Author's Note: First and foremost, this is not a deathfic! Having said that, I have probably blown the story but I don't want anyone to stop reading it when they reach the end of the first section. I could never, ever do a story where one of the guys dies, I am too much of a softie. Also, not knowing how to explain it in the story, velvet is the fuzzy covering that is on the growing horns of deer, elk and caribou, in case you didn't know. Many, many thanks to Lumina~, for catching my typos and helping me rearrange my paragraphs so that they have the right emotional punch, she's the best! Any mistakes found are the result of my own tweaking, mea culpa. And last, but certainly not least, thanks to Kay for the wonderful picture, she's awesome!
The waitress put the drink in front of him and took away the empty glass. Without even acknowledging the young woman, Ezra picked it up and gulped it down. He had to numb the aching pain in his heart and the lovely scenery wasn't doing it. An indulgent sigh broke from the woman at the table with him and he let his eyes slide across to look at her.
"Something you wished to say, Mother?"
"Only that I've noticed that you've been drinking an awful lot recently."
"And you are concerned for the precarious state of my liver?"
"I so abhor it when you get snippy with me. Honestly dear, you have this lovely chalet, acres of fresh powder and nothing else to do, why are you so down in the mouth?" Maude dabbed at her lips with the linen napkin before putting it in the center of her plate. She had invited him to Vail with the hope of rebuilding some kind of relationship with him.
"It was one year ago today that I... lost him," Ezra said softly, his throat closing on the words. Even after all that he had been through over the past twelve months, it was still like a sharp knife in his heart every time he thought of Buck.
It was just supposed to be a little get together at the ranch. Buck and Ezra had decided to make a formal commitment to each other. After almost eighteen months of living together, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Both of them had consulted with an attorney to have the paperwork drawn up, each naming the other as their beneficiary and giving medical power of attorney to the other. Everything they owned was put into a living trust, something the lawyer said would enable them to avoid the hassle of probate. Josiah had found a minister to officiate for them, they had even picked out rings.
The Jag raced along the winding, narrow black top road. Both of them were dressed in their very best. Buck looked so handsome that it took Ezra's breath away. Ezra felt a hand firmly grasp his thigh and he squirmed in the heated leather seat. For an instant, just a fraction of a second, he looked away from the road to gaze lovingly into the eyes he could easily get lost in. Buck smiled at him and his heart fluttered at the love he saw there. He relived that moment a hundred million times and died a little inside each and every time.
A loud horn snapped his attention back to the road in front of them. A tractor-trailer was barreling down on them, so close that they could almost count the chrome spokes in the personalized grill across the front of the cab. Ezra jerked the wheel, trying desperately to steer the Jag onto the shoulder. The car's wheels dropped off of the blacktop and onto the shoulder just as the Mack truck clipped the front corner panel, sending the car into a spin. Ezra heard Buck call out 'Oh my God!' as they became airborne. The car slammed into the ground at an odd angle and then there was an endless shattering of glass... tree limbs breaking... metal grinding... the high performance engine roared as Ezra's leg instinctively tensed on the gas pedal. Then, at last, everything stopped and the world was black.
It seemed like an eternity before Ezra woke up, lying with his head jammed into the dashboard and a horrible pounding in his ears. Everything was dark around him. It felt like hours before he could open his eyes and he immediately felt sick. He couldn't understand what he saw. It didn't make sense until he realized that his arm was caught on something and there was blood dripping from his hand. It was strange to watch it, but he did for a while, trying to remember what had happened. Finally, it dawned on him. An accident... there had been an accident... he and Buck were going somewhere. Buck? He wondered what had become of his lover.
In the ATF offices, the other members of Team 7 were also remembering. Chris Larabee sat in his desk chair, staring out of the window toward the mountains. It was exactly one year ago that his world was rocked by tragedy for a second time. His eyes fell on the photo on the corner of the credenza. A wistful smile pulled at the corners of his mouth as he remembered that happier day.
Out in the bullpen, JD sat staring at his monitor. One year ago today, he had lost his big brother and best friend. He still lived in the loft apartment, Ezra had deeded it to him, telling him that Buck would have wanted him to have it. He still hoped, every time the doorbell rang, that it was his friend. He looked at the team photo on the corner of his desk and blinked back tears.
When the happy couple didn't arrive on time, the rest of the team began to worry. It wasn't like them to be late, ever. Ezra couldn't abide people arriving late. Chris and Vin piled into Larabee's truck to go looking for them while Josiah, Nathan and JD stayed behind with the minister and the few select guests who had been invited to witness the event.
Both men scanned the road, looking for the distinctive profile of the Jaguar. The tight curves and rolling hills made it impossible to see more than half a mile most of the time. As they got farther from the ranch, Chris's internal alarms were clanging loudly. It was so unlike Ezra and Buck to be late, especially for something as important as this. Coming over the top of a hill, Chris began to curse. A tractor-trailer rig hung over the guardrail completely blocking the narrow, two-lane highway and beyond it sat a bevy of emergency vehicles with flashing lights. For a moment, relief flooded through both men as they figured that their friends were stuck behind the traffic jam. Parking the truck on the shoulder, both Chris and Vin leapt out and ran to the rail.
"Aw hell, it's the Jag," Vin announced, pointing at the broken and crushed vehicle some fifty or sixty feet down the steep embankment. Chris ran back to the truck and grabbed a bundle of rope. Vin took the end and began to fashion a harness for himself. He noticed that Chris had also grabbed his leather gloves. Another police car pulled up behind the truck, the officer jumping out and running to peer over the guardrail. Chris flashed his badge, explaining that he knew the men in the car. The officer radioed to the others that there were at least two victims in the car.
While the officer was talking to the rescue unit on the other side of the jack-knifed truck, they agreed on a route down the side of the cliff and Vin climbed over the guard rail, trusting Chris to lower him as quickly as was safe. Vin could see that the car had settled nose first on the passenger side and was resting on a sizeable boulder, the rear of the vehicle higher than the front end. The sharp odor of gasoline filled the air from the punctured fuel tank. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he shed the rope and carefully made his way to the car. He could see the police and paramedics getting ready to come down from the other side of the wrecked tractor-trailer.
From up close, he could see that the car was hopelessly wrecked, twisted and jammed into a cleft in the rocks. Climbing over the smaller rocks and brush, he carefully reached out and rested his hand on Ezra's back, the only part of him he could reach. The uneven breaths under his palm told him that the man was hurt, badly. Making his way around the car, he was surprised to see that Buck was draped over the hood. Hesitantly, Vin reached out and pressed his fingers gently to his teammate's neck. He was relieved to feel the fluttering pulse and surprised to hear the low moan. He knew better than to move an injured person, boosting himself up on the hood. Vin flinched at the wealth of cuts to his hands from the shattered safety glass. Bracing himself on his palms, he leaned over so he could see if Buck's eyes were open. What he saw made him think, just for a moment, that it might have been better if he had died.
The windshield had exploded spectacularly, shredding the handsome face beyond recognition. Vin sprang away from the car and stumbled before falling to his knees and emptying his stomach. His vision grayed and he struggled to remain conscious. Never in his life had he ever been so glad to see paramedics. He told them who was in the car and that he would have their friends meet them at the hospital. The medics immediately went to work examining Buck and Ezra, not seeing the bloody hands Vin kept pressed tightly to his thighs. While the other rescue personnel were rappelling down to the car with more equipment, Tanner stood and made his way back to the rope and began to climb, he had to tell Chris so they could let the rest of the team know what had happened.
Chris wished that he had binoculars in his toolbox as he tried to see if there was any sign of life in the car. When Vin vaulted off of the hood and went to his knees, he feared for the worst. As Vin reached for the guardrail, Chris caught sight of the bloody palms, wrinkling his nose at how badly they must hurt.
"How bad is it?" Chris asked when he saw how shaken Vin was.
"They're both alive," Vin answered, blanching, as the memory of the shattered remains of Buck's face loomed large in his mind. He swayed for a moment and Chris took hold of him, easing him to the ground. Chris pulled his cell phone out and called Josiah, as Vin shuddered at the memory of the blood. He remembered his split-second hope that Buck had not survived and felt his heart clench in dread.
Josiah and Nathan shared a look as they watched JD touch the picture frame again. They remembered the horrible day like it was only yesterday. The whole team had suffered with their teammate right through the long, painful recovery. Ezra had not yet returned to undercover work. Mentally, he was still too fragile. He was still technically on light duty, restricted to office work. Most of the time, he was perfectly normal; but there were still bad days when he would go all to pieces. The profiler worked to keep him from crawling into a bottle, as Chris had done.
Several times over the past year, Nathan had considered transferring out. The team didn't function the way it had before and it was like watching his father die all over again. Travis had them doing investigations and providing background work for the other teams. He got up to get another cup of coffee and passed Ezra's desk, the memories assailing him again.
Because of his medical background, the paramedics had allowed Nathan to go down to the car during the extrication. Chris and JD had been taken to the hospital by patrol car following the ambulance with Buck inside. Vin paced on the shoulder, having recovered from the shock of seeing his friends like that. The patrolman refused to allow him to go back down to the car. Josiah stood like a stone sentinel, watching the extrication and praying. Ezra did not regain consciousness while they were cutting him from the car. He was incredibly lucky; his excellent physical shape gave him an edge. When they finally lifted him from the car, he was fully immobilized. He had multiple broken bones and glass cuts all over his arms. They worked to stabilize him for the trip to the hospital. The true horror of the accident wasn't revealed to Nathan until he got to the emergency room.
JD had gone wild after being told the extent of Buck's injuries. He flipped out so badly that Chris had been forced to hold him while the doctor gave him a sedative. As soon as Josiah had gotten there, Chris left JD in his care to join the others pacing outside of the surgical theater. When the surgeon finally came out, he explained everything to them, using words that wrung Nathan's heart. He had been so horrified by what he heard that he sank into a chair and wept. Buck Wilmington no longer had a face, it had been hopelessly destroyed in the accident.
Chris walked out of the office and looked around. He was half tempted to tell all of them to go on home but he knew that they needed to stay together.
"Let's head for the Saloon," he said to the tomb-like silence. He saw JD open his mouth to refuse so Chris used his I-won't-take-no-for-an-answer glare. The younger man sighed in a resigned tone before getting up and grabbing his jacket. The others, seeing JD moving, also got up and reached for their coats.
Sitting at the Saloon, each of them raised a glass in honor of their departed friend. Inez loaded them up with munchies and kept the sports channel playing on the TV rather than risk having someone play a song on the jukebox that would upset the delicate balance.
"Anyone heard from Ezra?" JD asked.
"Not since the day he left," Josiah answered. "He said that Maude was taking him to Vail."
"He's not planning to ski, is he?" Nathan asked.
"He wouldn't," Vin declared. "His leg still bothers him sometimes."
"When did he tell you that?" the medic inquired.
"I've known for a while."
They lapsed into an uneasy silence after that, each man lost in thought over their missing sixth and their lost seventh. Orin Travis had pushed Chris to hire another agent to replace Wilmington but he steadfastly refused. Vin had been moved up to second in command, a position he really didn't want.
Losing Buck had one unexpected result. Chris and Vin had become lovers. Only Tanner was brave enough to step into the hurricane of emotions to try to keep Larabee together. As expected, when they received word of Buck succumbing to his injuries, the team leader had descended into despair. For a month, he raged against God and the world. At one point, he had turned his anger on Ezra, who was still in a coma, pacing in his hospital room while ranting until security removed him. When Vin arrived to take custody of him, Chris took a swing at him. After a very, very brief fistfight, Tanner tossed Larabee into the jeep and drove him out to the ranch. He spent the next week listening to his boss rage. When Chris got into the liquor cabinet and got thoroughly and completely drunk, Vin had to manhandle him into bed. Pulling Chris up against his chest so he could tug the shirttail out of his pants, Vin felt him begin to nuzzle against his neck. Vin let his hands rest against the warm skin, sitting absolutely still through a series of kisses and nips.
"Don't leave me," Chris murmured, rubbing his cheek against the brushed flannel shirt before sighing and passing out. Vin eased him back, pulling a thick comforter over him.
It took them three months of awkward moments and long stares before they finally consummated their relationship. At first, they had come together desperately trying to feel something other than anger and helplessness as they watched Ezra struggle to make his life without his beloved Buck.
Ezra had come out of his coma still having a long way to go toward recovery. The accident had broken his right arm and collarbone, several ribs and shattered the bone in his thigh. He had been in a coma for two weeks, missing Buck's funeral. As soon as he was released from the hospital, Maude had whisked him away with her, to New Orleans. The French Quarter mansion she lived in had escaped the damage from hurricane Katrina. With all of the reconstruction happening there, it was a very busy place to be.
Maude hired a therapist to Ezra him with his depression. In spite of her insistence that he needed the change of scenery, he stayed only a few weeks. When he returned to Denver, she sent an entourage of staff to care for him. Ezra avoided his teammates at first, not being able to bear seeing them.
It was JD who finally worked his way back into Ezra's defenses. The younger man was as lost and devastated as Ezra. They spent a weekend crying and remembering together. Ezra feared that his teammates blamed him for Buck's death. JD assured him that the highway department investigator had found that there was no way he could have avoided the accident. The truck driver, having been behind the wheel for far too many hours, had dozed off. It was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When Ezra was able, he returned to light duty. His mother provided him with a van and a motorized wheelchair until he could walk again. He worked closely with Josiah, going over profiles and reviewing video and audio of meets between agents and suspects, giving his own unique perspective on the situations. He also went in the surveillance van several times, listening and giving advice to the agents during the meets. It was still awkward for him, every time he passed Buck's desk was like twisting a knife in his tender heart.
In Vail, Ezra had finished off several drinks and was now sitting alone staring out of the sliding door at the ski lift as it delivered people to the top of the mountain. Maude had gotten disgusted with him over his somber mood and left to find something more stimulating to do. The slight alcohol buzz was not enough to stop the parade of memories from coming. Through the tears, he saw the white gold band on his finger. Chris had been given the rings after the accident and he sent them to the jeweler to have them cleaned. Ezra had received the rings from the jeweler when he returned to Denver. For several days, he couldn't even bear to look at the satin-covered ring box.
It started on the drive home from the wedding of Mary Travis and Gerard Whitman. They had been talking about what a handsome couple the two made when Buck's question took Ezra by surprise.
"How about you and I doing that one day?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You and me, exchanging rings," Buck said.
And just like that, they made the decision.
They had told only a few people outside of their teammates. Originally, they planned to wear the rings on chains around their necks. With Buck gone, Ezra had decided to wear the ring on his hand and to hell with the consequences. To the surprise of his teammates, many of the other agents and staff in the building had known about them and were supportive of his decision.
Pressing his hand against the frigid glass, Ezra whispered softly, "I miss you, beloved."
Sitting in the bar, Maude dwelt on her part in her son's misery. She remembered very well the day when Chris Larabee had called to tell her that her darling baby boy laid near death in the hospital.
She had flown for nearly twenty hours, having to take a roundabout path from where she was vacationing on the French Riviera, suffering through the indignity of flying coach like a commoner. Taking a cab from the airport, she had arrived at the hospital exhausted. As she stood over Ezra's still form, she found herself crying. Half of his beautiful face was a swollen, discolored mess. His arm was in a cast, as was his leg. He had tubes and wires attached all over and was on a respirator.
Josiah put his arm around her and steered her into a chair at Ezra's bedside. He explained everything that had been done for her son. When his doctor arrived, she asked only one question, when could she take him home with her? The doctor told her that it would be at least a couple of weeks after he awoke from his coma, if he awoke at all.
He looked so painfully pale as she sat there watching him. It brought back memories of another time she had been in a room just like this. Ezra's father had suffered from a ruptured aneurysm when their son was only three. William Peyton Standish had lingered for almost a week before he just slipped away. She had sat there, just as still, just as frightened, just as alone. It wouldn't happen again, it just couldn't. She would hire the best doctors and a full time nurse to tend to her baby boy.
In her mind, there was only one person to blame, Buck Wilmington. She knew from talking to the others that her son's paramour was also badly injured in the accident. Ezra's teammates were dividing their time between the two men. She had yet to go up the hall and look in on him.
The doctor slipped in later that night. He looked surprised to see Maude still sitting at Ezra's side. He had sent a nurse in several hours ago to urge her to go to one of the empty rooms reserved for ICU families.
"I thought I left orders for you to go get some rest. Don't you need to get some sleep?" Dr. Lange said as he took the chart from the end of the bed and read over it.
"Not if I can help it," Maude replied, struggling to cover a yawn. "How is he?"
"He's stable. I told you earlier, there's every reason to believe he'll recover. Give him time. His body has been through an awful shock."
"So has mine. You're sure there won't be any permanent damage?" She paused for a moment, then said the dreaded words. "Brain damage?"
"I told you, Mrs. Standish, as far as I can tell, he'll be fine. A lot depends on how long he stays in the coma. But I'm not too worried yet."
"I am. What about his... friend?"
"Not much is going to change for him. Not for the time being anyway. He's in stable condition but there's not a damn thing we can do for him. For one thing, it's much too soon, and for another, there are only one or two men in the country who can cope with that kind of total reconstruction. There is simply nothing left of his face, not a single bone intact, not a nerve, not a muscle. The only things not totally wiped out were his eyes."
"Pity," Maude replied sourly. "What happens to someone like that if there's no repair work done? Will he live?"
"Unfortunately, yes. But he'll never be the same. You can't just take a handsome young man like that and turn him into a horror and expect him to adjust. No one could. I'm most afraid that he'll take his life when it all finally hits him." Dr. Lange shook his head at the futility of the situation. "At least he's got some good friends to help him get through it. If it had happened in the line of duty, his federal insurance would cover most of the cost but they will only cover a percentage of the reconstruction work."
"What would something like that cost?" Maude asked, a niggling idea tugging at her brain.
"Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars with all the support he'll need during the process."
"Do you know someone who could do it?"
"I've already spoken to Dr. Kevin Wild in Baltimore. He's the best of the best, a miracle worker," Dr. Lange said. That was how he had found out that the federal insurance wouldn't cover the reconstruction. Dr. Wild had contacted the insurance agency directly and found that they would cover only about half of the total cost.
"Thank you, for all you've done for Ezra."
After the doctor left, Josiah and Vin came to sit with Ezra for a while. She excused herself from the room and went cautiously up the hall. Chris and JD were at Buck's bedside, talking softly with him. They looked up in surprise at seeing her standing there.
"Maude... please, come in," Larabee said, informing his oldest friend of the identity of his visitor. Buck's head came up slightly, the light over the bed illuminating the thick bandages that covered his entire head. Only a slit for his mouth and a triangle for his nose remained uncovered.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Dunne, may I have a moment... alone with Mr. Wilmington?"
While JD immediately looked ready to protest, Buck squeezed his hand and silenced him. Chris leaned in close and said something and Wilmington nodded. The blond patted Buck's shoulder before moving away, looking to JD to follow. The young man hung back until the very man he was trying to protect nudged him.
"Go on, Kid. Grab a cup of coffee or something," Buck said softly.
When they were alone together, Maude closed the door and approached the bed. She studied the bandages and monitors for a moment before it occurred to her what was bothering her. "I thought the doctor said that your eyes were undamaged?"
"But there are cuts on my eyelids that had to be treated," Buck answered. "How's Ezra?"
"In a coma. Mr. Wilmington, have the doctors discussed your prognosis with you?"
"Some. They said that it will take a lot of surgeries to repair the damage."
"And have they told you that your insurance won't cover the cost?" Maude pressed.
"Yes, they told me," he admitted sadly.
"Have you given any thought to how you're going to pay for all of that?"
"Well, I've got some money put away, thanks to Ezra. And I can sell the loft. Chris has offered to take a mortgage on the ranch and the others have offered to help me."
"And they can come up with five hundred thousand dollars?" Maude asked.
Buck flinched at her words. "Five hundred thousand?"
"At the very least. Do you really think they can come up with that much money? Is it really worth it for your boss to mortgage his property for you?"
Despair welled up and broke through the carefully constructed wall he had built around his fear. Everything came crashing down on him and he began to shake. Monitors and alarms went off, summoning nurses to his side. Maude slipped away, an evil smile curling her ruby lips. Less than an hour later, she heard Buck screaming at his friends to get out and leave him alone. The doctor ordered all of them to leave so that he would calm down.
Driven from the hospital room, they had retreated to the room set aside for them. Nathan procured sedatives for Chris and JD, driving them into a deep, dreamless sleep. The others remained with them, watching their backs while they slept.
Early in the morning, Maude slipped down the hall to Buck's room again. She peered carefully into the room before ducking inside and closing the door again. Her son's paramour sensed that someone was there.
"Holly, is that you?" he called, thinking it was the nurse.
"No, Mr. Wilmington, it isn't Holly," she answered. "I have a proposition for you to consider. I will pay for your surgery on one condition."
Hope flared and Buck nodded toward her, "What is it?"
"That you go away from here and never see my son again."
It was like she had reached into his chest and ripped out his heart. The hope of seeing Ezra was the only thing that was keeping him going. He gasped for air like a landed fish. Maude moved closer, he could smell her perfume. She was waiting for an answer.
"Do you think Ezra will still love you looking like that? Appearances are very important to him. He is a very handsome man. Do you think he will be able to stand looking at you? Even if he tried, because he felt some bond of loyalty, of obligation, how long could it last? How long could you bear knowing what you looked like and what you were doing to him? There's nothing left of you. Nothing left of the man he fell in love with. You've already lost him. You couldn't do that to him. He deserves better than that. If you love him, you will do this for him."
"My friends won't let me do that," Buck protested. "They won't just let me go."
"If you tell them that it's what you want, they will. You can go away, have a new life."
"And what if... what if Ezra comes looking for me? What if the guys come looking for me?"
"Then I will abide by that. But you cannot contact them unless they contact you first. Will you agree to that?"
Knowing that his friends would never leave him, no matter what he told them, he agreed.
"I will make all the arrangements, you'll leave tonight. Tell them whatever you wish as long as you don't mention that I'm involved."
That night, she overheard the commotion in the hall when the ambulance arrived to take Buck to the airport. Chris and the others, except JD, had pleaded and argued with him until the doctor threw them out of his room. JD was the only one who didn't rage and try to persuade his roommate to stay. With tears streaming down his face, the youngest member of the team had begged to go with Buck. The private duty nurses refused to answer any of their questions. Buck told Dr. Lange that he was leaving to be closer to family, who would take care of him during his convalescence.
Three days later, they got a call stating that Buck had expired from complications relating to his condition. Josiah and Nathan were at the hospital with Ezra when Chris called them with the news. The profiler slid down the wall, wrapping his arms around his knees as he began to sob. Nathan stood silently, tears streaming down his face as he slowly lowered the receiver.
The only day that Maude did not have the company of at least one of her son's coworkers was the day of the funeral. After some expensive negotiations, Maude acquired a cadaver and had it cremated and delivered to Denver. A notice came with the urn stating that it was Buck's last wish that he be cremated and that his ashes be sprinkled over the lake in the mountains of the Larabee ranch.
Letting her gaze rest on her drink, Maude remembered the day Ezra had finally regained consciousness. He was weak and disoriented.
She took up his hand and brushed her fingers gently along the side of his face. "Hello darling, you had me worried."
"Mother? What happened? Josiah... where are the others?" Ezra turned his head slowly, looking for the others. "Buck? Where is he?"
"Don't you worry, Ezra," Maude interrupted, " Just try to rest. You've been unconscious for a long time."
"Mother, where is Buck? What happened to him?" He saw a sad expression flit across her face and felt Josiah take up his other hand and he knew. "No... no... Buck... oh God... NO!"
A bevy of nurses had rushed in at his agonized scream. Two weeks later, she had gotten on a plane with him and whisked him away. She had hoped to lift his depression by taking him to New Orleans with her. In the end, his psychiatrist persuaded her that it was better if he was allowed to return to Denver. She had not agreed with him but since Ezra was an adult, she couldn't stop him. Instead, she had supported him in every way she could. He had slowly begun to recover physically and emotionally. She saw him every couple of weeks. This trip was the first time that he had consented to go away with her and it was turning out just miserably.
Vin remembered the day they got the call. Chris answered the phone and listened for a moment before he began to pale. He hung up the phone and turned to face the others. "He's gone," he mumbled, sinking into a chair and fighting back the urge to hit something or get drunk.
As he lay in bed, Chris twitched and murmured in his sleep. Even after a year, he still had these spells where he couldn't really sleep. After they had come home from the saloon, he and Chris had made love. It wasn't the gentle, filling kind of sharing they normally had, it was frantic and life affirming. Chris had slammed into Vin so hard that he actually moaned in pain but he didn't ask his lover to stop. He knew that Chris needed this, needed to take out all of his frustration in one brutal encounter. Afterwards, Vin took two Tylenol and cuddled up to the sweaty, exhausted man. Only now, when he was completely spent did Chris lose the perpetual scowl he had developed since losing Buck.
Casey slipped her arm around JD and pressed her body tightly against his. For the past few days, as the anniversary of the accident approached, her fiancÚ had been edgy. She knew and she understood the reason behind it. JD insisted on waiting another couple of months before they got married, until he could afford to take her back east to see where he had grown up.
Buck heard the landing gear of the private plane that Maude had hired for his trip to Boston. He had dozed off just after takeoff and slept for most of the flight. A gentle hand touched his arm and he flinched from it.
"I'm sorry, I should have spoken before I touched you. We'll be landing in a moment. They have an ambulance waiting on the tarmac to take you to the hospital. Do you need another shot for the pain?"
Leslie, her name was Leslie and she promised that she would be with him all the way through what was coming. The other nurse was Shannon, whose thick Georgian accent made him want to cry every time she spoke to him. "No, I'm fine, darlin.' What's the weather like out there?"
Dr. Wild paced in the ambulance bay as he waited for his patient to arrive. He had gotten copies of his medical records from the hospital in Denver, along with the X-rays. He could see that Dr. Lange hadn't exaggerated his patient's condition. Over the next year and a half, he would slowly rebuild what had been a very handsome face. The two nurses he had sent to Denver would be with Buck 24/7 at first. Until the cheekbones and forehead were rebuilt, he would have to keep his eyes covered. He waited until the stretcher was inside before he spoke to his patient.
"Hello, Buck. I'm Kevin. How was the trip?" He spoke firmly, not like he was dealing with some fragile, faceless blob. He grasped one of Buck's hands and shook it, feeling some of the tension drain away from the taut frame.
"You're Dr. Wild?" Buck asked, already feeling like he could trust the man who belonged to such a strong, sure voice.
"Why don't you call me Kevin? We're going to be together for a while and I want us to be comfortable with each other."
During his first session with the psychiatrist, Buck explained that he had been in a committed gay relationship. He also told Dr. Wild and his staff. He wanted it all out in the open so that there were no surprises down the road for any of them. Kevin had laughed and said that the news would come as a relief to the husbands of the women who were going to be spending so much time with him.
"Ready?" Dr. Wild asked.
"I guess so," Buck answered. He couldn't feel anything from his shoulders up due to the nerve damage and the shots he had been given in preparation for the procedure. The bright lights of the operating room made his eyes water after so many days of being covered by bandages. One of the nurses smiled supportively as she wiped the tears away with a piece of gauze. He tried to stay calm as Kevin's face, partially obscured by the mask and surgical cap, appeared in his field of vision. The doctor had assured him that his face would be as close to the original as was possible. He had lots of pictures to work from.
After the first month, the bones had been shaped and fused. Buck had gone through an entire collection of books on tape and had walked hundreds of miles on the treadmill. During the day, he was generally in good spirits but at night, when he was all alone in his room, only then did he allow his tears to fall. The nurses and other people caring for him were friendly enough but he desperately missed Ezra and the guys. Sometimes, late at night, he would dial the office and listen to their voices on the answering machine. Dr. Kasir, his psychiatrist, asked him repeatedly why he didn't retain contact with his friends and why they didn't come to visit. Buck told him that he didn't want to put them through seeing him this way.
Over the next three months, Kevin worked on reconnecting the severed nerves and shaping the flesh over the newly healed bones. It was an especially painful part of the process. As the nerves connected, they sent mixed signals to his brain. Buck also began having nightmares. Ezra's birthday had come and gone and Buck missed him terribly.
Leslie finally convinced Buck to go with her for a walk. He had steadfastly refused to go out where people could see his disfigured face. When she discovered that he loved horses and knew how to ride, she got permission to take him out to a ranch. He couldn't ride, but he could see the horses and it would do him good to get out. Both she and Shannon were confused about the way he insisted in not making contact with his friends. They couldn't be too friendly if they hadn't made any effort to even write him. Leslie wanted to fly out to Denver and kick their behinds for the way they were treating the man she had grown to care about. She knew all about his relationship with Ezra, and she understood when the sound of Shannon's voice made him sad. Dr. Kasir was encouraging him to get out and meet a few more people.
Buck got a new camera from Kevin for Christmas. He had mentioned to Dr. Kasir that he used to be a fair photographer. Leslie coaxed him into going out to take pictures with her. She took him to the beach so he could get shots of the waves and sea gulls. They stopped at a lighthouse and he shot a whole roll of film. Waiting for the pictures gave him something to look forward to. She also took him out to Assateague Island so he could take pictures of the wild horses that that were descendants of the first horses brought there over a hundred years ago. The long walks helped him to regain muscle tone that he had lost during the long period he had been laid up. Some of the shots he captured were so spectacular that she persuaded him to try to sell them. With a forest green mat and a dark wood frame, the picture of the two stallions fighting on the beach was simply breathtaking. He autographed the picture in the corner before it was framed. When the picture sold for six hundred dollars, Buck was stunned. He had been agonizing over whether or not he could return to law enforcement when he was recovered, it was all he really knew. It never crossed his mind that he could take pictures that people would pay money for.
The next four months passed in a blur for Buck. It seemed that there were changes every time he looked in the mirror. Little by little, he was seeing his own face looking back at him. It was also the time that he was the most depressed. His birthday came and he insisted that he didn't want them to make a big deal of it. Leslie baked a cake and Kevin catered in a dinner of all of the foods that Buck had mentioned that he liked. None of them had any way of knowing that they were also the dishes that Ezra had made for him on his last birthday. He took one look at the table and began to shake. Tears blurred his vision as he bolted for his bedroom. Locking the door, he collapsed across the bed and cried.
Toward the end of his care, Buck was much more active. Kevin loaned him a car so that he could get out on his own. He was finally well enough to go horseback riding again as long as he kept to nothing faster than a trot. He never went anywhere without his camera. He had sold several of his pictures, both to individuals and to magazines. He also began to try to rebuild his social life. He hit a few clubs that were popular with both straight and gay couples. A few promising prospects approached him but none caught his fancy. None of them were the man his heart pined for, none of them was his beloved Ezra.
In the long hours of recovery from the multiple surgeries, Buck had time to think. Early on, he had expected to hear from one of his friends. As the days passed without contact, he became depressed. He couldn't imagine them just letting him go. Several times, he was tempted to pick up the phone and call but something kept stopping him. If they didn't care for him anymore, he wouldn't go crawling back to them. He mourned for the loss of his friends, swinging from profound sadness to anger to loathing the disfigured face that stared back at him from the mirror.
Twelve months and fourteen days after he and Kevin met, ahead of schedule, Buck was discharged. There were only a few tiny little imperfections in his face and the doctor assured him that they would fade with time. He had been forced to avoid the sun during the process and had lost his healthy tan. He would still need to see Kevin every few months to check his progress but he was as finished as the plastic surgeon could manage. He would still need to see Dr. Kasir for counseling for a few more months.
Someone from National Geographic had approached him about taking some pictures of caribou in British Columbia. They would pay for his plane and his hotel as well as paying him a salary while he was there. He had already accepted their offer.
At the last get together with the people who had given him back his face, Buck was again reeling under the impending loss. Those people had come to be a family to him as surely as the members of Team 7 and he loved them. Shannon asked the question that the others were afraid to ask.
"So, are you going to go back to Denver after your stint in Canada?"
The question caught him off guard. The fact that none of them had even tried to find him had hurt Buck terribly. He hadn't thought that they would just let him go the way they had. His heart was broken and he wasn't quite ready to face the people who had so abruptly given up on him.
"No, I think I'll just drift for a while and see what comes my way," he told them.
Life in British Columbia was a study in contrasts. There were days when Buck fell into bed so tired that he was asleep before the sheets warmed beneath him. Other days, he was bored almost to tears. The first time he saw a whole herd of caribou migrating across an open field, he almost cried. The day he came across the young animal that had fallen and broken a leg, he did cry. But there were long stretches of days that gave him time to think. And time to miss Ezra.
Coming back from Vail, Ezra was finally ready to try to return to full duty. He began working with Vin and Chris to pass his physical re-qualification. It was a long and tiresome road. His leg still gave him an occasional twinge but the doctor assured him that he was completely healed and that he needed only develop a tolerance for the pain until it passed. He took to jogging in the morning with JD and occasionally with Nathan. He worked out in the gym at the ATF building every afternoon. He found that vigorous physical activity left him without the time or the energy to mourn. Vin and Chris began inviting him to go out with them on weekends, so that he didn't sit at home all alone.
Casey stuffed one more shirt into her suitcase, waiting for JD to come and get it from her. He had already carried their other bags down to Josiah's car. They had gotten married two days earlier, in a small, private ceremony. Buck's spirit hung heavily over the church, represented by the absence of a best man. They were going to Boston for a week so that JD could show her where he had grown up. She was looking forward to getting him out of Denver and away from the memory of his lost big brother. JD came up, took the suitcase from her hand and waited for her to take one final look around.
The plane touched down and JD found himself looking forward to this vacation. They rented a car and drove to their hotel first. After checking in, they drove by the mansion where JD's mother had worked. The place had not changed much. JD pointed out the large stable where he had spent most of his free time as a youth. They drove past the high school and the church before going to the cemetery. JD grew quiet as he brushed his hand over the stone.
The small plane touched down, shaking like it was rolling on a washboard. Buck's heart was in his throat as he braced his arms against the sides of the plane. He had gotten a report that a large herd of caribou, females and calves, was moving across a glacier and that there was a plane coming to take him there to shoot. When the small plane stopped, he unbuckled his seatbelt with shaky hands and got out. The pilot handed down his bags and pointed him toward the corrugated metal shack where his guide was waiting. Both of them piled on a snowmobile after stowing his bags and set out across the glacier.
It was dreadfully quiet in the office. Josiah and Nathan were working on background for a case with Team 4. Vin was at the range, getting in some target practice with a new sniper rifle. Chris was working on the monthly expense reports. Ezra was out in the surveillance van with Team 6, supervising a meet with a known gun dealer. Enrique Rodriguez was notoriously hinky at meetings, sometimes breaking into show tunes and refusing to deal with anyone who didn't sing along. Without JD in the office, it was just too quiet. Nathan got up and turned on the radio on Vin's desk. The twangy country music helped to fill the empty air.
Chris got up from his desk and stretched, pulling the kinks out of his back. A plane flew by, close enough that he could see the markings on the side. From there, his eyes traveled again to the old team photo on his desk. Even as he was seized my melancholy, the phone rang.
"Larabee," he snapped.
"Chris, I was just wondering if you all had lunch yet. I'm finished here and I can stop by the deli and pick up sandwiches or something," Vin said.
"You finished already?"
"Yeah, the new rifle is great. I finished the targets and there wasn't much to do at the range so, I figured I'd pick up lunch for all of us. Is Ezra back yet?"
"Not yet, they were meeting with Rodriguez so it's anybody's guess," Chris said as he turned to look at the small plane that was passing the building again. This time, it was pulling a banner advertising some used car dealership. He heard something in the outer office and looked out to see that Ezra was coming in. "Hey, he's here. Let me see what they want for lunch."
As they sat around the conference room table eating sub sandwiches, the phone rang. It was JD, calling to let them know that they had been to all of the places he wanted Casey to see. He wanted to know how the Rodriguez meet went, he had gleaned information about the man and his organization right up until he left for the wedding. They chatted on speakerphone for a while before Casey called out that she was ready to go. They were going sightseeing.
"He sounds so happy," Nathan mused.
Out of the blue, Ezra found his eyes filled with tears. He got up and bolted from the room. Josiah went after him, stopping at the locked restroom door. He looked up to find Nathan standing beside him, contrition writ large on his face. Josiah reached out and gave the medic's shoulder a gentle shake, loosening the tight stance.
Buck was freezing! His knees were like blocks of ice as he knelt behind the large snowmobile. He had been snapping pictures of the herd for a couple of hours. His guide smiled as he pointed to a small group of young bucks who were playfully butting heads and rearing up to kick at each other.
When he finished shooting for the day, he and his guide got back on the snowmobile and went back to the cabin he would be using for the duration of his stay. It was a small place, really only one room, but it was snug and warm. His bags had been brought in and unpacked. A crock-pot sat on the counter with a rich, thick stew simmering. A knock at the door brought in a smiling face. The young woman went immediately to the pot and stirred the contents.
"Are you ready to eat now?" she asked.
He was so dazed by the long flight, jet lag and the immediate immersion into his new job, that he missed her question. He rewound her words in his mind and played them again before he smiled. "Yeah, I'm starved. Thank you. Name's Buck, by the way."
Giving a dazzling smile that revealed perfect white teeth, she blushed. "My name is Lilly. If you sit, I will make your plate."
Over the next two weeks, Buck spent a portion of every day shooting pictures. After the first few days, he was invited to join Lilly and her family for dinner. He met Diana and Jack, Lilly's parents as well at Thomas and Curtis, her brothers. The boys were interested in hearing all about his former job working for the ATF. Buck regaled them with some amusing stories about bad-guy blunders. When it was time for him to go back to his cabin, Thomas went along to make sure he got there safely. While they were walking, Buck paused to look up at the stars and a wave of sadness swept over him.
"Are you alright, Buck?" Thomas asked, easily reading the pain on the older man's face.
"I'm fine, Thomas. It's just that the sky here is so... beautiful."
The younger man looked up and shrugged, he had seen the stars all of his life. But he could see that there was still so much pain in the deep, expressive eyes. He waited until Buck looked away and sighed before they went on to the cabin. The next day, to Buck's surprise, it was Thomas who arrived to take him out on the glacier. Thomas took him to places his regular guide hadn't and they got to watch a new mother with a very young calf. Buck's lens allowed him to see up close how the female interacted with her baby. They watched as she selected a place to make a bed for the two of them. Thomas pressed something into his hand and he ate, not even knowing what it was that he put into his mouth. That evening, Buck slept uneasily, tossing and turning in his blankets as he dreamt.
JD and Casey walked arm in arm down the sidewalk as they window-shopped. At an art gallery, he spotted a picture that he just knew Chris would love. It showed a pair of stallions fighting each other on a beach.
"Come on, Casey, I wanna see what they want for that picture," JD said as he dragged his wife into the shop. A bell over his head jingled as he opened the door and a woman stood up behind a desk in the corner.
"Welcome! Is there something in particular you wanted to see?" she asked as she approached.
"This picture over here, of the stallions, how much is it?" JD asked as he led the woman to the piece that had caught his eye.
"Oh, this one! We get a lot of inquiries on this picture. The owner is asking $1,000 for it. The photographer is new but his work is striking. I have some other pieces by this photographer that are not as expensive as that one, if you're interested."
The cost was out of his range but JD hoped that there might be another picture that was almost as good as the one on the wall. The woman showed him several 8X10's of similar scenes and he found another one that he thought Chris might like. He also bought a frame and waited while she put the picture in it and packed it in a box for safe keeping. The woman gave him a card to fill out in case she got any other pictures from the same photographer. JD noticed that there was no name on the card, just a number identifying which picture he had chosen.
Josiah invited Ezra to come and spend the day together. The anniversary of Buck's death had been very hard for him and he was still struggling to deal with it. All day the day before, he had been staring at the monitor on his desk. The profiler was actually surprised when the younger man agreed. They shared a pleasant enough day. Ezra wanted to go up to the lake where they had scattered Buck's ashes. Chris had arranged for a stone to be erected there, giving all of them a place to go to remember their friend. Josiah and Ezra rode up and tethered their horses to a tree. Josiah hung back and allowed the younger man to have some time alone. Ezra touched the stone reverently before moving to stand where he could look out across the lake. Light, fluffy clouds were reflected in the smooth, glassy surface, making the water seem to reach down to forever. His chest tightened until it hurt to draw a breath into his lungs. Finally, the walls shattered and all of the emotion he had been holding back came pouring out in anguished sobs. Josiah gently wrapped his arm around Ezra, not turning him from the lake, but merely offering his presence.
Chris sighed as he stepped up behind Vin and leaned against his spare frame. Tanner settled into the familiar embrace. His lover had been oddly melancholy all morning. It started when he saw Josiah and Ezra riding up toward the lake. Ever since, he had been touching and pressing against Vin at every opportunity. Vin realized that it was his way of reassuring himself that his lover was still there.
"They've been up there a long time," Chris said.
"He hasn't been up there in a while. And Josiah's with him, he'll take care of Ezra."
The large, enclosed snow mobile had only the one headlight but it gave off plenty of light for Buck to see where they were going. Thomas had invited him to ride into town because there was a new band playing at the local tavern. Over the past few days, he and Buck had spent a lot of time together. They found that they enjoyed each other's company.
The music was loud, the crowd was rowdy and Buck actually found that he was enjoying himself. Thomas introduced him to everyone and the people were very friendly and welcoming. The bartender kept his drink fresh and the wings were so hot, he thought his tonsils were going to melt. When the crowd got up to line dance, Buck allowed Thomas to drag him from his stool and onto the floor. After watching and getting bumped into by cheerful dancers, he got the hang of it.
It was numbingly silent outside of the tavern after the loud music inside. Thomas waved to some of the others who were also leaving. Buck got in and closed the door behind him, feeling a satisfying buzz in his head. He pressed back into the seat and let his eyes drift closed. Thomas got in and started the engine, pulling slowly onto the road. They rode in silence for a while before Buck heard his friend speak.
"How long were you with him?"
"Who?" Buck asked, feeling as though he'd missed something.
"The guy you're still pining for," Thomas answered.
"I'm not still pining for him."
"If you say so."
When they reached Buck's quarters, Thomas shut off the engine and got out. Buck smiled and threw his arm across the shorter man's shoulder. It was comfortably warm in the small shack and they peeled off outerwear and hung it near the door. Buck moved to light the kerosene lantern, listening as Thomas sank into the couch and sighed.
"Coffee?" Buck asked without turning.
"Sure," Thomas answered.
Buck set the cups into the microwave and started them warming. He suddenly felt nervous and he didn't know why. His hands shook and he pressed them against the countertop as he took several deep breaths.
"Something wrong?" Thomas asked.
"No, I'm fine," he answered. He heard the other man get up and come across the room to stand behind him. Thomas put his hand on the small of Buck's back and began to rub in a circle. It was totally soothing and Buck moaned slightly. The timer on the microwave sounded and instead of removing the cups, he turned around and drew Thomas to his chest. It felt so good to be holding a warm body in his arms again. He nuzzled against the thick, dark hair. Warm lips found his and Buck raised his hand to hold Thomas's head as he ground their lips together. His tongue danced along the crease and Thomas opened his mouth to welcome the intrusion. Buck let his other hand drift down to cup a firm butt cheek and pull the younger man tightly against his thigh.
Thomas moaned and then felt Buck tense. The hand gripping his behind loosened, as did the one cradling the back of his head. Almost reluctantly, he felt the pressure of Buck's lips lighten until they were gone. He heard Buck sigh as his hands fell away.
"I'm sorry, Thomas, I can't do this," Buck whispered. "Please... forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive. You're still in mourning for him. I had to give it a try, though."
Buck watched as Thomas turned, walked to the door and pulled on his coat before leaving. He gave in to the trembling as he stumbled over and sank into the couch, covering his face with his hands as he began to sob.
JD had been back from his honeymoon for almost a month when he got a postcard from the shop where he bought the picture he had given Chris. It said that there was a collection from the same photographer on a web site if he was interested in purchasing another piece. He went online, skipping over the printed information about the photographer, and was awed by the stunning beauty and savagery of the scenes. The site noted that a few of the pieces were autographed by the photographer and he selected one to give to Ezra, hoping to lighten his mood. He made arrangements to have it delivered to the office so he could see it before giving it to Standish.
The package arrived at the end of the week and JD took it home with him to look at and rewrap. Ezra was undercover for the second time since being returned to full, regular duty. JD figured that he could give him the picture to congratulate him at the end of a successful mission. It was a pathetic excuse but it was the only one he could come up with on short notice.
After removing the protective packaging, JD laid the frame on the dining room table. Casey came in and looked on curiously. JD lifted the Styrofoam from the glass and he and Casey stared in awe at the pair of young caribou bucks playfully pushing against each other. The photo was so close that they could see that the horns were still in velvet.
"JD?" Casey said, her eyes locked on the corner of the photo, just above the silver-gray mat. Her husband followed the direction of her gaze and squinted at the pale ink of the autograph.
Within moments, JD was hacking into the SSA computer system. Punching in a number he knew from memory, his jaw dropped at the recent wages reported on Buck's social security number. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he picked up the phone and dialed the ranch.
The steam in the bathroom was hanging just above their heads as Vin and Chris showered. They had already indulged in a bout of gentle loving, just to warm them up for the long night ahead. Josiah and Nathan had the surveillance detail on Ezra until six in the morning, when Chris and Vin would take over. If all went according to plan, the bust would take place tomorrow evening and they would take down a major distributor of contraband weapons and untaxed cigarettes.
"Is that the phone?" Vin asked as he toweled off. Chris sighed and dashed out, naked and dripping wet to snatch up the receiver and bark his name.
"Chris, it's JD. You aren't going to believe what I just discovered! Someone's been using Buck's social security number. I'm sending you the file."
"What made you check for activity on his social security number?" the team leader asked.
"You know that picture I brought you from Boston? I ordered another one from the same photographer to give to Ezra and the guy's using Buck's name so I checked with the SSA. I can't believe the nerve of this guy! I'm so glad I looked at this before I gave the picture to Ezra, that would have killed him!"
"Okay JD, just send me the file and we'll look into it first thing on Monday." Chris hung up the phone and turned to run right into his lover. "Vin! Good God, you startled me!"
"What's up?" the sharpshooter asked as he took a towel and dropped it on the puddle at Chris's feet.
"That was JD. He found out that someone's using Buck's name and social security number."
"Aww hell," Vin said.
Dr. Kasir studied the man sitting on the other side of the desk. Buck had come back from Canada in a deep depression. He was very concerned. It took only a little pressure to get the story out of him, that he'd almost had a fling with a younger man while on assignment in Canada. He was filled with loathing and guilt over it.
"The first warm body to touch me in almost 18 months and I was all over him! It was like... I felt like... like... I was being unfaithful. I just wanted to... throw him on the bed and... and," Buck stopped, unable to put into words what he'd felt.
"You wanted to have a physical relationship with him and you felt guilty about feeling that way?"
"I felt... dirty. I didn't... love him. I would have been using him and I'm not like that. Not anymore," Buck said, swallowing the last two words.
By the end of the session, Dr. Kasir was shaking his head in disbelief. He knew, from Buck's own confession, that Buck had been very active with the ladies before getting together with Ezra. Buck had very deep seated feelings about the lover who had, apparently, deserted him when things got bad. Buck also presented him with a beautiful shot of the herd of caribou running across the ice. The plumes of their breath were clearly visible. He scheduled sessions for every other day for the next few weeks.
The music was so loud that Buck couldn't hear anything that was said to him. Only the bartender, who kept bringing him ice-cold long necks, was able to hear anything, or so it seemed. Several men had approached him and he shook his head at their invitations. He just wanted to drink enough to go back to the apartment and pass out, hopefully into a dreamless sleep.
"ATF, freeze!" Chris shouted as he stepped out of his hiding place. All four of the men at the table raised their hands in surrender. Each of them was handcuffed and taken to the police van for transport back to the Federal building. It was hoped that they would admit something to Ezra in the lockup. They wanted to get dirt on the lawyer who was representing the men. When the men he was arrested with shut down and ignored him, Ezra was released from the cell. They resolved to get the lawyer another day.
On Monday morning, five of the six remaining members of Team 7 were staring in disbelief at the information they had unearthed on the man using Buck's name and history. They had an address for an apartment in Boston, a vehicle, driver's license, a passport, and earnings from the last six months. Travis, surprisingly, gave them permission to go after the man. They were trying to come up with an excuse to avoid Ezra finding out what they were going to do. Unfortunately, the undercover agent walked in holding one of the printouts JD had made on the man's use of Buck's credit cards.
"What in the world is this?" Ezra asked as he offered out the report.
"Ezra... it's a... it's-" JD began.
"Sit down, Ezra," Chris ordered. By the time he finished explaining, Ezra was shaking with rage. He demanded to go with them, if only so he could see the man who dared to use his lover's name and information. By the end of the day, they had airplane tickets to Boston.
The Ford Expedition pulled in to the curb in front of the apartment building where the man was supposed to be living. Chris and the others got out and walked to the door. He turned to Ezra before they stepped inside.
"Are you going to be able to control yourself?"
"Yes, I am perfectly capable of keeping my emotions under rein," Ezra replied acidly.
They paused outside of the apartment before Chris raised his hand and knocked. He tensed as he heard the locks opening. When the door swung open, his jaw dropped in complete shock.
It was fortunate that he was holding on to the doorknob or he would have fallen flat on his ass. Buck stared at the men standing outside of his apartment as if they were raised from the dead. Chris and Vin were standing shoulder to shoulder and he could see Josiah and Nathan behind them. Suddenly, the two men parted and Ezra stood in front of him.
"Buck," Ezra whispered as his eyes filled with tears.
"Ezra? What are you doing here?" Buck asked when he could find his voice. Ezra reached out as if to touch him and Buck stepped back.
"Buck?" Ezra questioned.
"What in the hell are you doing here?"
JD pushed to the front and stopped, his eyes gone round as saucers and his jaw hanging open. He couldn't believe that he was looking at a man he though died over a year ago. He closed the distance between them and threw his arms around the stunned man. "Oh God, you're alive!"
"Of course I'm alive," Buck replied, his arms going around his former roommate. A flood of emotions ran through Buck as he held the trembling young man and looked at his former lover. It hurt, deep inside to see Ezra standing there, looking so vulnerable. A well of rage surged and he pushed JD away, turning from the door. He heard them moving hesitantly into his living room but didn't turn to face them.
"Buck-" Chris began.
"I don't want to hear it, Larabee!"
"But you don't understand-"
"What is there to understand? You never even bothered to look for me! What can you say that will change that? Every day I waited for you to get in touch with me in spite of what she said!" Buck yelled, his hands clenched tightly into fists.
"We thought you were dead, Buck," Josiah said gently.
"What do you mean 'dead'?" Buck asked.
"In spite of what who said?" Ezra asked at the same moment.
"We were told that you were dead," Nathan said in answer.
"In spite of what who said?" Ezra asked again, knowing and yet dreading the answer.
Sticking his pinkie fingers into his mouth, Vin whistled, getting everyone's attention. "Sit down, Buck, Ezra, and let's figure this out."
Taking deep breaths, each man found a place to sit. Nathan realized that Ezra was sweating and shaking, and he feared that he was slipping into shock. He sat beside Ezra, preparing to offer assistance if he should need it. Buck was too angry to feel the effect just yet.
"Thank you, Brother Vin. Now, Buck, I realize that you're hurt and angry but you must understand that we received a call telling us that you had died as a result of your injuries. We received an urn, purportedly containing your ashes. We mourned and grieved for you. If we had gotten even a hint that you were still alive, we would have been there for you. Now, please, answer Ezra's question."
"What was Ezra's question?" Vin asked, realizing that Standish was staring with total disbelief at his former lover.
"It was Maude... she sent you away... and paid you... not to get in touch with me," Ezra said. "She finally found a way to drive you away from me, didn't she?"
"She told you that I died?" Buck countered. His anger was rapidly dissipating and he was beginning to shake.
"We got a phone call saying that you died," Chris explained. "It was like losing Sarah and Adam all over again."
"I think I'm going to be sick," Ezra whispered.
"Up the hall on the left," Buck automatically offered. Ezra nodded and bolted from his seat, one hand clamped over his mouth. Vin leapt up to follow. Nathan moved closer to Buck and snaked a hand out to check his pulse. The medic reached up and tugged until Buck's head was between his knees, urging him to take slow, deep breaths.
Vin plundered the linen closet for a washcloth. Wetting it, he reached out and wiped Ezra's face. A shaky hand reached out and flushed the commode. Vin passed his hand up and down Ezra's back, amazed at how much he was sweating. Finally, Ezra sank back to sit on his heels and looked up at Vin. He opened his mouth to try to speak and ended up sobbing helplessly. Vin pulled him to his feet and held him, letting his friend get it all out.
"What did she say to you?" Chris asked as he moved closer to Buck.
"She paid for everything. There was just one catch, I couldn't contact you or Ezra. I figured that you guys would be looking for me, so I didn't worry about it. When the days passed, I didn't know what to think. After a while, I just figured you all had given up on me."
"I would have searched for you forever if I had known you were alive," Ezra said softly. All eyes came to rest on him, taking in the pale skin and red, swollen eyes. "But I swear to you, she will regret what she did... to you... to us."
"What do you mean by that, Ezra," JD asked.
"She will pay... she will rue the day that she... decided... to interfere in my life," Ezra said, his voice thick with rage and menace.
"Why didn't you get in touch with us anyway?" Nathan wanted to know.
"I gave her my word. She said she would take the money back if I-"
"Money? That's what this was all about? How much did she say it would cost you?"
"A million dollars. Dr. Wild is the best in the world. And there were the round-the-clock nurses and the apartment."
"Your medical insurance would have covered most of that," Nathan interrupted.
"No, they said that it wasn't covered because it wasn't a line-of-duty injury," Buck argued.
"You have disability coverage and the trucking company paid almost a half a million dollars into your estate," Josiah countered.
"She said... she said that he would stay with me because of some... misguided sense of loyalty or... obligation. I couldn't bear the thought of him... seeing me like that day after day."
"Am I that shallow to you?" Ezra asked. "I didn't fall in love with you because of your looks! I fell in love with you. I don't care what you look like on the outside."
"Will you come back, to Denver, with us?" Chris asked.
"I don't know. Chris... it's been over a year. It's not like I can just... pick up and go h-h-home again," Buck said, his voice thick with emotion.
"If you come home, you can be our baby's Godfather," JD offered.
Several pairs of stunned eyes turned to the youngest member of their team. Josiah was the first to recover, moving to embrace JD and thumping him soundly on the back.
"Congratulations! That is good news, son."
Vin and Ezra were next to offer their congratulations, asking when the baby was due. Chris smiled, there was no way that Buck could refuse an offer like that. Nathan rose from kneeling at Buck's feet to hug JD and tease him that he'd better stock up on sleep, he wouldn't get much after the baby came. Buck looked up at the kid, his eyes awash with tears.
"My little Casey-girl is pregnant? I thought I taught you better than that," Buck scolded.
"It's okay, we're married."
The next hours were filled with catching up. Each of them spent several minutes relating the things that had happened since Buck had been away. Nathan asked Buck to tell them about what his year was like. A long, pregnant pause filled the room, making them feel uncomfortable.
"Never mind, you don't have to tell us anything," the medic said, feeling badly for bringing up such a painful topic.
"Please come home with us, Buck," JD begged.
"But I don't have a job, a place to stay."
Ezra looked up, hurt shining in his eyes before he looked away.
"You can stay with me and Casey. We still live at the loft. Ezra deeded it to us after-" JD paused, realizing that he had brought up the awkward topic again.
"I'll think about it, JD. Where are you guys staying while you're here?"
Realizing that he had just been handed an out, Chris stood and stretched. "We hadn't planned that far ahead. We'll grab a couple of hotel rooms. I have to call Judge Travis and break the news to him, he's going to flip."
One by one, they got up to leave the apartment. Josiah and Nathan went to the door, hoping to encourage the others into leaving. Vin and JD also moved toward the door. Chris and Ezra were the last to rise. Ezra stared with longing at Buck before moving to stand beside Vin. The sharpshooter put an arm around his shoulder and Ezra gave him a wan smile. They began to slip into the hall until only Chris remained inside of the apartment.
"Would it help if I said that he's been miserable without you?"
"Chris, I need some time to think about it. Please?"
"We miss you, pard," he stepped in and gave Buck a gentle hug before turning to leave.
Silence descended on the apartment as Buck sank into his chair. After a couple of moments, he began to tremble. When he closed his eyes, he could see the stunned, anguished look in Ezra's beautiful green eyes. When he stopped shaking, he picked up the phone and dialed a number from memory.
"Leslie, darlin', I need you. Can you come over to my place?"
In the rental vehicle, the six men rode in stunned silence. While they had been prepared for a confrontation with a man who was maligning the memory of their friend, they were completely unprepared for finding out that Buck was alive. Each one of them, surreptitiously, glanced at Ezra, worried about how he was taking the news.
Ezra was staring out of the window, his body seemingly relaxed. Vin reached back and caught hold of one of Ezra's hands, giving it a squeeze. Chris turned in his seat so he could see Ezra, he was beginning to worry. They pulled into the hotel parking lot and got out.
"I'm going to get a drink," Ezra said as he headed for the bar off of the hotel lobby. Josiah and Nathan followed him, to make sure that he didn't do anything stupid.
When they found their rooms, Chris sank onto the foot of the bed to make his very important phone call. Travis's secretary put him right through. "Orin, you're not going to believe this," he began.
The alcohol burned all the way to the bottom of his empty stomach. Ezra tapped the glass on the bar and the bartender hurried over to refill it. When the young man ordered his third drink in ten minutes, the man behind the bar had looked inquisitively at the older men bracketing the younger man. The graying man nodded to him and he took that as an agreement to tend to him if he got too drunk. The black man asked about food and was directed to the waitress who would bring their order from the restaurant kitchen.
Nathan put a basket of appetizers next to Ezra's drink. After a mini glaring war, he reached out and picked up one of the stuffed potato skins. He slowed down on his drinking as he polished off a couple of the assorted finger foods. Almost an hour later, when Ezra stopped drinking, Josiah thought he was ready to head for the hotel rooms. Instead, Ezra pulled his cell phone and dialed a number. The two older men shared a look as they wondered whom he was calling.
"Mother, do you have a moment to talk? No, no, I am not calling to inform you of any injury. I was just wondering if I might join you wherever you are at the present time. I have recently come upon some news that could affect the rest of my life."
Ezra completed the call and tucked the phone back into his pocket, picking up his drink and downing it in one swallow. He smiled brightly at Josiah and clapped him on the back. His speech was only slightly slurred when he spoke. "Mothah, is in New Orleans. She is most eagah to hear what her dahrlin' baby boy has to say."
"I think we need to get you up to your room," Nathan urged.
The doorbell rang and Buck got up to answer it. Leslie hurried in, closing the door behind her. She took hold of Buck's arm and steered him onto the couch. In full nursing mode, she checked his pulse and respirations before dropping beside him. "Okay, now tell me what's wrong."
"You remember that I told you about the guy I was in love with when I had my accident?" Seeing her nod, he continued, "He showed up here a few hours ago."
"Oh my God! That's great!... Isn't it?"
"I don't know. Oh, Leslie, I don't know what to do. They were all here, all six of them. They said someone told them that I died. They even got an urn filled with ashes. They didn't look for me because they thought I was dead."
"Do you believe them?" Leslie asked.
"Yeah, they wouldn't lie to me about a thing like that. The thing is... they want me to go back with them... to Denver. I don't know what to do."
"Do you still have feelings for him?"
"Yes, no, I don't know anymore. I just can't... pick up and leave. I have a life here, a job."
"You can take pictures anywhere. It's beautiful in Colorado. You could try to get your old job back," she suggested.
"I don't know. It's been too long. I want... I need... I don't even know what I want anymore. I thought I did, when I thought I could live without him. But now that I've seen him... I don't know."
"How did you feel when you saw him today?"
"Elated, excited,... happy,... hurt. Oh God, Leslie," Buck said as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and cried.
Judge Travis was enraged. He demanded to know how to get in touch with Maude. Falsifying a death record was illegal. Not to mention what she had put Chris and Ezra through. Chris made him agree to wait until Ezra had spoken with her, to find out why she did it. He had an idea, but he wanted to make sure. Just as he was hanging up the phone, Josiah knocked on the door. He and Nathan had Ezra slung between them, one arm over each of their shoulders. They maneuvered him to the second bed and stretched him out.
"What in the hell did you two do to him?" Vin asked.
"He killed six doubles as fast as the bartender would pour them for him. On an empty stomach if he did what I think he did while the two of you were in the bathroom at Buck's place," Nathan answered in the same venomous tone Vin had used on him.
"At least he got Ezra to eat something," Josiah added.
"What did Travis say," Nathan asked of Chris.
"He's pissed off. And that's putting it mildly. He wants to throw her in jail and weld the door shut. Do you realize that Ezra received Buck's life insurance benefits? He could be prosecuted."
"Travis wouldn't do that, would he?" Josiah asked, casting a worried look at the passed out man.
"He wouldn't but the company that handles the insurance might. If they think he was complicit in defrauding them," Nathan explained.
"Okay, let's deal with that later. Where is Maude?" Chris asked.
"He said she was in New Orleans," Josiah replied.
"Could we go get something to eat?" JD asked.
"Someone needs to stay with Ezra," Nathan said.
"I'll stay with him. You can bring me something back," Vin offered.
Chris went to his lover and rested a hand lightly on his shoulder. "You sure?"
"Yeah, I need to be here for him."
The others had only been gone about fifteen minutes when Ezra began to thrash. Soon, he was murmuring Buck's name. Vin crossed to the bed and reached out to keep him from falling off the edge. Ezra turned away from him, groping out and pulling the spread toward him. His fingers grasped the pillow and he drew in into his arms. Vin got up and went to the closet to get another blanket. He spread it over Ezra, sitting on the side of the bed and watching the other man as he dealt with whatever demons his subconscious was dredging up. Ezra continued to mumble Buck's name until he drifted into a deeper sleep.
Buck agonized over the situation all evening. He pulled out his wallet and ran his finger over the only picture he had of Ezra. It was one that JD had taken at the ranch during an unguarded moment. His lover's eyes were focused on something in the distance and he was relaxed. The picture was worn from all of the times Buck had handled it after the bandages were removed from his eyes. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could still see the love in Ezra's face just before the accident. He rolled over on his bed, so he could see the picture better. His head ached from all of the emotional revelations. Learning that he had been deceived by Maude, he thought about what it must have been like for Ezra. He began to imagine how much worse it must have been for his lover, trying to recover from serious, life-threatening injuries and coma while mourning. At least he knew why they hadn't ever contacted him. As he relaxed on the bed, he felt some of the hurt he had been holding inside begin to dissolve. He stood the picture up against his alarm clock so he would be able to see it when he opened his eyes in the morning.
Morning came and Buck felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from his chest. He no longer felt the burning rage he had been feeling. He wasn't sure that he could go back to things the way they were before the accident, but he wanted to have a chance. And he wouldn't get that chance unless he returned to Denver. He wanted to see Casey, wanted to be there when they handed JD his first child. He got up and packed a bag with all of the things he needed until he could arrange for the rest of it to be shipped to him. Dialing the number from memory, he waited to hear Chris on the other end of the line.
Chris closed his cell phone and rolled over to find Vin waiting for him to say something. A disgruntled, pain filled voice floated from the pile of blankets on the other bed. "I trust that was sufficiently important to warrant disturbing our slumber?"
"That was Buck. He wants to go home with us."
Two pillows fell off of the bed as Ezra rolled over to verify what he'd just heard. The broad smile on Chris's face told him that he wasn't kidding. Ezra let his aching head fall to the pillow to hide the blatant display of emotion scrolling across his face.
They met in the hotel lobby. It was a little awkward for all of them except Buck and JD. The two of them connected on a visceral level, the time apart being easily dismissed. JD picked up one of Buck's suitcases and carried it to the rental vehicle. There was some jockeying for seats as they tried to avoid putting Ezra and Buck too close to each other. They had the same problem when they got on the plane. They hung back, letting the former lovers choose seats before they filled in the remaining spots. Surprisingly, they chose to sit across the aisle from each other. JD climbed into the seat next to Buck and Josiah took the seat next to Ezra. Chris and Vin sat together and Nathan sat across from them, behind Buck and JD. Only the Nathan could see the hungry green eyes that watched Buck when he wasn't looking. Chris caught the looks Buck was giving Ezra. They were hungry and curious at the same time.
Chris dealt with Vin's claustrophobic nervousness by requesting a pair of blankets from the flight attendant. He kept one hand in his lover's lap, teasing him to take his mind off of the enclosed space.
Casey was waiting for them at the airport when they arrived. She ran, screeching, not to her husband, but to Buck. He swept her up in a bear hug, spinning around with her in the middle of the concourse.
"Look at you, you're glowing!" Buck said as he set the pretty little brunette on her feet. He cupped her face and studied her brown eyes before tweaking her nose.
"It's so good to see you again," she said as she leaned in for another hug.
Buck's eyes followed Ezra as he went to the ticket counter. He stepped away from Casey and walked up behind Ezra just in time to hear him trying to book a flight to New Orleans.
"What are you going to do there?" Buck asked.
"Contemplate matricide," Ezra answered calmly.
"It means he's thinking of sending his sainted mother into the glorious hereafter," Josiah explained, having arrived in time to hear the tail end of the conversation.
"Can you get another ticket on that same flight for me?" Buck asked the ticket agent, dropping his driver's license and credit card on the counter.
"Buck, you don't need to do this," Ezra protested.
"I want to. I want to know how she got a body to cremate. I want to know why she told all of you that I died."
"You might not have to go anywhere. Travis has issued a warrant for her arrest on a variety of charges. Let's just hang loose for a few days," Chris said.
"She will be brought here?" Ezra asked.
"Yes, as soon as they pick her up she will be extradited to Denver because this is where the case started. Unless she fights the extradition, she will be here within 24 hours of her arrest."
"Let me serve her with the arrest warrant," Buck suggested. "I want to see the look on her face."
"Allow me to accompany him. She'll never suspect it if I'm there. Mother is notoriously well trained in avoiding summons servers."
It took only one phone call to Travis to get permission for Buck and Ezra to go to New Orleans with the needed paperwork. They went to JD's apartment to freshen up and rearrange their overnight bags. Buck was almost overcome by melancholy at being in his former home. JD and Casey had made significant changes, painting walls and carpeting over the hardwood floors. Buck watched the brief videotape of the wedding and was shown ultrasound pictures of Baby Dunne. Too soon, he and Ezra were returning to the airport for the red-eye flight to New Orleans.
Sitting side by side in the first class section of the plane, Ezra shifted nervously in the seat. Buck's seat was reclined and he was dozing lightly. Ezra made use of the opportunity to study the handsome face. His fingers itched to caress that skin, to card through the thick, dark hair. His heart clenched at all of the time lost between them.
"Don't think so loudly there, Ezra," Buck mumbled softly, turning so Ezra could see all of the gentle smile on his face. He had known his former lover was staring at him and he allowed him the indulgence. He knew what it was like, he had often studied his own face in the mirror as it was rebuilt. It was difficult for him when he had been forced to undergo physical therapy.
"A facial therapist?" he'd questioned Dr. Wild.
"Yes, to help you learn to control the muscles again," the surgeon had patiently explained. "You may not realize it, but you slur your words when you speak and you have a perpetual scowl."
It was strange, sitting side by side with the therapist trying to duplicate his facial expression. He had taken it for granted, not understanding how many muscles it took to smile, to wink, to wiggle his nose. He had gotten frustrated, thinking that he might look normal but would spend the rest of his life with the appearance of a mannequin, his face forever frozen in a bored expression.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare," Ezra apologized, directing his gaze out of the window to the darkness and the few speckles of light on the ground far below them.
"Does it look like you remembered?"
"Should have seen it when they first took the bandages away."
He was scared and excited at the same time. Dr. Wild had tried to explain it to him but he hadn't been at all prepared for what he saw when he was allowed to look into the mirror. In addition to the multitude of red, healing cuts, there was a profusion of stitches but that wasn't the worst part. His face was swollen and misshapen. He could see where his jawbone was broken and also where his cheekbones were shattered. The bones had fused and would have to be re-broken and repositioned so that they could heal properly.
Tears filled his eyes and he looked away from the mirror. A firm hand grasped his shoulder and a commanding voice ordered him to look again. "Don't get used to this, it isn't permanent. It will change as we go. This is as bad as it gets. You won't remember this except like a bad dream," Dr. Wild said gently.
"I wish I had been there for you," Ezra said, his voice a mere whisper.
"She wouldn't even let me visit you before she sent me away."
"She was there with me when I woke up the first time and she told me that you were gone. I wanted to close my eyes and never open them again when I heard."
"I never thought about how hard it must have been for you. They told me you had several broken bones."
Unconsciously, Ezra rubbed at his thigh. He still had an occasional twinge in it, especially when he overexerted himself. "I was in a wheelchair for several months. It must have been doubly difficult for you, all alone in a strange city, bereft of family and friends."
"Dr. Wild and the nurses were good to me. They saw me through some pretty rough times. My therapist had a hard time getting me to open up sometimes. But he never stopped pushing me. The holidays were the hardest."
Both men grew silent, each deeply lost in thought. Ezra remembered that first Christmas without Buck. He'd gotten unbelievably drunk and tried to commit suicide. Josiah and Vin had been there for him, talking him out of ending his life. Buck was recovering from a surgical procedure that first Christmas, painkillers kept the worst of the depression at bay.
The 'fasten seatbelts' sign came on and the flight attendant warned them that they should prepare for landing. They folded up the small blankets and set the tray tables back into the seats in front of them. A small pocket of turbulence buffeted the plane and Buck's hand gripped the armrest. His arm brushed against Ezra's and they exchanged grins.
They took a cab to the local police station to get someone to accompany them when they served the warrant. Buck stared when they got out in front of a luxurious mansion. The massive marble columns stretched from the porch to the second floor roof. The broad porch ran all the way around the ground floor and hanging baskets of flowers and ivy hung everywhere. A lush, rolling lawn disappeared in the distance. Ezra rang the bell. Buck almost expected to be greeted by a tall, bald man in a tuxedo. When the door opened, a petite woman looked out at them.
"Would you please inform Mrs. Standish that her son would like to speak with her?"
The maid nodded and closed the door, hurrying away. Buck looked at Ezra, surprised that they had not been shown into the house. A few moments later, the woman was back, slipping out to lead them around the wide, whitewashed porch. Maude was sitting on the shady side of the porch at a small table. A light breakfast was set out before her and she was pouring another cup of tea as her visitors approached.
"Ezra, dear, I didn't expect you quite so early in the morning," Maude said without looking up.
A hard look tightened Ezra's face as he reached into his pocket. Buck watched as he slapped the arrest warrant on the table with one hand while drawing handcuffs from his pocket with the other. "Maude Standish, you are under arrest for falsifying a death certificate, defrauding a life insurance company and other charges listed on these papers. Please stand up."
Shock, surprise and anger warred for control of Maude's face as she looked up at her son. Her eyes widened even further as she took in the police officers and recognized the man standing beside Ezra. She swallowed hard, her icy blue eyes darting between the two men before moving on to the maid, who was standing like a deer caught in the headlights.
"Marla, please go and call Mr. Carlson for me. Tell him to get over here immediately," Maude said, her voice dead calm, revealing none of the emotions she felt.
"Stand up, Mother, you are under arrest," Ezra repeated.
"Now, Ezra, let's not get carried away. I realize that you are upset but there is no need for all of these histrionics. Won't you and Mr. Wilmington join me for breakfast?"
Buck watched in shock as Ezra grabbed Maude by the wrist and brought her to her feet. She pulled away when he brought the handcuffs toward her wrist. Suddenly, he propelled her into the railing, easily controlling her as he captured both of her hands.
"I have an order of extradition from the state of Colorado. You can find an attorney when we get there," Ezra said as he dragged his mother around the house. Buck followed silently, amazed at the controlled rage being exuded by his former lover. Ezra guided the handcuffed woman into the back seat of the police car before returning to the cab, nodding at the wide-eyed driver. Buck flashed his badge at the man to let him know that it was alright.
"Take us to the airport," Buck ordered as he got in behind the driver.
There was some confusion at the airport until Ezra displayed the arrest warrant. They were then escorted to the security office to await the next available flight to Denver. Maude had yet to speak to either her son or Buck. She was absolutely mortified to have been escorted through the terminal by the police. She deliberately turned her back on them, staring at the muted television in the corner of the holding area. Ezra paced in the confines of the room, checking his watch every few minutes. Buck ached to comfort him but he didn't quite know how. When Ezra finally sat down, Buck reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder.
"Don't Buck, please," Ezra said, shifting away from Buck. His mind was in turmoil. Giving back the money from the life insurance was no problem, he had simply added it to his investment portfolio and could liquidate stocks to pay it back. What he was struggling with was where to go with his relationship. He didn't know if they could go back to the way things were between them. He had never stopped loving Buck. He was afraid that if he allowed Buck to touch him that he would lose control and out them in front of God and everyone at the airport. Just that concerned gesture had him achingly hard. He slipped into the men's room to relieve himself.
Maude's attorney arrived and examined the papers Ezra presented to him. He conferred briefly with his client before leaving to purchase a ticket for himself. He could easily have prevented them from taking her to Denver but only for a short time. The list of charges was impressive and he hoped that, by not fighting extradition, he could get some of them reduced or dismissed. Once on board the plane, he persuaded the ATF agents to allow Maude to have her hands cuffed in front of her instead of behind her back. The woman was like a pillar of ice, refusing to speak to anyone except the flight attendant when she brought around drinks. Ezra vetoed her request for an alcoholic beverage, forcing her to make due with plain soda.
A Denver police car was waiting at the airport when they arrived. Maude was handed over to them without delay. Ezra was bone tired and desperately in need of two day's rest. He bid Buck farewell and got into a cab. He barely managed to keep his eyes open during the half hour it took to reach his condo.
Buck also took a cab from the airport. He went back to the apartment he used to share with JD. The kid had pressed a key into his hand the day before and told him to make himself at home. Casey was at work, she was a teacher's aide at the local grade school. JD was at the office, Buck called him to let him know that he was there and to ask whether he should crash on the couch or not. JD informed him that they had a bed set up in the small bedroom on the main floor. Buck checked the room and found that there was indeed a full bed in the small room that had been JD's. The walls had been painted to resemble a summer sky, complete with clouds and birds in the distance. He was too weary to care, he just stripped to his underclothes and crawled into bed.
The criminal charges were whittled down to just the most serious ones. Chris discovered, during the course of his interrogation, that Maude had paid for an indigent man to be cremated, which was how she had procured the ashes and urn. An unscrupulous doctor had signed off on the death certificate for a tidy sum of money. She had never thought about the trouble Ezra could get into, she didn't realize that he was Buck's beneficiary. Not really wanting his undercover agent's mother to go to prison, Chris persuaded Travis to recommend that the DA sign off on a plea agreement that placed her under house arrest. It was all very 'Martha Stewart' with Maude agreeing to electronic monitoring and community service. Chris thought it might just be worth the cost of the plane tickets to be able to drive by while the very prim and proper woman picked up trash along the side of the road.
Ezra refused to meet with his mother. He sent word, by Josiah, that she was no longer welcome in his home or his life. He was a long way from the forgiveness that the older man urged him to find for his mother. She had taken away the one thing that made him happy in his life and he was not going to let her back into his good graces any time in the near future. He had returned to the office after waking from his long sleep, refreshed and ready to go back to work. Josiah persuaded Chris to let the man be, he needed to work through everything that had happened in the recent weeks.
Buck did meet with Maude just the one time. While he was recovering from the back-to-back flights, he'd had a wealth of time to think. He was furious with the woman for the lie she had foisted onto his friends, but he had to be grateful to her for giving him back his face. With her lawyer there to ensure that she didn't say anything that could be used against her, Maude met with Buck.
"Well, it seems as if Dr. Wild did a good job," Maude said.
"He did, Ma'am. And I wanted the opportunity to thank you."
"It didn't turn out quite the way I planned."
"Would it have been so bad for Ezra to be happy? Was it really worth putting us through this? Your son is a very special man and I care for him a great deal. I don't know what will happen between us but I promise you that I will never ever hurt him."
"Yes, well, there isn't anything I can do to stop it now, is there? It will be a year before I can leave my abode without the inconvenience of having my every move watched. And my son has made it quite clear that I'm not welcome in his life any more," Maude answered, blinking back tears.
"He just doesn't realize how lucky he is to have his mother still living. I'll talk to him about it, I promise. If there's anything I can do, I'll get you back together with him," Buck said. "Anyway, I just wanted to thank you again, in spite of it all."
Maude was allowed to return to her home in Louisiana and assigned a court officer to supervise her for the duration of her sentence. She and her lawyer boarded a plane under the disapproving glare of her son's boss. Chris Larabee had warned her that he would see her in jail if she messed with him and his friends again.
It took some doing to untangle the red tape that would allow Buck to reclaim his job with the ATF. He had to acquire his medical records from the doctors who had treated him over the past 18 months. He also had to re qualify with his firearm. Vin spent the better part of two days with him at the range, helping him to get ready for the test. Travis threw some muscle around and smoothed the way for him to return to active duty as soon as he was cleared by the department physician and psychiatrist.
One of the first things Buck noticed when they went to New Orleans together was that Ezra was wearing the ring they had selected so very long ago. He admired the way the white gold set off Ezra's natural pale coloring. When Ezra noticed Buck staring at his hand on his first day in the office, he tucked it below his desk and kept it in his lap. The next day, the ring was gone, only the pale indent on his skin betraying that it had ever been there. Buck immediately regretted getting caught staring. He cornered Ezra by the coffee maker and spoke to him about it.
"You didn't have to take it off, Ezra."
"It was a way to... remember."
"Did you keep the other one?" Buck asked.
"Yes, I couldn't bear the thought of someone else buying it... wearing it. Do you... want it back? I kept yours... it's still in the jeweler's box."
"No, that's alright, you keep it for me. Ezra, do you suppose we could... go out to dinner some time? For old time's sake?"
Fearing his heart being broken again, Ezra declined the invitation. He could see the hurt in Buck's eyes and he had to walk away. Buck stared after him, realizing that they were both scared of what might happen if they took up with each other again.
Things in the office were a little awkward for a while. Although JD and Casey were thrilled to have Buck back, it soon became uncomfortable for them. Buck tried to present a perpetually smiling face, but it was inevitable that he couldn't maintain it with the tension between himself and Ezra. Chris invited him to come out to the ranch for a weekend to give them a break.
Buck's cherry-red truck had been in storage because Ezra couldn't bear to sell it and he didn't trust anyone else to drive it. After a thorough tune up, it was running like new and Buck drove it out to the ranch. He had been relieved to find that Chris hadn't gotten rid of his horse but he hadn't had a chance to get out there and ride. Vin proposed that the three of them go for a long ride Friday evening, then have a barbecue on Saturday with all of the team. Vin saw it as a step toward getting his friends back to the way things had been. Buck was still trying to get used to the idea that the two men were a couple. He carried his bag in and put it in the spare room. Vin and Chris already had the horses out and saddled, ready to leave as soon as Buck was changed.
The ease and familiarity of the three men allowed them to ride in a comfortable silence for a while. Peso, however, was not up to allowing them a peaceful ride. The gelding kept stopping to forage along the sides of the path and trying to nip Pony's hocks. When even his usual antics didn't gain the desired result, he began kicking at Buck's mount. Steele, usually a most placid, well behaved animal, retaliated by turning his teeth on Peso. When Buck started laughing, he couldn't stop. The marks left by Steele's teeth on Peso's behind struck him funny and he just lost it. Seeing him doubled over the saddle horn with tears rolling down his face, Vin and Chris started laughing too. By the time the men had regained control, the horses were settled down and ready to move on. From then on, they talked about whatever came to mind.
Without thinking about it, Chris turned Pony onto the path that went up to the lake. They reached the clearing and stopped, Chris suddenly realizing what they had not taken down since Buck's return. Of course, Buck's eyes locked on the stone and he nudged his horse toward it. He slipped out of the saddle and squatted down to look at the inscription. It had his name, dates, and a phrase in italics. He brushed his fingers across the letters, remembering when he had first heard those words from Ezra's lips.
It was shortly after he'd moved in with Ezra, they were having a special meal that his lover had worked all day to prepare. As they were about to begin the meal, Ezra raised his wine glass and proposed a toast. "Until forever," he said.
"What does that mean?" Buck remembered asking.
"How long I will love you," Ezra explained.
Chris waited a few minutes before approaching Buck. He put a hand on Buck's shoulder and felt the trembling. When the dark blue eyes came up to meet his, Chris could see that they were welling with tears.
"I'm sorry, I forgot to have it taken down," he said.
"S'alright, it just took me be surprise. You and Ezra did this?"
"Yeah, we wanted a place to remember. He buried the urn here after we scattered the ashes in the lake. He came up here a lot at first, as soon as he recovered enough to ride. I really thought we were going to lose him for a while."
"He told me how badly he was hurt in the accident."
"It wasn't just the physical stuff," Vin corrected.
They let the horses get a drink and graze for a while before heading back to the house. Chris put together a pot of spaghetti and they had a few beers. Vin popped a movie into the DVD player and they stretched out in the living room to watch it. Chris sat on one end of the couch with his feet up on the coffee table. Vin laid on the couch with his feet pressed to his lover's thigh. Buck kicked back in the recliner.
The movie was almost over when Buck noticed that Chris was lightly rubbing his lover's shin. Vin was becoming aroused and his jeans poorly concealed it. A flash of pain wrapped around Buck's chest and he studiously avoided looking toward the couch.
Vin noticed the tension radiating from Buck and nudged Chris to make him stop. When the movie was over, Chris got up to go into the kitchen with the empty beer bottles. Vin got up to go to the bathroom and detoured into the kitchen afterwards. He wrapped his arms around his lover from behind, deliberately rubbing his hard on against Chris's ass.
"Easy there cowboy, we have a guest in the house," Chris murmured. Vin nuzzled the blond hair at the nape of Chris's neck, drawing a low moan.
Buck started into the kitchen to get a glass of water to wash down the Tylenol he wanted to take. When he heard Chris moan softly, he froze. They didn't know he was there. He could see Vin pull the tee shirt from Chris's pants so he could touch his skin. He saw Vin leaning his hips toward Chris and knew that he was aroused. Buck spun on his heel and hurried to the spare bedroom. He realized how big a mistake it was to agree to spend the night at the ranch now that Chris and Vin were a couple. Just seeing them together was a reminder of all that he had lost.
The next morning, Chris noticed that Buck was avoiding them. He looked out to see his oldest friend standing outside of the paddock, scratching Chaucer under his mane. The thoroughbred had his head hanging over Buck's shoulder. Steele stood next to Chaucer as if only supervising the pair.
"This isn't helping him," Vin said as he stopped next to Chris and looked out the window.
"Was it a mistake, bringing him back here after we found him?"
"I don't know about a mistake but I never figured it'd be this hard for them."
"Ezra said something to you?" Chris asked, knowing his lover was closer to Standish.
"Yeah, not anything direct, but I know it's eating him up inside."
They stood and watched for a while before going on with their morning routine. Buck wandered in a little later, grabbed a cup of coffee and went right back outside. When Vin went out to the barn to feed the horses, he found that Buck had already put out grain for them and was in the process of cleaning the stalls.
"I'm sorry," Vin said, just loudly enough for Buck to hear him.
"You're uncomfortable here, with us."
Putting the rake against the wall, Buck began to deny it. "No, it isn't like that at all. I'm just having a little trouble getting used to all this again."
"How are things between you and Ezra?" Vin asked, disliking the need to pry.
"It's like someone replaced him with a stranger. Can I ask you something?" He waited for Vin to nod. "Did he date anyone while I was... gone?"
"No, we tried taking him out with us, to get him started, but he began to beg off so we stopped. He's pretty much drawn in on himself."
Chris came into the barn and Buck went back to raking the stalls. Vin slipped away, trying to give them a chance to talk about whatever was bothering them. There was an almost visible tension between the two old friends. When they both reached for the wheelbarrow at the same time, Buck flinched.
"I'm sorry this is so hard for you," Chris said as Buck turned away. He waited until Buck sat on a nearby bale of hay before continuing, "I didn't think about how it would be for you being here with me and Vin-"
"It isn't that, Chris. I'm happy for the two of you, I really am, it's just-"
"You didn't expect it to hurt so much?"
Buck looked up, startled, "Is it so transparent to all of you?"
"No. You forget, I saw that same look in the mirror for a lot of months. When I wasn't too hung over to recognize it," Chris said with a smile. "Are you going to be alright? Do you want to stay somewhere else? Josiah's maybe?"
He saw the offer for what it was, not as an attempt to get rid of him, and Buck smiled. "Nah, I'll just hang out here for a while. See how things go. Okay?" Chris nodded, feeling some of the tension ease between them.
Nathan arrived first, bringing a platter of finger foods and a veggie tray. JD arrived next, struggling with a case of beer and an assortment of sodas. Josiah and Ezra arrived together, with a pot of chili and several pounds of steak. A festive mood soon blossomed. JD dug out a Nerf football and he and Vin began playing on the lawn. Josiah and Nathan were hovering over the grill, arguing over the sauce. Ezra saddled Chaucer and spent a while riding around the paddock before setting up the low jumps and practicing his English dressage technique. Buck's eyes followed his former lover.
It made his groin tingle watching Ezra posting on the horse's back. He couldn't help remembering how he had used those same movements when they made love. He was staring at Ezra when Chaucer suddenly picked up speed and jumped the corral rails. Buck was on his feet, his heart in his throat as he watched the chestnut gelding racing across the pasture.
"I've tried and tried to get him to stop doing that," Josiah said to Buck as he pressed a fresh beer into his hand. "I keep seeing him falling one day."
"He's too good for that."
"It only takes a second for an accident to happen," the profiler said.
Chaucer was winded when Ezra slid from the saddle. He let the horse go to the lake as he walked over to the gravestone. Chris had said that he wanted to take it down in a couple of weeks. Going to his knees in front of the stone, he pulled something from his pocket. Letting the chain spool from his fingers, he stared at the two rings hanging from it. The sun glinted off of the white gold, sending out rays of reflected light. He used his pocketknife to dig along the edge of the cement base and dropped the rings and chain into the hole. He pressed the loose dirt back and stared at the inscription he'd requested for the stone. His eyes blurred with tears and he blinked them back quickly. Finally, he stood and whistled for Chaucer.
Buck stared at the spot where Ezra had disappeared into the woods until he spotted him returning. He walked down to the barn and opened the gate from the corral so that Ezra didn't have to dismount. He followed them and stood back to watch as Ezra loosened the girth strap.
"Steaks are about done," Buck said.
"I'll be right there."
"I see you kept up with your jumping."
"It was part of my therapy, to help me rebuild the lost muscle. The doctor said riding was good for me," Ezra explained as he put the saddle on the rack. Buck continued to watch as Ezra groomed the horse before putting him in the stall. They walked back to the house together.
The meal was excellent and the men settled around the table to eat. Afterwards, they continued to sit around, watching Chris's new mare in the field. She was due to foal in three months. The owner of the stud was paying a pretty hefty sum for the use of the mare. She stretched her nose down to nip at the grass before turning to jog along the fence. Buck sighed aloud, wondering if he would still be here to see the new foal.
Things evened out between Buck and Ezra over the next few days. There was a new resolve in Ezra's mind since he had buried the rings. He was polite and cordial to his former lover, almost the way he had been before they began to date. Judge Travis put Team 7 on the Enrique Rodriguez case, not having made any headway with the other team. Ezra spent the rest of the week putting his cover together.
It was a fairly routing meeting at a popular restaurant. Ethan Stone laughed and drank with his friends as the bosses discussed business. Enrique was explaining something to Jose when he turned and called for his newest salesman. Jose Santiago was very high in the upper echelons of the crime bosses around Denver. He commanded a large gang of drug and weapons sellers that ruled the streets. Next to him was Phillipe Rosa, who ran the delivery trucks that imported all manner of illegal contraband from Mexico. Ezra put his drink down and wove through the crowd to the man who had called for him.
"Ethan, my friend, you are familiar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, are you not?" Enrique asked as he put his arm around the shorter man.
"They are only the greatest composers of this century," Ezra agreed, smiling gamely.
Enrique broke into song and Ezra joined right in. Up the block, Josiah turned the volume down on the speakers in the surveillance van. Buck and Chris exchanged a smile as they heard the men singing. From their video feed, they could see Ezra and Enrique swaying in tandem as they sang at the top of their lungs. Phillipe glanced around nervously before joining in the chorus. Jose tossed back another drink before joining in.
In the small meeting room at the back of the restaurant, Jose opened a packing crate filled with stolen military rifles. He also displayed a briefcase filled with rocks of cocaine. Enrique wrinkled his nose at the drugs but eagerly caressed the guns. He hefted one, checking the balance before replacing it in the crate.
"These are lovely but hardly appropriate for my purposes," Enrique said haughtily. "These are difficult to conceal. I need a gross of Glocks or Sigs for my crew."
"I can acquire all that you need in the next few days," Phillipe promised. "I have a shipment coming in that is all small stuff. I can also put my hands on a large quantity of plastic explosives if you are interested."
In the surveillance van, Chris gripped the edge of his seat as he heard the men casually discussing guns and explosives. He really didn't like having Ezra in the middle of such a dangerous group. It was too soon after the emotional upheaval, he worried about whether or not Ezra could stay in character and not get his cover blown. There was also the added complication of the plastic explosives, which increased the danger during a bust, a stray bullet could set them off.
"No explosives, I don't want to take a chance on one of my underlings getting aspirations of greatness," Enrique said angrily.
"However, I might be able to fence it to some friends of mine who have need of it in other cities for other operations," Ezra offered.
"What is he doing?" Chris growled.
"Trying to get the stuff off the street?" Josiah supposed.
When Ezra got to the office a few hours later, Chris was calmly pissed. Ezra defended his actions with sound reasoning and Travis agreed that they should get the explosives if they could. He suggested that they send another agent in as the 'friend' Ezra had referred to. Since JD and Vin were obviously the wrong type and Enrique had a rabid dislike for "colored" people, Nathan was excluded. Chris and Josiah had both been involved in another bust that hadn't yielded enough evidence to convict Jose so they were out. That left only Buck or bringing someone in from another team. Since Buck was familiar with explosives, it was decided to allow him to go in as the buyer.
The meeting was going smoothly. Phillipe had gotten the crate of handguns and explosives and contacted Enrique to arrange the buy. Buck and three agents from the Reno office, who were acting as his crew, were just getting out of the car. The rest of Team Seven, together with teams two and five, were waiting in the curtains, as it were, for the signal to go in. James Randall, from the Reno office, strode forward and put the briefcase of money on the trunk.
"ATF! Freeze!" Chris yelled into the megaphone. Several hands went for guns and a few managed to clear leather and get a shot off. Ezra and Buck raised their hands in surrender, moving out of the line of fire. Shots flew past them, penetrating the side of the limo Enrique had arrived in and shattering the rear glass. Phillipe fired at Josiah and was spun around as Vin's sniper rifle sent a bullet into his shoulder. Enrique grabbed Buck and hid behind him, pressing a small 22 into his ribs.
Vin saw the gun and his finger eased off of the trigger. A few minutes later, there was a rather intense stand off. After forcing Ezra to his knees and clubbing him with Buck's weapon, Enrique pushed Buck into the limo and ordered his driver to run over the agents standing in the doorway. With very little room to maneuver, the car slammed into the stack of crates, sending them toppling over Ezra's unconscious form before a bullet took out the driver and the vehicle slammed into the wall.
Inside the limo, Buck watched in horror as the crates fell on Ezra. When the driver slumped against the steering wheel, he made his move. A solid right cross rendered Enrique senseless and Buck burst from the car as soon as it hit the wall.
"Freeze!" "Don't move!" "Drop your weapon!" Agents yelled from all sides as they saw someone come surging out of the back of the limo. Buck raised his hands as he searched for one of his teammates.
"Buck, get over here!" Chris yelled, as he and Josiah were carefully lifting the crates from on top of Ezra. Nathan was already on his knees, reaching under the pile to gather information about the injured man. Buck jogged over and began to help with the heavy crate. Vin rappelled down from the rafters and JD ran in from the surveillance van. Other agents tried to help but they soon realized that they were in the way. An ambulance took the injured gunrunners and the driver to the hospital while the others were loaded into police cars for their trip to jail.
"Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan asked as soon as they had uncovered his head. Getting no response, he found his pulse and nodded to the others. It took four of them to lift the last crate off of Ezra before Nathan and the paramedics could go to work.
Buck noticed a thin line of blood behind Ezra's ear and his knees folded. It took Josiah and Chris to keep him from moving the injured man. The paramedics checked Ezra's spine and legs before rolling him onto a backboard and immobilizing his head and neck. They split the sleeve of his suit coat and shirt, in preparation for starting an IV. There was a low moan and Ezra's eyes opened, blinking several times before coming to focus.
"Please don't move, Agent Standish," the paramedic urged as he slipped the needle into the vein he had selected. Ezra flinched, trying to move his arm. Panic was instantaneous, Ezra began to struggle, digging his heels into the smooth board and trying to turn on his side.
"Ezra, it's all right," Buck said as he reached out and caught hold of Ezra's hand. "Let the man do his job," he said as he stared into the frightened green eyes.
"Buck! I thought... I was afr-"
"I'm fine. Just be still and let them get you ready to go to the hospital."
Three stitches behind his ear and a prescription for something for pain was all the treatment Ezra needed at the hospital. He was bruised and would be sore for a few days but was otherwise unharmed. Buck stayed with him at the hospital until he was discharged then drove him home. Ezra was oddly silent in the car, he didn't speak until Buck shut off the engine.
"Buck, I... want to thank you... for being there... at the hospital with me," Ezra stammered. It was one of the few remnants of the accident that he had not been able to deal with. He went all to pieces at hospitals. One time, when Josiah had fallen and wrenched his knee a few months ago, Ezra actually fainted in the waiting room. It brought back too many painful memories and he tended to hyperventilate and pass out. "Will you... come in for a while?"
A broad smile lit Buck's face as he got out and came around to help Ezra out of the car. Nathan and JD had brought it to the hospital so Ezra would have a way home. Vin insisted that the rest of the team leave the hospital and get started on the paperwork. He hoped that the couple would get closer if they were left alone together. Buck took Ezra's elbow and steadied him. He wanted to pull the man into his arms but he didn't dare, not yet.
Inside of the condo, Ezra peeled off the suit coat and shirt, tossing them into the trashcan. He went to his closet and grabbed a pullover sweater. When he tried to pull the sweater down, the sore muscles in his back caused him to hiss aloud. Buck was right there, pushing the soft material up and away.
"What are you doing?" Ezra asked.
"Come over here and stretch out on your stomach," Buck said as he steered Ezra toward his bed. He guided Ezra into lying down. Beginning at his shoulders, Buck began to gently massage the tense, sore muscles.
It was almost like before and Ezra closed his eyes as he reveled in the pleasurable sensation of the large, gentle hands moving over his back. He flinched when Buck reached the worst of the bruised areas. Instantly, the touch became gentler, lighter, until he relaxed again. When Buck reached his hips, Ezra groaned softly, thinking the massage was over. Buck got up from the bed and moved to ease the shoes from Ezra's feet, rubbing them as he did. Moving back around to the side, he placed one hand on Ezra's back and spoke softly, "Roll over and let me undo your pants."
Without thinking about it, Ezra did as he was told. Buck gently removed Ezra's pants and draped them across the quilt rack at the foot of the bed. He took the quilt and spread it over the prone body. Ezra had returned to his stomach and folded his arms under his pillow.
"Do you need a pain pill?" Buck asked.
"Yes, please." After he'd taken the pill, Ezra settled on the pillow again and Buck's hand gently passed over his back. Some ten minutes later, he was deeply asleep.
Buck left Ezra sleeping and went into the other room. It was like stepping back in time almost two years. Very little had changed in the collection of rooms he had shared with his lover. A single picture of the two of them still sat on the bookcase. He was stunned to see his baby picture next to it. Ezra had commented that he loved that picture but Buck would never let him put it out because it embarrassed him. His mother had taken it after a bath and he was lying naked on her bed with a feather boa across his back.
Realizing that Ezra would probably sleep for several hours, Buck decided to make himself at home. It had been a long time since he had spent any length of time at the condo but he knew where everything was. After checking the doors and windows, Buck was overcome by lethargy. Worn out from the long and emotionally charged day, he grabbed a blanket from the spare bedroom closet and settled in the recliner to sleep.
When he awoke, alone, Ezra was unbearably saddened. He had somehow hoped that he would find Buck lying beside him. Getting up was an exercise in pain and he shuffled into the bathroom. After using the toilet, he decided that he needed another pain pill and some hot tea to settle his nerves. Ezra was standing at the kitchen counter, staring at the coffee maker that he used to make his herbal tea. So deeply lost in thought that he didn't hear Buck coming, he started when he felt the firm hands on his back.
"Are you still hurting?" Buck asked.
"I thought you'd gone."
"You shouldn't be alone. Go and lay down, I'll bring the tea and a pain pill."
Buck gave Ezra the pill and a cup of tea and gave him another massage. When he thought Ezra was asleep, he got up to return to the living room.
"Please stay?" Ezra murmured, reaching out to snag one of Buck's hands.
"I wouldn't ask if I wasn't."
It took him only a few minutes to strip down to his underclothes and slide into the bed. They immediately returned to old habits, Ezra turning on his side as Buck spooned against his back. The warmth of Buck's body soothed the aching muscles and the pain pill sent Ezra into a deep, healing sleep.
The phone was ringing when Ezra finally opened his eyes again. He felt an instant of panic when he realized that he couldn't easily move. A heavy warmth was wrapped around him and a warm breath was tickling his ear. The ringing had stopped by the time he wormed out from under Buck's arm. He carefully sat up on the edge of the bed before coming to his feet and heading for the bathroom. When he came out, the bed was empty. His stomach clenched and he grabbed his robe before padding out to the kitchen. Buck came out of the other bathroom and startled him. He tried to spring away and lost his balance. He grabbed for the first thing he could reach and found himself tightly clasped in Buck's arms.
"Good morning," Buck murmured, just before he lowered his lips to Ezra's.
He surrendered for a moment to the wonderful sensation of having warm lips pressed to his. When Buck's tongue ran along his upper lip, he opened his mouth willingly. As their tongues fought the familiar duel, Ezra moaned. He arched his back, pressing his groin against Buck's thigh. It had been so long since he'd been so aroused.
Buck let his hands roam down Ezra's back to his behind and he pulled them closer together. He could feel the proof of Ezra's desire against his thigh. He worked his hands upwards, kneading the taut muscles until he felt the smaller man flinch.
"I'm sorry," Buck whispered, "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Don't stop," Ezra whispered.
Taking a deep breath, Buck let his arms tighten slightly around Ezra. "You're in no shape for what I had in mind just now. Come on, how about a nice, hot shower?"
Ezra came back to work the next day with a new spring in his step. He was smiling for the first time in a long, long time. Buck had come in earlier, smiling and happy too. The others could only assume that the couple was back together.
There was something easier about the mood in the office the rest of that week. Buck was all smiles, laughing and joking with JD and Vin just like old times. Casey was beginning to have morning sickness and was miserable. Buck tried to reassure JD that she would be alright but JD was worried. Chris finally took the young man aside and talked to him about when Sarah had suffered from morning sickness. He related the jokes and teasing that had gone on between them after it passed, assuring JD that, like the labor pains she would endure, the morning sickness would pass.
Buck began to feel like a third wheel at his former home. Casey tried so hard to make him feel comfortable and welcome, but she really wanted to finish the baby's room and she couldn't do that with him there. It made her anxious, not being able to set up the crib. Her stomach was so touchy that every little smell made her sick. JD took off early one afternoon to accompany her to the doctor for a visit. When they got home, the neighbors were cooking something and the odor upset Casey's stomach. She barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. It was too much for her and she began to cry. Buck had warned him that her hormones would cause her moods to change suddenly but JD hadn't believed it.
"Casey honey, go upstairs and lay down for a while. I'll make you some tea, that'll settle your stomach." He smiled as he tried to lead her to the stairs.
"I don't want to go upstairs! I want to lay on the couch!"
"But honey, Buck will be here soon and he's bringing Josiah over so we can work on-"
"Damn it, JD, this is our home, not his! If I want to lie on the couch, I'll lie on the couch. When is he going to leave? I'm tired of having someone around all the time!"
JD was confused. Where was his sweet, loving wife? What had happened to the woman he had fallen in love with. Casey continued to scream and rant at him, "can't even plan a meal without asking if he likes it! I can't finish the baby's room! I have to be completely dressed all the time!" Casey's ranting stopped as the apartment door opened and Buck stepped in, hurt showing clearly on his face. Josiah was behind him, looking concerned. Casey froze for a moment before running for the stairs. She stumbled on the bottom step but went on, slamming the bedroom door when she got up there.
"Buck... she's umm... she didn't mean it," JD said by way of apology before running up the stairs to knock on the door, pleading with Casey to open up.
"I'll be right back," Buck told Josiah, going into the room he was using and throwing things into his laundry and overnight bags. When he looked up from the dresser, Josiah was standing there, calmly watching him pack. The profiler took the heavier bag and Buck followed him out of the apartment. Buck stopped just inside the door and pulled out his keys, removing the key from his ring and placing it on the table. He turned the lock and closed the door behind him. "I'll grab a room at a hotel until I can find a place," he told Josiah.
"You'll do no such thing. I have plenty of room and you are more than welcome to stay at my place. It'll be just us two swinging bachelors."
JD called just after they reached Josiah's and begged Buck to come back. He said that Casey was sorry for the way she'd acted. Buck was torn, he knew that his young friend would be upset if he didn't go back but he felt that the strain was too much for the young couple.
"It's better this way, Kid. You two need your own place. You need to finish that room for my Godchild. I'll be fine here at Josiah's swinging bachelor pad. Don't worry about it. Tell Casey-girl that I love her and I'm not mad at her."
Buck and Chris got together that weekend to take down the stone from up by the lake. They had a small skid and chains to attach it to the horses. They were going to take the stone down and the monument company was going to sand it down and reuse it, with their blessing. They rode up to the lake and started working to free the stone from the cement base. When it came loose, a portion of the base broke and slipped out of place. As soon as the stone was secured to the skid, Buck bent over to put the piece back and noticed something glinting in the sun. Pulling off his glove, he raked across the object, revealing more of it. He took hold of the chain and lifted it slowly.
"What'cha got there, Buck?" Chris asked after taking a drink from his canteen.
The chain continued to come up until the items on the end were revealed. Buck gasped as he recognized the rings. Cupping them in his palm, he shook off his other glove to brush away the dirt that clung to them. The rings were different than he remembered. He blew on them to get rid of the last bits of dirt so he could see what had looked like scratches on the smooth, polished surface. His chest ached as he drew breath, looking at the words inscribed so beautifully on both of the rings 'Until Forever.'
Chris took the chain and looked at the rings. He remembered when Ezra had first started wearing the ring at the office and it wasn't inscribed. Why would he have them inscribed if he was going to bury them up here? He let them fall back into Buck's hand before drawing his hand through his hair. Buck stared at them for a while longer before putting the chain around his neck and tucking the rings under the collar of his tee shirt. He sighed as he rose, looking toward the lake before starting for his mount.
"Don't say anything to him about this, please?" Buck asked of Chris.
"Not a word," he answered as he swung up into the saddle.
Several weeks passed and Chris noticed that Buck was still wearing the chain around his neck, assumedly with the rings on it. Keeping his word, he had not made mention of them. He noticed that Ezra was unusually quiet all day at the office. He looked to Vin to see if Ezra had said anything to him about what was going on. Vin shook his head, he was as confused by the behavior as his lover. Since they had no pending cases, Chris didn't feel the need to pry, yet.
Ezra arrived home and hurried in to answer the phone. He had barely gotten the receiver to his ear when he heard the caller hang up. Sighing in frustration, he put the phone down and went back to close the door to the garage. Removing his suit coat, he put it on a hanger in the hall closet. He shrugged out of his shoulder holster and hung it up, removing his gun and putting it in the safe. That was the bulk of his evening routine. He would spend the rest of the evening pretty much just moping around in the apartment. Against his will, his eyes went to the photo of he and Buck that he had kept on the bookshelf. Several times, he had picked up the phone, intending to call and invite Buck over. Each time, he would chicken out around the fourth number as he dialed.
A knock on the door ended his inner ruminations. He got up and crossed the floor, mentally organizing his excuses not to have to go out or to have company in tonight, he just didn't feel up to spending time with anyone. When he had two good excuses in mind, he opened the door. There, on his porch, was a vision from one of his recurring fantasies. While his brain switched gears, albeit slowly, the visitor spoke.
"Are you going to invite me to come in?"
Stunned, Ezra stepped back and allowed his visitor to step into the apartment.
"These are for you."
Ezra reached out with trembling hands to take the bouquet of flowers, automatically drawing them to his face to inhale deeply of their scent. "I'll... I'll... just go put these in water," he managed to say as he walked into the kitchen. When he had put the flowers into a vase, he came back into the living room.
"Aren't you going to say anything?"
"It's... it's good to see you," Ezra said, as a whole flock of wild birds took flight in his stomach.
"You just saw me not an hour ago at the office."
"I know but..."
"We have to talk."
Taking three large steps, Buck closed the distance between them. He reached out to press his hand gently to Ezra's cheek, only to have him pull back. With his other hand, he took hold of Ezra's arm, preventing him from retreating any farther.
"Are you really afraid of me, Ezra?"
"Then why have you been avoiding me?"
Buck raised his hand again and cupped Ezra's cheek. He let his thumb brush lightly over the high cheekbones as he stared into the emerald depths of his eyes. He leaned down slowly, until his lips gently brushed against Ezra's. He felt the tremulous breath against his cheek as Ezra pushed up into the feather-light kiss. Buck resisted the urge to grin as he felt Ezra's hands come up to grip his upper arms. He slipped his hand around to cradle the shell of Ezra's head as he opened his mouth to allow the probing tongue.
When they finally parted lips, Buck tightened his arms around Ezra and held him close as he spoke. "Would you do me the honor of having supper with me some place special?" He was hurt when he felt Ezra shaking his head 'no' against his chest. "Why?" he asked softly.
"I don't want to share you with anyone tonight," Ezra replied. "You do know what night this is, don't you?"
"It's the anniversary of the first time we went out together."
Ezra pulled back, staring up in wide-eyed wonder.
"You thought I wouldn't remember?" Buck asked.
"I must admit... that I didn't think... with all that you went through... that you'd remember."
"I made reservations at Antonio's, unless you really want to stay in."
That was the place they had chosen for their first 'date.' It was a quaint, private little place, that catered to couples who valued their privacy above all else. Instead of tables in the open, or booths, they had booths that were separated by thin walls, heavily insulated to insure that conversations were not easily overheard. Rich, heavy drapes closed off each booth. It was one of the only places Ezra felt comfortable enough to go with a male escort.
"I would prefer to stay in, if you don't mind," Ezra said softly.
"Whatever you prefer."
They moved toward the couch and sat down. There were still some awkward motions, as each of them struggled not to crowd the other. Finally, they settled for side by side, not touching.
"I'd like to... start over with you... if you're willing," Buck said.
"Are you certain? After what my M-m-mother put you through?"
"Ezra, what your mother did has no bearing on how I feel about you. I never stopped loving you, not even for a moment."
"Certainly didn't seem that way when we found you," Ezra replied.
"I was hurt that you didn't look for me."
"I thought I knew where you were."
"Oh yeah, which reminds me, I helped Chris take that stone down. Did you know that?" he waited for Ezra to nod before continuing, "I found something while I was up there."
Thinking he was referring to the urn, Ezra nodded again. "I thought it was appropriate."
Surprised at the response, Buck stared at Ezra. "Appropriate?"
"Yes, I thought it a fitting place. It wasn't as if I could put it on my mantle. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing it day after day."
"You had it on your finger when I came back!" Buck said.
"On my... oh, you're talking about-"
"The rings. What did you think I was talking about?"
"The urn. I thought you were talking about the urn your... the ashes were returned in," Ezra answered. A moment later, he realized what Buck was talking about. "The rings?"
Buck reached up and caught the chain, pulling it out of his shirt until the rings popped out of his collar and dangled there. Ezra stared at them for a moment before raising his eyes to Buck's.
"I thought you were going to keep them?" Buck said.
"After you noticed that I was wearing... mine, and you were there... in the office... everyday, it was too hard... seeing you and not... not being able to... touch you."
"But I asked if we could have supper together. I tried to get you to go out with me."
"I couldn't face you. After what my mother did, I didn't think you would want to go through that again," Ezra said.
Buck slipped off of the couch onto his knees in front of Ezra, pulling the chain off at the same time. He unhooked the clasp and let the rings fall into his palm. Plucking one from his hand, he put it on the coffee table before taking up the remaining ring. He picked up Ezra's hand and slid the ring back onto his finger, settling it over the pale mark it had left before when he wore it. After turning the ring so that the inscription was on top, he lifted Ezra's hand to his lips to press a gentle kiss to the ring. As he released the hand, he knelt up and kissed each of Ezra's eyelids, brushing away the single tear that escaped from the emerald eyes. Settling back on his heels, he picked up the other ring and placed it in Ezra's palm. Drawing a shuddering breath, Ezra took Buck's hand and slid the ring onto it, just as he had planned to do two years ago.
After several minutes of mutual staring at the rings, they both chuckled nervously. Buck came to his feet, pulling Ezra up with him. He nuzzled against Ezra's neck for a moment before groaning at the hip that ground against his groin.
"Don't start something you don't intend to finish," Buck warned.
"I plan on finishing it," Ezra promised.
A few months later, Team 7 was gathered at the ranch. A baby cried and was quickly shushed as soft strains of a string quartet filled the air. Two extraordinarily handsome men faced each other under a rose-covered trellis. The Unitarian minister stepped up and his voice carried clearly on the light breeze.
Ezra's heart was hammering so hard that he thought the others must surely be able to hear it. He took Buck's hands with his own trembling hands. Lifting his eyes, he followed Buck's arms up to his shoulders, to his chin, his nose, and finally to his eyes. The intensity of the love shining from those blue eyes made his chest ache.
Buck gently squeezed the trembling hands that took hold of his. He waited patiently for Ezra to look up at him. When the deep green eyes finally met his, Buck was awed at the wealth of emotion displayed there. His body responded to the hot flush of feeling and he was grateful that his tuxedo trousers were loose fitting.
They exchanged the rings again, even though they had been wearing them for some time. They embraced, not wanting to make their friends uncomfortable watching them palpate each other's tonsils.
"Oh go on, give him a kiss," JD called from his seat next to Casey. His daughter, Shannon, was sleeping peacefully in a sling, nestled against her mother's heart. She twitched slightly at the burst of laughter that sounded around them.
Buck felt Ezra tip his head up and nuzzled until he caught his lips in a chaste kiss amidst polite applause. When they parted, Chris and Vin were right there, congratulating them with warm embraces. Josiah and Nathan were also there with hugs. They gently wrapped an arm around Casey, not wanting to wake the baby, while fiercely squeezing JD.
After the reception and the catered meal, Buck and Ezra mounted their horses and rode up to the lake. In their saddlebags, they had small bags of cement mix. They mixed the material and poured it into the hole that was left when they removed the headstone. Both of them pressed a hand into the wet cement and used a twig to write their names below the imprints. Above them, Ezra etched the phrase that was on their rings - Until Forever.
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