Disclaimer: The characters from Mag7 belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy.
Rating: R for some violence.
Author's Notes: Beta'ed by Sherri, Ra, Chris and Bast. Thanks to Bast for all her hard work. Published in 'The Third Kind 2' zine by Requiem Publications, May 2006.
Feedback: Crave it. :-)
Summary: Vin is running from the one person he needs most in his life.
We both lie silently still in the dead of the night,
Although we both lie close together
We feel miles apart inside
Was it somethin' I said or somethin' I did,
Did my words not come out right,
Tho' I tried not to hurt you, tho' I tried,
But I guess that's why they say
Every rose has its thorn
~~Every Rose Has Its Thorn - Poison~~
"I can't do this anymore."
For an anguished moment Ezra wondered if he had spoken the words aloud or if, as in so many times over the past few weeks, he had merely thought them to himself. The stiffening of the naked body spooned behind him, however, confirmed his suspicions; the damning words were finally out in the open. There would be no turning back.
"Can't do what?" Vin asked, his tone emanating a warning Ezra knew he couldn't heed.
"I can't keep on being a mere relief valve for your needs. A way to scratch the itch when you have no one else around to do it for you," he whispered flatly, his heart shattering into a thousand tiny pieces.
"A relief valve?" Vin growled angrily, jumping off the bed. "What the hell are you talkin' about, Ez?" he snapped, muscles twitching as if ready for an attack, a coiled snake seconds away from striking.
"Your occasional need for male companionship." Ezra lowered his eyes to avoid the piercing blue gaze. "We've been together for the past six months. In that time, you have refused to divulge our relationship to our friends, you have stated you wished for us to keep seeing other people and we haven't gone out together since you are afraid someone might see us. We don't talk anymore outside the office, and as soon as we reach my abode we immediately have sex. I'm certainly not your lover or your lifepartner."
"Please, let me finish. I've told you before how I feel. I love you. I understand that my feelings are unrequited, that you do not feel the same. I know I can't make you love me, but this..." he gestured aimlessly, searching for the appropriate word, "... 'entanglement'... is destroying our friendship. It would be for the best if we stopped coming together and remained merely friends."
"Is that what ya really want, Ez?" Vin asked quietly, all the anger seemed to have drained out of him.
Ezra closed his eyes. "Yes."
Keeping his eyes closed, Ezra heard Vin dress, then reach for his gun and keys on the nightstand. Only then did he dare to look, dying a little more inside as Vin left without saying a word, never stopping, never looking back, the front door to the townhouse slamming shut in his wake.
Ezra remained in bed for a long time, numbness protecting him from the sharp pain that was sure to hit soon. He rubbed his chest lightly, feeling his heart beat beneath his hand, wondering briefly if one could die from a broken heart.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Rising in the morning was an exercise in determination. He wanted nothing more than to remain hidden beneath the covers, away from the world outside and all of its ugliness. Just breathing took an almost unbearable effort and he wasn't certain that he would be able to function normally through the day without breaking apart.
He would have to face Vin at the office. That would be the hardest thing to withstand. But he had been honest with the other man, he wanted them to be friends again. He missed the genuine friendship they had forged over the last two years, their conversations, their crazy scheming, their closeness. The moment they had jumped into bed together, all of that had vanished.
A New Year's Eve party and too much alcohol, and their lives were forever changed. He would always cherish the memory of Vin holding a branch of mistletoe over their heads, lips puckered in drunken hilarity, demanding to be kissed. But none of them had been truly prepared for the fireworks and the demons unleashed as their lips met.
It had been mostly his fault, he knew that. For the last few years, especially since moving to Denver, he had realized that there was something sorely lacking in his solitary life. He wanted to settle down, wanted a stable, secure relationship with someone, instead of the occasional unsatisfying one night stand.
Looking to Vin for that relationship had been a mistake. The foundation was there - the trust, the friendship, the lust. But he had been unable to make Vin fall in love with him, no matter how hard he tried. And now everything was crumbling to the ground. He had to do something about that. If he couldn't have Vin's heart, if he couldn't be the man's lover in the true sense of the word, then he would settle for being the best friend Vin had ever had.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra walked into the ATF building, a cup of Starbucks' coffee clutched tightly in his hand. As he made his way to the elevator, he glanced around, wondering why he had never noticed before just how uninviting and cold the wide corridors really were.
A wave of relief rolled through him as he reached Team Seven's floor and realized that Vin wasn't at his desk. He wanted to make things right between them, but he needed some time to get his head on straight. At the moment he was hurting too much, was too confused and lost to be able to think of the right words to say.
He sat behind his desk with a nod to the others, powering up his computer and going through his emails. It would give him something to do until something better came up.
Ten minutes later Chris' voice reached them all, loud and clear. "Ladies, my office!"
They moved into the office in single file, taking their usual seats. It was then that Ezra noticed Vin wasn't sitting in the office with Chris, as he was wont to do every morning.
"Where's Junior?" Buck asked, obviously having caught on to the same thing.
Chris frowned. "I thought he was at his desk."
Josiah shook his head. "Haven't seen him this morning, brother. I don't think he has arrived yet."
"That's not like him," Chris muttered, dialing a number and waiting a few uncomfortable seconds before hanging up. "No answer at his house." A second number was dialed, with the same results. "His cell is off. I don't like it. Vin has never been late before and the fact he's not answerin'..."
Ezra felt his apprehension turn into a cold panic. Vin was very conscious of his place on the team, he would never disappear without letting anyone know where he was or what was happening. Something was wrong. He gritted his teeth in sudden fear. It couldn't be his fault, could it? Could Vin have decided to leave because of what Ezra had said that morning? No, that didn't sound right; Vin would never leave without at least calling Chris first.
"Let's check his place," Chris ordered. "Ezra, Nathan and Josiah, you come with me. Buck, JD..." he seemed to hesitate, then, "Start callin' the hospitals."
Ezra strode to the door behind Chris, his concern for Vin at the forefront of his mind. There was nothing they wouldn't be able to fix once they were together. But first he had to find Vin... safe and sound.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin's jeep wasn't anywhere near his apartment in Purgatorio and none of his neighbors had seen him since the day before. Chris opened the door with his spare key and Ezra rushed inside, desperately wanting to find the other man, needing to know he was uninjured and out of harm's way.
It wasn't to be.
He went through every room, his anguish taking on new heights as he searched each one and found it deserted. Leaving the bedroom for last, he was finally forced to face reality: Vin was missing and most likely against his will.
The bed looked far too neatly made to have been used recently. The shower stall stood dry, all the towels folded, unused. The clothes Vin had been wearing were not in his wardrobe, nor in the dirty laundry basket. In the kitchen there was no lingering scent of the morning beverage Vin insisted on calling coffee.
It was apparent that Vin had not been home since the previous day. He had never made it to his apartment after storming out of Ezra's condo. He was gone.
"Dammit," Chris snarled. "Someone must have gotten to him. Who was the last person to see him yesterday? Josiah, you and Buck went to Inez's with him, right? Did you see anyone suspicious? Were you followed? Did Vin seem nervous or on edge?"
"No," Josiah answered. "We had a few beers, traded a couple of jokes, Buck told a few stories, that's it. Vin seemed relaxed, at ease. We all left at the same time. I saw him drive away in the jeep and it didn't seem to me like he was being followed."
Ezra cleared his throat, knowing Vin would hate him for doing this, but realizing it had to be done. "Excuse me, Mr. Larabee. I can vouch for Vin's whereabouts until approximately six in the morning."
"Well, where was he?" Chris asked, impatiently.
"With me. At the townhouse."
"Vin was with you until six this mornin'?" Nathan's tone was clearly disbelieving.
"What the hell were you two doin' at that hour?" Chris asked, roughly.
Ezra licked suddenly dry lips. "I... Um, we were together."
"Together as in sleepin' together?" Nathan clarified carefully.
"Yes," Ezra shifted, uneasily.
"And you failed to let us know you were involved because...?" Chris asked angrily.
"Vin wasn't comfortable with the idea of telling you," Ezra replied, trying not to let the hurt he still felt show. He knew he hadn't been entirely successful when Josiah squeezed his shoulder gently.
"Something happened between you, didn't it?"
Ezra exhaled softly. "Yes. I told him it was over. I'm afraid he didn't take it very well."
"I know it isn't any of my business, but why did you break up?" Chris asked him, his tone and manner surprisingly friendly.
Ezra looked at Chris, trying to judge just how much he should, or wanted to, share with the others. He would never even have acknowledged the question in the first few months after joining the team, but things had changed over the years. He thought of these men as his friends and he trusted them. And if he was honest with himself, he needed to confide in someone.
"We came together out of different needs. I had fallen in love with him, and Vin... He wanted what I believe Mr. Wilmington calls a 'fuck buddy'. I had hoped that in time he might come to love me as well, but I'm afraid it wasn't meant to be. I... I couldn't stand being nothing more than a willing body any longer."
Chris grimaced. "I'm sorry. That must've been hard. I'll make sure to give the little bastard a talkin' to when we find him."
Ezra found himself smiling genuinely for the first time since dawn. "That won't be necessary, Mr. Larabee, although I do appreciate the sentiment. I will be all right. I just... I need to find him."
"We will, Ez," Nathan promised. "And then we're gonna sit him down and watch from the sidelines as Josiah puts the fear of God into that Texan cuss," he added with a grin.
Ezra smiled his gratitude at the words and support the others were showing. He hadn't been truly aware of just how much he needed their warmth and friendship.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris ran a hand through his hair tiredly, his eyes sweeping over the grim-looking men sitting at the conference table. Their faces showed clearly the worry and anxiety that they were feeling for their missing friend. His gaze lingered on Ezra. Guilt and gut-wrenching fear lurked within those expressive green eyes. He couldn't bear to think about what would happen to the undercover agent if they failed to find Vin alive.
Repressing a shudder at the distressing thought, Chris turned back to the matter at hand. "Buck, JD?"
"The hospital check was negative, Chris," JD informed softly, relief on his young face.
"No one by the name of Vin Tanner, or anyone fittin' his description, has been admitted to any of our local hospitals since six this mornin'," Buck added.
"Okay... There has been no ransom demand and to be honest, I didn't think it was ever gonna be about that. That leaves us with one possibility: revenge. I want us to go through recent prison releases, especially regardin' cases where Vin was directly involved. This includes checkin' his time with the US Marshals and as a bounty hunter. We leave no stone unturned, ladies. Now, get out of here and start diggin'." When the others made to leave, Chris called out, "Not you, Ez, I need a word." He waited until they were alone before taking the chair next to Ezra. "How you doin'?"
Pain-filled eyes locked with his, and Ezra's voice was weak as he spoke. "I could be better, Chris."
"You know this isn't your fault, don't you? If whoever took Vin was really set on it, they would've gotten to him another time, in another place, no matter what happened between you two."
Ezra gave him a feeble smile. "I know. I've been in this business long enough to know that if someone is out to get you, sooner or later they will succeed. But I can't help wondering. He was upset, his guard was down... Maybe if I had kept silent, if I hadn't called everything off..."
"It wouldn't've made a difference, Ez, ya know that," Chris chided gently.
Ezra's gaze seemed to bore into his, searching for something. "You're taking this rather well," he remarked suddenly.
"By 'this', I take it you're talkin' about you and Vin?" When Ezra nodded, Chris confessed, "I can't say it didn't throw me for a loop, or that the fact you didn't tell the rest of us doesn't hurt, especially considerin' how close Vin and I are. I'm also ticked off I didn't notice anythin," he admitted ruefully. "And I can't really say I understand the attraction. But you're both good friends and what you do behind closed doors is up to you, just as long as it doesn't unbalance the team. Otherwise I'll be forced to butt in."
"Since our relationship is over, I seriously doubt that will ever happen. I do wish to keep Vin as a friend, but I'm afraid the next move is up to him."
"Which reminds me: contrary to what you might think, I am perfectly capable of takin' sides in an argument and not choosing Vin. He's definitely gettin' his ass kicked when we find him. He should've known better than to treat you like that. Took us long enough to get you to trust us and to open up. I'm not about to let him ruin everythin'."
There was gratitude shining in Ezra's eyes as he shook his head. "He won't ruin anything, Chris. You have spoiled me rotten from the day I moved to Denver. I refuse to crawl back into my shell. I cherish our friendship and intend to keep on enjoying it."
Chris gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Good! Now, come on. Let's go find our missin' moron, so Josiah and I can drill 'im a new one," he joked, glad when Ezra chuckled.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin's jeep was found abandoned in a park the next day. There were no fingerprints besides Vin's, but forensics managed to identify faint traces of blood on the headrest in the passenger seat. It matched Vin's blood type.
"Any ideas, Nathan?" Chris asked, after reading the forensics report.
"It might be the first sign that Vin is still alive," Nathan replied.
Buck's eyebrows flew to his hairline in surprise. "Not that that isn't good news, or anythin', but how do you figure that, Nate?"
"Well, what forensics found was just a smudge of blood. I'm thinkin' someone knocked him unconscious, pushed him into the passenger seat - smearin' the blood - and sat behind the wheel, takin' him somewhere before dumpin' the jeep. Vin was most likely bein' followed for the last few days at least. If this person wanted Vin dead, why go to all this bother?"
"They could have simply shot him in the jeep and hidden the body," Ezra said softly, never looking up from his hands.
Nathan shook his head. "Not enough blood in the jeep, Ezra," he said soothingly. "Besides, there've been plenty of opportunities to kill him. It's not like we were on the lookout for trouble. He would've been an easy target. Unless whoever it is wants somethin'."
Ezra shrugged dejectedly. "Probably to torture him before murdering him."
The others exchanged concerned glances, uncertain of what to say. They all knew the longer it took to find Vin, the less chance they had of getting him back alive.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Three more days dragged by, each one feeling like an eternity. Ezra could almost count every second, every minute, every hour ticking by as he searched in vain for Vin, his desperation growing as lead after lead failed to bring them any closer to the missing man.
No one had seen Vin since that fateful morning at the townhouse. Ezra spent every available moment combing the streets, talking to informants, to every friend or acquaintance of Vin's he knew about, hoping there might be a clue somewhere in the Texan's past that might help them now. He searched through every neighborhood Vin had ever resided in, speaking to neighbors, landlords, store owners, even the homeless.
He ate little and only when forced to. He slept even less, occasionally snatching a few hours rest on the couch in Chris' office. He knew he couldn't keep up such a harrying pace for long, but he couldn't stop. He had to keep going, had to know the truth. Even if it meant finding a body somewhere, he had to know. The uncertainty, the frightening darkness surrounding Vin's disappearance, was slowly killing him.
He knew the others were worried about him, but he was too exhausted, too heartsick, too angry to care. Something had to give soon or he would go insane.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"We got him!" Buck burst into Chris' office, waving a sheet of paper in the air, JD right on his tail.
Chris rose from his chair, leaning over his desk anxiously. "Talk to me, boys."
"We went through every possible case, Chris. This guy's the only one left," JD told him. "If it isn't him... Then Vin's disappearance has nothing to do with law enforcement. Could be anyone."
"One thing at a time, JD. Who are we talkin' about here?" Chris asked, rubbing the tiredness out of his eyes.
"Charles Owen, forty-five year old Caucasian male from Houston, Texas. Arrested on suspicion of murder, got out on bail and tried to leave the state. Vin was a bounty hunter at the time and managed to get him back. Owen threatened to kill Vin at the trial, but was sent to jail. He got out three weeks ago."
"We already contacted the authorities in Houston, askin' for info on this guy," Buck added. "Old haunts, connections, psychological profile, the usual. It doesn't look good. He lived in a trailer, which apparently blew up when Junior caught up with him. He doesn't have any credit cards, no cell phone, nothin' that can help us track him down. Plus, there are no known relatives. This guy could be anywhere."
"Shit," Chris whispered, realizing that if Owen was their man, he'd had five long days in which to make good on his vengeance. "He had to have had this planned for a long time. If Nathan's right, Owen spent three weeks trackin' Vin down and followin' him around before makin' his move. That means he had a plan in the first place. Find out where he was locked up, see if he had any friends among the other inmates. Maybe he shared somethin' with someone."
"I'm on it," JD said, already rushing out the door.
"What are ya goin' to do about Ezra?" Buck asked. "He's out on the streets again. If we don't find Vin soon, or if he's..." Buck hesitated, not wanting to voice aloud the fact that Vin might already be dead. "...If it's too late, I think we're goin' to lose him."
Chris looked at his oldest friend suspiciously. "You know?"
"That there's somethin' goin' on between Vin and Ez?" Buck shrugged. "I wasn't sure, but ya just confirmed it. We're all goin' crazy with worry, and I want nothin' more than to have Junior safe and sound, back with us. But Ezra... He's wastin' away with each passin' day."
"How do you feel about it?" Chris asked softly, wanting to gauge if there might be some trouble ahead. Even if Ezra and Vin's relationship was over, as Ezra insisted it was, the situation was far from resolved.
Buck grinned. "To each his own, ya know? I've got nothin' against it. In fact, they might be good for each other. Ezra's a lot more relaxed now than when he first joined the team, and Vin is probably one of the reasons why. And before ya ask, the kid's fine with it too. His reply when I mentioned it was, 'It's about time!'." He frowned. "Nathan and 'Siah?"
"They know and seem to be okay with it. I think the news rocked Josiah a little, but he covered it well. The way he's been hoverin' over Ez the last days, I think it was more surprise than anythin' else. I sure as hell didn't see it comin'!" Chris admitted ruefully.
JD walked into the office at that moment, forestalling Buck's next words. "I called the cops in Houston again, Chris. They're sending a couple of men to the jail where Owen did time to talk to the warden and a few of the guards. We should know more in a few hours. Want me to call the others back?"
"Not yet. Let's wait until we actually get somethin' to work with." Chris didn't add that he didn't want to give the others any false hopes, especially Ezra. The Southerner was suffering enough without having to face another dead-end. The last days had been full of them.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris looked at the five men sitting around the conference table, paying special attention to Ezra. Buck was right, the man was wasting away right in front of them. He was thinner, almost gaunt looking, his features pale and haggard. The self-assurance, the unruffled appearance, the impenetrable facade were all gone, leaving in its wake a broken man.
"None of this is certain, but there's a chance that we've found our man. These files contain all the intel that JD and Buck have gathered on our target, Charlie Owen. Accordin' to the cops who talked to Owen's associates on the inside, he and his cellmate, Richard Crawford, were real close. One of the inmates stated that after Crawford was stabbed to death last month, Owen said his house would go to him, since Crawford had no livin' relatives."
"I checked up on that," JD said. "Before going to jail Crawford was livin' with a girlfriend in Houston - but he owned a place in Brighton, here in Colorado, a small house on the outskirts of the town."
Chris nodded. "Brighton is about 20 miles from Denver, so we're goin' to handle this ourselves. I already contacted the locals to let them know we're on our way and asked them to provide us with the exact location of Crawford's place. So, pack your gear and let's head out."
Buck punched his fist in the air with a whoop, "We're goin' to kick some badass butt!"
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin opened his eyes slowly, relieved to find himself alone once again. His whole body hurt from Owen's constant beatings, and although he didn't think there was anything broken, he felt like one giant bruise. He sighed tiredly as he tried unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position on the cold, hard floor of the basement he was imprisoned in.
Things didn't look good.
Owen had caught him outside Ezra's townhouse, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, Vin had been concussed from the hit on the head, nauseous, with a blinding headache, but alert enough to realize they weren't in Denver anymore.
As for Owen himself, the man had barely said a word since taking him prisoner, except to taunt him occasionally, threatening to go after Ezra once he was done with Vin, an evil leer telling Vin the bastard was well aware of his relationship with Ezra.
Other than that, it was business as usual. Owen came down to the bare basement twice a day with water and food, allowed Vin to relieve himself and then proceeded to beat the crap out of him. Why he did not just kill him and get it over with Vin didn't know, but he was thankful for still being alive. Maybe it would give his friends enough time to find out where he was being held and rescue him.
Pondering about the others made him think of Ezra. Again. Vin had thought of little else over the last few days, remembering time and time again the way he had walked out on the other man, the anger and the misery and the ugliness a chasm between them. It hurt to think that because of Owen, that might be the last memory Ezra would have of them.
Being alone with his thoughts - and conscience - for most of the day meant he couldn't keep hiding from the ruthless truth. He was forced to face up to the fact he had been acting like a heartless bastard towards someone who didn't deserve such harsh treatment.
He thought of all the small things he had denied Ezra. All of those simple gestures lovers shared, but that he hadn't been able to face: a gentle cuddle after sex, the odd compliment, a passionate kiss as they came together, warm conversation over a nice dinner, a friendly shoulder after a hard case, or simply just being there in the true sense of the word.
His only defense was fear. Mind-numbing fear. He had always known what he wanted out of life, even while growing up. To be a good man, to uphold the law, to help others... To have a wife and kids, a large family to make up for the one he had lost as a young boy.
His plan didn't include meeting Ezra, or feeling attracted to him, let alone acting on such a treacherous emotion. But he had. As time went by, he realized his addiction to Ezra was only growing stronger. He realized that he was falling in love. So, he decided to take the coward's way out and pretend it was just sex, that he was only waiting until the right woman came along. But what really terrified him was the power that Ezra held over him. Vin had never permitted anyone to ensnare him in a relationship that mattered a damn, had never permitted anyone to stake a claim on his heart, but he knew, should he ever let his guard down, Ezra would be the one to do it.
He hadn't been ready to allow that to happen, hadn't been ready to surrender his heart and soul to anyone. People had been telling him they loved him all of his life, and yet none of them had stayed by his side for long. Not his parents, not his friends, not even the only person he had let close enough to call lover. Every single time he had been left alone, the emptiness inside more unbearable with each new hurt.
So when Ezra came to him with all that love in his eyes and had told Vin how he felt, Vin had been unable to accept what should have been a precious gift, choosing instead to tell Ezra that he didn't feel the same way, but that he would like for them to keep seeing each other. He had seen the pain in those green eyes, had seen the hope die within them. He had felt the distance grow between them, hating himself for hurting Ezra so much, but still incapable of overcoming the fear that held him silent.
He wondered briefly why Ezra had put up with him for so long, then realized that Ezra had been waiting, making the most of it, taking what crumbs he could, hoping for a sign Vin might come to feel as he did. He had offered his body out of love, allowing himself to be used, prostituting his heart, only to have his love tarnished and thrown back in his face every time they were together.
Vin shook his head weakly, feeling ill from more than just the beatings. He had been a fool.
No woman would ever make him feel the way Ezra did, his experience with Charlotte told him that. It was only now, facing the possibility of his own death, that he understood what a terrible mistake he had made. He couldn't stop thinking about Ezra, because he longed to be with him, to make love to him, to lose himself within him.
Better yet, he wanted simply to be together with the other man, touching, comforting, protecting. Holding hands, kissing, sharing a secret smile, doing all those things lovers took for granted.
He promised himself that the first thing he would do if he ever saw Ezra again would be to tell him just how much he loved him. Even if Ezra'd finally had enough and refused to take him back, Vin would say the words, because the other man deserved to hear them if only once. And if Ezra remained determined to be done with him, Vin would be just as determined to do anything necessary to get him back, even though it might not be easy. It was a battle he desperately needed to win, no matter the cost.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin thought he was dreaming when he first heard the voices, muffled and indistinct. It felt like only seconds had passed since Owen had left him for the second time that day, but he knew it had to have been some time later. This beating had been worse than all the others. He could taste blood in his mouth from the punches to his face, his left eye was swollen shut and the ache in his body burned stronger than ever. He wondered how long it was going to take for Owen to finally beat him to death.
He kept his eyes closed, arms wrapped protectively around his bruised ribs, refusing to move even after the first gunshot echoed from above. More shots followed, then shouting could be heard, getting clearer with every passing heartbeat. He felt the tension suddenly leave his taut frame as he recognized the voices of his friends. They had come for him. He was saved.
He wanted to shout back, to let them know where he was and that he was okay, but the last few days finally took their toll on him. Knowing salvation was within reach, he allowed the weariness and fatigue to take over and drag him into painless oblivion.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Dear Lord," Josiah whispered as he opened the door to the basement.
Hearing fear in the words, Chris rushed past him, cursing as he saw Vin's bloodied form lying unmoving on the floor. He was perversely glad that Ezra had emptied his gun into Owen, wishing he could have added his own bullets to help rip the bastard to shreds.
He kept his eyes glued to his best friend's lax face as Nathan examined him carefully. "Well?" he finally asked, impatiently.
"I don't think there's anythin' broken, but his whole body's covered in scrapes and cuts. There's some bruisin' around the ribcage, and a lump on the back of his head." Nathan shook his head. "Ya better call an ambulance, Chris, there might be some internal damage."
Chris nodded, calling for an ambulance before turning his attention to Ezra. Their undercover agent was standing apart from the others, having collapsed against a wall from sheer physical and emotional exhaustion, now that the adrenaline rush sustaining him for so long had vanished. Chris decided right then and there to have Ezra also be seen by a doctor, even knowing the younger man would protest vehemently against it.
At the moment, though, Ezra's eyes were fixed on Vin, hands twisted together as if to stop himself from reaching out and touching him. But in spite of the extreme fatigue, worry and fear still visible in his eyes, already a change was taking place. The moment Nathan had signaled that Vin was still breathing, a part of Ezra seemed to come back to life; the green eyes were once again sharp and alert, his posture had lost some of its weariness, the unhealthy pallor no longer so pronounced on the handsome face. It was a sight to behold.
The ambulance came rapidly - taking both Vin and a surprisingly meek Ezra back to Denver - followed by the Sheriff and two of his deputies. Chris detailed their actions to the Sheriff, recalling how Charlie Owen had seen them arrive and had charged out of the house in a mad dash, barely giving them enough time to take cover before he started shooting. Chris shuddered as he remembered Ezra's exit from the truck - the way he had faced the madman, his stance bringing forth images of the showdowns seen in many a western movie.
The Southerner had stood tall by the vehicle, refusing to cower behind it, arm raised, gun aimed at their prey. A shouted warning to surrender had gone unheeded and when Owen tried to fire another round, Ezra had been faster, squeezing the trigger over and over again, until only the dry click on the empty chamber could be heard.
Chris felt nothing but renewed respect for his undercover agent. Justice had been served. No one messed with one of the seven without being shown the error of their ways. His only regret was that Ezra had left nothing for him to vent his anger on as well, but he understood Ezra's reasons. Vaguely he wondered what would happen between Vin and Ezra now that the Texan was back within the fold.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin looked out the window of Chris' guest bedroom, watching the late afternoon sun sink below the horizon. Over forty-eight hours had passed since his rescue and he was still hurting, although not as fiercely as before. Much to his annoyance, he had been forced to spend the first night in the hospital, the doctors wanting to make sure that nothing had been missed in their examination. He had been more than grateful for Chris' offer to stay at the ranch until he was feeling better.
But not all was well in his world. His ears were still ringing from his 'conversation' with the others. Not only had Chris and Josiah given him hell for the way he had treated Ezra, but Nathan, Buck *and* JD had also taken their turn, scolding him and making him feel grateful he was already too bruised to have his ass kicked - literally.
And as for Ezra, although Vin remembered seeing him when they first arrived at the hospital, that had been the only time in the past two days he had set his eyes on the other man; Ezra was clearly avoiding him.
Vin had tried to be patient, waiting for Ezra to come to him so that they could talk, try to make things right between them. So that he could apologize. But as with everything concerning Ezra, his plans never quite worked as he wanted them to. Vin grinned ruefully. Oh well, if Muhammad wouldn't come to the mountain...
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
...The mountain would just have to pay Muhammad a visit. Vin entered the townhouse using his key, disabling the alarm before making his way silently to the main bedroom. Ezra was sleeping soundly, lying naked on his stomach, a sheet covering his buttocks, but leaving every other inch of silken skin exposed to Vin's hungry gaze.
Vin took a deep breath, trying to control his foolish heart, struck again by how beautiful Ezra really was, especially in unguarded moments such as this. Smooth muscled body relaxed in slumber, chestnut hair tousled, face peaceful and open... Beautiful.
Unable to resist temptation, Vin undressed quietly, lowering himself into the empty space beside Ezra, careful not to jolt the mattress. He simply lay there for a long while, watching with rapt attention as the other man slept, falling in love all over again as Ezra reached for him, snuggling closer until his head was pillowed on Vin's shoulder, arm around his middle, their legs tangled together.
Vin stayed awake for most of the night, content to have Ezra back in his arms again, sharing a closeness he had denied them both before. It felt right to be there, just holding him, running gentle fingers over his back, slowly combing the chestnut locks, closing his eyes at the occasional pleasured sigh escaping from Ezra's slightly parted lips.
Vin sighed to himself. To think that were it not for Charlie Owen, he might never have experienced this... That he might never have stopped to think about what he was doing or why. He knew now what he really wanted out of life: someone to care about him as much as he cared for them; someone to come back to at the end of the day; someone to sleep next to; someone to hold him and for him to hold in return.
Even if the fear of failure was still there, even if the fear of being hurt still lurked beneath the surface, Vin knew he couldn't keep on running away. He had finally found the one, that someone to share his love with... And it was Ezra.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
When Vin woke up in the morning, it was to find puzzled green eyes blinking sleepily at him. He felt a genuine smile blossom on his lips at the sight. "Mornin', Ez," he greeted cheerfully.
"Good morning," Ezra replied, after clearing his throat. "W-what are you doing here?"
"I waited for you to come see me. When ya didn't, I decided to take the first step."
"I needed some distance, some time to think," Ezra confessed softly. "We didn't exactly part on the most agreeable of terms."
Vin sighed. "No, we didn't. I'm sorry, Ez. For the way I acted," he added at Ezra's raised eyebrow. "And for lyin', too. I was just too afraid to let ya know the truth."
"Afraid?" Ezra said slowly.
"Yeah. I know you said ya love me, and I believe ya. But... you love me and you want me today. What about tomorrow, next week? Or maybe next year? Feelings change, people change. I've been hurt before, badly. I guess I panicked at the thought of gettin' hurt again."
Ezra's eyes locked with his, seeming to look straight into his soul. "I understand, more than you might think possible. I spent most of my life keeping people away precisely because I feared getting hurt. As pathetic as it may seem, it was only after I moved to Denver that I realized what a waste it all was. Shutting people out not only hurts them, but you as well, because while you may keep yourself from being hurt, you miss out on all sorts of amazing things. Vin, I never had a close friend before the six of you, never knew what having a family felt like, what it was like to share yourself with someone and have them do the same."
"So you're sayin' I should take a chance, even though you'll end up hurtin' me?" Vin asked suspiciously.
"Yes. As you will undoubtedly hurt me. I'm not making you any promises. I love you and I hope I always will. But I can't promise you forever. Who's to say that you won't be the one to fall out of love with me first? There are no such guarantees in life," Ezra finished with an awkward shrug.
Vin couldn't help chuckling. "Ya know, when I imagined this talk, I hoped it'd be more reassurin'."
Ezra grinned. "I can always obfuscate, if you prefer."
Vin shook his head. "Nah, it's okay." He looked deep into the green eyes of his lover, "I love you," he whispered, feeling something break free inside as he said the words.
Ezra's smile was almost blinding, "I love you, too."
Face to face, they leaned into each other, lips locking in sudden arousal. Vin wrapped his arms tightly around Ezra, bringing their naked bodies closer together, both of them groaning into the hungry kiss at the heated contact. It was Ezra who pulled away first, pinning Vin to the mattress, then proceeding to lick, nibble and kiss every available inch of his lover's writhing body.
Vin closed his eyes, surrendering at last to his lover's touch and love, wondering how he could have resisted for so long in the first place... and that was the last coherent thought he had for some time.
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