Rule Number One
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?, EBOS, and The All-Ezra Fanfic Archive --- all others, please ask.
Summary: A rocky beginning to a new relationship, Chris injures Ezra during their first time together, panics and leaves. Can Ezra forgive him?
Warnings: Sexual VIOLENCE; graphic sexual encounter; strong language
Author's Note: This was my first longer fic in Mag7.
Completed: 10 August 2001
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
The cold, fresh air beckoned Ezra out of the stuffiness of the cabin. He knew that Nathan would be angry if he found out but he just had to breathe some air that was not thick with the heaviness of his current recovery. The drawstring pajama bottoms were flapping against his legs. When had he lost so much weight? Scrawny now. He could just hear one of his lovers make some comment about all the bones sticking out. His ribs were a washboard of raised ridges these days. Well, not that he'd had a lover in a while, so maybe it just didn't matter. The grayness of depression swooped down over him again, dampening his energy, what there was of it.
Stepping out onto the wet wide planking of the porch, he tentatively inhaled, careful not to take in too much of the brisk air. He could feel the chill enter his lungs, like a mouthful of fresh winter melt water from a mountain stream. He let his body sip the air slowly, building his inhalations and exhalations, inflating those damaged lungs, now healing. Healed? He flexed his arms and raised them over his head in a tentative stretch. Looked up at the mossy beams of pine, beams that girded the large overhang protecting the wide porch. Waited. Some small twinges but not sharp, acrid bites of pain. His back and left arm seemed to be mending well.
A breath of air stirred through the high alpine forest, rippling the low hanging branches of the ground-sweeping fir trees that surrounded the cabin. The breeze slid across his skin, raising goose bumps and a shiver. He wrapped his arms around himself, hugging tightly, and slowly walked on out to the very edge of the porch, toes curling down to cling to the front of the first step's edge. The sweep of valley that opened below him was in darkness, night sounds clicked and chittered and growled at a distance.
Ezra felt at peace.
Chris Larabee chewed on his unlit cheroot, and forced himself to remain still. He'd not really been surprised to see their con man emerge from the cabin in the dead of the night. The man was a night owl by trade. They'd started calling him their 'con man' after his second time undercover, when he'd told JD that all he really did was 'con' the bad guys. His flippant remark had earned him the nickname, which he publicly abhorred. Chris, however, suspected that privately it pleased the secretive man. He seemed better now, Nathan had been right. Needed to get away and rest in a quiet place. When Vin offered his high mountain cabin as a retreat, Nate and the rest had enthused, Standish had stared lethargically. When he hadn't openly rebelled, they'd arranged it, the man's lack of reaction making them more concerned than any of them wanted to admit.
Buck and JD had volunteered to baby-sit, as they called it. Chris had seen the tiny flinch in those moss green eyes at the phrasing. He knew the boys hadn't meant anything by it, they were worried about Standish, just like the rest. He'd managed to save all their hides when the syndicate muscle had ambushed them in the warehouse district, but he'd paid a heavy price with his own body. The doctors said that the man was well on the road to recovery, had released him from the hospital the day before. It was clear to the rest of Team 7, though, that Ezra Standish was still not well, not cured. Josiah sought out Chris, speaking privately to the team leader. It was the undercover agent's spirit that had the big man worried. Not right, Sanchez said, he seemed unbalanced and depressed. More than what the injuries should have done to him. Something was seriously wrong.
Chris Larabee led the premiere group of law enforcement agents of the Denver ATF, his team was the best of the best. Others acknowledged it, he knew it. Each man contributed to the success of the whole, they were a bonded unit and he intended to fight to keep them together. He'd already had to do some pretty fancy side-stepping to acquire Ezra Standish. The man was unliked in the FBI and under investigation when Larabee narrowed his search for an undercover agent - down to him. He'd looked over the FBI's charges and investigative findings and had been unconvinced. It was when he'd met the man, on a fast visit to Atlanta, that he'd seen for himself that Standish was more than and different than the pictures that had been painted of him. Those eyes had pierced him, and though Chris had shuttered his own in reaction, the fibbie's smooth talking style and semi-hidden athlete's body had been strumming with tension. He could feel the anger emanating from the man. It convinced the tall, dark clad westerner as nothing else could.
They'd had a rough start with Standish, too. Hadn't been easy to integrate the man into the team of rugged individuals, but somehow, after four months, the con man had squeezed himself into their hearts, and in the process, glued the ungainly team into a fast brotherhood. Chris shook his head at memories of confrontations, arguments and outright fistfights that had littered the path to the unification of the team. Now, he couldn't imagine the seven as less or different than they were. He was proud of them and cared deeply for them all. They had filled a dark void in his own soul, a terrible wound torn there by the violent deaths of his wife and child several years earlier.
Keeping an eye on the quiet form standing in the moonlight, Chris mused. The best. Together and individually, they were the best. This one, though, he was something so special that in the end, Larabee had pulled rank and told the others that he was going to be the one who took their private con man up to the mountain retreat. The others had argued naturally, and Ezra had sat there in Larabee's ranch house living room staring numbly over their heads at some point on the ceiling, saying nothing at all. When Chris had pointedly looked his way, the other men had finally silenced, his voiceless chastisement reminding them of the man's presence.
Then Nathan had begun explaining which of Ezra's medications had to be doled out when, and what exercises he needed for his physical therapy. Josiah had stood, arching his back and stretching, then drifting to stand behind the quiet con man, letting his large hands come gently to rest on the slumping shoulders. Standish had nearly jumped out of his skin, gasping and starting to shake. It took both Josiah and Nate to calm him back down. The others had slipped out of the room to give him some privacy. Chris had remained.
"I'm taking him."
"Brother Chris, what our friend needs most may be time." Josiah sighed, sitting back into the chair next to Standish who now sat on the couch with his head down on folded arms, leaning forward on his knees. "Just be patient."
Nathan nodded from the other side of their comrade, one hand resting on Standish's neck. He agreed as he gently rubbed the tight neck tendons. "He just needs to get away, rest up, clear his head some and let his body heal the rest of the way."
If their undercover agent heard them, he gave no sign. Chris sighed at that memory. Only two days ago and it felt like forever, another life, another world.
He'd checked in by cell phone when they'd arrived. He'd kept in contact regularly. Ezra had been obedient, for want of a better word. Followed instructions, taken his meds without protest, and been almost completely silent. Chris was worried.
Ezra let the night enfold him. The soft moonlight glazed the jagged mountain peaks visible past the dark growth of forest washing lower slopes. He closed his eyes and let himself drift. No real pain now. Just sadness. Loneliness. And a desperate desire for the forbidden. Dammit. He opened his eyes and forced himself back into that cocoon of lethargy that protected him from feeling too much. Let the night take me, he thought.
Chris began to worry in earnest now. It was cold out here at night. Daylight and the sun's warmth were still fleeting things at these altitudes so early in the year. Standish was not up to getting sick from a chill, he hadn't built up any reserves to fight it off, not yet anyway. Hating to disturb the man's solitude, Larabee gritted his teeth and stood, letting the sound of the freed rocker warn the man in front of him.
"Mr. Larabee?" The soft-spoken words were calm, unconcerned.
"Ezra." Chris walked forward until he stood beside the smaller man. Looking down at the con man, Chris felt his heart clench in fear. Damn. He looks so damn frail, like thin porcelain. The fragile spirit within isn't any stronger, Chris knew somehow. What had happened? Gruffly, he pulled the serape off his own shoulders and dropped it over his companion's head. "It's too cold for you to be out here without something on."
Green eyes glittered up at him from beneath now tousled chestnut hair. Nothing was said. The eyes spoke of pain and sadness and loneliness - and something else, too. Desire? Chris caught his breath, Ezra never let anyone in that far, never showed what he was feeling. Now it was as if all the barriers were gone, or maybe he couldn't be bothered keeping them in place? A feeling of protectiveness swept through the tall blond, a yearning that he realized he'd been suppressing for months now. Later, he wasn't really sure what made him do what he did next... or after that, either.
Without a word, Chris turned more completely and gathered the smaller man into his chest. He felt Ezra stiffen, then relax, arms dropping down and hands catching at Chris' shirt front. Chris pulled him in closer still, feeling the rapid beat of Ezra's heart against his ribs, hearing the tiny gasps of breath.
Ezra couldn't help it. He moaned softly at the sudden proximity, the unlooked for comfort. The man.
The blond slid an arm down the smooth back, his large hand naturally cupping the small rounded buttocks clothed in fine white raw silk. His other arm moved upward, of it's own volition, under the serape and wrapped around stiff shoulders. Damn, Ezra's no bigger than most women I've had, 'bout the same size as Sarah. Shocked at the direction of his thoughts, Larabee froze, barely noticing that the abrupt memory of his dead wife wasn't a painful thrust in his heart this time. He slowly lowered his head onto the top of the one buried against his collarbone. He squeezed this precious friend closer still, only realizing after a few deep breaths that he'd actually lifted Ezra off his feet and was holding his friend up intimately against his own body. He sensed himself growing hard, dammit. Heat raced through him. Surprising him. He felt Ezra shift slightly, not fighting him, just adjusting to a better fit. Then, cool moist lips touched his chest, a moment of wetter pressure - he's licking me, Chris thought in shock.
With a groan that rivaled the noises of the forest night, Larabee lifted Ezra still higher in his arms, nuzzling down to find the face, those soft lips that promised... what he didn't know. Just promised. The dark head rose and green eyes met lighter blue-green ones. Nothing was said. What was there to say? Chris growled this time and tucked his chin so that he could capture those lips that promised. Green eyes closed and lips pressed to lips.
Oh, my god. Does he really know what he's doing? Ezra's heart was flickering with adrenaline and fear and excitement and hope. Never in a million years, not for the most outrageous bet offered, would he think that this could happen. Yet here he was, held captive in Chris Larabee's arms. The man he most admired in the world. The man who had been in his wet dreams for four months. A heterosexual male, alpha leader, his boss, for god's sake. And the man was kissing him, passionately. It was all Ezra could do to keep still and respond. If this is a dream, I do not want to wake up.
Then Chris smoothly grappled his armful, and stood up with the smaller man cradled in his arms, their lips still consuming each other. He could feel Ezra's hands twisting in his shirt. That's gonna be a rag soon, he thought inconsequentially. His own heart now racing as fast as the Southerner's, Larabee pivoted on one heel and stalked back in through the open cabin door. He was at the lower bunk and lowering his burden as his kisses became more frantic, moving to cover the smooth pale face beneath his. Chris was a raging sea of energy suddenly. He had to have all of this man, all of him. Protect him. Possess him. On one knee by the bunk, he leaned heavily over Standish, pressing him into the mattress. The other man wasn't fighting him. Shouldn't he be? Confused, tired, and muddled with his unexpected passion, Larabee dragged himself back away from the con man's pliant body. Braced on his knee, thigh hard on the side of the bed, he gulped in air and planted his fists on either side of Ezra's head. Great green eyes stared hungrily back up at him, was that hope he saw in them? WHAT THE HELL…? "What the hell am I doing?" He didn't even realize he growled the last out loud until he saw those eyes change. The hope that had flared, the hunger, gone. A shutter dropped and blank eyes now stared over his shoulder.
"Mr. Larabee?" The hoarse, hesitant voice was like a slap across his face. Chris let his other knee hit the floor and sank down on his folded legs, back and away from the man in front of him. Nearly his victim. Oh, god, what he had nearly done. And why? He couldn't begin to understand his feelings. What had he been thinking? Thinking? Damn, he hadn't been thinking at all. He'd just reacted, knee jerk response to his libido kicking in... inappropriately. A man. He'd never... he hadn't... he knew others did, hell, even Buck had told him one time about tryin' it out whilst in the Navy, before they met. But he, Chris Larabee, he hadn't… Oh, god. Poor Ezra.
With a start, Chris realized that he'd been sitting there staring at the other man and not answering. Ezra had begun to shrink away slowly, like backing away from some deadly predator. Yep, that's what he was, he was a predator and Ezra had been his prey. Now how the hell was he supposed to fix this? "Ah, Ezra…" Chris cleared his throat nervously, his passion fled in shame, cheeks flaming. "Um, I'm... sorry." He bowed his head, unable to maintain eye contact with those suspiciously wet green eyes as he continued, "So sorry. I never… I just don't know what I was thinking. Or not thinking." He gave a dry, choked chuckle. "Honest, Ez, I'm sorry. You don't need to worry. It won't happen again." He flicked a look up. "You're safe."
To his absolute amazement, Standish, who'd been nearly curled into a protective ball by this time, flared into life. He reared back against the wall lining the other side of the bunk, dragging the serape back off over his head and flinging it directly at Larabee. "Damn you!"
"Ez, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? For WHAT?" The con man struggled to sit up, back to the wall, drawing his legs up protectively and wrapping his arms around them, chin thrust forward on the tightly pressed kneecaps. He was clearly tense and holding himself in with an effort. Raggedly, voice still raw, he repeated, "For what?" a whisper now as his voice dropped, "For what? For loving me? For wanting to? Is that a crime?"
Chris blinked. Dumbfounded. He searched himself for an answer. Ezra was still staring at him, eyes hot and angry. Nearly hissing like some cat. Ezra was a lot like a cat, right down to the way he'd damn near lost one or two of his nine lives lately. And now he was a tight little knot, you could almost see his hair standing up in anger. Hell, he was angry because Chris was apologizing. That just didn't make sense. Unless. Eyes widening in understanding, the blond leaned forward slowly. He carefully reached out his hands toward the small brown-haired man in front of him. Lightly touched the hands that locked Ezra's legs to his chest. "Ez?"
The soft question seemed to deflate the Southerner. He sucked on his kiss-swollen lower lip, biting it he seemed to be tasting the coppery flavor of his own blood. He looked down, down at Chris' large, work-worn hands reaching out to him. Hesitantly, he released his shins and opened his arms, letting his hands come forward to meet those waiting in front of him. Touched them. Slid his fine, narrow fingers along Chris' calluses, finally sliding palm against palm. He stole a look up, his glittering emerald green eyes still passive.
Chris felt like he was gentling a wild creature, not some soft, timid forest deer though, more like a wild wolf, proud and vicious, but capable of great love and loyalty. Wolves ran in packs, he thought, as he closed his larger hands over the smaller ones so cautiously offered. Followed their chosen leader, would die for their pack. Yep, Ezra really was a wolf that way, his wolf, part of his pack. His feelings of affinity increased.
Chris leaned further forward, up straight on his knees now. He watched Standish with fixed attention, ready to release his grasp in a second at any sign of discomfort. Why hadn't he ever realized it? The man must be gay. That had to be it. And it explained a lot about the other's behavior. His restraint with the others, especially when they horsed around. His disinclination to accompany the rest of the team on vacation or weekend trips. He had welcomed Chris' advances, was angry now when Chris withdrew and apologized. Yep, he'd wanted, welcomed Chris. So, now what about me?
Chris floundered in his mind, searching for answers to questions never before posed. I've always been straight. Women have always drawn me, maybe not like for Buck, but they turn my head. And then there was Sarah. That had been true love. Passionate, sustaining love. His lovely, loving Sarah. He closed his eyes in pain at the new flare of memory.
Ezra had vacillated between horror and anger when he'd realized that Larabee was backing off. Apologizing for god's sake. Bringing him to the edge, promising something that he, Ezra, had been dreaming of for so long, and then... pushing him over. And letting go. Damn him! And now, now Chris seemed to realize something and was trying to make amends. Or something. Confused and cautious, Ezra watched as the lean blond raised up on his knees, offering his hands. In friendship? Or love? What's the difference? I'll take him any way I can get him, Standish decided bitterly. He reached out in return, letting Larabee capture his hands and hold them. Watching, he saw the conflicting thoughts clearly on the blond leader's face. When Chris stiffened and closed his eyes, the pain that had shone through just before the lids concealed it was a knife in Ezra's heart. Oh, Chris, I can't hurt you. Not that way. Not now, not ever. With firmed up defenses returned, Ezra started to tug his hands free.
Chris' eyes flashed back open, thoughts of Sarah fled as the pale face in front of him came back into focus. Ezra was easy to read at the moment, determination and bitterness lined his normally placid features. He was pulling away again. "No!" Chris tightened his hold on the small, fine boned hands. "No, please, Ezra, don't pull away." Blond hair fell forward over his forehead, almost screening his eyes as he shook his head insistently.
"Chris." Ezra stopped moving. Time stopped. He stared into the blue-green eyes that looked back at him, so full of wonder and bright promise. "Chris, tell me what you want."
Larabee firmed his grips on Ezra's hands, drawing his arms back, forcing the Southerner to lean closer. "You." He paused. "You, Ezra. I want you." The soft sound of love in the voice, of wonder at some new found treasure, was warming. Chris swallowed a lump in his throat and smiled tentatively. "I never... that is, I don't know why…" He trailed off, still uncertain of himself and of Ezra.
Standish cocked his head to one side, alert mind quickly assimilating the words spoken and the accompanying body language. "You know, don't you?" He waited, seeing the flicker of surprise in the sea green eyes. "You know what I am." He slumped back, his relaxed hands sliding limply out of Larabee's where the tense straining fists could not.
Chris dropped his hands to his thighs and sat back on his heels. Ok, take this slow. We're both goin' somewhere new now. Even if Standish has done this before. "I guessed. Just now. From the way you were reacting." He shook his head. "Never knew. You're gay, aren't you?" The last was said softly without any inflection.
Ezra's mouth tightened. "Well, actually," he drawled, "I'm bi, if the truth needs 'outting.' I find pleasure with members of both genders." He flashed a dimpled smile that hid his discomfort at the disclosure.
Larabee nodded. "Makes sense." Noticing the questioning look, he continued, "Hell, Ez, you are about the most sensual man I ever laid eyes on, always thought you probably had a private harem to keep you satisfied." He grinned. "Figured that was why we so seldom got your company out of the office."
Standish began to shake. His head turned away, his shoulders jerked. Larabee started forward again in alarm, only to be put off by a trembling hand, raised to stop his advance. The dark-haired con man dropped his head forward, chin on chest and then, to Chris' immense relief, let out a chuckle which deepened into a full-blown laugh. Twinkling eyes came up, merry and green, "A HAREM?"
Ezra chortled. He laughed. He chuckled. He tipped over on his side, holding his stomach as he let go all the tension and stress that had been strangling him for weeks. Vaguely, he could hear Chris join in, a light chuckle that became laughter, rippling along his spine. He finally pulled himself together and twisted onto his back to look up at the blond, an easy smile on his lips. "Mr. Larabee. While I do like the ladies, I am much too fastidious to want to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of more than one such amorous creature at a time. I assure you, whether male or female, I engage in only one romance at a time."
"Now that's a relief," Chris smiled back down at him. Then, smile faltering slightly, he asked, "And do you have someone right now?" Funny that he didn't know the answer to that one, and all of a sudden knowing that answer was very important.
Ezra collapsed flat on his back, bringing his hands up behind his head. He stole another look at Chris who seemed poised for something, waiting for his answer. Shyly, he lowered his eyes, staring down at his own raised knees. "No."
The short one word answer was unlike the verbose con man. But that one word unfroze Larabee's heart, letting it start to beat once more. He sat up again and put his elbows on the edge of the bunk's frame, clasping his hands together in front on the mattress, very near Ezra's side. "Good." One good word deserved another he thought, quirking a smile at the flash of green that silently received his answer.
There was a moment of silence. Ezra wanted to do all sorts of things now, but mostly he just wanted to grab Chris and get back to that superb kissing that had happened a lifetime of misunderstandings ago. His accent thickening with his growing hope and fear, Ezra turned on his side to lay there facing his leader. "Good? Am I to assume that you are pleased that I am unencumbered by an amorosa at this moment?"
"Yeah." Chris pressed up against the bed, crowding in under the upper bunk, to hang over his companion. He felt himself starting to warm again. This time, he thought, this time I won't stop unless he tells me to.
Ezra had to crick his head back now to see the lean face above his. He could feel his heart beginning to palpitate, his whole ribcage felt like it was vibrating. He wanted this. He needed this. He had waited so very long. I can see the desire in his eyes, the con man hesitated, but not love. Sadly, he hid his own sweet, deep love for this man and let only his lust shine brightly in his eyes. Any way I can get him, he thought and opened his arms. "Chris?" He asked breathlessly and felt his world spin out of control as the tall dark-clothed man above him swayed down and enveloped him in a fierce, wrenching hug. Lights seemed to explode behind his eyelids as Chris plundered his mouth with an aggressive tongue, hands everywhere, stroking, holding.
"I want you." Chris breathed into the perfect ear so close. He had clambered up on to the bunk, on top of the half-naked Southerner. Now he was ripping away the thin pajama trousers with one hand, his other holding the fine jawbone as he returned to that delicious mouth, those tender lips. He could feel Standish's hands frantically plucking free the buttons on the front of his shirt, then feverishly working the belt buckle on his black jeans. With a snort of frustration at the time this was taking, Chris dropped the torn nightclothes to the floor behind him and then pushed aside Ezra's hand so he could work the buckle's release himself. He had to raise his hips to drag down his pants, didn't bother to push them lower than mid-thigh, as long as he was free. And he was, springing out of the confinement of the jeans, Chris felt himself hot and hard and already leaking pre-cum. He caught some on one finger and smeared it around the head and shaft.
Ezra was panting heavily now, both hands stroking the sweaty, smooth pectorals of his new lover to be. Oh, Chris, I love you so much, he cried out silently. Aloud, he moaned softly, "Take me, Chris, take me…"
Chris had been trailing wet kisses down Ezra's jaw and neck, then sucking marks onto his shoulder when he heard Ezra's small cry. Instantly rock hard, his weeping member hot and ready, he shoved the small man over onto his stomach and grabbed at his hips. It took only a moment to force him up and back against his crotch, against his hardness. He pressed his forehead into Ezra's back, slick with sweat. With no preparation, and in his ignorance, with no thought for what this might do to the con man's body, Chris found his target, the tiny pucker at the base of Ezra's spine. Grunting as he shifted to get a better purchase, Chris pushed at the tight gate. His fluids created just enough lubrication to make penetration possible, and then he was through and deep inside. Oh, god, this is good. It's incredible. His face was drawn back in a rictus of pleasure as he pulled almost all the way out, then thrust back into the warm, tight depths that waited. He held the small man in place, passion deaf to the single cry of pain, passion deaf to the breathless sobs that followed, he pounded into the well of flesh before him, feverish with his unleashed passion. Pressure built and he tensed then exploded deep inside the Southerner. With a shout of triumph, Chris bucked on the back of his crushed friend, then dropped down in exhausted satiation. Asleep before he was fully off Ezra's back, he didn't even stir when the small man slid out from under him, tears streaming from pain-filled green eyes.
Ah, ah, ah, god, that hurts. He hurt all over, actually, Ezra thought as he shuddered for some control over his shorting nerves. His ass felt raw. No lube, no gentle preparation, just jam it in, huh, Larabee? Damn the man, he hadn't a subtle bone in his body. Ezra had to grin through his pain, but what a bone! Oh, my. He's never done that before, Ezra decided, groping for the box of tissues he knew was near the bunk on the floor. Grabbing a wad, he tamponed his ass, hoping that it would stop the blood he knew was flowing. His ribs and shoulder ached but the pain was still not sharp. Guess I really am nearly healed. He finished packing the tissues in and settled back down beside the rangy blond. Spooning up against the man's lax genitals, Ezra smiled as a long arm came around him and tugged him closer. He didn't think Chris was awake, just reacting to the closeness of another, but it still felt good and he allowed himself to dream of a love returned, even though he knew it hadn't been. Not really.
The night passed slowly for Ezra. Chris settled deeper into sleep, snoring quietly, his arm remained tightly wrapped around the Southerner. The pain simmered, a profound burning sensation that the smaller man knew needed to be treated. He chose to ignore it so that he could luxuriate in the arms of the one he loved more than life itself. He hadn't used the word, no, not Ezra, not THAT word. He wouldn't. It was clear that Larabee had some issues to deal with himself and loving Ezra wasn't even on the playing field. Fucking Ezra, now that was a different story. Green eyes closed and opened in misery. Get a grip, Standish. This is much more than you ever, ever hoped for. Tenderly, he let his fingers trail along the lean muscular arm encircling him. Let the sensitive pads memorize the feel of naked flesh, lightly furred. The sinews, the scars. He traced a vein on the back of Larabee's big competent hand, careful not to press hard enough to disturb his friend's slumber. Friend. Well, that remained to be seen. They HAD been friends up 'til now. At least that's how it had felt. Chris and the other members of Team 7, they had all been pushing at Ezra, ganging up on him, trying to get him to loosen up around them, trust them. Trust them? He did. Had. Would. Even this wouldn't change that - he hoped. He really did like his job and he liked the others, though he'd been slow to show it. Would Chris let him stay now? Rule number one, call no place home.
Ezra felt a large sigh as Larabee shifted slightly. He held his breath and waited. The man had rolled onto his back, half-dragging Standish over towards his chest. Ezra willingly settled against that broad expanse, his head tucked down so that one ear pressed close. He could hear the strong, steady beat of Chris' heart. He didn't allow himself to think anymore. Nothing to be done, nothing he could do to change anything. He closed his eyes and let the heartbeat of his friend soothe him to sleep.
Chris' eyes opened wide instantly. What was wrong? He started to jerk up in bed when he felt the weight on his chest. Looking down he saw the chestnut curls, saw the rising white shoulder beyond. Ezra? Oh, god, Ezra. What have I done? A tremor began deep inside him, a kind of shock reaction to the previous night's events. It spread, bringing fear and remorse, shame. Shit. Shit. Shit. Cautiously, Larabee slid sideways until his back met the cold wall of the cabin. He eased the sleeping man down onto the mattress, pausing to lightly sift his fingers through the dark hair. Oh, Ez. The touch elicited a soft sound, almost like a hum. Chris stilled and waited. The breathing evened again. With tremendous concentration and care, the blond raised himself up, over and past the sleeping brunette. When he realized that his jeans were still undone and dragging at his thighs, he heaved them up, snagging the top button closed. Booted feet hit the floor, damn, I didn't even undress for him. A harsh cry trembled in his throat and he fought to swallow it.
Brushing trembling hands through his sweat-spiked blond hair, Larabee straightened up and stared down at the sleeping man. I can't handle this. I can not handle this. Not now. Maybe never. I... I... oh, shit. Rubbing his face roughly, he squinted at the tumbled sheets. The blankets had been hurtled floorward last night, and Standish lay there now, naked… the torn pajama bottoms mute witness to Chris' passion. The small man looked even smaller now, no clothing to define him, his slender body showed signs of weight loss and illness. Scars stood out against the pale skin, as did ribs that Chris could see from the side exposed to the room. Curled half on his stomach toward the wall, Ezra's face was unseen. It was the blood on the mattress that made Chris cringe and loose his color. He dropped to his knees beside the bed, hands hovering in the air over the slumbering agent. A lot of blood. Near. His. Ass. Oh, Christ. Fearfully, blue green eyes looked down. He couldn't see, even with the buttocks turned his way, it was impossible to tell anything without getting intrusive and THAT he was not about to do.
Help. I need help. I need Buck. It came like a message from the past. Instinctively, Larabee's first thoughts were for his oldest and dearest friend. Grabbing his cell phone from the wood table at the front of the single large room, he bolted for the porch.
It was the murmur of voices that woke Ezra. He stretched and instantly regretted it. Ah, ah, ahhhh. The ache was intense, not really a pain, more a feeling of caustic exhaustion in his limbs, his back and chest... and well, yes, pain in his ass. A smile flickered again for a moment. Mr. Larabee, you really ARE a pain in the ass. Mine. The smile left as quickly as it had appeared as the rest of the truths that Ezra had painfully examined last night rose to greet him with the new day. That and the voices.
He recognized the tenor murmur of Chris Larabee. In a moment he knew who the other person was, Buck. I'm not surprised. Chris couldn't deal with this. I'd heard that Buck helped him through the nastiness and grief when he lost his family. Makes sense he'd turn to him now. Try to put the house of cards back up. Well, the ace of spades is still in here, my friends. And, with sudden determination he thought, I'm not going anywhere - unless you send me away.
The voices stopped. Silence, then the sound of boots on the porch steps. More silence. A truck motor starting. That sounded like Chris' black Ram. He's leaving. With a heart-breaking stab of pain, deep in his chest, Ezra realized that Chris was running away. Running out on him. He swallowed hard, taking the ripping agony of desertion deep within himself, burying it there, walled into one of his many rooms of pain. Welcome to my own personal gallery of hell, he thought as he took a ragged breath. On your right, notice the childhood traumas, here, see the Atlanta debacle called the FBI, oh, and there, the new exhibit on the left, that's where Mr. Larabee ripped my heart out and stomped on it. Be strong, Ezra. He swallowed again, choking on the tears that slid down his throat, tears that he refused to shed.
Then he heard the new footsteps, booted, hesitant, shuffling in the doorway area near the porch. Oh, geesh. I'm not alone. He rubbed his face in the sheets, making sure it was clear of emotion, knowing his 'sleep' was about to be disturbed.
"Ah, pard?" Buck's voice.
Bucklin Wilmington was scared. Fear was an old acquaintance of his. This time, though, the reason it came to visit was nearly too much for him. His best friend had called him and asked for help. But oh, what he wanted, needed. Buck was at a loss. He and Chris had talked. Or, Chris had talked and he'd listened, his fear growing as his friend slowly described the events of the night. That Ezra was gay, or at least 'flexible,' was no real surprise to Buck. The man dressed like a damn pansy most o' the times but had the courage of a lion so the rest of them let him be about his appearance. He'd only shrug and smirk when one of them teased him about his fancy clothes anyway. It didn't bother Buck that Ezra might swing that way, hell, each man to hisself, he always said. But Chris? Now that was a surprise.
He walked into the cabin and stood a short distance from the rumpled bed and the slight figure curled in it. Chris had panicked at the sight of blood. Wonder if he woulda called me if Ez had been alright? They had both agreed that it was better not to call in Nathan on this one. The medic had a moral strength that had been the backbone of the team since they'd formed but moral backbones didn't always bend too well when faced with folks like homosexuals. Ezra was NOT gonna need Nathan lording it over him, not now. Buck sighed at the sight of the blood, quite a bit, but it didn't have that shine of fresh red blood, it was dark, clearly drying. So, he's not bleeding ta death, not that I thought he would. In his checkered past, Buck had daringly tried most things, including a male partner in bed. He'd been a top though, couldn't quite go that extra step to be a bottom. Too much animal magnetism, he thought with a tight and silent snicker at himself.
Time to wake him, see how he's doing. Tell him Chris left. Oh, man. I really got the shit detail this time. "Ah, pard?"
He inched closer and sat down beside his silent friend. Nope, not asleep. Wonder how long he's been awake? "Ez? It's Buck, pard. Chris... Chris had to go. Called me to come stay with you."
Silence. He sighed and tried again, this time putting a hand casually on the ceiling pointed shoulder closest to him. "Ez, I know you're awake."
For another moment all was still, then the con man rolled over on to his back, rolled toward Buck, and looked up. Buck caught his breath at the look of devastation that filled the green gems staring at him. Then, blink, and the eyes were their normal, quiet selves, giving nothing away. A dry, rough voice spoke. "Buck."
"Son, we need to get you cleaned up a bit. And," he watched the passive face in front of him, "I better check out your ass."
Instantly the eyes washed over with the look of a tormented soul, then like a hasty tide, the pain washed back out and the dull look returned. "He told you."
Not a question. Well, in for a foot, in for a mile… "Yeah. See, he and I, hell, Ez, Chris and me, we go back a long way. He knows that I even tried it back in the Navy before I met him. Told him years back. You know me, like to try everything 'least once." He offered a smile, let it dissolve at the confused look on the con man's face. Clearing his throat, Buck continued, "I know a bit about it anyhow and he don't. Or didn't until…"
"Yeah. Last night." Buck was unconsciously rubbing on Ezra's leg now, physical contact an important part of how he communicated. Ezra reached down and gently plucked the hand up away from his skin. Buck sighed. "We need to make sure that you didn't get hurt, Ez," at the look of pure venom, he hastily added, "Blood, Ez, there's a lot here."
"I am not a novice, Mr. Wilmington, at this particular game. Mr. Larabee is. He…" Ezra paused, letting himself calm, "He let his passion rule, there was no time to instruct him in the finer points of same-sex intercourse, such as the prudent use of lubrication."
Buck nodded wisely. "Kin see that."
Ezra sat up, letting his hands rest on his legs, ignoring his total frontal nudity. No point in hiding anything just now, Buck would only insist on inspecting him anyway. Might as well get this over with. "Mr.Wilmington, I do think that I shall be fine. I am not a virgin in any sense of the word, old scars were broken open in Mr. Larabee's impetuosity, but they will heal." I will heal, he thought. I will.
Taking his courage in his hands, Buck nodded again and said, "Then, Ez, you won't mind if I take a look, maybe clean you up? Do a bit of first aid?"
The smaller man silently screamed. Aloud, he asked, "What do you want me to do?"
"Um, turn over." Buck watched the thin body brace up on stiff arms and then flip over easily. That probably hurt, but he'll never let me know it. He bit his lip when he saw the surface of Ezra's buttocks. The area near the anus was reddish, like a scrub brush had been used too hard on the skin. "Ezra, I need to go get some things from the kit and some water. I'll be right back."
Having your asshole inspected by a friend, washed and then laved with antibacterial cream was not an experience you went looking for, Ezra thought. It had been painful when Buck removed the clotting mass, a combination of blood, torn tissue, and the wad of Kleenex that Ezra had stuffed up there last night. That Buck did it, not making any unkind remarks, was astounding to Standish. Buck was so gentle that for the first time Ezra had some insight into what the ladies saw in the Romeo. Once he finished, even soothing cream on the abraded skin on the ass cheeks, Buck had tapped Ezra's hip and told him he could get dressed.
Bright red with embarrassment, the con man had been forced to ask for assistance with even those simple tasks. It seemed that the time spent asleep had stiffened up the sore and ill-used muscles, irritated the healing arm and back. He could barely move. He could NOT lift his arms over his head, nor reach down far enough to pull trousers up over his feet. Oh, the ignominy of it all.
When Buck finished buttoning the starched cotton shirt up to Ezra's neck, he stood back to admire the results. The man looked better. Almost his old self, in fact. Even his attitude had returned, which had been sorely missed by the team for the last few weeks. Whatever had haunted the con man seemed gone. Or so Buck thought, until he looked up into those bright green eyes. Talking eyes. Oh, damn. Haunted, desperate eyes. It was bad, then, he'd known it was, but somehow the normalcy of Ezra's behavior had deluded Buck for a few brief moments. His heart aching for the misery he saw standing in front of him, Buck reached out to bring the man in for a hug.
He'd just gotten his hands on the man's shoulders and started to pull him in when Ezra's icy voice froze his actions.
"Unhand me." There was the chill of deep winter in that voice. A cold so penetrating that Buck shivered, dropping his hands. "Not you, too, Buck." The words were like knives, cutting.
Buck's eyes went wide and he shook his head wildly, "No, no! Ezra! Honest, no! I was just gonna give you a hug! Please! Oh, no! You just looked so lost," Buck's voice softened and slowed as he could see that the icy image in front of him was thawing, slumping, "Ez, I just wanted to give you a hug, like a friend, Ez, like a friend."
Did it again. Stepped in it. Bit the hand that fed me. Ezra felt like shooting himself. Paused, actually not a bad idea. Have to consider that more thoroughly at another time, Buck would never let me near a firearm right now. He sighed and relaxed in the face of his friend's clear panic. "Sorry, Buck. Guess I'm not quite as recovered as I thought."
"Ezra, it's gonna take time to deal with this. For you and for Chris."
At the sound of that name, Ezra felt suddenly sick. He knew he must have turned an interesting shade of green because Buck was grabbing him and dragging him over to the sink frantically. And just in time.
Poor little shit. Buck stroked the back of Ezra's neck with a wet sponge he'd found in the sink, just before Ezra had filled it with what little there was in his stomach. The final heaves ended and the man sagged against the edge of the sink, white knuckles gripping tightly.
"Easy now. Let's get you out on the porch, away from this. Fresh air will help. You can sit out there and I'll clean up in here." Anxiously, Buck watched the color seep back into the small man's face. Damn, he is so little, tend to forget that most of the time, he's got such a big attitude. A grin finally managed to crack Buck's face as he gently pulled back the trembling shoulders, turned and pushed the man toward the doorway and the sunshine beyond.
And now, Buck thought, time to erase the evidence.
Sunlight nearly blinded the Southerner as he walked stiffly out of the cabin. Well, he could go out into the meadow and rutted two-lane path that had brought him here, where Buck's nondescript brown and tan pickup truck sat, or, he could remain on the porch. Being careful with his tight, sore muscles he looked to the left, then right. Options, options. Stand here. Sit in the rocking chair, the chair Chris had been in last night. He felt the blood drain from his face, what little had returned. Or, he could sit on the split-log bench. With deliberate movements, he headed for the bench. It looked rather hard, but he knew he'd not be able to stand for long, not yet. And the chair? Well, that was simply out of the question.
Be careful what you wish for. Oh, yes, indeed. Or, how about: May you have an 'interesting' life? Indeed. He thought of all the trite maxims he could apply to himself and his current situation. Dreadful... and in their own way, dreadfully true. He rolled his shoulders back against the rough exterior of the cabin wall, his shanks planted on the smoothed out open face of the log bench. Feet stretched out in front, he let his hands lie in his lap. Normally, he'd be tumbling a playing card between his fingers, letting the card and it's deck act like worry beads for his excess energy as his mind leapt from problem to problem. This conundrum was beyond that. It lay like a dampening field on his energy. What to do? Rule number one, never get involved. Mother had taught that to him at a very tender age.
Since Buck was here and Chris was gone, it meant this was staying private. Otherwise it would have been Nathan. He paused in his thoughts. No, maybe not even then. Chris did have a certain sensitivity to the individuals that made up Team 7, even if he could be ham fisted, blunt, and arbitrary when he felt like it. Damn the man. Damn me. How could I let myself fall in love with him? Stupid move, Ezra. On the other hand, I didn't exactly plan on that happening. Or on what happened last night. Didn't try to stop it, though, did you? He would have, you know. He did stop. You told him to take you. You asked for it. You got it. Now deal with it. Not his fault. Your fault. As usual.
Guilt was a comfortable old friend. He wore it well. Things began to draw up into acceptable parameters, he could understand it now, now that he saw more clearly what he'd done. Somehow he must have let something of his desire show through, signaled Chris in a way that released something very savage, very primal in the man. Not that he didn't want that, it was part of the man's attraction for him. But he craved more, he wanted affection too. Love. Shut the hell up, Standish. You don't deserve it and you know it. Grow up. You are an unlovable, bumbling idiot in that arena. Do what you do best, 'con' him, yourself, Buck, and the rest. Get back to your job and con the crooks. That way at least he'll let you stay. Maybe.
Buck finished stuffing the sheet and mattress cover, a towel, and the torn silk pajama trousers all into a pillowcase. He'd already wiped down and flushed out the sink. He stood in the middle of the open cabin room and made a slow pivot. Everything else looked just like always, neat and clean, no sign of the earthquake that took place in here last night. He dropped the sack near the door and got a glass of water for the man on the porch.
"Hey, pard," Buck stepped out into the mid-morning light. "How about some water?"
Ezra looked up at his friend, well, maybe associate would be a better term. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck watched him sip the water. His color looked a bit better, but still pale. Staying here was not really an option any more. He needed to get the con man out of this place. "You up for a trip back down to Denver?"
Standish hesitated, lips still on the glass. Finished swallowing the mouthful of water he'd just taken in. Put the glass down beside him on the bench. Lovely up here, really. But Buck's right. Tonight would be unimaginable up here. Sleep would be impossible. Not here. And not in that bed. "To Denver."
"Yeah. Think it might be best for you if we got you home."
"Yes. Best." Ezra really didn't feel like having this conversation. He still had the rest of the week as convalescent leave. And it would be best if he took it. His own bed, where depression and unvoiced yearnings had kept him restless and sleepless for so long, his own bed suddenly sounded very attractive. Somehow, he had shed his depression during the encounter of the night before, lost in the tears of pain and sadness. He felt different now. Still sad, unhappy with his current reality, and slightly shocked at the way things had gone, but the lethargy was missing. He was sensing the return of energy, if not enthusiasm. But, maybe that would come later?
Buck openly studied Standish. He was dealing with this pretty well. Leastways he wasn't ranting or screamin' or anything. Thank god. Ok, get this show on the road. "Fair 'nuff, pard. I'll just pack up your stuff and we'll head on out."
Two weeks later…
Ezra strolled into the office, Starbuck's cappuccino in one hand, leather case in the other. His outlook on life at 10:15 am was really not too bad. It was a nice spring day outside, the traffic wasn't impossible when you waited out the rush hour, and Mr. Larabee had left an email for the whole team yesterday afternoon. Briefing at 11. New case. Yes, he was ready. Nathan had cleared him for full duty status only two days before. He'd finished his week of rest at home. Nathan stopping by daily to check on him, most of the rest of the team either dropping in or calling daily. Except for Chris. Mostly JD came with Buck, his ever present youthful shadow. But Buck managed to come alone once, mid-week. Had sat silently with Standish for over an hour. Most unusual. Finally got up to leave and said what he'd come to say. That Chris was not dealing with it well and Buck hadn't been able to convince him to come talk to Ezra yet.
Ezra had nodded, there was nothing to say to that. Buck had left quietly. Most unusual.
The second week had been desk duty. The team was doing research on several known elements that they were evaluating for targets. There was a call for back up for Team 2 on Thursday that week. Nathan had yelled at Ezra to stay put when he'd tried to follow the team out. Vin had stopped beside him briefly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Too soon, Ez. Gotta get your reflexes back up to speed first."
Ezra had spent the afternoon on the firing range. With a radio. Listening to the bust go down for Team 2. No problems. And he'd re-qualified on the range. Made sure he did the speed reflex tests. Passed with flying colors. Had the results sent upstairs, to Vin and Nathan.
Today they'd be getting a new case. Chris had been away since Ezra's return. He'd flown to San Francisco at the request of Orrin Travis, federal judge and supervisor at Denver ATF. Coordination meetings with the west coast and mountain regions teams, at least one team leader from each office. Ezra was just as glad he didn't have to face Larabee that first week back. Today would be the first time he would see the man since that night. For just a moment the lights seemed to dim as a darkness swept across his vision. Ezra came to a halt, and waited for the panic attack to pass. No one watching him would have noticed anything except that he seemed to pause lost in thought. The façade was intact. Somethings shouldn't change.
Chris Larabee grimaced at himself in the mirror. His plane had been a red-eye special, arriving at Denver's Stapleton Airport at 2 AM from San Francisco. Buck had made sure that Chris' truck would be in the overnight parking so Chris was able to head out to his ranch as soon as he could de-plane. The drive back in this morning was going to be rough, he'd only gotten a couple of hours sleep, but that didn't worry him.
The new case would be a challenge, but each one was in its own way, nothing new there. He shuddered involuntarily, something else was new. He squinted at his knuckles on the steering wheel as he headed the Ram down the mountain toward the city. He'd have to face Ezra today. He had managed to avoid even thinking about what happened for most of the week right after it, Standish had remained home on sick leave, recovering. Everyone else visited him, Buck even managed to talk with him once without JD in tow. Buck had been trying to break through since that morning, but Chris wasn't ready to talk. He wanted to know that Ezra was alright, would be alright. And that's what he heard from the others. If they were puzzled that he hadn't visited, they said nothing. Of course with that stubborn Southerner, they might not even know because the man wouldn't tell them. Buck knew. Said that Ezra made no comment about Chris' absence, no comment about what had happened or how he felt, what he was thinking. Not even when Buck had managed the private visit.
I'm glad the son of a bitch is okay. Chris tightened his already throttling grip on the wheel, swinging wide around a curve, dangerously wide. No one coming the other way, but it shocked him to realize what he'd nearly done. His thoughts went back to that first week.
It had been a nightmare. He hadn't been able to deal with what he'd done to Ezra. Damn near raped him, even if he had encouraged it. All that blood. What happened to protecting him? To helping him get well? And even just the mere fact that he'd taken another man to bed had been an almost insurmountable thought for Chris. Buck had spent every night out at the ranch with him. JD thought Buck was busy with a paramour or two, as usual, so he hadn't called his room-mate on it. For two days, Buck had covered for Chris while the blond dove into a bottle. When Buck finally sat on him, knocking him out with a hard right, and then stayed by him until he'd sobered up, Chris had been silent. Buck did all the talking. Man could talk. In self-defense, Chris had finally promised Buck that he'd lay off the alcohol but refused to visit Ezra. Just wasn't ready.
As much as anything, Chris was confused. He felt strongly about all the men on his team, they had become a close-knit family of brothers. Caring and protective of each other. Faced the world shoulder to shoulder. Each one meant a lot to their leader, but it had been the sharpshooter who had been Chris' closest friend this last year. Vin Tanner and he had found some sort of common ground, a thread of silent communication that made them closer than most real brothers. Buck had remained his oldest friend, but they did not share that innate bond that he had with Vin. Maybe that's what surprised Chris most about what had happened up at the cabin. If he was going to get into a same sex relationship with anyone, it made sense that it would be with Vin, except he really did not have those sorts of feelings for the Texan. How strange. Instead, the one man in the group who constantly went out of his way to irritate, to scoff, to question and challenge, Ezra Standish who managed to flame Chris' temper more than he'd ever thought possible, THAT man had been the one to ignite this new fire. This passion. Just thinking about it made his blood sizzle in frustration.
Ezra was so unique. Damn, they all were, but the Southerner always took things one step further. Always put himself in the most jeopardy, risked himself for the others, stepped in harm's way, lived in the hollow of danger yet moved through it with a savoir-faire that was scary. Their undercover agent was good, the best, but it tainted his life, making him more withdrawn, more aggravating than the others. So special. Chris discovered himself smiling at the thought. When had that happened? He shook his head. If he was attracted to the man, he had certainly bollixed it up royally. Will Ezra even stay with the team after this? Chris growled, realized belatedly that he had no intention of letting the Southerner leave. He felt the possessiveness stir within himself at the thought of Standish going elsewhere. No, Ezra was his. Dammit all. But a man? Shit. Chris went back to work on the third day. No one commented on that either, Buck had done a good job covering for his friend. Trust Buck.
When Travis called in the team leaders to discuss the conference on the coast, no one was really that interested in going so no one had argued when Chris volunteered. He still needed time, time to think through what he was going to do. How he would act. What he would say. Hell, he just needed time. Panic at the thought of Standish's return to desk duty had spurred his hand. Get out of that office for a week, while Ezra settled back in. So, Chris had gone to San Francisco.
Buck and he talked every night. Wilmington was in charge of the team in Chris' absence, but he'd let Nathan and Vin handle keeping Ezra desk-bound when they'd been called out on back-up for Team 2's bust. In fact, Buck had kept his distance since Ezra came back. He was afraid that the Southerner would overreact if he pushed since he was the only one who knew. And Ezra knew it. They'd both simply ignored it. Kinda like walking around a dead elephant in the middle of the sidewalk, pretending it wasn't there, was how Buck described it to Chris that night on the phone, when Ezra had finished his first day back.
At least he had come back. Chris shifted his position in the truck, sticking an elbow out the side window, letting the cold spring air that flooded past him clear his head. According to Buck, Ezra had managed to get himself re-qualified on the firing range and even pass the reflex tests, all much sooner than anyone expected. He was back on full duty status as of yesterday.
And now they had a new case and Chris Larabee was coming back as well. Only he knew that this case would need their undercover agent to go in deep and early and stay under. A twitch in his chest, a tingle along his nerves. Ezra was going in harm's way again. Alone. And he, Chris, was sending him there. Nothing new, except now it was new. Because the agent wasn't just a fellow agent anymore, not just a team member, not just a friend. Lover. Oh, my god. Was that what they were now? Lovers? Or, had it just been that one wild, thoughtless, passionate, crazy, incredible time?
Shooting pain to his head told him of an incipient headache, and the now steady ache in his middle told him of heartache. I don't know if I can handle this. Just the thought of seeing Ezra again terrified him. The thought of hurting him sent a whisper of dread through his soul. The thought of sending him into danger again, scared him shitless. How the hell am I supposed to do my job? Can we get back on track? Do I even want to? Chris swallowed reflexively and glared at the thin traffic ahead of him as he neared the federal building.
It was going to be a long day.
From his own inner office, Chris could see Ezra entering the main office of Team 7. He had been glad for once that Standish had been his usual tardy self. Chris had been able to get in early, set up for the meeting and then meet and talk briefly with each team member as they came in. With easy camaraderie, he and the others all settled in for some last minute desk work before the meeting set for 11 that morning. Buck closeted himself with Chris at about 10, filling him in, in person, on the team's activities during their leader's absence. Then they had simply sat in silence for a few minutes.
Finally, Chris sighed deeply and asked the question he'd been avoiding. "Is Ezra really all right?"
Buck settled back in his seat, resting his left ankle on his right knee. "Hard to tell. He's quieter than usual, but he's only been on full duty status for a couple of days. Hell, Chris, he's always a bit more reserved after an injury, like he's afraid if he says anything that Nathan'll have him back in the hospital afore he knows it." Buck shrugged.
Picking up a pen and playing it between his fingers, Larabee looked up at his old friend from beneath lowered brows. "He staying?"
Buck nodded slowly. "Far as I know." He turned his head to look out through the partially opened blinds on the inner windows of the room. He could see Standish sipping a coffee and talking calmly with Josiah. Both stood near the break room doorway. The con man must have just come in, Buck decided, not having seen him earlier. "You going to ask him?"
Chris squinted at the end of his pen, shoulders tensing. He sighed again. "No." He flexed his fingers, letting the pen drop to the table top. Standing he stretched mightily. "No."
Buck stood and faced his friend across the desk. "Chris, you and he have got to talk about what happened. It's not good for either of you to let this sit." He stared meaningfully at the tall blond. "If nothing else, clear the air and get on with business… with your lives."
Anger gathered quickly in the light blue-green eyes. Larabee's glare hardened. "Buck…," he began warningly.
"Chris," the lean surveillance expert interrupted, "you called me, remember? I feel a bit responsible for Ez now. You can't just hang him out to dry, he deserves better'n that." As Buck growled the last, he shook his head and threw up a hand. "It's yours for now, Chris, but I ain't going to let you two hurt each other, so I'll be watching."
Larabee had folded his arms over his chest as his friend finished speaking. "Done now?" at Buck's grimace and nod, he continued, "Let me do this my way. I just need some time and I think Ezra probably does too." The anger had left his eyes but some strong emotion still flickered in their depths. "Right now, Buck, I'm still a bit confused. It'll work out. I'll make sure we have some time to talk, Ez and I, but it may have to wait on this case."
Chris stalked through the outer general office to the conference room, the others quickly dropping tasks to follow in his wake. Ezra, caught by surprise by Larabee's sudden entrance, stood more slowly from his own desk and brought up the rear of the group, following Vin out of their shared small office cubicle. He brought the files he'd pulled for the new case and a notebook.
No one else had noticed anything yet, Ezra was certain. And that's the way I want to keep it, he thought grimly. I'll be undercover by this afternoon and probably won't have to see or talk to Chris again for at least a week, maybe more. Just get through this meeting without doing anything to give him an excuse to get rid of me. Pursing his lips at the thought, he slipped into the room, letting Vin close the door. He settled next to Nathan, at the far end of the table from Larabee.
With great trepidation, Ezra raised his eyes to look towards Chris. Larabee was making some soft remark to Vin just then, not looking his way. Bright green eyes drank in the sight of the tall blond. He looks good, fit. Some shadows under his eyes, but he's been subjected to a marathon of meetings this past week. Probably just fatigued. Nervously, Ezra's wide-eyed stare remained fixed.
Chris turned back to face the group as Vin sat down. Letting his eyes sweep across all the men's faces, he didn't let himself stop or flinch as his gaze swept over Standish. The man was staring at him. Chris dropped his eyes to the file folders in front of him and picked them up, quickly sorting and passing them out to the team members. Without looking at his undercover agent again, he began. "Take a few minutes to look over the case. We've got some foreign interests trying to set up a relay for arms and explosives through Denver. One end is a Japanese terrorist group and Asian confederates, the other end is a northern Italian syndicate, based in Milan. A Milanese, name of Alberto Wagner, has been in town for several days. We've been told he's point for Fabbio Zerbo, head of the syndicate's American arms business."
Josiah's thoughtful voice murmured, "Wagner? Sounds German."
"Milano is in northern Italy, there's a lot of mix with the Austrians and Germans that far north." Erza spoke softly.
Chris let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. Ezra had sounded fairly normal, if a bit quiet and less than his usual arrogant self. No one else seemed to think the con man's tone was anything noteworthy.
JD spoke up, "Then this isn't the Sicilian Casa Nostra?"
Larabee shook his head. "No, doesn't look it."
Vin dropped his file on the table. "You're sending Ez in, to meet Wagner?"
"Yes," Chris finally looked directly at Standish, being careful to keep his expression blank, "You'll go in as a local transportation expert, through Faber's pipeline." Faber had turned for them a month ago. Now he was still at large only so long as he cooperated with their operations. So far, he'd netted two kills for the ATF, teams 2 and 9 had both benefited. Now it was their turn to use the man.
"How's your Italian, Ez?" Vin's quiet question turned all heads back to the undercover agent.
"Cosi cosi," Erza's hand wobbled expressively in front of him, held flat and horizontal, he rocked it back and forth. "I won't pretend to be Italian, although I'll be able to understand most that is said in that most musical of languages." He smiled. Chris' heart warmed, it's gonna be ok, Ez is doing fine.
Chris nodded now and let a faint smile touch his lips. "That's right. We don't expect any trouble, it's just a question of getting as much incriminating stuff as we can, then going in and busting their first trial shipment through to the Pacific."
The meeting continued for over an hour, the normal give and take, questions and suggestions helping to shape out their plans, their tasks and their roles. By the time Chris called a halt for a late lunch break, he was no longer even thinking about his and Ezra's personal dilemma. It felt good to be back and to be a team again. If Chris felt anything at that moment, it was relief.
Ezra fled to his desk as soon as he could squeeze past Buck and JD who were sniping at each other in the conference room doorway. When JD ducked Buck's long-armed swipe at his baseball cap, Ezra managed to two-step around them and out the door. He had his computer on and humming by the time Vin ambled in to their small office.
"Hey, Ez, you coming to lunch? We're heading to Mamacita's."
Ezra managed to relax his muscles and lean back in his chair, away from the keyboard while keeping his hands on the keys. "No, thank you, Mr. Tanner. I shall endeavor to bring myself up to date on current political activities in northern Italy in preparation for my imminent submersion later today." He tapped the screen, "I'm checking into the lead giornali in Milano now."
"Giornali, Mr. Tanner, newspapers."
"Oh, okay, Ez, but don't forget to eat somethin'." Vin's concern for the still underweight agent was clear. "Want me to bring you something back?" The Texan leaned in the doorway, back against the door frame, his easy grace enviable. Ezra needed to avoid those hooded, observant eyes.
"Thank you, no, I'll send out for something shortly." At the look the sharpshooter gave him, Ezra added, "You have my word."
"Alright, Ez, see ya." Vin padded away.
Finally, alone. Ezra gulped and nearly put his head down on the keyboard, but that wouldn't do, someone could come in at any time. He wasn't sure who'd gone to lunch and who had not. With deep breaths to get his breathing and pulse back under control, Ezra faced the screen with determination. He may have fabricated an excuse to get rid of Vin Tanner, but it was a worthwhile activity so why not actually do it? He began to tap into his search engines. Anything was better than thinking about Chris Larabee, standing up there in front of everyone, looking so calm and cool. So in control. While Ezra trembled in his shoes. Fear and despair still lingered, shocked to life during the meeting as he realized that Chris was going to pretend that everything was just like always, just like before… Not even a private word, glance, or gesture. Nothing. If Buck hadn't pressed his shoulder in passing as the meeting broke up, Ezra would have believed it had all been another wild, wet dream. No, it had really happened, and now apparently, Chris Larabee was going to act like it never did.
Fingers hovered over keys, as the con man stared blankly at his blinking cursor on the screen. Time slowed and stopped. I'll be undercover soon. He is still the best supervisor I've ever worked for, I can trust him to do the job, to be there for me. For the job. For me? Ezra numbly closed damp eyes suddenly tired, no, not for me, but for the job. That's all that matters anyway. I can do this. He opened his eyes and concentrated on the screen.
Josiah sat hunched over in the small interior space of the surveillance van. His whole focus was the sound coming in over his headphones as he listened to Ezra Standish slyly insinuate himself into the confidence of Alberto Wagner. Buck stood behind JD who was intently following the conversation as well. JD kept flicking his fingers lightly over the modulation controls, hands hovering over his console as he made sure that not only was the reception good, but that everything was perfectly recorded on the dual tapes he always made.
Buck's face was a picture of concern as he half-listened to the words spoken, instead hearing the tone of voice, waiting to hear a break in the words, a tremor in that tone. Only it never happened. Man was a pro. As smooth as silk. You'd never know that three weeks ago he'd been in the hospital still recovering from gun shot wounds, or that two weeks ago he'd been involved in an unplanned sexual encounter with his boss that had ended badly. Oh, Ez, you are a true piece of work. Buck's fisted hands knotted on the top of JD's narrow swivel chair.
Josiah spared a puzzled look at the lean tall westerner behind him. Something was definitely not right and Buck was really worried. Yet there was no other sign of what the problem was. JD seemed fine, his normal, excited, centered self. The youth usually was an excellent signal for Buck's problems, but not this time. He seemed oblivious to whatever had Wilmington very nearly quietly tearing his hair out.
When things quiet down later tonight, once Ezra is in tight with Wagner, then, Buck, you and I are going to have a little talk, Josiah thought to himself. As he heard Wagner invite their undercover agent to dinner that night at a high class downtown eatery, his attention swung back to the action.
Vin blinked owlishly down from the rafters of the warehouse. Why do they always have to meet in these depressin' places, he asked himself. They got the whole damn range of the Rockies right at their doorstep. Lots of places out there where you could lose yourself, meet without anyone bein' able to see or hear. He grunted quietly to himself, a soft curse in Arapaho. Guess these fools thought only place to do business was indoors.
He slid closer to the center of the beam he was straddling, his sniper's rifle a dull black, no gleam of metal visible. The binoculars slung around his neck let him see almost more than he wanted to of what was going on below. Ezra was doing fine. Been a bit worried about him, he hasn't bounced back this time the way he usually does. Thought that time up in the mountains might clear out his cobwebs, always works for me. On the other hand, Ez was really not a product of the great out of doors, either. Maybe it had made him uncomfortable, could be why he only stayed up there with Chris for a couple of days, then come down, back to his own place. Still too damn skinny.
Vin whistled 'Dixie', nearly soundless into his small headset mike. Instantly he had Chris' voice hissing in his ear to watch it. Man is definitely on edge. Has been for a bit. Come to think on it, nearly as long as Ezra's been out of it... a sudden change in the tempo of the actors moving below him set him on full alert. "Something's happening…" he whispered into the mike now.
Chris stood with Nathan in the second van. Neither man had been able to stay seated for long. Nathan kept moving because he was nervous. Chris was nearly breathing fire down his neck and he didn't know why.
Chris couldn't sit still. He found himself fidgeting and squirming when he tried to sit and listen to the scene playing out so close by, invisible but intimate with their sound system. JD was a master at keeping it sharp and clear. Only thing was, that was Ezra in there. Back in harm's way again, where he, Chris, had sent him. And acting so absolutely perfectly in his role that he half-convinced Chris that he was Elijah Sounder. Man's talents were phenomenal. Wagner had bought the line from Faber with no question and was schmoozing up to Ez like he was the King of Siam.
The soft, almost breathy strains of Dixie over his headset distracted him for a moment. Vin! Damn Texan gets too cocky sometimes. Chris snapped out a quick reprimand, then forgot him as he listened to Ezra's sardonic comment on cuisine available in Denver. Vin's warning and the sound of the men walking out of the building as they spoke soon had Chris frozen in concentration. Apparently Wagner agreed with Ezra's comments but suggested Mark's anyway. One of the best spots in the city. Almost a private club. A good spot to meet Mr. Zerbo. OK, that meant Ezra was 'in.' Rather than being pleased, Larabee found himself feeling unaccountably angry, scared. Damn.
Nathan dared to breathe again as Chris squeezed up to the driver's seat and put the van in gear. Looked like they'd be tailing the Maserati that squatted outside the warehouse. There was something wrong, the medic thought as he settled down into one of the captain's chairs they usually used when they listened to the wires during a surveillance operation like this. Now that Chris wasn't crowding him, he could relax and keep an ear on Ezra's antics, as he thought of the glib tongue of their undercover agent. Funny, that, Nathan shook his head and he leaned back, adjusting the headphones with one hand, his other hand rubbing his neck pensively. Usually Chris sat like a stone during these operations, nerves of steel. Something different this time, for sure.
This was far too easy, not even a challenge for a sport, Ezra thought with disgust as he let the earnest man draw him in for the dinner invitation. Mark's? Well, they did do a nice Beef Wellington there and the reds weren't bad, some nice dry Bordeau, or, in honor of his new acquaintances, perhaps a Borolo. The Piedmont always produced some good solid stuff.
He wondered what his team was thinking of this slick entrée into their latest netherworld jaunt. No blood at least, always a good sign. Of course, he had yet to meet Zerbo or see any goods. The Japanese were invisible, too. All in good time, he supposed. He casually answered Wagner by suggesting they continue their conversation in more pleasant surroundings. He invited the man to his 'club' - Rafters was quite exclusive and the team had used his membership on more than one occasion. Fortunately, he kept the house management team there content with large, very generous tips. They found it convenient to greet him with whatever name and identification he requested. He'd set them up for this one this morning. They'd greet Elijah Sounder with quiet attentiveness. Quite right.
Without a backwards glance at the echoing vastness of the warehouse, Standish followed his new lead out of the place and climbed into the passenger seat of a Maserati, new, bullet gray and wicked looking. With a rumble of its powerful motor, the machine crept away. Twin red taillights flared briefly in the dusk, then whipped around a corner, and were gone.
When the six other team members met in the conference room the next morning, all looked a bit tired. Ezra was home sleeping in. He'd kept them all entertained last night as he wove his spell over Wagner's boss…
Fabbio Zerbo turned out to be restrained and handsome northern Italian, his blond good looks and height more reminiscent of a northern European than a Mediterranean type. He'd been smooth and pleasant, but not very enthusiastic, at least, not at first. Wagner had left Mark's after introducing the two men. Clearly he was out of his depths and knew it. A gofer who vanished seamlessly into the shadows and then simply disappeared altogether.
Over hors d'oeuvres, Ezra and Zerbo sipped champagne and chatted about favorite spots to sunbath on the French Riviera. Soup found them discussing the gaming tables at Monte Carlo. Zerbo managed to impress Ezra when he insisted they have the Kobe beef. Ezra's choice of Sassicaio, dry, full-bodied and red, was a nice counter move and the conversation became more comfortable, friendly. They indulged in a zabaione when their waiter mentioned that the chef was willing. It wasn't until the cognac was poured, however, that Fabbio started to talk shop. What little he mentioned. He was very coy but after a few subtle references to munitions and the orient, Ezra got the picture. He was being approved, and now business would be done - with Wagner in a few days. No definite date set for that. It seemed that now Zerbo had a contact that he liked, his rush eased off.
Zerbo was well over six feet, easily a match for Buck's or Josiah's height. His well-shaped form spoke of exercise and discipline. His elegant clothing spoke of Milan tailors and expensive Como silk. His musk was light and penetrating, curling into Ezra's nostrils and loosening his own restraint. Ezra found himself lost in the brilliant sky blue eyes, the straw blond hair cut brush top style. The ease and wit of his companion were beginning to soften his defenses, which just now, were not at their best.
And Fabbio Zerbo was sinking into the glittering emerald eyes of the petite russet-haired man in front of him. The man's charms were so sophisticated that Fabbio felt certain he would be a graceful ornament on his arm at any banquet hall back home, any villa or palazzo. With heightened interest and an awakening sexual appetite, Zerbo began to plot his courtship of this winsome creature. He had to rein in his instincts as he reminded himself that business had to come first or his fratelli in the home office would not approve. No, not at all. Well, perhaps after they had finalized their first shipment? Business behind them, then they, he and Elijah, could look ahead. There was that beach on the Dalmatian coast, away from the frightful mess in Bosnia to be sure, and it was strictly skin there. He'd quickly know if interest was returned or feigned. Yes, soon.
Chris Larabee cleared his throat and looked around the table, ready to start the meeting. In his mind's eye, he could see Ezra sprawled asleep on silk sheets as he stood here, useless, far from those alabaster shoulders, slim hips and flashing green eyes. Chris stood there, thinking of all he'd been forced to listen to last night. He stood there, seeing his men, not seeing Ezra. And he ached.
As the meeting broke up, Josiah skillfully cut Buck out of the herd and shepherded him into the privacy of Sanchez's own office. JD was eager to start a new pursuit on the Internet, hacking into Zerbo's personal files. They had a bit more to go on since Ezra's opening gambit last night. He didn't notice when Josiah leaned a long arm around his mustached partner and headed him away from the common work area and into an office.
Vin, eyes squinting at his friend and boss, did not rise with the others, content to stay and wait on Chris. Something was wrong, he'd felt if for a while, first with Chris, then Ez and now with Chris again. He returned to the line of thought he'd been following on his perch in the warehouse heights. It was all a matter of timing.
Nate wandered out of the meeting, still bewildered by the team leader's behavior. Last night had been the strangest night he'd ever spent in Larabee's company. The man had been a tiger all night, pacing and growling, snarling at Jackson when he'd only tried to calm him down, point out that Standish did this for a living, was good at the con. It's not like Ezra is still hurt or anything, he'd been declared fit for duty. The agency doctors had given him a clean bill of health after checking the injuries from his last action. And Nathan had double-checked too. Of course, he'd done it quietly, not head-on. Standish was really weird that way, never would admit it when he really hurt, but could complain up a storm about what he called the "inconveniences" of life. Shaking his head in puzzlement, Jackson settled down to finish a report he'd been reading, an autopsy on one of the gunrunners that had worked for Wagner, or at least they thought he had. And now he'd turned up dead up in Boulder.
"Josiah, you ain't getting' nothin' outta me!" Buck's fierce whisper was accompanied by a quick look over his shoulder, through the clear upper panel of the office, over to where the conference room door was closed again. Vin's still in there with Chris. Shit is gonna hit the fan soon.
Sanchez sat back, making himself comfortable in his oversized chair. Steepling his hands in front of his face, elbows resting on the arms of the chair he tipped back to stare up at Buck, a look of wry amusement curling at his lips. "Brother Buck, wouldn't you rather share this with me... than with one of the agency's psychologists?" The not so subtle threat hung in the air between them as Josiah's gentle smile broadened slightly, encouragingly.
Buck's look turned deadly. His dark eyes slit down and his face smoothed out. Not personal, then, Sanchez decided. Switching tactics, he spoke again. "Buck, is something the matter with Ezra? Something the rest of us don't know about?" Wilmington blanched and he sat down abruptly in the other office chair, facing the team's profiler.
"How did you…?"
"…know?" Sanchez felt his heart weigh heavily within himself, a sinking sensation he could well do without. Shaking his head slowly, face now serious, he said, "Last night, you were as tense as a bowstring, you were fixed on Ezra the whole night, like you were worried, waiting for something to happen."
Buck slid down further in the seat, the heels of his boots digging into the carpet pile as he straightened his long legs out in front of him. "Ain't my place to say."
"Is he alright?" The protectiveness that Josiah always felt for Standish was pushing him now, making him feel the stirrings of worry.
Buck glanced up into the concerned face of one of his friends. He knew, hell, they all knew how Josiah felt about Ezra, like a father for a wayward son. If he found out what Chris had done... well, he wasn't going to hear it from here. "I hope so."
"Buck…" Sanchez sat up and leaned forward.
Wilmington held up a hand, face stern and closed. "Josiah. It - ain't - my - place." He shook his head and pushed himself to his feet. Knowing he wasn't being exactly fair, he sighed and added softly, "You best ask Chris."
Vin snuggled his shoulders into the wide chair, waiting. Nothing to be said. His friend would know what needed saying. He just had to give him time to say it.
Larabee realized that Vin knew... something. And that he was going to stay to find out what was wrong. Funny how they each could read the other so well. It only surprised him that Vin hadn't caught on sooner, but then he and Ezra hadn't been back at the team offices together until yesterday. He swallowed and squared his shoulders. Went to the door and looked out at the main room. JD was already glued to a computer screen, tapping away, earphones firmly in place. Nathan was sitting back, feet on his desk, reading glasses perched on his nose as he studied the inside of some folder, looked like the medical reports from the Boulder homicide. Buck was inside Josiah's office, looking cornered. He could only see the top of the seated profiler's head. Shit. Sanchez is on the scent, too. Figures.
He closed the conference room door and leaned back on it, facing his closest friend across the room. Licked his lips. What do you say when you don't know what to say? He met the light blue eyes that looked deeply into his. Saw only friendship, acceptance, and questions. Damn. I don't have any answers! He shut his eyes, fists clenching.
A touch on his shoulder and he knew that he'd been standing like that for a while, for Tanner to have gotten all the way around the large table and over beside him like that. "Chris? Ya don't gotta talk about it, if ya don't want to."
"Ain't that easy, cowboy."
Chris nodded and crossed the room back to his chair. Pulled it out and away from the table, to face his friend. Watched while Vin silently reached for a neighboring chair and sat as well. The relaxed, easy manner helped Larabee calm himself. The clear blue eyes held the questions that he needed to answer.
A tap on the conference room door caused the two men to stir. Both had been sitting forward in their seats, each had his hands clasped between his knees, both were silently staring at the floor. Looking up at each other, Chris sighed. "Josiah."
Vin nodded. "And Buck."
"Maybe I better…?"
"Nathan and JD."
"'k." Vin stood and pulled back his shoulders, rolling the stiffness out of them. There was no condemnation in his eyes for his friend, only warm sympathy and support.
Vin opened the door and sidled past Josiah and Buck.
JD stared at his hero. A stray thought wriggled to the top of his brain, 'feet of clay.' Well, that was all right, really it was. Man was human. As long as he did right by Ezra, it should be ok. He was surprised that Buck had managed to keep it all a secret from him for so long, but he wasn't offended. Buck and Chris had been friends a long time before he'd even joined the team, met any of them.
Nathan pursed his lips, eyes downcast. This was going to be tough. The others probably thought he was shocked. He would shock them if he ever told them some of the things he'd seen, done in his time in the service. And the times he'd helped good friends who were caught in that damn 'don't ask, don't tell' crap. Not that he ever... but what a man did, what a man was, well, that was real personal. And while he didn't like Ezra's gambling or conniving or greed and arrogant ways, he did respect the man's abilities and his devotion to duty. He'd helped patch up the man enough times to know he'd give his life for any of them. And now he was probably hurting badly, in ways that didn't show. Nathan shuddered. A mind can do bad things sometimes and his had just replayed a scene he thought he'd long ago buried, like the man in it. Finding Carl, swinging from his own belt in the shower room. Dead by his own hand. The note had told it all. His friend Carl, killing himself over the love of another marine, a man who repulsed his friend's advances and then had turned around and raped him on a dare. Oh, god, please don't let Ezra and Chris be like that. No, not them... they were both family and two good and caring men, they would never do to each other what had been done to Carl. Nathan kept his eyes on the carpet and kept silent. What was there to say?
Josiah sat with both hands flat against the tabletop. It was better to keep them there than where he wanted to put them, around Chris Larabee's neck. Squeeze the bejeezus out of him! He watched in an incurious manner as his fingers started to curl as if he could gouge them into the smooth mahogany surface. Too long, he's waiting too long to talk with Ezra. Josiah knew his boy too well, the Southerner had to be hurting. Larabee's silence and distance would be like a knife in him. My poor boy. Knowing Ezra, he probably blamed himself for everything and was busily re-erecting all his barriers. No wonder he'd been so quiet this past week or so. Sanchez had thought it was simply a slow recovery from their last case, but now. He shook his head miserably, choking down his fury. It would do no one any good if he erupted. But, oh, how he wanted to give Chris Larabee some very fundamental chastisement. No, that would not help Ezra or Chris.
Vin watched the others with a certain detachment. He wasn't surprised that Buck had been involved from the outset. Buck was Chris' touchstone, his anchor. Right now, Buck stood behind Larabee's chair, one hand on Chris' right shoulder, also watching the rest of the team. JD seemed to be all right with it. Nathan wasn't looking at anyone, but he wasn't saying anything either. That was probably for the best. As long as he stuck to that they wouldn't have to gag him near Ezra, Vin figured the medic would know better'n to say anything to Chris. Now, Josiah, that might be a problem. The sharpshooter eyed the tall, silent philosopher who sat like a statue in their midst.
Chris felt unaccountably better. It was out. They all knew. Well, Ezra didn't know that they knew yet. But at least Chris didn't have to hide anything anymore and when the case was over, they'd all be there for Ezra if his little talk with the undercover agent didn't go too well. He cleared his throat. He'd given them all a few minutes to digest it. Now to give them a chance to speak out. He dreaded what Josiah was going to say, if not do, but it had to be faced.
At the sound of Chris' throat clearing, the others all looked up and back at their team leader. Time to dance with the lady, Buck thought. He squeezed the shoulder under his hand and stepped back out around Larabee, taking a seat to his left. Vin Tanner already sat at his right.
Take the bull by the horns. "Josiah?" Chris waited.
Josiah's arm muscles rippled, his shoulders curling and his head ducking, then bobbing up to face the blond. "You need to talk to Ezra."
"I will." Chris nodded.
"What are your intentions?" The profiler's face was serene.
"I'll talk with him as soon as he comes in off this case."
"Chris... your intentions." This time the voice was gruff, the meaning clear.
Larabee paused before answering honestly, however dangerous that might be. "I don't know, Josiah." He shrugged helplessly. "Ezra's real special, to this team, and to me. I care about him, hell, I care about all of you. I still don't know why it happened. Until I talk with him, I don't know what will happen next."
"You have the power to hurt him deeply, Chris." Josiah understood the honesty he'd heard in the man's response, but if Chris did not have a clear head when he talked to Ezra, the boy would dance verbal rings around him and leave him spinning in the dark. While Ezra went off to hide... again. He breathed out slowly, "We can lose Ezra over this. Or, you can gain something very, very special."
The soft tone as Josiah ended his short speech prickled Larabee's skin. Lose Ezra? Gain Ezra? Chris felt utterly helpless and anger began to build, helpless was not a feeling he liked. Before he could say anything more, though, another team member spoke quietly.
"Seen things like this before." Nathan's baritone was sad. "I lost a dear friend who couldn't face life after being discarded by a man he thought he loved." The others turned shocked eyes to the medic. Nathan's eyes were downcast, his sight within his memories. He continued, "Carl was a good man. Didn't matter that he loved men, not women. But he had a foolish heart. Gave it to someone who didn't deserve it." Suddenly two hard brown eyes were spearing Chris Larabee to his seat. "Ezra is a good man."
Inhaling sharply at the hostility in the piercing eyes, Chris grit his teeth. "I know that, Nathan. And he's smart, too, probably smarter than all the rest of us put together."
"Not in matters of emotion, though, brother, not in matters of the heart," Josiah said sadly.
Chris bowed his head. "He wasn't foolish. It just happened."
"And your heart?" Vin's soft gravelly voice insinuated itself into the tense moment.
Chris closed his eyes. "I just don't know." He opened them, stared around at the others. His friends, his family, his team. "I've never been with a man that way before. I just don't know."
"Well, pard, you best be thinkin' on it, 'cause our little brother out there is probably doin' his best to bury it whole." Buck's wisdom always seemed to come out of nowhere and was always right to the meat of the matter.
A silence descended on the group again. Each of Larabee's five men were thinking about this strange twist in their lives and their two friends who were hurting right now. JD stretched and stood. "We best be getting this case over with fast, huh? So's you two can have that talk."
Buck snorted a laugh and tipped his head back to squint up at the youngster. "Reckon you said a mouthful, son."
"Buck…" JD's warning tone made Wilmington grin. Time to lighten things up, nothing more to be done on this now anyway.
"Well, git goin' young'un! We got work to do!" Buck was surging out of his chair now, and taking a giant stride toward his surveillance partner. JD spun on his heel and used both hands to burst the door open and stumble out into the common room beyond.
Josiah rose to his feet, eyes warmer and a new tranquility cloaking his shoulders. "Chris. I think I have some work to do, too." He nodded to Vin and started out of the room.
Nathan pushed himself up and grimaced at his dark thoughts. With a feeling of release, he let them go back into memory and spoke, "I may still find something we can use from that autopsy report. The bullets were damaged but there is something about the markings that seems familiar. I'm going to check some ammunition data files. We might get a lead on the source of the armament shipments." He followed Josiah out the door.
Vin stood now and stretched again. All this sitting was bad for the back and the butt. Time to hit the roof, clear his head. "Got some thinkin' to do, pard, I'll be upstairs if you need me." Both knew where he meant.
Chris nodded. "Vin. Thanks."
Tanner nodded, long, light brown hair bobbing with the movement. He flicked bright blue eyes at his friend, unspoken words of comfort floated between them, then he paced out of the room, silent.
Chris sat in his chair and stared at his hands, folded on the table in front of him. Hands that had held Ezra.
Beep, beep. Beep, beep.
Ezra reached out blindly for the cell phone at his bedside table. Even half-asleep, he was his usual careful self. "Yes?" Never answer with a name until you remember who you are today, rule number one.
"Elijah?" The mellow tones of his dinner partner from the previous night.
"Fabbio." Ezra turned over onto his back, settling deeper into the down pillow, a slight smile on his face. "What time is it?"
He could hear the smile on the other end of the phone as Zerbo answered, "Nearly noon, my friend. I take it you are still in bed?"
"A gentlemen nevah rises beforah the noon hour." Ezra let his accent thicken slightly. He knew it made him more accessible, sounded friendlier than his sometimes clipped articulation.
"I'd like to see you rising…" The husky voice whispered in his ear. Ezra felt himself begin to respond and shifted restlessly, this would not do at all.
"Unfortunately, Fabbio, you are there, where evah 'there' may be, and Ah am herah."
"We could change that, Elijah."
"Done." Ezra's eyes were fully open now, his mind clicking over. Zerbo wanted to play. That was acceptable. Until they had him and Wagner tied to an actual shipment, Ezra would have to play the fish on his line for all he was worth. He grinned to himself, Buck would be proud of him. A beginning fisherman, he was learning from the angler, and it was interesting terminology, even if the worms were a bit off-putting. "Where would you like…?"
"Come to my hotel. The Excelsior. I have the presidential suite. I have a jacuzzi." The tone was honeyed.
"I can be there later this afternoon if you like?" Ezra's mind was busy with what he needed to do, including have some coffee to fortify himself. Best be prepared, an overnight bag in the trunk of the Jag would be a good idea. He shivered slightly. Overnight.
"Good. I'll be waiting." Then, "Oh, and plan on staying for a while."
"All right, Fabbio. I'll see you soon." Ezra disconnected and twitched his lips. Time for a shower, shave, and that coffee. Breakfast? Lunch? His stomach clenched. No. No food.
I wonder how Chris... um, no, Mr. Larabee, he decided firmly. I wonder how Mr. Larabee will take this news? He shrugged, ignoring the pinch he felt in his heart. He'd had a lot of practice at ignoring those sorts of pains, all his life.
With a small flinch, Ezra snapped shut his cell phone. That went well. He sipped his coffee as he eyed himself in the hall mirror. His eyes turned inward as he saw again Chris Larabee's arm snugged firmly around his own chest, holding him against the rugged blond on that narrow bunk in Vin's cabin. In his mind's ear, he heard again his leader's voice, hush with anger as Larabee acknowledged Ezra's call, spoke the words that set Ezra en route to his meet with Fabbio Zerbo. At Zerbo's hotel suite. He carefully rinsed the now empty coffee cup in the sink and set it on the drain board. Time to go.
Chris looked grim when he emerged from his office, only to find a ring of faces waiting for him. Ezra's call had gone into the main room and been switched by JD to his office line. So they all knew that Standish had just called in. Five sets of eyes looked at him.
"He's fine." Not one set of eyes blinked. "Really." Chris ran a hand over his straight, dark blond hair, then sat on the edge of the nearest worktable to face these men, the rest of his family. "Zerbo just called him, wants Ezra over at his hotel for another meeting."
"At his hotel?" Buck sounded skeptical. Four other faces silently concurred.
Chris stood back up, folding his arms over his chest. "That's what he said."
"So, let's go!" JD was twisting away and heading for his desk when Chris stopped him.
"Ezra won't be wearing wire." There, he'd told them. He could hear his own anger and fear in his voice. Damn the man. When this case is over, I am going to personally take a bite outta his ass. With a sudden lurch, Chris realized what he'd just 'said' in his thoughts.
Nathan leaned back on a desk. "Look's like he's going to be in deep cover on Zerbo's own turf. We'll just have to wait now, could be a spell. He'll let us know when it's going down. That boy is as sneaky as they come, Chris. He'll be fine."
"The 'boy' is a trained agent who…" Chris frowned, what was the point? They all knew exactly why he was upset, probably better than he did himself.
Everyone went back to business, trying to find other ways into the target, no one wanted Standish to be out there any longer than necessary, especially right now. Buck kept a weather eye on the quiet blond, he knew that Chris was building to an eruption. Damn, why did Ez have to be undercover right now? And why did he have to be undercover with some man who was a more sophisticated, European version of Chris Larabee? Buck knew that jealousy was part of the problem even if Chris didn't understand what was happening to himself just yet.
When the quitting hour was reached, no one seemed inclined to stop but Buck Wilmington knew that Chris was way too strung out to last much longer, he'd watched the man pacing in his office, one hand holding a phone, the other an unlit cheroot most of the afternoon. When Larabee threw his thin cigar against the wall and slammed down the phone ending his latest phone call, Buck sprang to his feet in the common room. He spun JD's chair and strode over to Chris' office, Vin bobbing in his wake, having also seen Larabee's last few moments of fury.
"Come on, everyone, time to take this down to the Saloon!" Buck knew when it was time to get Chris to drown his sorrows and when to stop him from doing it. Right now, the man needed to be up to his eyeballs in 80 proof. "Everyone take your cell phones!" With that, Buck reached into Larabee's office, grabbed one of Chris' arms and gave a jerk of his head to Vin who quickly stepped forward to take the other arm.
"Sounds like a plan," Josiah said scooping up JD and Nathan with his long arms and pushing them gently forward. "We'll put the bill on Ezra's tab, since we'll be drinking to his health anyway."
Things seemed to be going way too fast. Ezra held his drink and stared out at the early evening sky, a mix of clouds that boiled up, turning dark bellied before his eyes. He'd been in the suite for only a few hours now and already it was clear that this time he was going to have to go all the way. Not something the bureaucratic heads of departments would approve, sleeping on the job - in the Biblical sense.
He took a small sip and let the malt sting its way down his throat and warm his belly. Calm his nerves. Fabbio was on the phone just now, it was the only way he'd been free to slip out of the man's clutches, even for a moment. He'd always known that someday it would come to this. He'd been very lucky in his career so far, never had to put out on the job. Those ponces up the food chain wouldn't understand. The regulations forbid it. Also forbid gambling, participation in felonies and assorted other misdemeanors while undercover.
Only, for an agent to survive undercover it was impossible to follow the regulations. All undercover agents knew this, at least all the ones who lived past their first case. It was an unspoken rule, rule number one, do whatever it takes. Whatever. If you can't, then don't go under, or go under and die. Ezra wasn't ready to die today. He still had some personal things that he hoped to resolve. So tonight, or maybe even in a short time, he would be joining Fabbio in bed or in the Jacuzzi, it didn't really matter which, the result would be the same.
Ezra took another sip of the smooth single malt and watched the clouds.
Zerbo stood just inside the large drawing room, watching Elijah Sounder through the sheer curtains and sliding doors to the balcony. He had finished his call. Wagner was anxious to get the wheels in motion for their trial run. He wasn't ready yet. Call it intuition, call it hunger. He wanted to taste Elijah. Experience the slender siren before putting him to work on their business side of this new partnership. A wonderful word, partnership. He might just be taking on a new partner in more than just business. He brushed his hand over his cropped white-blond hair. With a lewd smile that he smothered as he moved, Zerbo pushed open the door and stepped outside to join his guest.
"That was Alberto. He has some Rising Sun buyers nibbling now. We should be ready to use your facilities and assistance by week's end, Elijah."
Ezra leaned back against the low cement wall of the balcony, letting his glass rest against his chest. "Good news, I'm sure. We are ready to serve."
Fabbio looked warmly at the dark-haired man relaxing in front of him. So sweet. "Elijah, I'm glad you enjoyed the dinner I had prepared for us."
Oh, yes. Here it comes. Ezra blinked lazily and let a smile creep across his lips. He licked his lower one and rubbed the lip with a knuckle. "It was delicious, Fabbio. Thank you for your generosity, inviting me up to partake in such a fine meal."
The tall blond took a quick step toward Ezra. Standing so close that their shirts brushed, Zerbo looked down into gleaming green eyes. Minx. "Elijah... caro," he breathed and caught the smooth hard jaw with one strong hand. A hand so large that it covered the side of the smaller man's face. Long fingers curved and stroked the high cheekbone. He brought his mouth close to the bow shaped lips that were parted just there below his. "Elijah, I'd like to partake of you now." And he dropped his mouth onto the waiting one and began a long, tasting kiss.
Ezra swallowed bile and anger, forcing himself to lean into the kiss and let his mouth open for the aggressive invading tongue to enter. His trained façade never broke, his body relaxing and molding itself to the larger man. A man whom he could have loved under other circumstances, he knew. Last night had been a delicious engagement of matching wits, he had not enjoyed himself with another person like that in a very long time, if ever. Even now, if it weren't for his roiling feelings for his own team leader, he might have melted thoughtlessly into Zerbo's arms. Strong arms that now claimed him and were not harsh or demanding, instead polished, knowledgeable, and playful.
When the men broke for air, Zerbo was smiling down at his prize. Ezra let his eyes hood shyly and a small smile tease his lips. "Elijah…"
"Fabbio, shall we go inside?"
Zerbo's smile widened and he held Sounder close beside him as he guided them back into the main salon of the suite. His own bodyguard, Vittorio Gobbi, stood silently back behind the bar, a dark solid figure, as tall as his master but wider. "Vito, we will be in the back, please remain out here."
Gobbi eyed the man in his master's arms. Zerbo had a penchant for picking up pretty little boys, but this one was no boy. Even if he was pretty. "Signor…"
"Vito." The hint of sternness in the tone was a silent reprimand. Vittorio bowed his head and came out to settle in an armchair near the main door to the suite.
Turning back to Ezra, Fabbio's bright blue eyes glittered with desire. "Come, my friend."
Pushing Ezra in front of him, he moved them into the master bedroom. Ezra heard the door close behind him with a soft click. Immediately two large hands were on his shoulders, smoothing his jacket off on to the floor. Easing him around and plucking open buttons on the thin silk shirt that Ezra had worn for his seduction. Yes, he admitted to himself that he had known before he left Fabbio the night before that they would soon be in this place in their burgeoning relationship. He shivered as those very talented fingers began to slip beneath the now open shirt, pulling the shirttails free of his waistband, then roaming delicately across his chest, tugging at his nipples. He allowed himself a small gasp at that.
Fabbio bent low to taste this charming creature more, licking at a handy collarbone where it formed a hollow at the base of Elijah's neck. Sweet, slender neck, so delicate, so made for loving. He couldn't restrain himself from pressing down and sucking a mark into that pale, smooth skin. Then, as Elijah pressed tighter against him, he let the tip of his tongue curl and trace a wet snail's path up the column of throat and along the jaw, seeking out those moist, soft lips again. Both arms slid around behind his new prize, hands gliding in exploration of the sleek narrow back, small waist, wonderfully curved ass. He tangled fingers in the thick, curling reddish hair as he pressed his kisses on receptive lips.
Ezra let himself dream. He'd long ago learned that it was best to put a fantasy to work when reality was less than pleasant. Rule number one, imagination was your life vest, wear it. He was in the arms of a tall, powerful blond. Eyes closed, he let the man become the one he wanted instead of the one he was with. His body instantly reacted to the fantasy, his shaft hardening and pressing against a thigh. His response was enough, it was what the other wanted to get and so the con would fly. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter as he nearly lost the fantasy when hot breath tickled an ear. It wouldn't do for him to thrust this man from him.
Zerbo was pleased, this little one was responding beautifully, coming to life for him, blossoming at his touches. He continued to move them across the floor, toward the waiting bed.
Bam, bam! Bam, Bam, BAM!
Inside the suite everyone froze for a moment. Gobbi reached under his jacket for his gun, held it without removing it as he came to his feet and headed for the door. He saw the bedroom door open abruptly at the corner of his vision. Zerbo was there, the other man, Sounder, at his side. Both looked alert, though a bit ruffled, especially Sounder whose shirt hung off his shoulders, hair mussed.
No one said anything as the pounding resumed. Gobbi looked to Zerbo for instructions. Before Zerbo could say anything the pounding stopped.
With a crash, the door slammed open, the heavy wood bouncing back off the sidewall. A tall man, dressed all in black stood in the doorway, weaving slightly. He grabbed both sides of the doorframe and flung himself across the threshold, dark blond hair hanging down over his forehead, blue-green eyes squinting dangerously. "Where is he? Where is that Southern fried son of a bitch?"
Ezra gulped. "Chris!" He ducked out from under Zerbo's arms and rushed over to his boss who stood swaying and flashing angry looks around the room. Before he could even stop his forward rush, Chris had caught him and dragged him into a tight hug, capturing his mouth in a bruising, possessive kiss.
When Larabee finally pulled back slightly, it was to growl, "Where the hell did you think you were going? Leaving me behind like that!"
Ezra was lost. Chris was here and holding him, kissing him. True, he smelled like a still, alcohol danced in his eyes, but he was here. For another moment, Erza allowed himself the luxury of feeling possessed. Then his undercover skills snapped back into place. He twisted in Chris' arms and looked toward Zerbo who was watching with narrowed eyes.
"Ah, Fabbio, this is Chris... Christopher, my 'personal' bodyguard. Christopher Larson."
"Elijah," Zerbo's warning tone was smooth and silky, "I don't remember inviting Christopher to our little party."
"Invited myself." Chris stood tall behind Ezra, both his arms wrapped tightly around his undercover agent. He could feel Ezra's heart beating very fast, like a bird trapped in a cage. Larabee ducked his head down to nuzzle at Ezra's neck. He pursed his lips at the sight of the fresh hickey there. Licked it, staking his claim over another's. "Elijah," he pronounced the name with delicate precision, feeling Ezra stiffen slightly in his arms - 'didn't think I knew what I was doing, did you?' he thought to his agent, before continuing aloud, "Elijah and I are really more partners than anything. I guard his body, he guards mine. He's our point man, but I'm the main man, I make the arrangements for transport." Chris hugged tighter forcing a squeak from Standish, then flashed a wicked smile, "And, Elijah here is my main squeeze."
Zerbo rocked back on his heels. The picture had changed. Well, it would have been delightful to play with little Elijah but business had to come first. It seemed that Elijah had been playing too, playing some little games with his own partner. With a mental shrug, the European tucked his tongue and his libido back into place and shot his cuffs. "I seem to have been trespassing unknowingly, Christopher, my apologies." He spared Elijah a regretful glance, that warm little body was just made for loving, the exposed flesh smooth and shiny with heat. "I envy you."
"Thanks," nonchalantly, Chris rewrapped Ezra's shirt over his chest and shoved Ezra onto the couch, dropping down heavily beside him. Before his agent could react to this cavalier treatment, Larabee had scooped the man up into his lap, kissed him again thoroughly and then, still holding Ezra closely, sat up a bit to face Zerbo. "Now, maybe we should be talking about making your little deal happen?"
Ezra sat stunned on Chris' lap. He was absolutely aghast at this turn of events. Chris Larabee had no business being here, pretending to be undercover. Shit, he'd blow this whole case wide open! Why the hell was he here? And then, like a bolt of lightning, it struck Ezra. Chris knew what was going to happen here tonight. And he won't let Zerbo have me.
With wide green eyes, Ezra stared up into the face of his boss. Tentatively he wrapped his hands into the wide lapel of the black leather car coat that Chris was wearing with a matching turtleneck sweater. The man in black. Larabee shot a look down at Ezra. The glare was back. Somehow that comforted Standish rather than intimidated him. With an angelic, dimpled smile, Ezra laid his head against the strong chest and shoulder, tightening his hold on the soft leather.
One of Chris' hands came up to hold Ezra's shoulder, pull him even tighter against Larabee's chest. Chris' other hand came to rest casually on Ezra's thigh, thumb rubbing small circles through the fabric of the covering trousers. Ezra sniffed the heady musky scent that was Chris and decided to let the man handle it. He'd interfere only if it looked like things were going to sour. Right now Zerbo seemed to be letting Larabee call the shots. With a man like Larabee, this was always wise, Ezra thought to himself happily. He sighed softly and closed his eyes.
The conversation between Larabee and Zerbo continued over the head of the now quiescent con man. Zerbo's bodyguard had retreated cautiously to the bar area, gun drawn and on the bar top, but not in Gobbi's hand. Both men had reacted with respect to the aura of power and authority that emanated from the ATF team leader.
Now that playing was no longer an option, Zerbo had no desire to drag out the negotiations. He called Wagner back on the phone and within an hour Larabee was dictating the terms for the docking of Zerbo's eighteen-wheeler at a shipping warehouse. The warehouse stevedores would anonymously receive the containers of armaments and prepare them for a flight out on a private airfreight service, heading for San Francisco and on to Okinawa. The trial run could begin tomorrow afternoon with the delivery. The buyers would be contacted by Wagner and meet with him, 'Larson,' 'Sounder,' and some of Wagner's people to inspect the consignment. If approved the sales would trigger the rest of the transport contract and the shipment would head out on the new pipeline for the Orient.
During the entire bargaining session, Chris continued to fondle and stroke Ezra who remained passive on his lap. Larabee wasn't really surprised at how quickly Standish had adapted to the role he was expected to play and then played it. The man was good, a professional. They would have to hash out later what all this meant. He'd been drunk and angry when he left the Saloon. He wasn't sure how he got to the hotel, but once there, he had stormed inside, shoving into an elevator, jabbing the top floor number, then thundering down the hall and kicking in the door.
He had sobered up quickly when he realized he was actually facing Zerbo across the room, crashing into Ezra's undercover assignment, risking the man's life like that. The sight of Ezra, disheveled and looking damn near pawed over, standing there in Zerbo's shadow, that sight had nearly had him attacking the other blond to reclaim his own. He could NOT stand the thought of Zerbo's hands all over his man. His Ezra. Now he hugged his green-eyed armful even tighter, eliciting a surprised grunt. Ignoring the reaction, he continued to press Zerbo for details on the contents of the containers, all the while savoring the feel of his Ezra in his arms, on his lap. Safe.
Larabee let himself settle back more deeply into the couch, a sign that the discussion was going well - a signal to Zerbo. He pulled Ezra's compliant form back with him, the smaller body shaping to his like a glove to a hand. He nearly laughed when he looked down after a few minutes at a soft sound. He's asleep. The bastard is actually sound asleep in my arms in the middle of negotiations with a munitions dealer! A wave of tenderness swept through him and his voice took on a gentler sound, not lost to the man facing him across the room.
They look good together. I'm nearly jealous. Elijah would have been a nice little morsel for me, but he is clearly more than that to Christopher. The sight of the two men nestled together on his couch was more convincing to Zerbo than any testimony by Faber or promises by either man, that tenderness was not a show. These men were real. Zerbo was convinced. The deal would go through, he could trust these men. And, maybe someday, Christopher would feel like sharing…
"BUCK!" The hiss in his ear through the telephone shocked the lanky man out of slumber.
Wilmington sat straight up in bed and waited, phone held tightly. "Ezra, is that you?" Voice hoarse with the sleep that he was trying to shake off, along with a blurring brought on by too much beer, Buck tried to organize his brain. "Is something wrong?"
"Wrong? Wrong? Why would anything be wrong, Mr. Wilmington?" the hissing voice was clearly angry, sibilant with fury. "I am calling you from my bed. My bed in the Excelsior Hotel. In Mr. Zerbo's suite."
"Ah, Ez, are you ok?"
"I, Mr. Wilmington, am fine. I am secure in the arms of Mr. Larabee -"
"Chris!" Yelping in surprise, Buck tossed back the bed covers and kicked his long legs out, feet landing on the floor.
"Yes, Chris." The hissing was still vibrating with anger. "He came galloping in here earlier tonight, the knight errant. And now we are both in Mr. Zerbo's suite."
"Is he ok?"
"Yes, sleeping like the proverbial babe in the cradle -"
"Well, then Ez, why don't you lie back and enjoy it?" Buck chuckled as he slumped down, resting his elbows on his knees, a relieved smile forming on his lips.
"BUCK!" A pause. "Buck, we need to get out of here. I don't trust Zerbo and Chris is no undercover agent. He was drunk when he got here, for god's sake!"
"But you're both ok, you said?" Buck's concern was clear.
"Yes." A sigh. "It's just... it's just that... oh, Buck." The quiet whisper was almost a wail now.
And the tall dark surveillance expert recognized the panic and fear in his friend's voice. "Ezra. Calm down. You can't do nothing right now. Think how Zerbo would react if you tried to get you and Chris outta there in the middle of the night."
"Yes, yes. Of course." Silence, then, "but Buck, I don't understand this."
"Ezra, Chris hasn't been too clear on much of anything lately, but I think you can take his actions for a sign of what's going down." Buck rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, scrunching his nose as he marshaled his bleary thoughts. Now was no time to be fumbling for words. Especially not with Ezra. "Just think on it, Ez. He don't ever, ever break an agent's cover. Drunk or sober. The man is always in control. He was piss-eyed today…" Buck looked over at his alarm clock and corrected himself, "ah, yesterday, 'cause he was so messed up over what happened between you two and you going into deep cover and all. He musta slipped Vin's leash after we all left Inez' place, come after you. That has to tell you something."
There was no response for a space of a few moments. Then Standish's voice came back on, sounding confused. "I really doan understand." The thick accent told Wilmington more than the words that Ezra was getting frustrated.
"He loves you, Ezra." Buck was patient. "He just don't know it yet. Or won't admit to it. Either way, he wasn't about to let you stay with Zerbo tonight on your own."
"He loves me?" Doubtful wariness set the whisper into lower pitch.
"Ezra." Buck yawned mightily, unable to stop himself. "Ezra, go back to sleep. You're safe with Chris there. We'll get you both out somehow tomorrow. I promise. Now, kiss him and go back to sleep."
A quiet clearing of the throat. "Okay," mumbled, then, "goodnight, Buck."
"Goodnight, Ezra." Buck's affectionate warmth carried over the wire. Both phones clicked off as one.
Wilmington stretched and shook his head. Damn. Better call Vin, let the others know. We're gonna be busy today. Make the call, then I'm gonna get me some more shuteye. Holding the phone, Buck flopped back down on the mattress.
Chris had carried the sleeping Standish into the bedroom several hours earlier. Ezra'd fallen asleep in Larabee's lap, while Chris was making final arrangements for the deal with Zerbo. It still amazed the blond that Ezra had done that. And it made him realize how tired the man must be, and how much he must trust Chris. After bidding goodnight to Zerbo, Chris had retreated to the bedroom and gently stripped Standish who slept through the entire procedure. Tossing his own clothes on a nearby chair, Larabee had then slid beneath the covers and gathered Ezra close, drifting off to sleep with the other man tucked against him.
After a few hours of deep sleep, Chris lay awake, on his back, sprawled on the queen-sized bed that took up the smaller guest bedroom of Zerbo's suite. Ezra lay quietly beside him. Then Ezra popped up in bed and Chris played possum. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk with Ezra, this simply wasn't the time or place. And then the con man was punching in a single digit number on his cell phone. So he was calling one of the team.
Chris let his eyes open enough to watch his undercover agent through his sandy lashes, without letting Ezra know he was awake. The room was swaying dangerously for Chris. He thought he saw two or three Standishes sitting up in the bed. The one in the middle had his knees up against his chest, one arm wrapped around his shins, the other hand holding the cell phone. His back was curved over the bent knees. Chris was about to reach out to lay a hand along that delicately bowed spine when Ezra hissed Buck's name.
For the next few minutes, Larabee eavesdropped unabashedly. When Ezra evidently repeated, 'he loves me?' as a question and denial all at once, Chris knew that he had a lot of work in front of him if he wanted this man. And just like that, he knew. That yes, he did. All the worry and confusion of the last few weeks vanished, his desires crystallizing into a set of mossy green eyes that could shine emerald in the light.
With that realization came a second, shocking him to the core. What in blazes was he doing here, messing up Ezra's assignment? Aw shit, messing up his mind. Real smart, Larabee. Chris nearly groaned aloud. That seemed to be the signal to his body. He began to feel sick to his stomach and his head was beginning to pound, the downswing of his drinking bout, souring his mouth and making his eyes ache.
When Ezra shut down the phone connection, Chris decided it was time to act. Waking up next to me was a shock, I bet. Probably doesn't know what to think or do, no wonder he panicked and called Buck.
With new decision, Chris shifted his arm closer and put his palm down on Ezra's exposed spine. He felt the skin beneath his hand quiver at his touch. "Ezra, I'm sorry I scared you earlier."
Not deigning to comment on that, the younger man said, "You're awake, Mr. Larabee." If anything, Ezra crunched himself up into a smaller ball in front of his team leader. Then asked with suspicion, "How long have you been awake?"
"Heard you talkin' with Buck."
Ezra sat up, straightening his back away from the large hand, and folding his arms atop his knees. "I am NOT having this conversation with you. Not here. Not now."
Chris' eyes took on a wicked glint and he flashed his trademark Larabee grin, lopsided and intimate. "Ok, honey, we'll do it later." Nothing else was working, might as well try humor. He let his hand drop to the bed.
"Honey? Honey!" The hissing outrage in Ezra's voice was pure fury. Well, strike humor as a best bet, Chris thought morosely, feeling his stomach flip flop irritably. They'd get it straightened out soon. Ezra wasn't done, however. "Mr. Larabee, I may be many things, but I am NOT your 'honey!'" The glare that accompanied this assertion shot green fire at the taller, blond-haired man.
Chris decided to ignore the angry man's comment, decided to try one more time. Shifting his gaze to the ceiling and continuing to smile, he dreamily murmured, "Christopher... no one's called me that since I was real little. From you, I kinda like it."
Ezra made a noise that sounded remarkably like a huff, then started to climb out of the bed. Instantly, the lax body of his companion sprang up to a sitting position and one long, muscular arm reached out to snatch a wayward wrist. "Stay here." All humor was gone from Larabee's voice now.
You did not tell Ezra Standish to 'stay here.' Not under any circumstances. Immediately, he started half tugging, half wrestling to free his arm. "Ezra! STOP IT!" Careful to keep his voice at a strongly pitched whisper, Chris used the simple expedient of rolling over on top of the smaller agent to smother Ezra's struggles under the bigger body. He ignored the fact that the room seemed to spin again and grappled with his agent. Grabbing and holding down two squirming shoulders, Chris looked down into now hard jade green eyes. "Ezra, I promise. We'll have a talk when this is over. For now, just know that I'm here because I care about you, very much. And I couldn't let you give yourself to that bastard Zerbo just to get your job done. Now, please, stay put."
The eyes looking back at him were shuttered and silent. Ezra's breathing slowed and he lay quietly now. Not talking, but not fighting either. Well, it was a start.
Ezra looked at Chris hanging above him on the bed, effectively imprisoning him with his hands holding down Ezra's shoulders, his weight pressed down on Ezra's body. Here they were, in the middle of a case, in the middle of the UNDERCOVER portion of the case, and Chris was trying to physically intimidate him into compliance. To try to salvage the case that Chris had nearly smashed with his entry, drunk, the previous evening.
Buck said Chris loved him but Ezra had trouble with that. Chris had run out on him back at the cabin, left him and the mess he'd made for Buck to clean up. Then avoided all contact with him for two endless weeks. Now he rushed in, demanding obedience and expecting Ezra to simply accept him and new terms of engagement, no prior warning, no time to prepare or reach any understanding. Ezra's anger grew silently.
You dumped me and now you want me back on your terms, Mr. Larabee, Ezra spoke with his eyes, not trusting his usually facile tongue to do the job. Ice began to form in his clear green eyes. Rather than try to fight Chris' superior weight and muscle, Ezra let himself relax totally, his very lack of reaction a message. I will not fight you now. But this is NOT over. We are NOT done. Finally speaking, Ezra made certain his voice was steady and cold, "Mr. Larabee. You may release me. I shall not attempt to leave this bed nor this case, nor shall I sabotage it by my words or actions."
Chris rolled back off the small man causing his already queasy stomach to rebel. Ezra was the angriest he'd ever seen him. This would not work at all unless his undercover agent calmed down. A sharp pain in his head joined with his stomach and told him that the hangover he'd managed to contain until now was about to take over. Oh, boy. He closed his eyes and waited, his hands unconsciously forming fists at his sides.
Ezra steamed. He felt like he must be foaming at the mouth, his anger was so great. It was huge. It burned him, consumed him like a five alarm fire. He fought for control, he had to get it back, had to take charge of himself, of this situation, or disaster was going to strike. With a fierce concentration, Ezra forced his emotional firestorm back behind his internal walls of control. His face smoothed out and his pulse steadied, a trick his mother had drilled into him as a child, it still served. Rule number one, never let the mark know what you are feeling, thinking. Or in this case, the man in bed with you. As he got himself back in hand, he was able to finally really look over at Chris. Oh. The man did not look well. Not at all. Serves him right! He slammed the lid on stabbing anger that had slipped free for a second. Not now, dammit. Alright, what's wrong with him?
"Chris? You do not look well."
Larabee blinked open eyes that had been squeezed shut. "Hangover."
"Ah, yes, you did smell of liquor when you arrived so precipitously earlier tonight." The fastidious tone of disgust was not lost on the blond.
Gritting his teeth, Chris ground out, "Sorry, Ezra."
"Yes, well. Can I get you something? Water?"
"No." Chris swallowed and whatever he was trying to get down met whatever was trying to come up. A large knot of something swelled his throat and choked him. "Ahgh…" and Chris was staggering to his feet, hand to his mouth. To his surprise, Ezra was somehow right there beside him, a steadying support, helping him reach the bathroom just in time to sink to his knees at the porcelain throne.
The next few minutes had a nightmarish quality for both men. Chris was sick repeatedly, retching and choking into the bowl, while Ezra held his shoulders, kneeling beside him. When Chris clung to him, panting and dizzy, Ezra leaned over and grabbed a face cloth, dampening it in the neighboring sink. He wiped the raw lips, cleaned away the chin, rinsed and then cooled the strained neck muscles, compressing the wet cold cloth there. All during this, Ezra murmured softly, quiet reassurances that seemed to calm the big man. Small adept hands rubbed circles on the broad back, then soothed away the furrows of a wrinkled brow. The two men leaned together on the tiled floor of the guest bathroom and waited out the worst of Chris' symptoms. When Larabee began to doze against Ezra's shoulder, the smaller man rose to his feet, drawing a groggy blond to his feet as well.
"Come on Chris, let's get you back in bed. You need to sleep this off now, then we will deal with the rest of life in the morning." Ezra looped an arm up behind the shoulders of the helpless sick man and eased him toward the bedroom.
Chris allowed himself to be guided back on to the rumpled bed, under the covers. Gentle hands coaxed him into a sitting position long enough to sip at a glass of water, then let him sink down into the soft pillows. He felt Ezra crawl into bed from the other side and lie down beside him. Even though he'd nearly been asleep in the bathroom, now that he was settled in to bed, sleep escaped him. He stirred and carefully turned his still aching head to look at Ezra lying there so still beside him. Oh, Ezra, I do love you. How do I tell you that, though, so that you will believe me after all that I've done? He wished for magic words and settled for silence, waiting and hoping, letting his eyes speak for him.
What is he doing now? Ezra watched his boss and did not move. He looks better now. Oh God, so close, he's so close and I love him so much. All I want to do is climb back into those arms, rest my head on that shoulder, and let his love surround me. His love? What kind of love deserts a lover, freezes him out after treating him almost abusively, however much it may have been from lack of experience? No, not love then. Just the job. He's just here because of the damn job.
Foolish, foolish! Ezra chastised himself. He's here because he didn't trust you to do this right, not with Zerbo. Obviously my skills in bed did not impress Mr. Larabee, he must have thought I couldn't carry it off with Fabbio, he must have thought I'd ruin our play for this bust. No trust. Not even good enough in bed to keep a lover, at least not a lover that I want. Ezra paled in shame and closed his eyes, his head tipping to the side on his pillow, to face away from Larabee's scrutiny. God, I wish I could hide, crawl away and become invisible.
Chris saw the usually firm façade of Ezra's face soften, revealing his inner confusion and anger. Then something changed and the man he loved looked ashamed. His eyes closed and he rolled his head away from Chris. Damn, he's managed to blame himself for all of this again. With a wry twist to his lips, Chris knew that he had a long way to go to regain Ezra's trust and respect. And love. He had had that precious commodity handed to him with an openness that had been overwhelming, love so precious and so rare. And he'd let it run through his fingers when he'd left, run out on Ezra.
They needed some time alone, together, to work through all this. For him to convince his stubborn friend that they were destined to walk through the remainder of life together as more than friends, as two halves of a whole. Trouble was, they didn't have that time right now. Right now was for surviving this case, protecting each other and getting out alive. A successful conclusion to this case, as far as Chris was concerned, was for Ezra and him to leave it still breathing, whether they got any bad guys or not.
"Ezra?" Chris reached across the expanse of bed to touch softly at the thick, short, russet hair curling on the pillow.
"Elijah." A soft correction, then Ezra rolled his head back over to face Chris.
With Ezra's movement, Chris' hand slid from within the strands of dark hair to the side of the pale face. Resting his fingers there, letting them gently stroke Ezra's cheekbone, Chris smiled in agreement. "Elijah, sorry." He paused until the green eyes opened and looked again into his. He licked his dry lips. "We are gonna be ok. I promise. And, I'm sorry I ran out on you a few weeks ago. I panicked. It took me a while to get my head on straight, but the way I treated you was unforgivable, so all I can ask is that you give me another chance."
Ezra stared into serious, begging blue-green eyes. "A second chance?"
"Someone gave me a second chance once." Green eyes veiled as Ezra lowered his eyes but continued to study Chris. "That person didn't have any reason to do so, but did anyway." He waited and saw the understanding dawn in Chris' eyes. "Can I do any less?"
Warmth flooded the blond's eyes and he dropped his hand to Ezra's shoulder to pull the man to him. Ezra felt the tug and let Chris know with his eyes that he was going to come to him because he, Ezra, wanted to. He drew himself in towards the heat of the blond's body. Both long arms wrapped him close and Chris whispered in his ear, "You won't regret it. Thank you." A light kiss brushed Ezra's ear tip, then Chris was rubbing his cheek against that soft reddish brown hair, sighing. In the quiet hours of the predawn both men succumbed to sleep, pressed together in each other's arms. It would be several hours before morning's light would usher in a new day.
Vin had worried. Chris had been in a foul mood last night and had drunk much more than was wise, even though it had been Buck's idea to start with. Get Larabee drinking to ease his tension. Once started however, it was like trying to stop an avalanche, to try to stop Chris Larabee's determination to drink himself under the table and into oblivion. And in fact, it wasn't any of the other men who'd derailed Larabee's unspoken plan, it had been his own stubborn nature that had done it. The man was so upset he couldn't anesthetize himself with liquor. Not enough. Vin had figured that out long before Chris did. So he'd sat beside his friend and waited it out.
When everyone decided they needed to get home, Vin had volunteered to drive Chris. The man had accepted with a surly nod. Once in the parking lot, though, things had changed. Vin had made sure that Chris was propped up against the passenger side door of the locked Ram while he went around to unlock the driver's door and release the central locking.
Returning to his friend's side, he'd helped the tall blond into the cab, closing the door on him. Before he could circle the truck, the son of a bitch had slid across the bench, gotten behind the wheel and started the engine. With Vin shouting at him, Chris had put the damn truck in gear and driven off. None of the others had witnessed this because they'd all waved their good byes and departed already.
That left Vin in the parking lot, cursing and alone. He'd watched the taillights of the Ram sail smoothly and in a very straight line, down the street before turning with precision at a corner two blocks away. Ok, he's not so far gone that he can't drive safely. With a shrug, Vin smiled slightly. Awright, cowboy, have it your own way. Vin climbed into his rumpled looking jeep and drove home.
On the way, he thought about Chris and Ezra. Although he considered Chris to be his own best friend, his almost brother, he didn't begrudge him finding love elsewhere. That kind of love was not what he wanted or needed from his friend. Instinctively he knew that they'd keep their friendship, their own unique closeness no matter what. With that he was content.
Ezra. Well, Vin'd always liked the con man, found a fellow prankster beneath that placid pool surface, with a sense of humor so devious and wry that it more than matched his own. They were very alike in their solitude and independence, their childhoods had even been similar from what he knew of the Southerner's. The thought of Chris and Ezra together did not disturb the sharpshooter, in fact, now that he'd had time to think on it, he was actually happy for them. I hope it all works out, they'll be good for each other. A tiny smile continued to play over his face as Vin drove home to his apartment in Purgatorio.
Nathan had caught JD's arm as they all exited Inez's bar. "JD, I could use your help."
The youngest of the seven looked up at the tall black medic. "Sure, Nate, whatcha want?"
"I may have a lead for another way into this case. Right now, anything we can do to close it and get Ezra out is gonna be a good idea."
"You said it." JD shoved his hands in his back jeans' pockets. "So how can I help?"
Nathan smiled, their young computer expert had a huge heart, would help any one any way he could. "Back at the office, I need you to hack into some data banks and trace gun inventories of certain military installations, track any missing stuff that's showed up since, out on the streets. I got a particular kinda gun and ammo in mind."
Face brightening at the thought of playing on his computer, JD nodded enthusiastically, his black hair flopping into his eyes. With a quick spearing motion, the wiry youth forced his longish hair back behind his ears. "Like in Boulder, huh? Can do." Hope this will help Ez and Chris, they are both hurting and Ez is likely in real trouble right now, too. He forced his helmet down over his head and straddled his bike, the motor purring to life beneath his hand.
Nathan nodded, they'd meet back at the Federal building. He strolled over to his SUV, aware of Vin propping a weaving, muttering Larabee up against the side of the big black Ram. It was only a moment's work to get his own vehicle rolling and the medic headed back toward their offices. Haven't seen Larabee so stressed out in a long time and he's not handling this well.
With a rueful shake of his head, the black man thought of his friend Carl again which set him to thinking about their own black sheep, Ezra Standish. Man can be a butt sore, but he's basically a good man, and smart, too. And Chris better not hurt him, no one deserves the kind of pain that Carl went through. A deep shaft of anxiety shot through him. Aw, I hope Ezra's stronger than that, don't do nothin' foolish like Carl did. We gotta get him outta there and hope that Chris can mend fences.
Josiah headed for the mission on St. Martin Street. The sisters had asked him to fix a leaky pipe in the kitchen and he wanted to get that done. Driving sedately down the cross street, he thought about his wayward 'son' Ezra. That boy gets in more scrapes. And now he's got Chris Larabee twisted in knots over him. He and Chris had always been at odds, even though Chris was the one that recruited Standish out of Atlanta's FBI offices. They banged heads all the time, but Josiah had never interfered.
Now he was wondering if he should try to act as peacemaker, maybe even matchmaker? Hell's fire, those boys were like a couple of star-crossed lovers. He hunched over the steering wheel, seeing the lights of the mission ahead down the road. As soon as this case is over, I'm going to have a very private talk with Chris Larabee. Ezra is too fragile a spirit to be battered about by a menace like Chris. Either Larabee stills his own tempest, or he and Ezra will never make it as a couple. Parking at the curb, Sanchez mentally shelved his worries so that he could give his full attention and sympathies to the good sisters, their charges, and a certain leaky pipe.
Buck tipped an imaginary hat to Tanner, leaving Larabee in his hands. He wasn't sure if the liquor had done what he'd hoped, but at least Chris hadn't exploded on them. Not that Buck wasn't prepared to take on the old dog, but these days it was usually Tanner who poured their boss into his bed after an especially long night out. And after these last two weeks of shepherding his friend, he was actually grateful to be able to relinquish the responsibility to someone else. Someone he knew cared as much as he did for the cantankerous blond. He'd seen JD and Nate conferring and departing with purpose. Guess the boy won't be showin' up for a while longer tonight. He gave in to a tired sigh and turned the key of his truck's ignition. Well, they need me, they'll tell me, meanwhile, this old boy is gonna crash. With a rattle and a clank, his old truck lurched into gear and he followed Josiah's rear lights out of the parking lot, his mind on their absent friend. Ez, you hang tough tonight, buddy, and we'll see you through. Trust old Buck.
"There!" JD pointed to the blue screen glowing in front of them. Nathan nodded slowly, consideringly, placing a big hand on the enthusiastic youth's shoulder.
"So, you did find somethin'. That settles it, we'll tell the others in the morning. Then we are going to bust open this case with a flank attack."
"Huh?" The bewildered tone was usually JD's response to something Ezra said. Nathan smiled.
"When we have Ezra show Fabbio Zerbo that Wagner has been playing two sides, selling the shipments twice, through Zerbo's contacts AND through his own, that partnership is goin' to come to an abrupt end. All we have to do is make sure that we're ready to pull Ez out when we let the shit hit the fan."
He sank into the swivel chair beside JD, the one Buck usually straddled while hectoring the young hacker during office hours. He watched as JD tapped the print button and the evidence started spewing out of the printer. The bullet in that guy in Boulder had turned out to be from a specialty gun, a prototype with only one US military source. That in turn, led to a pipeline supplier to Wagner. A supplier that should not have been doing business with the same man that did business with Faber. Wagner had left a trail of bank transactions that were like guilty parallel tracks, two sets of exchanges, clearly for the same goods. The man had dug his own grave and was too stupid to cover himself properly. Of course, it was no certainty that anyone could protect his or her private transactions from a computer hound like JD. A small sigh of satisfaction escaped.
JD was glowing with his accomplishment. It was fun to outsmart computer programmers, to sneak through back doors and under firewalls. But, even better, it was outstanding, it was KICKING to actually pinpoint some bad guy's mistake and be able to get him for it. Yeah, this was cool. He stifled a yawn, his natural biorhythms fighting his adrenaline rush. And, he'd helped Nathan find a way to break the case without having to leave Ez inside, in danger, and Chris, in pain. JD's glow dampened as he thought about the pain he'd seen in his boss, suspected in his friend Ezra. Hope this helps and gives them a chance to work it all out. He sincerely hoped they could fix whatever was wrong.
Buck listened to the sound of the ring repeat itself, come on Vin, answer the damn phone!
"Vin?" Buck waited.
Buck could hear the alertness coming up in Vin's speech. He wondered how the sharpshooter was going to take this news. "Ah, Vin, we have a slight situation, with Ezra... and Chris."
Silence, then, "What happened?"
Buck sighed. "Chris broke into Zerbo's hotel room last night, took over Ezra's scam, right in front of him."
"They ok?" The laconic response was so typically 'Vin' that Buck smiled, relaxing.
"Yeah. Ez just called me, he was pissed royal, but they are both safe. Seems Chris managed to convince Zerbo that he and 'Elijah' were partners and that Chris was really the one in charge."
"Yeah." Buck chuckled. "Still, we need to get them outta there. I tole Ez that we'd figure a way to pull'em both out today. Can you let the others know? We'll meet at the office at 7 and pow-wow then."
"Right." Buck heard the click of disconnection. He dropped his own phone and rolled over, long arm reaching out to drag his alarm clock off the bedside table. With drooping eyelids, he set the timer for an earlier hour than his regular get up time and then subsided back into his pillow. Even just a little bit more shuteye would feel good and he had a feelin' he wuz gonna need it.
When Vin got Nathan's cell phone, he found out that the ex-medic and JD were both back at the office, had yet to go home in fact. After a short talk, Nathan told him what they'd found. Nate added that he and JD would just catch a catnap on the office couches until the 7 AM meeting later that morning. They'd have their findings ready for the other team members.
Vin had no trouble contacting Josiah whose language caused some sort of uproar in the background. He could hear Josiah apologizing to someone for his colorful choice of words. Back on the line, Josiah told Vin that he'd be there for the meeting and then disconnected.
Buck looked up from his copy of JD's printout and a slow, dark smile creased his face, his eyes almost sleepy with pleasure. "Great work, boys!" He slapped the sheaf of documents down on the conference table and took a quick look around the table at the others. Josiah was restacking his set of papers and tapping them into a neat pile in front of him, a look of intense satisfaction shining from his visage.
Vin, who always struggled with long documents, was just finishing Nate's cover, the executive summary, which had a thorough outline of the findings and implications. He grinned over at JD and Nathan. "Ya done good."
JD was lit up like a jack o'lantern, wide toothy grin plastered over his face as he tipped back in his chair, hooking thumbs in his belt loops. Nathan flashed the group a smile and then turned serious, leaning forward on his elbows, hands splayed out on the smooth wooden surface. "Yeah. We got'em right enough. Now, how we gonna get Chris and Ezra out and let them know?"
The next hour was spent in intense discussion of the possibilities and improbabilities available. Just as frustration levels started to rise, Buck's cell phone rang again. Everyone stopped talking. They all figured only one of two men was likely to be on the other end of that call.
"Pard, we got-"
"Buck, listen up. I'm getting Ez outta here right now. May need some back up if Zerbo gets stubborn."
"Listen, Chris, we got news and -"
"It'll have to wait. Excelsior Hotel, penthouse suite. You got thirty minutes, starting now."
There was a click and then air.
Chris dropped his cell to the floor beside the bed and bent over Ezra. "You awake?"
Green eyes flicked open and watched Larabee cautiously. Chris smiled down into them, trying to project reassurance, love. He saw the look change, warm in response. Still guarded but at least friendly. "What now?"
"Now, Ezra, we get the hell outta here." He sat up, pulling the conman up with him, directly into his arms as they sat together in the mess of blankets on the hotel bed. Before Standish could react, Chris cupped one hand around the man's chin and guided that face to his own. A chaste, tender kiss. It was really all they had time for right now. "Come on, lazy bones, get up and get dressed, we need to be ready to leave in thirty."
"Hmm," Ezra licked his lips, bringing up his thumb to rub below the lower lip thoughtfully, "So Ah heard." He cocked his head at his bed partner of the night. "How exactly did you plan on extractin' us from our current predicament?"
Chris let his smile widen and put a teasing kiss on the southerner's nose tip. "Figured that was your job."
An indignant flash of green eyes. "You thrust yourself into mah undercover work, essentially take it ovah, and now... now…" Ezra subsided, speechless wonder covering his usually guarded face.
Larabee laughed quietly and grabbed one small hand. Jumping clear of the bed, he dragged his reluctant agent out from beneath the heap of blankets and up beside him. Both totally naked, the two men faced each other from inches apart, hands still connected. Breathless with hot new urgency, Chris gulped and snagged Ezra against him, nearly smothering the shorter man in his sudden desperation to consume and protect him.
Two firm hands flattened on his chest and straight-armed Chris back away. "Alright, alright, Ah'll think o'somethin'. We best get dressed." Ezra's voice sounded a bit strained though, which left Larabee with an ember of glowing happiness deep inside. The man can't hide it, not completely, he does still feel for me.
"Everyone set?" Buck's voice over the headsets sounded tense.
A chorus of affirmatives from his four teammates reassured him.
It was the not knowing that had everyone skittish. Eyes glued to the empty hall, to windows, roof, elevators, and lobby, the men waited now. They'd arrived in screeching record time and now that time slowed to a crawl. Until they got another signal, or saw their missing teammates, all they could do was wait.
Ezra Standish managed to look like a glowing, if repentent, angel when he appeared before Fabbio on the terrace balcony. Zerbo had ordered up room service and a large breakfast spread was waiting for his guests in the morning sunshine. Zerbo himself was sipping strong espresso as he perused the morning paper. His face relaxed into a welcoming smile as Gobbi pulled open the sliding door from the main salon and stood back to allow their guests out onto the balcony. "Elijah!" He peered over the lovely young man's shoulder at the dark shadow beyond, "And Christopher? Good morning!"
The two men stepped fully out onto the balcony. "Fabbio, good morning, dear sir. I fear I owe you a tiny apology." Ezra hung his head sadly.
Chris closed the distance between them, his arms coming up to wrap his teammate and hold him against his chest. He met Zerbo's amused glance. "What he means is, he's been a bad boy."
"A tease?" Zerbo played along.
"Yeah. Only now he knows the error of his ways." There was a momentary scuffle, as the younger man shrugged irritably in Larabee's arms, shooting a miffed look back over his shoulder.
Zerbo chuckled. "I assume, Christopher, that you are a master instructor in that regard?"
"Could say that," came the laconic response. Chris tilted his face forward and down to peck a kiss on the top of the smoothly combed chestnut curls. "And now, Fabbio, we gotta go. Got things to do, to set up for the meet this afternoon."
Zerbo patted his lips with a linen napkin, letting his newspaper fall to the table. "You and Elijah cannot stay for breakfast?"
"Ahh, well, you see, Ah don't eat break-"
"He needs to watch his weight, don't want him turning into no butterball." Chris overrode Ezra's attempt at a response.
Zerbo raised his eyebrows at that. He'd had a chance to hold Elijah last night before the other man had barged into their evening. Elijah was little more than a waif-like figure, nearly skin and bones. This Christopher should take better care of his toys. None of his business, though, really. And this was about business. "Very well. Vito will see you out. Until this afternoon, then?" He nodded dismissal and lifted his newspaper, smoothly cutting off further conversation.
For a moment, Larabee was stuck. Not sure how to respond, but then Ezra was giving a small discontented sigh and turning in his arms, grabbing one and half-shoving him toward the door where Vito Gobbi waited to escort them out. Larabee shook his head, too easy. But, easy was good. He followed silently in the wake of his agent.
At the door, Ezra retrieved his overnight bag from where he'd dropped it when they had come into the salon from the guest bedroom. With a casual nod to Gobbi who watched impassively, he led his boss out of the suite and into the hotel hallway. A faint flicker of movement at the end of the hall, that was Buck. He knew it and saw that Larabee had seen it too. Both walked over to the elevator and relaxed, hearing the door to the suite close at their backs.
Just before the doors slid shut, Buck squeezed inside, a silent squirm and a huge grin. Two long arms gathered the wayward sheep back into the fold as the elevator began it's descent.
"-and that's how it ended." Larabee concluded his carefully expurgated briefing in a clipped monotone, his eyes never leaving Standish's face. Somethings didn't need to go beyond the two of them. Ever. He hoped Ezra could read the commitment in his eyes. "Now," he swung around to face Wilmington, "You said you had news."
"Yep, ya see, Nate and JD done found somethin' very interesting and I think you're gonna like it…" As Buck went into his report, JD pushed copies of the documents that he and Nathan had created over to Standish and Larabee. No one had made any comments during Chris' narrative, no sounds at all.
It seemed safer, everyone had privately and independently concluded, to let that dog lie for now.
Rule number one, ignore disasters and sometimes they disappear all by themselves. Ezra pursed his lips as he quickly scanned the documents, one eyebrow rising in surprise and satisfaction as he reached JD's and Nathan's conclusive evidence summary. He raised his eyes toward the two men and tipped a nod of congratulations and respect.
JD, who caught the look, smirked an acknowledgement and nudged Nate in the side, nodding toward Ezra's now smiling face. Nathan, who had been focused on Larabee and seen the look of growing triumph there, glanced over at their con man and sent a sloping grin back at the pleased look he met there.
"Oh, yeah," Buck concluded expansively, "we not only got'em, but we double-dog got'em." He leaned back and rubbed the back of his neck, easing the tension he was trying to conceal. The case was wrapping up nicely, but he was uneasy about his old friend and the con man. Need to talk to Chris private-like, but no time yet. Leastways, Ez don't look too bad off, neither does Chris fer that matter. Maybe they got something figured out, somehow? Sure do hope so, Buck thought as he turned his attention back to the now lively discussion about this afternoon's meet.
It looked like it was going to turn into the bust right then, with a little help from a fallout among thieves. Said fallout activated by the exposure of Wagner's double-dealing to Zerbo. The original tentative plan had called for Standish to do this. Now, though, it would have to be Larabee and Standish. They continued to hash out their game plan. Vin was sent to set up back up with Team 3 to cover them. It would be a busy afternoon. Four of them would go in as the anonymous stevedores at their dummy airfield warehouse. Josiah was going to come in as the pilot of the air freighter. He'd land just before the meeting started, help along the cover with his flying skills, taxi up to the drop and join the team on the ground - hopefully just as Zerbo's eighteen wheeler pulled into the docking bay, and Zerbo and Wagner arrived. With luck, they'd even catch the buyer's representative during the blowout between Zerbo and Wagner that Chris and Ezra were going to foment.
Breaking for coffee, everyone agreed to get vested and into appropriate attire before a final meet right after lunch. The room vacated in record time, their five teammates exiting quickly, clearly giving their boss and the team undercover agent some much needed time alone.
Now is not the time, Ezra thought to himself. Not right before going in to a bust. He sat quietly, hands folded on the tabletop and waited without looking over at Larabee.
We need to talk but neither of us is going to be any good this afternoon at the meet if we get our heads screwed up now. Chris slowly rose to his feet. "Ezra? What say we go get something to eat. Plenty of time to write up reports after we wrap this case."
Ezra couldn't suppress a gurgle of acknowledgement from his stomach. Between nerves and his birdlike eating habits, he really was famished. Food sounded much better than he expected. With a grateful nod, he joined Chris at the door and followed him out.
The entire rest of Team 7 held a collective breath as they secretly watched the duo leave the conference room, only moments after the others. Shouldn't they have stayed in there and talked? JD puzzled worriedly, eyeing them from the cover of his computer console.
Buck instantly realized that the men couldn't talk now, not with the impending action this afternoon. He nodded to himself. They seemed to be doin' alright for now. He'd sit back and wait, see if either of them needed a safety net after this case was over and time wasn't so limited. Two sore headed bears in need of a little cuddlin' he mused, we'll jest have to see that they git the time ta do it tonight. He flinched internally, even if it means the rest of us get stuck writing up all the gol-blasted reports.
Vin was shrugging into his spare denim jacket when he spotted them strolling down the center aisle of the common room. He subsided into his desk chair and pretended to be engrossed in the papers scattered on the desktop. They don't need no third wheel right now. He scratched at some whiskers and sighed, he could wait 'til they left before corralling JD, maybe Buck and the others for a pizza over at Mamacita's…
Nathan straightened up in his seat. He'd only just sat down, hadn't even put down his papers yet and there they were. His lips tightened and he thought about warning Chris Larabee to take it easy on Ezra, the man looked pale enough to be a ghost. He opened his mouth to speak when a large, gentle hand snaked forward to grip his shoulder and turn him away from the now departing fellow agents. Josiah's placid face came into view. "I think it would be best if we let them alone for now, Brother Nathan."
Jackson's mouth hung open for another timeless minute, then he blinked and snapped it shut, eyes smiling up to meet Sanchez's. He nodded. "You hungry?"
"Starved, Brother. You in mind of some fishes and loaves?"
"Jeesh, Josiah, I can think of a million things better'n that to eat," JD's youthful voice cracked behind them.
"Like pizza?" Came from a hopeful Vin.
"Now that, my friends, is the suggestion I wuz waitin' fer." Buck's gangling progress across the floor always looked like a combination dance and stagger, his long, loose limbs relaxed and his face covered with an angelic smile of good fellowship. Without even looking, he swatted the back of JD's head and led the way toward the door.
Grinning foolishly at each other, relief almost palpable in the air, with the sound of JD's indignant, "Hey!" ringing in their ears, the rest of Team 7 followed their second in command out of the offices toward lunch.
"You gonna eat that or play with it?"
A sigh. Agitated hands flitted to rest, fork clattered onto the crockery plate.
"Ez? You need to eat something. If you don't want that, I'll get you something else."
Another sigh. A long-suffering one.
"Don't do this to me, Ez. Please."
"Mr. Larabee -"
A pause. "Chris. Ah find that Ah am not all that hungry now that Ah'm faced with actual victuals."
"You haven't eaten since yesterday and I bet you didn't eat much then either, not with Zerbo breathing down your neck."
"Chris, mah appetite wanes before... before Ah have to go back under again, especially with action likely."
"Ezra, at least eat some of the toast. Dammit, we came to this health food bar 'cause you said you liked the food here."
"And Ah do. Ah do. Normally. When I'm hungry. And relaxed, not under pressure."
"Ok, ok, so you can't relax. Neither can I. But I'm gonna hafta hit you if you don't put at least half that slice of toast in your mouth and chew the damn thing... AND swallow it."
"Well," pause, "when you put it in so genteel and persuasive a mannah…"
The rest of the afternoon was a blur of rushed activities as Team 7 prepared to go in, lay this case to rest and put some baddies behind bars.
Josiah left early so that he could sign out the old air freighter that they had reserved and put in at least a half-hour of flight time before landing at the rendezvous.
Chris changed into his 'meeting' suit in his office. He always kept one there for when Travis called down for a meeting unexpectedly. Ezra fished out a casual change of clothes from the overnight bag that had accompanied him back to the office from the hotel. The fine wool knit rust colored turtleneck under a worn leather bomber's jacket that he borrowed from Vin made him look especially sexy, Larabee thought as he came to a halt at Ezra's and Vin's cubicle doorway.
Ezra looked up and caught his breath at the sight of Chris Larabee all in charcoal gray. The simple suit had elegant lines and the gray on gray lighter tones of the silk shirt and tie made the man before him look like a sleek wild panther, ready to stalk his prey. Lazy blue-green eyes were sultry with heat as Larabee's eyes traveled up and down the suddenly self-conscious undercover agent.
"You look good enough to eat."
"It's 'Chris' and I intend to eat you, tonight."
Ezra sat speechless again. This was becoming a regular and sinister occurrence, being unable to find any words when faced with his... his... damn, he couldn't even THINK in words right now. Ezra closed his eyes in dismay. A gentle touch under his chin tilted his face up and he opened his eyes to find Chris Larabee disturbingly close.
"That's a promise, Ezra. Deal with it." He smiled his best predator smile. Then he closed the small distance between them and delicately touched lips to waiting, parted lips. A soft gasp in the background and a quiet chuckle told him that Vin was an appreciative audience. He smiled into the kiss and increased pressure ever so lightly, feeling Ezra's reluctant response.
Backing off, Larabee rested one shoulder against the doorframe and watched with newly discovered fondness as Standish, blushing wildly, fumbled to his feet, automatically brushing down the borrowed jacket he was tugging into shape. Somehow, Chris felt a renewed confidence that everything was going to be alright. He had some work ahead of him with his man, but they'd make the time and do it right this time. HE'd do it right. And he'd apologize to Ezra every day, every hour, for the rest of his life, if that was what it took, while telling him how much he loved him. He could feel his heart lighten and grow at the good feeling that thought engendered. "Come on, love, let's get this over with." He reached out and captured one of Ezra's fluttering hands firmly and turned, pulling his still voiceless friend after him, a chuckling Vin bringing up the rear.
Ezra actually felt dazed. He'd said he'd give Chris a second chance, but he'd not expected the man to take the bit in his teeth and stampede them into an impetuous liaison. Eat him, indeed. He swallowed hard, timidly following behind Larabee, still connected by Chris' hold on his hand. He bit his lip and kept his peace. A bit too confident, Mr. Larabee was, making some rather unwarranted assumptions, he was. Ezra thought of the two too silent weeks of abandonment he'd survived after their physical clash on the mountaintop. Well, Chris had gone from an unsure lover to an overbearing one in what seemed like the flash of an eye. Ezra finally managed, by dint of the sweaty surface of his hand, to pull free of the imprisoning hand. Chris gave him a look and Ezra raised his chin but continued to follow. They did have a job to do. Eat me, indeed. Ezra shivered but wasn't cold.
The air was dry and chill, it seemed to suck the life out of you. The sky was an empty pale washed out blue, almost white. Black specks circled so high above they could have been illusions but weren't. Buck's tan and brown truck disappeared into the dusty landscape, there hadn't been any rain here in a very long time. The bleached crumbly dry dirt sifted beneath the men's feet as they crunched through flinty rock and dry soil, where once there were hints that a lawn had existed. Really just white painted rocks forming borders to more weedy dust, but maybe once, Vin thought squatting to draw a twig in the dirt as he squinted up past the mostly boarded up old buildings that edged the private airfield. Beyond the roofs, the jagged silhouette of the Rockies shouldered the sky with remote grandeur. Vin's spirit resonated with the wild call of a distant coyote yipping in the late afternoon. Shadows were black fingers that pointed east toward the flat prairie lands of the Great Plains. Spirit ghosts walked this land. He grinned tightly. None of the others was likely to sense that, 'cept maybe Josiah, only he was probably one of those black specks up there, circling in the sky just now, waiting for his moment to bring that old girl in for a landing on the solitary runway.
The runway was still used periodically by an erst-while flying school, some local farmers and a crop duster. It was little better than a wide dirt road, but flat and hard packed with the impact of years of hot rubber tires, friction searing the soil into a rocklike substance. The occasional pothole was sheered out of the surface by careless pilots who didn't watch their landing approaches to this backwater little spot, only an hour outside of Denver, a world away.
A plume of dust in the distance warned that the eighteen-wheeler and four other vehicles (one of them, he knew, was a black Jag) were in convoy toward them, judging from the distance, still nearly a half-hour away. Vin rose to his feet and padded after Nathan toward the big warehouse. Ahead of them, JD and Buck were hauling open the great sliding doors that rattled and groaned. Both men began to hack and cough at the dust that blew up into their faces, raised with the great doors' passage on a rusty track.
Waving a hand in front of his face, Buck choked and coughed against it, felt like he'd swallowed a beach, all sand. In a scratchy voice, he called to the others, "Damn, how the hell does Josiah know about places like this? And where the hell is anybody else?"
Nathan came to a stop a goodly distance from the dust cloud enveloping Buck and JD. "You know how he likes his quiet places for meditatin' - seems like this is one of them."
"Good place fer that." Vin's gravelly voice agreed as he strolled up behind Nathan and also came to a stop, waiting for the dust to settle back to the earth.
"So? Where is everyone? This ain't another of Ezra's ghost towns, is it?" JD had taken off the outback trail hat he'd brought and tried to beat the dust out of his clothing with it, raising yet another series of puffing clouds, until he was seen as through a dry fog.
"Naw," Nathan turned to survey the empty scene, incidentally turning his back on the new wave of dust billowing out. "Josiah sent word to the folks that live or work here, they all cleared out for the day - safer that way, for them and for us."
Buck clapped JD's shoulder and lowered his hoarse voice, "JD, don't go whacking that hat no more, you gave birth to enough whirlwinds jest now to make a twister." He stepped away from his now sullen friend and extended his arms expansively. "This here is a great place for our little bit o' action."
Vin looked around, down at the bits of flint and shale, then up into the empty sky. "Good place to die."
"Well, ain't gonna be none of us, pard," Buck said, striding loose-limbed past the sharpshooter and tugging at his sleeve. "Come on, junior, we got work to do."
Team 3 had already arrived, staking out the perimeter. They'd been briefed on the location and were wearing Desert Storm camouflage suits. Buck had spotted their unit van behind the second warehouse, not far from the one selected for the meet. He conferred with the team leader while the rest of Teams 3 and 7 mingled briefly, exchanging taunts and good-natured jibes. A dark cross-shaped shadow flickered across the ground and over them and vanished as an ever louder mechanical hum sounded from the air above them. Everyone shaded their eyes to look up at Josiah's old airship, a prop driven old cargo plane that winked it's battered silver skin at them as he waggled the wings and circled again.
The plume of dust marking the approaching convoy was bigger now and you could hear the sounds of the jouncing vehicles and the roaring stick-shifting engine of the big truck, grinding through its gears on the rough track. "Okay, ladies!" Buck hollered, "Places!"
He ducked, hand to head, shading eyes as Josiah's craft swooped low over the airfield before circling round again for final approach. "Dang blasted man, I'll show him funny!" Buck muttered as he crouched low out of the way of the sudden dust devils thrown up by the passing of the plane. Still hunched over, the tall surveillance expert, now 'stevedore,' ran for the shelter of their warehouse.
With a flourish that would have done the Spirit of St. Louis proud, Josiah set his plane down on the runway and began the process of killing it's forward speed. The loud stutter of the suddenly backwashing propellers and the hissing breaks on bouncing wheels buried the waiting men in their cacophony. By the time Sanchez had the cargo plane rolling to a limping stop, everyone was either hidden in their selected spots or standing boldly in the warehouse entrance, watching Josiah's arrival and the ever nearing dust plume.
Josiah grinned a great grin of pure pleasure. Flying was like touching god's face, he thought, taking in a deeply contented breath of the hot, dry air. He taxied his old lady up near the warehouse they had chosen. Everyone would have witnessed his unsubtle arrival. Just as they'd planned. He switched off the engines.
The sudden absence of nearby sounds was like a rushing vacuum for the waiting men, and the vacuum was quickly filled by the harsh, approaching sounds of the convoy of vehicles only a quarter of a mile distant now. A low black shape led the procession, a Jaguar, it's surface streaming rivulets of white dust.
Josiah kicked open the belly door and dropped to the ground beneath his silver beast. Crossing his ankles, he remained standing there, one elbow hooked up on the cargo floor of the open hatch. A dark shape in the dark shade, unmoving.
A hush settled over the huddle of buildings. The air cleared as the backwash from the plane's touchdown became another fine coating of white chalky dust over everything. And then the Jag rounded the end of the group of buildings and followed the marked road up to the men waiting at the warehouse doors. A squat gray Maserati pulled up along side it, followed by two black limousines, and one enormous truck, the eighteen-wheeler.
JD silently drum-rolled his fingers on the tin side of the door he stood by. He watched, with the others, as Chris stepped out of the Jag, Wagner out of the Maserati, Zerbo, Ezra and a bodyguard, must be that fellow Victor Gobbi, climbed from one of the two parked limousines. He waited to see who would emerge from the second long dark car, but it remained closed and anonymous with tinted windows that looked blankly back at him. From the tall cab of the big truck, two burly looking men hopped heavily to the ground, both removing driving gloves and looking around suspiciously.
Buck strode forward toward Chris, focusing only on him, trying to look like he really didn't want to be here, just a hired hand, having to work on a hot, hot day. Since he FELT like that anyway, he didn't have to work real hard to act it. He could see a twitching at the ends of Larabee's closed mouth, man was laughin' at him, damn him. He brazenly grinned back. "Howdy, boss. You want I should get them fellers to back that truck up to the dock?"
Chris nodded and Buck swung away to go give instructions to the truckers. In their rough clothes and dust, Chris thought his team looked their parts to perfection though he noticed that Ezra was frowning. He paid attention as Zerbo spoke quietly to his undercover agent and leaned across him to gesture to Gobbi. The bodyguard nodded and turned to plod over to Chris. Ezra stayed by Zerbo's side, looking especially small next to the tall, suave, blond Italian. Chris clenched his fists and waited.
"Signor, Signor Zerbo wishes you to know that he will take care of his business himself, as a sign of his good faith. Please do nothing." Gobbi's words were dull plops of sound, that matched the ones issuing from the silenced pistol that started coughing in Zerbo's hand.
Wagner, who'd been standing casually next to his sports car, a go-fer and observer, staggered back, his body jerking in a macabre dance with the rhythm of the repeated coughs from Zerbo's gun. Ezra had stiffened beside the tall man, but didn't move. Chris couldn't tell if he were surprised or not, his agent was in full cover mode and carried it off with smooth professionalism as always. Gobbi stepped in front of Larabee when the dark blond made a move to join the other two. Nothing was said. Chris glared at him but didn't push, the other limo remained quiescent.
Zerbo bent down to whisper something pleasantly into Ezra's ear, swiping his weapons clean with a large white linen handkerchief. Ezra nodded, not raising his eyes from the ground but gesturing toward Chris. Zerbo looked up and his blank, dead eyes met Larabee's. When did I ever think those eyes were blue? They were colorless now in the sunshine, empty with death. Chris wanted urgently to go to Ezra but couldn't chance it.
"Mr. Larson? I keep my shop clean, you see?"
Chris nodded. Zerbo tapped Ezra on the shoulder and spoke to him again, too low for Chris to hear. Then Fabbio was making a wide arm motion to bring Larabee closer and Gobbi was stepping back. Chris walked steadily over, ignoring the body in the dirt. Gotcha for murder, you snake, he thought with utter satisfaction.
"Elijah told me of Wagner's invidious betrayal. I'm surprised neither he nor you mentioned it last night or this morning?"
Chris didn't let his eyes stray to Ezra's. "Didn't get confirmation until this afternoon. Why I let Elijah ride with you. Figured that was a safe way to get you the message."
"True. You are very trusting with your little friend, though, Christopher." Fabbio smiled down on Ezra and traced a line on the already dusty surface of Ezra's cheek. "I'm not sure I would have done the same."
"Elijah knows who he came to the party with." Chris jerked his chin while throwing a telling look at Ezra. Standish instantly stepped away from Zerbo and quietly walked over to Larabee's side. Chris didn't touch him, just resumed eye contact with their target. Gobbi shifted uncomfortably on his other side but did not leave for Zerbo's side.
The sound of the giant truck's engine restarting and then the movement of the vehicle, backing and starting, setting up against the docking bay of the warehouse, interrupted their little scene. JD, Nathan and Vin stood on the dock, Vin using hand signals to bring the truck in. Buck was walking alongside the driver's door, chatting with the driver and adding additional directions as needed.
With a whoosh of air brakes, the truck stopped again and the engine cut off. Zerbo looked over at the silent plane and pilot, "He your man?"
Chris nodded. "Yep."
"Well, time to let my customers see what they are getting." Zerbo raised a commanding eyebrow and Gotti walked over to the remaining limo. After a moment, all four doors opened and a number of short, dark-haired men emerged, all silent and graceful, all armed with Uzi's except for one whose hair was streaked with gray. His hands were empty. The Japanese had arrived.
Ezra stood impassively at Chris Larabee's side. The cold blooded killing he'd been forced to witness had disgusted him, his skin was still crawling in reaction to the warm, moist breath of Zerbo who'd whispered in his ear after murdering Wagner. The words had been nonsensical and deadly, at least, he hoped they were nonsensical. "If you want, you too could be without a partner... in need of a new one?"
Ezra had murmured softly, "Fabbio, I am where I want to be in my life. Say goodbye to Alberto. One should always be respectful of the dead."
Zerbo's soft laugh tickled his cheek, but the man had backed away, spoken to Chris across the dead man's body. Once more he turned back to Ezra and tapped his shoulder, "So, we keep your Christopher safe now. For you." Eyes made contact and Ezra nearly shuddered at the deadness of the soul within those ice blue eyes. "If ever you want to change partners…"
"Rule number one, Fabbio, always leave the party with the man you came in with." Zerbo's chuckle was the only answer he got.
Chris and Ezra both swiveled to face the new group of men, each rapidly reassessing their plan. No one had expected automatic weapons or this many men. Should have, Chris kicked himself mentally, face impassive.
This is not good, Ezra silently calculated their chances of getting out of this unharmed. Not good at all. Not a wager I'd want to make, even on a lucky day.
The thumping of crates and shuffling of booted feet drew everyone's eyes up to the loading bay where Chris' men now had dragged two large shipping crates from the back of the truck. Zerbo motioned to his dark counterpart to join him there and the two men, the tall Italian and the short Japanese, climbed the wooden steps at the side of the dock's wall, up to the platform. With a short word and gesture, Zerbo had Vin using a crowbar on one of the crates, heaving up the slats on the top. The sharp crack of the snapping wood was loud in the silence. Zerbo reached into the crate as every ATF agent held perfectly still. He drew out a plastic wrapped assault weapon, and handed it to the short man beside him. From where they stood, neither Chris nor Ezra could hear what was said. As shippers, it wasn't their place to hear, so that left the call to Buck and Vin, the closest agents. Everyone was wearing wires and some of Team 3 had monitoring equipment set up in another building to record anything said. They'd nail the bastards, one way or another. Right now, Chris was more concerned about the fanned out half-circle of armed bodyguards or soldiers in plain suits that stood just behind him and Ezra, facing the action up on the dock.
Ezra felt the sensitive skin between his shoulder blades itch with nervous energy. A bullet in the back was not his choice of how he wanted to end this life. Right now, though, it seemed more likely than not. He stood motionless, barely breathing.
For a moment more, the tableau held, then something happened, no one was sure afterwards what, and one of the bodyguards squeezed a single shot at the crate above him. Everyone started to duck, guns appeared blossoming flame in every hand, Buck was yelling, "Freeze, ATF!" and the mad scramble began.
Nathan roared and leaped up on top of Zerbo, as big as the man, he forced them to the wooden floor and wrestled with the struggling man, trying to cuff him. JD took a running start and flew at the smaller man, who magically turned and assumed a martial arts stance, easily deflecting the young man's straight forward attack. JD didn't have a black belt for nothing, and was already back on his feet, balanced and centering, facing off with his older opponent. Buck tackled Gobbi, trying to wrest his lethal sidearm away, but the bodyguard had at least 60 pounds on him and they spun, in a clutch, off the end of the dock, landing hard on the ground below, still fighting for possession of Gobbi's gun. Vin had pulled his short, sawed off shotgun from the sling across his back, dragging it free of the denim jacket and flipping it forward into firing position. Without stopping to think beyond the moment, he was methodically hitting the line of firing men facing him, like so many targets on the firing range. Only these men were spraying fans of bullets out, fortunately without much success. Josiah's big revolvers were booming behind them, hitting low to take out legs, causing several of the shooters to spin and try to return fire.
With the first sound of the single gunshot, Chris grabbed Ezra and dove for the ground. They were both too exposed and too vulnerable to do anything until they got out of the immediate potential of crossfire. The choked curse from beneath him became a desperate cough as Ezra took in a lungful of dust from the ground. Chris ignored the sounds from Ezra and lay on top of him covering him as best he could, his own weapon in hand, trying to pick off some of the shooters in the melee'.
Later, Josiah swore it was all over within fifteen seconds. No one else was certain, but by the time Team 3 could dig out of their covers, it was over. Zerbo was cuffed and lying belly down under Nathan's knee. Vin was holding one arm, where a bullet had clipped his muscle, leaving a slow bleeding groove. He held his shotgun with the hand of his wounded arm and stood looking down at the carnage below on the ground. Buck was standing over Gobbi's body, giving it a vicious kick, which the dead bodyguard could not feel. JD was holding his nose, blood streaming down his face, on his knees next to the unconscious form of his opponent. Josiah had reached the half-circle of downed men, both truckers among them, and was kicking away weapons, from mostly lifeless hands, as Vin covered him.
With a surge and grunt, Ezra emerged from beneath the unmoving form of Chris Larabee. He staggered to his feet, blindly and ineffectively wiping at his face pancaked with a thick layer of dust, his whole front coated in the stuff. He turned unsteadily in a small swaying circle before finally blinking away enough of the clinging stuff to see.
Team 7 froze at the sound of Ezra's scream.
Then Josiah, who'd just cuffed the only living gunman on the ground, was running to the con man's side. Standish had dropped to his knees beside Larabee's body and was desperately tugging at the rangy form, trying to get the man turned over. "Easy, son, let me." Josiah pulled Ezra back with one hand and crouched down, carefully turning Chris over.
He scanned the body for damage, but aside from the coating of white dust, he didn't immediately see what was wrong. Then Ezra's pained voice sounded beside him. "His head. Oh, god, his head…" the southerner broke off in a muffled sob.
Josiah looked up and saw the crease across the edge of Chris' forehead, blood beginning to stream down, staining the dust. He reached out and found a pulse in the neck. Then Nathan was there beside him, pressing a gauze pad against the wound. Josiah turned away to catch Ezra just as the man fainted on the spot.
"And then Ezra fainted!" JD's loud expository of the day's events continued, but Chris wasn't listening anymore. He was watching Ezra who sat beside his hospital bed, looking remarkably dapper in a deep cinnamon colored suit jacket and vest which made his hair gleam with reddish glints. Ezra was looking as his manicured nails, but the stain of color at his neck gave him away. Chris grinned.
There was a silence as JD's tale faltered. Clearly nothing had been said to engender a grin. Chris swung his eyes back up to the rest of Team 7 and smiled, then looked back over at his undercover agent. The white bandage on Chris' head was like a crisp accent against his suntanned skin, his dark blond hair poking up over the top of it. He had only been unconscious for a few hours but from what JD and the others said, Ezra had nearly gone into hysteria when he'd been revived from his dead faint. Only the sight of Chris Larabee's breathing body and Josiah's calming words murmured in his ear had anchored him, stabilized the man.
Suddenly there was a scraping of chairs and both Ezra and Chris looked up to see Buck leading the rest of the team toward the door, one hand on JD's neck, pushing him ahead. "Well, pard, seems like you two need some time alone now that we're done reportin' in." A momentarily pained expression crossed his face. "Aw, we'll take care of all the out-briefings and reports. Ez done told us all we need to do 'em. You all take care now."
"Yeah," the irrepressible JD twisted around in Buck's grip and grinned, "BUCK is gonna do the reports - ouch!" and then the two men were out the door.
Josiah flung an arm loosely over Nathan's shoulders and the two flashed approving smiles at the seated men and strolled out after their noisier brothers. Vin paused in the doorway, one arm sporting a simple armband bandage. He gave them the team's two-fingered salute, touching the brim of an imaginary hat, then pulled the door shut behind him, a small smile on his face as he left.
"You fainted, huh?"
"A mere reaction to the heat. Sunstroke, really."
"And acting crazy? Hysterical, I think Josiah said."
"Well, you know that old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen and the noon day sun. I dare say a touch of sun madness…"
"Yep, that musta been what it was."
"You - you believe me?"
"I'll believe anything you say, Ez."
Ezra paused and looked back down at his hands that were now pressed flat on his seated legs. Without looking up, he said, "Ah fainted. When Ah woke up, Ah went inta hysterics."
"Got ya a bit worried, did I?"
"Oh, lord, Chris -" Ezra flew across the distance between them, landing full body atop Larabee on the bed.
With a cough of expended air, the older man gathered his friend up into his arms and pulled him across his chest, settling him there, head resting on his shoulder. "I'm okay. Honest. Just clipped. My head's too hard to crack."
The only answer was a sniffle.
"Ezra? This mean you forgive me?"
"No." Ezra squirmed into a more comfortable position. "It does not."
"I coulda died out there."
"And I nevah would have forgiven you that either!"
"We aren't gonna get very far, if you won't forgive me."
"Why not? Seeking forgiveness. Why that could take you a lifetime." There was a definite smugness to Ezra's voice now, Chris was certain.
He smiled against the chestnut hair and hugged his heart closer. "I love you."
"Ah know." It was Ezra's turn to grin, turning the full battery, including gold tooth, on his amore. "And yes, I know that was Harrison Ford's line, but it's such a good one." He smirked, green eyes dancing now with laughter.
"You gonna say it?"
"What? Say what?" Innocence dripped from the soft southern vowels.
"Do you love me?"
"Why, Mr. Larabee, that," Ezra paused and raised both eyebrows at once, "would be tellin'."
At that moment, JD burst back into the room closely followed by Josiah. "Ah, sorry guys! I just wanted to get my hat!" The young man dashed forward, blushing at the two men on the bed, and snatched his cap from the floor near where he had recently sat.
Josiah, who had remained at the door, smiled benignly at the bedded men. "Brothers, carry on." He nodded serenely, then swung around with one arm lassoing JD's neck close, and led the boy out the door. They could hear him as he swung the door shut, "JD, rule number one, never interrupt lovers."
Whatever JD answered was lost behind the closed door.
Ezra shyly eyed Chris, his fingers suddenly busy with the cords dangling from the hospital gown's neck on Chris' chest. Chris simply relaxed, perfectly content now with Ezra safe and in his arms. A place, he now knew, he wanted to keep this man always. Safe in his arms.
"So, do you?"
"Yes. I do." Green eyes swung up, wide and full of love, to meet curious and loving blue-green ones. "I love you."
"Good. Cause I still gotta eat ya, like I promised."
"And I have a feelin' that I'm gonna have a lot to learn from you, about how to love you. Take care of you. Keep you by my side."
"Well," Ezra smiled up at his soul, "Rule number one…"
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