The Book Of Counted Sorrows
Part I - Full Circle
Artwork: by the amazing PattRose
Feedback: Crave it. :-)
Summary: A ghost from Ezra's past comes back into his life, leading the team into a tangle of murder and corruption that may cost Ezra's life and his future relationship with Chris.
In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite what it seems
December 11th, 1996
The bedroom was shrouded in shadows and oppressive silence. Ezra could only hear one thing - Matt's even breathing. Matt lay on his side, one arm draped over Ezra's waist, his right leg draped over Ezra's, his dark head nestled on Ezra's shoulder.
Feeling his heart break at what he was about to do, Ezra looked down at the man in his arms. He resisted the urge to brush his fingers over the handsome face, to stroke Matt's stubbled cheek, to touch the parted lips that only moments earlier had brought him such pleasure, to kiss the ocean blue eyes open.
Instead he rose silently from the bed, donned his clothes, and making sure the other man remained undisturbed, left the room. He made his way downstairs, careful not to make any noise. After six months as Matt's lover, he knew Matt's house as well as his own, so he didn't need to switch on any lights as he made a beeline for the study.
Once inside Matt's office, Ezra immediately found what he was looking for. Matt's laptop was resting on the large mahogany desk where Matt usually worked. He powered it up, typed the user name and password and was allowed access.
Heart hammering frantically in his chest, Ezra searched file after file, hoping he was wrong, hoping there was nothing to be found. His hopes were in vain. All the top-secret documents stolen from the Bureau and sold to the highest bidder were saved in Matt's personal computer, when he shouldn't even have had access to them.
"Oh, Lord," Ezra whispered despondently. "Matt is the mole."
He dropped down in the big chair behind him, and stared blankly at the screen, trying to come up with a logical explanation to why his lover would be in the possession of such information.
Nothing came to mind.
Faulkner and Combs had investigated every agent in the department until only Matt was left. His bank accounts had showed no sudden sizeable deposits that would have suggested Matt was selling the information, but a search on some of his favorite aliases had produced an account with over a million dollars. Ezra hadn't wanted to believe the proof, but finding the files meant it was now staring him in the face.
Reaching for his cell phone, Ezra dialed his boss' number, squeezing his eyes shut at the pain in his heart as he listened to it ring.
"Faulkner," came the voice from the other end.
"It's me. I found the documents in Ralston's computer."
"We'll be right there."
Ezra ended the call, and found he didn't have the strength to rise. He remained sitting in the chair, surrounded by darkness, feeling too numb to even think straight. He just couldn't believe Matt was the mole. After years of being friends, and then lovers, it was painful to discover he didn't know the other man at all.
"Ezra?" Ezra looked up to see Matt standing in the doorway, frowning in confusion as he wrapped his robe around him tightly to ward off the winter's cold. "What are you doing here in the dark, Ezracat?"
"Thinking," Ezra replied flatly.
Matt smiled. "It's nearly two in the morning, gorgeous. Why don't you come back to bed?"
Before Ezra could reply, a loud crash was heard as the front door was knocked down. Matt jumped at the sound, but seemed too startled to do more than gape at the men storming into his house.
Ezra watched with an unemotional eye as the head of their department, Richard Faulkner, and his assistant, Russell Combs, barged in the study with a third agent in tow, guns held high and aimed at Matt.
As always when he saw them together, Ezra wondered absently at how different the two men were, as night is to day. Faulkner was tall, his bearing intimidating to those who didn't know him and to those who did. In his mid-fifties, he was in top shape, and although his hair had long turned salt and pepper, his icy gray eyes remained shrewd and alert.
Combs was shorter, on the heavier side. A redhead when younger, he was almost bald even though he was in his early thirties, and his almond eyes had a warmth sorely lacking in Faulkner's.
"What the hell Faulkner, what's going on?" Matt shouted angrily.
"You're under arrest, Ralston," Combs said, grabbing Matt roughly and holding his hands behind his back.
"What the hell for?" Matt spat.
"For selling classified information," Faulkner answered him as he put the handcuffs on.
"What? You think I'm the mole? Faulkner, I swear it's not me! This is a set up! Ezra," he pleaded. "You can't believe this, you just can't!"
Ezra stared at Matt, wanting to say something, anything, but unable to make his mouth work. He had wanted so much to trust Matt and believe that he was different from all the other people in his life. That he was the mole, that he had been selling the agency's secrets and that Ezra had never noticed, hurt beyond belief.
"Combs, you and Thompson take Ralston upstairs, get him dressed," Faulkner ordered. "Don't let him out of your sight for a second."
"Faulkner, you have to listen to me! I'm not the mole! It's a set up, I'm innocent!" Matt shouted as he was dragged up the stairs to his room by the two agents. "Ezra, tell them!"
Ezra closed his eyes at the panic and ire in Matt's voice. There was nothing he could do. Matt was guilty and was going to have to pay for his crime.
"You did good," Faulkner said once Matt was out of earshot.
"Did I?" Ezra murmured, running a tired hand over his face.
"Yes. He was dirty; you did your job. You were the only one close enough to him to access his house and search his computer."
Ezra turned cold eyes on his boss. "You bastard," he hissed angrily. "Don't you dare talk about me doing my job. You blackmailed me into betraying Matt because you found out we were together. If you hadn't threatened to expose our affair to all and sundry, and ruin our careers, I would never had accepted this assignment."
"I'm sorry about that, Ezra, I really am. But I needed your collaboration, and you wouldn't have helped us otherwise. It had to be done. I "
The sound of shots and glass breaking cut through their conversation. Ezra followed Faulkner out of the study in time to see Combs running down the stairs, blood dripping from his left hand.
"What happened?" Faulkner growled.
"Son of a bitch took us by surprise. He was dressed and back in handcuffs, but somehow he managed to pick them loose. He hit Thompson, grabbed his gun, shot at us and then jumped out of the window," Combs panted. "Thompson's dead."
"Go after Ralston. I don't care if we have to make this a nationwide manhunt. I want him back! And Combs.... It can be dead or alive."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
January 15th, 1999
Chris sat quietly on the cool grass covering the graves, uncaring that it was still damp from the previous night's rain. He occasionally ran his hand over the lettering on the simple gray stones, as if with that gesture he could reach out to his dead wife and son.
So many years had gone by since their deaths. Five long years in which his life had changed in so many ways. He had gone through all the motions the denial, the anger, the guilt. But Buck had kept at him, refusing to let him sink into depression, refusing to let what was left of him die with Sarah and Adam.
He hadn't even noticed the changes in himself at first. The denial had slowly changed into resignation as he realized he would never again hold Sarah in his arms, never again get to play with little Adam. Some of the anger was still there; it would always be. He might have forgiven himself, but he would never forget. The guilt had slowly ebbed away as he accepted there was nothing he could have done to save them.
And then Congressman Wilky Redd had approached him with the idea of creating a task force within the ATF based on the DEA, able to operate throughout the nation. It was a dream come true; the chance to run the show, to call the cards without having to bow to some pencil-pushing idiot who had no inkling what really happened on the streets. It would have been stupid to refuse an opportunity like that.
So there he was, a year later, the leader of a misfit crew of six unique men. And more than that, their friend.
It had been a surprise to realize the other men had helped mend his wounded heart. He no longer wanted to be alone. He thrived on his relationship with them, and they had helped him limp back into the land of the living. Oh, he still feared the time when one of them might end up dead, he wasn't certain he would be strong enough to survive another loss. But now he was holding on to life with both hands and had no intention of letting go.
He took a deep breath. There was a particular reason why he had chosen to be here today. He needed to think, and he had always found a strange kind of peace while visiting his wife and son's graves.
Slowly, over the last year, he had begun to care again. Care in the way he had cared for Sarah. Without meaning to, he had fallen in love, only this time with a man. Having discovered in his college days that he enjoyed what both sexes had to offer, the feeling itself hadn't come as that much of a shock. That it was one of his men, however....
Ezra Standish was a mystery and a contradiction all in one. Secretive, aggravating, intelligent, difficult, brilliant, headstrong. The man was all that and more. And like the others, Chris hadn't been able to resist the challenge of trying to draw the man out of his shell.
It was hard work, sometimes he felt like throttling Ezra, but the little glimpses he caught of the real man.... Chris saw a kindred soul, someone who had been hurt once too often and was unwilling to try again. And yet, no matter how hard he tried to hide it, Ezra cared for every man on the team, going out of his way to keep them safe when they were out on a case. But whenever they got too close to him, his defenses just slammed back up and they would be left out in the cold.
But they were slowly breaking through the protective layers. Ezra was more relaxed around them now, not so ready to snap at them or hide his true feelings. They had even managed to convince him to go along on some of their weekend excursions, although he had complained the whole time. But he had gone, and that was what really mattered, the real breakthrough.
Startled, Chris turned to face the familiar voice. "Ezra, what are you doing here?"
Ezra frowned. "I believe that is my question. We.... The others were quite worried about you."
"Why?" Chris asked.
Ezra drew closer, tilting his head as he looked down at Chris. "Today is Sunday, Mr. Larabee. You invited us all to lunch at your ranch. When we arrived, you were not there. I dare say you caused a considerable amount of panic amongst our colleagues."
Chris looked down at his watch and swore. "Damn, I didn't mean to stay here so long. It was just a quick visit. I guess I got a little carried away," he added sheepishly.
Ezra crouched down beside him. "Are you sure you're all right, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris smiled at him. "Yeah. I was just... letting go." He could see the curiosity in Ezra's eyes, but knew the other man wouldn't be intrusive enough to ask questions. "So, how did you come to search for me here?"
"Mr. Wilmington's idea," Ezra said with a slight shrug.
"Ah. Surprised he didn't come himself," Chris commented, rising from the ground and brushing off his clothes.
This time there was obvious amusement in the pale green eyes as Ezra answered the unvoiced question. "I believe he would have been more than ready to come look for you himself, but I'm afraid Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson 'volunteered' him to remain at the ranch should you call. Mr. Wilmington was made somewhat... distraught by your absence."
Chris chuckled, imagining Buck going out of his mind with worry as he realized Chris was not at the ranch. He had probably driven the others crazy with his loud and boisterous way of handling things. Chris was surprised there wasn't an APB out on him by now.
"Better be on our way then, before ol' Buck wears my floors out. Besides, I owe you guys a barbecue. Just don't use spendin' the day at the ranch as an excuse to arrive late tomorrow morning." Chris looked pointedly at the other man.
Ezra grimaced. "No chance of that, Mr. Larabee. Unfortunately, my faithful steed is at the shop. Mr. Sanchez has been kind enough to offer me a ride to the office, which means I will have to rise early. It wouldn't do to keep one's savior waiting."
"How did you get here then?"
Ezra sighed. "Mr. Dunne was kind enough to bring me on his motorcycle to the city's outskirts. From there on I took a taxi."
Chris felt his eyes widen in wonder. "You rode with JD on his bike?" he asked incredulously.
Ezra cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. "It was necessary. Everyone was needed for the search and since your ranch is forty minutes away from the city, it would have been rather expensive to call the taxi from there. It wouldn't have been of great importance, but unfortunately, I find myself sorely lacking in funds and "
"Ezra," Chris interrupted softly.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"Thank you," Chris said, smiling slightly.
Ezra cleared his throat anew, seemed about to say something, then asked simply, "Shall we go?"
Chris shook his head fondly. After a parting look at his wife's and son's graves, he followed Ezra to his truck.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra watched the early Monday traffic absently, his mind deep in thought. So much had changed in his life during the last year. Just a few months earlier, he would have rather have taken a taxi to work than allow one of the other men to give him a ride. Now, there he was, safely tucked in the passenger seat of Josiah's Chevy Suburban.
And worse, he honestly didn't mind the ride. Or the company.
As he hadn't minded spending the previous day at Chris' ranch, with the others, relaxing and enjoying himself. It was still a new experience for him; to be around people he cared for enough and trusted enough to let his guard down.
The six men kept working relentlessly at him, pushing, cajoling, dragging him out from behind his layers. Much to his surprise Ezra realized he wanted to reach out to them, that he needed what they had to offer. He treasured their friendship, the 'family' warmth with which they insisted on surrounding him with. It was all new to him, strange, but oh so seductive.
Then there was Chris. Ezra wasn't blind; he had seen the covert glances when Chris thought he wasn't looking, had seen the irritation of their earlier fights turn into exasperation, then fondness. Ezra could see the love Chris was unable to keep hidden at times of danger.
And Lord help him, he was starting to feel the pull himself. Larabee was obviously a handsome man, but beyond that, he was someone worth knowing. Trustworthy, loyal, strong-willed, with a quick mind, volatile temper and a capacity for caring that awed Ezra. But after Matt, Ezra was too afraid to take another chance.
He closed his eyes at the renewed pain in his heart. What a terrible mistake he had made. He was certain now that Matt was innocent, but at the time.... It had all seemed so plausible, so irrefutable. He should have known better. One of the first things his mother had taught him was that things were not always what they seemed.
Not three months after Matt escaped, the rumors had started again. Only this time Ezra himself was their target. There was no evidence against him, but with his wild card reputation everyone in the department was quick to believe it. Some thought he had set Matt up to take the fall for him, others that they had worked together. The details didn't matter, only the final verdict, and in their eyes Ezra was corrupt, on the take, selling his country's secrets for profit.
He had judged Matt, now he was the one on the stand.
Salvation had come in the name of Chris Larabee. The fact the man even wanted him on his team in spite of the rumors had surprised the hell out of Ezra, but when he was given a second chance after the first mission fiasco, he knew he would never again betray Chris' confidence, that he would do what it took to remain in Denver.
But that still left Matt, and Ezra's overwhelming guilt regarding the whole affair. Matt was still out there, on the run, over two years after he was thought guilty. Ezra didn't know if he should be happy or upset that he had taught the man how to pick locks, since that had allowed his ex-lover to escape. Maybe if Matt had gone to prison they would have found a way to prove his innocence by now.
Or maybe not.
Ezra rubbed a weary hand over his face as Josiah was stopped at an intersection to wait for the light to turn green. A car driving in the other lane moved into the intersection at a fast speed, when one of its tires suddenly blew, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle.
"Josiah!" Ezra shouted out as a warning, but there was nothing anyone could do.
Ezra watched in slow motion as the other car headed straight for them. The two vehicles met in a metal-crunching, bone crushing impact, the passenger side of the Chevy taking the worst of the hit. He had one last thought for Josiah's safety, then the world went black.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The first thing Ezra registered as he struggled back to awareness was the mind numbing pain in his whole body. The second was the warmth of the hand holding his. Stifling a groan, he opened his eyes cautiously, blinking a few times in order to focus on the figure hovering over him. Chris was smiling down at him, the tension lines in his face more pronounced, the worry still clear in his eyes.
"Welcome back," Chris said, stroking his thumb over Ezra's palm. "We were starting to wonder when were you goin' to wake up."
Ezra glanced around, seeing the equally smiling faces of Vin, JD and Buck, but failed to see Nathan or Josiah. Thinking of them brought the accident back to his mind and he gasped as he realized there was only one reason why Josiah wouldn't be in the room with the others.
"Josiah!" he croaked, trying to rise from the bed.
Chris forced him to lie down. "Shhh, take it easy, Ez. He's fine. He and Nathan went to get us some coffee."
"Coffee?" Ezra echoed confused.
Vin suddenly thrust a straw under his nose and Ezra gratefully took a sip.
"We've been here for hours, Ezra," Buck explained. "The accident was early this mornin', it's after three in the afternoon now. He needed somethin' to keep his mind busy while we were waitin' for you to wake up."
"Why? Is he all right?"
JD nodded. "Not a scratch on him, amazing as it seems. He's just feeling guilty because you took the brunt of the hit."
Ezra started to shake his head but immediately realized it was a bad idea. "There was nothing he could have done. What happened exactly?"
"The first squad car on the scene found a large nail embedded in the other car's tire," Chris said with a slight shrug. "It's anyone's guess on how it got on the road at that particular moment. You were just at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"So, when can I depart from this house of torture?" Ezra asked tiredly.
"Tomorrow," Nathan replied, walking in the room with Josiah, both carrying a multitude of steaming cups, which they distributed among the other men. "You suffered a slight concussion, and your right hip and leg are badly bruised. You're one lucky son of a bitch, Ezra!"
Ezra grimaced theatrically. "I believe I will feel particularly lucky when I start moving around."
Nathan chuckled. "Let's say you'll have an interestin' next few days. The doctor said you have to start movin' soon, so.... But I wouldn't want to be in your place, those muscles are goin' to hurt like crazy."
Ezra scowled at him, but didn't bother with a retort. Instead he asked, "So, tomorrow I can return to my abode?"
Chris gave him an amused grin. "Nope. You're goin' to stay at my ranch until you're better."
"Mr. Larabee, I'm quite capable of taking care of myself," Ezra gritted out, trying to keep his annoyance in check. He may have gotten used to the other men, and come to enjoy their friendship, but he still detested being fussed over.
"Please, brother?" Josiah pleaded softly.
Ezra was about to refuse, but he made the mistake of looking into Josiah's eyes. JD was right; the big man was feeling guilty because he had escaped the accident unscathed while Ezra had been hurt. Cursing his weakness when it came to these men, he relented.
"Very well. I believe I can spend a few days at the ranch; I do enjoy the fresh air," he added, hiding his amusement at the perplexed faces around him. Obviously, they hadn't been expecting him to give in so easily.
Chris cleared his throat. "Right. We'll leave you to rest then. We'll come back tomorrow morning to spring you."
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow, gentlemen. Mr. Sanchez, if I could have a word...?" Ezra waited until the others had said their goodbyes and left before turning to him. "Mr. Sanchez, I was told you are suffering from a misguided sense of guilt regarding the accident."
"Not so misguided, Ezra," Josiah sighed as he sat on the chair by the bed. "I should've done something "
"Done what?" Ezra interjected softly. "We were caught at the red light, there was no way out of our situation."
"No. Listen to me, Josiah. You would have been unable to back up since there were other vehicles behind us. Should you have tried to get out of the way, we would have met the other vehicle head-on and the collision would have been ten times worse. We would have both been dead. Plus, it all happened too fast to even register, let alone act on it. Thusly, no fault should befall you, my friend."
Josiah looked at him, gratitude shining in his eyes. "Thank you, son. I believe I needed that absolution."
"You are quite welcome, Mr. Sanchez. And please.... Must I remind you yet again that I am not your progeny?" Ezra drawled in a serious tone, although he allowed the older man to see the humor in his eyes.
Josiah grinned. "About as many times as we have to remind you, we are not your colleagues, but your friends."
Ezra chuckled quietly, the events of the day starting to catch up to him. "Touchι, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah ruffled Ezra's hair affectionately. "Get some rest. We'll come back for you tomorrow."
Ezra watched Josiah leave the room, then closed his eyes and let himself relax with a tired sigh. He might as well save his strength; the next days promised to be long and painful.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra looked up at the ceiling with a weary moan. As soon as they had arrived at Chris' ranch, he had been taken to the guest room. After much fidgeting to get comfortable, he had ended up half-sitting, half-lying on the bed, with a pillow elevating his bruised hip. He knew he should be resting; the trip from the hospital had been truly exhausting not to mention painful.
But he couldn't seem to relax.
For one, there was the knowledge he was now alone with Chris, since the others had to return to the office. He knew it was foolish, but the idea of being in close quarters with Chris, without any of the others to serve as buffers, made him nervous.
Knowing Chris was in love with him gave him power over the other man, power to hurt him even if unwillingly and he was loathe to do so. But at times his mouth spoke before his mind could censor it and by then it was too late.
And if he was honest with himself, he was afraid of his own reactions. He refused to name the emotion he felt when he thought of Chris, but one moment of weakness and he may find himself acting on it. And that simply wouldn't do.
Then there was that nauseating hospital smell that seemed to cling to every cell of his body, driving him insane.
Finally admitting defeat, he started to lever himself off the bed, teeth clenching as he tried to ignore the throbbing in his hip and leg. Carefully he stood up, inching towards the door and making his way slowly to the bathroom by leaning against the wall.
He was practically there when he heard a voice from behind him, "Where the hell do you think you're goin'?"
"To take a shower, Mr. Larabee," he said without turning.
Chris walked over to him and blocked his way. "You're in no condition to be takin' a shower by yourself, Ezra. Your leg can't take much weight, you're liable to slip and break something."
"I am not an infant, Mr. Larabee," he rebuked. "I am, however, quite able to bathe without assistance."
To his surprise, Chris shook his head with a slight smile. "Let me ask ya somethin', Ezra. If I had been the one involved in the accident, would you think less of me or would you refuse to help me if I was hurt?"
Ezra blinked at the unexpected question. Of course he would never think less of the other man for needing assistance or for being injured, and he certainly would never refuse him that help. Understanding what Chris was getting at, he sighed.
"I apologize, Mr. Larabee. It's just that I.... Well...."
"You're not used to needin' anyone and you resent it," Chris finished for him.
"Um.... Well, yes," he admitted, surprised at how easy it was to confess to such feelings.
Chris studied him for a moment, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "How about a compromise?" he finally asked. "I could run you a bath? You'd be sittin' down and would be able to soak in warm water, which would help with the pain in your leg. And you'd get clean as well."
Not able to find any flaws in the plan and recognizing to himself he was feeling less than stellar, Ezra nodded. "Very well, Mr. Larabee, I agree."
"Good. Now, let's get you to the bathroom."
Before Ezra could ask what he meant by that, Chris wrapped an arm securely around his waist, taking most of Ezra's weight onto himself. In order to keep from losing his balance, Ezra was forced to drape an arm over Chris' shoulders, clutching convulsively at his neck.
He sat down on the closed lid of the toilet with a grateful sigh, watching as Chris ran the bath for him. Soon the bathroom was filled with steam from the hot water, and the tub was nearly overflowing and ready for him.
"Think you can undress on your own and get in the tub?" Chris asked him.
Chris nodded. "Okay. I'll leave you to it, then. Call me if you need me."
"I mean it, Ezra!" Chris threatened, giving him a mock glare.
Ezra was unable to resist the grin that broke through. "I promise I will call you if I require your assistance."
Satisfied with his answer, Chris left him alone and Ezra began the arduous task of getting undressed. It took him a few minutes just to deal with the pants, but with a few muffled curses and a couple of grunts he was finally naked.
He gasped as he looked down at his leg. It was already starting to heal, and it was literally black, with blotches of green and purple running down from below his waist to his ankle. It would take a long time for it to regain its natural coloring and it would take weeks before he would be able to move without feeling any pain.
Strengthening his resolve, he rose from the toilet and moved closer to the tub, lowering himself very carefully into the steaming water. For a moment, the pain was almost unbearable, then the heat began to work its magic and he sank down into the warmth with a contented sigh.
Bathing was awkward and uncomfortable, but finally he felt clean enough to be able to rest peacefully. He exhaled softly as he noticed the towels were hanging on the wall opposite from the tub. He would never make it; he was at the end of his strength.
Closing his eyes at the flush in his cheeks, he cleared his throat and called out to the other man. "Mr. Larabee?"
"Right here, Ez," Chris replied, walking into the room. "What can I do for ya?"
"Um.... I require assistance to exit this tub and to get dry."
Chris made no comment. He simply helped Ezra to stand, pulling him upright and helping him to climb out of the tub. Reaching for a towel, he rubbed Ezra dry with brisk and impersonal gestures, which Ezra knew were meant to ease any discomfort on his part.
Ezra swallowed hard as the towel slid down his chest and stomach, hesitated briefly, then moved down to his genitals. He pressed his lips together, refusing to allow a whimper to escape as his body reacted to Chris' ministrations. It took all of his willpower not to lean into the soft touch.
Finally the toweling was done and Chris helped him into a robe and back into the bedroom. Ezra sat on the bed, looking curiously at the clothes lying on the covers.
"Buck brought some of your clothes over yesterday," Chris explained. "I thought you'd be more comfortable in sweats, since they won't constrict your movements. I picked them out while you were in the bath."
"You made the right choice."
"I'm going to make us somethin' to eat, since it's nearly lunch time. You'll be okay?"
"Yes. Chris?" he called out as the other man was heading out the door.
"Thank you. For everything," he said.
Chris smiled down at him. "Just remember how nice I'm bein' to you in three, four day's time, when you're out of your mind with boredom and drivin' me crazy."
Ezra chuckled. "I will."
After Chris had left, Ezra dressed and slowly moved back to his half-sitting, half-lying position on the bed. He closed his eyes with a soft exhalation and short minutes later he was asleep.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
It didn't take four or even three days for boredom to settle; two were enough. By the evening of the second day, Ezra was ready to climb the walls, although he had managed to be mannerly with Chris and the other men when they came to visit. Used to an extremely active life, he found it hard to simply lie in bed, opting to sleep long hours during the day to will the time away. Of course it had its downside, since he was usually alert during the night.
Like at that moment. Three in the morning and he was wide awake.
Suddenly feeling claustrophobic in the darkened room, he tossed back the covers and crawled out of bed, careful not to put too much weight on his leg. He made his way to the kitchen in search of something to drink.
As he was walking down the corridor, he noticed there was light in the living room and went to investigate. Chris was sprawled on the couch, soft snores issuing from his slightly parted lips, one foot on the floor, a book lying opened on his stomach.
Of their own volition, Ezra's feet took him closer and he stood looking down at the sleeper, a nearly overwhelming feeling of tenderness washing over him. Chris looked so relaxed in deep slumber, all the tension and worry erased from his face; Ezra wanted nothing more than to lean down and....
Gasping at his wayward emotions, he took a deep breath and got himself back under control. Carefully pulling the book from under Chris' hands, he placed it silently on the table, before lifting Chris' other leg onto the couch. Satisfied he hadn't disturbed his sleep, he reached for the blanket at the back of the couch and tucked it securely around Chris, fighting the impulse to touch the soft hair in a parting caress.
His thirst forgotten, he turned off the light and made his slow way out to the front porch.
It might be January, but it was a beautiful night. The sky was clear and there was a full moon that shone for miles over Chris' land. Ezra leaned against the doorway, letting the dead silence of darkness sip into him.
Once again his thoughts turned to Matt. Lately it was harder and harder not to think about his former lover and all that had occurred. And his role in it. He couldn't help wondering how Matt had survived the last two years on the run.
"Matt, where the hell are you?" he whispered into the night.
A voice cut through the quiet. "Who's Matt?"
Ezra jumped, startled, his injured leg giving in as he tried to turn around. He would have fallen if not for the strong arms ready to catch him. He blinked as he found himself in Chris' warm embrace, their faces a hairsbreadth away from each other.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," Chris said in a hushed tone, his breath caressing Ezra's cheek.
Realizing he was clutching at his boss' forearms, Ezra forced himself to let go and moved slightly back. "It's quite all right, Mr. Larabee. I wasn't expecting company. You took me by surprise."
"We better get inside. It's too cold to be out here. Come on."
Ezra allowed the other man to guide him back to the living room, to sit on the same couch where Chris had been sleeping earlier. Chris disappeared into the kitchen, only to return moments later with two mugs of steaming coffee, one of which he handed to Ezra.
"Since we're up anyway...." Chris said with a rueful grin.
"Thank you," Ezra sighed gratefully, sipping at the strong beverage and enjoying the way it warmed him up inside.
"You still haven't answered my question," Chris reminded Ezra as he sat down beside him.
Ezra looked at Chris for a long moment, wondering if he should tell him about Matt, and if so, which parts to tell and which ones to leave out. Chris had always been straightforward with him; Ezra figured he owed him the same courtesy.
"I met Matt in Quantico, when we were both in the same class," he began carefully. "We got partnered on a few assignments and became close. After we graduated, by some stroke of luck, we were both sent to Atlanta. Over the years, he became someone I could depend on, a good friend. And then, one day, I betrayed him."
There was no judgment in Chris' voice as he asked, "How come?"
"There were rumors of a mole in the department. Several agents died because operations got blown up in the open. The head of the department, Faulkner, and his assistant investigated every agent personally in search of the traitor."
"Matt?" Chris guessed.
"Or so I thought at the time. One day I was sent to Faulkner's office. The bastard got right down to business. Told me he was aware Matt and I were lovers, and that since Matt was the mole, I was ruining my career by 'associating' with him. I didn't believe him, so he showed me a bank account statement in one of Matt's favorite aliases showing a large sum of money, way more than his paycheck could ever have accounted for. And the timing.... All the deposits made to that account coincided with operations gone bad."
"And were you?"
Ezra glanced at Chris. "Were we what? Lovers? Yes. It wasn't the forever love kind of relationship, but I cared deeply for him."
"Faulkner 'asked' me to search for further evidence. Said I was in a privileged position, since Matt trusted me and I had access to his house. It was basically agree to investigate Matt or Faulkner would expose our relationship and ship me off to Alaska. I was a coward," he whispered softly, looking down at the mug in his hands. "I gave in. One night after Matt fell asleep, I checked his laptop. I found all the stolen documents saved there. I called Faulkner, who arrived to arrest Matt. Since it was the middle of the night, he ordered his assistant and one other agent to watch over Matt as he got dressed. Matt managed to escape, killing the agent. They have been looking for him ever since."
Chris got up, went over to the drinks cupboard, and retrieved a bottle of brandy. He poured a huge slug into Ezra's mug and another into his own. He sat back down beside Ezra, close enough that their shoulders brushed.
"Was that the end of it?" he asked.
"No," Ezra said. He took a gulp of coffee. "Three months later the rumors started again and this time I was the target. That made me think that if I was being set up, the same thing could have happened to Matt. I tried to deny the accusations, but no one believed me. I guess that's why they were so quick to 'loan' me to you; they wanted to get rid of the garbage," he finished bitterly.
"Their loss, Ezra. You're a damn good agent, and although we butt heads sometimes, I never regretted my decision. More, they will have one hell of a fight on their hands if they try to get you back."
Ezra saw the sincerity in Chris' eyes, and was unable to keep the awe from his voice. "You really do mean it, don't you?"
"Hell, yes!" Chris replied seriously. "Like I said, you're the best undercover agent I've ever met, and I consider you a good friend as well." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "And I wish we could be more," he confessed.
"I know," Ezra admitted, refusing to look up at him.
"But you don't feel the same," Chris said in a quiet voice.
The pain in Chris' voice made Ezra look up sharply. "That's not it, Chris."
"No. I.... I do... care... for you. But...."
"You're afraid. You got burned with Matt and now you're afraid to try again."
Ezra grimaced. "Lord, that makes it sound so crass. But yes, that would be about right."
"It's not crass, Ezra, and there's no one better than me to understand how you feel. But you know that famous line 'It's better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all'? It's true. I nearly died when I lost Sarah and Adam, but the time we had together...." He shook his head. "I wouldn't trade it for the world. You really want to spend your life wonderin' what might have been? Wondering 'what if'? You think I'm not scared? The way I feel about you scares me shitless, but I'm still willin' to take a chance with you. I wish you would take a chance too."
Ezra took a sip of lukewarm coffee, thinking about everything Chris had said. Did he want to give it a try? To take a chance at love again? He recalled a time right after Matt had nearly gotten killed during a mission. Ezra had been in the hospital's waiting room, pacing the floor while Matt was being checked over. He remembered wondering how would his life change if Matt wasn't there beside him, and the subsequent sorrow that came with that thought.
He tried the same with Chris and a sudden, overwhelming panic came over him, causing him to gasp. "No!"
"No, what?" Chris asked with a confused frown.
Ezra gazed at Chris, trying to cope with the flux of emotions coursing through him. He had always been able to think calmly, to ponder things over, to adjust his reactions according to outside stimulus. Now it was getting harder to keep his barriers in place, and just the mere thought of not having Chris in his life even as a friend was enough to spin his world out of control.
"No, I don't want to spend my life wondering what might have been," he replied slowly. "But I need time. Please?"
Their eyes locked and held for an endless moment, then Chris nodded. "As long as I know you're willin' to think it over, you have all the time in the world. But just to give you a taste of things to come...." he trailed off, leaning forward towards Ezra and zeroing in on his mouth.
Ezra couldn't prevent a sigh from escaping as Chris' soft, warm lips met his. He shuddered as Chris licked at his lower lip very slowly, very lightly, then sucked it in. Ezra opened up for him instantly, arms going around the other man's neck, bringing them closer together as their kiss intensified.
When they parted, Chris brushed his fingers across Ezra's flushed face. "It's late. We should go to bed. To sleep," he added with a wicked grin.
"Bastard," Ezra accused without any heat.
Chris chuckled, then helped him to stand. Ezra leaned on him as they made their way down the corridor and into the guest room. He laughed quietly as Chris insisted on bundling him into bed, making sure he was safe from the winter's chill.
After Chris left, Ezra burrowed down under the covers, careful not to jar his leg. He closed his eyes, feeling mellow and relaxed for the first time in years. And all thanks to the man sleeping in the room next door.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
It seemed to Chris that he had just fallen asleep when the ringing of his cell phone brought him back to consciousness. Glaring at his alarm clock, he realized it was not even six in the morning.
"What?" he barked into the phone.
"Chris, it's Travis. I'm sorry to call this early in the morning, but we may have a serious problem on our hands."
"What problem?" Chris asked, sitting up on the bed and forcing himself to come fully alert.
"I just got word that Colin Johnson escaped from prison a few hours ago. I haven't got all the details yet, but I thought you should know," Travis replied. "I already called Buck and told him to keep an eye out for trouble."
Chris frowned. "You really think he'll be coming after us?"
"Anything's possible, Chris. You and Wilmington were the ones responsible for putting him in jail and he did promise to get even at the trial. So far it's just a precaution, but it's better to be safe than sorry, as I see it. I also called Vin and asked him to warn the others. We'll be waiting for you at the office in an hour. We need to come up with a plan to keep you both safe and out of the man's clutches. Johnson's about as insane as they come."
"All right. I'll be there."
Chris ended the call and jumped out of bed, wishing he could have had more sleep. But the nearly sleepless night had been worth it, considering the result of his conversation with Ezra. He hadn't felt this hopeful in a long time.
He took a quick shower, got dressed and nearly bumped into Ezra in the corridor as he rushed out of the room. Ezra had obviously just awoken; the chestnut hair was sticking out in all directions, his face was still flushed from sleep, and the green eyes were soft, unguarded, no barriers to hide the wealth of emotion shining through.
Chris allowed his eyes to take their fill, enjoying Ezra's beauty, knowing he would have to take advantage of the short time Ezra would remain at the ranch to store away in his memory moments such as this, just in case Ezra eventually decided he didn't want to take a chance on them.
"What?" Ezra asked suspiciously, obviously uncomfortable with Chris' intense observation.
"Nothing," Chris replied, unable to keep from smiling. "Just admirin' the view."
To his surprise, Ezra looked down, not exactly embarrassed, but clearly upset by his words. Chris moved closer, wrapping his arms around Ezra's waist.
"What's wrong, Ezra?" he asked softly.
"Nothing. It's just.... You shouldn't say such things."
Chris exhaled slowly. "Why? I can't help the way I feel about you, Ezra. And now that I've told you, I have no intention of hiding it anymore. I love you. And I love the way you look. There's nothin' wrong with that."
Ezra looked up at him, staring deep into his eyes, as if searching for something. "I... I do too. Love you, I mean."
"That's all I need to know, Ez. I'll wait for as long as you want me to, I won't even touch you again if you don't want me to. But I won't hide what I feel, what you make me feel. Deal?"
Ezra nodded with a slight smile. "Deal. And you can keep touching me," he added, mischief lighting up his whole face.
Chris chuckled. "I can, can I?" He leaned in closer, mouth a scant inch from Ezra's lips. "That mean I can get a good morning kiss?"
"Yes," Ezra breathed, closing his eyes and moving forward to meet him.
It was all the encouragement Chris needed. Ezra's mouth was warm against his own, opening up and allowing him to explore its sweetness at will. He moaned as Ezra's hands slid caressingly from his neck down to his back, pressing him close.
Finally Chris broke the kiss, taking in great gulps of air as he did so. Ezra was looking up at him, eyelids at half-mast, lips swollen, and it took all his willpower not to pounce. "Dammit, Ezra," he panted harshly.
Ezra laughed, devilry in his eyes. "Turnabout is fair play, Mr. Larabee. That's how you made me feel last night. Now, I believe you are dressed to go out?"
"Yeah," Chris answered, his brain cells slowly coming back to life. "Colin Johnson escaped from prison. AD Travis called, said we better come up with a plan in case the bastard decides to come after me or Buck. I'll be back as soon as I can."
A worried frown creased Ezra's brow. "I will be all right, Chris. Be careful."
"I will," Chris promised, hugging him tightly. He brushed his lips against Ezra's temple gently. "My cell will be on at all times, Ez. If you need anythin', call. Okay?"
"Okay. Keep me posted."
"I'll call as soon as possible," Chris replied, giving Ezra one last look and nearly running out the door before he did something he might regret.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra sat at the kitchen table, finishing his morning coffee as he wondered what the others would be doing at that moment. The fact Colin Johnson was on the run worried him. The man was evil, and untroubled by a conscience or sense of remorse. He would stop at nothing to get what he wanted; human life meant nothing to him.
He remembered the case well. Johnson was a gunrunner new to the Denver area, but for once Ezra had been unable to go undercover to access his organization. A few months earlier, he had met one of Johnson's associates while undercover and the man knew who he really was. He would be shot on sight should he try to infiltrate Johnson's operation.
So Chris had been the one to go, with Buck acting as his bodyguard. The case had been grueling and long, but they had finally managed to arrest the man and his accomplices, and gather enough evidence on the man's dealings and the proof that he had murdered all the previous agents sent to catch him.
Johnson had gone berserk at the trial when Chris and Buck had appeared to testify. He had lunged at them, intent on murder. It had taken five security guards to hold him down. And now he was on the loose again, somewhere in Denver.
He sighed as the phone in the living room began to ring. Not that he would confess it to anyone, but just the thought of walking made him cringe. Knowing it was probably Chris though, he rose from the chair and limped his way down the corridor. He moved into the living room and was about to answer the phone when he realized he wasn't alone.
Colin Johnson was hiding in the shadows, his big bulk half-hidden behind a large bookcase, a gun aimed at Ezra's head. "Answer the phone," Johnson ordered softly.
Ezra wanted nothing more than to jump the man and go for his gun, but knew it would be a mistake. He was basically helpless at the moment, not only because of the gun, but also due to his injury. Swallowing his anger at being unable to defend himself properly, he reached for the phone.
"Ezra, it's Chris. I "
"I'm sorry," Ezra interrupted, careful to keep his voice neutral. "There's no one with that name living here."
"Ezra, what -?" He heard Chris gasp on the other end. "Is there somethin' wrong? Is that what you're tryin' to tell me?"
"Yes, that's right. This is 659, not 695."
"Shit, not Johnson?"
"I'm afraid so, madam. It's quite all right. Good day."
He hung up the phone without waiting for Chris' reply, then turned his attention to Johnson. The man approached him slowly, brown eyes narrowing as he tried to place his face.
"You're one of them, aren't you? One of the 'Magnificent Seven'? The fancy dresser. I remember you from the trial. Where's Larabee?"
"Not here, as you can see."
In one swift move Johnson was on him, pushing him up against the wall and holding him still by the throat. "Don't play games with me, boy. I eat little people like you for lunch. Where is he?"
Ezra brought his hands up in an unconscious attempt to break free, but Johnson used the gun to hit him on his injured hip. He cried out, dropping his arms in defeat.
"Noticed you were limping. Hurts, does it?" Johnson jeered, hitting him again, this time closer to the knee.
Ezra moaned, squeezing his eyes shut at the ache in his now throbbing leg and the painful grip on his throat. It was getting harder to breathe and if Johnson kept putting more pressure on his hold, he was going to pass out. Which might not be a bad thing.
"Let's try something, little man. I'm sure you know where Larabee is. Probably at the office. So, why don't you call him and tell him you need to see him urgently? Tell him to come here."
"No...." Ezra gritted out painfully. He needed to bide his time until the others arrived. Johnson could not be allowed to escape again. He just hoped he managed to stay alive long enough to see the bastard's arrest.
"No?" Johnson echoed, slamming him against the wall. "No? Are you saying no to me, little man?"
Ezra felt his eyes water as his head hit the wall repeatedly as Johnson kept slamming him against the brick. His vision was beginning to blur and he knew he was seconds away from choking to death. Then suddenly Johnson let go and Ezra dropped down to the floor.
When he felt some of his strength return, Ezra looked at his captor, catching Johnson's shrewd eyes glaring down at him.
"The phone call," Johnson said slowly. "It was Larabee, wasn't it? He knows I escaped, that's why he isn't here. It's the only explanation. I know he isn't usually this early at the office. I had someone keeping tabs on him."
Cursing the man's intelligence, Ezra remained silent. He had taken a gamble and lost. Chris and the others would be there soon, but they wouldn't have the advantage of surprise any longer. Johnson was a formidable prey that would give its hunters a run for their money. And he was caught right in the middle.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"You told him, didn't ya?" Vin asked him as they sped towards the ranch.
"So?" Vin prompted.
In spite of the fear coursing through his veins, Chris found himself smiling. "He feels the same way. He just needs time to work things out in that complicated brain of his."
"Think he'll say yes?"
"God, I hope so!" Chris breathed out. "These last days with him at the ranch have been.... I've seen the future, Vin. And I want everythin' that comes with it."
"Then you will. Let's just get his Southern ass out of trouble," Vin said, already checking his gun.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
For what seemed like an eternity, Johnson didn't say a word, simply pacing the room impatiently. Ezra watched him quietly, lips pressed tightly against the pain in his leg and skull, counting the minutes until the cavalry arrived.
Less than thirty minutes after the phone call, he suddenly glimpsed movement outside the window. Careful not to give himself away, he remained still, eyes glued to the glass. The top of Vin's head peeked out from below, eyes scanning the room until they settled on Ezra. Their gazes held for a long moment, then abruptly Vin was gone.
It didn't matter. Ezra knew the others were there, and that they would find a way to rescue him if rescue was possible. He frowned slightly at the faith he put in the six men. Before joining the ATF team, he would never have put his life in anyone else's hands; he would have depended solely on his own skills to get himself out of this predicament. Yet, somehow, he trusted the other men implicitly. It was a startling revelation about himself, but one he couldn't find it in himself to regret.
"Johnson, it's Larabee!" Chris shouted from outside. "I know you're in there! Let my man go!"
Johnson grinned. "Show time, little man. Let's go."
He grabbed Ezra roughly by the arm, bringing him upright, then shoved him along until they were standing by the front door. The pain in his leg was nearly unbearable. It was all Ezra could do not to fall flat on his face. He didn't resist as Johnson used him as a shield, a strong arm tightening around his waist as they made their way outside.
"Here's your little agent, Larabee. Think you're man enough to get him from me?"
Chris chose to ignore the taunt, asking instead, "Are you okay, Ezra?"
Ezra lifted his head to force some kind of reply from dry lips, but before he could say a word, he heard Johnson laugh from behind him.
"Oh, he's just fine. Aren't you, Ezra?"
The butt of Johnson's gun smashed hard against Ezra's hip, and he cried out. His legs gave out on him and he would have fallen if not for the arm still holding him securely.
"Let him go," he heard Chris growl angrily.
"Come and get him, Larabee," Johnson taunted again.
Ezra swallowed painfully, wanting to reassure Chris that he was all right, but he couldn't find the strength. He settled for raising his head and giving Chris a weak smile. He saw the others taking cover behind Chris' Ram truck and Vin's Jeep, but there was no sign of Josiah.
He locked eyes with JD, who was biting his bottom lip nervously. The young agent suddenly looked up, at something behind Ezra's line of vision.
It was Ezra's only warning.
He heard a rebel yell, in a voice he recognized as Josiah's, then he was hit from behind and shoved forward, crashing violently to the ground. He lay panting on the hard gravel, some corner of his mind realizing that Josiah must have jumped Johnson from the roof, but then the pain took over and he could no longer think or understand what was happening around him.
He felt someone cradle him gently, but he refused to open his eyes. A hand caressed his cheek tenderly. Soft words were whispered into his ear.
"Ezra, where are the painkillers the doctor prescribed?" he heard Nathan ask through the haze in his mind.
"B-bed... room," he managed to gasp out.
Seconds later, two pills were being shoved into his mouth and a glass of water was pressed to his lips. He swallowed the pills and a mouthfull of water, then remained slumped against the body holding him, jaw clenched against the pain of cramping muscles. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he felt numb enough to uncurl his body and open his eyes.
He was lying against Chris, his head resting against Chris' shoulder. He smiled a wobbly smile up at him, his trembling hand coming to up to touch Chris' face softly.
"My knight in shining armor," he whispered, surprising himself with the bold words.
Chris smiled down at him, understanding the words and the meaning behind them. "Love you too," he said. "Think you can walk?"
Ezra sighed wearily. "Not at this time, no."
"Josiah, can you carry him inside?"
Josiah lifted him him easily from the ground. Ezra couldn't resist gently teasing him. "That's quite a warrior's yell you have there, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah grinned as he stepped over the threshold with Ezra in his arms. "Thank you, brother. And I'm sorry your rescue was so rough. It was the only way."
"It's all right, Josiah. I'm more than content just to be away from that madman. What happened to him?"
"Buck and Nathan are taking him back to town even as we speak," Josiah said, turning a corner carefully to avoid bumping Ezra's head. "Chris, where do I place this Southern bundle of joy?"
Chris chuckled. "In my room."
If any of the others had any comment to make at that, Ezra didn't hear anything. Josiah took him into Chris' room, placing him gently on the bed, on his good side. Ezra waited until everyone left the room before slowly taking off his clothes and crawling under the covers.
A few minutes later, Chris walked in, and closed the door behind him.
"Where are the others?" Ezra asked.
"Left. They're goin' back to the office. Travis will be able to handle Johnson and they can take care of any urgent matters. We're all alone."
Ezra closed his eyes with a nod, exhaling softly as the last remnants of pain left his body. He was half-asleep when the covers were raised, and Chris moved in beside him.
"Is this okay?" Chris asked from behind him.
"Um," he replied simply, hoping Chris understood him.
He must have, for he edged closer, throwing an arm across Ezra's waist and curling around him, the warmth of his chest a comfort against Ezra's back. Ezra snuggled even closer, a faint smile crossing his face when Chris automatically tightened his hold.
"Chris?" he whispered.
"I want to take that chance with you."
Chris nuzzled the hair at the back of his neck. "You sure?"
"Yes," Ezra answered, smiling as he heard Chris sigh in relief.
He knew with sudden clarity he had made the right choice. Chris was a bright light beckoning him back to life, making his whole past seem in the shadow. And he was more than happy to follow Chris' light home.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The next morning, when Ezra roused from a very restful sleep, he was alone in bed. Chris had chosen not to go back to work the day before, staying with Ezra at the ranch, both having done little more than talk or just relax together. By unspoken agreement Ezra had remained in Chris' room, sharing the bed again that night, even if they had nothing more than cuddle.
Hearing muffled voices coming from somewhere within the house, Ezra realized the others must have arrived at the ranch. Probably having breakfast with Chris as they were wont to do on occasion. Rising carefully, he washed and dressed before venturing out of the room. Making his way to the kitchen slowly, each step a challenge, he was more than ready to drop into the first available chair.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he greeted them all somewhat breathlessly.
"Ezra." Chris handed him a steaming mug of coffee, winking playfully. "How you doin'?"
Ezra was unable to suppress a chuckle. "Oh, just fine, Chris, just fine."
And he was, he realized as he locked gazes with Chris. Last night he had slept soundly a miracle in itself and in spite of his injury, he felt content and at peace.
"I think we need to talk," Nathan said.
Ezra noticed that Nathan was looking at both him and Chris suspiciously.
"What about, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan scowled. "You know what, Ezra. We're not blind! Something's going on between you two!"
Ezra shared another glance with Chris, unsure of what to do or say. They had briefly broached the subject of telling their friends, but nothing had been decided. Nor had they been expecting the subject to come up this early in the game.
"Not that it's any of your business," Chris began, glaring at the others. "But Ezra and I are goin' to be seeing a lot of each other after work from now on."
Nathan blinked. "Are you saying what I think you are?"
"If you're thinkin' we're together, a couple, dating, in a relationship, whatever, yes," Chris said, looking around the table. "If any of you got anythin' to say about it, you better say it now."
"Or forever hold your peace," Ezra added quietly, his heart skipping a beat.
He had come to consider these men his friends. The last thing he wanted was to do anything to alienate them. But he couldn't give Chris up, not when he had finally dared to love again. It would destroy them both.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
There was a prolongued silence before Vin finally cleared his throat. "I'm fine with it," he said. "But then, you already knew that," he added, grinning at Chris.
"You knew?" Buck asked, and Chris felt guilty as he heard the hurt in his oldest friend's voice.
"It was an accident, Buck," Chris explained softly, before Vin could speak. "I got really drunk one night after Ezra got shot. Vin was with me at Inez's and I ended up spillin' the beans to him. That's all."
Buck nodded, appearing somewhat mollified. "Okay, I get it. About you two...." He shrugged. "I don't get it myself, but I'm your friend and I love you both. You know I'll stand with ya no matter what."
Chris smiled his gratitude. He owed Buck far more than he would ever be able to repay. The man was a loyal friend, always there when you needed him even when you didn't want to admit it. He turned his attention to the others.
The youngest member of the team was practically vibrating in his chair with excitement. "I'm cool with it too. And I think congratulations are in order," he said with a cheeky grin.
Chris shook his head, before looking at Josiah. "'Siah, what about you?"
Josiah exhaled slowly. "This really isn't a surprise for me. I do have a degree in psychology. I saw the signs probably before you did. And if I had any doubts, yesterday I was more than convinced. Not only did you go crazy when you realized Johnson had Ezra, but you cared for him with a gentleness I've never seen in you before," he told an embarrassed Chris, his eyes turning solemn. "Just take care of each other and we'll be fine."
Satisfied with that, Chris turned to Nathan, who looked grim. "I can tell you're against this. Why?"
Nathan sighed. "I don't have anything against it on a personal level, Chris. I'm happy for you, I really am. But how will this affect the team? What happens if anyone in the office finds out? And will you two be able to separate your working relationship from your personal one? You two butt heads enough as it is."
"Mr. Jackson," Ezra said slowly. "In the first place, we intend to be extremely careful in our day to day dealings. Neither of us is particularly demonstrative in our affections publicly, so that shouldn't be a problem. On the other hand, this team is a very tightly knit unit, and I highly doubt anyone would notice something amiss, if two of its members were to spend further time together."
Chris nodded. "We will tell Travis, but only to avoid any potential blackmail threats. Like Ez said, we intend to be careful, but you never know. We'll handle each crisis as they come our way, no point in crossing bridges before we come to them. I don't think Travis'll be too happy, but I don't think he'll do anything against us either. Ezra's the best undercover agent ATF Denver has at the moment, and we're the best team. And the seven of us are too close to let this affect us. We may fight, get angry, even come to blows if we have to, but we've been through too much to let somethin' like this interfere with our friendship."
"That leaves the last question unanswered," Buck reminded them.
Chris inhaled through his nose, then let the air out slowly. "I'm not sayin' it'll be easy, but I think we'll be okay. We've always been able to work through our disagreements." He smiled at Ezra. "The real question is, will Ezra still be able to take orders he doesn't agree with without resenting me, and will I still be able to handle sending Ezra undercover time after time without going nuts. I think I got the worse end of the bargain on this one." He shrugged at the others. "Only time will tell. We'll just have to wait and see."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 1st, 1999
Chris stared down at the beautiful, naked man nestled up against him, thinking totally impure thoughts. After Ezra finally decided they should give their relationship a try, they had begun to sleep together, spending a few nights at the ranch, others at the townhouse apartment. For the sake of Ezra's healing though, they had done little more than simply kiss or make out, which had been surprisingly sweet and fulfilling.
But sleeping beside a natural cuddler such as Ezra had been sheer torture; Chris' libido was going through the roof every night before sleep finally took over.
Now that was all about to end.
He had taken Ezra to the hospital the previous day for a routine check. The doctor confirmed they could 'resume intimacy', although nothing too strenuous of yet, and should immediately stop if Ezra experienced any pain.
Chris had every intention of starting something as soon as Ezra woke up.
"You know, I'm quite disappointed with you," Ezra drawled suddenly, without bothering to look at him. "I would think you have had enough time to think of at least a dozen ways in which to ravish me." He finally opened his eyes, and glanced up at Chris, amusement shining in the green depths. "Well?"
Chris didn't need to be told twice. He swooped down, capturing Ezra's lips with his own, putting all the love and tenderness he was feeling into the kiss. When the need to breathe forced them apart, Chris moved back, taking deep breaths to bank down the madness rising up within him.
He threw the covers aside, determined to continue his campaign to seduce Ezra. He found his first target as his eyes locked on Ezra's nipples. His mouth latched itself onto Ezra's right nipple, licking and sucking until it was tight and hard under his tongue. He nibbled it gently with his teeth, grinning wickedly as Ezra arched from the bed with a groan.
Chris continued his journey downward, leaving a trail of wet kisses down Ezra's smooth chest and abdomen, fingers skimming across Ezra's flanks for maximum effect.
"Chris...." Ezra moaned gutturally.
"Ravish you want, ravish you'll get," Chris breathed against Ezra's hard shaft, causing another whimper.
Without preamble, he set about to drive Ezra to the edge of sanity, nibbling around his genitals, licking the joining of his thighs and abdomen, nipping firm thighs until he left a mark. When Ezra was whimpering continuously, Chris finally took pity on him and engulfed the head of Ezra's cock in his mouth.
Ezra gave a strangled cry as Chris sucked gently. Ezra threaded his fingers into Chris' hair, hanging on as if for dear life. Chris stroked the tip of the shaft with his tongue, then sucked more forcefully, while his hands kneaded his lover's taut buttocks possessively.
Guided by Ezra's gentle thrusts, Chris opened his mouth wider, taking in as much of his lover as he could, one hand moving to cup Ezra's balls, rolling them in their sac. Ezra had his eyes closed now, head thrown back, harsh pants escaping his lips, one hand clutching the sheets with a death grip.
Chris felt Ezra's balls grow tighter, and then with a final moan Ezra was coming into his mouth, emptying himself down Chris' throat. The look of rapture on Ezra's face, the naked emotion shining through at that moment was enough for Chris to lose control of himself. Orgasm hit him with the force of a tornado, making his world shatter around him.
When he became aware of his surroundings again he was lying by Ezra's side, limp and sated, and still panting slightly. His lover was also breathing hard, eyes regarding him in near awe.
"What?" Chris whispered.
"You came.... Without me touching you."
Chris knew he was grinning like a fool, but didn't care one bit. "Yep. Came from watching you."
Ezra frowned. "That can't have been very pleasurable."
Chris shook his head fondly. "You have a lot to learn about love, Ezra. Loving someone, pleasurin' them, is the greatest gift you can give someone you care about." He brushed his fingers over Ezra's still flushed cheek. "Trust me, it was amazing."
Ezra's gaze searched his, boring into him, then nodded, apparently satisfied. "I believe you. Nevertheless, you can expect me to return the favor tonight," he said with a wicked grin.
Chris laughed quietly. "Looking forward to it, Ez. Now, get your butt out of this bed and take a shower while I make coffee."
"Chris, it's not even seven in the morning!" Ezra protested, affronted.
"I know," Chris answered with a knowing smile. "We'll have enough time for a shower, to get dressed and to have a decent breakfast for once. I'm tired of having to rush out the door because of you. Now, git!"
Ezra scowled but rose from the bed and padded naked to the bathroom, affording Chris a very nice view of smooth skin and firm flesh. Wishing he could join his lover in the shower, Chris dragged himself out of the warm bed and set about to make them some coffee and a hearty breakfast, wondering how he had been able to survive for so many years without the comfort of companionship that Ezra had brought back into his life.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
New York, New York
February 3rd, 1999
Russell Combs walked wearily back to his car. He was bone tired. Ever since the Ralston fiasco two years earlier, he had been handed out the lousiest assignments known to man. Not to mention that said assignments were always miles away from home.
He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of days off he had spent in Atlanta with his family. As a result, his wife had filed for a divorce, and his little girl probably didn't know what her father looked like anymore. His life was a nightmare.
And what was even worse, he wasn't certain Matthew Ralston was responsible for the theft of the documents. He had been positive the man was guilty as sin after finding the bank account with the million dollar balance, and then Standish had found the documents in the man's computer, confirming Ralston's guilt. But now.... If Ralston had been the mole, how come Standish had become the focus of similar rumors mere months later? Had they been working together? Had Standish framed Ralston to take the fall? Or had he been set up, same as Ralston?
Two years had passed, and Russell still couldn't stop thinking about the case. What would have happened if Ralston hadn't escaped? Maybe the truth might have come out by now. But after Standish relocated to Denver, no further documents had been stolen, so Faulkner had put the case on the back burner.
Russell was groping around in his pocket for the car keys when someone hit him from behind, causing him to collide with the side of the car. He was roughly turned around, finding himself face to face with a smirking Matthew Ralston.
"Hello, Russ! Long time no see, buddy," the ex-agent quipped, his eyes gleaming dangerously.
Suddenly realizing he was out of his depth, Russell tried to say something, anything that would bring the other man back to reason. But he opened his mouth to try it one second too late. Before he could even get the words out, Ralston was hitting him again, sending him straight into oblivion.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Matt looked down at the man lying on the ground with a disgusted grimace. After two years of careful planning, of patiently waiting, he was finally going to get even with the people responsible for destroying his life.
He had tried to go for Faulkner first, but the bastard was well guarded. So he had been forced to go after Combs instead, which had taken time since he was constantly on the move, on one crappy assignment after another. But now he was ready to have a nice, long, quiet talk with his former colleague.
Reaching for Combs' keys, he opened the car's back door, shoving the agent inside. He sat behind the wheel and took a deep breath. Time to figure out how to get his life back.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Russell woke up with a splitting headache. Without even opening his eyes, he could tell he was curled up on a cold, hard floor, and that his hands were tied securely behind his back. When he finally found the will to glance around, he realized he was in what looked like a basement, judging from the fact that the dank room had no windows or furniture, only dust and dirt to keep him company.
"Nice of you to finally join me," a voice said from the shadows.
Russell sat up with a groan, allowing his eyes to adjust to the sparse light, until he could spot Ralston leaning against the far wall, watching his every move.
"Where the hell am I, Ralston? And what the hell do you want?"
Despite the distance between them, he could see Ralston's eyes narrow with fury. "The truth," he answered, voice nevertheless flat and unemotional.
"The truth?" Russell repeated. "The truth about what, for God's sake?"
"I want to know who set me up, you little prick!" Ralston said angrily. "I was innocent, Combs!"
"Why now? Why wait two years to come back?" Russell asked, letting his puzzlement show.
"I spent the better part of the first year trying to escape Faulkner's mutts. I'd go to a place, thinking I would be able to breathe easier for a while, but by the next day there they were again. Took me a long time to shake them off. And of course, I escaped without any money, anything to call my own. I lost everything that night. I needed funds to be able to carry out my plan, so I took the odd job here and there. Took me six months before I saved enough to return. When I got back to Atlanta, I watched Faulkner for a few months, watched you when you were around. Tried to decide which one of you to question first. Faulkner wouldn't do; the son of a bitch is better guarded than Fort Knox. That left you."
"I don't know anything," Russell blurted out.
Ralston laughed humorlessly. "Of course you do. You were Faulkner's right-hand man. If you don't know, you must at least have some suspicions. You know, when I was in Atlanta, I saw your wife and daughter. Very nice, Russ! The wife's a babe, and the child... definitely takes after her mother."
"What are you getting at?" Russell asked, trying to keep his fear from showing.
"Thought that was obvious. Tell me what you know, or I'll leave you here to rot and go back to Atlanta to... have a 'word' with your family."
"Now, now, Russell! Don't you know it's not nice to upset the man with the gun?" Ralston taunted, moving closer. "Do you have any idea what I went through these last years? Do you? I've been to hell and back, Russ. Being hunted down around the country like a mad dog, living on the streets, eating from garbage cans, sleeping on frozen stairs, in the rain, in the snow.... Do you have any idea what that does to a person, Russ? I didn't deserve it, I didn't ask for it. I went through all that and more for something I didn't do."
Russell leaned against the wall, closing his eyes as he tried to think. Ralston's anger and despair seemed honest, and if he was innocent, he did have a right to know exactly what had happened.
"We found copies of all the stolen documents in your computer, Matt. And we found a bank account in one of your aliases with over a million dollars in it. Several deposits had been made and all of them coincided with the selling of documents."
"Oh, please! How hard would it be for someone to open a bank account in one of my aliases? Especially someone within the agency who would have access to all the necessary information?"
"That still leaves the documents," Russell reminded him.
"They were planted. I carried my laptop around with me everywhere. I left it lying around everywhere. Anyone could have planted them while I was away. For all I know, you could have done it. You had access to all those documents, I didn't."
"Yes, but I didn't have access to your computer. I didn't know the username, or the password."
"True, but you could have cracked it," Ralston retorted calmly.
"Come on, Matt, think about it! I couldn't have done it. Cracking a password takes time and the only thing I know about computers is how to power them up. You may have left your laptop lying around a lot, but you were never gone long, and someone would have noticed if I spent hours messing around with it. If you're telling the truth, if you are innocent, then it had to be someone who already had the inside knowledge."
Ralston frowned. "But the other only person besides me who knew my username and password was.... Not Ezra!" he whispered, shock clear on his face. "No way, not Ezra. I refuse to believe it. He was my... friend."
Seeing his way out of a sticky situation, Russell licked dry lips. "I can't confirm or deny anything, Matt. But...."
"That night.... It was Ezra who found the documents in your computer. He was working for Faulkner."
"You're lying!" Ralston growled.
"No, I'm not. Faulkner convinced Ezra somehow to take the case. We'd already found the bank account, but that wasn't enough. The documents sealed it. The thing is, three months after you escaped, the rumors about there being a mole started again; more documents were stolen and sold. And Standish became the prime suspect."
"Ezra?" Ralston murmured incredulously.
"Yeah. And after he was sent to Denver on a loan to an ATF team, no more documents were stolen. Think about it, Matt. What if he was the one? It would be easy for him to open that account; he knew everything about you you two were best friends. And it would have been even easier for him to plant the documents in your computer. He set you up.... And then turned you in."
Russell watched Ralston clenching his jaw tightly, obviously trying to control his anger. Some small part of his conscience nagged at him for pushing the blame onto Standish's shoulders. He couldn't be certain if Standish had been the mole; he could have been set up as well. But Ralston was clearly unbalanced and Russell wanted nothing more than to leave this place and the man's sight and return to Atlanta.
"Where did you say Ezra has been sent to?" Ralston finally asked.
"Denver. He's the undercover agent for an ATF team there, Team 7. They've gained quite a reputation since they formed early last year. They're known as 'The Magnificent Seven'."
Ralston rubbed his cheek absently. "Always wanted to go to Colorado. I guess it's time for a visit," he said. "But first... I have to deal with you." He looked down at Russell.
Russell felt his blood turn cold. "W-what do you mean?"
His abductor crouched down before him. "Can't let you go, Russ. If I did that, you'd go running back to Faulkner and he and the mutts would be waiting for me as soon as I set foot in Denver."
"No! I-I won't tell anyone, promise!" Russell stammered, sweat breaking all over his body. "I won't say a word, Matt. You can trust me."
"I'm sorry, Russ. But I can't take that chance," Ralston said, removing a small black case from his jacket. Opening it up, he took out a syringe and a vial of orange liquid. "This won't hurt a bit, Russ. Promise."
"No! Matt, please, no!" Russell cried out, trying to crawl away.
It was useless. Ralston filled the syringe with the liquid, and injected it into Russell's neck.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 6th, 1999
Matt watched his ex-lover and six other men leave the "J. Watson's" bar on a boisterous wave of laughter and noise. Ezra looked good, better in fact than when they had been lovers. His hair was longer and he seemed as relaxed and comfortable around other people as Matt had ever seen him.
Matt had spent the last days observing the ATF team to which Ezra now belonged. Truly extraordinary men, all of them, from their leader, Chris Larabee, to Ezra himself. No wonder they were as good as people credited them to be.
Matt held his breath as Ezra suddenly smiled at the mustached man, Buck Wilmington, before mock punching him. Loneliness and sorrow tightened Matt's heart as he remembered the blissful months sharing his life with Ezra. When he had been on the run, hiding from Faulkner's men, the thought of Ezra had been the one thing to keep him going, his light in the darkness overwhelming his life. That Ezra had been the one to betray him, the one to destroy his life....
He narrowed his eyes, strengthening his resolve. He had loved Ezra Standish with a passion, but there was a thin line between love and hate. And in that moment hate fueled his life.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 8th, 1999
Ezra donned his bulletproof vest and adjusted his headset, his eyes never wavering from the warehouse not far from where they stood.
They were there due to an anonymous tip. Someone had phoned the office reporting a gun deal was about to take place at that address. Although numerous phone tips had paid off before, this time he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something wrong. There had been no time to think things through, no time to gather further intel; the phone call had been a mere hour before the supposed deal.
He bit his lip ruefully, unable to shake the anxiety from his system. Maybe he was overreacting, maybe the prickly feeling at the back of his neck was just a consequence of the email he had received that morning. Whatever it was, he couldn't wait for this to be over.
He thought back to the email, sent by one of his few remaining contacts in Atlanta. After disappearing mysteriously, Russell Combs had been found in his car, in a New York City alley with a bullet in his brain.
Ezra couldn't say for certain why the news of Combs' death bothered him so much; the man was an agent, theirs was a dangerous profession and Combs had been in New York on a case. But there was just something eerie about his murder.
He remembered something Josiah had said on their first assignment and looked up at the cloudy sky.
"What are you doing, Ez?" JD asked from beside him.
"Watching out for crows," he replied absently, missing the startled looks his answer wrung from the others.
"Ezra?" Chris called.
Brought back to reality, he looked blankly at Chris. "Yes?"
Chris stared at him. "Are you okay?"
Ezra sighed wearily. "I don't like it. There's... something wrong. It doesn't feel right."
"You know we have to check every call, Ezra. It can't be helped."
"I know. Let's get this over with then, shall we?"
Chris nodded. "Okay, people, listen up! This place has three possible exits and that's what we have to watch out for. Josiah, Nathan, cover the back door. Buck, JD, take the east side. Ezra and I will cover the front. Vin, take a position on the rooftop of the building across the street. The deal is supposed to be goin' down as we speak, so stay alert and be careful. Let's go."
Each man reached for his gun, as they spread out to cover their designated areas. Ezra was right behind Chris as they carefully made their way towards the warehouse, when movement from the west side of the building caught his attention. Seeing Chris was already too far ahead to be warned, he signaled Vin to keep an eye on their leader and after receiving confirmation, took off to investigate.
There was nothing there.
Years of being an agent, however, made him cautious. He crouched down behind some crates, swearing inwardly at the pull in his leg. Three weeks after the accident, he was now able to do his work and walk without a limp, but the muscle still gave him trouble, especially if he put too much pressure on it during the day.
Still nothing; no movement, no miscreants. That side of the warehouse was even deprived of any doors or windows. It must have been his imagination.
He felt a sudden sting in the back of his neck, but before he could so much as open his mouth, he was falling unconscious into the open arms waiting to catch him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris glanced down at his watch; they had been staking out the warehouse for over an hour now. Once inside they had found no one there, so he had ordered everyone to remain out of sight. Maybe the people involved in the meeting were late. An hour later, he knew the phone call had been a bust.
"Let's get out of here, boys," he said into the headset. "Meet me by the surveillance van."
He looked around, searching for Ezra for what had to be the thousandth time, cursing the man's independence. He had lost track of Ezra before they even made it into the building. As soon as the others left, the two of them were going to have a little talk about procedure; just because they had got together, it didn't mean Ezra wasn't bound by the same rules as everyone else.
He reached the van, finding everyone already there but Ezra. His gut tightened in response, remembering Ezra's strange mood just before they moved into the warehouse.
"Ezra," he called into the radio. "Where the hell are you? Ezra?"
A drop of sweat slid down his back as he shared concerned glances with the rest of the team. There was something wrong. Trying to control the panic gnawing at his insides, he focused his attention on the men before him.
"Has anyone seen Ezra in the last hour?" Five heads shook negatively, increasing his fear. He watched Vin frown and immediately knew the other man was on to something. "What?" he asked the sharpshooter.
"I was about to move into the next buildin', to the rooftop like ya told me, when I saw Ez signalin' me to keep an eye on you. I told him I understood and he disappeared on the west side of the warehouse. Haven't seen 'im since."
They ran back to the building, going straight for Ezra's last known location. The street was deserted.
"Chris, over here."
Buck's voice sounded grim and Chris looked at his old friend. He was standing beside some old crates, looking down at the ground.
Chris approached slowly, fighting the sense of impending doom taking him over. Lying on the ground, beside the crates, were Ezra's gun, headset and bulletproof vest.
"Shit," he whispered.
"I guess Ez was right about watching out for crows," JD commented sadly.
"He's not dead!" Chris growled, advancing on the kid.
"Easy, cowboy. JD didn't mean anythin' by it," Vin said soothingly.
Chris took a deep breath. "I know. I'm sorry, JD. It's just...." his voice broke, leaving him unable to express what he was feeling.
JD shrugged. "It's okay, Chris, I understand. What do we do now?"
"Take Ezra's things back to the lab, JD. Tell them I want everythin' checked for prints, stat. The rest of us are goin' to search the area. I want this place swept with a fine tooth comb."
"This must have been planned," Nathan said.
Chris nodded as he watched JD drive away. "Yeah. Whoever took Ezra knew what they were doing. The call was made an hour before the deal was supposed to take place so we wouldn't be able to check the warehouse out or put surveillance equipment in place. They knew for a place this big we would have to split up."
"Ezra probably saw something, that's why he asked Vin to watch out for you," Josiah said. "All they had to do was wait for the right moment and catch him alone. All it would take was being familiar with this area and it would've been easy, no matter Ezra's position."
"Enough talk. Split up, spread out. I want every nook and cranny searched. I'm sure they're long gone, but maybe they got clumsy along the way. This had to be done rapidly or we might have stumbled across it. Get going."
Chris watched his men disappear, praying feverishly for a miracle. He knew whoever had abducted Ezra wouldn't hang around to risk capture. His only measure of comfort was the thought that if they wanted Ezra dead, he would have found his body, not his equipment.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
As Matt looked down at the body lying unconscious on the bed, he was unable to keep from smirking. So much for 'The Magnificent Seven'; he had snatched Ezra right from under his teammates' noses without them being any the wiser.
And they would never be able to discover his hiding place. He had found an old, abandoned house on the outskirts of Denver, far enough away from other buildings that any undue sound would go unnoticed. The cellar had been prepared especially for his guest, having been stripped bare except for a table, chair, and a bed.
He sat on the chair, eyes riveted to the sprawled form of his ex-lover. Even drugged to the eyeballs, Ezra managed to exude sensuality. Matt's body tightened as he remembered numerous nights of passionate lovemaking. Just the thought was enough to make him want to go over there and fuck Ezra through the mattress.
Matt felt anger surface again as he recalled having tailed Ezra from the ATF building the night before. Ezra had driven half an hour outside Denver city center to a small ranch, which belonged to Chris Larabee, as Matt soon found out. Larabee had walked outside to greet Ezra, and the two men had kissed enthusiastically before going back into the house.
Ezra had spent the night.
Matt had no illusions that after over two years apart, Ezra would have found someone else. But he couldn't help feeling betrayed. He couldn't help hating Larabee for having taken possession of the one good thing in his life. Sooner or later, he was going to have to do something about that.
He lifted his head as Ezra moaned weakly, turning onto his side and trying to draw his knees up until he was curled against the chill in the room. His bound hands hampered his movements, though, and he murmured sleepily in protest.
Matt smiled; it was time for the final confrontation.
He waited until Ezra stirred again. "Hello, Ezracat."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Anythin'?" Chris asked the others.
"Nothing," Buck said. "We searched the area twice and not a clue as to Ezra's whereabouts."
Chris nodded curtly, having been expecting it. "All right. Let's go back to the office. Maybe JD's got somethin'."
"We'll find him, Chris," Vin said him, a hand squeezing his shoulder lightly.
Chris didn't bother with a reply. He walked over to the Ram, opening the driver's door and dropping down on the seat. He crossed his arms over the steering wheel, allowing his head to rest on them for a moment. He was shutting down; a frightening numbness was taking over his soul, enabling him to keep functioning.
It wasn't enough to vanquish the fear, however. He was terrified of losing Ezra. Because he knew that if by any chance Ezra were to die, so would he. Sarah and Adam's deaths had killed something inside, some part of him that was forever lost. But Ezra's death would destroy him. There would be nothing left.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra's whole body tensed as he recognized the familiar voice, his eyes flying open to stare in disbelief at the man sitting not far from the bed. Trying to control the frantic beating of his heart, Ezra rapidly took stock of his situation. The last thing he remembered was being beside the warehouse, tracking suspicious movement. Now, staring at Matt, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who had been responsible for the phone call that had gotten his team to converge on that address.
He glanced around, realizing he had no idea where he was. Matt had obviously managed to abduct him, for what purpose Ezra didn't know. As he tried to move, he found his hands were bound tightly behind his back.
"Aren't you going to say hello, Ezra?" Matt said.
Swallowing, Ezra squirmed around on the bed until he was leaning propped against the headboard. "Hello, Matt. What " he licked dry lips. "What's going on?"
Matt smiled nastily. "Well, it's been a long time since we've last seen each other. I missed you and suddenly I just had to see you. I figured we could talk about the good old days, just before... I went away. What do you say?"
Ezra frowned. "What do you want, Matt? Why am I here?"
"I want answers," Matt snapped. "Don't give me any trouble, and we'll be okay. Since I'm the one with the gun, you'd only end up getting hurt."
"You mean that's not why I'm here?" Ezra asked cautiously.
"No, not unless you don't cooperate."
"Cooperate?" Ezra echoed uncertainly.
"I want to know who destroyed my life, Ezra. I have Russell's side of the story, now I want yours."
Ezra felt his blood run cold. "Russell? Russell Combs? Oh, Lord! You were the one. You killed him!"
Matt chuckled. "Don't look so horrified, Ezracat. What are we if not killers? That's what they taught us in Quantico, isn't it? How to kill?"
"There was no reason for you to kill him."
"Really?" Matt's voice turned sharp. "One of you set me up. He told me it was you."
"What?" Ezra started, his heart missing a beat.
"That's right, Ezracat. Of course, he might have been trying to get out of a bad situation. But as far as I know, not that many people had access to those documents, or to Faulkner's computer and vault, which was where they were kept. There was Faulkner himself, Combs, and depending on the level of secrecy, sometimes you and me. Now, I know I'm innocent, and Combs died swearing he was not the one to frame me. He also pointed the finger at you." Matt rose from the chair and moved closer to the bed. "So, I'm going to give you the chance to tell me your side of the story. It's only fair, considering our past together."
"You're crazy," Ezra whispered. "I had nothing to do with the set up. I was a victim myself, months later."
"Or you might have been the one and someone got suspicious," Matt said conversationally. "Tell you what; I'm going out, we'll need food and something to drink during our stay in these accommodations. Think about it until I get back." He brushed his fingers lightly over Ezra's face, ignoring Ezra's flinch. "It's good to see you again, Ezracat. You look great."
Ezra watched helplessly as Matt disappeared out the door, locking it behind him. He tried to loosen the ropes binding him, but Matt had always been good at knots; he was securely tied. He slumped back with a weary sigh. There was little he could do, except try to convince Matt he had nothing to do with framing him. But in Matt's present emotional state, he seriously doubted it would do any good.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
When they arrived at the office, JD was sitting before his computer, typing furiously on his keyboard, obviously in search of something specific.
"JD, any news?" Chris asked hopefully.
"A lead," JD replied without looking up. "The lab found a partial print on Ezra's gun. I'm trying to match it as we speak. The problem with it being a partial is that we'll end up with several possibilities, but I'm checking with every agency I can think of. FBI, CIA, NSA, Interpol.... Whoever this guy is, we'll get him."
"How long will it take?" Josiah asked.
This time JD glanced up, looking vaguely guilty. "It might take a few hours," he said apologetically. "I'm doing a nationwide search. It being a partial makes it harder. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. I'm sorry, Chris."
Chris smiled down at him. "It's okay, JD. I know you're doin' all you can. Besides, at least we're on to something. In the meantime, maybe we should start lookin' into Ezra's case files, maybe someone he put away made bail or escaped."
"You know, I'm worried," Nathan said softly.
Vin raised an eyebrow. "About what, exactly?"
"Well, everythin' so far points to someone who knows what they're doin', with enough knowledge on how we work. And yet, there's a print on Ezra's gun. Sloppy, ya know what I mean?" Nathan said.
"Maybe that someone feels they have nothing to lose," JD said, shrugging.
It was exactly what Chris had been thinking and he had to control the urge to shudder at their youngest teammate's words. He glanced at JD's computer, willing it to hurry, knowing it was foolish, but knowing they were working against the clock. The longer it took, the less chance they would find Ezra alive.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
In the end, it took exactly five hours before all the profiles matching the partial print came through. After a boring process of elimination, they were left with four suspects on who JD gathered all available information.
Chris went through every file carefully, looking for the common link with Ezra. And he found it on the last one; Matthew Ralston, ex-FBI agent, previously with the Atlanta office, currently on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
"Matt," he murmured, remembering the late night conversation with Ezra about his former lover.
"Chris?" Josiah said.
He lifted his head to look at the men sitting around the conference table. "We got him. His name's Matthew Ralston. He's ex-FBI."
"How does this Ralston guy connect with Ezra?" Nathan asked.
"They met in Quantico, worked together in Atlanta."
Buck frowned. "Why would he kidnap Ezra?"
Chris ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I'm not sure. Ezra told me some of their history together. It might have somethin' to do with revenge."
"Revenge?" Vin repeated.
"Yeah. Ezra exposed Ralston as a double agent, a traitor to the Bureau. Apparently there was a mole in the agency and after a thorough investigation, suspicion fell on Ralston. Some evidence was found, but it wasn't enough. The head of the department assigned Ezra to gather further proof of Ralston's guilt. Ezra broke the case."
"Why Ezra?" JD asked.
"He and Ralston were lovers. Ezra was basically blackmailed into accepting the case."
"Shit," Buck whispered. "This could get messy."
Chris leaned back in his chair. "Very. It gets worse; Ralston killed one of the agents who tried to arrest him, managed to evade arrest and has been on the run for over two years now. Three months after his escape, the rumors about the mole started again, this time about Ezra."
"They were both set up," Vin said.
"Ezra thought so. Now, I don't know whether Ralston wants revenge for being exposed, because he thinks Ezra set him up, or if he simply wants someone to help him go after the real mole. Either way, we have to find them. Josiah, call the FBI in Atlanta. Find a man named Faulkner. Get him to tell you everythin' possible about Ralston and what happened on that case. JD, I want copies of Ralston's photo handed out to the local cops, the other ATF teams and anyone else you can think of. I'm goin' to have a word with Travis before he leaves for the day. Finding Ezra gets top priority. I don't care what toes we have to step on to get Ralston found."
"Got it, Chris," JD said.
Chris rushed out of the room and to the elevator. They were finally getting somewhere; they knew who they were looking for and the wheels were already in motion to catch him. The question haunting him was would they be in time to save Ezra?
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Honey, I'm home!" Matt quipped, locking the cellar door and placing a plastic bag on the lone table. "Got us something to eat. You must be hungry. It's nearly dinner time."
Ezra stayed silent, carefully watching the other man. He recalled the first time he had seen Matt, walking down a corridor in Langley. He'd had an air of confidence about him, which had appealed immensely to Ezra at the time. Now everything about his former lover seemed to make his skin crawl. It puzzled him how he could have fallen for someone like Matt, but perhaps the saying that love is blind was true.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" Matt asked as he sat on the bed.
"I have nothing to say," Ezra answered.
"I wasn't the mole, Ezra."
Ezra closed his eyes tiredly, leaning against the headboard. "I found the stolen documents in your computer."
"They were planted there. By you."
"Never happened, Matt!" Ezra told him, angrily. "You're looking at the wrong place."
"You were the only one with access to my computer. The fucking password was my pet name for you, for God's sake! Ezracat." Matt shook his head slowly. "What a joke. I trusted you, Ezra!"
"I didn't betray you," Ezra whispered.
"Didn't you? Not even with Larabee?"
Ezra startled at that. "What?"
"I know you two are lovers, I followed you to his ranch yesterday. I thought you loved me," Matt gritted out.
Ezra controlled his reaction to the coldness in Matt's voice. The situation was precarious to say the least. "I did love you, Matt," he admitted, sorrow filling his heart. "But it's been years. Things changed. I changed. Look, I allowed Faulkner to come between us, to turn me against you, and for that I am truly sorry. You did not deserve what happened, and I guess you can say I did betray you, because I should have never given in to his blackmail. But I did not plant those documents or set you up. I did love you, dammit!" he said hoarsely, his vision blurring at the anger and despair he was feeling inside.
"You're just saying that so I don't kill you, Ezracat," Matt said. His voice was as cold as before, but his tone was oddly tender. "It won't work. I want the truth."
"It is the truth!" Ezra snapped. He took a deep breath, forcing his emotions back under control. "Have you ever thought of Faulkner?"
"Faulkner?" Matt repeated.
"When the rumors reappeared, and this time about me, I... I tried to find you," Ezra said. "I realized you had to be innocent, that someone else had to be pulling the strings. It couldn't possibly be you, and I didn't believe it was Combs either. Even if he didn't have what you called the 'goodie-goodie' brand all over him, he lacked the brains, ambition or the know-how to pull off something this elaborate. It had to be Faulkner. I could never prove it, and I didn't dare create too much of a stir, should he realize I was on to him."
"Why would he do it? He was the head of the department."
"I don't know, Matt!" Ezra said, exasperated. "Maybe he was bored, maybe he wished for some excitement in his life. Maybe it was the oldest reason in the world, greed. Who else is there? He and Combs investigated all the agents. If it was someone else, Combs would have found it. But obviously being the head of the department, Faulkner was never investigated."
Matt looked pensive. "I'll have to think about it, but I must admit you have made a good point. Now, there's food and water in that bag. I'm going to untie your ropes, but you better behave or I won't hesitate to shoot you. Understand?"
"Yes. Can I use the facilities?"
Matt smirked. "The bathroom? No, no, no. That would be inviting disaster, my friend. Use the corner of the room, we won't stay here long anyway."
Ezra allowed Matt to untie the bindings around his wrists, carefully looking for any opening in the man's defenses. Matt never let his guard down, his gun ready and close at hand, so Ezra decided to remain acquiescent. He was alive, well, and in spite of his dire situation, seemed to be making progress with Matt.
He waited until his ex-lover left before rubbing his bruised wrists and rising from the bed. He walked around for a little while to keep his circulation going, then sat by the table and reached for the food. He wasn't that hungry, but he knew he had to keep his strength up. He had no doubt Chris and the others were looking for him and he wanted to be able to give them any necessary help when the time came.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
When Chris returned to the ATF office, the whole floor was buzzing with activity.
"What's goin' on?" he asked Vin.
Vin grinned. "Word got out that Ezra's missin'. We've been gettin' volunteers to help with the search. JD is givin' out photos of Ralston and the guys are usin' their free time to go out on the streets and look for 'em, talk to informants, that kind of thin'."
Chris nodded. "Remind me to thank everyone later. Josiah, any word on Faulkner?"
"Yeah. Talked to the man a few minutes ago. Since Ralston is such a thorn in his side, he's coming over to help us in any way he can. Should arrive in the morning. He said to watch out for Ralston. He was an excellent agent, but with a thirst for killing that Faulkner had never seen before. He's highly intelligent, resourceful and with absolutely no conscience whatsoever. We're to 'expect the unexpected' with Ralston."
"Shit," Chris muttered. "So, basically we have a psycho on our hands."
Josiah's expression was grim. "Basically, yes."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra woke up to the feeling of being watched. He remained still, eyes closed, senses on full alert. He was not alone; he could clearly hear someone breathing, obviously Matt.
"I know you're awake, Ezracat. You might as well stop pretending."
Ezra sighed, then opened his eyes and looked up at Matt. "What do you want, Matt?"
"Good morning," Matt said, not answering the question. "Get up," he ordered, waving his gun for emphasis. When Ezra obeyed, he told him, "Turn around. I'm going to tie your hands again. Remember, no sudden moves, or you'll have an extra hole to breathe from."
Clenching his jaw in annoyance, Ezra nevertheless stood meekly as the other man bound his wrists together. When it was done, he sat back on the bed. "What now, Matt?"
Ezra groaned. "Not again! What the hell do you want now?"
"I don't believe the bullshit you fed me last night about Faulkner. The man's on his way up, it would be stupid to risk everything for a few miserly dollars."
"Not so miserly. Think about it. If he is the mole and he did set up that bank account in your alias, he allowed himself to lose over a million dollars just to frame you. I can only imagine what he must have kept for himself."
Matt shook his head. "Don't buy it. Sorry."
"So, that's it?" Ezra said, suddenly insane with anger. "What now, you kill me?" He rose from the bed, facing Matt. "Go ahead. What are you waiting for, lover?" The last word dripped venom. "Go ahead and kill me, shoot me. Get this over with. That's what you intended to do from the start, wasn't it? This will never be over until you kill me." He panted with fury. "Lord, you're pathetic. You could have stayed, got an attorney, could have tried to prove your innocence. Instead you ran, and now you're blaming everyone else for your own mistakes. You're weak, Matt, weak and stupid. You "
The rest was lost as Matt backhanded him across the mouth. The force of the blow threw him back on the bed. Ezra raised himself up awkwardly on one elbow, feeling a trickle of blood running down the side of his mouth.
"What do you know about being weak?" Matt gripped Ezra's hair painfully, pulling their faces close. "You bastard!" he hissed, spittle flecking across Ezra's cheek. "I loved you and you betrayed me. You betrayed me!"
He shoved Ezra back on the bedding, and Ezra shivered as Matt licked his lips provocatively, his eyes devouring Ezra's sprawled body. His nervousness increased as he realized Matt was hard.
"You're right, Ezracat," Matt stated abruptly. "I was weak. I have always been weak when it comes to you. You've always been like a disease that couldn't be cured, like a drug I needed to survive. Well, it's been a long time since I had my last fix."
Ezra fought fiercely to get away from Matt's pawing hands as Matt struggled to undo the buttons on his pants. "No! Matt, you can't do this! Matt, no! Please, don't do this!" he pleaded frantically, trying to kick Matt away from him.
"Keep still, dammit!" Matt shouted, punching him.
Ezra fell back with a moan, feeling the urge to sob as the fastenings on his pants gave and the fabric was pulled down until it snagged at his ankles. This could not be happening. He was not about to be violated by his former lover. His mind just couldn't accept the possibility.
He kicked again, receiving yet another blow for his struggles, leaving him panting and dazed. He felt Matt turn him on his stomach and pushed his face into the mattress. The noise of Matt's clothing being ripped off sounded loud in the small room, doing nothing to control the fear holding him hostage.
The heavy weight of another body blanketed him suddenly; between his buttocks, he felt the smooth, hard heat of Matt's sex. Matt gripped Ezra's thighs tight enough to leave bruises, and pushed them apart. A finger probed inside his body. The sharp pain broke him free from his daze.
Ezra fought violently, pleading continuously with the man who had once loved him to let him go. A hand at his neck restrained him, a warning of what could still happen to him should he fight.
"Matt, please," he tried one last time, breath hitching. "Don't do this to me. I'm sorry.... Just, don't.... Lord, don't...."
He slumped into the mattress, giving up the fight, knowing the rape was inevitable. Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against the covers, fighting to control his breathing and his panic. Maybe if he didn't struggle any further it would be over soon, maybe it wouldn't hurt too much.
After what seemed like forever, he realized Matt still hadn't moved, still hadn't taken the final step into violating him. In fact, he could feel something wet running down his neck; Matt was crying.
Half afraid he was going to set the other man off again, he whispered softly, "Matt?"
"I can't," came the breathless reply. "Not you, not my Ezracat. I love you. God, I love you...."
Ezra felt Matt brush his lips over his hair, then the weight covering him was gone. He still didn't move, hardly daring to breathe as Matt replaced his pants nearly reverently. He was rolled over to face Matt, hands capturing his face gently.
"Never again, Ezra," Matt hiccupped, tears running down his face. "I'll never touch you again, I promise. Never again."
Ezra lay still, trying to control his own emotions as he watched Matt drag himself over to the door. When it closed and he was alone again, Ezra slumped into the mattress, squeezing his eyes shut and biting his lower lip to keep a whimper from escaping.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris rubbed his bloodshot eyes, wondering how he was going to make it through the day. He hadn't been able to sleep a wink, as his overactive imagination kept coming up with terrifying scenarios of what could be happening to Ezra.
He took a deep breath, trying to pull himself back together. Faulkner would be arriving within the next half hour and Chris wanted to be ready to deal with him. He wasn't about to let a FBI hotshot run his show, especially when it might mean Ezra's life.
Chris sighed as the phone in his office began to ring; hopefully it would be good news. "Larabee," he said into the receiver.
"Do you have a pen and paper?" an unfamiliar voice asked him.
Chris frowned. "Yes. Who is this?"
"It doesn't matter. I'm going to give you an address and I want you to write it down. It's very important. Ready?"
Used to receiving strange phonecalls from informants, Chris scribbled down the address. "Okay. So, what will I find here?"
"Your lover, Ezra Standish."
"What?" Chris rose from his desk. "Ralston, is that you?" he snarled furiously.
"Yes. He's okay. I.... Tell him I'm sorry. I never meant for things to go this far. Goodbye."
But the line went dead.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris checked his gun for what had to be the hundredth time, his eyes never straying long from the run-down looking house. He felt, more than heard, Vin walk over to him.
"Ya know this may well be a trap, don't ya, cowboy?" Vin asked softly.
Chris nodded. "Yep."
"He knows you and Ez are lovers. Chances are he wants ya dead," Vin said.
"Yep," Chris said.
Vin grinned broadly. "We're still going' in." It wasn't a question.
Chris matched Vin's grin, only his was feral. "Yep."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris took a deep breath as he slowly circled the grounds, looking for a way in. The house had obviously been empty for some time. The decay and the graffiti on the walls were a testament to its abandonment. He tried one of the first floor windows, relieved when it opened easily.
Careful to keep his gun up and ready, he entered silently through what might have been the living room window. He heard the others following close behind, but didn't pay them any mind. His eyes were already searching the room for anything suspicious. Satisfied it was empty, he emerged into a corridor, checking every room there thoroughly.
The first floor was empty and as he made his way back to the corridor, Josiah signaled that so was the upper floor. That left the cellar. He climbed down the stairs, pausing at the thick wooden door, listening intently. No sound could be heard from the inside, and as he looked down at the keyhole, he noticed the key was in the lock. Gesturing to the others to keep alert, he slowly turned the key, then pushed the door back until it opened wide for them.
His heart missed a beat as he recognized the form lying quietly on the bed. However, still expecting it to be a trap, he forced himself to remain by the door.
"Ezra?" he whispered.
The chestnut head lifted and turned towards him. "Chris?" Ezra blinked as he saw him. "What are you doing here?"
"Where's Ralston?" Chris asked.
Ezra dropped his head back on the bed with a weary sigh. "I have no idea. I believe he's not on the premises. It's been hours since I last saw him."
Chris approached the bed, crouched down beside the thin mattress, and ran his fingers through his lover's hair gently. "Vin, give me your knife."
Chris cut through the ropes binding Ezra's wrists, hissing at their rawness, then helped him to sit up. A sudden, overwhelming wave of relief at seeing the other man alive and well washed over him, and without caring about the five men watching, he hugged Ezra tightly to him.
In spite of having told the others about the change in their relationship, and mainly for the sake of the dynamics in the team, they had avoided any displays of affection in front of them. But now, having been faced with the possibility of losing Ezra, he couldn't find it in himself to care one way or another. All he cared about was having Ezra back in his arms, safe and whole. And from the way Ezra was clinging back, he more than shared his feelings.
It was Ezra who finally pulled back, his reluctance obvious. "How did you find me so fast?"
"Ralston called me and told me where you were," Chris said grudgingly. "Are you okay?" He ran his hands over Ezra's body tenderly.
Ezra smiled. "I'm fine, Chris."
"You're still goin' to the hospital to be checked over. Please, Ez," he added when he saw Ezra was about to protest.
"All right. I do believe my wrists need tending to."
Chris frowned at the easy capitulation. Ezra hated hospitals with a passion, and he was being far too manageable and cooperative. Something had happened between him and Ralston, and whatever it was, it couldn't have been good. Controlling the urge to question Ezra, to shake the truth out of him, Chris simply nodded.
"In that case we better get goin'. Faulkner should be at the office by now and I don't want him staying there on his own for too long."
That caught Ezra's attention. "Faulkner is here?"
"We called him," Buck said. "When he heard Ralston was here, he couldn't jump on a plane fast enough. Why?"
Ezra shook his head, his worry clear. "This is terrible news. I could never prove it, but I believe Faulkner was the real mole, the one who set Matt and then me up. He can't afford to have Matt captured alive; it would destroy his little scheme. If I'm right, he will do everything in his power to kill Matt."
"Why? Wouldn't it be a feather in his cap to bring Ralston in alive?" JD asked.
"Perhaps. But if it were you that were the mole, would you risk it?" Ezra shrugged. "If Matt makes enough noise about being innocent and if we add the fact that I was also framed, it is highly likely that someone will believe him and me and start digging. But if Matt is dead, I can't prove anything and Faulkner knows it. He would get away with it."
"So what do you want to do?" Chris asked, fearing he already knew the answer.
"I need you to help me find Matt and keep him alive," Ezra answered.
"You're out of your mind!" Chris growled, rising to his feet and prowling the small room. "He kidnapped you, made a fool out of us.... I read his file, Ezra. He killed half a dozen agents who got too close in these last years. He's a murderer and you want me to help him?"
Ezra turned sorrowful eyes on him. "Chris, please. I know what he has done and I know he will have to pay for his crimes. His real crimes. He didn't sell those documents and neither did I If Matt and I don't take this opportunity to join forces and bring Faulkner down, the rumors will never cease."
Chris looked down him. "Is it that important to you?"
"To finally be rid of the rumors about being on the take, about being a traitor to my country, about being corrupt?" Ezra's eyes locked with Chris'. "Yes, it is."
Chris stared into Ezra's pleading green eyes and knew he would go along with Ezra's plan. "Fine. But there's one condition."
"What condition?" Ezra asked suspiciously.
"After we leave the hospital, you and I are goin' to take the rest of the day off and go back to the ranch. And we will talk about what's wrong with you," Chris said forcibly.
He noticed the glint of fear in Ezra's eyes, before the other man looked quickly down at his hands. "What about Faulkner?"
"We can keep him occupied for the afternoon," Vin replied. "If he asks about ya, we'll say Chris took ya home to rest and that he can meet with ya tomorrow."
"All right. I agree," Ezra said softly.
Chris gently helped Ezra to his feet and out the door. He was deeply worried. Worried about Ezra's strange withdrawal, about having Ralston on the loose on the streets, and finally about Faulkner and his intentions in coming to Denver. The situation had the potential to turn into a bloodbath and he knew Ezra had no intention of stepping out of harm's way.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
A few hours later, after a trip to the hospital, a shower and something to eat, Chris watched an exhausted Ezra climb slowly into bed. His lover's withdrawal was starting to scare him. While Ezra had always kept a tight rein on his emotions, this was something different. Ezra was hurting and Chris could do little but be there for him.
Chris undressed and joined Ezra in the bed, curling against Ezra's warm body. "Can we talk now?" he asked, nuzzling Ezra's hair gently.
In the cocoon of his arms, he could feel Ezra tensing. He remained still, waiting until finally Ezra took a deep breath and relaxed. "Yes."
"What's wrong, Ez? What happened with Ralston?"
"I made a terrible mistake. I forgot all the hard learned lessons at Quantico about how to handle dangerous situations. I lost it, Chris. I lost control, snapped at him, said everything I shouldn't have. I pushed him over the edge." Ezra spoke quietly, but the softness of his voice couldn't hide the break in it.
Chris squeezed him lightly. "What do you mean?"
"He thought I had been the one to frame him. He wanted me to confess, to tell him the truth. But he wouldn't believe anything I told him. I went insane. Told him he was pathetic, that he was weak and stupid. Practically dared him to kill me."
"Jesus, Ezra," Chris whispered, resting his forehead against his lover's neck. He could feel Ezra's trembling increase. "What happened?"
"He retaliated," Ezra answered bitterly. "He.... He nearly raped me, Chris. It came so close.... So damn close...." He turned into Chris' arms, snuggling against him. "I tried to fight him, to talk him out of it, but he had my hands tied, he was stronger and the anger seemed to give him an edge...." His breathing was harsh and his hands clenched and unclenched against Chris' chest.
"Did he do it?" Chris gritted out, trying to control his own fury. At that moment he didn't care what Ezra wanted, if Ralston had raped Ezra, the bastard would die slowly.
"No. I don't really understand what made him stop, but he did. Told me he loved me and then disappeared. Next thing I know, you and the others are walking in. Chris?"
"Yes?" Chris asked, fingers running through Ezra's hair tenderly.
"I don't hate him," Ezra admitted in a hushed voice. "I know I should, but.... It hurt to realize that he still loved me. Some of what happened is my fault, you know? I should have believed in his innocence. I should have tried to help him. I allowed Faulkner to destroy both of our lives and I did nothing. Things could have turned out differently. He didn't deserve what happened. I should have stayed by his side, or I should have at least honored the love he felt for me."
"Do you regret what happened?" Chris asked, his voice harsh and tight with tension.
Ezra sighed softly, his breath warm against Chris' throat. "Yes and no," he said honestly. "I regret what happened between me and him, that I wasn't strong enough to face Faulkner, that I didn't do something at the time. But... I don't regret being here with you, or falling in love with you. It shames me to realize that I would do it all again if it meant staying with you."
Chris cupped Ezra's face, kissing him with infinite tenderness as a reward for his heartfelt words. He knew how much their conversation had pained Ezra.
"I love you," he whispered against Ezra's mouth.
"Love you too," came the breathless reply.
Their arms went around each other, desperate for closeness. For a long time they took pleasure just from touching, completely attuned to each other, finally safe within the embers of their love. Their need sated, Chris tucked the covers around them and still wrapped in an embrace, they fell asleep.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
When Ezra finally stirred, it was already dark. Looking at the alarm clock he saw it was past eight p.m. They had slept most of the afternoon.
He looked at Chris resting peacefully beside him. He felt much better after their conversation. It had been difficult putting into words all the tangled emotions inside him, but it had been worth it. Chris had listened, and his support and love were stronger than Ezra could have hoped for. He had been so afraid Chris might think he was still in love with Matt....
He wasn't, but Matt's love made him feel guilty.
Guilty because some part of him still wished he could return that love, because he had never been able to love Matt the way he had been loved, because what he felt for Chris was so much stronger than what he had ever felt for Matt.
And then there was the fact that Matt had been a part of his life for so long. No matter what the future would bring, they would always be connected in some way. Matt had been his first real friend, his first long term lover, the first person to touch his soul. That Matt had changed didn't erase their past together or everything they had been through.
He lifted his hand and touched Chris' face gently. And he would always be grateful to Matt for one very important thing; for showing him that loving and being loved was worth the sorrow and pain that sometimes came with it. Thanks to Matt he wasn't a total stranger to love and was better prepared to face any challenges that would undoubtedly come in the future.
Suddenly grinning wickedly, Ezra decided it was about time Chris woke up. He bent to kiss him softly, and after a few seconds, Chris moaned and responded to his touch, parting his lips to Ezra's probing tongue. They kissed lazily for a while, letting the passion grow, until Chris growled and rolled them over, pinning Ezra to the mattress.
"Nice wake up call," Chris whispered, nibbling on Ezra's lower lip.
"Um," Ezra agreed breathlessly, his erection trapped under Chris' hard stomach, the weight and strength of his lover setting him alight.
He lay back and allowed Chris to take over their lovemaking. He was kissed, stroked and caressed all the way down his body, leaving him wondering what Chris would do next.
He didn't have long to wait. Chris forced his legs apart and knelt between them, blanketing Ezra's body anew, and began to move sensually, their cocks rubbing together deliciously. Ezra groaned, thrusting up to increase the friction, gripping Chris' slim hips convulsively.
"You want me?" Chris breathed hotly into his ear.
"Lord, yes!" Ezra moaned, wriggling against the bed as Chris lapped at his throat.
"In that case, I'm all yours," Chris said, moving slightly away.
Ezra watched Chris reach for the lube they kept in the nightstand, coating his fingers with it. He nearly came as he watched Chris began to prepare himself, whimpering occasionally as his fingers touched his prostate. Finished stretching, and panting hard, Chris straddled him, positioning himself for penetration.
Ezra couldn't help crying out as Chris began to impale himself slowly, both of them moaning when he was fully sheathed. He reached for Chris' hands and his were grasped tightly, their eyes locking. Ezra swallowed hard at the need, passion and love he could see in Chris' eyes, knowing they were a mirror of his own.
"Ready?" Chris asked softly.
Ezra simply nodded, incapable of speech. He couldn't prevent a startled yell, however, as Chris abruptly rolled them over until Ezra was the one on top.
"Chris!" he mock chided, laughing at Chris' antics.
Chris grinned back, totally unrepentant. "Take me, Ezra," he pleaded huskily.
Ezra nodded, and then he was thrusting in and out of the beloved body, giddy with the knowledge he was the one responsible for making Chris writhe frantically beneath him, for making him whimper continuously during their coupling; that he was the only one who got to see the mighty Chris Larabee lose all control.
Wanting them to go over the edge together, Ezra reached for Chris' neglected cock, pumping it in time with his pistoning hips, harder, faster, until Chris was clamping his muscles hard around his shaft. He cried out Chris' name as he came, feeling on his stomach and hand the evidence of Chris' own orgasm.
He collapsed onto Chris, feeling the stickiness between them, but he didn't care as he came to rest with Chris' gentle arms embracing him lovingly.
"Chris?" he whispered softly.
"Yeah?" Chris mumbled, a hand rubbing Ezra's back soothingly.
"Thank you...." Ezra paused. "For understanding."
He could feel Chris taking a deep breath. "This isn't easy for me, Ezra; I want nothin' more than to find that bastard and beat him to a pulp for nearly raping you. But I understand why you want him found and that you can't ignore the past you shared. I love you. I'll help in any way I can. But if he so much as looks at you the wrong way, I'm gonna shoot him."
"Jealous?" Ezra grinned.
"Damn straight!" Chris growled.
Ezra lifted his head. "Don't be," he told Chris seriously. "I love you."
Chris opened his mouth to reply when his stomach chose that moment to complain about its lack of nourishment. "Guess we should get something to eat," Chris deadpanned as Ezra chuckled. "How do eggs, bacon, and coffee sound?"
"Delightful," Ezra said.
Chris kissed him tenderly. "Stay here, I'll be right back. Tonight you'll get dinner in bed."
Ezra raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Shouldn't that be breakfast in bed?"
Chris smirked. "That, too."
Ezra dropped back on the bed as Chris gently pulled away and left the room. He wouldn't be able to completely relax until Matt was found and the whole situation got settled. But Chris' love was a healing balm he couldn't do without, and with it came the certainty that no matter what, he was going to be fine.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 12th, 1999
Matt carefully watched the ATF building from his hiding place. He had spent the last days close by, trying to make sure Ezra was all right. His heart lurched in his chest as he remembered his uncontrollable anger towards Ezra. He had been so close to raping him so close to destroying the one person who had ever meant a damn to him....
No more; he was back to his senses. He would stay around for a few more days, just enough to say goodbye in his own way, to store away some more visual memories of Ezra. And then he would go, once again vanishing within the nation's anonymous populace. He would never again cross paths with Ezra; he was going to do the right thing and leave him to the new life he had found in Denver.
His eyes narrowed as he saw Ezra, Tanner and Wilmington leaving the building with Faulkner. His former boss had been around every day, always accompanied by one or more members of the ATF team. It was puzzling. He understood why Faulkner would travel all the way from Atlanta, especially if he thought he was finally going to get his hands on him.
But something was wrong. Ezra was on edge whenever he was around Faulkner. Only someone who knew him well could see the protective walls firmly in place, read the stiff posture, the tight smile. Ezra was wary of Faulkner, and so were the other six men. And that made no sense, not unless Ezra had been telling the truth and Faulkner had been the one to frame them both.
It could explain a lot. Without proof, Ezra wouldn't be able to make any accusations stick. But if both he and Ezra spoke up against Faulkner, someone was bound to listen. Faulkner must know that too, which meant his presence in Denver was to make certain that never happened.
Faulkner couldn't touch Ezra; that would be too obvious. But he wouldn't have any problems killing a wayward agent who had been on the run for the last few years and then claim he hadn't had a choice, or maybe that it had been in self-defense.
Matt felt a grim smile crossing his face. If that was what Faulkner had in mind, he was in for a big surprise.
Maybe it was finally time to make amends for the mistakes of the past. All he needed was to find the right place and carefully plan his move. One way or another he was going to get his revenge. And Faulkner would fall.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 13th, 1999
"Hello, boss," a voice purred from the other end of the line.
Faulkner frowned. "Who is this?"
"Two years and you already forgot what my voice sounds like? I'm hurt, hurt I tell ya. Come on, boss. Think."
"Ralston?" he ventured, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.
A cold laugh. "Give the man a lollipop!"
"What do you want, Ralston? How did you get my number?"
"You gave it to me, remember? Not my fault you haven't changed your cell number in over two years. As for what I want, I think it's time we met. To clear the air between us, so to speak. And since you're here in Denver, I thought I'd better take this opportunity to invite you to a cozy get-together."
"How do I know this isn't a trap?" Faulkner asked roughly.
"You don't. But aren't you the least bit curious to see me again? To know how I've been? I'm sure we both have some pretty interesting war stories to trade from these last few years. Come on; be adventurous, boss! I might even let you take me in. Can you imagine what that would do for your career, Faulkner? You'd be a hero."
Faulkner didn't hesitate for long. "Fine. When and where?"
Another bark of laughter. "Knew that would win you over. How about this afternoon? Is two okay with you? As for where, how about a place with no people around, so we can... talk at will? The warehouse district. Write this address down."
"Got it," Faulkner said, closing his notebook. "I'll be there."
"No need to mention you're supposed to come alone, is there?"
"Good. See ya there, boss."
Faulkner pocketed his cell phone, fighting the urge to smile. Ralston had probably realized he had been the one to frame him and was planning to get even, but Faulkner would be able to handle him easily.
He was finally going to be rid of one of his loose ends. And with any luck, he might even manage to get rid of the other before leaving Denver. Standish would never buy Ralston's death as a necessity, not with their background. But maybe Faulkner could arrange for a freak accident to take place, a much lamented and tragic death for Standish. After all, such things happened every day.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra couldn't help the sigh that escaped as he watched Faulkner receive a phone call and then leave the room. His former boss' presence was beginning to grate on his nerves. Faulkner had been following them everywhere, tagging along to check all information, every lead on Matt's whereabouts. It took all of Ezra's willpower just to be civilized to the man.
Chris had called the others the night Ezra had been rescued from the cellar and they had discussed the matter until the early hours. Since Ezra couldn't make any formal accusations against Faulkner without solid evidence, they would have to wait until they found Matt.
Not that it would help matters much; Matt also didn't have any proof and based on their earlier conversation didn't even believe Faulkner could be the mole. But if they proclaimed their innocence together, they might start the ball rolling.
It also meant they had to pretend they didn't know Faulkner was the traitor. The man was dangerous enough to turn the tables should he feel cornered. So they went along with everything he said, with every suggestion, played gracious hosts while frantically searching for Matt.
Ezra was exhausted by and felt disgusted at the constant pretense, and knew the others felt the same. Even JD, who was usually so upbeat no matter what, had lost some of his bounce. None of them could take much more; something or someone was going to break down soon. His money was on Chris. Chris seemed ready to throttle Faulkner each time the man so much as breathed in Ezra's direction. It would have been amusing if he hadn't been feeling the same.
His desk phone ringing brought him back from his thoughts. "Standish."
"Matt," he said softly.
"Yeah, that's me. Listen, about that morning.... I know there's no excuse for what I did, but... I truly am sorry. I never stopped loving you, Ezra, and I never meant to hurt you. I'm sorry."
Ezra closed his eyes at the pain and sorrow in Matt's voice. "I know. I'm sorry as well. If I hadn't said the things I did and pushed the way I did, you might have not lost control."
"Don't!" Matt pleaded hoarsely. "It wasn't your fault, Ezra. You didn't ask to be raped, you didn't ask to be kidnapped, you didn't deserve any of what happened."
"Matt, we can discuss this another time. We need to meet. It's urgent."
"I know. You were telling the truth, weren't you? It really was Faulkner."
"What convinced you?" Ezra asked, surprised.
"I've kept close by. I've seen him with you and your teammates. Thought he looked a little too eager to catch me. He could have let you guys do all the work and just lain back and enjoyed the show. He would still get credit within the Bureau for my arrest. But instead he's out there every second of the day. Makes sense if he wants me dead, though. Can't let me talk to your friends first."
Ezra was glad Matt couldn't see his frown. "You have been watching us? I haven't seen you."
Matt laughed warmly. "Well, I've been close enough to know you still haven't lost your obsession with Starbucks, Ezracat. I guess it's true; nobody gives a homeless person a second glance."
"You're the homeless man who has been hanging around the street? I've seen you a few times. I must be losing my touch. I didn't recognize you," Ezra admitted ruefully.
"You weren't meant to. And it is a good disguise. My own mother wouldn't have recognized me."
Ezra snorted. "Your mother was blind as a bat, she wouldn't have recognized you in your birthday suit unless you spoke to her."
"I never did thank you for taking care of her."
"She was a lovely woman, Matt, and I adored her. I never told her what happened. She died thinking you were away on a top secret assignment."
"Thank you," Matt said. He was obviously overwhelmed, his voice dropping to a mere whisper.
"Matt, about our meeting ?"
Matt exhaled slowly. "Yeah, yeah. Um.... Remember the warehouse where I kidnapped you?"
"How could I forget?" Ezra drawled sarcastically.
"Meet me there this afternoon, at two. Okay?"
"I'll be there."
"And Ezra?" Matt's voice was almost hesitant.
"I know I have no right asking for this, not after what happened between us last time, but.... Can you come alone? Your friends would probably strangle me before I could get a word out."
"Ezra, please!" Matt interrupted, clearly realizing Ezra was about to refuse. "I'll keep my promise. I won't touch you. You can keep your gun aimed at me the whole time we're there. I don't mind. But we need to talk this out without other people getting in the way."
"All right. I'll be there... alone."
"Thank you. And Ezra, I promise, after this is all over, I'll do my time for killing Combs and the other agents, and I won't mess with your life again. Does... does Larabee make you happy?"
"Matt, I don't think "
"I need to know, Ezra. I need to know you'll be okay, that you'll have someone to lean on, someone to be there for you."
"Yes." Ezra felt his chest tighten with sorrow for everything he and Matt had lost. "He makes me very happy."
"Good." There was a pause. Then Matt said, "See you this afternoon," and cut the connection.
Ezra remained staring at the phone, long after the call was over. He thought about what he was going to say to Matt once they were face to face again. He wasn't afraid Matt might try to rape him again. He knew that had been a moment of insanity, but he was still suspicious of his ex-lover's intentions. He would have to tread carefully.
He looked up to see Nathan standing by his desk. "Yes, Mr. Jackson?"
"We're goin' out to lunch, a sort of celebration of bein' rid of Faulkner for a few hours," Nathan replied with a chuckle. "Wanna come?"
Nathan shrugged. "No idea. He told Chris he had some business to take care of and would probably be gone until tomorrow mornin'. As I see it, we should thank God for small mercies."
"I totally agree. And yes, I will join you gentlemen in celebrating much appreciated news," Ezra said with a smile.
He rose from his chair, grabbed his coat and met the others by the elevator. The invitation to lunch had come at just the right time. He only had an hour before his meeting with Matt was to take place; once at the restaurant it would be much easier to make his escape.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The restaurant chosen for the celebration was close to the office, one they frequented often due to its enjoyable cuisine and friendly environment. Ezra glanced around his surroundings discreetly. At the moment the place was empty except for a couple of waiters.
The seven men had chosen a booth at the far end of the restaurant, facing the door, a work-related habit that had probably come in handy to all of them in some time in their lives.
"What's wrong, Ez?" Chris asked from beside him.
"You've been messin' around with your food for the last five minutes but you aren't eating. Are you okay?"
Ezra managed a slight smile. "Fine. Stop worrying."
"Can't," Chris smiled back. "Comes from loving you."
Ezra felt a sudden warmth inside at the words. "You do know I love you, don't you?" he murmured, eyes firmly locked with Chris'.
Chris' smile got impossibly wider. "Yeah, but it's still good to hear it."
"Aw, ain't that sweet?" Buck and JD cut in at the same time, making the other men laugh.
"Expect retribution for this, gentlemen," Ezra said with a feigned scowl.
"Bring it on, Ez," Buck challenged, eyebrow wiggling madly.
Ezra shook his head at him, then pushed his plate away and stood. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I have to use the lavatory."
He moved away from the booth without looking at anyone and walked slowly towards the bathroom, resisting the urge to see if he was being followed. There was no reason for any of the others to suspect anything; he was in the clear. His eyes narrowed as he reached the bathroom door, but instead of opening it, he made for the one beside it, the restaurant's service entrance.
Time to face the past.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Josiah, go pay our bill," Chris ordered suddenly.
"Why?" JD asked, puzzled.
"There's somethin' wrong with Ezra. Just a gut feeling, but I want to make sure he's really goin' to the bathroom. If he's not... I want us ready," Chris replied, already following in Ezra's steps.
He moved into the corridor just in time to see Ezra leaving through the service entrance. Rushing back to the table, he found Josiah paying for their half-finished meal.
"Well?" Vin asked curiously.
"I was right. He went out the back way. Let's go."
They ran out of the restaurant, seeing the Jag driving away from the parking lot. Jumping into the two closest vehicles, they followed.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Where do you think he's goin'?" Nathan asked from the Ram's passenger seat.
"My guess is, he's goin' to meet someone and doesn't want us to follow," Chris answered, eyes never leaving the Jag a few vehicles ahead of them.
"Ralston?" Josiah ventured from the backseat.
"Or Faulkner," Chris said grimly. "The man's been stickin' to us like glue for days. This afternoon he suddenly decides he has somethin' important to do and can't stay at the office, and at the same time, Ezra pulls this stunt. I don't believe in coincidences. Dammit, I'm going to kill that Southern bastard when this is over! Can't he ever ask for help?"
"You know, I'm gettin' a feelin' of deja vu here. Didn't we travel this way just a few days ago?" Nathan asked as he looked out the window at the almost deserted streets.
"Yes. We're in the warehouse district," Josiah said. "Look, the Jag is slowing down."
Chris parked the truck far enough away to be out of sight, and waited until Vin's Jeep joined it. The six men climbed out of the vehicles and got together at the corner of a building.
"That's the warehouse where Ralston kidnapped Ez," JD said.
"I guess that leaves Faulkner out of the equation," Chris said.
"What's the game plan, cowboy?" Vin asked.
"Spread out, keep sharp. Let Ezra do his thing, but stay on him. At the slightest hint of trouble, cover him. If he really is meetin' with Ralston, don't lose sight of the bastard. Wait for my signal to move in; we might as well see what's goin' down. We'll stay out of it until it becomes necessary to intervene. Let's go."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The warehouse was empty and dimly lit, causing Ezra to move cautiously. He kept his senses on full alert, wanting to believe Matt was on the level, but afraid to trust him completely. He looked around for a while, getting familiar with the grounds, until he decided it was time to stop playing cat and mouse; he could feel eyes watching his every move.
"Matt?" he called out softly. "Matt, where are you?"
The sound of footsteps coming from the left caught his attention, but the man emerging from the shadows was not the one he had been waiting for.
"Faulkner? What are you doing here?"
"Same thing as you, apparently," Faulkner replied, aiming his gun at Ezra's heart. "I got a call from Ralston to meet him here. Seems our little runaway is planning on getting rid of us both. I haven't seen him yet, though, and I've been here for some time. Actually, this plan of his might come in handy. Lose the gun, Ezra." Knowing he would never outshoot Faulkner, Ezra obeyed, placing his weapon carefully on the ground. "Kick it away."
"What now?" Ezra asked, once he had complied.
Faulkner sneered. "I'll kill you and then tell your friends Ralston did it. Then all I have to do is get rid of your ex-lover and I'm home free."
"So you really were the mole?" Ezra asked flatly.
"Of course," Faulkner replied, an amused grin on his face.
"You son of a bitch," Ezra whispered furiously. Knowing the truth and having it thrown in your face were two different things, and at that moment he wanted nothing more than to kill Faulkner with his bare hands.
Faulkner laughed. "It was perfect. I began selling the information and when agents began to die, I was assigned by the AD to hunt myself down. I just couldn't lose."
"How did you plant the documents in Matt's computer?"
"The afternoon of the day you 'found' them, I sent you and Matt away from the office on a case, remember? He left the laptop at the office. I did it then."
"And the username and password, how did you have access to them?"
Faulkner laughed again. "The same way I knew you and Matt were lovers. When I started selling the documents, I knew sooner or later I would have to find a scapegoat... or two." He went on, "So I bugged the homes of a few of my closest agents. Yours, Combs, Thompson, Ralston's.... I heard him give you the password and username information one night after.... Well, after you had your fun."
Ezra felt sick. To think the man had listened to everything happening in the privacy of their homes; every private conversation, every loving moment, their sex life.... It made every memory tainted. And it made him feel violated.
"I had to stop once you came to Denver, of course; it would have been too dangerous to keep it going," Faulkner continued. "But I have more than enough money for two lifetimes."
"That's why you did it, for the money?" Ezra was unable to keep the disgust from his voice.
"And why not?" Faulkner retorted. "You spend your whole life getting shot at, tortured, maimed and God knows what else, and what do you get when it's time for retirement providing you get that far? You get a lousy pension and a pat on the back. I wanted more. You and Ralston are the only things standing in my way. I'm sorry, Ezra." He released the safety on his gun, not sounding the least bit apologetic. "But I'm going to have to kill you now."
Ezra saw him begin to squeeze the trigger and knew there was nothing he could do; he was going to die. He wondered about his own stupidity, realizing he should have confided in Chris and the others. They could have been there with him to guard his back; instead they were going to find out about his death in the worst possible way probably by a phone call from the local police.
"No!" a familiar voice cried out suddenly.
Ezra turned at the angry shout. He gasped as Matt appeared out of nowhere, charging towards Faulkner in a murderous rage.
Understanding what Matt meant to do, Ezra shouted, "Matt, don't!"
But Matt ignored him, pushing Faulkner to the floor, and Ezra watched horrified as the two men fought fiercely for the possession of the gun. He could hardly tell who was winning, or what was happening within the tangled mess of limbs, but his heart actually missed a beat as the gun abruptly went off.
For a second there was deadly quiet, then Faulkner laughed in evil delight, pushing Matt's bloodied body away from him. He rose from the ground, the gun still firmly in his hand.
"One down, one to go," he sing-songed as he once again took aim at Ezra. "There's no one to save you this time, Ezra."
Clenching his jaw at his hopeless situation, Ezra narrowed his eyes, ready to spring on the man and die fighting. Before he could make his move, someone slammed into him, throwing him to the floor, a body pinning him down as a shot echoed throughout the warehouse.
He looked up into the eyes of his savior, Chris. For a moment time stood still as he gazed deep into his lover's beautiful eyes, then the storm hit.
"Just what the hell did you think you were doin', coming here alone?" Chris snapped. "You could've been killed, you idiot!"
"I know, I apologize," Ezra said meekly.
"I oughta What?" Chris asked, startled.
"You are right, I should have informed you where I was going. It's... difficult to let go of the habits of a lifetime," Ezra admitted. "I can't promise not to do it again, but... I will certainly try."
Chris remained looking into his face for a long minute, probably judging his sincerity. "All right. I guess it's all I can ask for. But do somethin' this stupid again and I'll kick your ass black and blue. Get it?"
Ezra grinned. "Got it. Um.... Can we maybe rise from this uncomfortable concrete floor?"
"Asshole!" Chris muttered, jumping to his feet and helping him to stand.
The first thing Ezra noticed as he looked around were the other five men, all of them close by, as if wanting to make sure he was all right. The second was Faulkner's body lying in a growing puddle of his own blood.
"He's dead," Buck told him. "Vin shot him."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. It seems I owe you one," Ezra said.
"No problem, Ez," Vin drawled with a slight grin.
The third thing Ezra noticed was
"Oh, Lord.... Matt!" he whispered dejectedly.
"He's alive," Nathan said. "I already called for an ambulance." But as Ezra gazed pleadingly at him, Nathan shook his head; there was nothing to be done, there was too much damage.
Ezra knelt beside Matt, completely oblivious to the blood soaking the knees of his pants. "Oh, Matt...." He watched helplessly as the scarlet stain on Matt's white shirt grew bigger. Carefully, he lifted Matt's head until it was resting on his lap, his fingers carding through the silken black hair he had always loved so much.
Matt's glazed blue eyes opened and focused with some difficulty on him. "Hey, Ezracat," he breathed. "Guess... I finally... did it...."
"Why, Matt? Why did you do this?" Ezra asked desperately, his vision blurring as his eyes filled with tears.
"Had to.... Wanted to clear our... names," Matt whispered tiredly. "It's okay, Ezra.... I finally did... somethin' right.... Made amends for... the past...." he explained, his voice getting fainter and fainter. "You can... tell... everyone... I died... well...."
"No." Ezra moaned, hugging Matt to him as tightly as he dared. "I don't want you to die, dammit! Matt, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry for everything!"
"Hey, love...." Matt wiped a sole tear from Ezra's face. "No need... to cry.... I was so... tired.... So many mistakes.... This was... the only... way...." He brushed his fingers across Ezra's lips with infinite tenderness. "Time to... forgive yourself, Ezracat.... The one responsible... is dead.... You'll be okay... now." He smiled weakly. "You have... a family.... Someone who loves you.... Forget the past...."
"Matt " Ezra whimpered softly.
"Shh, it's.... I love... you, Ezracat...." Matt breathed, just as his heart stopped beating.
Ezra swallowed back a sob as he rested his forehead against Matt's hair. He remained still for a long time, his eyes squeezed shut, Matt's body growing cold in his arms.
"Ezra?" Chris whispered from behind him, bringing him back from his misery.
He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, sniffing to clear away a few stubborn tears. Looking down at Matt's serene face, he felt deep regret. So many things left unsaid, so much that could have been so different. He closed Matt's eyes tenderly, leaning down and brushing his lips briefly against the cooling ones.
"Goodbye, my friend," he choked out, tears threatening to overtake him again.
Taking a deep breath, he took firm rein of his emotions. He placed Matt's body gently on the ground, and slowly made it back to his feet. "He's dead," he announced unnecessarily.
"You okay, brother?" Josiah asked, worry clear in his voice.
"No," he said, looking at the six men, knowing they could see the misery and the pain, the tears falling freely against his will. "But I will be."
And then he allowed Chris to hold him and to comfort him, to be his strength when he had none left.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris held tightly to Ezra, wanting nothing more than to take him home and watch over him. He could clearly hear the sirens from the ambulance and squad cars approaching; in just a few minutes the warehouse would become a chaotic circus. It was time to take charge again.
"Nathan, you and Josiah come with me. I'm goin' to take Ezra back to the ranch. The rest of you, handle things with the locals and meet us back there as soon as possible. Buck, for once don't give the boys in blue any trouble, okay?"
"I won't," Buck said. He patted Ezra's shoulder lightly. "Hang in there, hoss. We'll all be here if you need us."
Chris guided Ezra towards the exit, his hand at the small of Ezra's back in silent support. Ezra looked terrible; his features were pale and haggard. Sorrow and exhaustion fought for dominance in the shadowy green eyes, and he seemed about ready to collapse at any second.
They made it to the Ram. Josiah and Nathan settled together in the backseat, Ezra sitting between them. Chris kept looking into the rearview mirror during the long drive, but Ezra didn't say a word, hardly moving at all. He seemed lost within his own mind, oblivious to his surroundings, too numb to even function properly. It was a daunting sight.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris sat with his forearms on his knees, his whole body stiff and sore from being in the same position for too long. The others had come and gone and still Ezra slept, courtesy of one of Nathan's sedatives.
He exhaled tiredly; it was finally over. Faulkner and Ralston were both dead, the case was closed. And in spite of Ezra's grief over Ralston's death, Chris couldn't help but feel relieved the man was gone from their lives. The truth of the matter was he had been jealous of Ralston's past with Ezra.
As petty as he knew it was, he felt extremely territorial over Ezra, but he had been forced to control it, especially due to the newness of their relationship. He did feel somewhat guilty at his unkind thoughts, but the relief was stronger. And then there was the fact Ralston had tried to rape Ezra. He would never forgive the man for it, even though he was dead.
He watched as his lover suddenly stirred and stretched lazily.
"Ezra?" Chris whispered, getting to his feet. He moved to the bed, sitting next to the other man and waiting until Ezra's sleepy eyes focused and settled on him. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Ezra answered in a voice still husky from sleep as he sat up. "The others?"
"Gone. They were here for a couple of hours, but thought it better to let you rest. It's late; past ten p.m."
"What happened after we left the warehouse?"
"Vin and the others took care of everythin' with the local police. Officially this wasn't our case, so we had to play fair with them. Josiah already spoke with Travis, told him everythin' that happened. We heard your conversation with Faulkner. We didn't tape it, but all of our statements should be enough to finally end the rumors. Travis was supposed to call Atlanta today to speak with the AD. We should know something by tomorrow." Chris squeezed one of Ezra's hands gently. "Hungry?"
Ezra shook his head slowly. "No, thanks. Chris, I want to take a few days off. I need to go to Atlanta."
Ezra sighed tiredly. "Matt's family was from Atlanta. They were all buried there. I want to take his body home."
Chris' eyes narrowed as he took in Ezra's appearance. He did look better; the dazed expression was gone, his color was back, he looked alert and more like himself. Maybe taking Ralston's body to Atlanta was the right thing to do; maybe it was the closure they all needed in order to get on with their lives.
"All right. Mind if I come along?" He tried for nonchalance, but knew his lover had seen right through him when Ezra smiled faintly.
"No, I don't mind. I would very much enjoy the company," Ezra replied softly, his thumb caressing Chris' hand.
"In that case, I'll have a word with Travis first thing in the mornin'. With a little help from him, we could be in Atlanta the day after tomorrow. You sure you're not hungry?"
"Positive. Why?" Ezra asked with a confused look.
"Just makin' sure. In that case, I think I'll join you."
He undressed quickly and joined Ezra under the covers, taking him in his arms. He had come close to losing him that afternoon and needed the certainty of having him safe and within touching distance. Breathing in Ezra's scent, and feeling his pliant warmth, Chris closed his eyes with a blissful sigh and finally let the day's tension and anxiety leech out of him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 15th, 1999
It was a perfect day for a funeral; windy, wintery, with a chill in the air that went to the bone. The sky above was dark and forbidding, as if the heavens above were angry at the mere mortals roaming the Earth.
The crowd at the gravesite was small; a few of Matt's old friends, a couple of his former co-workers, AD Cole from the Atlanta agency, Ezra, and the six men who had insisted on coming along. Ezra stood with his frozen hands buried deep in his pockets, his eyes glued to the casket even as the rain began to pour down furiously onto a hastily erected canopy.
He forced himself to listen to the priest's words. "We are gathered here today to honor and remember Matthew Ralston. A man who, as so many of our Lord's lambs, went through life the best way he knew how, stumbling along the way, but who, despite the violence he was surrounded by, died saving another's life. We should all remember he was only human, as prone to making mistakes as any other human being, with his virtues but also his faults."
The priest's gaze wandered among the mourners seated before him. "I would now like to recite some verses from Matthew's favorite poem. 'Go placidly amidst the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have the right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you perceive Him to be and whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.'"
After the service concluded, AD Cole approached the seven men. "Gentlemen. Agent Standish, I'm AD Cole. I'm not certain you remember me?"
"I remember," Ezra replied coolly, looking into the man's dark eyes, seeing nothing but sorrow and understanding in them. He wondered what he could possibly want with him.
"I.... Er, I would like to meet with you tomorrow morning before your flight back to Denver. I've spoken with AD Travis several times in the last few days and I have been faxed a detailed report on what happened with Faulkner and Ralston, and also all of your statements. I believe we need to talk."
Ezra shrugged slightly. "Why not? What time?"
"Is ten all right?"
"We'll be there," Ezra said, and if the man had any objections about the other six men tagging along, he was wise enough to refrain from mentioning it.
"Very well. I'll see you tomorrow, then," Cole said, shaking hands with them.
"What do you think he wants?" JD asked from beside him as they watched the man walking away.
Ezra smiled humorlessly. "Probably to avoid a scandal. If it becomes known that Matt was innocent and that Faulkner was the real mole, the agency would become the nation's laughing stock. I believe I am about to be offered a bribe."
"And will you accept it?" Buck asked curiously.
Ezra felt his smile turn calculating. "Depends on what he is offering."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
February 16th, 1999
The seven men arrived at the FBI building at ten sharp, a secretary ushering them immediately to Cole's office. The AD was the perfect host, offering them beverages, asking them to sit, courteous to a fault.
Only Ezra and Chris sat before him, side by side, while the others chose to remain standing, hovering behind the other two, offering silent support.
"Well, we are here as you requested," Ezra began. "What can I do for you, AD Cole?"
Cole cleared his throat awkwardly. "This is a somewhat delicate matter," he stated.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Really?" he drawled sarcastically.
"Richard Faulkner and I had been friends for many years. I was shocked to hear he was the mole," Cole said, ignoring Ezra's tone.
"You should be more careful whom you befriend," Chris told him, obviously not all that impressed with Cole's way of working. "If the leak was coming from his department, he should have been investigated as well, friend or no friend."
Cole sighed. "I agree. You think you know someone.... I just never thought.... " He shook his head. "Anyway, the reason why I asked you here is to formally apologize for what happened. Ralston would have been reinstated posthumously if not for the... um, small matter of the fact that he killed several of our agents while on the run."
"So I have heard." Ezra narrowed his eyes at the man. "So, what are you planning on doing? He should be cleared of the charges against him. At least the ones regarding the stolen documents."
"He already was. I made it known that he was innocent. The news is already spreading like wildfire, not only here in Atlanta, but to other agencies as well. I would like to ask something of you, however," Cole said, looking uncomfortable once again.
"Which is?" Ezra queried, knowing perfectly what was going to be asked.
"Should it become known to the public or the media that Ralston was innocent all along, and that Richard was the real traitor, we could have a serious image problem on our hands. The Bureau has withstood too many scandals of late. We won't be able to escape unscathed from another."
"Cut to the chase, Cole," Ezra snapped harshly. "What do you want?"
"I want you to forget what happened. Everyone within the agency will know the truth, that both you and Ralston were set up by Richard. Don't spread this to any unreliable sources."
"In other words, you want the world to keep thinking Matt was guilty," Ezra surmised. "What about Faulkner? Will he be known as the man who brought down the traitor? A hero? Is that what you will tell his family, his wife and children?" Cole's guilty flush told him he had hit the nail on the head. "You hypocritical son of a bitch," he hissed in a dangerous tone. "And you really believe I would agree with something that... that...."
"Disgusting, low, revolting...." Josiah supplied helpfully from the background.
"Thank you. With something that revolting?" Ezra said angrily, rising from the chair and placing his hands flat on Cole's desk.
"Agent Standish, please," Cole raised his hands in a placating matter. "I know it's a terrible thing to ask, and I am loathe to ask it of you, considering your friendship with Ralston. But as cruel and ruthless as it might seem to you, I'm also thinking of Faulkner's family. He left a wife, three sons and a daughter, and he has a year old grandchild. Think of what the news would do to them. Ralston has no surviving family."
"What about Ezra?" Chris interrupted impatiently. "How are you going to make it up to him? For what happened, for what Faulkner did? For keeping quiet about this?"
"We are prepared to do anything it takes," Cole answered swiftly. "Within reason, of course. He could come back to Atlanta. We are sorely lacking good undercover agents. Or He could take Richard's place as head of the department. He earned it and his record more than speaks for itself, especially this past year."
"A promotion?" Ezra murmured, looking into Cole's eyes and measuring his sincerity.
Cole was being honest; the Bureau must be desperate to keep the whole affair quiet and he was the only one left who could cause any problems.
He looked at Chris, puzzled at the disquiet in his lover's eyes until he realized Chris was afraid he might accept the promotion. His eyes swept over the other men, seeing the same fear, and suddenly he knew what he wanted, what his 'bribe' would be.
"All right," he muttered more to himself, but Cole heard him.
"Excellent!" Cole smiled delightedly. "I'm going to make all the necessary arrangements. You will be able to replace Richard within a couple of days."
"No," Ezra said flatly.
Cole shook his head, clearly confused. "No? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"No, I don't want Faulkner's job. I'll accept a 'reward' for my silence, but I get to choose it."
He could almost see Cole's mind working frantically, preparing himself for his request. Finally, Cole nodded. "Very well, Agent Standish. What is it that you want?"
"As I am to understand, the official version of my stay in Denver is that I am on 'loan' to the ATF, am I correct?" Ezra asked.
Cole blinked, obviously trying to understand what he was getting at. "Yes."
"I want it changed to permanent."
Cole's eyebrows reached his hairline as his eyes went wide. "What?"
Ezra smirked. "You heard me. I wish to remain in Denver, permanently. I want to cut all ties with the FBI. I am through with you and the Bureau; from now on I will be exclusively ATF."
"I... I...." Cole began.
"Or..." Ezra interrupted. "by tomorrow afternoon John Q. Public will be made aware of just who Richard Faulkner really was, family or no family. Are we clear?"
He locked gazes with Cole for a long time, a battle of wills, until finally Cole nodded in defeat. "All right. I'll take care of the paperwork."
"Good. Just remember, you go back on your word, and I will go back on mine," Ezra said smoothly, before turning to Chris. "Mr. Larabee, I believe it's time we left the premises."
"I agree." Chris rose from his chair. "I wish I could say it was a pleasure, AD Cole, but I'd be lyin'. Boys," he gestured towards the others and the seven men left the office.
Ezra didn't stop walking until he made it into the elevator, not even caring if the others were behind him or not. Only when the doors closed, did he lean against the wall, eyes closing wearily.
"Are you okay, Ez?" Vin asked softly.
He shook his head. "I betrayed him again," he whispered. "No one will ever know he was innocent, that he died saving me, trying to bring down Faulkner. And Faulkner will always be thought of as a hero instead of the bastard he really was."
"You didn't betray him, son," Josiah reasoned. "He loved you, he would've wanted the best for you. And the best thing for you is to stay in Denver, with us. He would've understood."
Ezra opened his eyes and looked at his lover. "How long before our flight?"
"Two hours. Want to visit the grave before we go?"
Ezra smiled, glad Chris seemed to understand. "Yes, I do."
He watched as they left the FBI building behind and drove to the gravesite; it was time to say goodbye, to finally let the ghosts of the past rest and go on with his life.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra stared down at the gray stone for a long moment, before kneeling down and placing the lilies he had bought by the entrance on the slightly raised mound of dirt. He closed his eyes, letting his mind wander, remembering Matt, the good times, the not so good times, the years spent as friends, the months spent as lovers.
Once again sorrow filled his heart; Matt seemed to inspire that emotion quite a lot. He was finally strong enough to say goodbye and he had forgiven himself for the mistakes of the past; he was slowly building a loving relationship with Chris and he cherished the friendship of his teammates.
But a feeling of regret would always be with him; a part of him would always wonder what his life would have been like if he had stood by Matt, if his former lover hadn't run away. He shook his head ruefully; it was much too late for such thoughts. The only thing left to do was learn from the past, and to move on.
"Ezra?" Chris said. "You have been here for a long time. Are you okay?"
Ezra smiled, remembering a similar conversation between them, also in a cemetery. "Yes. I was just... letting go," he replied, echoing Chris' words at the time.
He grinned at Chris' understanding smile, knowing Chris was remembering that same conversation. In an uncharacteristic display of affection, he allowed Chris to wrap an arm around his shoulders, and together they made they way through the path that lead out of the gravesite, towards the five other men who were patiently waiting for them; his family.
|On to: Part II - Blast From The Past|
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