looked up again. "I'll go see if Ezra's ready to come out now."

"You do that. Like to see him." Larabee stood up and looked around vaguely. "Guess I can fix some coffee." He nodded dismissal at Wilmington who was already halfway out the door, then called out into the living room, "Josiah? Nathan? Want some coffee in here?"

Buck passed by the two big men who were rising and heading for the kitchen in response to Chris' call. He took a deep breath and exhaled grandly, his smile wide as he opened back up the door to the bedroom.

Ezra was gone.


"He's gone after Jardain, I know it."

Nathan was efficiently binding the bleeding knuckles of Buck's hand, trying to keep it still as the man's simmering anger had his whole body vibrating. "Hold still, Buck."

Chris was on his cell phone in the kitchen, speaking low-voiced but sharply. He'd caught Vin and JD on the way and detoured them toward the prison, intent on stopping Ezra before he got there. Josiah had taken off after him with his suburban, trying to spot him on the way --- the Jag was untouched in the garage.

Nathan was trying to calm Buck and get the hand fixed that he'd punched into the bedroom wall. So far, Nathan had had more success with the wrappings than the calming.

Chris came back out into the living room, pocketing his cell phone. "Buck? We're going to need you at the prison. Right there with Jardain. Knowing Ezra, he'll find a way in, no matter what we do. I figure you're the only one who might talk him off this."

Buck sulked, staring at the floor, his posture still stiff and angry. Nathan backed away, shaking his head at Chris without speaking.

"If I go there, I'm likely to do him myself."

"Which is why I'm going with you." Chris turned toward Nathan. "We're taking the Jag. If that sneaky little son of a bitch is hanging around waiting for us to hightail it, I don't want that car here for him."

Buck looked up, surprised. "You think he might still be here?"

Chris shrugged. "Ezra is always trickier than anyone else I've ever met, there's just no predicting him."

Nathan interrupted, "So what do you want me to do?"

"Take the Ram. Make a circuit around the federal building and then sit there by the motor pool with your cell phone on. He might try for an official vehicle."

Jackson stood, catching the keys to Larabee's truck as the team leader tossed them over. "Okay, but keep me in the loop on this. I don't think we need some prison medico playing with Ezra if you catch up to him there."

Chris paused, thinking, then nodded sharply. "You're right. If we get tied up there, we say that Ezra can only be treated by his current physician, 'Doctor' Jackson. Make sure you bring in your med kit, if you have to come."

Jackson gave the team two-fingered salute and headed out the door. Buck, who'd been sitting on Ezra's couch, tugging on his boots, stood up now and faced Larabee. "Chris, he's a tough little guy. If he's got it in his head to waste Jardain, he'll probably do it."

"Not on my watch." Chris grabbed Buck's nearest arm and steered him toward to door. "Come on, we're going to see to it that he doesn't kill off his career along with that turd."


Ezra sat on top of the three-story apartment stack that held his townhouse apartment. The roof was cool and dark. He watched in fascination as his team members emerged in quick succession from below. When Nathan took the Ram alone, he raised both eyebrows, then lowered them and cursed softly as Chris and Buck came out and went to the garage, Chris backing the Jag out with sure expertise. Found out. They know, or Chris is just guessing. Either way, I'll need new wheels now. He looked down the street consideringly.


Chris roared into the prison's visitor's parking lot. The Jag handled like silk, was a pleasure to drive. Only, he was so worried, that his savage handling had it growling and crouched like the predator it was named after. With a hard twist, he had the ignition off and the key out, was bounding out with Buck plunging free from the passenger side. The two men slammed the car doors and took off at a dead run for the security entrance, pulling their IDs out as they went.

Even though it was late, the warden was still there. Buck had been on the phone with DA Travis while Chris drove, and Travis had called Warden Kent. The man was waiting at the first gate. With Kent as a chaperone, the two men bypassed the security gates from then on and were at the doors to the infirmary quickly.

When Chris had demanded an investigation earlier yesterday, Kent's people had denied the possibility of Jardain making any phone calls or anyone else making them for him for that matter. Travis had passed on the news tonight that they now had substantial proof that calls were coming from the infirmary. It was a grim and angry Charles Kent who escorted the two harried ATF agents up and into the prison bowels and finally to the infirmary doors.

Bursting in, Larabee's eyes swept the row of cots, easily spotting Jardain at the one closest to the barred window. He ignored the man. They had doctor's testimony that he'd probably never be able to speak again without some mechanical assistance. Buck at his side, Larabee stalked over to the small glassed in cubicle where two male nurses sat working on charts and sipping coffee. Kent had told them that this was the night shift and that since the call had been made earlier in the day, the man most likely to have made it was not here.

Pushing into the close space, Larabee and Wilmington towered over the surprised med techs. "Either of you work with Jardain?"

Gordan Bassett stood up slowly, unfolding his length of string-bean body to an impressive 6' 5". "I do."

Chris grunted and stepped into Bassett's space, shoving against his nametag. "Likely you'll die tonight if you don't cooperate."

Paling under the casual comment, the nurse looked over at where the warden stood in the doorway. "Sir?"

"These men are ATF agents, Bassett, and they believe that a rogue agent may try to infiltrate here tonight. His target is likely to be Jardain and anyone associated with him."

"But I just change his bedpan, give him meds," protested the thin, tall man nervously.

"We need you to stay in here." Larabee looked back at Kent. "This glass bullet proof?" The warden nodded, looking slightly sick.

"Okay, Buck, you want here or down by Jardain?"

Wilmington looked out at the row of cots. He took a deep breath. "Jardain."


"Don't worry Chris. I'll keep it together." Wilmington turned on his heel and strode out and down the room, ending up looming over the bedded prisoner. Larabee watched in silence, then sat in the only empty chair left in the room.

"I'll just see to extra guards for this area," Kent muttered and backed away.

Larabee shrugged. Ezra would get here, it didn't matter what they did. When his undercover agent was determined, nothing stopped him. Feeling a sense of pride at the thought, Chris frowned. Right now, he isn't any too balanced. We have to protect him from himself.


Ezra slicked back his hair with the grease he'd found in one of the guards' lockers. He straightened the beige short tie and made sure all the buttons were properly fastened on the short uniform coat jacket. He faded out of the room with several badges and magnetic strip door openers, already having memorized the floor plans posted for fire exits. His green eyes were dark and hard, like chips of polished emerald, glittering with contained anger.

The empty hallways had no opportunity to echo with his silent tread. He slipped down corridor after corridor, a shadow. Closed stairwells held no challenge for him and he was on the proper floor, honing in on the medical facility within ten minutes of his entry to the prison. Breaking in is apparently easier than breaking out, he thought, edging closer to the fire exit for the infirmary. No frontal assault. I shall need to see if Chris has figured out my destination. If any of team 7 were here, he'd have to --- he'd just --- Ezra swallowed, the burning anger and bitterness growing with every step. He wasn't sure what he'd do if any of his teammates were here. He prayed he wouldn't have to find out.

Herve' - wait for me. I'm coming. We have one last meeting to do. One last time to be together. Ezra's lips were drawn back in a silent snarl.


Herve' Jardain smiled up at the bleak face of the tall ATF agent. The macho man. He remembered him from the hospital and from The Soiled Dove. If he was here, then little Ezra had been crying out wolf. Only, I can't speak so they'll never be able to prove I had anything to do with those calls. Poor little pussy. Herve' chuckled soundlessly.

Buck stared down at the man who'd twice tried to take Ezra, hurt him, and now was harassing him by phone. You are one sick fuck. He glanced around, noting window and door. Door? Moving slowly toward the fire exit, he stopped and checked the restraints on Jardain. Not tight enough. He tugged the straps tight enough to elicit a pained grunt from the man. He grinned down at him. "Just want to make sure you're safe, porky." He laughed silently at the murderous look that was shot his way, taking in the thick bandages around the man's neck and just shrugging.

When Buck looked up, it was to see the door in front of him ease open in silence. He froze, not even breathing. Waited. For a moment all remained still, then a cautious head poked around the edge of the door, two brilliant green eyes looking down at Jardain's head. The hatred in those eyes would remain with Buck for a long time. Then, as if sensing his presence, the eyes raised and met his. And time stood still.


Chris rose slowly to his feet in the small glassed in cubicle. He watched with dread as Ezra appeared at the back fire-exit of the small infirmary. Buck was standing over Jardain, facing Ezra. Please god, let Buck get through to him. With fear and regret, he pulled his weapon and edged toward the door. He flipped open his cell phone as he watched the two men face off, transfixed. They were speaking, he could tell, but couldn't hear what was being said, could only see the lips move. Well, Ezra's, Buck has his back to me. Chris shivered. Ezra's face was white and his eyes burned like green fire.

Without taking his eyes off the nearby confrontation, Larabee whispered instructions to Josiah. Josiah would reach the others, let them know what was happening. Summon Nathan, just in case. Put Vin and JD back on track with that cell phone evidence, and Josiah himself would come.

Closing the connection and slipping it back in his jacket pocket, Larabee eased through the partially open door, weapon held against one leg as he stopped and waited.

"Ezra?" Buck wanted a response. The face before him was nearly dead looking, paralyzed with hate. He had to break through that. It was hard to believe this was the same man who'd shared a bed with him earlier, giggling and teasing, sweet and gentle. He daren't look away from those haunted eyes even though he desperately wanted to know if Ezra was armed. Damn it, of course he's armed, just need to know what he's doin' with the damn gun.

Ezra wanted to ignore Buck's presence but knew he couldn't. His fingers tightened around the cold handle of his weapon, one finger sliding in and out of the trigger guard with nervous tension. He still had the gun tipped down toward the floor but it would only take a miniscule change in direction to have it aimed directly at Jardain. The bastard lay there on the bed, head twisted back, a grin pasted on his face. Ezra swallowed hard and tried to think of something to say. Anything.

Buck tried again. "Ezra?" He took a tentative step closer and instantly, the pistol was up and pointed directly at him at the edges of his peripheral vision. "Ezra, please, don't do this."

The pistol began to shake. The green-eyed southerner, eyes locked with his lover, moved into the room and slowly stepped sideways, away from the door. "Buck, stay back."

Thank god he's still talking. I can work with that, Buck thought. "Ez, baby, he's not worth it. Not worth what would happen to you for doing anything here tonight."

"He's sick. A pervert."

"I know." Buck's voice was sorrowful. He closed his eyes at the pain he knew was still in the smaller man. "Don't taint yourself with him. Please. We got all the evidence we need to prove he's still working the systems. We'll find out who did the call for him. Between Josiah and Vin and Chris, we'll have a confession out of the creature. This will stop. I promise."

Ezra finally lowered his eyes again, looking back down at Herve' who seemed unaffected by Buck's speech. Ezra narrowed his eyes and his pistol was suddenly muzzle tight against the man's head.

"Ezra! No!" Buck stepped closer, hands out. Panic in his voice.

Down the length of the room, Chris stood, his own weapon raised now, centered on Ezra Standish's head. From here a head shot would be no problem. He cocked the gun, the sound loud in the small room.

Ezra's head whipped up and he looked across the room at Larabee, a faint smile appearing on his face. "Can you do it, Chris?"

"If I have to." Larabee's aim, though, had moved to Ezra's gun arm.

Buck dropped to his knees beside Jardain's bed, his face raised to better meet Ezra's eyes again as the man looked back down at the gun dealer and crime lord. "Baby?"

Ezra cocked his own weapon, the sound causing both Buck and Chris to stiffen.


Vin and JD had hurled their vehicle into the federal building parking lot and JD carried the saved cell phone wrapped in a soft cloth. They were up and at the labs in minutes. Vin continued on up to see AD Travis, who was working late. JD supervised the electricians who were recording the evidence and tracking the calls on the phone's small memory cells. Everything was done in front of cameras at JD's insistence.

Nathan had the Ram roaring up the back streets to avoid evening traffic as he headed for the prison. He silently prayed that his services would not be required.

Josiah's suburban clanked and emitted grinding noises as he made corners without slowing. He'd not been that far from Ezra's place and had a ways to travel. Please lord, let me be in time. Help my brothers. His brow furrowed in concern, he hunched over the steering wheel.


Chris ignored the shuffling sounds as the two night-duty nurses fled behind him out of the clinic. They'd bring guards, the warden. This had to be over by then. By rights, he should have taken his shot the moment he heard Ezra cock his gun. There'd be hell to pay as it was. But, he just couldn't do it. He waited. Not breathing.

"Baby?" Buck's voice was soft, a plea now.

Ezra slowly raised the gun muzzle free from Jardain's now sweating forehead. Another ghost of a smile lit his features as he stared down at the man who had caused him so much pain, so much anguish. "Death is too good for you, Herve'," he whispered, before uncocking the weapon and dropping it to the floor with a clatter.

Buck knelt with arms wide open, his face still serious and intent, eyes melting in love and pain for his heart, his love. "Come here."

Ezra sighed and nodded, almost forlornly. He sank to the floor in front of Wilmington, accepting the arms gathering him in, tucking his head in tight against Buck's neck.

Buck looked up from where he held Ezra to see Chris standing over them, putting his own weapon on safety and picking up Ezra's, tucking it into the back of his waistband. "Nate and Josiah are on the way."

Buck nodded and pressed his lips to Ezra's ear. "It's all right, Ezra. Everything's gonna be all right. I'm real proud of you. You did the right thing, baby."

Ezra blinked back tears and clung to Buck's broad shoulders. All he really wanted to do was go away now, be with his lover. Feel his strength and comfort, his love. Washing away the hate, the pain, the fear, everything. Buck could make it all go away, make him clean again.

Chris squatted down beside his agents and put a gentle hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra, we are gonna put this bastard away so far that he'll never see the light of day again. I'm glad you made the right choice."

Ezra listened to the words from Larabee, feelings of faith and security, trust and respect. He knew he could always believe Chris, Chris would never lie to him. He wanted to say something, to tell his friend and boss how much Chris meant to him, but all he could do was nod and sniff.

"Hey, Pard," Buck was tipping Ezra's chin up a bit now, "Let's you and me get back to your place, clean up a bit and figure out where we left off. What do you say?"

Jardain, who'd gotten his wind back with the collapse of little Ezra, listened in anger to the other agents' comments. He tried to fight his restraints and suddenly was staring directly into hard hazel eyes.

"I strongly suggest, Mr. Jardain, that you refrain from calling any attention to yourself. I'd hate for the inmates here to find out what kind of man you are. They don't much care for child molesters and I think some of your victims were young enough to qualify. You might be the 'boy' one day soon." Chris grinned shark-like and stroked the side of Jardain's jaw with the barrel of his gun. "Hm,'pussy'?"

Buck curled his arm around Ezra's back and turned them away from the bed, standing slowly and bringing Ezra up with him, leading him off in the direction of the clinic doorway. They'd have to face the warden and guards but Chris would see that it was all right. Buck knew his oldest friend. Larabee was a force to be reckoned with.


The next few hours passed in a haze for Ezra, safely ensconced in the circle of Buck's arm. Wilmington refused to part from his fellow agent, keeping one long arm over Ezra's shoulders in a proprietary and protective manner. If any of the agents or law enforcement officials interviewing them thought that the man was more than a friend to a friend, they kept their comments to themselves. AD Travis saw to that. He owed Standish. He owed Team 7. This was his fault and he'd see to it that nothing rebounded negatively on the man, the men.

Warden Kent was in the unenviable position of having allowed an inmate in his care to have corrupted several guards, nurses, and at least two trustees that they could trace to using the infirmary telephone. The fact that Jardain had eluded prosecution for years, and even now was exerting his power through his web of contacts, was telling in the warden's favor.

Between Chris Larabee, top ATF team leader for the Rocky Mountain Region and AD Travis, favors were pulled in and Jardain was whisked away to a high security facility in Nevada, at some distance from his known associates. His attorney was notified in the dead of the night and didn't put up much resistance to the sudden relocation of his client. In fact, Travis suspected from the lawyer's pro forma actions and rather weak arguments that the man was relieved to have his client physically distant.

Confessions from the two trustees helped fill in the picture of intimidation and coercion that Jardain had manipulated in order to strike out at Standish from the prison. The man who actually placed the calls, one of the two trustees, was as warped as Jardain, from what the warden said. More than ready to cooperate, once the day-shift nurse had been blackmailed with fake evidence of drug use. The private glassed in cubicle had been the perfect 'sound booth' for the ugly calls to Standish. The cache of audiotapes that Jardain had demanded and gloated over with sick fascination, had been quietly interred in Travis' office safe, evidence of the calls made to Standish. Herve' had fixated on Ezra, enamored with the man and then 'betrayed' by him, Jardain was out for revenge.

Ezra and Buck stayed on the couch in the warden's inner office for over three hours as investigators tracked down evidence, as the suspects were identified and pulled in for questioning at the police station downtown, and as their own team hovered protectively in the outer office, meeting with Kent and Travis.

Chris Larabee knocked lightly on the door and pushed it open, sliding in through a mere hands' span of space and closing the door firmly behind himself. He would have locked it if he could. As it was, he knew that Josiah and Vin were forming a human wall just beyond it. He wouldn't be interrupted. He studied the two men sitting on the couch, then flicked a glance over to where Nathan Jackson sat to one side in an armchair. He raised an eyebrow in silent query.

Nathan watched Chris come into their room, slipping through the barely open door and securing it behind himself. Must still be a mess out there, he thought tiredly. His eyes went back to where he'd been watching his two friends, watching over them. Ezra still shaking like a leaf, sitting glued to Buck Wilmington's side, while Buck's arm was wrapped like a strong band around the back of the man's shoulders. Nathan could see the whiteness of Buck's knuckles from here as he held tightly to his friend. Jackson looked back over at Chris and realized the man was looking at him, asking him silently with a look, how are they?

Nathan shrugged. He wished he could reassure Chris but Ezra had nearly fled when Jackson tried to examine him. Had fought with Buck and only been calmed when Nathan said he'd simply sit with them, leave them alone unless Ezra decided he wanted any help. Buck had tried to coax the younger man into allowing a brief examination but Standish, eyes like the huge startled eyes of prey, had actually begun to cry. Nathan knew his own heart nearly broke watching and could see that it badly shook Wilmington. Jackson had offered a sedative but both men had simply glared at him before saying no, in the same breath. So, now he shrugged at Chris. Not sure how they are, sorry.

Chris swung his attention back to his other two men. Ezra's eyes were reddish and swollen. He's been crying. Chris felt his breath shorten in response to the knowledge. Jesus, he's been through enough. I wish to god I didn't have to tell them this. He sucked in for a moment, meeting the dark eyes of his oldest friend reluctantly.

"What is it?" Buck could tell the news wasn't good. He swallowed reflexively and his hand went up to Ezra's head, pushing it on to his shoulder, into it, face buried. The southerner didn't fight him, instead turning his body into the touch, the move, hiding against the bigger man.

"They want to take Ezra into custody. For breaking and entering."

"No." Buck shook his head fiercely, his other arm coming up to wrap around Ezra. Then he repeated it, more softly, staring into Chris' eyes. "No."

Chris sighed and sank into the second, empty armchair, letting his legs stretch out in front of him. "I agreed to take him into protective custody, on my recognizance. We're going out to the ranch." He shot a look over at Jackson. "You're both gonna let Nathan look Ezra over, then he's coming along too." He ignored the looks of anger from Wilmington and the increased trembling from Ezra. "Gotta be done. Then AD Travis is going to take care of the rest of this mess. JD is still back at the federal building, making sure that the evidence is safely locked in Travis' safe. Vin and Josiah are going to ride shotgun in the Ram. We're taking the Jag."


"Yeah. The four of us. Should be a snug fit." He spared a glance for Nathan, checking to see if this was all alright with the medic. Jackson nodded silently, sitting forward slightly in his seat.

Buck bent his head and kissed Ezra's crown, letting the soft brown curls tickle his nose. They'd get through this somehow. "Ezra?" He felt his friend still. "You heard Chris. Got no choice now. Nathan won't do anything you don't want him to do."

"No drugs." The softly spoken words still carried to the other two waiting men who exchanged looks again, both feeling sadly the helplessness of the tone in that quiet voice.

"No drugs, Ezra," Nathan said firmly. He stood up and walked around the center, low table and sat on it, facing the men on the couch. "I just need to make sure you can travel. Just let me get your vitals?"

With clear reluctance, Standish peeled himself back and away from Buck, one hand trailing down to be found and captured by Wilmington's larger one. The fingers quickly wove together as both strove to maintain contact as they faced Jackson.

Ezra's breath began to come faster, his nerves still on edge, everything conspiring to push him toward another breakdown, the adrenaline rush of the race to the prison, the hidden entry, seeing Jardain's hated face again, staring into those soulless eyes, then confronting and surrendering to Buck. He desperately fought for his equilibrium, clutching at Buck's hand fiercely. Drawing strength from the love conveyed by the other's continued presence and touch. He met Nathan's eyes and sat up a bit straighter on the edge of the couch. "Okay, Nathan, do what you need to do."

Gone was the graceful speech pattern, gone the elegant manners and formal form of address. Nathan tried to let Ezra see the caring and affection in his own eyes as he edged closer, slowing raising hands to touch, examine. Ezra didn't flinch and Nathan was grateful.

Larabee stood up and began to pace behind the three men, listening to the quietly voiced and answered questions, the subdued tones. He just wanted this nightmare to be over. His own anger was on the rise again, still resentful that they'd ever been dragged into this case to begin with.

It had been a mistake. He should have fought against it harder, only, he acknowledged silently, even knowing now the outcome, he couldn't see what else he could have done to stop this all, to keep them off the case, keep Ezra out of that line of fire. It was as if fate took a hand and forced the issues. He stopped behind the others, and stared out into the night sky through the warden's barred window. Forced himself to stop trying to fight battles already over. His jaw was tight as he stared up into the star speckled darkness. There was a burning in the center of his chest that did not bode well for any criminal likely to cross his path for some time to come. Buck and Ezra are together now. Something good did come out of all this.

From what Vin had guessed, and Buck confirmed, and other signs, Chris had come to realize that his two agents had been lovers for awhile, but that not all was right with them. Until now. Adversity will do that. He rubbed the top of his head, blond hair spiking and falling in unruly bangs over his forehead. Travis better damn well come through with his promises on this one, or he'd lose the whole team.


Vin sat shotgun as Josiah drove the big black Ram up the mountainside. He stared out at the wooded verges, seeing the occasional sign of wildlife deep within the forested darkness. Gleaming feral eyes, flashes of movement. He felt at peace for the first time since this case had begun. Funny, he'd never felt so out of control before on a case. Even though his disguise had been only a bit different from his normal style of clothing, he'd felt vulnerable and exposed, uncomfortable. I just can't begin to imagine what Ezra has felt like through all of this. Dressing like a woman, singing up on stage, fondled and manhandled by that dreck, his body invaded and violated, injured and humiliated, harassed and stalked. Oh, god, Vin closed his eyes tightly, remembering the club, the bar, the hands on his own body. He shuddered, noticing as Josiah turned up the heat in the cab. Thinks I'm just cold. Well, hell, I am. Only it isn't from the night air.

Sanchez tried not to think. He drove with a single-minded intensity as he followed the red taillights of Ezra's Jag, driven by Chris. Just follow the lights. Don't think about it. Josiah caught the shivering of his passenger and automatically leaned forward and twisted the knob to increase the heat in the cab. He pulled at the wheel, his attention instantly back on the road as they took a sharp curve, keeping the Jag in view as they rounded the bend. No one's fault. Dear Lord, how is it that you created such creatures, so vile, so filthy? Jardain is a very cohort of the devil himself, a demonic creature to be dropped into some deep pit of hell. Josiah's lips tightened and his brow remained furrowed as he tried to keep at bay the myriad thoughts of his friends' pain and sorrow. They did not deserve this.

Chris drew the sleek low-slung car to a stop in the circular drive in front of the ranch house. Turned off the engine and turned toward his front seat passenger, Nathan Jackson. "We'll get them into the guest room." Jackson nodded and opened his door.

Chris looked over his shoulder. "Buck? How are you two doing?"

"Ezra's sleeping." The quiet words were spoken with such tenderness that Chris closed his eyes and said a silent prayer for them. Keep them safe, get us all through this, please god.

Larabee unfolded from the car and carefully opened the back door on Buck's side. Wilmington stuck his legs out and maneuvered his body out slowly, carefully dragging out his sleeping friend after him. By the time he was standing, he had both arms under Ezra's and was lifting the man from the back seat. Chris slid to the side to catch Ezra's legs and help lift him clear of the car. Once free of the back seat, Buck shifted his grasp and moved closer, getting his arms beneath the smaller man and lifting him up from Larabee's supportive hold. "I'll take him inside, just get the doors."

Nathan already stood holding open the front door and Chris just nodded and took off in front of them, leading the way into the back of the house and down the hall to the guest bedroom.

He and Nathan stood watching as Buck eased Ezra's relaxed form onto the bed and then slumped down beside him. Quietly, the medic and team leader backed out of the room and shut the door, heading to the front of the house where they could hear the Ram's tires crunching on the gravel and dirt of the drive. The air smelled of night, crisp woodsy scents and animal musk drifted on the air as the four men met on the porch. Josiah and Vin stepping up to join Chris and Nathan. Vin spoke in his easy drawl, no sign of his own unsettled state in the Texan's voice, "JD called. He'll be here in a few. Everything's under control."

Chris stood staring over his men's shoulders at the dark night, seeing fireflies dance and hearing the sound of a distant coyote's bark. He didn't speak, just moved to sit in one of the old rocking chairs that filled the wide front porch. Nathan sunk into a second one. Josiah and Vin stared for a moment, both sets of eyes flickering up toward the open door to the ranch, lit and beckoning, but then they each took a chair and joined their friends. Chris produced a package of cigarillos from a chest pocket and offered them silently. All three of the other men accepted. Four narrow cigars were lit. Four sets of lungs inhaled then exhaled and smoke drifted upward in lazy spirals, the smoke attacked by night moths attracted by the light. Inside it was quiet.


Buck lay back against the headboard of the queen-sized guest bed and stared off at nothing, his mind so packed with urges and panicked events that he couldn't really focus on anything, just sit there with a sizzling brain and hope it didn't fry itself in its seemingly endless efforts to catch its own tail. The thrumming of his body's high octane energy kept him from sleeping or even closing his eyes at the same time that he felt so weary that he could feel every muscle and bone sinking in to a quicksand of heaviness. Ezra lay silent beside him, sleeping so deeply that Buck rested one hand on his stomach to feel the slow rise and fall of the abdomen as he slept, assuring him of Ezra's continued breathing.

Sleep a dreamless sleep, Ezra child, Buck thought as he sat there in bewildered silence. The day's events, like those of the last few weeks, were overwhelming the usually buoyant spirit within. He knew that things would be alright eventually. With men like Chris and Travis working on it, everything would be okay, just not today. Tonight. This morning?

Buck slowly turned his head to check the light outside the window. It was paler now, dawn creeping in. About time. He rubbed Ezra's stomach muscles lightly, savoring the feel of the man, even through the cloth of his shirt, Chris' shirt. He'd still been in his stolen prison guard uniform when they'd made it to the ranch last night. Buck had accepted an old jersey and sweat pants for Ezra from Chris. He'd gently re-positioned the undercover agent a few times as he undressed him, then dressed him in the casual clothing. He'd smiled a bit as he rolled back the sleeves that covered the man's elegant hands, then folded up the pant legs that fell below the small man's ankles, covering his feet. "Ah, Ezra, you musta been stunted in your growin' years," he murmured, stroking the man's shoulder with tender affection.

Now, as he sat trying to calm his own body, waging a war on his nervous system, he felt the change in breathing as Ezra began to move upward out of deep sleep toward the shallow sleep that precedes waking. He sat up more alertly, despite the grit in his eyes. This is when trouble would come, if it came. In the light pre-waking sleep, dreams stole in, nightmares. Ezra had certainly collected the ingredients for quite a collection of those nightmares. He'd had some doozies the last few nights. Now? Buck just didn't know. Ezra had confronted his worst nightmare in the flesh just hours ago.

Ezra was lost in gray corridors, lined with closed doors. Each door he tried was locked, blank. He trudged down the hall, no end in sight. No sound except his tred. Blood oozed out from under a door ahead on his left. He stepped around the scarlet stains and reached for the door handle, heartbeat speeding until the beating of his heart seemed to actually pound against his skeleton, rocking it. He found the doorknob twisting easily beneath his hand. He pulled it open. Inside was an empty room except for a narrow bed. On the bed were his clothes. His clothes from the Soiled Dove. Then Yancy Darling was there in 'her' Dolly Parton outfit, twirling so that her skirt flared out and showed off her layers of petticoats. She grinned and beckoned to him, gesturing for him to get into his clothing. The room remained eerily quiet. Ezra turned toward the bed, then looked down at the floor, expecting to see a body for the source of all that blood. No body, except his own. He was dressed in the dark purple sheath, his long dark stockings striped with ladder runs, the skirt hanging askew. Dark fluid dripped from between his legs, sticky on his inner thighs, pooling on the floor where he stood on high-heeled shoes, a soft velvet purple darkening to a muddy maroon where they were soaking up the blood. His blood. Ezra turned around, looking for the source of sour laughter that suddenly filled his ears. Herve' stood in the doorway, wearing a tuxedo, fingering a blue rose in his lapel and smiling a drowsy, leering smile of power and possession. 'Pretty Pussy,' he purred. Ezra backed away, tripping and falling onto the bed. He tried to brace himself but his legs flopped open in invitation, betraying his intent. He screamed, "NO!"


Everyone woke up to the unearthly screams. Chris practically fell out of his bed, heart in his throat as he scrambled for the door and the guest room beyond. That had been Ezra's voice.

Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan all arrived in a helter-skelter of unmatched shorts, tees and sweats. No one opened the door. They could all hear Buck's crooning inside as he calmed and reassured Ezra. Chris, panting though not sure why, collapsed, his back against the guestroom door. No, he wasn't defending Buck and Ezra from the others - hell, no one wanted to breach this portal. It was just, oh god, it was just too much. Chris sighed and stood slumped against the doorway. He stared at his friends, his agents. "Time for some coffee." It came out as more of an order than a suggestion but no one objected. They all turned away with final lingering looks at the closed door and headed down the hall for Chris' large sized kitchen with its big family table. Larabee turned on the coffeemaker, jumping the preset morning start timer.

"Ezra? You awake now, baby?" Buck rubbed big circles on the smaller man's back as he clung like a limpet to Buck's chest, hands roughly clutching at Buck's shoulders.

"Nyah-ah." The soft sound was like a susurration of air.

"Aw, yep, you are, Pard." Buck ducked his head low and smiled. "Show me those pretty green eyes of yours."

Two mossy green eyes opened and fastened on Buck's dark blue ones.

"Good job! You had quite a dream there, Ez."

"Dream? It was a dream." Ezra restated his question as an answer and seemed to center and draw peace from the thoughts it presented. He sagged down away from Buck and rolled over until he lay facing the ceiling, one hand lightly touching Buck's nearest thigh, as if in need of continued contact. "I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about, love." Buck leaned over and kissed his dearest heart on the lips, licking them lightly as he withdrew and sat up again. He stroked the closed face, poker face on again, Ez? And let the morning light do his talking. Sunlight dappled the room now, breaking into it low and hitting fairly well in considering the early hour. "Just rest. We got no where to be, nothing to do."

"Ah, paradise." Ezra let his head fall to the side so that he could see the window. "Ah, wilderness." He sighed again and rolled his head the other way. "Buck?"


"I want this all to be over, all to be a nightmare that you can wake me up from."

"Nice wish, sweetheart. And I wish I could make that happen." Buck combed his hand through the soft chestnut curls, liking the way Ezra's eyes closed and crinkled at the corners as he smiled and tipped his head to gain more contact with Buck's probing fingers.

"We're together. No one's trying to separate us. It can't get much better than that," Ezra said quietly. He opened his eyes and gazed up into Buck's face. "Can it?"


Buck tried to pretend he wasn't watching Ezra. He sat straddling the kitchen chair, sipping scalding hot black coffee freshly poured by Chris and pretended not to watch Ezra. Ezra needed some space, some peace, some silence. Away from all of them, all of this. Only, it wasn't possible to give it to him yet. Except this way.

Ezra was oblivious to the world around him, that much was obvious. Or, at least so he appeared. He was building a house of cards there on Larabee's big old wooden kitchen table. The grain, stressed with years of heavy use, was almost like a fine washboard, absolutely perfect for anchoring the bottom level of the temporary structure. The southerner had abandoned his coffee, now tepid, for this project. The tiniest bit of pink tongue stuck out between his tightly folded lips as he concentrated on lowering the three of diamonds on to the supports of two jacks and two tens.

Chris, rinsing out the last of the fry pans that had been used that morning for an impromptu breakfast feast, was also keeping a weather eye on Standish. He was pleased that the hand holding the card didn't tremble, was steady as a rock. Ezra's green eyes were squinted in an effort to focus more closely as he made contact, the diamond to the four other cards. The pink tongue extruded a bit more.

Buck's bland expression was melting into a soft smile, his eyes warm. Got it bad, our Buckaroo, Larabee thought with affection for his old friend. I'm actually glad. He'll be good for Ezra and Ezra will be good for him. The team leader leaned back against the sink, a dishtowel thrown over one shoulder and openly watched the other two men. Now, if Travis can only finish the clean up on that mess back at the prison.

Vin and JD had left, were on the road again, tracing the missing day shift nursing attendant who was now suspected of being the 'mouthpiece' for Jardain. The man had fled. Josiah was outside, communing with nature --- and a laptop on remote access, while he built a case for further prosecution of Jardain and a restraining order to keep him out of state, regardless of what else might come from the hearings.

Nathan had gone to fetch Emily Loring, a friend of his who was also a psychologist. Since Feinman had so thoroughly read Ezra wrong earlier, if only from a distance and second-hand reports, it was decided that the team needed to bring in someone else to help their undercover agent. Travis had regretfully specified that Standish undergo therapy or tender his resignation, which would be accepted as a disability retirement with full benefits.

Chris tilted his head to one side as Ezra managed to build a tent of two hearts on top of the diamond. If Ezra was still affected by any thing, it wasn't showing now. At least, no outward physical signs. He looked over at Buck. He, too, had stopped pretending and was watching with interest and a certain wary contentment as the smaller man seated across from him continued to erect the delicate structure. Buck had looked very tired earlier but the night's sleep with Ezra had helped, Chris could tell. Even with the nightmares that had wakened the whole house earlier, Ezra and Buck both looked rested and more balanced. The tension and anxiety was gone.

The scene here, earlier this morning, when he had to tell Standish about Dr. Loring had not been pretty. Even with Nathan's assurances that she was good and he thought she could help, Ezra still had threatened to quit. Buck had been very persuasive, whispering some things none of the rest heard toward the end. Whatever he'd said evidently swung the balance to their side and Standish had finally agreed to the sessions - to start today, out here at the ranch and go for no less than one week, daily. After that, much would depend on Ezra, on the doctor, and on Travis.


"I'm perfectly fine." Ezra looked anything but fine as he sat erect and clearly defensive at the kitchen table. Buck hovered behind him, refraining with great effort from touching. Ezra needed to face his demons. Using Buck as a crutch would not help. If Buck had had any doubts, Nathan and Chris, cornering him in the predawn light had dissuaded him of them.

"No, you are not." Nathan shook his head and thumped one fist down on the big table. Josiah came up behind the agitated medic and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Ezra, Nathan's right. This would be a lot for anyone. You need to talk to someone."

"I HAVE been talking to someone. Lots of someones. To all of you. To Buck." Ezra lifted his head with a grace at odds with his cobbled wardrobe of borrowed clothing, chin raised and eyes half-hooded in anger.

JD had slumped forward in his chair, hands clasped in earnest sincerity. "We're family. That doesn't count. Come on, Ezra, we need you to help here."

"Help? Help?" Ezra's voice began to rise.

"Hey, Pard, take it easy." Buck gave in, kneeling down on one knee behind Ezra's chair and wrapping his arms loosely around the smaller man, the back of the ladder-back chair between them. "Arguing isn't going to change anything, Ez."

Vin finally spoke up now. "That's right, Ez. Just do it so we can get back to normal. With you, not without you."

Standish shot Vin a look of pure anger. "Without me?"

"That's what Travis said, Ezra." Larabee tried not to look too fierce, but he was losing patience. He knew how much shit his friend had already gone through but if they were going to keep him on the team, this too had to be surmounted. He'd broken the law, gone gunning for a perp, and, regardless of how well justified, it would not have been ruled a righteous shooting and Ezra would have been buried by the system. As it was, he wasn't too sure why that hadn't happened anyway. Usually, bureaucracy was like a steamroller, and folks --- the flattened aftermath. Chris scrubbed at his face. "I told you what Travis said."

"Ah, yes, the ultimatum."

Buck leaned in close behind Ezra and whispered something softly in one of his ears.

Chris frowned and tried again. "Ezra---"


"You have to see--- what?" Chris was already wading into the verbal duel, desperate to make his agent comply, when the damn man did an about face on him. Not the first time.

"I said, alright, I'll do it, Chris."

Larabee looked at him with deep suspicion but nodded and spoke to Nathan without breaking eye contact with his undercover agent. "Nate. Go get the doctor."

"Don't know if she'll be ready this early, Chris."


"Okay, okay." Jackson stood stiffly and rolled his shoulders, trying to rid himself of some of the tension in the room.

"I'll walk you out to the car." Josiah's quiet voice was a signal to the others to withdraw.

Vin stood up and stretched, looked over at JD. "JD? We should follow up on the traces out on that dayshift nurse."

The younger agent braced his hands on the table and pushed himself to his feet, cocking an eye at his boss. Larabee didn't look over but seemed aware of the silent question. "Good idea. You two take off. Keep in touch by cell. Find that bastard."

"Ezra? You gonna cooperate with the doc when Nate brings her back?" Larabee knew his men well, had even been through some really bizarre group analysis sessions with them for some crank program the bigwigs in Washington had thought up. Back then, they'd all tweaked the assigned doctor's tail something awful. Had a hell of a lot of fun doing it, was their very own kind of therapy. But this time, no games. This was too important, too real. And, Ezra was not going to pull through on his own, that much was already clear from his actions. Buck was tense with worry, he'd not been able to break through even though he thought he'd had some success earlier. Ezra needed professional help. Chris stared at the man, at his friend, and waited.

Ezra blinked at the gimlet-eyed stare of his friend and boss. Painful truth was he didn't think he'd make it on his own, not even with Buck's support and love. He felt like he was full to overflowing with worms crawling through his body, destroying him one bite at a time, devouring his very soul. They wriggled relentlessly in his bag of skin, causing it to burn and tingle with their energy. He no longer knew if he'd ever be able to sleep again. Last night had been a living, then sleeping nightmare of terrifying proportions. Oh, yes, he'd talk to this doctor that Nathan was getting. He no longer had a choice.

"I promise, Chris. I won't hide from her. I know I need help." He tilted his head back to rest against the back of the chair and Buck's chest pressed tight behind, closing his eyes against a sudden shimmer of tears that leaked out despite his effort to control himself.

Chris Larabee's heart squeezed as he witnessed the collapse of his proud and sometimes arrogant agent. Shit. He stood up and walked out, after staring into Buck's mournful eyes. Without words, he'd let Buck know that he was leaving his friend in Buck's hands. For now, any way.


Josiah and Chris had set up a work area on the back porch and while Sanchez worked a laptop connected by remote to the Internet, Larabee had been busy on his cell phone. He'd pressed Orin Travis for more action to dismiss the charges against Standish and Travis, already up for more than 24 hours at this point, had conceded that he was going to have to call in more personal favors because the law was not working for them on this. Larabee disconnected in a depression. Things were moving way too slowly for his liking, but he had a gut feeling that it was going to work out. Jardain was already out of state, in a prison transport, on his way to a new assignment at a penitentiary in Nevada.

He swung around to check the kitchen through the sliding glass doors. He'd resolutely kept his back to the glass until now. Buck was pouring himself a cup of coffee, eyes downcast, looking thoughtful. Ezra was absent. Well, Buck doesn't look panicked, and, that coffee looks good.

Chris pressed a hand on the big profiler's shoulder in silence. Washed out blue eyes looked up from their work, speaking of confidence and friendship, reassurance, without a word. Larabee smiled. Sometimes, that was all it took. A calming look from their eldest, Josiah, and the world seemed less intimidating. He nodded and headed back into the house.

Buck smiled wanly when Chris reappeared. "He's gone to get some cards. Said he could think better with them."

"Cards?" Larabee shook his head and took another sip of the strong brew. "That sounds more normal than anything I've heard in a while."

Buck's smile actually warmed. "Yeah. And normal is good." He sighed then and leaned back in his chair. "I think we've all been crowding him too close."

"Haven't had a lot of choice there, Buck."

"I know it." Buck stood up and walked across the broad wood plank floor, then turned to face his oldest friend again. "We got to give him what we can."

Chris nodded understandingly. "Sure thing."

Then Ezra was there again. Walking into the room with transparent unease, his thin frame moving with ghost-like solemnity. "Gentlemen." He drew out a chair at the big table and carefully moved the scattered cups abandoned there by their teammates. "I've decided to indulge in a childhood strategy for meditation." At the silent questioning looks, he actually smiled. "I'm going to build a house of cards."


Buck had placed a cup of coffee at Ezra's elbow but it was ignored now as the man worked with single-minded concentration. Chris had risen and backed away, distancing himself slightly as he turned to tackle the dishes and pans in the sink. Buck spun a chair about and settled back, also away from the table, and at an angle, staring first out the glass doors at the breathtaking scenery of the Rockies beyond, then with some subtlety at his lover.

Ezra's tongue was pink and curling up over his upper lip now as he started another wing to his mansion of cards. Chris, folding the dishtowel, spied another box of cards in the doodad drawer by the sink. The box held a double deck. He pulled it out and moved over to where the card house was rising. Chris glanced over at Buck, who was staring openly at the clearly oblivious Ezra. Invitation in his hazel eyes, Chris sat down beside Ezra and smiled as Buck rose and joined them on Ezra's other side.

"Seems to me," Chris said softly, "That you could add a south wall over here."

Ezra flicked a glance over at the direction mentioned and smiled secretively. He nodded but didn't speak.

Larabee opened his box and handed Buck one deck behind Ezra's back so as not to risk disturbing the fragile structure in front of the southerner. Chris took out the second deck for himself and started to match two cards, end to end, with great precision.

That's how Vin and JD found them when they returned four hours later. The house of cards now was more of a fortification, covering nearly all the top of the table. Larabee had somehow produced more decks of cards and Josiah was patiently building up from the floor, already connected to one chair seat. The youngest agents had stared at their elders, stared at each other, grinned gleefully and edged their way into the activity.

Nathan decided against knocking. He escorted Emily Loring into the big old ranch house, noting that all the others must be there with the scattering of vehicles parked out front. He was feeling better now. He'd spent the drive up describing the events of the past few weeks to his friend. She had taken some notes, then dropped her small steno pad into her shoulder bag as they walked up the porch steps.

"Probably still out in the kitchen. Tends to be the gathering place, that and the source of coffee," he added with a glimmer of a smile.

Dr. Loring was prepared to see many things when they entered the large country kitchen, but it wasn't the fantasy creation that towered over the kitchen table, and overflowed down several chairs to the floor. Nor the six men so intently involved in it's construction. Drawing to a stop in the doorway, she put a hand up when Nathan would have spoken.

She was charmed by the six overgrown children so deep in their play and had to smile at what she saw.

One of them would be her new patient. She studied them carefully. Three were especially young looking and all of smaller stature. She watched the interactions of the men. It didn't take long to decode the carefully supportive actions of five toward the sixth who seemed not to notice. Handing him cards, giving him more space than the rest, waiting when he paused in thoughtful contemplation, following his lead in silence.

She smiled more widely as she thought just how therapeutic this activity was - for all of them. She only wished she could step back and encourage her good friend Nathan to join them. But, she was sure that the moment her presence was noted, this house of cards would come tumbling down, figuratively if not literally.

It was Vin who sensed a stranger present first. He stiffened and looked up. His posture caught Larabee's eye, then Josiah's. The big men sat back and looked over at the door. Saw the unknown woman standing there, with Nathan at her shoulder. Buck followed the eyes of his friends to the source of their shifted interest. Damn. JD looked up in surprise at the sudden secession of activity. Only Ezra kept working.

If I don't acknowledge her, she won't be there. Ezra's nerves tightened a bit, having relaxed at the comfortable companionship and quiet, numbing activity until now. Now he began to tense, his hand shook and the card in it suddenly slid to the side, the precision of his movements coming to a jerky stop. He sighed and stared at the card house. Took a deep breath and blew out, hard, with purpose. The cards trembled, shook, and toppled. Sheering and sliding down into collapsed heaps on the table and the floor with a nearly soundless whoosh.

"You must be Ezra."


Buck hitched his shoulder higher on the door jam, staring moodily out over the back pasture and corral from the vantage point of the ranch house's kitchen door to the back porch. He could hear the others chatting quietly at the kitchen table, sharing cups of freshly brewed coffee, sorting and stacking the mess of cards into sets, decks again. That doc that Nathan had brought was out walking with Ezra, somewhere out on the bridle paths. He sighed, his shoulders shifting again with the full body intake and exhale of breath.

"Buck?" Chris' voice was soft at his shoulder.

Gettin' old. Didn't hear him come up behind me. Buck turned his head a bit. "Yeah?"

"Nate says this Loring is real good, gentle too. Ezra's gonna get the help he needs. You need to let go some, Pard."

The taller man shook his head slightly, then shifted to face around further, meet his friend's eyes. "He just isn't doing too well."

"I know." Chris raised his eyes up toward the peaks of the Rockies, crisply outlined against the bright daylight today. He laid a hand on his old friend's shoulder and pushed. "How 'bout we step out for a bit of air?"

Buck nodded silently, then followed as Larabee moved past him and on out on to the back porch. The quiet murmurs of Vin, JD, Nathan, and Josiah faded even more as they emerged onto the still shadowed back porch. Chris went down the porch steps and led the way to the corral fence, putting one booted foot up on a low railing as he leaned over the top rail with crossed arms. Peso and Solon and Chaucer were all moving restlessly about, stopping to nibble at the bale of hay occasionally, but mostly raising their heads and sniffing the fresh air of the mountain breezes. You had to wonder what they smelled when they fluttered their nostrils and pricked their ears with such alert attention, Buck thought to himself.

Chris was content to study the movements of the horses. Should get the rest of the herd out here soon, they could use the air too. Right now, though, need to just give Buck an ear. Think he needs it. Chris' mouth curved in a half-smile as Buck came to rest against the corral fence in a similar pose, also studying the horses' movements.

"Think there may be something prowling around out there today." Larabee mused without any particular fear. The wildcats, wolves and bears seldom actually showed, his ranch might be touching wilderness, but it smelled of humans and most wild animals on the fringes of their ranges already knew what that meant. And stayed away.

Buck, though, stiffened and looked to the side, where thinner stands of the bordering forests crept down to meet the open grazing meadows. "They should be okay, they're on foot, not likely get too far out." He spoke more to calm himself than Larabee.

Chris nodded in agreement, however. "Yep. Ez knows the ranch too. Even right now, he's not going to take her out too far."

Buck dropped his head suddenly on to his crossed arms, rolling his forehead along his bare forearms as he closed his eyes. Waves of fatigue seemed to be hitting him now. He hadn't noticed how tired he was while Ezra was with him. Ezra was the center of his world now, and when the boy was there, he had no choice, his whole focus went outward, to embrace and protect his lover. His love. "Geeze, Chris, I feel like shit."

A warm, firm hand came down on his back, rubbing in big circles over his bent shoulders. "Easy, Pard, you've had it rough for a spell now. Things will be better. Why don't you go in and lie down for a while. Get some sleep. We'll keep an eye out for Ezra."

Buck lifted his head and squinted over at his friend. "No, I'd just end up staring at the ceiling in there. Leastways, out here I can get some air, some sun. Feels good."

Larabee nodded his understanding. Sometimes just standing in the sunshine out here, it was enough to make the world right itself for him when things seemed to be bad. He'd learned that a while back. Thought of that old John Denver song and smiled. "Sunshine on my shoulder, makes me happy," he quoted seriously.

Buck tossed his head back in a smile, "Son, you ain't right in the head if you're admitting to being happy!" The laugh felt good. Felt right. He quickly sobered though, thinking that he needed to share laughter with Ezra again. They both needed laughter in their lives again. It had been a while.


Josiah had been quietly stacking the sorted cards in front of him, listening to the other men at the table chat in a desultory fashion about the case. The day shift nurse had been found and arrested, was being interrogated downtown. Neither Vin nor JD had wanted to stay around for it, their disgust too great. They had both wanted to return and see for themselves that Ezra was going to be alright.

Nathan had then started describing Emily Loring in more detail, her job and her accomplishments since he'd known her. When he paused, Josiah spoke.

"I worry about our Ezra." He stared at the cards neatly set in front of him, then looked up at Nathan, ignoring the other two men. "He hides things too well."

Jackson understood. "Well, Emily is good at getting a patient to relax and confide in her. She's reached some real tough nuts, juvies with long records of rebellion and hostility at the half-way house where I met her." He met Josiah's look with one of confidence and caring. "She will help him."

Josiah flashed his patented devil-may-care grin. "Guess I'm just an old worry wart." He chuckled. The inner tension he'd felt for some time eased a little at the sure words of Nathan. Josiah tended to stay in the background, keep to himself. He had the very devil in his soul and mostly fought that demon silently and alone, seldom letting others in on the secret that it even existed. When he'd fought long and hard and finally succumbed to a temporary set back, then his explosion would rock the Seven's world. Drunk and disorderly, he'd be a chastened sheep in need of a shepherd, meekly returning to his work while seeking once more his balance in some new and existential strand of human faiths. His affinity for the devil, though, gave him extraordinary insight into the minds of criminals, making him one of the best profilers in the business. And it gave him a very piercing understanding of their undercover agent.

Ezra was an enigma to most of the team, most of the time. But not to Josiah. Josiah knew him. Knew him in a deep, beneath the skin way. A fellow demon wrestler. He'd identified with the younger man almost from the moment they met. That first case, all the turmoil and misunderstandings that had grown from Ezra's actions, all that had lit up Josiah's inner sanctums of the mind. He'd found a fellow traveler and recognized the man for it. Seen the devil in the details, so to speak and known the young man had a troubled and complicated story if he'd ever speak of it --- knew it without being told.

This case and his revealed relationship with Buck, his homosexuality for that matter, all of it had been like the tolling of a bell for Josiah. He'd been momentarily shocked by Ezra's confessions, then by the case and the terrible repercussions of the villain's later actions of harassment and revenge. He'd been truly moved by Ezra's madness in going after Jardain at the prison and grateful for both Buck's and Chris' rescue of the wayward agent. He wanted his friend back now. He wanted Ezra back, the cheerful, meticulous, and mercurial con man who walked on the right side of the law. Josiah smiled at Jackson, his thoughts still roiling inside, and nodded. "I have faith in you, Nathan. If you trust and believe in Doctor Loring, then I will."

Jackson sat back, satisfied. He noticed the two other men had paused to listen and were now smiling and finishing up the reconstruction of the decks of cards, Vin handing off sets to JD who was boxing them. Looking back at Josiah, he caught the momentary look of worry still there in the furrowed brow and shadowed eyes. Damn it, Ezra's gotten to all of us, hasn't he? Nathan handed over his deck to the boys and scratched at his head. Well, he's a good man. Josiah recognized that before I did, or Chris or some of the others. He's a good man and he didn't deserve any of this. Emily will help him. Damn good thing that Travis ordered the counseling or she might not ever have gotten the chance. And she would give Ezra his chance. He needed it. Get him back to us. Funny, I miss him even though he's here with us. I miss the Ezra from before all this shit hit. Nathan's face was open with the sadness and hope he felt and looking up at Josiah he saw reflected there the same feelings. He smiled at his friend. It would be all right.

Vin was watching the interplay between Nathan and Josiah. Josiah was a weathervane for the sharpshooter. He was the most stable of them most of the time and when he was out of sorts, like now, Vin knew that there could be trouble somewhere, either on a case, or among the Seven. He continued his card sorting automatically as he listened to what was said and what was not said. He was a good listener to both levels of a conversation. He realized that JD was doing the same thing, if perhaps with a lesser degree of comprehension. We're all worried about Ezra. He sure was out there this time. Damn near cut off the limb he was out on, too. Vin stilled his hands for a moment as one covered one of JD's that were moving with some agitation. He let his crystal clear blue eyes pass some serenity on to the hacker. Despite the concern he sensed from Josiah and the attempts at alleviating it that he saw from Nathan, Vin knew that this problem with Ezra wasn't going to go away quickly. He'd sensed the rage in the man, the helplessness and fury. The fear. Buck was going to have a hard time coming to grips with all the burdens that Ezra was carrying. Only way to help was for us all to be calm, accepting and ready to help. He tried to pass his sense of tranquility on to JD with touch and a look.

JD quieted under Vin's hand. Looked up and saw that Vin understood. Saw too that Vin was centered and calm. That's what's needed, he realized. Not Josiah's worry, not Nathan's hovering or intrusions, even if the doctor he found might help in the end. No, what Ezra --- and Buck --- needed were their friends around them, solid and sure. I can do this. JD shrugged mentally. Sure, they'd probably say I'm cocky, but I've been around the block a few times, some of them blocks that no one else knows about. Got through it all. Ezra's real smart. He'll get through this too, long as we're there to watch his back. And, we will be. JD's eyes lit with a warm smile that he sent to Vin who smiled back.


Ezra found himself relaxing for the first time in a long time. Since, well, he couldn't remember really since when. When was the last time he'd totally relaxed? Ah, except for right after some exquisite loving, the aftermath of that was always mind-blowing semi-consciousness. The after-orgasm sense of complete and utter relaxation. But, that was more physical than mental, emotional. Ezra watched where he put his feet as he paced slowly along the riding trail. He knew that Doctor Loring, Emily, she'd asked him to call her Emily, was walking easily beside him, but she was silent, letting him ease into the newly rediscovered feeling of relaxation.

A very complicated man. Emily Loring's quick mind was intrigued by the case that Nathan had related to her on the phone briefly, and then in detail on the drive up. Now, face to face with Ezra, her heart went out to the man. The very complicated, hurt man. Oh, yes, badly hurt. A hurt that pre-dated this case, she decided. Probably a hurt that extended back into childhood. She'd let him lead, let him tell her the boundaries of their talks. She'd accept anything from him, without any outward signs of shock or sympathy. He wasn't the only one with the gift for hiding his feelings. He was good though. Nathan had warned her. But she was good too.

She watched where she put her feet and did not turn to look over at her walking companion. She'd learned long ago, before even beginning her career, that deep conversations were best held when you didn't face your conversational partner. Sitting in a car was a good variation, both driver and passenger facing the road, speaking to the traffic, and not meeting each other's eyes. It was like secretly sharing. Safer somehow. Telephones weren't as good. You needed the ability to touch, to feel the closeness, warmth of the other. Even if you seldom met their eyes. A walk, like this, was good. It would be better where you didn't have to keep part of your attention on your feet, but at least there were no distractions from outsiders. They were quite alone out here.

Ezra had quickly determined that Emily knew all the circumstances of the case from Nathan. That meant she knew what Nathan knew. Of course, that left out a lot. He liked her. The moment he turned away from the collapsed house of cards and faced her, he liked her. She was standing there, a warm, brown person, eyes twinkling with understanding and a matter of fact way that was easy to relate to. She had smiled upon him and he felt comforted by the glow in her deep chocolate eyes. She was small, like him, and that too was nice. There was no attempt to dominate, to dictate. Just be there. He could tell that she'd be easy to talk to and he'd been right. Without even a moment's pause, she'd turned from him to ask the group in general if there was somewhere that she and he could go, could walk. Chris had suggested the riding trails. Even offered horses, but she'd said, no, just to walk would be fine. Then she'd turned back to him, dismissing the others with her intense fix on him and invited him for a walk.

It had been as simple and as complicated as that. She'd introduced herself to him in a few easy sentences, then lapsed into silence as he led her through the house, the back pasture, and on into the lightly wooded area at the edge of it, where a trail blazed through the shivering aspens. Sunlight dappled the ground at their feet and bird song lightened the atmosphere and Ezra found himself breaking the silence. Making random comments. She hadn't pushed, hadn't tried to steer the conversation, just listened. After a bit, he began to slow and became silent also. That was when she spoke.

"Tell me about Buck."

Not the case, not him. About Buck? Ezra had smiled to himself in memory of that moment. He felt soothed somehow. Buck? He could talk about Buck forever. And for a while, it felt like he had. Describing his lover, his personality, his beauty of body and soul, mind, heart. Telling her how their love had grown, moved from lust to love. How Buck had held back at first, how he now understood why the man had held him at arm's length, using women to keep them from truly being lovers. How they had been, his pain in their relationship at that time. How the case had changed all that. And then he was there. On the precipice. At the case. Jardain. Hatred flowed through him like wine. He kicked a small rock, sending it tumbling from the trail. He turned off it, stopping to lean against a sapling, nearly bending it over as he shoved hard with his shoulder, hands clenched around the narrow trunk. Eyes closed, face deadly white and blank. He held his breath and then spoke softly.

"I can't get past the hate."

"Ezra, tell me about that." Emily's voice hadn't demanded, simply asked quietly and he found himself wanting to tell her. So he did.


Dusk was approaching. The sky had paled and clouds were gathering to cluster over the peaks, like handmaidens to the setting sun, blushing and flaring with pinks, oranges, scarlets, and reds. Streamers of color tore away to ride out on windblown bits of condensing water vapor. The crowning glory of sunset was flaming across the sky when Ezra and Emily emerged from the tree line and began to walk slowly across the open pastureland. The horses had been re-stabled, all of them since Chris had let the rest out after leaving Buck to simply relax in the afternoon sunshine.

Buck, a tired sentinel at the gates to the corral, straightened stiffly and headed inside, unnoticed by the walkers who were talking together. Buck's heart soared with hope. He'd seen the lightness to Ezra's steps, even from the distance. He's feeling better! Don't want him to think I was keeping an eye out for him, make him feel trapped. Buck settled on the porch and tilted his head back, closing his eyes.

"Nice try, Buck." Ezra's voice sounded amused, sending further happiness like a drug to Buck's veins.

"Hey there, Ez. Doc. Just catching a little shut eye," he offered with a wide smile, his eyes bright as he connected with his lover, then searching as he met the doctor's. He didn't ask though, not here and now. Later.

"As I said, Buck, nice try." Ezra's face was flush and his eyes reddened but his voice was lilting with the tease, none of the pain that had been a constant companion sounded there now.

Buck sat up and tipped forward in his seat to rest his arms on the porch rail. "Glad you two got in before dark." No questions. He nearly bit his tongue. No questions. Just be here for him.

Ezra nodded. "Hardly fitting to lose this charming lady to a feral roving creature out there in the dark." He smiled across at the woman who stood comfortably at his side, smiling back at him. Buck saw that they didn't touch but it seemed a natural distance rather than some sign of trouble.

The woman, the doctor, Buck corrected himself, smiled up at him now. "Buck, I have heard so much about you now that I feel as if we are old friends already. And, I trust you to take good care of our mutual friend here. So," she finished, "I'll leave him safely in your good hands and go in to see Nathan and meet the others." She nodded in a friendly fashion and mounted the steps, passing the two men who faced each other in silence.

Once she was gone, the atmosphere changed. Ezra barked a small laugh, then choked out, "Buck?" There was so much pain and longing in the single word that Wilmington lunged out of his seat and vaulted the rail to land beside Ezra and drag the man into his arms.

"What? What happened? Ezra, are you alright? Ezra?" Buck was nearly stuttering in his anxiety. One minute Ezra stood there nearly glowing with good spirits, then next, like he'd turned a switch, he was dissolving in tears and pain in front of him. Frantically, Buck clasped his lover tightly. "Oh, god, Ezra, I love you so much. Tell me what's wrong, let me fix it."

Finally winding down and standing silent, waiting, Buck held Ezra. The southerner absorbed the comfort and love of that possession. He drank of it. His parched soul was eased. He swallowed hard and pushed back enough to be able to look up into Buck's down-turned face. "I'm sorry. I'm fine, really, just needed you."

"I'm here. I'm here. You got me, Pard." Buck's hands came up to sooth and stroke the sides of Ezra's face, his eyes looking intently into those mystic green ones, trying to read them.

"I talked. God, Buck, I talked forever." Ezra closed his eyes and leaned into the large hands, feeling their gentleness and caring in their touch. "It was like lancing an infected wound, letting all the disgusting matter leak out. Letting go."

"She's good, huh? Got you to talk, to tell her---?" Buck was careful not to fill in too much.

Ezra's eyes came open again. "Yes. She's good. A good friend already. And I did talk." He laughed, his eyes turning toward the ground, adding, "Talked too much, probably, but I trust her. Nathan does, and I felt the trueness of her. I'm safe with her." He looked back up. "Nearly as safe as when I'm with you."

Buck couldn't help the tender smile that lit up his anxious face. "Oh, Ez, I love you so much." Can't stop repeating myself, now that I finally admit it, seems to feel so right saying it.

"I love you, too, Buck. So much it hurts." Ezra leaned in and rested his head against the strong man, turning his head so that it lay against Buck's chest, so he could hear the man's heartbeat. "I love you," he muttered again.

Buck kissed the top of the curly dark brown hair presented and curled his arms more gently around his Ezra. His sweet Ezra. "Now what?"

"Now," Ezra answered without moving, "we take this show inside, say goodnight to the boys and Emily and go to bed." The last was said on a decidedly hopeful note.

"Nope, not until you eat something. Chris and Josiah are cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and they'd be right insulted if we didn't eat."

"Eat?" The dismay in Ezra's voice was clear. "Buck, I don't know---"

"You can eat. Just a little." Buck coaxed into one ear, leaning down further, "For me. Please, Ez. You have to eat, you're just skin and bones. You scare me."

Ezra sighed. "Alright. But not too much. Honestly, Buck, I really don't feel like eating and I will be sick if I try to force it."

"Ok, love, just a little." Buck kissed Ezra's brow as the man's face came up. "Then, bed."

Ezra smiled at that. "Good. I'll tell you about today then."

"Only if you want to, baby." Buck didn't want Ezra to feel he had to expose himself. The counseling was necessary, he could see already the difference in the smaller man, and the counselor was credible. It was enough that it was happening. He moved to the side and guided Ezra forward, moving them together up toward the steps to the porch and the kitchen beyond.


The rest of Team Seven got back to work. The days that followed swiftly fell into a pattern. Everyone slept out at the ranch. Emily was given Adam's old room. Buck and Ezra had the guest room. The others brought bedrolls; Josiah and Vin hauled the futons out of the upstairs storage room. They all set up camp in the large living room, cozy by the fire and the flickering light of the television that muttered nonstop for at least one of them throughout the nights. Sometimes it was Josiah, staring blankly at CNN, or Nathan hunched forward with Vin at his side, watching a replay of a daytime game on ESPN, or it was JD with his Nintendo game boy hooked up.

Mornings brought coffee, sometimes an early ride for a few of the men, exercising some of the horses in the dawn's light. Then the roar of motors would announce the departure of Chris' Ram, Nathan's SUV, Vin's jeep, JD's bike, and Josiah's suburban. Buck's truck would remain. The Jag sulked beside the barn.

Buck would play crossword puzzles in the back issues of the newspapers that Chris kept for starting fires in the fireplace. And, Ezra and Emily would disappear for a walk. A long walk, reappearing at midday to join Buck for lunch, usually just soup and bread. Ezra was eating though and that made Buck incredibly happy.

Then they'd leave again. Walking, sometimes even in the rain, slickered up and wearing old mucking boots for the stable. The walks went on. Each night, Ezra would quietly stare at the ceiling, safe in the circle of Buck's arms, and tell Buck about the conversations that he'd had with Emily that day. Buck listened. He held Ezra and soaked in the relaxed posture of his mate, the easing of his soul. It fascinated him that Ezra felt the need to repeat the conversations. Clearly not all of them, they'd never sleep. But the essence. When he wound down, Buck would kiss him and cuddle him closer, and they would sleep. Sex, intercourse, loving, took a back seat right now. Buck found he was quite content to simply hold his baby close and safe in his arms, happy at the sense of healing he heard and felt.

Ezra smiled more now. No flashing dimples yet, no sharp wit, but he was coming back again. The old Ezra, softer now with Buck's love, but still the man who had become the friend the other six wanted and needed back. Chris observed all this and thanked Travis back at the office. He was certain now that Ezra would be back on his feet, back at work again, soon. Maybe even a better agent than before because he'd be more settled, stronger with Buck in his corner permanently. Yep, they were a couple for life, that was clear and Chris was content with that, happy for his old friend and his newer one.

Travis had finally pulled in enough favors to wipe the slate for their errant agent. If the case against Ezra had gone to court, it would have helped no one, harmed a lot of folks. The other officials had finally come around to see that also. Case dismissed.

Orin had wanted to come out to the ranch to apologize in person, again, to Standish but Larabee held him off, explained that the counseling sessions, the therapy, was going on just now and that it would be better to wait, do it once Ezra was back on duty, in the office. A different setting from the one he was in now. The ranch was Ezra's safe house, his healing home at the moment, and Chris fully intended to protect that perception for his agent.

The rest of the team found their own ways to be quietly, unobtrusively supportive. Just being themselves at the end of each day, horsing around, joking, discussing their current unchallenging case had been exactly what Ezra needed to get back into normal gear. Back into his life. His life with Buck, and them. His family.

Ezra didn't know how to tell them all how much they meant to him. How much they were helping him. But he figured they were all smart and could see how he was improving and had to know they were part of that. At least, he hoped so. Emily's listening ear, quiet professionalism, and friendly presence soothed him. He could talk to her forever. It didn't even bother him that it was her job, he could sense that it was also simply who she was. And he was grateful to Nathan for bringing her in to help. Fienman would have been a deadly mistake he now knew. He recognized the hostility in himself and knew he would have blown it with the ATF psychologist. No, Emily was the cure he needed.

The closeness with Buck was growing daily, nightly. They were building new layers of bonds that had little to do with loving and lots to do with love and trust and caring. Ezra's heart seemed to grow, the prison of pain crumbling away as the days passed by. Five days into the therapy, Emily told Ezra that she had to get back to her practice and she wished him well.

"You're going? Just like that?" Ezra was shocked. They'd been strolling their now familiar path, it was mid-morning. He'd talked for a couple of hours, childhood memories that had helped shape his manhood, painful still but not able to hurt as much now. Not with the 'family' he'd acquired, not with Buck nearby, not with Emily there. He stopped walking and turned to face her.

"Ezra," she answered gently, "You are fine now. Really fine. We could do this for the rest of our lives. You have a lot of history to work through, but the big problem is fixed, the issues you had, the hate and anger and fear are all dealt with."

"But Emily, I'll be lost again." Ezra flushed as he heard the fright in his voice.

"No, you won't." Emily was firm, reaching out to touch him for the very first time, fingers resting lightly on one shoulder. "You are better now. You are back in control. Ezra, what you are talking about this morning? It's the parts of you that are the essential YOU. You don't need to be telling me about these parts. Tell Buck. He needs to hear, to understand, to know. You still need to talk them out. That's part of what will complete the sharing and trust building in your relationship with him. He'll talk too, and you'll listen and learn too. That's what needs to happen now. You don't need me anymore."

Ezra was silent, studying her face and realizing her poker face was as good as his own. He laughed ruefully. "You have become an addiction. A luxury item in my life." He shook his head and faced up the path again, beginning to walk, knowing she'd walk beside him. "Thank you, Emily. I do understand. You are right. I am back in control and I was very much out of control before. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Ezra."

"Thank you for understanding about Buck and me, too. For being so accepting. For talking about us like you would any other couple, any normal couple."

"You are a normal couple." She laughed lightly now too. "Well, hell, except for society's weird rules that say you have to have one of each kind." She shook her head and smiled. "I never was much for following those rules. They really aren't too meaningful in terms of real life."

Ezra was grateful. He wanted to tell her that but he already had. Instead, he waited in silence a bit as they continued their walk, heading back toward the ranch house early today. Finally, feeling enough time had elapsed, he spoke again. "Emily, Buck and I are grateful to you. I'll tell him what you said. We'll talk. Might not be out here on the trails, walking, but we will talk. I will tell him about me, listen as he tells me about himself. We already are changing in a healthy way, largely thanks to you." He cocked his head and asked, "Did you know? We haven't had any sex all week while you've been here."

"You had love."

"Yes." Ezra's tone was one of awe and happiness. "That we have."

"It will only keep growing stronger as the days and years pass, Ezra. I can tell. You two are a match."

"Yes." Ezra's words were small, sincere. He'd learned he didn't need to hide from Emily, not even with words. Most especially not with words. "Will you stay until the rest of the family gets back?"

The word family came out so naturally that he didn't even notice he'd said it, but Loring did and smiled again. "No, I don't think so. I'll pack while you and Buck make us some lunch, call me a cab. Then, after lunch, I'll leave and let you two have some time to yourselves. That is what you both need now, Ezra."

They continued into the pasture, the ranch house beckoning them onwards. And the day went much as Emily predicted.


"Hey, Buck, you watch out for Peso, looks like he's feeling his oats there son." Josiah's jovial tone made the other men laugh as they watched Buck pat his Gray inside the corral. Ezra sat perched up on the top rail, smiling and feeding a lifesaver to Chaucer who'd nudged in close, pushing Buck and his horse to the side. Peso had edged in closer, looking playful. The rest of the horses were ignoring the scene, huddled peacefully on the far side of the corral, heads resting on each other's backs in the sunshiny late afternoon's waning light. The rest of the team were sprawled on the porch in comfortable poses, beers in hands, watching with pleasure as their two friends eased back into the 'family.'

Peso's neck snaked in and he nipped the fat belly of the rangy gray. Gray's eyes went round and then he was kicking back and hedgehopped sideways with a grunt. Buck backed away from the large animals' play, knocking into Chaucer who ducked his head and then raised it sharply in irritation. Ezra, who'd been leaning forward to feed his mount, collided with the horse's head and pitched forward from his perch.

"Ezra!" "BUCK, watch out!" the alarmed cries of warning came from the throats of the five other men.

Buck spun on his heels, arms already out at the warnings, catching Ezra in his arms. He settled the smaller man against his chest and ducked his head to kiss him thoroughly, the cheers from the porch fading in the background as his world narrowed to Ezra in his arms. When he came up for air, Ezra's arms circled his neck fiercely, drawing him back down to a dimpled smiling face. The second kiss was even hotter, more enticing than the first. Buck broke free at last to haul in a deep breath and let it out in a joyful shout of laughter, spinning on his heels again, turning himself and Ezra in a dizzying circle that had the their horses moving away in slight alarm. He looked down into moss green eyes and grinned. "Ah, Ez, life's gonna be good, baby."

"Most certainly, my love, most certainly." One of Ezra's hands slid into Buck's thick mane of dark hair and pulled him back down into a third, slower, nurturing kiss. Life was good for Ezra. Finally.


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