"Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Ezra straightened and self-consciously ran a hand through his shaggy reddish-brown hair. The bangs were becoming a real hazard to visibility. He pressed the doorbell and stood back.
"What the--? Ezra? Is that you?" Buck Wilmington stood back in the open door, his body language clearly inviting the other man into his and JD's apartment. "What are you doing here?" The bewildered tone and confused look were not encouraging to the hesitant shorter man. When the southerner, looking a bit ragged, remained on the landing as if glued in the spot, Buck finally reached out a hand to grab a shoulder and tug the man over the threshold. "Come on, git in here."
Propelled by the big man's strength, Standish skidded into the hallway of the apartment. He still hadn't said a word. He stood silently, watching as Buck closed the door to the foyer and locked it before turning to face Team 7's undercover operative, who'd been under for the last month plus two days. Not that he counted. The surveillance expert, known as the ladies man of Team 7, sighed at the wordless man who hovered before him, looking like he was slightly lost. Shaking his head, he decided to try the obvious. If the man had wanted subtlety, he'd be at Josiah's door right now, not Buck's. Something must be wrong and Standish was a smart man, if he came here, he came because THIS is where he wanted to be. So, Buck swung one long arm over the smaller man's shoulders, feeling the tension, the almost brittle stress to the small frame, and urged him forward toward the living room.
"Sit down." The ex-Seal could be as commanding as their team leader, Chris Larabee, when the need called for it and he instinctively knew that right now, Ezra Standish needed someone to tell him what to do. There was resistance against the pressure on those shoulders for a moment, then like a marionette whose strings had been cut, the southerner dropped into the large lumpy sofa that occupied the center of the rather lived-in looking room. Buck came around the front of the sofa and crouched down in front of his friend. "Want some coffee?" Somehow he didn't think alcohol was gonna help right now.
Wilmington watched as the agent nodded slowly, eyes on the floor. One hand went up to drag at the unkept hair again. Buck patted a near shoulder and went out to the kitchen. For a moment, he thought about calling Chris on his cell phone. Ezra should be under right now and this was a real breach of security. On the other hand, Standish clearly needed something and if he'd wanted to talk to Larabee he wouldn't be here. Buck scratched at his chin speculatively as he watched the coffee drip. Probably better to wait with Ezra. He wandered quietly back out into the living room. The southerner hadn't moved. In fact, the man looked like he was barely there, holding himself in tensely, hunched forward on the squashy sofa as if caught in a trap. Well, with that particular piece of furniture, that wasn't far from the truth. Buck smiled.
The lanky man sank into the adjoining overstuffed armchair and stretched out his long legs. "Take a few minutes for the coffee." He looked over and studied the silent man. "You want to talk to me about this or should I start guessin'?"
The shoulders rose and stiffened, nearly level with his lowered head. Ezra looked ready to bolt. But then he seemed to relax all at once, leaning back in the sagging cushions, chin coming to rest on his chest. Without looking at Wilmington, he began to speak.
"I decided to talk to you before going to Mr. Larabee about this." Ezra snuck a look at Wilmington who was looking patiently puzzled. "The gang I'm riding with is getting rather insistent that I stay with the group 24/7 now." He shrugged. "Up until now, I've managed to run with them without staying, but I'm being admitted into upper circles now, and they want to know that they can trust me."
"Then you're doing good, Ez." This was getting stranger and stranger. Wilmington knew all about the assignment, hell, the whole team had been doing background and research since Ezra went under. They were tracking a new breed of arms dealer that dealt through motorcycle clubs. Not the Hell's Angels variety, instead, local biker groups that evolved from neighborhood gangs. The rallies had provided opportunities for contacts and then sales and shipments followed. Hard to track, hard to trace in the closed world of these biker clubs. That Standish had managed to fit in was nothing short of amazing, his skills at undercover work were absolutely brilliant. He was the best, and he was theirs. The whole team pivoted around his work and were, in their own turns, just as incredibly good at their jobs too. Made for one hell of a good team.
Buck raised an eyebrow when he didn't get an answer. "Ez? What's the problem?"
That bland, blank look closed over the southerner's face. What the team called his poker face. "I am in need of a companion, or one of my NEW companions will insist on an alliance that I am loathe to pursue."
"Not sure I follow you here, Ezra." Buck sat forward and drew his legs up so that he could rest his elbows on his knees, loosely clasping his hands.
Flashing green eyes met his for a moment, then lowered again to study the seemingly fascinating frayed edge of the scatter rug in front of the old sofa. "It was all set. Tony was going under with me. Chris had worked it out."
"You got a friend, Toni? Was going under with you?" At the nod, Buck wondered why he'd not heard of or met Toni before, then mentally shrugged. With his reputation, he could see why Ez might want to keep a special friend away. He didn't mind. He liked Ezra, was his friend. If he'd found someone, then Buck would never even think of cutting the man out and trying for the no-doubt delectable Toni. "So what's the problem?"
"Tony has had a change of heart and does not want to stay under indefinitely with me." Ezra didn't look up, but was moving uncomfortably in his seat.
They all knew that undercover cases were unpredictable and could last several months sometimes. Buck had to sympathize, especially if this Toni was a civilian. Though, Chris had bought into this, so --? "So Toni backed out? You need someone else to go in, in place of her?"
There was silence again. This was getting damn scary. "Ez?"
"What --? What 'him?' Toni is a guy?"
"Anthony Borgo, Team 4."
"Ah, Ez? Tony Borgo was going in as your --?"
"My boyfriend." Standish stood suddenly and moved around the coffee table, away from Buck, to stand in the middle of the room, looking at nothing. Oh, god, this was not going well. He slid his hands into the back pockets of his patched faded jeans. Waited.
"You -- you and Tony?" Buck was shocked. Ezra was in a male/male relationship with the hulking sharpshooter from Team 4? He could see the southerner in a gay affair, the man was gorgeous, no question, if he looked neutrally at him. But Borgo? That fried turd was a Neanderthal. This just didn't make any sense.
"For about a year now," the smaller man paused, then continued, "Chris knows. I am very discrete."
"I'll say. I sure didn't have a clue. But, Pard, if you're happy, that's all that matters." Buck wasn't sure where this conversation was going but it was getting more Twilight Zone by the minute.
"Well, suffice it to say, we have each satisfied the needs of the other." Ezra's hands came out of his pockets and fisted at his sides. "But, it seems he has found someone else who does a better job." Dark shadowed eyes slowly raised and met deep blue ones, unflinchingly. "So, he is no longer interested in cooperating on this assignment. And there really isn't much time to find a replacement."
Buck sat back to better look up at the man standing so stiffly in the center of his living room. Suddenly the pieces clicked. He blinked. Me. He's either here for me or JD, and JD is too young. "You want me to go under with you?"
Ezra watched for signs of revulsion or anger, but the tall mustached agent, his friend, one of six, seemed only interested and supportive. Standish nodded. "Yes." He tried to think of how to say this next part without insulting his friend. "You have the looks, Buck, and the size."
Buck shook his head at that. "Don't follow you, Pard."
Standish sighed, coming back to sit on the sofa. Ran both hands nervously through his hair. The gesture was so un-Ezra-like that Buck stared. "Buck, I am not a big man. In order to make this work, my companion has to be large enough to defend us with brute strength, if necessary, part of the 'vocabulary' of the pack I am running with, look the part on a motorcycle, and preferably be an ATF agent."
"You. If you'll consider it?" Ezra clasped his hands so tightly that the knuckles looked white. "I wanted to talk with you first, before I talked to Chris. If you don't want to do this, he'll find someone for me. We wouldn't have to do anything you're uncomfortable with, just some acting for show, some -- some closeness." Ezra finished hesitantly.
Buck heard the lost sound in Ezra's voice. The man had just broken up with his lover, evidently, and from the sounds of it, not by choice, poor little shit. Now he had to come begging for this.
"Ez. If you think I can do this, I'm in." Buck watched Ezra blink once, then again rapidly, and he realized suddenly that his friend was fighting back tears. "Ez?" He rose and moved over to sit down beside the undercover agent and carefully wrapped one arm around the man's shoulders. "Ez, you need to let it out, Pard, iffn you're goin' to get past him." Somehow, it came out so naturally, that he realized it really hadn't mattered who, or what gender, had hurt his friend's heart. His friend was hurting. And Buck didn't like to see a friend hurting.
"Come 'ere, buddy." He pulled and the smaller man turned and buried his face in Buck's chest, shoulders shaking. Comforting folks was a natural Buck-skill. Usually it was those of the fairer sex, though come to think on it, Ez was pretty fair. With a mental shrug, he held on and soothed with wordless sounds of comfort, hands making soothing circles on the shaking back. He could feel the dampness on his shirtfront that told him Ezra was crying, silently. "He ain't worth it, Ez, you'll see. You're too good for the likes of Borgo, Pard. Just wait. Mr. Right will come along."
There was a pause and then a sound that was suspiciously somewhere between a snort and a wet chuckle. A muffled, "Mr. Right?"
Now it was Buck's turn to shift uncomfortably. Maybe he'd overstepped his boundaries on this, but damn, he was really wingin' it here. "Ah, just trying to --"
Ezra raised his damp face to meet his friend's midnight blue eyes. "Buck. It's ok. Just struck me funny, you saying that." Ezra reached up and fisted his eyes, obviously trying to clear the tears that were drying up now. He looked remarkably like a little boy at that moment and Buck felt very protective. Damn, next time he saw Borgo, the man was going to feel his anger, preferably with a roundhouse to the jaw.
"How 'bout that coffee?" Buck gently disengaged from his hug as Ezra began to pull himself back together. Give the man some space and time, he thought, walking back into the kitchen. "'Bout time for the news if you want to turn on the TV," he tossed over his shoulder. A little normalcy probably wouldn't hurt either.
Ezra took in a jerky breath and swallowed a few times, the tears having made him feel like a damn waterworks. He never cried. This was utterly ridiculous. It wasn't as if he'd cared deeply for Tony but there had been something reassuring to know that someone wanted him enough to keep him around all this time.
The shortly worded note he'd found on his computer an hour ago, in the email inbox, had been devastating. Just a few clear unambiguous sentences. "Changed my mind about the case. Pick up your stuff tonight, Jerry is moving in and I don't want him to get the wrong idea. It was time to move on anyway. Tony" Ezra hadn't been over there yet. He wasn't at all sure how he was going to manage that either.
This little meeting with Buck had already reduced him to a wreck, and Buck was a friend. He bit his lower lip and raised an arm to wipe his face against the short sleeve of his simple red tee shirt. The cotton absorbed the remaining dampness and he rubbed his palms on his jeans as he sat there, trying to order his thoughts, focus on the case. Only, the damn case was a living nightmare, compounded by his lover's less than timely rejection. Thank god Buck had agreed to this farce. Ezra settled back, having keyed on the news with the remote he found on the coffee table. It washed over him, leaving no impression at all. It might as well have been white noise.
Buck set out two mugs. After nearly two years as part of the same team, he knew what each of his teammates' preferences were. Ezra, of course, would always prefer high-grade coffee, with cream and raw cane sugar, given the choice. Well, he couldn't produce that but the drip percolator churned out decent enough coffee, sure not Vin's brand of thick sin. He had some powdered creamer that JD had bought on their last grocery run. Dumped in some regular sugar and, on the spur of the moment, added a large dash of brandy. Wasn't anything special but might help. He took his own black, after years in the service, he was used to it that way. Picking up the mugs, still not really thinking about anything except helping, he walked back out into the living room. The national news was playing out, local would be up next. The sound wasn't loud, but it did fill the space. Watching his full cups as he maneuvered around the armchair, it wasn't until he'd put both down on the table in front of the sofa that he finally looked up at his guest.
The southerner was sprawled back, sunk into the lumpy couch, his head tipped to the side, fallen forward over his chest. He was snoring ever so lightly. A single tear track glistened in the artificial light of evening inside the room. Aw, Ez. Looks like you could use some decent rest. Buck shook his head and sat down in the armchair picking up his coffee. He wasn't due to pick up Cindy for at least another two hours, after her evening shift was over at the snack bar in the basement of the federal building. He watched the news for a few minutes, sipping his coffee. But it was hard to concentrate and he began to worry that Ezra was going to get a stiff neck if he slept like that for too long. Just as he decided to wake the southerner, maybe get him to bunk in the guestroom for the night, the front door's lock began to click over.
A moment later, before Buck could get to the hall and warn him, JD came sailing in, full charge, shouting. "Hey Buck, what you still doin' here? Thought you'd already be down hounding Cindy 'til her --" JD Dunne wound down to silence as he got all the way into the living room and realized Buck wasn't alone.
Buck sat up and set down his coffee mug. Ezra was stirring, JD's loud arrival waking the man. Watching him closely and ignoring his roommate, Buck saw the confusion and dread clouding those soft green eyes as Ezra woke with a tiny jump, pulling back his head sharply. "Easy there, Pard, you just drifted off there for a minute or two." Buck placed one large hand on the nearest knee to help settle the startled man. This was definitely not like Ezra. Studying him, Buck realized that it was not just tears that were darkening the man's face, deep shadows of exhaustion and a hollowed look the agent got when he skipped too many meals all contributed to Ezra's pallor and wan appearance.
"JD? There's coffee on if you want some. Call Chris for me, tell him to come over. Tell him Ezra's here and I'll be going under with him once we get things set up." Dunne, who'd come to a stunned halt at the end of the couch, eyeing their friend worriedly, nodded now.
"Sure, Buck. Hey, Ez, good to see you."
By now Ezra was back fully and nodded to their youngest team member, their computer expert. "JD, good to see you too." Dunne hesitated, hearing the tentative sound in Ezra's voice.
"Pard, Chris'll be a while. Let's get you in the back, you can sack out on the guest bed 'til then. Looks like you could use some rest." Buck tried not to let his concern color his voice but Ezra's flush told him he'd not been that successful.
"I'm fine, gentleman," Standish sat up and waved off the suggestion, meeting each man's eyes briefly before settling on the coffee mug cooling in front of him.
"No, Ez, don't think so." Buck rose with determination. "Come on." He offered his hand to help his friend get out of the man-eating sofa. After the briefest hesitation, Ezra accepted the offered hand and clasped it as he was tugged to his feet only to stagger almost drunkenly with exhaustion and a sudden dip in his adrenaline, now that the case was back on track. "Whoa there, Pard." Buck caught the man and steadied him with hands to two strong, slender upper arms.
JD had started forward to help when he saw Ezra wobble, but his roommate got there first and there wasn't a lot of room between the couch and coffee table so he waited to see if he'd be needed. Cocking his head to the side, he suddenly said, "Buck, I don't think he's gonna make it to the bed on his own." He'd seen the flush drain away and a whiteness settle around Ezra's mouth.
Wilmington, standing now, bracing the southerner, saw what JD meant. "Hey, Ez?" When he got no answer, he made a quick decision and simply swept an arm under the jeans clad legs and lifted, the small man coming to rest easily in his arms, blinking in surprise.
"Buck?" Instead of the outrage he would have expected, the voice simply sounded tired and confused.
"Just gonna get you to bed, Pard. You relax and let old Buck handle things for a while." Buck met JD's eyes over Standish's nodding head as he shifted his hold, settling the man against his chest more completely, the dark auburn hair coming to rest against his shoulder. "JD, better call Nate, too."
Dunne nodded wordlessly, pulling out his cell phone as Buck walked slowly and carefully back towards their guest room, carrying their teammate in his arms.
Larabee was furious. His blood pressure was surely going to kill him soon at this rate. He chewed on a Tums as he drove over to Buck and JD's place. The call from Dunne wasn't as much of a surprise as Ezra would probably think. Tom Nelson, Team 4's leader had cornered the blonde just an hour ago to tell him that Team 4's sharpshooter had requested he be taken off the loaner assignment to Team 7. Since both men knew there had to be more to it than had been said, and since both leaders also knew of the liaison between their two men, they were silently connecting dots.
JD's message that Buck would be going under had been a bit more of a surprise but he had quickly understood because he knew, more than Standish realized, just how his undercover agent's mind worked. The man was hurting but a professional, he'd still do the job, but would want to do it on his own terms. With someone he could trust. Chris couldn't fault him for picking Wilmington, he'd have suggested it if Ezra had given him a chance.
But even that really wasn't what bothered him at the moment. He was upset that JD said it looked like they needed Nathan. That meant Ezra was not in good shape. He never did well, physically, on undercover assignments, it was like the man burned both ends at once during those times he moved in alternate lives. Top that off with whatever lethal emotional cocktail was currently overloading their agent's system, and you had a real situation.
He wasn't mad at Ezra, though. Chris gripped the steering wheel harder. The leather-covered wheel groaned under the torturous pressure. No, what twisted his tights was that Borgo, that slug, had most likely not even bothered to cushion the blow. Knowing the man, he had never been able to figure out why Ezra had partnered with him, but chose not to interfere in the man's private life. Now, though, now it was affecting the job. The case they'd all worked hard to set up. Chris was nearly blind with rage at the way he could imagine Borgo had chosen to tell Standish his change of mind. There was probably more to it, too. Damn it all. Larabee shot ahead of the line of traffic, viciously punching the horn when another driver tried to move into his lane.
"Cindy, darlin', it's Buck."
"Uh-huh, listen, I was lookin' forward to tonight, too, only something's come up."
"Yeah, gotta work. Sorry, darlin'. Can I take a raincheck?" Buck smiled at the flirting response. "Sure 'nuff, Cindy, and you take care too. Thanks."
JD coming out with a large plastic glass full of soda, nodded toward the guest room. "You get him to sleep some?"
Buck sighed and sat back in his chair. "Yep. Wasn't rightly awake anyway, was sound asleep by the time I got him back there. Didn't even wake up when I put him down and covered him up." The tall surveillance expert stretched and slumped back in his chair, looking up at his roommate. "You get Chris?"
"He's on his way." JD perched on an arm of the sofa. "Nate'll be here in a few. Said he'd stop to pick up his bag back at work first." Their EMT was always ready for whatever ailed the team members and kept a medical bag with first aid supplies and other things the former nurse considered important. "Heard you on the phone, guess you took care of Cindy?"
Buck nodded, his mind on what he'd likely need to go under. His clothing didn't need much, if any, adjustment. His casual, grungy look would blend in well in the biker world. In fact, since he had been a biker in his wild and wooly youth, along with his long time friend Chris Larabee, he might just dig out his old black leather jacket. JD had never seen it. The boy would definitely be jealous. The thought lightened his heart and mood.
By the time Chris got to their place, JD and Buck had ordered out for pizza and were setting out some cold beers in expectation of their visitors. Since JD had planned on an on-line chat room gathering with some fellow hackers for the evening, he had been planning on staying home anyway. Buck greeted his old friend at the door with a signal to be quiet. "Nate's in with him now," was spoken softly.
"How bad was he?" Larabee needed information before he gave out any. He honored Standish too much as a colleague and a friend not to want to protect the man's privacy.
Buck led the way into the front room, looked over at his roommate. "JD? I gotta talk to Chris for a bit."
Dunne looked unsurprised. "I'll be upstairs in my computer room, holler when the pizza gets here." Buck nodded gratefully, seeing the look of understanding in the younger man's eyes. The boy was getting wise beyond his years, being a member of Team 7.
Larabee listened to the byplay and seated himself in the second of the two large armchairs in the room. Grabbing a beer and twisting off the cap, he took a swig and then settled back. "Ok, tell me."
Buck studied his friend carefully. "Ez told me you know about him and Borgo." He was feeling his way here, not too sure of what needed saying and what didn't. "Said Borgo backed out tonight of going under with him." He started picking at the label of the tall beer bottle, uncomfortable with what he was saying. "Seems that Borgo told him he was calling it quits, too."
Larabee sat up straight in his seat and set the beer bottle down with precision on the coffee table's end in front of him. "Good."
Chris ran a hand over the top of his head and mentally rechecked what he knew. Looked like Ezra had come clean with Buck, which surprised the hell out of Larabee. Well, why not, he chided himself, I've trusted my life and history to Buck forever. Ezra's smart enough to see he can do the same, probably. "Yeah." Chris met the dark blue eyes that watched so closely. "I didn't like that combo from the start but I don't interfere in my men's lives unless it affects the job, if I can help it." He picked up his beer again and rolled the bottle between two flat palms held vertically. "Borgo is a bully. Ezra just seems to gravitate to unhealthy relationships."
"Probably has something to do with it," Chris agreed. "So, Borgo's out. You told Dunne to tell me you'd go under. Can I assume you know that you go under as Ezra's boyfriend?"
Buck nodded, a smile quirking the corners of his mouth. "Yep. Be a new challenge for me, I figure." Then the levity left the big man, "He's my friend. I'll watch his back."
"And do it better than anyone else I know." Larabee took another deep drag on his bottle. "We can set up your cover tomorrow. Ezra can manage a delay of another day, we can even build that into the cover. Borgo was going in as a long time lover who'd been out of town. So, now that's you. Ezra will stay out of sight, later, we say it was a reunion with you, kept him indoors." Buck watched his friend and wondered at how the man was so casual about the whole thing. He was still very gingerly mentally tiptoeing around Ezra's gayness, himself.
Just then, the door to the guest room opened and Nathan came back out into the living room. He set his bag down on the floor near the kitchen table and wandered out to join his teammates, accepting a beer from Buck before sitting on one end of the sofa.
Chris raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Nathan took a healthy swig of beer and sighed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I checked him over. Aside from his usual undercover malnourishment and sleeplessness, he's depressed but he doesn't have any recent bruising." The black man sat back and looked directly at Larabee. "What does Buck know?"
The team leader shrugged. "The main stuff. Borgo and Ez. The case and what Borgo was gonna do."
Nathan Jackson rubbed at his stomach and turned to face Wilmington. "He told you he was with Borgo?"
Buck nodded silently wondering where this was going now.
Jackson stole another glance at Larabee who nodded once, saying, "Go ahead. He should know."
Clearing his throat, their medic's liquid brown eyes looked heavenward for a moment, then came down to examine Wilmington as Nathan spoke. "This isn't the first time I've come out to take care of Ezra. It's happened more than I like to think about. Heavy bruising, some cuts, a broken small finger once, some internal bleeding a few times, cracked ribs --" Jackson paused and looked down at the floor. "Borgo always left his face alone. And Ezra refused to press charges, always blames himself, like tonight. Says he only gets what he deserves." There was a deep sadness to Jackson's tone. "Chris and I, we been trying to get him to leave Tony, but it's like he's afraid to, though he never says."
"What a minute!" Buck thrust his chin out at them. "You tellin' me that Borgo's been hurtin' Ezra, regular?"
It was Jackson's turn to nod wordlessly.
Buck shot a look of anger and disappointment at his oldest friend. "Damn it, Chris, you didn't interfere with that?"
"Man wouldn't let me. Said if I tried, he'd claim the injuries were self-inflicted." Larabee grunted angrily. "If he did that he'd be out of a job the next day, you know that. I couldn't let him do that."
Restlessly, Wilmington stood up and strode across the room to lean against the breakfast bar between kitchen and the living room. "Okay, so Borgo's out of the picture anyway now. And tomorrow we meet to set up my cover and work out a scenario?"
Larabee rose to stand also. He tipped his bottle up toward the ceiling, letting the rest of the cold brew tumble down his throat. "Yeah." He set the empty on the table and put a hand on Nathan's shoulder, then hesitated. He owed it to Jackson to defend him. "Nate's known probably as long as I have, sometimes he's been the only thing that's kept Ezra functioning."
The healer sighed and shook his head regretfully. "Only'd get him back on his feet so he could get himself knocked down again."
"A year." Wilmington was swept with horror. "A whole fuckin' year. Jesus wept." He, in turn, finished his own beer.
There was a shrill ringing that had all three men tapping at their pockets for their cell phones. They quickly realized it was none of theirs. Three sets of eyes flicked toward the bedroom door. Larabee spoke first. "Shit, that must be Ezra's."
Moving in unison, the three men moved toward the door, Buck reaching it first and opening it carefully. They all walked in, to see Standish sitting up in the bed, the toss blanket pushed back away from his legs. He obviously saw them but did not acknowledge them. He was already speaking. "Yes, I got your message. Now?" Standish's voice was even and unemotional. "Yes, of course. No, I'll be there in about a half-hour. I'll bring a suitcase." The men watched as Ezra's pale face faded yet further and he closed his cell phone.
Larabee came to stand next to the bed and then sat down on the mattress next to his undercover agent. Damn, things had gotten bad when they had to worry about the calls Ezra received. "The case or private?"
Standish's green eyes came to rest on his boss. "Both, I suppose." He licked his lips, shaking minutely, his small twitches were tells to his teammates as to his state of defeat and agitation. "Tony wants me to come over and pick up my things."
Buck came to stand behind Larabee and look down at his friend over Chris' shoulder. Things seemed to be getting worse. "I hear you say 'now'?"
Ezra ducked his head to face his lap. "Yes. He's expecting company. Wants my things out of there." He fumbled with the coverlet under him, wondering why these men bothered with him. He really wasn't worth all this fuss. Just ask his mother.
Nate eyed the southerner from the far side of the bed, then glanced over at Larabee. There was no way Ezra should be anywhere near that damn bully. He'd already been subject to enough abuse. "Chris? Don't think he should go alone."
The blonde reached out a hand to touch Standish's shoulder. The man jerked then blushed and looked up. "Why don't you let me go?" Chris asked.
No, he couldn't allow this, no one else could be hurt by his actions. He'd earned this. No! Shaking his head wildly, Ezra spoke nervously. "I can't. He'd be upset. He'd --"
Buck felt his own anger growing as he watched his young friend and realized just how totally Standish had surrendered to that freak. "Let me go, Chris." He saw Ezra's face darken in resistance. "Ezra, I'll just drive you over. It'll be good practice, I'll just be your back up."
Chris looked up consideringly. It was a good idea. Buck could handle Tony Borgo with no difficulty and Ezra absolutely was NOT going over there alone. Whether he thought he was or not. "Good. It's settled then." He decided to make it a full route for his undercover operative. "And then, Ezra, you'll come back here and spend the night, ride in with Buck and JD in the morning." Not waiting for an answer, Larabee stood and nodded to Jackson. "Nate, thanks for tonight. I'll see you all in the morning."
JD chewed and swallowed a bite of the thick crust pizza slice. He sprawled back comfortably in the oversized lumpy sofa that was the centerpiece of his and Buck's living room. His attention was divided between an old movie playing on the classic movies channel, his laptop which was challenging him with a high level in his current favorite computer game, and the pizza which had arrived just minutes after Ezra had reluctantly left with Buck.
They'd found Buck's old sea bag, the Navy man's duffle bag. Buck had insisted that they were not going over to Ezra's apartment first, just to get an empty suitcase. The look of dismay on Standish's face at the sight of the stained, dark and sagging sack had been priceless as far as JD was concerned. He stifled another chuckle with another bite of the pizza. If those two didn't get back soon, they'd have to order another pizza -- after all, he was a growing boy. Licking his fingers and then smearing the greasy remains on his jeans, JD lost interest in the movie as a new character popped up on his screen and threatened his SuperAce.
Focused on maneuvering his icon through this latest challenge level maze and beating off threats, JD managed to slowly review what had gone down so far this evening. It was funny, but the computer expert found that playing the electronic games was both fun and brainless for him, rather a trial of natural reflexes than anything else, which left him free to tighten his concentration on perplexing problems whether on the job or in real life.
Right now, life had handed him an interesting problem in the form of his friend, Ezra. The southern charmer was a good friend, too, had helped JD through some rough times early in his career with the ATF Team 7. Somehow their undercover agent always seemed to know when JD was upset or confused or scared -- and knew what to do or say to make it better. JD owed him more than he'd ever be able to repay, including his very life twice. He gave a muted shout of triumph as he blasted a clear path to the exit to the next level. Ezra was hurting, that was pretty easy to see tonight. But the why wasn't. Buck, Chris and Nate had all been very closed mouthed and Ezra hadn't been alone with JD for him to ask directly.
Well, he was here and he'd make sure that Ez knew that before he headed off for bed tonight. If his friend needed to talk or just have someone nearby, he could do that and he would. He picked up the pizza and glanced up at the television. Oh, yeah, this was the good part. Computer game forgotten, pondering over - with decision made, JD took another bite of a new slice of pizza and glued his eyes to the glowing TV screen to watch as Gary Cooper strode down the center of the street of an old west town.
Buck turned off the engine and unstrapped his seatbelt. The old truck made a few little popping noises before becoming silent. Beside him on the front bench seat of the pickup truck, Ezra slowly unbuckled his own seatbelt and swiveled to face the sidewalk and the big apartment building beyond. Neither man spoke.
Buck simply waited to see what Ezra would do or say. Ezra simply stared at the building that had been half his life for the last year. Tony. Tony hugging him, yanking him close for a smothering, consuming kiss. Tony shoving him onto the big bed in there and then burying himself to the hilt in Ezra's ass. The southerner swallowed a lump so large he thought he'd choke on it for a minute. Tony and Ezra. Tony and Jerry? He figured it was Jerry Ortega from Team 4. The profiler was a neat, small man, same general shape as Ezra, but full of Latin passion for life. He always joked and laughed, shouted out dirty limericks at ATF barbeques and when his team was down at Inez's bar after a bust.
Buck lifted his right arm onto the back of the seat so he could get it out of Ezra's way. The southerner had been inching back toward him for several minutes, silently. Turning slightly in the drivers' place, Buck's body welcomed the smaller man's as it almost spooned back against his. With a sigh, Buck lowered his long arm across the front of Standish's chest and gently hugged him. "Ez? Pard, I can go in and get your stuff."
As if finally realizing what he'd unconsciously done, retreating within the truck as far as he could from the looming building in front of him, Ezra jerked slightly and pulled back away hastily. "Sorry. I -- I didn't realize --" Ezra gave up and hung his head.
Buck, whose arm had slid free of the southerner's body until only one large hand remained in contact, resting on the man's shoulder, gripped tightly and then let go. "Let me."
"No," Ezra chanced a short meeting of eyes over his shoulder, then faced out the side window again, "I just need a moment." Hunched over, he inhaled deeply, his entire body rising a bit. Then he lifted his head, reached out and grabbed the door handle, shoving down and pushing to press the door open.
Buck watched as Standish stood free of the truck and let the door swing shut behind him, starting for the building. With sudden determination, Buck jumped out of the truck and followed. Won't do any good sitting down here, not even sure which floor Borgo's place is on, what if he needs me?
Reaching the elevator just steps behind Ezra, Buck made sure that he got inside with the quiet man. Standish was holding the limp sea bag in one hand, his other hand tucked inside a jeans' pocket but Buck could see it was fisted. At the fifth floor, they exited the small moving box and the surveillance expert followed his teammate down the wide, bright corridor, stopping in front of an anonymous door like any other in that hall. Ezra fidgeted for a moment, then spoke quietly. "Buck, will you please stay out here?"
"Only if you leave the door open." Buck was not about to let anything separate him from Standish while the man was near Borgo. That ain't EVER happenin' again, Wilmington vowed to himself.
Without acknowledging this, Ezra knocked on the door. Buck wasn't sure what he'd expected, but he didn't expect what he saw next.
The door jerked open fast, as if the man on the other side had been standing there waiting. Probably had. Borgo nearly filled the damn door. He was one big fucker. Ezra, who was not a big man, looked positively petite in front of his hulking form. The man reached out with both hands and dragged the small southerner into a rough hug, capturing his mouth in a brutal kiss. Standish struggled briefly then hung limply in the big man's grasp.
Buck saw red.
"What the hell you doin', Borgo? Let him go!" His growl was angry and low. Buck could infuse quite a bit of intimidation into his voice when he was so inclined and right now he was definitely so inclined. He had an arm snaking in between the two bodies and hooked around Ezra's torso in seconds, yanking back and tearing his friend from the big man's hold.
Borgo didn't even blink, just laughed good-naturedly as Ezra half-sagged in Buck's arms, rubbing at his lips with a shaking hand. "You got a new sweetie already, Ezra?" Shaking his head at the men in his doorway, he turned back toward his living room. Without looking back he called out, "Just go pack up your stuff, Ezra. Make sure you check under the bed and in the bathroom. Don't want none of your shit here when Jerry gets here, he don't know about you."
Buck lifted and held his friend until the man steadied on his feet. He spoke quietly into the nearest ear. "Ez, just ignore him. Go get what you need. I'll stay here." Standish was flushed a bright pink and wouldn't meet Buck's eyes.
Wilmington came further into the living room and watched as Tony picked up a beer can from an end table, attention wandering to a basketball game on the tube. Apparently his attention was not completely on the screen, however, because as Standish walked by toward the back bedroom, Borgo suddenly lunged toward the smaller man. Ezra yelped softly in surprise, jumping back defensively and hurrying on, head ducked down, face hidden. Borgo collapsed back onto an overstuffed recliner, laughing loudly. Buck wanted to wipe the floor with the obnoxious bastard but restrained himself for Ezra's sake.
Neither man moved or said anything while Ezra was gone. In a matter of minutes, the little conman was back, Buck's duffle slung over his shoulder, now partially full. "You check the bathroom too?" Tony sneered.
"Yes." It was the first and only word spoken by Standish so far. Buck waited as Ezra almost trotted by him and to the flat's door. Wilmington stayed where he was, he had a feeling that Tony wasn't done yet. Even as he thought it, the other agent was climbing to his feet and taking swift strides after Ezra. Buck simply stepped sideways into Borgo's path.
"Nyah-uh." Somehow the negative was more persuasive than some long-winded warning.
Borgo stopped dead and looked Wilmington up and down assessingly. "That mean you don't want me to say good bye?"
"That means you can drop dead for all I care." Buck stood relaxed and ready, without giving away anything. He wondered if Ezra was out the door yet but didn't turn to look.
Borgo, who'd been studying his opponent with a disparaging look, suddenly raised his eyes to look over Wilmington's shoulders. Smiled, a nasty shark-like sneer. "Was just gonna say good bye, Ezra." The mocking tone was delivered cuttingly. "Can't handle it anymore?"
"No reason he should." Buck stepped forward, directly into Borgo's space forcing the man to snap his attention back at Wilmington.
"Buck, please, let's just go." Ezra's defeated, tired voice was somewhere close behind him but Buck wasn't ready to listen just yet. He thrust his chest up against Borgo's. Watched as the humor left the dark brown eyes. Watched as anger and a tiny flicker of fear sparked to life.
"Back off, Wilmington, you heard the little 'lady.'" That was IT. Buck tightened his lips and both arms came up before he even thought about it. The insult was too deep and too wounding to his friend, it would not go unanswered. Never again, Ezra! Buck's fists crashed into Borgo's ears from both directions and the man dropped to the floor where he'd stood. The lanky ladies man leaned down over Borgo.
"You NEVER come near Ezra Standish again, you hear me, Borgo? You don't talk to him, you don't look at him." Buck swung one arm downward in a tight hard arc, the heel of his hand meeting the front of Borgo's forehead with a thumping sound. The agent fell over onto his back, eyes crossing, arms wind-milling vaguely. Buck stood there, adrenaline rushing, making his head buzz slightly.
"Buck?" A strong, small hand wrapped around one of Wilmington's wrists and pulled. "Let's go. Please?"
The sound of Ezra's voice half strangled, brought Buck out of his rage. He allowed himself to be tugged around and out of the room, out of the apartment, not even bothering to look back at the man lying on the floor cursing softly. As he pulled the door shut behind them, he heard the muffled sound of a beer can hit the other side of the wooden panel.
Ezra was curiously thrilled and upset at the same time. Someone had actually defended him, stood up to Tony. Protected him. Losing Tony didn't seem nearly as important anymore as deep green eyes looked up at the tall man at his side, walking protectively close as they moved toward the elevator. Then Buck was lifting the bag from his back and taking it to carry. Always the gentleman, our Buck, Ezra thought with a sigh, relaxing for the first time in what seemed like forever. He was safe. With Buck.
It was very late at night now and the apartment was finally quiet. JD had wandered off to bed first, saying a soft good night to Buck and Ezra who'd sat silently sharing cups of hot coffee at the kitchen table. Ezra hadn't been able to bring himself to discuss the evening's events. When they left the building and went back to the truck, Buck had shoved the bag in the space behind the bench seat, then held the door for Ezra. Standish had been too dismayed at the ugly scene just past to comment beyond a simple nod of his head. The taller man had reached across him and pulled over the seat belt, fastening it, all the while watching the southerner intently. Buck had said nothing though and firmly closed the truck door, going around to the driver's side, and heading them back to his place.
Ezra twisted his hands in agitation as he remembered the wordless drive back. He cringed internally at the picture he must have made. At the time, he was still reeling from the rejection and casually cruel dismissal by Tony. Now, he found himself becoming oddly angry, not on his own behalf, but for Buck who'd had to put up with his strange co-worker, his newly discovered *gay* co-worker. Ezra shoved down the blankets and sheets and sat upright in the full-sized bed. He ran a hand claw-like through his hair and slumped forward until his head rested on raised knees.
Tomorrow is going to come very soon now. I have no idea how I am going to deal with this. Ezra felt bone-weary from the emotional roller-coaster ride of the evening. He was outing tomorrow, too. THAT was going to be very interesting. Of course, Nathan and Chris already knew, and now Buck as well. He calculated that JD suspected something beyond the obvious but doubted he'd reached the truth -- yet. Then there were Vin and Josiah. Both good friends, as close as he'd allowed them to get. Both tended to be a bit protective of him at times, Mr. Sanchez's tendency to get down right paternal almost smothering. He wondered if they would be as accepting as Buck had been.
Well, he simply had to get a focus, get beyond his own personal hell because he still had a job to do and now Buck Wilmington was being dragged into it and so his safety was now an issue as well. The Hawks were the closest Ezra had ever come to leaving an undercover assignment and refusing to continue it. They were grunge and evil, wrapped in arrogance and defiance. Too young, most of them, to even really understand what they were doing -- to society, to people around them, and sadly to themselves.
But the leaders were a different story altogether, smart, mean, and invulnerable. They might mingle with the bikers but they closed ranks leaving most of the riders on the outside when it came to their ever increasingly powerful roles in the city-wide crime scenes. That they needed taking down, Ezra had no doubt. He'd spent the last month ingratiating himself with them - acting the part of a James Dean - style rebel with the skills in modern accounting and finance and computers to make him a tempting tool. He'd been riding one of the ATF pool of loaner bikes, a big Yamaha, beat up and loud, the muffler tampered with for extra volume. His jeans and tee shirts became greasy and dirty until they were like a skin he only wished he could peel away.
Into this mire of filth, he was taking Buck, taking Buck as HIS protection. The second in command, Ivan Portlach, a.k.a. Ivan the terrible, had definitely taken a fancy to Ezra. His sticky, assertive hands had found their way uninvited to the southerner's flesh on more than one occasion. Ezra had panicked at the sight of satisfaction on Ivan's face when the Hawks' number one pack leader, Gent Fisher, told Ezra that they were considering bringing the southerner into the ranks to do some specialty work. He'd be too close to Ivan for his own piece of mind, that's when he'd come up with the so-called brilliant idea of declaring that his 'partner' was returning from a long haul across country and that he could only come into the Hawks' inner circle if his friend could come with him.
Fisher had been surprised but said he'd consider it once he'd had a chance to meet Ezra's partner. Ivan had scowled and muttered something about missing partners not being much fun for anyone.
Now, as Ezra contemplated his ATF teammates in the darkest hours of the night, he began to see himself as something of a disappointment to the others. He hadn't been able to go it alone, had asked for help. Of course, he'd asked Chris to get him Tony. Figured the big man would be a perfect fit for the undercover assignment and tough enough to watch his back. Now that his personal life was in a shambles, he'd recruited poor Buck to step in. To act unnaturally. The ladies man might say he could do this, but the truth was that Ezra doubted the man could sustain a role with the main premise being his love for one weak-willed, sadly worthless, and cowardly 'conman'. No, this was not going to work, and in the morning, Ezra was going to tell Chris Larabee that. He'd simply have to tolerate Ivan's advances and make do. After all, he really didn't matter in the equation and he was NOT going to risk one of his friends, Buck or any other, to this matter.
Chris ground out his late night cigar and took a final swallow of the glass of bourbon he'd been sipping. Knowing his undercover agent as well as he did, he figured that tomorrow was not going to go well. Ezra was sure to screw things up in some lost sense of honor or contorted plan to duck out on the assignment. Well, Buck would do a good job, this Chris knew and Ezra needed some help, and not just for the undercover assignment. The disaster of last night was not going to vanish. Larabee slowly stood and shook his head again. Good thing his team was such a strong one, he had a feeling to it was going to be sorely tried tomorrow. And beyond.
Lying staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, Wilmington sighed. Sleep was not coming and if he got up, JD or Ezra was certain to hear him and things would not improve at that point because JD would ask questions that demanded answers too revealing. And Ezra? He'd assume that he was at fault and get that sad, lost look on his face again. Just the thought of his friend with that look was enough for Buck to want to shout out against the fates and shake his fist at the gods. Poor little bastard did not deserve to be treated that way. Buck's mind seemed locked on an endlessly repeating loop of the small scene at Tony Borgo's place. Ezra hadn't deserved to be treated like that -- and Buck was going to see to it that he was never treated that way again. Buck did not stop to question why he felt that way, just knew that his friend was too precious and good to be so hurt and discarded with such disregard. Ezra was something special and respected accordingly. Buck would be there from now on, to see that that happened. Buck frowned. I mean, until the case is over, don't I?
The voices began to get louder behind Team 7 Supervisor Chris Larabee's closed door. At first it had been just a swell of sound but now individual words could be understood.
"NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!"
"--AND THAT'S FINAL! YOU *WILL* DO WHAT I SAY --"
"-- COLD DAY IN HELL--" [A loud thud punctuated this. The inner wall of fiberglass and wall separator shook.]
"--AN ORDER, STANDISH -- SIT DOWN! [a VERY loud crash -- Buck looked over at Vin who mouthed: 'rolodex'] DID I SAY LEAVE? NO, I DIDN'T SAY --"
"--I CAN'T DO THIS ANYmore--" the rest faded into a confused, muffled conversation.
The rest of the team had been very silent since their undercover operative had arrived with Buck and JD, both subdued themselves, and Standish had proceeded directly into Larabee's office, shutting the door behind him.
The door swung open abruptly and Chris stood there, facing the rest of his team, all hovering nearby as he'd expected. "Get in here, all of you." He looked back over his shoulder and then back at the team. "It would be MORE COMFORTABLE," his raised voice was directed over his shoulder, "if we met in the conference room, BUT SOMEONE IS REFUSING TO MEET WITH YOU." Last said, mostly aimed back into his office, Larabee stepped to the side and motioned his team inwards.
Gotcha now, you sonavabitch, Larabee thought with satisfaction as he closed the door to his office. He was careful to keep his face blank and calm as he turned and watched his team find spots in the small office. They left his chair to him. Ezra was hunched over in a defensive ball in one corner of the room's narrow bench style couch. Nathan sat down directly beside him, face cast in a worried frown. He was already attempting to check for body temperature, his hand being batted aside irritably, as JD took the remaining spot on the couch and leaned back to better see Ezra over Nathan's bulk.
Vin had gravitated to the window and stood leaning there, half-turned toward the open air beyond, but swiveling his head to face their unhappy teammate. Josiah, eyes glued to the top of the undercover agent's head, sank into one of the two guest chairs that usually faced Chris' desk. Sanchez had turned it around to face Ezra.
Buck simply picked up the other chair and toted it over, plopping it down with a thump next to Standish's elbow at the end of the couch. Ezra jumped at the sudden, close sound and Buck put a hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, Ez, didn't mean to be so loud, just wanted to be close for you." The regret and concern in his voice was an easy read for the conman who only closed his eyes tighter at the sight of the man he might be leading to an early grave.
Larabee nodded to himself. He'd tried it on his own. Now he'd let the team work on Ezra. Probably shouldn't have let him try to corner me alone first anyway, I knew what was coming. Chris stalked back to his desk chair and rolled it out from behind his desk to complete the circle of men that surrounded Ezra Standish.
"Ezra here has decided that he doesn't want help on his undercover. Yesterday, he did. That was before he knew that Buck would be going under with him." Chris gave a nasty, provocative smile. He had left out a hell of a lot and knew it but you had to play dirty with Standish or you didn't stand a chance.
Ezra had been trying to retreat inside his skin, pretend these men were not suddenly crowding him. Now, he flushed with outrage at Larabee's words. "You bastard!" Ezra's cry of rage and his sudden upward lunge toward their team leader took everyone but Chris by surprise. Nathan actually fell off the couch in stunned silence as the small, hard body propelled upward shrugging him off without thought. Buck was instantly on his feet and darting a hand forward to catch one stiff shoulder and yank backwards.
That yank deflected Ezra's forward motion and caused his feet to tangle. He plummeted to him knees, grunting in pain. Vin had started forward, not sure if he was protecting Larabee or helping Ezra but needing to do something. At the sight of Ezra on his knees in the center of the room, with Buck gripping both shoulders now, he stopped and waited. Josiah had moved forward on the edge of his chair but sat back again now, watching closely. He knew that Ezra would feel overwhelmed enough without all of them on top of him, and Buck had him.
JD's eyes were saucer-wide and he half-stood, reaching down one arm to pull Nathan back to his seat on the couch beside him. Silently, his dark eyes asked Nate if he was alright and the dark man nodded his thanks and assurances without speaking. Both of them turned back to look at the two men now in the center of the circle.
Chris smiled again, but this time it held no edge. Buck had jumped in to help and that was the best possible solution. He let the scene play out now, deciding not to speak unless things started going off track. He leaned back, crossed his legs, an ankle over a knee, and folded his arms over his chest.
Buck had swiftly added a second hand so that he could hold on to both shoulders. He caught his friend's weight as he sagged back. Buck dropped to his knees behind Standish and wrapped his arms around the trembling body, pulling the man up against his chest. "Easy, Ez." He lowered his chin so that he could speak directly into one ear. "I know what Chris is trying to do. And, face it pard, he's right. You can't go back under without backup and I can do it. Honest."
Disregarding the riveted audience, Standish twisted around in the big man's arms and looked up into midnight blue eyes that shone with concern and friendship. "Buck -- I can't. I can't take you under, not that way. You know what it means. I can't do that to you. It wouldn't be right." Ezra hung his head, the crown of soft chestnut curls coming to rest on Buck's broad chest. Muffled, his voice continued. "And I'd have to tell everyone. What I am. I can't, I just can't." The last was little more than a whisper. In the dead silence of the room, though, all six men heard it.
"Aw, Ez." Buck's heart hurt for his friend. He tightened his long arms around the man and tugged him in tight against him. "This ain't any hardship, Pard. You're a good man, you're my friend."
Holding his friend as they knelt there facing each other in Larabee's office, Buck decided to take the next step out of Ezra's hands. He'd heard enough to realize what had to happen now and that Ezra really wasn't up to doing it. He raised his head and looked around to meet each set of eyes. His other friends. Teammates. He'd trust any one of them with his life, now he was going to trust them with a friend's heart. "Ezra," Buck cleared his throat, addressing the team, and snaking one hand up to clasp the back of Ezra's head, force it tight against him so he couldn't interrupt. "He's going in deeper on the gang case. Turns out he's gotta come out of the closet to do that."
This met with silence and confused exchanges of glances between the uninformed members of the team. Nathan sighed and looked down at the carpet. Chris stared unblinkingly at Wilmington, his very stillness a sign that he wanted Buck to continue.
Wilmington felt Standish sag further in his arms, he was bearing nearly all his weight now. He gently stroked the man's back, feeling the defeat in the other's posture. Buck met Vin's eyes, then Josiah's. Some how he didn't think he needed to seek out JD's. "Ezra is gay." He paused, seeing Josiah's shoulders slump. Vin's eyebrows went up, then comprehension seemed to light those bright blue orbs and his brows dropped while a small, secretive smile lit his face. Vin edged closer around behind Larabee's desk to where the team leader sat. He stopped behind Chris and one hand came down over Larabee's nearest shoulder. Without comment, Chris brought up one hand to cover Vin's. They stayed that way and suddenly Buck understood that the two were even closer than he'd ever suspected.
With a nod of acknowledgement at the quiet declaration and support from two of his teammates, knowing that Nathan had been aware of the situation even before he was, he looked back over his shoulder at JD. The youngest agent of the team was sitting with his mouth open, face wiped clean of any thought. When he felt Buck's eyes on him, JD finally blinked and sat up, closing his mouth slowly. He swallowed and his hands clawed at his jean covered knees. When Buck continued to gaze at him, he ducked his head, then looked up and met his closest friend's eyes. The dark brown eyes were warm and accepting. Yup, Buck thought, that's my boy, may be new to the idea but he stands by his friends.
That left Josiah. This would be hard. He rubbed at Ezra's back, his other hand gently running back and forth through the man's soft hair, trying to provide comfort. "Josiah?" Buck had somehow assumed control of the meeting and now was issuing a challenge. Sanchez had always been close to Standish within the team, but obviously not close enough to know his true nature. The former man of cloth sat slouching down in the office chair, watching with slitted eyes as Buck held Ezra.
"Just taking time to assimilate, brother," Josiah's deep rumble was a basso profundo note in the small room. Then the profiler sat up and leaned forward over his knees, "Figure you let this cat out of the bag for a reason?"
"I'm going in with Ez, as his partner, his 'boyfriend.'" Buck looked straight at Josiah as he said this. He felt Ezra jerk in his arms and begin to fight. "Stop that, Ezra!" He squeezed hard until the smaller man gasped suddenly and stopped moving. Buck looked back up at Josiah. "Got any problems with that, Josiah?"
But Sanchez was already shaking his head and smiling, "No, no problems, Buck, if you can go in and keep him safe, that's all that matters."
As if these final words somehow were a muttered incantation, the spell of silence and stillness broke and all five other men converged on the huddled twosome. JD was down on his knees, one hand reaching over Buck's to stroke Ezra's nearest shoulder. "It's gonna be alright, Ezra, you'll see."
Nathan stood over them, bending down to check Ezra for fever. He had to force his hand in between the two men until Buck realized what he was doing and loosed his hold slightly to allow some space between the two men.
Josiah went down on one knee beside the two, beside the man who had somehow crept into his heart, a son he'd never had. You did not put away a 'son' because he chose a different life path. Love, caring remained strong and true. Ezra was a fragile spirit, well loved by his friends and so, now protected.
Vin and Chris approached until Vin squatted beside them. "Ez? You in there, buddy?" Vin's Texas accent stronger than ever. When a flushed, damp face turned out of Buck's chest towards Vin's voice, Tanner continued. "Ezra, we're good. It's gonna be okay, you listen to the kid." Tanner reached out one hand to delicately touch a wet cheek, at the same time reaching up with his other hand to have it quickly clasped again by his own lover's. With a tug, he had Chris down beside him so they crouched together in front of Ezra, ignoring the rest of the team. "You ain't alone, Ez."
Green eyes went round in disbelief and then gratitude as understanding filled them. Ezra understood, Vin was sure, that he and Chris were lovers now and that they were outing for Ezra so that he would not feel alone. One slender, small hand came untangled from Buck's embrace and touched wonderingly at the knotted hands of Chris and Vin. A smile of incredible magnitude broke across the handsome face and then those shining green eyes closed and the head tilted back down again.
Buck felt Ezra relax against him. He'd watched the various approaches of the others and was grateful that they all accepted this. No way this team could continue to function if any of them had not. The final revelation, of Chris and Vin's private partnership, had been a surprise to Buck. He felt sad that he'd never been told before, but understood. And, right now was definitely not about him. He tucked his chin so he could look down. Ezra was a warm, wet bundle in his arms, totally relaxed now, sound asleep. Must have been up most of the night and he was exhausted when they'd parted company at the guest room door last night. Poor little shit.
The others gradually realized what had happened and began to drift away quietly. They all had some thinking to do, needed some time to come to grips with all the revelations that had occurred just now. Within seconds, only Buck and Ezra remained. Stiff from maintaining his position on the floor on his knees, Buck awkwardly clambered to his feet, dragging the slumbering undercover agent up with him. Ezra barely stirred, a limp form that was easier to carry than assist walking. Without a comment, Buck lifted the man into his arms and smiled down at the trusting, sleeping face, flushed and tear-streaked. Shaking his head slightly, he walked over to the couch and lowered his friend on to the padded bench. The door reopened and Vin stepped in. "Here." He handed over a small first aid pillow and fire blanket. Buck accepted the items with a grateful nod and proceeded to make Ezra more comfortable, then followed Vin back out, turning off the lights in the small office on his way.
The meeting that afternoon in the conference room was very subdued at first. Ezra wouldn't meet anyone's eyes. The others were still carefully picking their ways through the minefields strewn out that morning. Ezra gay. Chris and Vin lovers. Everyone spoke with caution and uncertainty about the plan to insert Buck into the undercover role as Ezra's significant other. That is, until Chris stood up abruptly and slammed both fists down on the conference table.
"Goddammit! Where is my fuckin' team? Who let you pansies in here, for chrissakes?"
Vin immediately flashed a wide grin, a soft chortle sounding from his direction. "Think we surprised 'em, cowboy."
Larabee didn't even look at his lover. "Shut up, Vin." He looked fiercely around the circle of faces and sneered. "What's the matter? Can't deal with real fuckin' life?" He dropped back in his seat and took a deep breath.
"Brother, you mistake our quiet for lack of support." Josiah Sanchez spoke with a twang and an edge of humor in his tone. He leaned back and shrugged. "You and Vin and Ezra have given us much food for thought. But, we can digest it later, my friend. As the fox said to the rabbit, we will be friends after we deal with a few issues."
"So, deal with them!" Chris had no patience for Josiah's wit and wisdom today. He still had a case to make and a team to lead. And an undercover agent to rehabilitate from the looks of it. Ezra was sitting very still, hands in his lap, staring down at the empty conference table's shiny wood surface in front of him. Chris decided that a bit of shock therapy might be needed about now. "EZRA!" When the southerner jumped and looked up to meet his eyes, he continued more evenly, "We have got to work out the cover for Buck and get surveillance and drops worked out. You gotta get with the program here."
Standish blinked owlishly at his team leader. He'd been wallowing in self-pity, he realized with embarrassment. "Mr. Larabee, I am sorry. I shall be more attentive." Ezra sat up and flicked imaginary dust off the table in front of him. His jeans and tee shirt did not provide him with his normal armor and he was as uncomfortable in this dressed down state as he was about finally outing to his teammates, even if Buck had actually made the announcement.
From that point on, Buck decided later, the meeting had become business-like and concentrated. Assignments made and roles hashed out. The drop zones and procedures now that Ezra and he were going deep were set up. There would be no direct contact with the team for a while, maybe quite a while, though Ezra seemed to think that once he was admitted into the inner circle of the Hawks that he could set up the sting and bust in short order. Apparently Buck's role was as much bodyguard as body-pleaser. He really hadn't dwelled yet on the implications of being Ezra's boyfriend. But damn, let any man try to put a hand on his friend, and they'd be introduced to Mr. Pain. Buck grinned at the thought as he dove deeper into his bedroom closet. His jacket was in here, he was sure of it.
With a delighted 'yes!' Buck pulled out the ancient black leather coat. It was cut in bomber jacket style, the close fit to waist leaving his hips free. He plucked out some of his most worn jeans, mostly a stone-washed denim color, but two black ones as well. His favorite riding boots and he was nearly ready.
"Damn, Buck, you look like you could be one of them, alright!" JD declared with enthusiasm, looking over his good friend who was parading in the kitchen in patched jeans, a black leather jacket with some strange insignia on the back of a lightning bolt and a wave, a gray tee shirt and scuffed riding boots. "Wait! I know the perfect touch!" Dunne scrambled up the stairs only to return a few minutes later with something cupped in one hand. "Here."
Buck stared at the small circlet of gold in his palm. "What?"
"It's a clip on earring. Just snap it over the edge of your ear lobe and it looks like you got a pierced ear." JD's smile was teasing. "You want to look the part? Then that ought to be the icing on the cake!"
Buck walked over to the downstairs bathroom and studied his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. His big fingers were clumsy but he managed to get the gold ring attached to his ear. No doubt about it, with his dark hair raked loosely and that ring gleaming at his jaw line, he looked like a damn pirate. Well, biker then. He grinned, the devil-may-care flash in those dark blue eyes set off his dark good looks. Ladies, look out! Wait 'til you see the Bucklin in full glory. He shook his head and went back out to wait for Ezra with JD.
Downstairs was a bike that he thought he'd have wet dreams about in years to come. The long street bike was a big Harley, low slung and powerful. High handlebars and forward reaching pedals meant you sat back as you straddled the hawg and then -- relaxed into the easy gliding motion of the big bike. About four or five years old, it was obviously well cared for and the rear seat, high behind the rider's meant that he and Ezra would be on one bike. Two side-saddle hard case equipment containers gave the bike a broad, heavy look. Standish had not objected to trading out the Yamaha, though he'd warned Buck to tell the ATF motor pool supervisor that the smaller bike needed to be kept on call in case they needed two rides at any time.
Hot damn, Buck the biker was ready to be on a roll. A twinkle in his eyes, Wilmington settled down with a beer to regale his young roommate with tales of his long ago biker days. When he was young and -- well, not gay, though evidently Chris had been. Mood dimmed with a tinge of confusion, Buck sucked on the bottle and answered JD's questions about the past.
Ezra adjusted the chain belt on his jeans. He felt slightly ridiculous with that on, but it did add the right touch to his outfit of off-white tee shirt and gravel gray jeans. The fringed vest of greasy dark tan leather was an interesting touch, though he wasn't sure he wanted to know where Vin had procured it from for him. He stopped on the sidewalk to stare at 'their' new bike. Buck had said he'd take care of getting one from the motor pool that they could ride together. This wasn't a bike, this was a sex object, he thought with chagrin. Buck was really getting into his role. Ezra groaned silently. This was not good. A Buck who was enthusiastic was a Buck who was potentially dangerous. No going back, he'd given his word to Chris.
With a look at the lethal machine resting on a single kickstand at an aggressive angle, Ezra turned away and walked up to the building where JD and Buck lived.
After the day at the office, Ezra was almost ready to flee back into his undercover assignment, just to get away from all the eyes on him. Perhaps he was imagining it but it seemed like his friends kept looking at him with strange, calculating looks all the rest of that interminable day. Now, in the midmorning light of a new day, he felt more in control again. He'd slept in his own bed, though he'd had to fight for that right, both Chris and Nathan concerned about his safety. But Tony really was through with him, even if he'd acted, well, weird, when he and Buck went up for him to get his personal affects out of Tony's apartment. There was no reason to think that he had anyone to fear and he had, in fact, had a good night's sleep. His first in a long time. He strolled up the walk, slipping hands into back pockets, feeling good.
Buck was, after all, waiting. It didn't even occur to Ezra to wonder why he'd think of that and smile.
Since Colorado had no helmet laws, neither Buck nor Ezra could afford to wear one. The Hawks would have laughed them off the road. Pulling out dark aviator style sunglasses, the two men stood and studied the big bike for a moment. Ezra finally tapped Buck on the shoulder, "It's your show, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck tipped his sunglasses down to peer over them at his partner. "Ez, undercover starts now, right?" At the nod, he continued, "So, best drop the 'Mr. Wilmington.'"
Ezra flashed a dimpled grin, complete with gold molar, and said, "Anything you say, Buck."
The taller man cocked his head and smiled down at his friend. "Then let's roll, Pard." He swung one leg over the big machine, settled back comfortably, and waited.
Ezra had ridden in the rear passenger seat before with other riders and was not unfamiliar with the step-up mount, leg through between the rider's back and the high roll bar behind the passenger seat. He stepped up on the peg and slipped in gracefully behind Buck, his slightly raised seat giving him a view over Wilmington's shoulder. Some riders' passengers would sit tall and keep their hands to themselves, but that would not do for Buck's and his new roles. So, without a word, Ezra rested his hands on Buck's hips.
The motor purred to life and Buck started it rolling forward, kicking back on the stand as they began to move. Within seconds, they were speeding down the side street and heading for the open road. Ezra had suggested they take a test run before meeting up with the Hawks at their roadside bar-cafe, the Hot Run Diesel Stop and Bar.
Buck was in heaven. He had enough power between his legs to hurl him toward the stars if he was so inclined, or so it felt. He definitely owed Bill Potter in the motor pool for this bad boy. The ladies man smiled without parting his lips, an old pro at avoiding bugs between his teeth. He moved the handle bar and foot pedal controls as if he'd last ridden a bike only yesterday instead of over ten years before. Guess it's kinda like learning how to ride a bike, um, well, it was a bike. His smile widened.
Wilmington felt Ezra's warm weight settle close against him as they banked into a turn, then the pressure on his hips increased slightly as Ez held on when he accelerated. Definitely a MOST excellent experience. Heading out on a highway towards the mountains at Denver's backdoor, Buck thrilled at the freedom this glorious day held.
Ezra was relieved that Buck did seem to know what he was doing, in fact, knew very well. He was handling the bike like a pro. There'd be no questions from the gang about his partner. Ezra relaxed behind Buck and let the man drive. This would be their last few moments of unwatched liberty before they joined up with the Hawks. Gent Fisher was the key from what Ezra could see and if he approved of Buck, they'd move into the inner circle tonight.
Midday was heating up as Buck swung the bike into the parking area of the Hot Run. The place was littered with road bikes, a few dirt bikes among them. There was no particular order to the way the vehicles had been abandoned, but there was space around each, making a get-away fast and easy. There was a dumpy overhang supported by pipes that acted as the roof of a plank porch in front of the bar. Off to the side, several fuel pumps operated in front of a simple gas station, motor shop. Sitting or leaning on the single rail of the porch, or on the steps, were about eight or nine young men, looking like older teens or even adults up through their thirties. All had an unkept look, scruffy seemed to be the dress code, jeans, tee shirts, some shirtless with chains and tattoos. Most were smoking and many had beer bottles or cans in their hands.
When Buck turned off the motor, a few of the men eased to their feet and strolled forward, clearly ready to inspect the newcomer. While Buck still balanced the bike, Ezra stepped up and clear, leaving his partner to drop the kickstand and tip the bike into a standing position. Feeling uncomfortable in Vin's vest, however much it might fit the part, Standish casually dropped it off his shoulders and slung it on the rear seat. By the time he turned around, Buck was facing off the three men who had come out to check out the newcomer.
Buck, I hope you're ready for this, Ezra thought as he stepped up beside the bigger man, to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. The three bikers stopped and all seemed to relax slightly. One, 'Tommy' if Ezra remembered correctly, spoke.
"Hey Ezra! Who's this guy?"
"Tommy, Buck. Buck's my ride now that he's back in town." Ezra didn't volunteer anymore. He'd quickly learned that the group didn't spend much time talking. He watched as Tommy nodded a greeting to Buck. The other two had already swung around and were drifting back toward the porch.
"Gent wants to see you, Ez. Said to tell you when you showed up."
Ezra started forward, Buck following like a shadow. As they made to pass the remaining biker, Tommy stuck out an arm. "Ah, Gent wants to see Ez, not you, man."
Wilmington kept his expression neutral and waited, seeing that Ezra had stopped just beyond him. "Tommy," Ezra said with finality, "Buck's with me."
"Don't know, man. Not what Gent said --" The young biker scowled.
Buck decided it was time to act. "Ezra, get your butt back here. If this guy wants to see you, he can see you with me or not at all." There, how was that for 'topping' their partnership? Buck kept his expression cool but allowed a little anger to show as he held out a hand, demandingly.
My, my. Mr. Wilmington, you get into your role with gusto. Ezra smirked at the nonplussed Tommy. He walked back to Buck and looked up at him.
Wilmington smiled down and wrapped both arms around Ezra and pulled him in for a kiss. What had started out as a simple ploy to show their relationship to the gang, quickly got out of hand. Ezra was delightfully pliant and his lips were soft and parted beneath Buck's pressure. Everything lost focus as Wilmington bent deeper into the kiss, their first, he thought with hazy pleasure. One of his arms was holding Ezra tightly to him around the waist, and his other came up of its own volition to wrap around the slender neck, completing his capture. With a deep sigh of satisfaction, Buck licked the sweet tasting lips and opened his mouth wider to cover the smaller mouth totally. This was familiar and comfortable, this was what he did to please others and himself. This was -- this was EZRA! Oh, shit. Trying not to be too obvious, Buck eased back and slowly released his captive.
Ezra felt dizzy and helpless in Buck's sudden devouring embrace, the man's technique was certainly forceful and masterful. He was already standing on his toes, just to stay balanced in the bigger man's arms. When Buck's mouth came down on his, Ezra wanted to melt. Tony had never kissed him like this. Previous partners had been good, sometimes even superb, but none ever made him dizzy. Lost in the vortex of confused responses to their first kiss -- oh, yes, this was their first and unlikely to be their last on this case, Ezra began to float. A very talented tongue was mapping his lips and a mustached mouth scratched at him as the lips covered and seemed to swallow his mouth. Just as suddenly as it started, it was over and Ezra felt only disappointment at first as he was dropped back onto his feet.
Blinking big green eyes looked up vaguely at Buck. Wilmington wanted only to take the man back in his arms but instead glanced over at Tommy. The biker was grinning.
"Guess Gent won't mind ya, Buck. Go on, head on in, and take Ezra there with you. Gent wants to talk to him, if it's ok with you."
Ok with Buck? Ezra was flabbergasted, then angry, and then resigned. Of course, he was now simply pussy-bait and his top would speak for him. How demeaning. But, it was what he'd asked for. With a sudden insight and relief, he thought, thank god it's Buck with me and not Tony.
Wilmington flung one arm over his friend's shoulders and steered the dazed man around to face the bar, giving him a slight push. "'S ok with me, Tom." Tilting his head down toward his southerner, he said, "Hey, in there? Anybody home?" And when those green eyes flashed at him, clearing and sharpening with irritation, he grinned. "Man wants to see you, Ez, so let's go see what's up." Damn, he looks cute all ruffled up and tongue-mussed. Buck licked the corner of his mustache and guided his partner forward, enjoying the feel of the smaller man inside the curve of his arm. Felt just right. Think I'm gonna like this, Buck thought with curious surprise. His grin got bigger for a moment, yeah, gonna like it a lot.
One of the loiterers vanished inside at a nod from Tommy, a quiet interaction that Buck caught out of the corner of his eye. Just as well, he thought, walking toward the Hot Run's porch with Ezra to his side. Better that this Gent Fisher be warned 'bout me ahead of time, will save explanations. Glancing down he saw that Ezra had also caught the silent exchange and was generally looking alert again. Funny, never seen Ezra look that whacked before. Buck's mustache twitched. Well, he *is* gay, the tall man chastised himself; probably read all this different than -- no, Ezra knew it was all a 'con.' Was nice, though, he mused, letting Ezra mount the steps ahead of him while keeping one hand possessively on the man's buns. Don't feel the least bit strange about all this, guess Ez just makes it come easy. Wilmington dropped his train of thought to narrow his focus as he followed his partner into the gloom of the interior of the bar/cafe.
The room was sparsely furnished, a pool table at the far end of the large room, where a cluster of men were playing. There was a counter with stools, a few of which were occupied, and a scattering of plain round wood tables, with simple bentwood-backed wooden chairs. All the wood had once been stained, a dark reddish-brown color, but now showed age and use, the color fading unevenly, the surfaces marred with dents and scrapes. Several of the tables had men seated about them, a few women among the men, most looking thin and rather 'heavy-metal' with black leather and spandex, tattoos and bleached hair tied off in bunches or teased into strange shapes.
Ezra led the way toward the group at the pool table, stopping at the edge of the area and ignoring the rest of the room. Buck came up behind him but decided not to press his luck, settling for standing close and resting an elbow on Ezra's nearest shoulder. Ezra simply settled into his own frame solidly to support the additional weight without looking at Buck.
A narrow man who reminded Buck instantly of Chris Larabee was leaning over the table with a pool cue, squinting over the tip as he aimed, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. The men around him were mostly large, muscular types, though one smaller one was whipcord thin, slouching against the far wall with three others. Of the players, the other one with a cue was swarthy and brutish looking, but with calculating eyes that were boldly staring at the ATF agents. One of the onlookers from outside was speaking low into the ear of the shooter, then backing off and fading out of the area.
The man with the cue, the Larabee look-alike, took his shot, and stood, not bothering to see how his ball went. He faced the new men and looked them both over carefully. "Ezra."
"Gent. This is my partner, Buck."
Cold gray eyes rose to meet the dark blue ones. "How come we haven't seen him around before, Ezra?"
Standish stepped back up against Buck's broad chest, his move a deliberate signal. Buck let his arm drop from resting on Ezra's shoulder to curling down over his chest. "He was coming in from the East Coast, Gent, I told you that." Ezra's tone was neutral, not challenging. The undercover agent rubbed his shoulders back against Buck's front suggestively, enjoying the growing heat at his back. Oh, god, later for that! Wound up tighter than a clock, he mentally shook himself. Not EVER for that! What was I thinking, just 'cause the man's a good actor doesn't mean he'd ever swing that way. My way. Focus. "We got back together again yesterday." His stray thoughts lent a slightly husky, almost erotic tone to his voice. Unintended but, from the look of his audience, effective. The nearby men behind Fisher were looking interested and several were licking their lips or shifting their stances to relieve sudden pressures.
"Took all day?" The gravel voiced question came from the darkish man with the flat top bristles who held the other cue. He'd moved around the table, at first as if he was surveying his shot, but then turning to survey instead the new man.
"My way it does," Buck spoke with a mellow satisfaction that brought smiles to the faces of several of the men gathered here in the back. He stroked Ezra's upper belly, letting the tee shirt ride up so that he could draw his fingers across smoothly muscular flesh. "Like to keep my bitch satisfied." He dipped his head to lick at Ezra's neck, never letting his eyes break contact with the rutty bully in front of him.
"My way, takes only a few minutes and I get my rocks off, don't matter none about satisfying the bitch." The burly man moved aggressively forward, letting his free hand move to cover his zippered manhood, showing it was already full and hard as he cupped it. He sneered openly at the two agents. "Think you coulda done better, Ezra, if you'd let me have you."
Buck narrowed his eyes. So. This was probably the reason Ezra had wanted a partner. His other arm automatically came up to wrap around Ezra's waist, guarding his property. He sneered back at the rooster in front of him. He let his voice lower further. "This bitch is mine. Back off."
The man's eyes shone reddish as he dropped his cue and started forward, only to be blocked by a swift moving Fisher. "I-Man. This ain't the time. You know I got a use for Ezra. If his lead man wants to stay close, it's not a problem." The sharply spoken words acted like cold water to the other who raised his lips further in an open sneer at Buck before bending to pick up his pool cue and turn away from the confrontation to study the balls left on the table. Or at least pretend to, Buck decided wryly. Whew. That was close. Gotta remember to play it rough around here. He continued to thoughtfully lick at Ezra's sweetly slender neck, tongue curling up under the line of the jaw, all the while watching Fisher and this 'I-Man' whoever he was.
Ezra wanted to wriggle out of Wilmington's arms and away from the wicked tongue that was driving him to near distraction, but he knew any sign of discomfort or uneasiness was death, so he forced himself to stay melted back against Buck, praying the man would just stop.
Fisher gestured to a nearby table. Two men sat slumped at it, but both rose quickly and moved away, leaving it to their leader and the men he wanted to speak with. "Sit down." He waited until the two separated enough to sit, then went on. "Name's Fisher, the boys call me Gent." He threw a nod toward his still disgruntled second, over at the pool table and now pointedly ignoring them. "That's Ivan, my second in command."
"Buck Wilson." Buck didn't offer his hand, just slouched back in his seat, keeping one hand on the nape of his partner's neck. "Been with Ezra a long time. Was back East for some personal business, just got in yesterday and Ez told me he'd been hanging with your club."
"Club?" Fisher smiled, no humor in it. "Guess you could call the Hawks a club." He dragged out a wrinkled bit of folded paper from a jean's pocket. "Here."
Ezra accepted the offering and seeing the nod to look more closely, opened it. It was a list of weapons, it read like a shopping list if guns and ammo were groceries. The numbers were big as were the caliber of the weapons. He looked up at Fisher.
"We been getting short-changed, last few times we were dealin'. We need someone smart with numbers, who can read a spreadsheet." At the sight of Ezra's lifted eyebrows, he actually chuckled ruefully. "Folks we deal with always seem to snow us with paperwork that don't tally when all is said and done. Can never pin anything on 'em before its over and they're gone."
He leaned forward over the table, accepting a beer offered by a passing biker without comment. "From what you've been saying, Ezra, I think you might be able to help us out. Gotta know that we don't get caught or cheated. You in?" Gray eyes stared into Ezra's green ones, pinning him to his seat. Ezra nodded, trying not to appear too eager at finally getting what he'd been angling for for over a month.
"Yes, I can do that." He decided to play up with Buck to cement that relationship in Fisher's eyes. "Buck? That ok?" He looked up and back at his partner.
"Reckon so, if you wanna do it, Ez." Buck smiled at Fisher benignly. "Reckon I could help some too, if you want. Used to be a weapons specialist, in the Seals."
Fisher's eyes widened with respect and new assessment at this piece of information. "Yeah? Maybe you could."
Vin was struggling with the long-winded report on gang movements in the area, trying to wade through the jargon to get to the actual information on numbers and locations. At first his concentration was so complete that he missed the subtle shiftings and murmurings in the bullpen area of Team 7's workspace. His small side office, shared with Ezra, had seemed a haven after yesterday's meeting. He knew in his gut that he'd done the right thing, exposing his and Chris' relationship. He'd done it to support Ezra. Man was his friend. Chris had said nothing then, nor had he objected. In fact, he'd silently shown his full partnership with Vin. Late last night, Vin had tried to get Chris to talk about things, but the man just turned over, saying he needed to sleep, that Vin should relax, it would be okay. Then Larabee had turned back and dragged Tanner into his arms, kissed him messily and nodded off in mid-smooch. Guess the man really was tired, Vin smiled to himself, feeling calmer.
But, now, his instincts told him that something wasn't right. His first thought was for Ezra and Buck undercover. He released the mouse and rose, moving gracefully and silently out into the pen. Sanchez was sitting alone at one of the open workstations, staring at his folded hands. Nathan's office door was closed. That was trouble, right there. JD was pacing. That must be what spooked me, Vin thought, wondering what was going on.
The youngest Team 7 member stopped and turned to look at Vin. "How long you been together?" The question was blurted out so anxiously that Vin realized young JD was having difficulty with this.
"'Bout a year and a half." Vin hitched himself up on to another worktable and glanced over at their profiler but didn't say anything.
Josiah looked up and met Vin's eyes. "Did you know about Ezra all that time?"
Vin shook his head. "Some things are private. Found out yesterday, same as you."
"But Chris knew!" JD was trying to worry this through.
"Don't mean I did."
"But, if you are really a 'couple' --"
Vin sighed and folded his arms with a silent look toward Chris' closed office door. "JD, we don't spend all our time talkin'." He watched the boy flush and drop into a chair, to spin it back and forth, clearly uncomfortable. "JD. You got a problem with Chris and me?"
Shocked eyes rose to meet his. "NO!" Dunne hesitated then sat back and fully faced their sharpshooter. "You two have always been close, we all knew that. Ain't that hard to think of you together, not really."
"It's just that Ezra -- well, I never believed any of the stuff that goes around, you know, like down in the cafeteria? 'bout him being a fairy for wearing such nice stuff, dressin' sharp all the time." JD seemed frustrated. He wasn't good at talking about this sort of thing but it was driving him crazy. These men were his friends. He thought he knew them. Now it turned out, he hadn't really known them at all. Surprisingly, as he'd said, Chris and Vin as lovers wasn't really all that hard a jump to make. It was the thought of Ezra that way, a -- a fairy, that JD was having to swallow with such difficulty.
"JD," Josiah spoke up for the first time, his voice soft and sad, "we none of us really ever know anyone else, and often don't even really know ourselves."
JD cast an impatient glance at the profiler whose pronouncements tended to muddy clear water as far as he was concerned. "Uh - huh. But, Josiah, Ezra is GAY."
JD turned to look at Vin. "Have you been gay all this time, too?" It was more of an accusation than a question.
Vin wondered if they really needed to say all this, but one look at Sanchez had him deciding to continue. The big man looked defeated and worried and just plain sad. "Don't think so, but it isn't real important. What Chris and me have is between us. We just kinda clicked when we met, and what happened just seemed to happen naturally." Vin shrugged. "Was never with a man before Chris."
Sanchez rose abruptly to his feet. Before he could speak again, Nathan's door opened and the EMT stood in the doorway looking over the teammates gathered in the work pit. "You all having some trouble dealing with everything?" He looked knowingly at Sanchez as he spoke.
Josiah's mouth tightened and he slipped his large hands into trouser pockets. He didn't speak but he did look at the carpet.
"Just so you all know," Nathan spoke clearly and almost defiantly, "Ezra has been through some real bad times last few years. Just broke up day before from a year-long relationship with a real bully. Man hurt him, a lot."
Sanchez's eyes turned frosty as he stared over at Jackson. "You knew and you didn't --?"
Much like Wilmington, Nathan thought with an internal smile, they're protective even if they are confused. "Nothing is ever that clear, Josiah and you know that better than anyone else." He turned to face JD. "JD? These are still the same men they were a few days ago. Only thing different is now you know more about them."
Sanchez slowly nodded, acknowledging the dark man's wisdom. "Brother, I am sorry. Just taking me a bit to assimilate all this." Josiah sank back into his chair and rubbed at his eyes.
JD Dunne thought about what Nate had just said, what Vin had said, even what Josiah had said. They WERE all still his friends and still a weird bunch of the greatest guys he'd ever hung out with. Even Ezra. Hell, especially Ezra. He'd never thrown a pass at JD or anything funny like that. Just was a pal. He had to smile, Ezra might not appreciate that word, just a real solid friend. Yep. And, that had not changed. Not at all. He looked up to meet the sharpshooter's bright blue eyes. Eyes that were calm and friendly. And Vin's a good friend too. Ain't never paraded his special friendship with Larabee in front of the rest of us. Hell, more than a friendship, he now knew, but still. JD suddenly grinned and spun all the way around in his chair. "Ya know what?" His eyes were merry and relieved as he slowed the chair, letting them meet each of the others' in turn. "This is way cool, really. Like digging through layers of a chocolate sundae, lots of nuts inside, but they're great!"
The other three men stared at their youngest, digesting this comment for a moment, then Vin's mouth curled into a small knowing smile, Nathan's cracked into a grin, and Josiah began to laugh. A full, belly laugh. He hit the nearest table with the flat of his hand, his laughter rolling around the room and drawing them all in contagiously. The other three men began to laugh as well, until the room was full of mirth, tears streaming down JD's and Josiah's faces, Vin's soft chuckles and Nathan's full bodied, melodic laughter adding to the general relief. It really was okay. Team 7 might be a tad stranger than some of its members had thought, but it was still Team 7.
Larabee opened the door to his office and stood staring at his men. They appeared to have lost it big time. The level of hilarity was a drastic change from the earlier pensive moods. He cocked an eyebrow at Vin in question. The sharpshooter simply waved a hand helplessly, lost in another round of almost-giggles.
"So, what's the joke?" Chris began to wonder if Josiah had made good on his long time threat to bring in some of his 'famous' brownies.
It was Josiah who answered, stopping to hoot twice as he spoke. "Nuts! We're all nuts! In a good old fashioned chocolate sundae -- thus spake our young brother, JD."
"Hell, I could have told you that." Chris shrugged. Whatever had happened had helped all of them. Vin would explain it to him later, or not. It would be okay. Sometimes the best way to lead was to let it happen. Looked like this was one of those times. "Think this might be a good time to go out for some lunch." Get them out of here and get things back on track.
It was Nathan who reminded the others, as they slowly sobered from their bouts of good humor, "Don't forget cell phones." The last chuckles died and the men nodded. Two of their number were out, undercover and in jeopardy. They'd not risk losing any potential contact through carelessness. Chris nodded approvingly and ducked back into his office to grab his phone.
Coming out, he said, "If we go to Inez's place, the sandwiches are on me."
"How about the drinks, cowboy?"
Larabee shot his partner a look. "Don't push, Tanner. This crowd can drink like fish at the drop of a hat. I need you all back in here this afternoon, to do some actual WORK." Larabee let some of his own now good humor twinkle in his eyes. "We'll save that for when Buck and Ez are back."
With renewed camaraderie, the five men left the team offices and headed out for lunch.
The rest of the day had so far been anticlimactic for Buck and Ezra. Toad Guffy, a google-eyed banty had led the way through the back of the bar and out into a dusty parking area surrounded by old motel cabins, all looking slummy and in disrepair. Buck realized the road stop had once been much more popular. Since he hadn't seen any motel sign out front, that meant these were no longer rented out. He didn't dare ask Ezra yet but figured the southerner had known about these cabins. He was not looking surprised anyway. Guffy led them to one of the far western cabins of the six in a semi-circle. Inside, it was set up like a simple office, complete with, to Buck's surprise, a rather complete display of modern technology. His quick look inventoried three computers, printers, a scanner and fax machine and several grounded telephones. Impressed, Buck began to realize just how sophisticated these supposedly dumb biker gangs were. It wasn't muscle between the ears that set up something like this or sold the kind of armament he'd seen on that 'shopping list' that Fisher had given to Ezra.
Guffy came to a stop inside the room, nodding toward a woman who for all appearances could be a secretary in any city office. No biker bitch here. "Kelly, you know Ezra Schiller, right?" At her nod, he continued in his high-pitched voice, "This here is Buck Wilson, his partner." Guffy turned to the men. "Ezra? Kelly will show you what we got on inventory and what's been pulled, what we need to get before the next meet."
Buck shook his head. Damn, this was too normal. Like being in a bank or something. If it wasn't for Guffy's biker leathers and generally grungy appearance, he would have thought he was listening to some small time sales manager at a distribution center. Well, hell, in a way, he probably was.
Standish had moved forward and around the desks to sit next to the secretary, Kelly. Buck's first, most natural inclination was to circle around to the other side of the young woman and hit on her. He had to consciously pull himself back. What the hell am I thinking? He looked up and saw the awareness in Ezra's bright green eyes. For a moment, they seemed almost TOO bright, and then Ezra lowered them to the papers that Kelly was showing him and Buck felt his heart drop clear down to his knees. Shit.
Guffy stood watching by the door for a moment. When it was clear that Ezra was immersed in business details with the secretary, he looked over at Wilson. "You want, I can show you some of the inventory?" Toady waited. He'd been told that Wilson knew weapons, was a former Seal.
Buck nodded, his eyes straying back to Standish. No problems here. Ezra didn't need backup. Just a little secretary, after all. "Sure." Wilmington spoke more loudly, "Hey, Ez? I'm going with Toad to see some of the inventory."
Ezra waved him off without even looking up, clearly concentrating on what Kelly was saying to him as she pointed at some lists. Wilmington headed out after Guffy. Ezra watched quietly as the tall man strolled out in Toad Guffy's wake. He'd caught enough of what the young woman had said to get the picture, didn't really need to fasten on every word. Why was he so surprised? That Buck would start to behave as usual? And, the man had caught himself in time, dropped back away from the girl. Not given away where his real, natural interest lay - with the lovely young lady. So, no surprise and, Buck had done well, he'd suppressed his instincts, kept focus on the job. So -- why do I feel like shit? Damn, why does my chest hurt so much. Unconsciously, Ezra rubbed at his solar plexus as if that might relieve this new pain, like a sore hollow space inside. He gritted his back teeth and leaned forward, picking up the papers and leafing through them under Kelly's careful scrutiny.
Buck was stunned at the pay dirt they'd hit already. Ezra had really laid the groundwork this past month for them to be able to waltz right in to the center of the gang's operations. And the inventory of stock on hand was incredible. He recognized missing armament from a US Army arsenal and Saturday night specials, all randomly stacked together. Stinger missiles and police stun guns. It was a hodge-podge of stuff, stashed in a huge warehouse behind the cabins. Looked like it had once been a private airplane hanger for smaller craft. There was still an old piper cub in one corner, looking rather forlorn.
He looked at his watch, they'd been out here close to an hour. Time to get back to Ez. He thanked Guffy noncommittally. Waved off his company and headed back to the end cabin as he retraced his steps. Went in without knocking, somehow he didn't figure that was part of this particular culture. Kelly was standing with her back to the door, putting some folders into an open file drawer of a tall four-drawer file cabinet.
Ezra was gone.
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